Monday, July 22, 2019


Y'all! Look what happened!

Henry --
Thank you kindly for your sweet and
thoughtful gift. Your support of 
"Hamilton" means the world. I look 
forward to dive into Mr. Fought's
"Women in the World of Frederick
Douglass." Here's wishing you all
the best.

Henry McCartney of the Friends of Mt. Hope Cemetery and a fan of Douglass and the women in his life brought his book club to Syracuse so we could discuss Women in the World of Frederick Douglass last spring. We had such a wonderful evening chatting about Frederick and Anna and Helen and all of the others. Everyone thought the book would make a great movie or even a musical like Hamilton. So Henry decided to send a volume to Lin-Manuel Miranda. I mean, what the heck! That was one of the coolest things anyone has ever done for it.

Low and behold, Miranda wrote a thank you note back. Sure, he gets a million fan letters a minute, probably. Sure, an assistant probably composed it. Sure, my gender was switched. Still: Lin-Manuel Miranda has a copy of my book!

Not that him having it is any more important than when a teacher or someone at a talk or someone chatting with me learns about it and runs into the bookstore to buy it or someone contacts me because they came across a blog post in a bit of serendipity. Those are all equally fantastic in their own ways. They make the book something beyond me.  I loved researching it, writing it, having it published, being recognized as having written it, being an expert on it, and all of that. Still, when someone comes to you and says that the book spoke to them and that they appreciated a particular point that it made or a depiction of a person (Anna has become quite beloved), then a circle has closed. Some final missing touch has brought the whole endeavor into a life of its own, like fairy dust. Magic!

There is another type of magic, too, like this weekend at the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic meeting (start putting together panel proposals for next year -- CFP up soon!). I was just chair of a panel of some fabulous young scholars on abolition, not presenting a paper, and I was on a committee to award the Mary Kelley Book Prize (the same one that I won last year), which went to Nora Doyle's incredible Maternal Bodies: Redefining Motherhood in Early America, her first book. Nancy Hewitt, by the way, won the biography prize for her much anticipated and worth-the-wait Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds. I was also catching up with two old friends whom I hadn't seen in ages. Conferences can be like that. Being, now, at a point in my career where I'm helping to award prizes to scholars earlier in their careers and presiding over their panels, and seeing the thoughtful and creative directions their thinking has taken the study of this period makes me realize that there are many parts to this circle, and many circles.

I also had a couple of encounters with people whose work has influenced my own and they said that Women in the World of Frederick Douglass gave them a new and different insight into Douglass, that it changed the way they thought about him. Again, that's another circle closed in another arena. More, powerful magic!

Knowing that Lin-Manuel Miranda or Joyce Carol Oates or old school, Second Wave feminist Robin Morgan or some other celebrity has read -- or is at least aware of -- my book is rather fun and sparkly. Still, whoever put the book into their hands, like Henry, they are part of creating that magic, or making the book into a Real Live Person. You see, they aren't just doing something for me -- I'm happy, don't get me wrong there! -- but they see something in the book, in the ideas and the story about Douglass and especially about the women, and they want to pass it along to others.

They want their students to know about it, and they want someone who has access to a larger audience to know about it. That's the way knowledge spreads and the public becomes educated. That's really the whole point, isn't it? To create a virtuous, thinking citizenry fighting the forces of ignorance. That's the reason people write books or create art or teach in whatever sphere or engage in these regenerative act: to slake their curiosity and help others satisfy their and know more in the process about the world and the way it works.

The feedback lets you know that you aren't just sounding your barbaric yawp into the wilderness.

Back to Lin-Manuel Miranda. This missive to Henry and from Henry to me came at an auspicious moment: my birthday, which is tomorrow. Also for my birthday, an impending book contract for a classroom-use volume on the life and historiography of -- get this! -- Sally Hemings. I write this not as an expert on Hemings or Jefferson. That title I leave to the formidable Annette Gordon-Reed, to whom I bow down, and others such as John Kukla, Virgina Scharff, Cynthia Kierner, Catherine Kerrison, and Andew Burstein, among so many others. Instead, I write this as a teacher, introducing Hemings and the arguments surrounding her life and times to my students. It will be a short book of maybe two hundred pages text, and is exactly the type of book I wished that I had last fall when talking about this subject to my students who wanted to read about Hemings but took one look a the length of Hemingses of Monticello and said, "is there anything shorter?" (They would have LOVED Hemingses of Monticello, by the way; but still, you have to compete for their time.)

So, in closing, let's bring these two research projects together with this little musical jam that perhaps comes close to a hip-hop musical of Douglass: Epic Rap Battles of History, Thomas Jefferson vs Frederick Douglass.:

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