Under the Spotlight

French Historians under the spotlight: Prof. Alice Conklin

Welcome to ‘under the spotlight’, a monthly interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions – all summarised in less than ten minutes. You can catch up with previous posts here.

As we approach the conference season, the next few months will feature key note speakers from the SSFH conference in St Andrews (28-30 July 2015). Details about the programme and registration can be found here.

The first featured keynote speaker is Alice Conklin, Professor in the Department of History at Ohio State University. Her most recent monograph, In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850-1950 was published by Cornell University Press in 2013. Professor Conklin’s plenary session at the SSFH conference will take place on the afternoon of Monday 29 June 2015.

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Professor Alice Conklin: ‘Understanding the past on its own terms requires imagination, empathy and patience in equal measure’.

In one sentence, what is your research about?

I study the blind spots and political effects of different kinds of republican racism and anti-racism in France and its empire since 1870.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

At the age of five, I had the good fortune of moving with my family from a small town in Illinois to the Hague. We spent the next five years there, and my father – a diehard Anglophile who never much liked the French – decided somewhat surprisingly to enroll my twin sister and me in a French school. Why learn Dutch, when the Dutch all spoke English? French, my parents presumed, would be infinitely more useful, which says something about the prestige that the French language still enjoyed in the world of the 1960s. Looking back, I often feel that the Lycée français de la Haye colonized my inner being, as I learned the geography and history of l’hexagone, experienced the terror of the dictée and the public shaming of those who received grades less than 10/20, and participated in the collective celebration of academic excellence at the end-of-year distribution des prix. Back in the United States, the obvious way to keep up my French would have been to major in it at university, but Bryn Mawr College’s small history department had two French historians, the great scholar of the Wars of Religion, J.H.M. Salmon and the wonderful Alain Silvera, a French Egyptian raised in the cosmopolitan world of pre-war Alexandria. Under their intense, individualized, and extremely kind tutelage, I took to history in a way I never quite had to literary criticism, and I have never looked back. My senior thesis at Bryn Mawr, “Mirage in the East” — about why the British rather than the French became the dominant power in Egypt in 1882, after a century of French influence in the region — set me on the path of studying the history of colonial encounters. Only now am I rediscovering the pleasure of reading French literature for its own sake.

If you could travel back to any historical period or moment, when would it be?

The First Universal Races Congress in London in 1911. This was an extraordinary gathering of elites from “East” and “West” who sought to promote “racial harmony” without dismantling empire. The French and their colonies were not much present compared to an overwhelming representation from Britain, its Dominions, and its empire, as well as distinguished participants from North America, South America, Asia and Central Europe. This relative French silence and/or absence intrigues me.

Who would you invite to your French History fantasy dinner party?

I would gather select intellectual martyrs and survivors of World War II who lived through the divided 1930s, to ask whether in retrospect they could see ways of averting the fatal divisions that so weakened France in 1940, and to debate whether moral choices existed in that most immoral of wars: Marc Bloch, Germaine Tillion, Irène Némirovsky, Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire.

Which French History monograph do you wish you had written?

Chris Bayly’s Imperial Meridien: The British Empire and the World, 1780-1830; although hardly a work of French history, that is the point. A dense, demanding book for “French” historians, it places revolutionary-era and Napoleonic expansionism in its full global context. It was a revelation to me when I first read it. Chris Bayly’s sudden demise last week has left all scholars of empire reeling: such a monumental loss to our larger community.

Which book(s) are currently by your bedside?

I love good historical fiction, and tore through Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy; I was slower to warm to Anthony Doerr, All the Light we Cannot See; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah is sobering and entertaining in equal measure about a Nigerian’s discovery of what it means to be “black” in the contemporary US; Kamel Daoud, Meursault Contre-enquête is a must read for anyone who first read and loved L’Étranger, like me, as a politically naïve teenager.

What key piece of advice would you offer postgraduates/early career academics?

Never condescend to your historical subjects – whether elite or on the losing side of history. We are usually no wiser and no more just than those who have come before us, we simply make different mistakes. Understanding the past on its own terms requires imagination, empathy and patience in equal measure – oh yes, and never walk past the door of an archive !

A few quick-fire questions…

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

Archives Nationales if you are hopelessly wed to Paris like me; but Paris is full of other archives, every institution has its own and most still await their historian.

Monograph or journal article?

Monographs are easier to write than articles; and they are possibly more read, because the book review tradition is alive and well.

Best conference you’ve ever been to?

The first professional conference in which I participated was certainly one of the best: Timothy Tackett (University of California, Irvine, an historian of revolutionary France) sent out a call for papers in 1991 on the theme of violence and the democratic tradition in France, 1789-1914. The organizers told me later that I had submitted the only proposal on colonial violence. The question of violence and its place in the French revolutionary tradition have informed my own questions about France and its empire ever since. Although colonial violence has become a fully debated historical question in its own right, I remain grateful for that opportunity early on to make the case that “violence” overseas was as intrinsic a part of republicanism as violence in the metropole.

Pick a century?

A century’s turn: from the fin-de-siècle to the belle époque, when hope for a better world was so palpable.

Éclair or saucisson?

I always want both but in a specific order: savoury followed by sweet. That was the rule at the lycée, but also in my mother’s kitchen. I’m the product of both.

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Many thanks to Alice for taking the time to answer our questions.

If you’d like to take part, or suggest someone to feature on the blog, then let us know!

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