Roundtable: The History of Childhood & Youth: Ben Davidson

DavidsonIf you missed previous posts in our new roundtable series on the history of childhood and youth, 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’s interview is with Ben Davidson, a James Smithson Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He recently completed his PhD in United States history at New York University. His book manuscript, “Freedom’s Generation: Coming of Age in the Era of Emancipation,” traces the lives of the generation of black and white children, in the North, South, and West, who grew up during the Civil War era. This project explores how young people across the nation learned persistent lessons, carried into adulthood, about complexities inherent in ideas and experiences of emancipation, assessing and interpreting how these lessons were transformed in memory well into the twentieth century.

Dr. Davidson has received long-term fellowships from the U.S. Department of Education and New York University, and short-term fellowships from institutions including the American Historical Association, the Huntington Library, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the Virginia Historical Society. He has taught high school English, worked as a researcher for a children’s book publisher, and taught History 101 at NYU, among other courses. Davidson received his undergraduate degree in History and English from Williams College in 2010.

JUNTO: What drew you to the history of children and youth?

BEN DAVIDSON: I’m interested in studying the history of childhood because I find that children’s lives reveal how social change occurs as much in everyday life as in legislative halls or on battlefields. Children’s writings, and writings about children, often contain seemingly mundane notations about family routines, birthdays, school, and labor, but these mundane facts reveal the practical, emotional, and conceptual structures that people turned to amidst the enormous uncertainty of the Civil War. Violence and death affect children in an especially profound way, and such instances powerfully illuminate the long-term effects of everyday violence and of larger-scale events like war. Along these same lines, children’s lives help us to see the long-term effects of historical events because children can live with the memories of these events over the longest period of time. The distinction between what children experienced and cared about during childhood and what they carried into adulthood thus demonstrates how choices about which histories we tell tangibly shape our everyday worlds.

JUNTO: That’s a great point about children’s writings revealing daily experience in the past. But, as the other scholars in this roundtable have also noted,  studying children can be a difficult task for a historian.  Children’s own written records are not always well preserved or saved.  What types of sources do you use and how have you had to creatively read sources for childhood experience?

DAVIDSON: The question of finding children in the archives is a central methodological concern for my work on the generation who grew up during the Civil War era. Children are not always immediately visible and audible in nineteenth-century records, and when writings in a child’s own hand appear, they’re often that of an upper-class young person. Three main strategies shape my efforts to find sources: The first involves drawing attention to the process by which children’s voices are included or excluded in the historical record. Michel Rolph-Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) and Marisa Fuentes’ Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (2016) were two especially useful works for thinking through these issues. By making a discussion of what we can’t know part of my narrative, I strive to include the experiences of children who are not explicitly documented in the archives.

The second strategy involves attention to non-written records. Games and toys, photographs, architecture, and other visual and material sources illuminate not only how adults wished children to live their lives, but also how children may have lived, by delineating the range of choices children faced in their everyday lives. Robin Bernstein’s notion of “scriptive things” in Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011) has been especially helpful for my thinking on this matter.

The third strategy arises from the intersection of these first two; this involves questioning the weight we give to finding children’s “voices” in the archives. In my book manuscript, I write about Maria Fitzhugh, a woman who was enslaved in Virginia and became free during the Civil War. Records about her life exist only in second-hand accounts—the papers and memoirs of the family who owned her, along with census records—but we can learn a great deal about Fitzhugh from these documents. Both what we can and what we cannot know about her childhood reveal key aspects of the history of childhood, such as the role young people played in redefining the boundaries of freedom during and after the Civil War. By contextualizing seemingly opaque source materials, by considering archival practices as part of our stories, and by carefully speculating about the limits of what we can know about individual children’s lives, a more complete history of children and childhood emerges.

JUNTO: These methodological strategies do help us to recognize archival limitations but also remind us how to work with what’s available to us.  In the nineteenth century, in particular, there is a lot written about the changing nature of childhood. Taking that into consideration, there is a slight nuance between the history of childhood/youth and children. Do you study what people thought about children or do you have more of a focus on children’s own experiences? Or is it a combination thereof?

DAVIDSON: Considering the distinction between the history of childhood and the history of children is a key balancing act in my own research. Changing ideas about childhood in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the United States reveal shifts in cultural and political ideologies, as the work of Robin Bernstein, Holly Brewer, Anna Mae Duane, Catherine Jones, Wilma King, James Marten, Mary Niall Mitchell, Karen Sanchez-Eppler, Marie Jenkins Schwartz, and numerous others has shown. These scholars also ask how children’s decisions and experiences reflect ideological shifts, and I draw on their work to center questions of children’s agency in my research on the era of emancipation. As Walter Johnson writes in his essay, “On Agency,” about historiographical debates in the history of slavery, a constrained agency does not mean a complete lack of agency. What sorts of agency did different groups of children have in the past? In order to answer this question, a deliberate effort must be made to include children as actors in the stories we tell, even as we explore important questions about the shifting meanings of childhood and age.

JUNTO: How do you incorporate the history of childhood and youth into larger fields of inquiry like political history, social history, and economic history? Why is it important to do so?

DAVIDSON: Incorporating the history of childhood and youth into larger fields of inquiry is a demographic necessity. In my own area, the nineteenth-century United States, people under eighteen constituted nearly half of the population in some states. Children were thus at the heart of many key political and economic decisions made by adults, and these children also made important political and economic decisions of their own. While reasoning based on demographics may seem banal, this way of thinking about the history of childhood is often revelatory to students in U.S. history courses, especially since children remain marginalized in much historical study.

Another reason the history of childhood is so interesting stems precisely from this field’s intersection with so many other fields of inquiry. Children experience most aspects of life, if differently from adults, and this difference provides a new perspective on nearly any issue a historian might investigate. The category of childhood also involves multi-field and multi-disciplinary investigations because the central question of who is a child lies at the heart of so many formative debates involving questions of citizenship, education, and family.

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

DAVIDSON: Four areas of research are especially rich and important at the moment:

  1. Questions of childhood and gender
  2. Childhood and activism
  3. Childhood and theories of the archive
  4. Children’s experiences of violence and incarceration

So much exciting new work is being done in these areas. My own work asks how gender shaped children’s experiences and ideas about freedom in the aftermath of the American Civil War, how children participated in political actions and debates over emancipation, how the construction of archives of the nineteenth-century past tells us about attitudes toward childhood, and how the violence of slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, and white reactions against emancipation shaped the lives of the first generation to come of age after the legal end of slavery.

For selected works that have recently inspired me or that I am intrigued to read in the future, I offer the following:

Thank you to Dr. Davidson for joining us today to discuss his work on the history of childhood and youth during the Civil War Era as well as his many wonderful suggestions for further reading.

Tune in on Wednesday for an interview with Dr. Juandrea Bates, Assistant Professor of History and Legal Studies at Winona State University. Dr. Bates will discuss her work on Latin American childhood, law, and gender in the nineteenth century.



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