The Department of History offers unique opportunities to pursue advanced study in
the historical experience of African Americans, as well the historical evolution of
race as a social category for discriminating, organizing, regulating, and maintaining
social differences along racial lines.
Four full-time faculty members specialize in African American history: Arwin Smallwood
on African-Native American relations in the colonial and revolutionary eras, Beverly
Bond on African American women in the nineteenth-century South, Aram Goudsouzian on
black popular culture and the modern black freedom struggle, and Susan O’Donovan,
a specialist on the issues of slavery and emancipation. The department offers graduate
courses in African American historiography, seminars that explore the great range
of African American history, courses designed to produce independent research, and
specialized seminars on interactions with Native Americans, African American women,
the civil rights movement, and popular culture. Other faculty members such as Scott
Marler, Janann Sherman, James Fickle, and Margaret Caffrey incorporate aspects of
African American history into the heart of their research and teaching.
The department is also more broadly committed to showing how racial categories have
functioned from a historical perspective. These scholars destabilize the category
as natural or trans-historical by revealing that it has emerged in specific contexts
that are connected to power, politics, economic, and cultural concerns. The point
is to disclose how race has operated historically in underpinning the force of racism.
This work is often interdisciplinary and connects these researchers with those in
other fields including philosophy, sociology, political science, anthropology, Jewish studies, and art history. For instance, Daniel Unowsky is researching anti-Jewish riots in rural western Galicia
in the 1890s, which divulge how Polish, Catholic, peasant nationalism was constructed
in opposition to two perceived social enemies: the noble and the Jew. Jonathan Judaken’s
work focuses on patterns that underpin prejudice and the underlying assumptions that
animate tolerance. His work explores how “the Jew” and “the black” function as a mirror
image within the modern West for reflecting on a series of underlying values about
the nation, race, gender, epistemology, and colonization.
The University of Memphis also offers unique resources to pursue such avenues of study.
The department hosts an annual graduate student conference in African American history; this one-of-a-kind event draws top young scholars from around the country. The Scholars
in Critical Race Studies attracts professors and graduate students from a variety
of disciplines to its reading groups and public lectures, and this organization now
puts on an annual and very successful conference. The Graduate Association for African American History holds a central place in the department’s culture. Special Collections at the Ned McWherter Library possesses considerable archival material on Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, and the
wider region. The university’s public policy institute, the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, houses the papers of the former NAACP chairman, and it engages historical scholarship
with the broader community. The university also has an interdisciplinary program in
African and African-American Studies, directed by our own Beverly Bond.