5 Questions with Dr. Shirley Thompson

Today we bring you a new entry in one of our favorite series of AMS :: ATX: an interview with Dr. Shirley Thompson, associate professor of American Studies and Associate Director of the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies. Dr. Thompson was also recently awarded a Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship for her research on property, economics, and law.

Photo by Marsha Miller

Photo by Marsha Miller


What was your favorite project to work on and why?

I have to say my favorite was everything relating to my New Orleans project, which was my dissertation, and turned into my first book, Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans.  First of all because I’m someone whose native constitution is more conducive to more quiet, solitary, archival research, and the New Orleans archival situation is just amazing.  Because New Orleans was so long a French colony, governed by civil code, there’s a different bureaucracy in place, which means that a lot of the transactions that would fall under the radar in another kind of space, an Anglo-American space, had to be attended by a notary, had to be heavily detailed, recorded and filed for future reference.  It was also really litigious on the civil side: you had neighbors bringing suit against neighbors for civil infractions.  It was a highly contestable, really rich culture of recording disagreement and recording interactions.  The logic of the archives is really interesting too, to trace people, who while I was working I thought of as characters, through their various material interactions, to witness them buying and selling property, interacting with their families, their neighbors – it brought history alive and made me feel really intimate with the people I was studying. The archival situation was really rich for me, and I could spend hours in a room, totally engrossed, in the historical events that were unfolding.

But beyond that, when I came out of those archives, the place itself was completely engaging.  New Orleans opened me up to something I’ve always been interested in, which is maps, and thinking about various ways of experiencing and representing space, and marking the overlapping projects of placemaking – how these projects come together or fail to come together within a city, or town, a geographical unit.  It’s not hard in New Orleans because it wears its history on its sleeve, but I began to really pay attention to how the city itself is a palimpsest, and use that as a kind of guide for thinking about how to tell the stories that I thought were important.  And New Orleans, in terms of its placement, pulled me into a transnational perspective that I found really transformative for my way of thinking about US history, thinking about African American history and its relationship to a broader stream of African diasporic thought.

The New Orleans project opened all that up for me.  I’ve also done some more creative pieces on New Orleans recently. I find that it’s a city that stokes my creative imagination.

I love going back and talking to people in New Orleans.  One thing about the city is that the people who are from there and live there are, a lot of them, historians – not formally, but they’re really engaged with the history of their families, the history of their communities, how other people represent them. They’re very savvy about representations of New Orleans, what their city might mean, what their culture has given to the world, and all the consequences of that.  They’re very articulate about it, and very willing to engage you on all of those levels. I see it as an ongoing project.  Every time I go back, I’m thrown back in the midst of these broader questions about the city, race and the city, and questions of representation.


How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations in academia and beyond?

People get really excited to talk about race.  There’s always a call for a national conversation about race.  But every time that conversation gets started, people clam up, and get offended, and back away from the conversation.  So, I think careful, critical, studies of the history of race and racism, the legacies of white supremacy, how these take different shapes in different times, and bringing these histories to bear on the present and investigate just what those connections are – I see myself as helping to facilitate these conversations.  These conversations help to clarify some of these connections, and trace out these linkages between history and the present.  It’s important work.  Society is often averse history, period. Let alone the history of racism and white supremacy.

I also think, between academia and the broader society, for me, those lines aren’t so stark. One of the things I’ve come to realize teaching at UT is that the classroom is where that intersection takes place in the most sustained way in my life.  When I’m in the classroom, I’m teaching students who may not see themselves – who probably don’t see themselves – as academics, but who see themselves as regular people, who are just recently graduated from high school, out in the world for the first time, and they are stepping into settings where they’re actually taking a risk on learning about things they don’t know, and interacting with people they wouldn’t normally interact with.  This includes me, an African American woman professor.  For the demographics of UT, most people aren’t accustomed to seeing black people in roles like this.  I see it as a challenge and an opportunity to figure out ways of facilitating these new, kind of fragile interactions that students are having around really difficult topics like the history of slavery, like race and place. It’s hard work. I’ve come to reconcile myself to the fact that this is part of the work I’m called to do here at this particular institution.


What projects or people have inspired your work?

I haven’t formally taken on a project about slavery, but slavery informs everything I do and all the questions that I ask.  So, the legacies of slavery in many respects inspire me.  My first book was about free people of color in New Orleans, the biggest slave market in the US.  But I’m not talking about actual enslaved people as the primary focus of that book.  The new project that I’m working on is about African Americans and conceptions of property and ownership: how have black people dealt with the legacies of enslavement, of being owned as property, in their attempts to own things themselves, and participate in this broader culture of property in ways that both correspond to mainstream American understandings of property, but also challenge them and subvert them as well? So the legacy of slavery is a thread through this project, but, again, it’s not about slavery!  But I’m really inspired by artists, writers, scholars, who take on the day-to-day realities of the history of slavery head on.

I think slave narratives themselves are a huge inspiration.  A lot of these narratives I read multiple times as a student, or on my own, as a general coming of age.  But as I’ve taught them, and re-read them, I’ve tried to re-read them with fresh eyes – I remember the first time I taught Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, it just brought me to tears, the clear articulation of what the experience of enslavement was, then his attempts to use that brutal experience to forge a broader political project.

I’m also inspired by scholars who write about slavery, and there are two in particular that I’ve come back to both in my scholarship and my teaching. Saidiya Hartman, both her Scenes of Subjection and Lose Your Mother are texts that I find remarkable in their ability to weave together theoretical claims, to attempt to theorize the afterlives of slavery and theorize the limits of freedom, given the entanglements of slavery and freedom.  And in Lose Your Mother, her blending of memoir, historical research, and ethnography is exemplary.  Stephanie Smallwood is another historian I keep circling back to – she strikes a really interesting tone in her unflinching look at the gruesomeness of the commodification of bodies, of African captives, and the transformation of these captives into slaves.  I think her attention to the details of the process, as a process, is paradigm shifting. Those historians continue to inspire me.

I draw a lot of inspiration from literature as well.  Faulkner and Toni Morrison are the two that have really influenced me over time.  I remember in graduate school, taking one summer out and devoting it to reading as much of Faulkner as I could, and that was transformative in shifting my perspective, of beginning to think creatively about the range of different emotional responses to enslavement, different psychological responses to the predicament of enslavement, and for thinking about the ontology of slavery for both masters and the enslaved.  Morrison has had a similar effect on me, and she continues to! Every time I think I’ve had an insight, and then read, or re-read one of her books, I realize that, oh, she’s had that very same insight and then some.  And so it keeps pushing me to different, deeper levels of analysis.


What is your scholarly background and how does it motivate your teaching and research? 

What it seems to always boil down to, for me, is a sense of a bifurcated background and bifurcated experience with education from a very young age.  On the one hand, I was in this generation that was integrating the public schools in my suburban county in metro Atlanta for the first time. Brown v Board was obviously long before that. That was a generation of people on the front lines.  My own experience of integration in the 1970s and 1980s didn’t have that dramatic sense confrontation that you come to expect from photos of the Civil Rights movement.  I was more like a guinea pig. I felt like these formal educational settings didn’t have a place for me conceptually, or they were downright hostile to my presence, which was disorienting. Sometimes the slights were very subtle, which was even more disorienting. My parents had attended segregated schools and their experiences didn’t really translate to my situation.  My few peers and I were all kind of creating this thing as we went along.

But also, my parents and grandparents were heavily involved in African American institutional spaces, institutional life, especially education.  My mother just retired as a math professor at Morehouse College, and my dad was a literature and religion professor and an administrator at many historically black colleges and universities over the course of his career, so my sense of being shut out of the social and cultural life of preschool, or junior high, or high school, didn’t really affect me as much as it might have, because when I came home I was in the midst of this really rich, long, institutional culture. That was always the other part of it.

Beyond that, the library in my house was very well stocked with world classics, but also especially with African American literature and criticism – but not just Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, but the work of African American scholars who were friends and acquaintances of my parents, and other scholarship as well.  I had a sense that I could do this, that I could be a critic, a scholar of history and literature, in spite of the fact that everyone in the outside world was baffled by presence – much less my ambitions.  I’m really grateful to have had that kind of background, to have been able to draw from the strength of that kind of situation.

The upshot of that for me is that I feel like I’m in a mainstream academic institution, but don’t feel bound by its limitations.  I know that there’s a history of building alternative spaces to pursue knowledge of peoples and communities that are disregarded by these mainstream spaces.  I feel if UT closed tomorrow, there are, or could be, other spaces to do the kind of work that I do.


What projects are you excited about working on in the future?

I’m really excited about my property project.  It grew out of my experience researching and writing the New Orleans book, when I realized that one of the ways that black people and free people of color tried to stake a claim to belonging in the city was to buy property and own property, to create these transactions that make them proprietors in their own minds and in the eyes of other people.  Also, thinking of New Orleans as a slave market, where the logics of property take on a really gruesome shape, and how that gruesomeness helps to form a foundation for the economic life not just of the nation but the world more broadly.  This alerted me to the contradictions of property, some of the conundrums in the way that relation has been articulated over time.  I want to pick apart some of those conundrums of property: how are property and personhood bound up with one another? How does one get at the difficulty of discerning an origin to proprietorship and also an end to it – what stories do people tell about the origin of their property rights, how they struggle to convey their rights to their property beyond their deaths even –  How does one get at the way in which property rights make sacred and secular claims at the same time?  How does property depend on and create norms of gender propriety? All these questions are really interesting, and I’ve been thinking about these questions for awhile.  But only recently in the last year have I really faced the fact – or the opportunity and excitement! – of admitting that I don’t know enough about the economy and economics as a field, or some of the legal aspects of property to do this right.  Getting the opportunity to push pause for a bit and actually study more methodically in these areas is really exciting to me.

The Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship is giving me the next year off from teaching to take classes in economics, and to reach back in my previous life as someone who was actually good at math and apply it to a set of claims that means something to me currently, which is a great feeling.

Also last summer I part of the inaugural History of Capitalism Summer Camp held at Cornell University, which was an effort to bring together scholars in an emergent field – who are concerned about economic history but do not want to abandon social and cultural history as well.  People are trying to find a way to bridge this divide and to re-infuse cliometrics – that old notion of cliometrics! – with an understanding of culture, politics, and aesthetics so that we can speak more fully to our current economic crises and those that have gone before.


In one sentence, what is American Studies to you?

American Studies is taking all the things that America says about itself to make it cohere as a nation and to help it authorize its imperial projects around the world, to take all these stories and to turn them inside out and then pick away at their guts.


Interview by Jeannette Vaught.

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