Associate Professor, Department of History, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Over the past several years, research for a book about the"lost worlds" of Venture Smith--an African-born man who spent most of his life in eighteenth-century New England--has taken me to a variety of strange and wonderful places. Attempting to expand my horizons as an Early American historian has led me into situations where I verge rapidly from awe and delight to utter disorientation--and worse. On my first trip to West Africa, I made a beeline for Anomabu, a small village on the coast of Ghana, which Smith describes in his Narrative as the place where his coffle arrived at the shore and where he was held for sale in a" castle." I had visions of visiting the fort, breathing in the dark, damp air of the men's dungeon, and stepping out through the Door of No Return into the blinding sun and crashing surf. Standing there, with the wet sand between my toes, halfway around the world from my home, I thought, would be about as close as I was ever likely to get to recreating a moment of Venture Smith's experience.
So, when I arrived at my lodging about a mile from the village, I eagerly set out along the palm-fringed ribbon of white sand beach. As I got closer, children appeared, crying out cheerfully, some of them offering a few words of English, and one of them pausing to squat on the beach and take a dump. I walked on-now, minding my step-attempting to act friendly and not too grossed out by the shit-strewn beach. Soon, the eighteenth-century fort came into view, a grey stone hulk rising out of the haze and the waves, surrounded by busy fishermen working on their long, colorful canoes and hauling huge nets in from the sea. Trying not to get in the way, I stepped gingerly through the tangle of lines (and the chickens and goats) and then waded out onto some rocks in the surf to get a better view of the fort. I was attempting to balance on the wet rocks, keep my camera dry, and take in the view-when I noticed that the people on shore were hollering. At me. And not just the expected cries of obiri and"white man!" Something I was doing had them horrified. I put down the camera, but the clamor continued. As I waded back towards the fort, a young man explained--through a mixture of eloquent gestures and broken English-that I had been treading all over the village's sacred rocks. Fortunately, it seemed likely that the spirits would be placated by a small offering. I wasn't about to give up the expensive new sandals he was admiring, so I paid up in cash, put the matter behind me, and forged on to the fort. Soon, I actually was standing in the men's dungeon, breathing in the dark, dank air, fingering the rusty bolt in the floor where chains were attached, and trying not to disrupt the bats dangling from the barrel-vaulted ceiling. I took in the romance of the moment, feeling that I had arrived somewhere important.
And yet, as I later learned, Venture Smith never did enter that dank dungeon, nor walk through those thick whitewashed walls into the crashing surf. The fort that now stands at Anomabu was built fifteen years after he commenced his middle passage-and the previous fort had been demolished ten years earlier. So, when Venture Smith passed through there was no" castle" there at all. This realization led to another kind of journey, a journey through archives on three continents that has revealed, among other things, that even when the fort wasn't there, the sacred rocks had been: objects of recurrent tensions among English slave-traders, local leaders, and villagers. Indeed, those sacred rocks, which I didn't recognize even when I was standing on top of them, have come to seem emblematic of the story I want to recover about colonialism and the nature of modern globalization. Thus, I've learned (once again!) that what turns out to be most revealing is often not what I expect to find, but what I stumble across along the way. Soon, I'll be back in Anomabu. This time I'll have a more meaningful offering for the rock spirits.
By John Wood Sweet
About John Wood Sweet
Assistant Professor, Department of History, Temple University, from Fall 2005;
It was"theory"-signifiers, signifieds, fractured subjects, discourses, and the like-that led me to study history. The ways that historians used evidence--the"texts" they cobbled together, often with archivists' help-- seemed to me ideal terrain on which to grapple with the big debates about universalism, difference, disjuncture, and identity that drew me to graduate school. When I began working on the Algerian Revolution as a"French revolution," I quite quickly saw that here was a topic that would allow me to keep thinking about questions that mattered. (Let me note that it also meant that, rather than trekking from American archive to American archive, as I had planned, I eventually would be able to do my research in Paris.) All this to say that, while I knew and appreciated France, I did not begin graduate studies obsessed with its past, the glorious and ignominious episodes, or its famous or unknown men and women.
I soon realized that my choice of topic was quite timely: the French government has a"thirty-year rule" for opening up most official archives and, since the war had ended in 1962, the years when I began graduate school saw many new sources become available. French commentators also invoke a"thirty-year rule" that governs public discussion of unseemly events from the French past (think Vichy, for example); the intensity of the last decade of debates in France about the Algerian War comforts this claim. This meant that I not only had access to great sources, but I was studying them in a context when a lot of people-politicians, talking heads, as well as taxi-drivers and new friends-thought that knowing more about what had been once been minimized as"the events in Algeria" was important.
I had decided, however, that I didn't want to talk too much about what I was discovering. On the one hand, I was not so keen on studying"memory," an approach that dominated work on the Algerian War in France and in the U. S., so I thought that sticking close to my sources required not getting distracted by what people now thought about what happened then. On the other hand, I was going to explore this topic not just because everyone was talking about it, but because the evidence would make clear how the methodologies I had learned (from mentors like Bonnie G. Smith, Joan W. Scott, and Henry Abelove) could reveal things about the past that those who claimed to find truth in the archives had missed. I was sure that the text that emerged from the archives had things to say beyond rendering a primary source verdict on the debates that had wracked the French body politic during the late 1950s and 1960s, such as torture and terrorism, and had reemerged in late '90s/early 21st-century France.
Yet what eventually allowed me to make sense of much of the evidence I had seen, what made me feel I could, was encountering people who cared deeply and personally about the war among French and Algerians, one in particular. I don't know the name of the woman I talked to at a bar in Paris one weekend afternoon. She was in her 60s, it was summer 2000, the bar was mainly gay, and the young men she had come with struck up a conversation with my friends and I. When I made some mention of my line of work, she started talking about her memories of Algeria, a place she had last seen in 1962. One of the reasons I avoided talking to people in France about my work was that"pieds noirs," a name given to the European settlers who had left Algeria in 1962, had a reputation as particularly racist, somewhat like certain stereotypes of white Southerners. My sources, however, suggested that the settlers, for a brief moment, had embraced an anti-racist politics to explain why Algeria should remain part of France; this went against common sense, and I wanted to think about what I'd found without having the pieds noirs of today ruining it.
This woman told a story I still ponder, not because it was representative or even necessarily accurate, but because it allowed me to take the risk of writing about what the sources suggested. She said that the last months of French Algeria were the most intense moments of her life, when she and her friends had been convinced that a revolution they were part of was changing Algeria and that nothing would be the same as before---except that it would remain French. They had been wrong; one acquaintance had been executed for terrorism; she had never discussed what she had experienced with anyone who hadn't been there, including her husband and children… until our conversation. The lesson she took from her story was that getting caught up in trying to change the world was the best thing one could do; she hoped that French and Algerian young people would continue to think that things could change for the better. This was certainly not the whole story. It can't be easily reconciled with the accounts of women and men who recount their opposition to the war, or who tell of the suffering and disdain they, like so many Algerians, endured under colonialism. There was a lot going on.
I still like my history driven by abstract discussions and fixated on sources. I, however, am now far more aware that finding a starting point, a narrative, that also speaks to people who care about the history at hand, can start new conversations. These, I hope, do something besides reassuring people that they were right, that their memories are the whole story.
By Todd Shepard
About Todd Shepard
Associate Librarian, University of South Florida, January 2007-present
Academic careers can begin in strange ways. In 1990, I left Canada and enrolled at the University of Florida with plans to continue my interest in nineteenth-century American history. My M.A. work had focused on the plantation Mammy, and I imagined expanding that project into a dissertation.
In my first semester at UF, I had the pleasure of taking Bertram Wyatt-Brown's seminar in southern history. Among the many books and authors tackled in the class, he included Drew Gilpin Faust's The Creation of Confederate Nationalism (Louisiana State University Press, 1988). Overwhelmed with reading, a common issue in many graduate courses, I learned when to skim and read selectively. I might easily have passed over a single sentence on page 50. In late summer 1862"gentile residents of Thomasville, Georgia, expelled all the town's Jewish families, accusing them of extortion, speculation, and counterfeiting." I was stunned. My understanding of American Jewish history did not include expelling Jews. I related that experience to Europe not to the United States.
I followed Faust's footnotes to two articles, read as much on the southern Jewish experience as I could find, and ruminated for several months. In spring 1991, I enrolled in Wyatt-Brown's research seminar and set about finding out why Thomasville's Christian population had expelled the town's Jews. I spent days in the Thomas County Courthouse and Georgia State Archives and wrote a paper that proved Thomasville civic leaders passed an expulsion decree but had not expelled their Jewish residents. The article ultimately appeared in American Jewish Archives XLV (Spring/Summer 1993).
The Thomasville project took me to Savannah, as the Atlanta & Gulf Railway connected the two communities in early 1861. Many Thomasville Jews got their economic start in Savannah, and the port city had a small but highly visible and prominent Jewish community in the late antebellum era. Aside from a congregational history, no full- length study of Savannah Jewry existed. After some discussion with Samuel Proctor, my mentor and dissertation advisor, he relented on his wish that I focus on Florida, and I set my sights one state further north.
I never forgot Drew Faust or her scholarship. Before I graduated in 1997, Wyatt-Brown introduced me to her at a conference."You are the Godmother of my dissertation," I explained. She seemed puzzled and amused, and I shared the story of how one sentence from her slim volume on Confederate nationalism had launched my scholarly career.
It was not the career I ever imagined. As a new Ph.D. student, I dreamed of a comfortable teaching job at a small New England college. I ended up at the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in Jackson, Mississippi. It was as far from my Canadian upbringing or New England dreams as anyone could imagine, but public history suited me. I left Mississippi in 2001 to become director of the University South Florida Libraries' Florida Studies Center. Sam Proctor was pleased to have me back in Florida, and I was excited to undertake new challenges.
The challenges proved greater than expected. Two years into the Florida Studies Center job, my dean asked me to become director of the Special Collections Department as well. The Ph.D. offered some credentials, but I quickly realized a library and information science degree was necessary. After thirteen consecutive years of university (1984-1997), I never imagined going back to school, but there I was taking courses to become a librarian. In December 2006 I was done. A fourth degree, earned while working full time, raising a family, and writing or editing two books.
Today, I'm part historian, part librarian. I have kept my hand in the historical profession, despite heavy administrative responsibilities and a meager research assignment. I do not know what the future will bring, but if the past is any prediction it is sure to take some unexpected turns.
By Mark I. Greenberg
Savannah Jewry (as a religious, rather than strictly national, group) fell within the foreign- and native-born categories. In 1860 just under 55 percent of the city's adult Jews were born in the German states. They had immigrated to America beginning in the mid/late 1840s to escape occupational, residential, and marital restrictions in their homelands. An additional 35 percent were born in the South. Some, like the Minis family, had arrived just after James Oglethorpe in 1733. Other men and women, the Myers and Cohen clans, for example, settled in Charleston and Georgetown, South Carolina, prior to the American Revolution but moved to Savannah in the late 1830s and early 1840s in search of greater economic opportunities. Most of the remaining 10 percent hailed from the Northern states. In all, approximately 350 Jews made up 2.5 percent of Savannah whites at the start of the Civil War.
It is one thing to note the relative size of Jewish and foreign settlers but quite another to analyze the lives of those newcomers who settled here. Important questions about Southern immigration have remained largely unanswered. Specifically, is the South merely a geographic designation with little or no power to explain immigrant and ethnic life? Or did the South possess a distinctive culture which affected ethnic migration patterns, institutional development, economic choices, and intergroup relations? --
Mark. I. Greenberg in"Becoming Southern: The Jews of Savannah, Georgia, 1830-70"
About Mark I. Greenberg
Jewish Roots in Southern Soil helped shatter my arrogant belief that Jewish culture in this country was invented by New Yorkers, Chicagoans, and other Northern Jews. The story of how the Jews of the South acculturated to their region while still holding onto their Jewish identity is a vitally important chapter in the history of American Jewry. The scholars represented in this excellent resource prove once and for all that being a Jew in the United States does not begin and end with a plate of lox and bagels but can also include a little gumbo, black-eyed peas, and some matzo-meal fried-green tomatoes. -- Danny Miller reviewing"Jewish Roots in Southern Soil: A New History" at J.Book.com
Teaching Position: Professor of History, McGill University
(Chair of McGill's Department of History, 1997-1998)
Area of Research: Modern United States Political History
Education: Ph.D, Harvard University, 1988
Major Publications: Troy is the author of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady (Univ. Press of Kansas, 2006); Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (Princeton Univ. Press, 2005); Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons (Univ. Press of Kansas, 2000) (an updated version of Affairs of State: The Rise and Rejection of the Presidential Couple Since World War II) (Free Press, 1997); See How They Ran: The Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate (Harvard Univ. Press, 1996, Free Press, 1991).
Awards: Troy is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada Research Grant for $57,000, 1994-1997; for $44,000, 1998-2001;
McGill University Research Development Fund, 1997;
Moody Grant, Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation, 1987, 1994;
Gerald Ford Foundation Grant, 1990, 1994;
Research Grant, Harry S. Truman Library Institute, 1987, 1993;
Humanities Research Grant, Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, McGill University, 1993;
Beeke-Levy Research Fellowship, Roosevelt Institute, 1990;
Whiting Fellowship in the Humanities, 1987-1988;
US Department of Education Jacob Javits Fellowship, 1986-1988;
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Merit Fellow, 1986-1987;
Phi Beta Kappa, Alpha Chapter of Massachusetts, 1983;
John Harvard Scholar for Highest Academic Achievement, 1981-83.
Additional Info: Troy comments frequently about presidential politics on television and in print, with recently published articles, reviews and comments in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Montreal Gazette, The National Post, and The Wilson Quarterly, among others. He has appeared on CNN, C-SPAN, MSNBC, PBS, and on Canada's CTV, and CBC. Television appearances include Election Night coverage on CTV News with Lloyd Robertson, and the PBS First Ladies' Special produced by MacNeil-Lehrer Productions.
Maclean's Magazine has repeatedly designated Troy as one of McGill's"Popular Profs," and he has been listed in their 2005 issue ranking Canadian universities.
One of the first real history books I ever bought was"Why the North Won the Civil War," edited by David Donald. I was 9, and, didn't open the book for years. Still, Professor Donald was probably the first historian I ever heard of, so studying with him in graduate school was like learning hitting from another boyhood hero (and I risk emerging as a not-so-young historian), Mickey Mantle. That sense of excitement, of fulfilling boyhood dreams, remains. I feel lucky, and still a bit shocked that books and articles I write get published or that students listen to my lectures, just as I learned from great professors, who included, in addition to Professor Donald, Bernard Bailyn and Alan Brinkley. I remember that first time I TAed. As students transcribed my words, I felt like saying,"I hope this is right.... I only sound authoritative."
I loved graduate school. There, as in college, I was quiet and non-controversial. (I tell this to students, reassuring them that it can take a while to find your voice, but there's always time to compensate, or, as some would say about me, over-compensate.) Despite being a"good boy," I did almost blow up half of Pittsburgh once. Researching my dissertation on presidential campaigning, I had to tour the losers' archives. A grand trip took me through the American heartland from Albany (Al Smith) to Chicago (Stephen A. Douglas) back east - in my cousin's"hand me down," 13-year-old 1974 white Camaro with a V-8 engine, elaborate hubcaps, and red leather interior. My friends, bemused by their penurious, unfashionable friend driving a sports-car, called me"Spike." Driving east from Dayton (James Cox), I stopped in Pittsburgh. While pumping gas into the back of this pre-oil crisis gaz guzzler, I opened the trunk, and began pouring the usual quart or two of oil into the front. Some oil spilled on the overheated engine and ignited. Envisioning the car catching fire - and blowing up the entire neighborhood - I did what any graduate student would do - I plunged into the car and removed my notes.... After that, I extinguished the fire by throwing water on it, only to be yelled at by the mechanic for throwing water into the oil tank, which he then charged me too much money to drain, it being a Sunday.
I often say,"I love my job but I hate my profession." We historians, collectively, have not had honest, self-critical, absolutely necessary discussions about the lack of support so many of us feel, the impersonality of too many conferences, the aridity of presenters droning on with often incomprehensible and pedantic texts, the excessively political job market, the demoralizing dynamic of graduating with a PhD, then begging for work, the too many historians who only speak to those who agree with them politically AND methodologically - among other problems. Still, I feel blessed to wake up every day and be my own boss, follow my own muse, and either have to write, research, or teach - all activities I would pay to do, for which I get paid.
QuotesBy Gil Troy
Like it or not, love her or hate her, one thing is clear: Hillary Rodham Clinton is not likely to go away soon. Just as she sought to be the most powerful first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt, she is now on her way to becoming the most influential ex-–first ladysince Eleanor Roosevelt. Of course, as of this writing, with Democrats calling Hillary Clinton's Neo-Georgian Georgetown mansion the"White-House-in-Waiting" and"Fundraising Central," many supporters are actively hoping and planning to make Senator Clinton the first first lady and first woman ever to leap from a supporting role in the East Wing to the leading role in the West Wing....
As I researched and wrote this book many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances asked the same four questions, repeatedly. Although I tell my students in class that there are no stupid questions, alas, all four persistent questions represent the sorry state of modern American political discourse and the particularly pathetic status of the conversation about Hillary Clinton. People want to know:"Where do you stand – do you like her or hate her?" This question reveals an unfortunate, high stakes, polarized, overly emotional, Ebert & Roeper,"thumbs up or thumbs down" approach to history and politics. Historians want to know what are her strengths and weaknesses, what were her successes and failures?
Friends inquire:"Did you interview her," demonstrating a talismanic faith in journalistic techniques in our age of"mediaocracy," overlooking the limits of what interviews with well-practiced celebrities can achieve, and the corresponding historical distance lost. A more open, historical question would be:"what sources are available to understand who she is and what she has done?" Many wonder:"Is she a lesbian," betraying an addiction to sensational gossip to the detriment of serious discussion of political values. And almost all ask:"Will Hillary Clinton become President in 2008," reflecting a culture which speculates obsessively, perpetually handicapping the political horse race,looking for crystal balls not historical insights.
This book is not a complete Hillary Clinton biography – but a book about what she did – and did not do – as first lady in the White House, as part of a broader intellectual project attempting to understand the modern presidency and the role of first ladies therein. I do not wish to read Her mind. Rather, I want to measure her historical footprint. In search of The historical Hillary Clinton, trying to understand her tenure as first lady, this book considers her predecessors’ experiences while assessing the historical forces shaping her life and times. -- Gil Troy in"Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady
About Gil Troy
"Troy is an unbelievable professor and one of McGill's best. While his classes are challenging, he goes out of his way to help his students and improve their analytical and writing techniques. His knowledge of US history is remarkable, and one can learn a lot from his lectures and conferences."...
"My only class where I actually didn't want the lectures to end....brilliant lectures, I was entertained and I learned a lot."...
"Troy is the man. Good lecturer, and although there is a lot of reading i enjoyed reading it. This was by far one of my favorite classes at McGill."...
"You probably won't find a better professor at McGill. Obviously loves American history -- shows quite obviously in his lectures. Funny, too. What other male professor would sing"I am woman hear me roar" in class?! Definitely recommended."...
"Really interesting professor. He is very passionate about what he teaches and offers some fascinating perspective on American history and culture... and listens to student's opinions, too."...
"This guy gives the most interesting history lectures that I have ever attended in my life!"...
"In spite of all his faults, the one thing I remember about Prof. Troy is his passion for his subject matter. He makes a very articulate case that History matters and should be studied meticulously. As a History teacher, he definitely influenced me."... -- Anonymous students