Roundtable: The History of Childhood & Youth: Crystal Webster

WebsterIf you missed our first post on Friday in our new roundtable series on the history of childhood and youth with Bianca Premo, click here! On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for the next few weeks, stop by to read about challenges and realities of researching and teaching childhood and youth across vast early America.

Today, Dr. Crystal Lynn Webster joins us to discuss her work on nineteenth-century African American women and children. Dr. Webster is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She received her PhD from the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of African American Studies at University of Massachusetts Amherst and was previously a long-term Mellon dissertation fellow at the Library Company of Philadelphia (2016-17) program in African American history. Her current book project, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: Northern African American Children’s Cultural and Political Resistance, examines the lives of Black children in the antebellum North and their experiences in juvenile reformatories, orphanages, schools, as well as their role in emerging social movements concerning race and childhood. Her research has been funded by the Library Company of Philadelphia, American Antiquarian Society, Massachusetts Historical Society, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and she has received first place writing awards from the National Council for Black Studies and the Association of Black Women Historians.

JUNTO: Why focus on children and youth? What about these individuals makes their experiences markedly different from the experiences of adults? Or are they not as markedly different as we’ve made them seem? What does this field offer to historiography?

CRYSTAL WEBSTER: In my experience, studying African American children was the only way to fully understand how the U.S. North and African Americans adults and children transitioned from slavery to emancipation. In my research on African American children, I discovered that their experiences were markedly different from both adults and I would add the important distinction that they were markedly different from other children based on race, class, and gender. Of course, this is also historically-specific and childhood is not, as we know, transhistorical. After all, white supremacy produces the marginalization of various groups including people of color, women, and children. This is the powerful potential of childhood studies or the history of childhood and youth- to illustrate the important dynamic of “age as a category of analysis” not only as it refers to children, but instead as a new site of inquiry that reaches across other social constructions and cultural experiences.

JUNTO: Your research clearly brings together studies on slavery, emancipation, race, and age. That fits nicely into an emerging area of inquiry in youth studies that includes age as an important factor in intersectionality, on par with race, class, or gender. How do you critically approach this?

WEBSTER: Certainly age is a category of analysis, however as a historian of African American women and children, I think it’s extremely important for all historians to consistently consider intersectional categories not as a hierarchy, but as constantly reproducing one another. For example, when researching children and criminality I expose the ways in which the experiences of Black children in juvenile reformatories at times varied greatly from those of white children based on race and gender. These material conditions are linked to age, gender, and race in inextricable ways that warrant deep, analytical consideration.

JUNTO: That’s an excellent point that intersectional categories should “constantly reproduce one another.” In thinking about this analytical category of “age,” how do you define “youth” and “childhood” in your research?

WEBSTER: This is an incredibly important question that I have intentionally chosen to answer with extreme ambiguity in my own research. While I broadly refer to the subjects of my research as children and youth, I don’t feel comfortable doing so uncritically. I am most satisfied in the spaces when I specifically use terms that reflect  1) the ways in which childhood was institutionalized and legalized differently for black children in order to in some cases limit, in others extend the category of child or dependency beyond the age of eighteen, 2) how African American adults defined their own children differently than whites, 3) how black girls were categorized different than black boys, and 4) how African American children asserted autonomy in their adherence to or deviation from the category of “the child.” I resist numeric boundaries and other universal categorizations and instead feel most comfortable when I am able to directly name those I research.

JUNTO: Children’s own sources can be notoriously difficult to find, especially enslaved children’s documents. Can you talk a little bit about the sources you use?

WEBSTER: One of the most exciting moments for me has been the discovery of records produced directly by African American children. While these moments are rare, I think there is a general misunderstanding that historical records of children, especially those of marginalized groups, are nonexistent. While I have been very successful uncovering narratives of black children in well-preserved records of legal, organizational, and institutions records, many of my most rewarding, and also time-consuming, discoveries have been in family records and private correspondence. For me this has meant methodological creative and interdisciplinarity. I would encourage all scholars to look in unexpected places-a letter might mention a black servant-girl by name whose records can then be verified through genealogical research producing an incredible find.

JUNTO: What are the biggest methodological challenges you face as a historian of childhood and youth? 

WEBSTER: As a field, I think there is potential for meaningful growth in the conceptualization of the place of childhood studies within other interdisciplinary fields. The pioneering work of scholars of childhood studies and the history of childhood and youth have clearly articulated the significance of each of these fields, however as an interdisciplinary scholar, I am interested in the ways in which analyses of age can be incorporated into the fabric of other critical theories including critical race theory, feminist theory, and queer theory. In this way, while there has been an increasing number of publications that focus on children and youth, I am most excited to see and participate in growth in the theoretical structure of the field.

JUNTO: What is the future of the history of childhood and youth? What areas of research are you most excited about? 

WEBSTER: I have seen tremendous growth and excitement around the subfield of Black girlhood studies. This includes Nazera Wright’s, Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century, Global History of Black Girlhood Conference, and many other forthcoming publications. I believe this also reflects the themes I’ve been reflecting on, the growth of childhood studies as a field and the turn to consideration of age, race, and, gender. My work, tentatively titled Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: Northern African American Children’s Cultural and Political Resistance, connects to this exciting emerging field by locating a historical and geographical moment of constructions of race, gender, and age-the early nineteenth century U.S. North and the experiences of enslaved, indentured, and institutionalized African American children and youth. I look forward to the ways in which the work of girlhood studies scholars similarly expands and reconfigures other subfields at like slavery studies, labor studies, women’s studies, and carceral studies.


Thank you to Crystal Webster for joining us to discuss her work on nineteenth-century African American childhood, slavery, and emancipation.

Join us Wednesday for a discussion with fellow Junto-ist, Dr. Vanessa Holden, about her work on African American children, free and enslaved. 

You can find all of our History of Childhood & Youth Roundtable posts by clicking the tag “The History of Childhood and Youth.”

2 responses

  1. Pingback: New York History Around The Web This Week | The New York History Blog

  2. Pingback: Roundtable: The History of Childhood & Youth: Anna Mae Duane « The Junto

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