Dear sun bathers,
Today the Lazy Scholar talks to a decidedly un-lazy historian, Davarian L. Baldwin, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College. Baldwin’s first book, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, The Great Migration, and Black Urban Life, published by UNC Press in 2007, offers an inspired look at the labors and leisures of African-Americans who settled in Chicago in the 1910s and 20s. Touching on figures from famed boxer Jack Johnson to “beauty culture” pioneer Madame C. J. Walker, and topics from “race films” to baseball, Baldwin deftly reveals the political, economic, and social debates behind urban consumer culture. Anyone who studies race, gender, or popular culture should prepare to add it their summer reading lists, and maybe their fall syllabi, too.
What projects are you working on now?
I am actually working on two pretty major projects that have me both excited and overwhelmed. One I am completely done researching, which is Land of Darkness: Race and the Making of Modern America. In this project I take on the long-held axiom that the U.S. social sciences have provided us with modern ideas about race. I use a close reading of the ‘Chicago School’ at its turn of the twentieth century origins to examine how the lived experiences of race in the city in fact shaped the rise of the U.S. social sciences and their impact on urban public policy throughout the twentieth century.
The second project UniverCities offers a series of case studies to unpack the meaning of urban universities and their attendant medical centers as the dominant employers, real estate holders, policing agents, and educational and health care providers in almost every major metropolitan center in the country.
What digital resource(s) do you rely on, or would you recommend?
For my earlier work, I loved “African-American Newspapers and Periodicals,” but now for my more contemporary studies, I must admit that reading the responses to articles and essays on blogs and websites is quite telling for me about the tenor, especially of a heated cultural issue. So for example, when there was all of this uproar around the comments Serena Williams made to a line judge, the pages of comments did not offer a scientific data set but were fascinating and horrifying nonetheless (can you tell I am working on an essay on the Williams Sisters?)
What is the best research or writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Especially for historians, who have to manage both the archival and the transmission of that material, we can tend to get bogged down in endless archival work which then makes getting to the writing very difficult even after the archival bits are “completed.” The best advice I got was after you feel like you have done enough archival research to establish a basic argument and vision and all the research is fresh in your head…just write the story. Many of us tend to write and pause at every sentence to find relevant sources. Don’t worry about all that, draft the story and then go back and find the appropriate quotes and sources. Again this is after you have a pretty firm sense of the data. I have been told, by people with whom I shared this advice, that it’s quite liberating!
What was the inspiration behind your dissertation?
I definitely think it was a my mother. She worked in a factory in the Midwest, but once she got off work (and even on the job) she told these amazing stories, was a mathematical genius and wore these amazing haute couture dresses. SO my basic premise was that everyday folk think and produce knowledge and it is our limitation as scholars for not peering into the world and ways in which people think, create, and debate ideas beyond the church and the seminar room, so in my case consumer culture and consumption itself.
What advice would you give someone working on their dissertation?
Someone has already said it here but write on a topic that you LOVE, something that can sustain you for many years on even the days when you don’t want to write. Also even though the current academic marketplace in some ways requires us to write award wining dissertations. I really see the dissertation as a glorified data dump, simply because once you think about a book version the ways in which your imagined audience changes (from a committee of maybe 5 to hopefully hundreds) profoundly transforms your written voice. So that is also some advice: audience. Be clear about who you are speaking to and why, in any piece of writing.
How does your teaching connect to your research?
Trying out ideas on students is amazing, not just to see if the ideas fly but to gauge whether you, the writer/teacher, has delved deep enough into an idea (and come out) with an ability to make that idea legible to a wider audience beyond specialists. But also I have tended to move away from teaching just my research. I think the academy went through that general trend and now we have a generation of students who can speak expertly about their teacher’s expertise but struggle to situate it within larger conceptual, temporal, and spatial contexts.
What’s the one book or article published before 1970 that has most influenced your work?
CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary. I was abhorred (in some ways) by his Edwardian haughtiness but that he could be so pretentious and still come out with this amazing examination of colonization/decolonization through CRICKET! Truly Amazing! I don’t think enough culture scholars read that book, but then most don’t know cricket, but in some ways you don’t have to.
What was the last thing you read to seriously inspire or haunt you?
I think Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums, both because this factual account almost mirrored sci-fi work that I had been reading by people like Paolo Bacigalupi and also because of its amazing global breadth without losing a depth of argument.
What primary source do you dream of finding?
The blueprints that the shopping cart man was pushing around in Ellison’s Invisible Man.
What website most often draws your attention away from work?
Definitely music websites and blogs, especially BBC Radio’s Benji B show…I ALWAYS have to have music to make it through writing projects.
What do you see as the most annoying tendency (or tendencies) in contemporary scholarship?
I definitely see beautiful prose, great stories, polished arguments, but I am missing a messy sense of urgency in writing and thinking out loud THROUGH, not before writing. I am most annoyed by conferences where, the constant spectre of the market, forces young scholars to take a polished 40 page paper and boil it down to 15 minutes with perfection. I miss the days of conferences when you brought an idea at the start of your thinking and tried it out on an audience expecting critique and revision…I miss that.