Michigan State University history professor Laurent Dubois has won the seventh annual Frederick Douglass Book Prize, sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University. A crowd gathered last week in New York to celebrate the $25,000 award.
Jon Butler, the dean of Yale Graduate School, said the center studies one of the great tragedies that has defined our nation - slavery and race bigotry - as well as the story of freedom in America, and seeks to discover "the effects of slavery, abolition, and resistance through the life of scholarship. In doing so, the Gilder Lehrman Center contests the commonplace idea that scholarship is irrelevant and that scholarship plays little importance in shaping our society."
Mr. Butler drew an analogy between music and African-American history. He recounted the history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers performing in the decade after the Civil War "Steal Away to Jesus" before white audiences. Likewise, Mr. Butler said, historians such as John Hope Franklin, David Brion Davis, Mr. Dubois, and others "sing through scholarship that speaks to truth through evidence, through research, and through compelling narrative. The historians change society by helping Americans discover "who we are through who we were and tells us who we have become."
David Blight, who directs the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University, said America's past is "sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrible," and that the center studies America in all its contradictions.
Mr. Blight said a trend in historiography of slavery and Abolition has been the "turn toward Atlantic Studies," examining these subjects in a broader, comparative context. Mr. Dubois's winning book was "A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804" (University of North Carolina Press).
Mr. Dubois was born in Belgium, Mr. Blight said, "but as he told me he only lived there three weeks." Mr. Blight continued, "Not since C.L.R. James has a scholar examined the broad nexus of revolution, slavery, and emancipation as creatively and as powerfully as Laurent Dubois. This is an original pathbreaking, deeply researched work." In examining how the Haitian revolution spread to Guadeloupe, Mr. Dubois, he said, "transforms a seemingly local story into a much larger one - about how the French Revolution itself was in part rooted in the slave systems of the West Indies." He said the book drew on French archival sources, anthropological sources, ethnographical sources, maps, and folklore, adding that it was "written with a carefully controlled passion and analysis." The audience laughed when Mr. Blight said the book even had a good glossary and timeline in the back "for those of us who can never quite keep straight all the lead characters in the Haitian revolution."
Mr. Blight also took note of the finalists for the prize: Melvin Patrick Ely, who wrote a social history of a free black community in Virginia; Graham and Shane White, who wrote about African-American history through music and sermons; and Robin Law, who wrote a social history of a West African slaving port. Present that evening was the other finalist, Indiana University history professor Claude Clegg III, who wrote about African-Americans and the creation of Liberia "as a kind of incipient phase in the western colonization of Africa," Mr. Blight said.
He recognized many of the historians in the room, including Ronald Hoffman, who directs the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture; American History Workshop president Richard Rabinowitz; CUNY Graduate Center history professor Carol Berkin; University of Delaware professor Peter Kolchin; Richard Kane of the Yale Center for International and Area Studies; incoming director and librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, Ted Widmer; and curator and research historian for the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Christopher Moore. Mr. Blight said Gilder Lehrman Center founder David Brion Davis - who, despite "his alleged retirement," was at Stanford that evening delivering the second of two Tanner lectures - and Columbia University historian Eric Foner were unable to attend because he was also at Stanford.
Among the others Mr. Blight acknowledged were University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor John David Smith, who chaired the jury for the prize, which had 78 entries this year. He also recognized in the audience two Yale faculty members, Elizabeth Alexander (author of the epic poem "Amistad") and African-American Studies program chair, Robert Stepto, who is writing an introduction to "Alien Land," a soon to be reissued novel by Willard Savoy.
The evening concluded with a reading by Yale student Natalie Paul and a musical performance by Haitian musician Erol Josue.