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
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.