Dr. Uri McMillan. (Courtesy photo)

Raised in Philadelphia by way of Chicago and Dallas, author, UCLA associate professor of English and Gender Studies, and self-proclaimed performance historian Dr. Uri McMillan has embarked on the road less traveled: a journey to meld academia-level writing with interdisciplinary creativity. While academic writing is created within the frameworks of rules and formality, public-facing writing provides an opportunity for more experimental, feeling-based writing.

“[Public-facing writing] gives me an opportunity to write about artists that I liked. It feels more equilateral. Academic writing can be more hierarchical,” McMillan shared with the Sentinel.

Faced with the dilemma of having to choose between two ostensibly opposing worlds – academia and creativity – is perhaps influenced by the duality of his upbringing. McMillan was born to academically focused, yet artistically inclined, parents.

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“My mother was kind of an [art] collector…that could have been an influence. My dad was a lawyer, but a part-time saxophonist. I grew up with a lot of music and I was in choir.  Looking back, [the inclination toward art] is actually all there,” he explained.

While a graduate student at Yale University, McMillan believed his future would be rooted in literature but began outgrowing this notion.

“At Yale, everything was about archives. You find an archive and you excavate it. I was balancing this with my love for contemporary art, and I was told you can’t do both,” he recalled.

As he broadened his physical landscape from New Haven, CT to New York City, his imagination harmoniously expanded.

“I started figuring out there wasn’t a book about Black performance art.  That’s how [my research] sneaks up on me. I start to realize it, I go down a rabbit hole and find people. Who is this person? Where are they from? What are they about?

“This type of creative research inevitably energizes writers to solidify the flurry of ideas and theories flying in their head.”

“Embodied Avatars” (2015)  by Dr. Uri McMillan. (Courtesy photo)

And write, he did. McMillan graduated Yale University with a Ph.D. in American Studies and African American Studies, creating a legacy with a dissertation that won the Sylvia Boone Prize from the Departments of Art History and African American Studies for the best-written in African American art history.

His first book, “Embodied Avatars” (2015) was the award-winning product of deeper rabbit holes about the Black woman’s personification of art, expression, identity, and freedom from the 19th century to the present.

For “Embodied Avatars,” McMillan won the William Sanders Scarborough Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Study for Black American Literature or Culture by the Modern Language Association (MLA) and two awards from the American Society of Theatre Research (ASTR): the Barnard Hewitt Award for Outstanding Research in Theatre History and the Errol Hill Award for Outstanding Scholarship in African American Theatre, Drama, or Performance Studies.

This myriad of milestones and dreams realized did not make McMillan complacent. He is currently creating his second book, “Airbrush, Instamatics, and Funk: Art, Pop, and New York City’s Long 1970s” set for publication in fall 2025.

When asked about how this approach differs from the process of creating “Embodied Avatars,” McMillan said, “This was more about feeling than thinking. The ‘70s just seemed fun. Art, fashion, music, dance, breakdancing and vogueing… they were interconnected in a way that we take for granted. They are all art forms. So this book…it’s more artistic.”

Drawing his inspiration from the depths of art, history, and academia, McMillan refuses to be labeled – he is an associate professor of English and Gender Studies at UCLA and writes about the correlation between a plethora of artistic mediums, artists, and their sociocultural impact. Still, there is a consistent theme within his creative endeavors – an emphasis on Black culture and its overlooked histories.

“Within Black culture, we still have a lot of stories that need to be told. [I] take my time with my books because [I] want to properly tend to people’s stories. There’s such an effort to pinpoint [Black people] to a certain box,” said the professor.

“I think we get too narrow in these frameworks, so I’m trying to create a space that I know is out there, but not really in academia. Unlike academic writing, this is more about feeling because writing is a spiritual practice. It’s a gift.”

Learn more about Dr. Uri McMillan at www.urimcmillan.com.