How Can Historians Serve and Learn From the Public?

tags: historians

Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.


Annette Joseph-Gabriel is an Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the author of Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French EmpireLearn more about her work at her website. You can also find her on Twitter at @AnnetteJosephG


What books are you reading now?


I am currently re-reading Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. I have also been sitting with Imani Perry’s Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation which has been helping me to work through historical and contemporary constructions and meanings of patriarchy. I have been thinking about liberation a lot in my work, but even as I find more and more scholarship on the different ways that we might define freedom, I am turning to these two texts for their lucid and clear-eyed dissection of the oppressions from which people seek liberation. 


What is your favorite history book?


This answer changes often, but a constant favorite is CLR James’s The Black Jacobins which, in addition to its analysis of the Haitian Revolution, is also an important text for thinking about the relationship between different pasts and between past and present.


Why did you choose history as your career?


If I am to position myself disciplinarily, I identify more readily as a literary scholar who works with historical texts. Throughout my academic training, many of my mentors emphasized productive conversations between literary and historical methods. Particularly generative discussions with my history professors highlighted for me the importance of grounding literary analyses in their historical moments even while thinking about the ways that texts strained against the limits of those moments. I think about disciplines like history and literature not so much in terms of gatekeeping but more as a set of methodologies that offer different ways to approach a given question. Of course, those methodologies are only a beginning to intellectual inquiry, but they can be a useful beginning, nonetheless.


What qualities do you need to be a historian?


First, a healthy dose of curiosity for sure! Sometimes the smallest detail in a scholarly work such as the weather on a given day can be the result of wading through reams of sources in the archives. But I see in those small details a desire to better understand and more completely reckon with the world into which a person, an idea, a debate was born. Second, it’s also important to be able to move back and forth between distance and proximity, especially when working through histories of trauma. Whenever I am immersed in primary sources about slavery in the archives, I get overwhelmed by the quotidian nature of extraordinary brutality. It helps to find preservation strategies in the midst of that violence. I usually wear headphones in the archives and listen to the most contemporary pop music I can find as a way of pulling me into a particular present. 


Finally, I think flexibility is a crucial quality. With archival work, I am never sure what I will find, and sometimes historical subjects defy our expectations, assumptions, hopes. They respond to the circumstances of their lives in unexpected ways that challenge the intellectual lenses we apply to our reading of those lives. It helps to be willing to see and hear historical subjects on their own terms.


Who was your favorite history teacher?


I took my very first history course proper in high school in Ghana. My teacher, Mr. Tay-Agbozo (affectionately called Mr. Tay) taught us much more than the history of the Cold War or the Biafran War. He taught us to be aware of the primarily US-centric focus of our history textbooks (yes, in Ghana too our history textbooks carried evidence of imperialism’s reach). He taught me the questions that I bring to every set of historical documents I examine, notably “who is constructing this narrative for me?” and “what are the stakes of this construction?” Since then, professors Kenda Mutongi, Shanti Singham, Tiffany Patterson and others have modeled for me how to undertake historical work that troubles received ideas about national borders and supposed separations between scholarship and community work.


What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?


Teaching The Book of Night Women by Marlon James remains my most rewarding teaching experience. It’s a difficult book to teach because students are initially apprehensive about the language, and the historical period of slavery seems to them so far removed from their own contemporary realities. The first time I taught this book I was apprehensive too. I was skimming through my lesson plan as students walked into the classroom and to my surprise they launched into discussion before their butts hit their seats. I initially thought they were discussing the latest episode of a TV series. They were so intrigued by the plot and were quizzing each other on why the protagonists, enslaved women on a plantation in Jamaica, made the choices they did. When I realized that their conversation was hitting all the points that I had in my lesson plan I just pulled up a chair and listened, only offering direction once in a while. I learned so much from my students that day! Those class sessions are the most rewarding, when my students are active contributors to the knowledge creation process.


What are your hopes for history as a discipline?


This is a difficult question because as I said before, my academic training is not in history and so I see myself as a bit of an interloper in these conversations. But I am really intrigued by the different ideas about what constitutes public history, especially as those ideas are being challenged and refined on social media. My hope for the discipline is that we continue to have conversations about what it means for the discipline to engage with the public. Who are these publics? What do they need? How might we serve them, learn from them? And as always, what are the stakes of our interventions? 


To give a concrete and recent example, the 1619 project in the New York Times in August was hailed for the needed visibility that its wide circulation brought to how fundamental slavery was to this country’s foundations. But it also raised questions about who and what this framework of foundations obscures and what it says about political imaginations that tether certain histories to the nation. These public conversations were often contentious, but they remain necessary. My hope for the discipline is that these conversations will continue and will be undergirded by intellectual honesty and rigor.


Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?


I do not collect rare books or artifacts. I have a difficult relationship with archives because I once came across my grandfather’s personal (very, very personal) letters in the national archives in Ghana and it was such a surreal moment for me. The letters, like many that I relish “discovering” in my own archival work, were never meant for me or for some random historian to find. I had to balance that knowledge with my desire for archives that give us more access to the lives and voices of marginalized people. 


Creating a personal archive of history collectibles would come with similar tensions between the impulses of private holdings and public knowledge and would feel just as weird, I think. That said, I do have one artifact that I cherish very much: a bound selection of old articles from the Martinican newspaper France-Antilles. It was sold in Martinique as one of those revenue-generating collectors’ items. My mother-in-law, whose formal education ended in middle school, gifted me a copy with these exact words that I will not soon forget: “I don’t know what this is, but it looked like something that would interest you.” In my book, I write about my mother-in-law’s post World War II experiences in Martinique and I remain struck now, as I was when she gave me that bound collection of old newspaper articles, how much of this history she has lived, and how much she has contributed to this historical artifact whose form eludes her. 


What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?


I have too much to say about the frustrations, especially as a Black woman and a non-US citizen on the tenure track who is always navigating the failed egalitarian promises of academic institutions and their bureaucratic processes. What I find most frustrating is the constant feeling of being held hostage to evaluation processes and criteria that cannot account for me, my presence, my methods, and the stories I am invested in telling. What I find most rewarding is that I have been fortunate to have incredibly generous and brilliant mentors like Tracy Sharpley-Whiting and Trica Keaton who help me to make sense (and recognize also the nonsense) of the academy. It has been rewarding for me to emulate those who I see resisting the conflation of “this is what I do” and “this is who I am.” In other words what I enjoy most about my career is being able to leave it behind at the end of my working day and go off and be other things.


How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?


Yikes, I don’t think I’ve been around long enough to chart any sort of meaningful or significant evolution. 


What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?


There is a Ga proverb from Ghana that says, “What has never happened before is behind the ocean.” It’s a bit of an awkward translation but it’s basically another rendering of the adage that there is nothing new under the sun. I like it for its reminder of the importance of history for understanding the present and the future. There is another Ghanaian proverb that says, “Do not look where you fell, but where you slipped.” It’s not explicitly a history-related saying but I think it’s such a great way to think about what we mean by learning from history. It’s great to think about where in the past you turn to if you are trying to understand an outcome in the present. 


What are you doing next?


Too many things, probably. I am working on my second book project. It is about children and slavery, and I find it both exciting and heartbreaking work. I am also collecting material for my third book project on French Antillean feminisms. The impetus for this book is different than for the second book. I want to teach books about feminist thought in Martinique and Guadeloupe and I can’t find any monographs that meet this need. It feels like there might be some degree of hubris in my saying, “well, why don’t I just write one, then?” But after writing my first book, I think this is something I can do. But above all, I am reading, reading, reading. My plan is to devote the next year or so to just reading a lot and slowly. The tenure track has deformed my reading practice into one of necessity. But I got into this profession because I wanted to read more and learn more. It is an incredible privilege to find the time to do this as a sustained practice and so I am very glad to have this next year to do just that. You began by asking me what I am reading now so it seems fitting to end with what I will be reading next. At the top of that list is To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe edited by Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande, Transatlantic Feminisms: Women and Gender Studies in Africa and the Diaspora edited by Cheryl R. Rodriguez, Dzodzi Tsikata and Akosua Adomako Ampofo, and Sasha Turner’s Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childbearing, and Slavery in Jamaica.