Inspired by his past, a storytelling Ph.D. student examines how tradition influences today – and tomorrow
PULLMAN – Though he looks 30-something, Henry Averhart, WSU graduate student in the individual interdisciplinary doctoral program (IIDP), has been around long enough to remember separate drinking fountains and movie houses for “colored folks.”
Averhart was born in Montgomery, Ala., in 1953 — two years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat and just as the civil rights movement began.
At age 6 he cut his knee open while playing hide and seek, and his parents rushed him to the nearby hospital. The emergency room nurse turned the family away, saying, “We don’t serve coloreds.”
Averhart also remembers a time in Birmingham when he and his father were walking down the sidewalk toward a white couple. The husband stopped them and said to his father, “Aren’t you gonna step off the curb for the lady, Boy?” Mr. Averhart stood tall and replied, “How old does a man need to be before ya’ll stop calling him ‘boy?’” The white couple walked around the two Averharts.
As he came of age, Averhart realized his father used education to deal with the ill effects of racism. The senior Averhart drove truck and spent much time on the road exploring America. When Henry Sr. was able to take Henry Jr. on the road, he let his son experience, first-hand, traveling across country and meeting people from all walks of life.
This fed Averhart’s inquisitiveness and love of learning. His father instilled the importance of education, understanding and the willingness to challenge folks who treated him inhumanely because of his skin color.
It’s this foundation in education, and Averhart’s natural curiosity, that helped lead him to seek a doctoral degree at WSU.
Traditions and religion
Averhart conducts interdisciplinary research (communication, comparative ethnic studies, cultural anthropology and education) under the umbrella of memetics — the scientific study of the evolution, replication and transmission of bits of cultural information called memes. For example, he has looked at the benefits of inculcating indigenous mythologies into the multicultural classroom.
Averhart draws on his 17 years as an ordained minister to explore how indigenous mythologies, or ignorance of them, and the oral tradition (memetics) of African history influence the religious choices of African Americans post-slavery. He delved into history to investigate, for example, what happened when Jewish and African Ethiopians, who had their own belief systems, were introduced to Coptic Christianity. The Jews rejected the religion, while many Africans embraced it (at least for a few generations).
Public speaking school
With his wide smile, serious eyes and knack for storytelling, it’s no surprise that Averhart is also an adept public speaker. His colleagues often invite him to speak to their classes, and he has spoken at other venues including graduate school orientation and conferences.
One of his career goals is to open a school of his own — P.S.I., the Public Speaking Institute — where he primarily will teach corporate executives how to be effective communicators.
When Averhart was accepted into the IIDP at WSU, he had been offered a teaching assistantship but was concerned about how to pay for the rest of his graduate education. He applied for and won a King-Chavez-Parks fellowship through the Future Faculty Fellows of the U.S. Department of Education. He is also a Graduate School McNair program scholar and mentor.