Q&A: Ernesto Bassi, author of An Aqueous Territory

Following up on James Hill’s review of Ernesto Bassi’s An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada’s Transimperial Greater Caribbean World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), we’re pleased to post this Q&A with Ernesto about his book and future research. Bassi is Assistant Professor of History at Cornell University. He is a historian of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic world during the Age of Revolutions, whose work transgresses conventionally defined geographic units of analysis. Ernesto can be reached at eb577@cornell.edu. Continue reading

Guest Post: Review of Bassi, An Aqueous Territory

Today’s review is by James Hill, who received his Ph.D. from the College of William & Mary in 2016 and is currently an Assistant Professor of History at the University of the Bahamas. He has published articles in Early American Studies (Winter 2014) and the Florida Historical Quarterly (Fall 2014). His dissertation, “Muskogee Internationalism in an Age of Revolution, 1763-1818,” analyzes Creek and Seminole diplomacy. This will be followed tomorrow by a Q&A with the author.

Ernesto Bassi, An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada’s Transimperial Greater Caribbean World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

For decades, the historiographies of the Caribbean and the mainland Americas largely remained separate, with the modern constructions of nation-states influencing how scholars have framed the geographical parameters of their works, with some notable exceptions (New Spain, Guyana, Suriname). In recent years this has begun to change in the case of North America’s early modern ties to the Caribbean. Scholars such as Jane Landers, J. R. McNeil, and Shannon Lee Dawdy have emphasized transnational and transimperial connections between various Caribbean islands and the territories that eventually encompass the United States. Continue reading

“Meditations on Archival Fragments”: Review of Dispossessed Lives

FuentesIt should go without saying that the historical profession depends on archives. Near or far, we need those repositories to craft historical narratives about past worlds. There is also no shortage of books and articles critical of the construction of colonial archives, perhaps the most famous among them being historian Ann Laura Stoler’s Along the Archival Grain. Despite the popularity of that book, however, historians still rarely discuss their archival methodology. Monographs always provide a list of consulted repositories, which for early American history can often read like a top ten greatest hits of national and state archives. And yet, try looking for the word “archive” or “archival knowledge” in the index of most books and the result might be surprising. Continue reading

Digital Identity in Graduate School

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Last week, the Arts & Sciences Graduate Center at William and Mary hosted a Digital Identity Roundtable to discuss the benefits, pitfalls, and protocols for graduate students who currently use social media for networking and scholarship, and for those who would like to start. As a contributing editor for The Junto, I was invited to participate in that discussion. Only after agreeing did I realize that mine would be the only graduate student voice among a group of highly accomplished professors from across the college. Being a typical graduate student, the thought of speaking with any “expertise” caused a brief panic and I turned to my fellow Junto editors for their tips and suggestions for graduate students and early career scholars about managing a digital identity. My query (really a plea for help), elicited such a big and generous response from my fellow editors that we decided to share that advice here. Hopefully, this can start a wider conversation about how graduate students should confront an increasingly vital part of our professional development. Continue reading

Guest Post: Janine Yorimoto Boldt, “Looking at Early American (Art) History”

Janine Yorimoto Boldt is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the College of William & Mary. She is writing a dissertation that explores the social function of domestic portraiture in Virginia between Bacon’s Rebellion and the American Revolution.

1956-561“Why should a historian read your dissertation? How can portraits tell us something new, rather than confirm what historians already know?”

The historian on my dissertation committee posed these questions during my prospectus colloquium. They haunt me when I sit in the archive and now it hangs over my head while I write. These questions only enhanced the feeling of the disciplinary divide between art history and history that I already observed. One of my comprehensive exam fields was early American cultural history. Reading early American history, I noticed how few historians engage art historical scholarship. Usually, the art histories are relegated to the footnotes as an obligatory afterthought. For example, after mentioning the fact that so-and-so had a portrait a footnote reads, “for more information on portraiture in the colonial period, see these [three sources here].”

To be fair, in the field of art history, there are few recent monographs that focus on early American art, and fewer that are object-centric. Wendy Bellion’s Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America (2011) and Jennifer Roberts’ Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America (2014) are recent and excellent studies of early art that place the object at the center of their analyses. Several cultural historians write about artists or write histories that revolve around art objects, but they tend to circle around the object instead of engaging in deep material and visual analysis. Biographical information about producers and consumers take center stage, rather than foreground the art as an agent. In the field of early American art, especially the colonial period (and on artists other than John Singleton Copley), there is a lot more work to be done.

When asked about current trends in historical scholarship, a recent visiting historian on campus told graduate students that we need to engage more with visuals. When they said this I was thrilled! I agree! Then, they said, “but not how to do visual analysis. That’s not important.” Why not? Why do so many historians dismiss the importance of the visual? Surely images can function as more than “wallpaper” and portraits can be used as more than illustrative of a historical figure’s likeness. At another event, after presenting an argument based on visual analysis of a woman’s portrait, a historian told me to “stick to evidence” from documents. However, this woman left virtually no archival evidence. All that she left to posterity was her portrait, and an unusual one at that. Do I not have an obligation as an historian to interpret this piece of historical evidence to the best of my ability in order to tell her story? Doesn’t the portrait count AS evidence in and of itself?

Certainly there are some disciplinary divisions in training and method. However, as the humanities become increasingly interdisciplinary, I hope that the divide between history and art history closes a bit and more historians choose to engage with art. We live in a hyper-visual world and historians can help students learn to think critically about historical images to prepare them for critically engaging with contemporary media. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for incorporating art into history classes and scholarship:

Discuss images in class. I have seen many historians use PowerPoints with images in lectures and presentation. Do more than use the images as simple illustrations. Pick a key image and dissect it as you would a primary source document. Ask questions like:

  • Where was it displayed? What does that say about visibility the intended audience?
  • How was it meant to be seen? Is it a small image meant to be held close? Was it part of a set of images? Was it a large statement piece?
  • Who made it? Who commissioned it? Why?
  • What can the image tell us about this event/person/culture that written documents cannot?

Think about assigning images as primary documents. In assignments that involve analyzing a primary source, consider using a image as an option. Or, consider pairing an image and a document.

Think critically about whether the image you include is appropriate. Are you using a images from the 1850s to illustrate an event in the 1770s? Include an image caption that references, at minimum, the date of creation and the artist. Dates matter!

Use images as evidence. Images are forms of material culture and are cultural texts. If your research brings you to images, try to do more than include them as “wallpaper” illustrations. Images are material, they are constitutive of culture, and visuality is formative.

As an American Studies graduate student, and an undergraduate with a double major in art history and history, I have taken a number of “traditional” history courses. Except for material culture seminars, I have not seen images used widely in the history classes. As an interdisciplinary scholar, I am interested in how other disciplines engage with art. Do you have any other suggestions for utilizing images? Do you regularly use images or assign art history texts?

Manufacturing Bodies: A Review of Slavery at Sea

Sowande’ Mustakeem, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016).

slavery-at-seaWriting a book review a day after Karin Wulf’s entertaining analysis of what makes for a good review might be hubris at its worst, or simply bad timing. And, while I will never have the expertise, style, and prose that made Annette Gordon-Reed’s review of Robert Parkinson’s The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution so good, I do hope this review will explore the central ideas of Slavery at Sea in anticipation of a Q&A between the author and The Junto’s own Rachel Hermann tomorrow. Stay tuned for that!

In the introduction of her new book, Assistant Professor of History and African and African American Studies, Sowande’ Mustakeem, writes that, “not all slaves endured the transatlantic passage in the same way.” That statement serves as the driving force behind an unflinching exploration of the “multiplicity of sufferings” endured by aged, infirm, and infant Africans carried across the Atlantic and into slavery. Despite the simplicity of that premise, Mustakeem’s concise monograph exposes how the focus on young and able-bodied African men as the predominant population of captives held in slave ships overshadows the experiences of the “forgotten” of the transatlantic slave trade. As a result Mustakeem’s narrative lingers on the painful details of what she describes as “a massively global human manufacturing process” that commodified the bodies of young and old, healthy and infirm, female and male (9). Continue reading

Lies and Half Truths in the Archives

calico-jack-rackhams-pirate-flagAs a historian of piracy, I suppose it was inevitable that my research summaries would end up reading like bad monologues for a late night comedy act. Like this tidbit from the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla: “1618 four Frenchmen appeared before the governor of Santo Domingo accused of piracy by the Spanish patrolmen who caught them on the island’s coast. The governor interrogates the four men through a translator. One of the men admits that, to survive, they occasionally went pirating on the high seas, but that they never stole anything from the Spanish. The governor then asks him where they got their ship, to which the men admit that they may have stolen one thing from the Spanish.” Ba dum tsshhh, cue the rimshot and laughter from my friends as I relate the story over beers later that evening. Continue reading