Linford Fisher is associate professor of history at Brown University, where he studies and teaches the religious history of colonial America and the history of Indian and African slavery and servitude. His first book, The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America, was published by Oxford University Press in 2012. While he was an AAS-NEH fellow at the AAS during the 2014-2015 academic year, he worked on his new book, Land of the Unfree: Indians, Africans, and the World of Colonial Slavery, and took a few minutes to talk about his work with Past is Present.
Past is Present: Describe your current project, its geographical and chronological scope.
Linford Fisher: My current project is a comparative study of New England and a few select English Caribbean islands, primarily Barbados, Bermuda, and Jamaica. It’s really centered on the question of Native American and African slavery from the beginning of colonization up through emancipation in 1834 in the English Caribbean. And in that time frame, I’m interested in the intersection of Indian and African slavery as well as regional difference and different kinds of slave regimes in these various locations. Like others in the field, I’m also trying to understand slavery not in terms of binaries (not just slave and free) but the way that people think about the experience of slavery in different ways at different times on a broader spectrum of unfreedom. People’s conditions change over time, their circumstances change over time. For a vast majority of slaves in the Caribbean, they were either born into slavery and died in slavery or else were enslaved and died a slave. But for others there was a diversity of experiences over time. The project is really an attempt to understand the dynamism, movement, migration of people in unfree conditions. One portion of the book focuses on the way that Native Americans were the subject of an Indian slave trade, whether from New England on the east coast of North America down to the Caribbean or from South America to the Caribbean or in other countless ways being forcibly moved around. So the Caribbean becomes this sort of crossroads of a wide variety of people. I’d like to bring at least some of these different pieces together, primarily with regard to the English Atlantic. I taught a class on Indian and African slavery a year ago, and the number of books and articles that I could have assigned that dealt with both Native American and African slavery in any of these contexts, well, you could list them on one hand. There’s a very small (but growing) literature. And so I’m trying to contribute this emerging literature in a positive way to that.
Past is Present: Who inspires you to do this work?
LF: I am personally drawn to two kinds of works that might seem like opposite intellectual currents. The first are works that tackle the big sweeping questions and huge issues about human life more generally. People like Jared Diamond and Guns, Germs, and Steel and Charles Mann and 1491 and 1493. Mann’s first book, 1491, is a hemispheric history and 1493 contains a global awareness. Guns, Germs, and Steel is asking really important questions about how cultures change over time and the origins of certain differences. I might not agree with his conclusions, but he’s asking really interesting questions. The second kind of works I am drawn to are super micro-historical studies. I think they remain powerful because they’re stories about people and their interior worlds and we can identify with them. So Carlo Ginzburg The Cheese and the Worms is a classic that I think every historian has read and has either mimicked or channeled at some point. But also Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale are other books that do really tight micro-historical work. In my own work I try to move back and forth between the two, to keep a larger context in mind but also to tell stories and to get inside, maybe not people’s minds, but at least their worlds. Other inspiring works are Walter Johnson’s Soul By Soul and Richard Dunn’s recent book A Tale of Two Plantations about a plantation in Jamaica and a plantation in Virginia. He takes plantation slave inventories and brings them to life. He puts flesh and bones on names that are in the register and is able to tell stories and create family lineages and describe in intimate detail plantation life. Another book that came out recently that exemplifies the kind of writing and the kinds of big questions that I’m drawn to is (and everyone’s talking about it) Ed Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told. Also Adam Rothman’s Beyond Freedom’s Reach. It’s a super micro-history, but it also tells a larger story. So these and many other books inspire me. I hope all of that comes together in this book. I want my readers to get both an intimate portrait of people’s lives and get a firm sense of what it all means, of the larger picture.
Past is Present: What keeps you dedicated to the work? What keeps you going?
LF: A little bit of craziness perhaps. I’m not really sure. In some ways it’s become a real passion and I’m not sure I have a rational explanation for it. Some people have a job and have to go to work. I’ve felt for a very long time that I’m fortunate because what I want to do most days and what I have to do are pretty much the same thing. I really enjoy the archival process, I really enjoy teaching, I really enjoy going out and talking to wider audiences and giving lectures. I really enjoy the writing process, even though it’s difficult sometimes. But it is not always easy to churn out pages of text. I came across a quote recently about this: “Writing is hard for every last one of us. . . . Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. You need to do the same.” It’s the same with writing. You just have to do it. I enjoy the whole package of academia, perhaps because of the diversity of things that is required of me each day. I find it inspiring to talk through issues in the field with graduate students and seeing undergraduates who come from such different backgrounds who have fresh ideas and so forth. But the core of it is the belief that the past has something to offer us in the present. I’m not trying to be presentist, but I do believe that we are doomed to repeat a history that we don’t understand. I want my students not just to think about the relevance of the past (that word has become kind of fashionable) but get them to think critically about the present. And if history is one tool for them for them to think critically about the present, then that’s great. I’m not just sitting in an ivory tower, thinking deep thoughts and writing about some obscure topic. I’m writing about race and power relations and colonialism and conquest and human violence and that’s all in the world we live in today, and I hope they see that.
You can read the whole interview here!