What I’m Reading: An Interview With Historian Nikki Taylor

tags: interviews, African American history, Howard University, African history, Nikki Taylor

Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.

Dr. Nikki M. Taylor is a Professor of U.S. History and Chair of the Department of History at Howard University. She earned her PhD in U.S. History (and a certificate in Women’s Studies) from Duke University. Her research focus is 19th Century History, with a special focus on the History of Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery, Women’s, and Urban History. Dr. Taylor has authored 3 monographs including, Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community 1802-1868 and Driven Toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio (2016)Her current project is about enslaved women who waged armed resistance to slavery. She has been awarded several prestigious fellowships and grants throughout her career, including a Fulbright to Ghana and Woodrow Wilson Career Enhancement Grant. In 2017, she successfully secured a half a million-dollar institutional grant to establish the prestigious Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program at Howard University—the first HBCU with its own program.


What books are you reading now? 


1. Baracoon by Zora Neale Hurston 2. Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital by Chris Myers Asch and Derek Musgrove.


What is your favorite history book?


There is a River by Vincent Harding and any book by Darlene Clark Hine. 


Why did you choose history as your career? 


I chose history because I was inspired by a historian of African history in my first college History course at UPENN. He made history come alive. As an African American, the history of Africa raised my consciousness and shaped my identity. 


What qualities do you need to be a historian? 


I will focus on personal qualities, rather than skills. I think one must be committed to finding and amplifying the voices of the voiceless, disempowered, and marginalized. To do so, and do it well, one must value and respect those groups of people. Secondly, I believe good historians also must be able to see and write about the bad in good people and the good in bad people. In short, we must be able to see and write about the humanity in both our heroes and villains. All three of my books have taught me that lesson again and again.  


Who was your favorite history teacher? 


Dr. Lee Cassanelli at UPENN and Peter Wood and Syd Nathans at Duke. 


What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?


I am always deeply rewarded by getting emails from students from years past who tell me how much my classes transformed their minds and changed their lives. I have been most satisfied by teaching at Historically Black Universities and the University of Cincinnati. I like these institutions because I see myself in their students. 


What are your hopes for history as a discipline? 


Although there is much to be gained by doing history the old-fashioned way: by digging in boxes at the archives and building relationships with the keepers of the records—archivists and librarians, I do believe in universal, unlimited access to those records. Hence, digitization becomes the great equalizer. So, my dream is to have historical records be fully digitized and accessible to all. 


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


I own just a few rare books—and also some autographed copies of older books. I am not a collector of anything, except black angels. I like them because they defy the typical stereotypes of black women (as Jezebels, or immoral). They also make me feel protected by a higher power. I have them everywhere in my home. 


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


I am most frustrated by what seems (to me) to be widespread miseducation about history. Society has been so misled and miseducated—mostly by the internet—that it makes it difficult for trained historians to teach…or re-teach. I am equally frustrated when students believe they already know American or African American history so they do not need to take it in college. In my Intro courses, I do a pre-test that asks them when the Civil War ended, or who was the first black woman to run for president on one of the 2 major parties, or to name 5 figures of the Civil Rights Movement besides MLK or Rosa Parks. Only after taking and failing that pre-test do they realize they really do not know U.S. history after all. Historians have written thousands of history books, and yet society largely remains miseducated about history. Another frustrating part about my career has been how few regular people outside of the academy actually read the books that I have sweat blood to research and write. The most rewarding part of my career has been and will always be teaching. I also feel an incredible high the day my bound book first arrives in the mail.   


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


I went from seeing hundreds of History majors in my departments; now, the typical number of history majors is less than 100. This decline saddens and troubles me because of what it reflects about society and our values. The discipline has become far more diverse over the years, especially as it relates to women and African Americans. That is a very welcome change. However, white men remain the guardians of certain types of history, namely Presidential history, History of the Civil War, and even the history of Slavery. 


Digitization of records and the shrinking of academic presses have brought the sharpest changes to how we conduct research and publish. I remain shocked by how many historians have secured agents and now publish with popular presses. I am a relic in that all 3 of my books have been through academic presses. If I want a wider audience, I understand what must happen. 


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


“Until lions have their own historians, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” An African proverb (also repeated by Chinua Achebe). This one resonates deeply to my core. 


What are you doing next?


I am working on a monograph about enslaved women who used violence to resist slavery. 

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