Incentivising BIPOC Historical and Material Culture Research in Grad School

Last year I wrote a master’s thesis. I thought it was a pretty good piece of research and others agreed. Because of the breed of nerd I happen to be, that research was mostly about an activity (the craft process of fulling) and not about a particular group of people (fullers, for example); it was easy for me to do good work while not thinking too much about who exactly was doing the activity I was researching. I came across evidence of the occasional white woman or black man involved in the fulling business and I noted those instances but did not elaborate on them significantly. As it is wont to do, the written historical record mostly talked about white dudes. I knew that there was more research that could and should be done into fullers who were not male or white, but it didn’t feel directly relevant to my already overwhelming research into craft process, and my institution didn’t provide a specific incentive to look into it, so I didn’t dig very deep. I was and still am frustrated with myself for this, and I think there’s a way to encourage others to do better.

A note on the last page of Calvin Cooper’s fulling mill account book, recording the hiring of “Philip (Blackman)” to work for him for 7 months starting in March of 1809. This is the only specific reference to a presumably black worker in my ~150-page thesis. Calvin Cooper’s account books live in the collection of the Chester County Historical Society, in West Chester, PA.

While I chose to write a moderately unconventional thesis (with an entire chapter devoted to a glorified craft project I carried out in my parents’s laundry room), I am definitely a millennial, and I love nothing more than being praised for my work. It’s not that I wrote my thesis with the objective of winning a prize, but I was very much aware of the standard of excellence my institution was expecting me to meet. And that standard didn’t require the inclusion of non-white-male narratives. Rule-follower that I am, if that had been a requirement, I would have met it enthusiastically. My shame is that even though I knew it should have been a priority of mine, it wasn’t, simply because I wasn’t graded on it. The fact that my thesis failed to fully explore the stories of actors other than white men has been on my mind for at least two years. I suspect you know why I chose this moment to put it into writing.

History written by, for, and about white people makes white stories the default, and in doing so it disenfranchises BIPOC Americans by making it harder for them to locate themselves in our national narratives. (A lot of that White People History is also just plain old racist. I am not the best person to explain to you how/why this is the case but if you’re currently have a “what is she talking about?” moment, I recommend Scene On Radio’s “Seeing White” series as an excellent place to begin educating yourself.) Along with many of my museum professional/historian colleagues (as well as the current Winterthur fellows) I aspire to do better; to shape historical narratives that more accurately reflect America’s past by including and highlighting the stories of the BIPOC Americans who have not been treated fairly in the history books. As a material culturalist, I feel this mandate even more strongly. For many populations which are poorly represented in written records, material objects are some of the richest historical sources we have, and it is on us to explore and share the stories they embody. Historians have a responsibility not to perpetuate past biases. It is anti-racist to write balanced, honest history that tells EVERYONE’S story. This is something I should be doing, but I’m not as good at is as I’d like to be.

One of the projects I participated in while I was in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture was an exhibit centered around a mahogany cabinet labeled with names of ports involved in the 18th century Atlantic slave trade. The exhibit, titled Truths of the Trade, teased out the connections between objects in Winterthur’s collection and the lives of enslaved people. This project was a fantastic example of how material culture can be used to tell a wide range of narratives.

In grad school, I understood tacitly that it would be a good thing if my work highlighted a more diverse range of voices, but I also realized that I was not risking my grades by failing to do so (privilege at its finest…). I think the fact I was not penalized for that was a mistake. I would have benefited tremendously from a column on the grading rubric for how well I explored my subject from a range of perspectives. If the one of the tenets on which the thesis prize was awarded had to do with the inclusion of non-white stories, I promise you would have found the time to prioritize that research.

While I hope that all future Winterthur fellows are more noble than I, I rather suspect that some will share my failings. To that end, I want to encourage the program administration and faculty to consider revising the standards on which academic work is graded to incentivize the inclusion of non-white voices in the student’s academic work. Help us [force us] to build the skills we need to effectively research the stories of BIPOC Americans. Foster the creation of a body of material culture literature which better expresses the historical realities of our country. And don’t feel bad for docking points on papers that fail to meet this standard. Let’s live in a world where being a historian or material culturalist means that you don’t get to skip over the history that is hard to research.

One thought on “Incentivising BIPOC Historical and Material Culture Research in Grad School

  1. This is a great idea. History in the USA often means White male history by default. If it expands beyond that, it’s usually to White female history period. Everyone else is a distant after thought segregated in a color coded reference as not to impose “unimportant” information on White minds. The idea to dock points or perhaps not even accept papers without an appendix explaining what steps students took to be inclusive of “others” exp. People of Color, women, people of different religions, non hetero normative peoples should be the new normal. We talk a lot about moving forward, but we need to take action to do so. With unbalanced scales, you can not add equally to both sides to get to a fair balance. You must weigh one side more until equality is reached, here equality of access to information being the goal. We know excluding POC is wrong, but it still happens. Action is needed to right this.

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