Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism.
The Dartmouth
May 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Q&A with ‘Black Canvas: A Campus Haunting’ Author Matt Richardson ’91

The Dartmouth sat down with author Matt Richardson ’91 to discuss his new novel “Black Canvas: A Campus Haunting,” which explores Dartmouth’s history of slavery through the lens of the modern gothic horror genre.

sanborn jpeg.jpg

Matt Richardson ’91 is an associate professor of feminist studies and an affiliate faculty member in Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This past week, he visited campus to meet with various student groups and discuss his new novel “Black Canvas: A Campus Haunting.” The novel follows the story of a Black, nonbinary student as they navigate Dartmouth’s campus in the 1980s and confront the dark secrets of the College’s history. Richardson sat down with The Dartmouth to discuss his book, his own time at Dartmouth and the book’s resonant message.

What was your inspiration for writing “Black Canvas: A Campus Haunting?”

MR: I wrote the book for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones was to call attention to a history that is never truly acknowledged on this campus — the history of the slaves that were here from the very beginning. Dr. Deborah King, a professor of sociology, and Peter Carini, the College archivist, are doing a wonderful job putting together research on the subject of slavery at Dartmouth and unacknowledged voices, as well as a website called the Dartmouth and Slavery Project. I’m hoping this project will be well supported by the College and will bring attention to this history of enslavement alongside my novel. 

Why did you choose to explore Dartmouth’s history through the genre of horror and haunting?

MR: I arrived on campus in 1987, like the protagonist. I wanted to tell the story of my years as a Black student through a memoir, but it wasn’t coming together because I couldn’t capture what it felt like to be here. For example, the alienation I experienced — what was that? I see the word, but how does alienation actually hit the body? How does it feel when your classmates think that you don’t belong here? What that felt like is not something I could touch with a memoir. But through the haunting and horror genre, I could touch on parts of the experience that were frightening, painful and disturbing. 

At the beginning of the novel, I also tried to imagine the first days of Dartmouth from the slaves’ perspective, and then I thought about how their impact continues to resonate on the campus. I actualized this idea of evocative, lasting pain through the story of ghosts and haunting. The ghosts featured in the book include not only the slaves, but also other Black students and faculty who came before me, the wives of the Black alums before there was coeducation and all kinds of minorities who have been erased when we talk about the Dartmouth community. 

How were you able to find community at Dartmouth as an undergraduate? 

MR: As a first-year student, I didn’t know what exactly was going on, but I was somebody who was listening and present at protests and organizing meetings. As I got older, I started to do much more organizing around queer issues and sexual violence. I started off doing anti-apartheid work, learning what it means to be an activist and talking to people from around the world. I think that was one of the most valuable experiences I had here. There are so many people from other backgrounds with different experiences and perspectives. It made life more tolerable and gave me connections to colleagues who were in a similar situation of alienation. I tried to take advantage of learning from those people and organizing with others. That was crucial to being able to finish my degree because it gave me a sense of purpose. I felt like I could fight for some change. 

Have you noticed a shift in campus culture over the years, based on your experience as an undergraduate and as a visiting women’s, gender and sexuality studies and African and African American studies faculty member in 2019? 

MR: It’s hard to tell what student life is like from a faculty perspective. I’m very removed from the everyday lives of students in terms of what it’s like in the dorms and social spaces. But I have had students come up to me and tell me about their experiences and how they felt here which was extremely resonant with what it was like 35 years ago. 

Some things have changed. There are different housing options that are welcoming toward queer and trans students which weren’t available when I was a student. And there are different kinds of courses available and more faculty of color — though there need to be more — than when I went here. But people are still struggling in this space in similar ways. Everyone has a different experience, too, so some people are doing just fine, but others are feeling the alienation very, very hard. 

What was the significance of the protagonist’s Black, queer identity to the creation of the novel? 

MR: The narrator is an unnamed African-American, nonbinary person who was assigned female at birth and has to navigate the campus in the years of 1987 and 1988. At that time, there wasn’t a shared vocabulary in the country for terms like nonbinary, or using the pronouns that I’m using today to talk about the character. It wasn’t something people did widely at the time. I wanted to showcase what kinds of students were here, who have been here the whole time. I really wanted to speak about the spectral presence of unacknowledged people. 

What are you hoping readers will take away from “Black Canvas: A Campus Haunting?” 

MR: Readers have connected with it in different ways. They may connect in terms of the awkwardness and alienation of stepping onto a college campus for the first time or connect with the protagonist’s relationship with their parents. There’s also the factor of queerness and transness, what it means to come out and understand your gender identity. And some readers have just enjoyed the horror and ghost story aspect. You don’t have to share the character’s identities to enjoy the novel because there are so many other ways to connect with the relationships and experiences presented. 

This is a time in the United States where there is a lot of discussion about education and restrictions on what people can learn — especially about Black and queer history. So my message is: History is important. You can engage with history in any way. I did it through fiction — I wasn’t trying to convey the exact actions that took place on this campus, but I was trying to convey a feeling and explore perspectives that we don’t often see. I wanted to call attention to the things that are being restricted concerning Black and queer lives. These are times to pay attention to who is being suppressed and repressed. 

​​This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.