Research projects

Two historians receive NEH grants for research projects

Discover new perspectives on slavery in American and French colonialism

Historians Yesenia Barragan and Judith Surkis are known for their research that challenges our understanding of race, slavery, and the lingering legacy of colonialism.

Barragan, a scholar of modern Latin America and the Caribbean, is currently exploring how antebellum black Americans were drawn to Latin America as a refuge from the racial terror they experienced in the United States. .

Surkis, a scholar of modern European history, shows how France’s 132-year colonial rule over Algeria influenced intimate matters of personal life, sparking fierce custody battles for Franco-Algerian couples after marriage. independence while continuing to influence French politics today.

These two Rutgers University professors Department of History recently received scholarships from the National Foundation for the Humanities which will allow them to broaden their research and publish books on their respective subjects.

The scholarships were part of $24.7 million in grants for 208 humanities projects across the country.

“These NEH grants will help educators and scholars enrich our understanding of the past and allow cultural institutions across the country to expand their offerings, resources, and public programming, both in-person and online,” said said NEH Acting President Adam Wolfson. “We look forward to the many new ideas and discoveries that these 208 exemplary projects will make possible.”


How the “divorce” between two countries led to new conflicts

KD22 NEH Judith Surkis 9323 square canvas

Immigration issues dominated France’s 2022 presidential election, with some candidates espousing racist conspiracy theories to argue that French national identity is in danger.

Judith Surkis sheds penetrating light on the development of these views through his study of France’s colonial rule over Algeria.

“The extent to which these issues play out in the French presidential election is striking,” Surkis said. “Immigration, particularly from the Maghreb, and the question of the place of Muslims in French society are hot topics and exploited by the right and the far right”.

His most recent book, Sex, rights and sovereignty in French Algeria (Cornell, 2019), shows the clash during the colonial period between French and Muslim law and the complex mix of religion, sexuality and race that drives French authorities to systematically deny citizenship to Algerians.

Her current research, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, shows how these fundamental conflicts found their way into domestic disputes after Algerian independence in 1962. She focuses on marriages between French women and Algerian men, and how the dissolution of these relations constituted the battlefield of new geopolitical conflicts.

His new book will be called The intimate life of international law: children and development after decolonization. Surkis will also be a member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

The story begins in the 1960s when Algerian men traveled to France for jobs where they met and married French women and had children. Some of these marriages suffered economic and social strains, causing separation and divorce.

“The extent to which these issues play out in the French presidential election is striking”

“Due to the economic crisis of the 1970s, rising unemployment and also virulent French racism, many men had to leave France, or at least bring their children back to Algeria,” Surkis said. “And that created the legal and social context for the conflicts.”

These conflicts have played out over decades, with children caught between the competing interests of French women’s civil rights, migrant rights, and French and Algerian laws.

“While both sides used universalist language of the ‘best interests’ of children, their competing claims reinforced ideas of religious, gender and national particularism,” writes Surkis.

Surkis draws from a wide range of sources for her research, from handwritten letters from parents to court records, government reports, and creative works including films, novels, and plays. oral histories with feminists, activists, lawyers, artists and children of Franco-Algerian couples.


Latin America, Promised Land of African-Americans

KD22 NEH Yesenia Barragan 9366 web sqIn 1849, a man named Guillermo Caution made a remarkable request to the Colombian authorities.

Caution, whose first name was probably William, wrote a letter to the Colombian Congress identifying himself as a “citizen of the United States, of color” and seeking “public lands for the purpose of founding a colony of free black emigrants from the United States”. .”

Yesenia Barragan was browsing the National Archives in Bogotá several years ago when she came across Caution’s petition and recognized its importance to the larger history of black American migrations across borders and to her own historical research. transnational race, slavery and emancipation.

“Once I realized he was writing as an African-American male, all the pieces started to fit together,” she said.

This discovery has fueled research for his next book, which will be titled A Country Apart: African Americans and the Prewar Promise Latin America (1820-1870). The project will be supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities

For Barragan, Caution’s letter showed in stark terms the chasm in racial attitudes between the United States about to pass the Fugitive Slave Act and the newly independent countries of Latin America.

“I make a historic juxtaposition between the mass surveillance of enslaved and free blacks in the United States and the establishment of newly independent governments in Latin America, many of which passed phased abolition laws and abolished racial caste systems” , she said.

“I hope this will add to the larger story of how solidarity and dreams of freedom are forged between people across nations and borders”

His book will serve as an intellectual history that traces the attitudes and aspirations of black Americans toward Latin America, using sources such as newspapers, travelogues, government correspondence, and private letters. The book will add to the existing literature on African-American emigration in the prewar period, which largely focused on Haiti and Liberia, and to a lesser extent on Mexico, which passed a law of abolished in 1829.

Barragan develops a larger frame of reference, which she calls the South Americas, connecting the southern United States with Central and South America and the Caribbean in the political imagination of black Americans.

“My project offers a larger hemispheric story,” she says. “I see ‘South Americas’ as a new intellectual cartography that speaks to a broader understanding of the freedom struggle of African Americans.”

Barragan said the project is also connected to her work as a social movement historian and lifelong activist.

“I hope this will add to the larger story of how solidarity and dreams of freedom are forged between people across nations and borders,” she says.