Scholars Talk Writing: Vincent Brown
A Harvard social historian of the African diaspora and Atlantic slavery seeks to tell unfamiliar stories ‘without letting the power of anti-Blackness stand in for Black history’
In late February, before Covid-19 overhauled academic life, a large group of the students, peers, and friends of Julius S. Scott came together for a conference at Duke University to honor his teaching and discuss his long-delayed, award-winning book, The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution.
That gathering brought together a mix of historians whose new books couldn’t have been better timed for this moment in American life, when readers are looking for insight into current struggles. Claudio Saunt, a historian at the University of Georgia, had a hot-off-the-press copy of his Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory. Marjoleine Kars, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, showed us all the cover of her new book on a 1763-64 slave rebellion, Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast.
And at an after-party, I met Vincent Brown, a chaired professor of American history and of African and African-American studies at Harvard University, whose new book, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, had just received a rave review in The New Yorker. He agreed to share his thoughts about academic writing and scholarship for the Scholars Talk Writing series.
Can you talk about your graduate-school experience?
Brown: I was really fortunate to arrive at Duke in the 1990s. Jacqueline Looney — now senior associate dean for graduate programs and associate vice provost for academic diversity — had been tasked with increasing the representation of Black students across the campus. The history department had several consecutive years in which more than one or two Black people were in the cohort. Instead of having to advocate for the viability of research focused on Black history, we could have deeper and less-remedial conversations about the topics that interested us.
Social history was flourishing among our faculty, especially with scholars of the civil-rights and women’s movements — like William Chafe, Raymond Gavins, Lawrence Goodwyn, and Nancy Hewitt — and the department was strong in the history of colonial slavery and race in the Americas, with David Barry Gaspar (my primary adviser), Julius Scott, Peter Wood, John Jay Tepaske, and John French.
At the same time, across the quad, the graduate students around Fredric Jameson, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Janice Radway, Stanley Fish, and Jane Gaines were pursuing an interest in cultural studies, which wielded a powerful influence across the humanities and social sciences. … When Jacques Derrida arrived, there was a festive atmosphere. You couldn’t really date unless you were familiar with the ideas of Michel Foucault and Raymond Williams, so I learned a lot of stuff I would have otherwise ignored. At a “Globalization and Culture” conference in 1994, I met and fell in love with a Gramscian anthropologist of India, the woman I would eventually marry.
By the end of this process, I had come to define myself as a social historian of the African diaspora and Atlantic slavery with a particular interest in the political implications of cultural practice.
Your first book, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery, won a number of big awards. Can you talk about the process of revising your dissertation into a book?
Brown: A dissertation is generally an intervention into a scholarly debate. The book that emerges from it should broaden that debate, and invite people in who may have been unaware of its existence. One way to do that is make your argument take the form of a story. This is harder than it sounds.
What makes the best story is often the most familiar and straightforward narrative, with a few twists and surprises to keep things interesting.
Writing in a way that satisfies both demands is hard work, but I think it’s worthwhile. I tried to meet this challenge in Reaper’s Garden by spending more time setting scenes, explaining contexts, fleshing out portraits of individuals, and gently introducing unfamiliar ideas. The great filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, one of the pioneers of the thriller genre, used to say that whenever he wanted to introduce a complex cinematic innovation, he would always put something recognizably appealing in the shot. He called this the “jam around the pill.”
I also received great advice from senior colleagues. After reading my dissertation, Jill Lepore, one of the most effective writers in my profession, encouraged me to strengthen my authorial voice by limiting quotations and callouts to other scholars, which have the effect of making your work sound like a private conversation with an in crowd. Because I had been interested in cultural studies — where citation anxiety often overwhelms personal style — this was an especially important suggestion.
In The New York Review of Books, Fara Dabhoiwala recently reviewed Tacky’s Revolt and wrote, “Brilliantly transcending the silence of the written archive, it manages to present rebel and nonwhite backgrounds, perspectives, and politics in as rich, complex, and conflicted detail as those of their literate opponents.” Can you talk about how you accomplished that, and offer any advice for junior scholars?
Brown: The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel once proclaimed that Africa “forms no historical part of the world.” And when the academic disciplines were formalized in the United States, the study of Black people was divided into those abroad, who were the province of anthropology and represented the primitive prehistory of humankind, and those at home, who were studied within sociology as problems for the nation-state.
It remains a fundamental assumption among many writers of history that there is just less to say about Black people than others, and that most of what you can say is about the crushing weight of slavery, racism, or white supremacy, rather than about Black people’s struggles and achievements.
Of course these must be placed in their social context, but I try to do so without letting the power of anti-Blackness stand in for Black history. Once you’ve decided that Black people are worth writing about — and they have become a subject of genuine curiosity and not just symbolic significance — you must investigate the complexity of their views and their efforts in rich detail.
Because I don’t have the kinds of sources one might have for elite figures — their own letters, pronouncements, etc. — I can’t read the documents as transparent reflections of what happened, which no historians should do, anyway.
Instead, I have to see my sources as artifacts, not only of skewed conventions for representing Black people, but also of historical processes that were shaped by what Black people did. Understanding how the sources are shaped by their contexts allows you to speak with more confidence about plausible and probable intentions and actions.
You made an argument to me about the importance of “dense” writing. What does that mean to you, and why is it valuable?
Brown: I live in the Boston area. It seems that every house where a notable colonist once lived is marked. There is no end to the demand for detail when it comes to the founding fathers. Why shouldn’t we care to know as much about Black people as about these others? The limitations of the sources are real, but the more profound limitation is the one on our historical imagination. We always already know who is important enough to learn about in detail and whose lives don’t matter.
As it turns out, Jamaica was the most profitable, militarily powerful, and politically connected colony in the 18th-century British Empire. And yet, because the colony did not join the American Revolution and enter the United States, and also because its population is overwhelmingly Black with a majority born in Africa, Americans know little about Jamaica’s slave society or its most significant insurrection, what we call Tacky’s Revolt, in 1760-61.
So much about the relationship between imperial warfare, the slave trade, and colonization remains unfamiliar to many readers. This meant that I didn’t have the luxury of relying on existing conventions or frameworks for telling the story.
Instead, I had to introduce a transatlantic geography in which African history in Jamaica was pivotal over a period of long duration in which the British Empire remade the world. Situating the revolt in a narrative of shifting scope and scale became a way of making the argument that these rebels mattered, that their lives are worth writing about, even if much of what we can say is informed speculation about their most plausible and probable actions.
So a certain amount of density is unavoidable if you want to make an argument that both advances the field and tells a story that will bring along people untutored in the latest debates. Hopefully, the writing is clear enough, the argument strong enough, and the story compelling enough that different kinds of readers are willing to take the ride.
You don’t just write books. You work in other media, too. How did your experience in film help with writing?
Brown: I did some training in filmmaking and film theory in graduate school. That probably encouraged me to think of my writing in somewhat pictorial terms. I certainly do like to imagine evocative scenes. I also pay a lot of attention to framing gestures, as you would if you were shooting moving images. Over the last few years, I’ve learned a lot from watching geopolitical thrillers.
Paul Greengrass films offer a way of visualizing those efforts without losing sight of geopolitical machinations, even when the story is focused on face-to-face conflicts. Greengrass is noted for liberally employing tight hand-held camera work alongside sweeping crane, drone, and satellite shots.
The changing scope of the frame signifies something important. Our gaze moves from the intimacy of close human contact to the distant and encompassing view of the impersonal system, where individual conscience and choice is subsumed by a mechanized structure.
There is an excellent example of this in the 2013 Greengrass film Captain Phillips, when the U.S. Navy arrives to rescue Tom Hanks’s character from a ragtag band of Somali pirates. The Navy — whose actions are presented with steady focus — doesn’t so much save the day as reveal the impotence of interpersonal negotiation against the bureaucratic power of an imperial military. The shaky hand-held vision yields before the precision of the satellite and the sniper scope. Paying attention to camera work like this has helped me to think about scope and scale in writing about the quotidian warfare of slavery within a transatlantic political economy.
You’re doing hugely interdisciplinary work. How did that come about?
Brown: The Mellon New Directions Fellowship had a major impact on my work. As a scholar of the African diaspora, I study scattered populations encompassing experiences that differ greatly over space and time. This requires a fundamentally spatial analysis.
For Tacky’s Revolt, I decided to see what I could learn by locating the people involved in the insurrection and tracing their movements. Mapping, or counter-mapping, was a way of arguing that movement showed the military intentions and strategic intelligence of the rebels.
Any general advice about writing?
Brown: Let your argument and story emerge from your interpretation of the research. Don’t just apply theory or report on sources. Take writing seriously as an art form: Choose words that are worthy of your compositions.