Narratives of Power: New Articulations of Race, Gender, Sexuality & Class

Project Directors: Deborah Gray White and Donna Murch

The 2010-2012 project at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis addressed changing narratives of power in a time of historical transformation. Inspired by the election of Barack Obama, media pundits, scholars, and the public more broadly were asking how this momentous shift in the United States’ polity has changed the way that we understand the American past and present. Given the history of New World slavery, segregation, and disfranchisement, the election of the country’s first black president led many to reflect on the operation and exercise of power in the United States. Although his election was widely celebrated by supporters, Barack Obama’s campaign highlighted many of the growing fault lines and demographic shifts within the American public. Shifting parameters of identity created both the opportunity for new coalition and division. One of the most striking elements of the election was the remapping of the U.S. electorate based on multiple vectors of identity and voting behavior. The mass media focused an unprecedented level of attention on region, gender, intergenerational change, immigration status and linguistic designation as analysts stressed the increasing power of new political constituencies.

Using both President Obama’s campaign and election as starting point, the seminar used this topical theme as an opportunity to create an expansive, interdisciplinary dialogue about the intersection, overlap, and conflict across different channels of power and identity, including race, gender, sexuality and class. We chose to include narrative because as decades of scholarship questioning the interrelation of author and subject have shown, an interrogation of how the story is told, by whom, and to what end is essential to the process of understanding power.

This seminar involved a broad meditation on the significance of historically marginal and disfranchised groups moving from the periphery to the center of social, political and cultural institutions. The inquiry was not limited to the 20th century United States, but welcomed scholarship on Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe across a broad sweep of time. In keeping with the rich literature that has developed over the past half-century on the complex interplay of multiple identities, we encouraged participation from a number of disciplines, regions, and time periods to join a wide-ranging discussion of identity, narration and power. In addition to the usual two years of seminars at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis, “Narratives of Power” also included a campus lecture series, a major conference entitled “From Black Modern to Post Blackness: A Retrospective Look at Identity,” and an undergraduate “signature” class in which postdoctoral fellows participated.

The first year (2010-2011) of “Narratives of Power” focused on material issues of political economy, resource distribution, and the state in shaping theories and practices of identity. Topics of inquiry included social welfare, immigration, deindustrialization, policing and punishment, labor (free, forced, and wage), non-governmental organizations, formal and informal economy. In this new era, we were mindful of how domestic social and economic policy is inextricably linked to changing concepts of citizenship and national belonging. Over the past half-century, increased downward economic pressures created by trade liberalization, capitalist globalization and an erosion of the system of nation states has become a crucial force shaping identity formation across region. Therefore, we also welcomed interdisciplinary research on transnational themes of neoliberalism, economic development, foreign policy and militarization.

In its subsequent year (2011-2012), “Narratives of Power” focused on issues of culture, everyday life and identity formation. Although we recognized that there can never be a clear separation between realms of political economy and cultural production, the second year focused more specifically on the inter-subjective of realm of experience and self-expression. Included within these broad parameters was a meditation on the process of identity formation and culture. This included more traditional ideas of Kultur as understood through artistic expression in aesthetics, music, art, poetry and prose, performance, photography and electronic media, as well as a broader and more inclusive understanding of the social aspects of culture as everyday life and practices. Working in this vein, we invited research on family, community based institutions, religion, education and social reproduction.

2010/2011 Postdoctoral Fellows and Projects:

Robert Chase (Ph.D.: University of Maryland, College Park; Public Historian, Avery Research Center for African American History, College of Charleston):

     “Civil Rights on the Cell Block: Race, Reform, and Violence in Texas Prisons and the Nation”

Abosede George (Ph.D.: Stanford University; Assistant Professor, Barnard College):

     “Saving Saudatu: Girlhood, Juvenile Reform, and Social Develoment in 20th Century Lagos”

Sandra Russell Jones (Ph.D: University of Pennsylvania; Instructor, Department of History, Rutgers; Academic Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Rutgers):

     "'A Diagnostic of Power:' Strategies of Women Activists in Bahrain"

Ibram Rogers (Ph.D.: Temple University; Assistant Professor, SUNY College at Oneonta):

     “The All-Encompassing Clutches of Black Power: A History of a Social Movement of Social Movements”

Andrew Urban (Ph.D.: University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; Assistant Professor, American Studies and History, Rutgers):

     "The Empire of the Home: Race, Domestic Labor, and the Political Economy of Servitude in the United States, 1850-1920”

2011/2012 Postdoctoral Fellows and Projects:

Ann–Marie Adams (Ph.D.: Howard University):

     “The Origin of Sheff v. O'Neill: The Troubled Legacy of School Segregation in Connecticut”

Kathleen Belew (Ph.D: Yale University; Postdoctoral Fellow, Northwestern University):

     "Generations of Violence: Paramilitarism, Mercenaries, and the Racist Right from the Vietnam War to Oklahoma City"                

Sheetal Chhabria (Ph.D.: Columbia University; Assistant Professor, Department of History, Connecticut College):

     “Making the Modern Slum and Urbanizing Poverty: Bombay and its Oceanic Frontier 1760-1930”

Themis Chronopoulos (Ph.D.: Brown University; Lecturer in American Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K:):

     “When the Government Disappears: Inadequate Municipal Service Delivery and the Decline of New York City, 1945-1981”