Author Explores History Through Personal Lens
Pulitzer-winning Historian Annette Gordon-Reed Speaks on Campus
Saint Mary’s College welcomed Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed on October 12 to speak about her newest book, On Juneteenth. Gordon-Reed is a professor of history at Harvard University, a professor of law at Harvard Law School, and an award-winning author of six books. She comes to Saint Mary’s as a visiting lecturer for the Departments of History and Gender and Women’s Studies.
In an interview prior to her visit to campus, Gordon-Reed talked about her latest book. She wrote her memoir On Juneteenth during the pandemic while at home in New York. Memories of her parents inspired her to write the memoir when, during the national lockdown, Gordon-Reed said she often thought about them and what they would have made of that time in history. “I wanted to write something that would allow me to relive our lives together. It was a sentimental thing for me to do.” The impetus for her book was to accomplish two things, “to reconnect with parents and to talk about Texas through my family history.” On Juneteenth is Gordon-Reed's first published memoir.
As a historian, Gordon-Reed finds it fascinating to look back on American history. “If different choices were made, we don't know what would have happened, but the point of history is that it's contingent.” For example, some of the problems the United States grapples with now had their origins during another time period. “It's interesting to look back and try to figure out how we got to where we are,” she said.
On Juneteenth provides a historian’s view of the country’s long road to Juneteenth, the federal holiday which commemorates the end of slavery in the US, recounting both its origins in Texas and the enormous hardships that African Americans endured. Gordon-Reed—a native of Texas who herself lived in the heart of several civil rights moments—offers a unique historical and personal perspective in her book, weaving personal anecdotes with moving facts.
Jamie Wagman, professor and chair of the departments of history and gender and women's studies, has wanted to bring Gordon-Reed to campus for many years. Gordon-Reed’s visit has been made possible by generous donors whose support impacts Saint Mary’s students. Wagman and fellow faculty in the department of history often use Gordon-Reed’s work in history courses.
“She's such a groundbreaking voice in academia,” Wagman said. “Her work challenges our students to shift their thinking about race, gender, sexuality and power dynamics in historical narratives.” During her time on campus, Gordon-Reed spent time with a small group of Saint Mary’s students where they could ask questions in a more intimate setting.
Each time she speaks on a college campus, Gordon-Reed hopes students find joy in history through what she shares. “You don't have to be a historian to enjoy history and to learn from it,” she said. “It is important for us today to know where we want to go and even more importantly, where we don't want to go or mistakes we don’t want to repeat.”
October 13, 2023