A Day at the Southern Historical Association Annual Meeting

Kyle B. Carpenter is a PhD Student in SMU’s William P. Clements Department of History

Just two weeks after the annual meeting of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, this year’s Southern Historical Association annual meeting was in Dallas, just two train stops from the SMU campus. I attended Friday’s slate of roundtables, lunches, and panels and found them all quite engaging. A huge program that included a wide range of topics made it difficult to choose which sessions to attend. In the end I chose to start the day with a roundtable on Atlantic Revolutions, spend lunch networking, and finish with a panel on slavery and capitalism. Within each experience, scholars engaged in healthy academic debate that provided great lessons for a graduate student learning how the profession works.

After registering and meandering through all the publisher booths in the main hall, I sat in on a roundtable about the legacy of revolutions in the Atlantic world. Cynthia Bouton kicked off the discussion with her exploratory paper on the role of subsistence in the Caribbean during the era of revolutions. Looking at Haiti particularly, she questioned the role French colonies played in the French Revolutionary program based on the food commitments France made to the island. Building on Michel-Rolph Trouillot, she posited that peripheries drove the centers since they demanded constant attention and maintenance. Manuel Covo, in his paper, asked similar questions about the relationship between Haiti and France, but in the context of the historiography of each nation’s revolution. Noticing that Haiti rarely appears in the French national narrative, he made a call for more global histories, especially regarding the age of revolutions. Also with a nod to Trouillot, Covo claimed that national histories and historiographies too often obscure important trends, themes, and arguments made on the global stage. Caitlin Fitz shifted the discussion to the United States and its role in this period. She provided insights into how Americans viewed the Latin American revolutions, specifically the abolitionist trend that went with them. She concluded that the seeming U.S. support for Latin America’s revolutions was quite shallow as Americans tended to focus on how those revolutions related to the American Revolution. Since Latin America’s push for abolition did not seem to threaten American slavery in the eyes of Southern slave holders, it was easy to support their movements until the Panama Conference drove Latin American abolition to the U.S. political stage. Finally, Lester Langley provided his thesis that the entire Western Hemisphere needs to be studied and taught as a coherent unit. The discussion after the papers proved quite lively as the presenters debated the role the American Revolution played to initiate change while also maintaining slavery as a cornerstone institution in the United States.

For lunch, the Southern Historical Association provided graduate students the opportunity to sit down with established scholars and discuss academic branding. I sat with Drs. Andrew Torget and Max Krochmal alongside five other graduate students in similar fields. The conversation supplied many helpful tips for young historians to make their way in the profession. Dr. Torget gave insightful points about maintaining and protecting an online presence. He offered the simple suggestion that a well-kept website does a lot of the grunt work of making one’s professional history and accomplishments easy to access and consume without the drawbacks that come with social media. Dr. Krochmal gave the equally helpful advice that the networks young historians make with their peers often prove to be the most rewarding down the line. Overall, the lunch provided a wonderful experience to learn from established scholars and meet fellow graduate students from other institutions interested in similar topics as me.

SMU at the Southern Historical Association Meeting

The last panel I attended for the day featured the topic “The Culture of Capitalism and Slavery.” All the papers added significantly to the discussion of that contentious field. Ian Beamish showed that, in fact, planters kept terrible accounting records, meaning they likely did not contribute specifically to modern corporate accounting as the historiography previously hypothesized. Justene Hill presented her research that suggests that ideas of efficiency and paternalism combined in the discourse of the slave economy which fed into the proslavery arguments of the mutual dependence of slaves and slaveowners and slavery as a positive good. John Lindbeck, in the last paper of the panel, connected evangelicalism to the ideas of slavery and capitalism. He argued that planters ran efficient evangelical finance networks to create “God’s proslavery kingdom.” The kinship and finance networks planters built in the church tied faith and family to the business of slavery. Afterward, the discussion revealed the divide among historians about the validity of the study of capitalism and slavery. While the panelists fielded questions about the definitions of capitalism and paternalism, the debate spilled out into the crowd as individuals provided their own commentary to the questions asked. The fireworks that concluded the panel provided insights into how historians work out contentiousness in their field.

I really enjoyed my day at the Southern. I made good connections with other scholars and learned a lot about individual topics as well as how the profession works. The grad lunch provided the most rewarding personal experience since the setting broke down many of the social barriers to initiate conversation, but the roundtable and panel demonstrated the quality of historical work being done and how conference presentations help make an individual’s scholarship better and more polished. I look forward to presenting my own work at the Southern in the future.

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