Deborah Gray White
Historian Deborah Gray White works at the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America. Her doctoral dissertation, “Ar’n’t I a Woman?,” was published by W.W. Norton & Co. in 1985 and honored 20 years later by the historical profession as a pathbreaking history of women slaves in the South. White, a Board of Governors professor of history at the School of Arts and Sciences, has edited a new book, Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower. The book is a compilation of autobiographical essays by contemporary black women historians, including White herself, due out next spring from the University of North Carolina Press. Each essayist relates her own struggle to join the predominantly white male society of academic historians.
FOCUS: Why are the histories of black women – and black women slaves – so important?
White: When you look back at what put this nation on stable economic ground, it was the institution of slavery, with the money that was made there. How the institution of slavery was built on the backs – and through the wombs, really – of African-American women, is an important part of this nation’s story.
Also very central is the fact that African Americans, as people, have always forced Americans and America to live up to its creed. Always, we were the exception. If you want to talk about liberty, if you want to talk about democracy, if you want to talk about [how] all men are created equal, there was that little asterisk; we were always the asterisk, and you just couldn’t explain us away. And so, to the extent that we wouldn’t be explained away, we of all the people in this United States, even though enslaved, held true to the principle of freedom and kept pushing the envelope.
Notwithstanding the Native Americans’ story, African Americans consistently pushed this nation to live up to its ideals. And so in that regard, I think African Americans as a people are really important; we’re the counterpoint to this nation’s history.
FOCUS: What is your next project?
White: I’m working on another monograph, “Can’t We All Just Get Along?” It’s a study of the 1990s. All these mass marches [such as the Million Mom March and the Million Man March] present an opportunity to take a pulse of America – women, men, gays, African Americans – and look at issues like gay rights, motherhood, and evangelicalism, and see where we are as a nation, how far we’ve come on sensitive issues of race and class, gender and sexuality.
It’s more than a study of protests. The Million Woman March really put gender center stage. If you put that together with African-American history, that is really new. If you look at the 1963 march on Washington, that was about integration. The Million Woman March was about professional and working-class women trying to come together.
FOCUS: That said, do you foresee a time when you will be able to let up on the race question?
White: No. You’ve got the recent Supreme Court ruling about affirmative action, which was a misinterpretation or reinterpretation of the Brown decision. Justice Stevens was right – the recent decision made a mockery of the 1954 Brown decision. We’re still dealing with Jena Six; we’re still dealing with nooses. If somebody doesn’t stand up and say something, we’ll be fighting those battles all over again. No. We always have to be vigilant.
FOCUS: You’ve been at Rutgers since 1984 and had serious offers from other universities. Why have you stayed?
White: Rutgers has more African Americans on the faculty than many places. Gender also matters here, so much so that we rank in the top one or two in the country every single year in gender history, African-American history, and in African-American literature. This speaks well for Rutgers. I don’t mind saying that I stayed at Rutgers because it has a lot to offer. Having been around, having been offered positions at other places, I know that Rutgers really does have a lot to offer.
FOCUS: Any plans for here at Rutgers?
White: I want Rutgers to be a school that people can point to and say, "This is a place where African-American history and African-American women are taken seriously.” This is why I want to have conferences here. I want it to be the place where graduate students want to come.
FOCUS: Your colleague Nell Irvin Painter wrote an essay for your book, Telling Histories, which relates the story of her own journey to becoming a leading historian of the United States and of African Americans. In it, she writes that you are more patient than she in working for and anticipating real change in race relations in this country. Is she right?
White: I don’t think that I’m more patient. Unlike Nell, who grew up largely outside of the United States with middle-class parents, I grew up being taught that I had to wait – by a society that underprivileged black people and by poor parents raised in the Jim Crow South. I have always felt urgency about fighting racism and sexism, and now that ageism has been added to the mix, I’m less patient than ever.