Experimenting with New Dramatic Histories

AHA Session 269
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Diplomat Ballroom (Omni Shoreham, West Lobby)
Ada Ferrer, New York University
Black Léonore of Aquitaine
Lorelle Semley, College of the Holy Cross
Martha Hodes, New York University

Session Abstract

Many of us became historians because we like to hear, read, tell, and watch stories unfold. Because history books do not always capture the imagination of readers, debates persist about historical fiction as a more useful way to access complex pasts. Some historians have experimented with biography and narrative while others have embraced historical fiction. Historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s engrossing, powerful narrative about Ona Judge Staines, an enslaved woman who fled the household of George and Martha Washington, reveals a different side of urban American life after the Revolution. The captivating historical novel by Tiya Miles bridges Native American and African American history while engaging with gender and sexuality to boot. Yet, narrative histories rarely highlight the manifold, often elusive, experiences of Africans and people of African descent, especially after emancipation. Meanwhile, historians increasingly reveal the remarkable mobility among people of color, whether enslaved, or as free migrants, sailors, activists, students, and artists. These stories could reorient our understanding of revolution-, empire-, and nation-making from the perspective of those who struggled for belonging despite being subject to enslavement, colonization, and second-class citizenship.

The term “dramatic history” is not widely used and often refers to plays that explore historical events, such as Shakespeare’s War of the Roses trilogy. What would it mean to develop dramatic history as a new trend in, what Martha Hodes calls experimental history? This new dramatic history could focus on giving space to the fragmented and obscured stories of women, people of color, the impoverished, the enslaved, and others forced to the margins of society. The intersection of narrative, fiction, and history offers unique opportunities to explore how women and men redefined self and community in a changing world.

The participants in this panel marry narrative and fiction with the tools of the historian, including vital records, census data, passports, property records, and interviews. To demonstrate the forms this experiment can take, our papers take different perspectives on an unexpected range of places. Semley uses census data, public records, and related archival documents to create the freed black fictional character of Léonore in Bordeaux, France, at the turn of the nineteenth century. Jones contemplates using fiction and historical imagination to reveal the itinerant lives of several generations of an enslaved family who originally fled the Haitian Revolution. In his narrative-driven study of exclusion and wealth inequality in 1970s Connecticut, Kahrl uses extensive interviews to reveal racially charged protests against privatized beachfront property ownership. In linking corners of the Atlantic world, our panel engages larger historical themes with continued relevance today including, migration, urban history, economic inequality, and social movements.

Fiction-writers often describe their inspiration in the form of voices from their imagined characters. Historians usually are less willing to admit how frayed pages and images – or their absence – in the archives move us. Dramatic history may allow us to share how we hear and visualize the energy and deep emotion embedded in so many of our sources that are not so silent, after all.

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