Race, gender and nation
Slices of everyday life can shed light on big concepts.
Slices of a community's "everyday life" story that reveal a larger picture is the focus of a University of Virginia research and teaching center devoted to new ways of understanding concepts of race, gender and nationhood.
The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies received a three-year, $300,000 grant from the Ford Foundation in 2002 to establish the interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Local Knowledge in the Construction of Race, Gender and Nation.
Including an innovative collaboration with independent, non-academic historians, the center investigates "new methods of scholarship with the aim of illuminating – and potentially transforming – relationships of knowledge and power," said history professor Reginald D. Butler, director of the Woodson Institute.
The complex world of Jefferson's Monticello plantation provides one dramatic example of how race, gender, power and nation themes may be studied in microcosm at a local level, with civilizations of Africa, Europe and the Americas coming together.
The center has developed out of a previous Ford-funded project, "The Chesapeake Regional Scholars Summer Seminars in African-American and African Studies." That program led to increased exchanges of ideas between academic and independent lay scholars in the region and to increased sharing of African-American Studies resources among large and small colleges and universities, Butler said.
He and Woodson Institute associate director Scot A. French developed a series of research questions about how concepts of race, gender and nation might be understood at the local, "everyday" level of experience. Among those questions:
What is the role of lay scholars – the many non-academic historians and genealogists who are often key resources for local communities?
How can new technologies -- such as the Woodson Institute's innovative digital-history archives -- make new scholarship meaningful and widely accessible?
How can a new interpretive model, linking local knowledge to national discourses, transform teaching and research?
"Local knowledge" includes a community's own "understanding of its social relations, past and present," said Corey D.B. Walker, director of the new center. It also involves "how everyday people come to understand their position in the world and how national identities are constructed in local communities."
Walker, who holds a doctorate in American studies from the College of William and Mary and has been a scholar-in-residence at the Woodson Institute, has, for example, researched the long history of African-American Masonic lodges in different communities.
The first African-American social organization to spread nationwide after the Civil War, Freemasons' locally based activities reveal a much larger picture about citizenship, race, gender and national belonging. A book Walker is finishing, "The Freemasonry of the Race: African American Freemasons and the Struggle for Democracy in America," has been called a model for interdisciplinary research on the relationship between the local and the national.
The center has an ambitious research agenda, Walker said. "Instead of responding to intellectual and societal trends, we want to challenge existing intellectual boundaries and break new ground in developing new ways of knowing, new communities of scholars and fresh approaches to critical issues of public policy," he said.
The center has invited a diverse group of U.Va. faculty to participate in its Faculty Fellows program. With research and teaching interests related to the mission of the center, the fellows represent a wide variety of fields including medicine, politics, anthropology, chemistry, history and law.
Along with its research program, the center will develop new courses that explore issues of gender, race and nation; sponsor research assistantships and fellowships for undergraduate and graduate students; and create new avenues for exchange and collaboration between academic and lay scholars, Walker said. The center is also taking an active role with the University's partners in its new Southern African initiative and with other international research centers and institutes.