AHA Member Spotlight: Martha S. Jones

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

Martha S. Jones is a professor of history, Afro-American and African studies, and law at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as well as Paris, France. She has been a member of the AHA since 1998.

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Alma mater/s: BA, Hunter College, CUNY; JD, City University of New York School of Law; MA, MPhil, PhD, Columbia University.

Fields of interest: African American history; legal history; history of race; history of women; history of visual culture.

When did you first develop an interest in history?

I came to history very late. I had been a public interest lawyer in New York City for nearly 10 years when I was awarded a Charles Revson Fellowship on the Future of the City of New York at Columbia. I approached Eric Foner and Manning Marable, both of whom I thought might help me learn more about the law and politics that undergirded my work. After a fall semester at Columbia with them, I decided to give up practice and pursue my PhD. I was surprised to learn that I had never taken a history course in college (many years before). So, history as a discipline was new for me, and also very exciting.

What projects are you working on currently?

I am completing a book on race and citizenship before the US Civil War titled Overturning Dred Scott: Race, Rights, and Citizenship in Antebellum America. The book is a counter-narrative to the much-studied case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, in which the US Supreme Court pronounced black Americans to be non-citizens. My approach is to look at the experience of race and rights in the local courthouse, rather than in a high court, and to explain how in the 1850s free African Americans claimed the sorts of rights that are deemed the rights of citizenship after the Civil War.

Along with my colleague Hannah Rosen, I direct the Celia Project. The project is a long-term research collaboration between scholars in history, law, and literature that examines the history of race, slavery, and sexual violence. Our group will produce an edited volume and a public history project connected to the 1855 Missouri case of State v. Celia, a slave.

Have your interests changed since graduate school? If so, how?

My interests have only broadened since graduate school. My work in the field of Atlantic history and legal history both have grown out of the rich and interdisciplinary intellectual community I am a part of at the University of Michigan.

I think of myself as someone who has been fortunate to have support for the expansion of my training in response to my interests. I have curated to historical exhibits in conjunction with the William L. Clements Library here at Michigan in collaboration with their curator of graphics, Clayton Lewis. This was not part of my formal training, though my graduate advisor Eric Foner was a model for this sort of ambition. I relied upon colleagues in the history of art and museum studies to guide my learning how to take historical scholarship into an exhibit space and to a diverse public that includes scholars, students and community members. The exhibitions are Proclaiming the Emancipation and Reframing the Color Line.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog, etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?

I currently have a blog on the Huffington Post that is connected to the University of Michigan’s winter 2013 Understanding Race theme semester, of which I am a co-chair.

What do you value most about the history profession?

I most value our capacity to speak to multiple and varied audiences about the past. Most of us are scholars and college or university teachers. But many of us also bring understandings of the past to K–12 student and their teachers, to professional organizations, the media, and popular audiences. I most admire our profession when it reaches beyond classrooms and scholarly venues into museums, libraries, courtrooms, and political organizations.

Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?

I am one of the perhaps rare historians who has wonderful memories of the job interview process at the AHA. I was on the market in 2001 and arrived with lots of the standard trepidation and a head full of lore about how awful the process was going to be. But I found meeting colleagues from beyond my own institution invigorating. I had a great support system that included my study group from graduate school and my friend Erica Armstrong Dunbar, who made sure that I was pressed and polished before I headed off to interviews. When it was over, I wasn’t sure that I’d won a job, but I did have a more sure sense of myself and how I fit into the profession. I still experience AHA meetings in this way today.

My worst AHA memory was the last time we were in Atlanta. I had agreed to be on a panel on mapping and technology. I was there to present on Mapping Black Detroit, which was a teaching and public history project I directed at the University of Michigan. This was the day in which very few of us, including me, were very confident in technology including PowerPoint. As I took the podium the screen went blue, and no one could get the PowerPoint to work. I took a deep breath and began the talk and tried to vividly describe my slides as best I could from memory. When I finished, the panel chair patted me on the back and said “remarkable.” I never got over the irony of having the technology fail during a panel on history and technology. But I also felt like I’d endured a sort of baptism by fire.

Other than history, what are you passionate about?

I am passionate about visual culture, art, and the public discussions that happen in galleries and museums. A commitment to social justice has always defined my work and I am fortunate that my work between history, African American studies, and law encourages that in my teaching. And I am passionate about family including my family history. One of my secrets is that what really brought me to history was an interest in the history of my own family. I am descended from enslaved people in the US South and European immigrants who secreted their way into the United States. Just recently I’ve begun to write about some of that family history and even to teach it in my classrooms. I guess my secret it out!

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