Stacy Downs // Fall 2015

Perspectives sat down with Licia E. Clifton-James to learn more about her and her studies as an Interdisciplinary Ph.D. student at UMKC. Here’s what she shared with us, including her most recent trip to Senegal in West Africa!

You’re a “triple-crown” contender at UMKC: you received your undergraduate and master’s degrees here, and now you’re pursuing your Ph.D. What led you to UMKC?

My husband (Kansas City Mayor Sly James) and I were both born and raised in Kansas City, and I knew it had to be a university in Kansas City.

UMKC offered an Interdisciplinary Ph.D.; I combined art history and the humanities Consortium. My focus is African and African American art, and Dr. Maude Southwell Wahlman, UMKC’s expert on African and African American art, has served as a great mentor.

What got you interested in art and art history?

My husband and I decided years ago to collect masks from around the world. We ended up collecting mostly African masks. As an undergraduate, I took Dr. Wahlman’s course on Art of the African Diaspora, and Meso and Native American Art. Realizing I had some of the masks on which she lectured, I was determined to explore every aspect of our collection. To this day, I still have not completed my research on our collection. That completion will come after I complete my I.Ph.D.

Where is UMKC taking you?

In May, it took me to Senegal. Within Senegal, I traveled to Dakar, St. Louis, Touba and Kaolack, researching Islamic and indigenous scripts, protective charms and Sufism. Interestingly, the tour I was scheduled with changed and I had a private driver and tour guide the entire time. The trip was very beneficial to my dissertation.

Every person I met in Senegal wanted to know how I liked their country. I was amazed at how friendly and genuinely excited they were for me to like their country. Many people went out of their way to provide me with the information and experiences I needed for my research. The most excitement came for me two days before I was to leave and I met Waly Faye, programs coordinator from the West African Research Center. Waly gave me a critical piece of information for the completion of my dissertation. I will be forever indebted to him.

What’s your favorite aspect of being the First Lady of Kansas City?

After Adele Hall’s passing, she was referred to as the First Lady of Kansas City. I agree with that thought. Let’s just call me the lady married to the Mayor. I am very appreciative of the contacts I have made within the various ethnic communities in Kansas City. There is nothing I like better than to have lunch with Alicia Kerber Palma, Consul General of the Mexican Consulate, and catching up with the inter-workings of the Hispanic community, or to lunch with Kimberly Randolph and catch up with what is going on at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center and discover a way I can help. Kansas City is blessed with wonderful ethnic groups and each has their own special way of connecting with the arts. I love being involved with and experiencing those connections.

What have you learned from college?

In my earlier college years, I thought it was important to make straight As. I was too nervous and did not cut myself any slack. Given that situation, I withdrew from some classes I should have pushed through and found beneficial. I found myself a few years ago enjoying my studies so much that when I saw another student struggling and contemplating withdrawal, I encouraged against that thought. I have definitely personally grown. I have now learned to relax and take in the knowledge. My parents encouraged me to become an M.D. I realized that was not for me, but something else was – art history. However, I will be a lifelong student and I think others should be as well.

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