What I’m Reading: An Interview with Historian Ashley D. Farmer

tags: interview, Ashley D Farmer

Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor. 

Ashley D. Farmer is a historian of black women's history. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and the African American Studies Program at Boston University. Her book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, (UNC Press, 2017), tells the story of black women in the Black Power era. She is also the co-editor and curator of the Black Power Series with Ibram X. Kendi, published with NYU Press.

She is a member of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) and blogs for Black Perspectives. She was educated at Spelman College and Harvard, where she earned an MA in History and a PhD in African American Studies.

Dr. Farmer lives in Boston, and tweets from@drashleyfarmer.

What books are you reading now?

I just recently finished Gayle Wald’s Shout Sister Shout: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Thorpe and Brittney Cooper’s Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. Both have taught me to think about black women’s intellectual and cultural production in new and interesting ways.

What is your favorite history book?

It is really tough to pick just one! However, I came across a couple of books in graduate school that have really changed how I thought about history as a practice. The first was Ula Taylor’s The Veiled Garvey: The Life and Times of Amy Jacques Garvey and the second was Tera Hunter’s To Joy My Freedom: Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War. Although neither book directly relates to my current field of study, they both taught me about how to think about how to use the archive inventively, the importance of moving beyond traditional understandings of intellectual and cultural production and expression, and the value in locating black women’s history in their lived experiences.

Why did you choose history as your career?

Despite the fact that I grew up in a household where history was always present and talked about, my path to becoming a historian was somewhat winding. In college, I was actually a French major and Spanish minor. I enjoyed these courses. However, I also found that I was most stimulated in the history and literature classes. I also participated in study abroad programs that really sparked my interest in the issues that women in the African Diaspora faced. This led me to take history classes late in my college career. I found that through the field of history I could better engage in the kinds of questions and communities in which I was interested and decided to focus on in history when going to graduate school.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

Although there are many qualities that are useful, I think the primary ones needed are curiosity and persistence. The best and most interesting histories come from finding one or two sentences in an article or monograph, or even a passing mention of a person, place, or event, and following this brief mention or reference wherever it may lead. The perpetual interest in excavating that which others have not and the dedication to following the lead as far as one can go is what defines the best historians and makes for great history books.

Which historical time period do you find to be the most fascinating?

Mid- to late twentieth century history sparks my interest the most. I love thinking about how the period from the 1920s to the 1980s shaped our current historical moment and understandings of race, class, gender, culture, and society. As a result, most of my historical writing is about how black women radicals in the 1950s to the 1970s challenged conventional meanings of race, class, gender, and politics both domestically and internationally and what this means for our current understandings of these concepts.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

Even though I was a relative latecomer to the study of history, I had a couple of great professors at Spelman College who shaped my historical thinking. One was historian and professor Jelani Cobb. I took an introduction to African American history course from him late in my college career. As a dynamic teacher, he really showed me how history could shed light on and add value to some of our most pressing current questions and sparked my interest in further developing my historical knowledge.

What are your hopes for world and social history as a discipline?

I am very interested in the new directions that public and community history is taking in this current historical and political moment. I think it has tremendous value and potential for challenging traditional hierarchies both inside and outside the academy and for democratizing the study and understanding of history. I hope that we see more of this kind of work in and outside of the academy as well as more collaborative projects that empower people to tell history in innovative, widely accessible, and diverse ways and locales.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

I don't have any rare or collectable books. However, most prized historical possessions would probably be my collection of interviews from activists from across organizations and groups from within the Black Power movement. I have over forty recordings of interviews with women that span different organizations and groups. They bring back fond memories of meeting and speaking with some of the most memorable activists from this time. I also think this collection of interviews is a testament to the breadth and depth of their Black Power organizing.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

I think this career has many of the same frustrations that you find in most careers or walks of life. However, I have found that this is often balanced out by its rewarding aspects. Because I am a historian of the recent past, I often have the opportunity to speak with those people whom I study. Being able to sit down and have conversations about the past in productive ways has been immensely rewarding and productive. I really think it’s one of the best things about this career!

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

Even though I am fairly early on in my career, there have been some exciting changes in both the study and production of history since I started. I am excited by the growth of subfields such as African American intellectual history and black radicalism. There has also been interesting growth in the fields of public history and museum studies which I think has broadened the historical profession and academics’ understandings of how and where to “do” history in interesting ways. I hope that both of these trends continue. I am also particularly excited by the intersection of these two fields; that is, how we might better bridge growing interest in the history of black thought with community and public history through archival projects and exhibits.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

I am a bit too early in my career to have established one of my own. However, I have always been drawn to the following quote by James Baldwin from Sonny’s Blues. “For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

While it’s not necessarily about history in the context of the story, I think it’s particularly applicable to those who do African American history or the history of other marginalized groups. It is a reminder that while the history of the oppressed can sometimes feel as though it takes the same form or story no matter the period of study, it is critical that we tell it in all its various facets and that the act of telling it is a vital part of challenging this marginalization.

What are you doing next?

Since finishing my book, I have been spending some time catching up on the historiography of Black Power and black radicalism. I have also been working on getting a new anthology, New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition (co-edited with Keisha Blain and Christopher Cameron), to publication. This is a volume featuring some of the newest scholarship about black thought from burgeoning scholars in the field. It is also the first publication from the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS)—a scholarly organization founded to foster dialogue about researching, writing, and teaching black thought and culture through its online blog, Black Perspectives

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