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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

Pulitzer Prize-winning professor talks inspiration before campus visit

Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed is coming to Saint Mary’s next week for a discussion of her latest book, “On Juneteenth.” Gordon-Reed’s “On Juneteenth,” takes a look into Juneteenth’s history and origins in Texas through the lens of both Gordon-Reed’s childhood in Texas and the broader scope of U.S. history.

In an interview with The Observer, Gordon-Reed broke down her inspirations for the book and what motivates her to write.

“Even when I was a kid, I wrote short stories and essays because I loved to read. And from that it went from learning to read other people’s writing to wanting to do it myself. It’s just an activity that I feel comfortable doing," she said. 

The impetus for “On Juneteenth” came during the pandemic. While holed up in her apartment in New York, she wanted to write something sentimental about her late parents’ lives and her childhood, she said.

“And I began to think about my parents who are no longer living and what they would have made at this moment. 

"I thought I wanted to write something that would allow me to sort of relive our lives together. And so it was kind of a sentimental thing for me to do to bring them back into my orbit,” Gordon-Reed said.

Gordon-Reed said her books often focus on the earlier history of the U.S. She said her specialty consists of the founding era between the American Revolution and the 1830s. Major issues that have plagued the country became commonplace during this time, she said.

“And a lot of the problems that the country has had to deal with were during that time, you know, the institution of slavery, the status of women, status of indigenous people, the development of American law … all of these things get set during that time period,” she said.

Gordon-Reed’s personal experiences growing up in Texas helped shape the book, she said.

“There are moves in Texas to stop people from talking about anything that they feel might make white students uncomfortable. But there’s no way around the fact that slavery in the United States and slavery in Texas was racially based,” she said.

Mentioning the ways people try to avoid the discomfort that comes with discussing slavery is essential to evaluating the issue, she said.

“You can’t really have an honest discussion about that without bringing that side of it up,” Gordon-Reed said.

Her grade school and high school history classes didn’t fully cover issues like slavery, she said.

“From my perspective, I grew up in Texas and we had to take Texas history twice. You could take it again in high school. So you could have three years of Texas history and these kinds of tough issues didn’t come up," Gordon-Reed said.

This trend is changing, but not without backlash, she said.

“We have this new openness for the past 20 or 30 years about talking about history in a more expansive way,” she said. “And now there's backlash against that."

Despite Gordon-Reed’s primary field being law, she believes that the two tie into each other and that her experience in law has only helped her writing.

“I think the biggest tie is the question of evidence. Part of history is about amassing evidence to support the conclusions you want to reach.”

Just as the concepts of justice and fairness are crucial to law, they apply to history as well, she said.

“When you write about slavery, it seems to me a matter of justice for enslaved people for you to take seriously the things they say. Doesn't mean you have to believe everything, but you have to treat them with a degree of respect and dignity.

“That's a part of what people who become lawyers want to do is be a voice for the downtrodden. That aspect comes into my writing as well. I'm writing about people who for many years were writing about slavery, writing about people whose words were kind of dismissed,” Gordon-Reed said.

Despite being an award-winning author, Gordon-Reed acknowledges that not everyone will be pleased with her work. 

“Experience in law works into this very well because lawyers always know that there’s going to be an opposite side. I expect it and sometimes it's invigorating. It can make you a better writer, more clearer in your presentation, your arguments,” Gordon-Reed said.

Her lecture at Saint Mary’s will encourage attendees to connect their personal experiences to history.

“I want people to think about their own personal connection to history. I think that anybody could write the history of their state or where they’re living through their family story,” she said.

People should see themselves as a figure of history, she said. This doesn’t involve doing anything famous or noteworthy; instead, all it takes is understanding how people fit into society.

“Your story of Texas may be very different from my story of Texas,” Gordon-Reed said. “But it’s the story of Texas and things that happen to your family.”