“When did you first develop an interest in history?
As a historian of slavery, the slave trade, and the U.S. South, my research interrogates the ways in which African identities are reconstructed through a dialogue with the diaspora. My interest in history emanated from reading the scholarship of W.E.B. Du Bois while in high school in Savannah, Georgia. Du Bois’s early scholarship on race at the dawn of the 20th century provided important insights into the objective reality of African Americans in the South. Du Bois problematized the whole question of identity by uncovering the relationship and interpenetration of race and class as explanatory variables in the African American condition. As a resident of Georgia during the first decade of the 20th century and editor of Atlanta University Studies Publications, Du Bois traveled extensively throughout the state of Georgia to assess the historical and contemporary problems of African Americans. More than any other scholar and activist, Du Bois has had a lasting impact on the thought of African Americans. Indeed, 30 years ago, sociologist William Julius Wilson published The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (1980) in which he argued that race had become less important than class as a determinant of life chances for African Americans. Wilson’s thesis received much criticism and evaluation from historians and sociologists alike who cited key social indicators (income, education, health, and housing) to demonstrate an overall lack of improvement in the conditions African Americans faced during the decade of the 1980s, showing that “race matters.” Thirty years later, the election of the first African American president provides an opportunity to interrogate how the election of President Obama informs teaching issues related to race, slavery, and the slave trade in U.S. history and African American history courses, particularly in light of recent claims regarding President Obama’s maternal connection to slavery.”
Read the entire interview here: AHA Today: AHA Member Spotlight: Karen Cook Bell.