Emily Owens is one of four new faculty members who joined the History department in teaching last fall, as well as a faculty fellow at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. Professor Owens looks to use her expertise in the study of slavery, feminist theory, and race to be helpful both to the students in her classroom and in larger discussions happening on campus.
How did your interest in the study of slavery come about?
When I was an undergraduate, I did Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies and African American studies—I was a joint concentrator. I was focused mostly on black feminist theory. That’s what I wrote my thesis about and, when I came to graduate school, I thought that I would keep doing black feminist theory and black queer theory. I had theoretical questions, but thought that history was a good methodology for them. I had questions about the history of sexuality and race and how particular archetypes of sexuality got produced.
One of my advisors tipped me off that New Orleans was a good place to study sexuality because there was a red-light district that was legal in New Orleans for twenty years at the turn of the twentieth century—it’s called Storyville. Storyville was a good place to study sexuality and race because a lot of the sources for the history of sexuality are buried but in a legal district it’s on the surface. I started studying Storyville and it was very interesting to me and it raised all of these new questions—I started thinking about New Orleans, Louisiana, and the South. As I was studying the district, I realized that I couldn’t really understand these sexual dynamics unless I looked further into the past. I went from doing a twenty-first century project, to a twentieth-century project, and suddenly I was in the nineteenth century and a bit into the eighteenth.
Also, I was in coursework and I started taking classes on the history of slavery at the same time I was doing this history of sexuality work, and I realized that the history of slavery is so much a part of the history of sexuality—what was happening in slavery was so shot through with these sexual dynamics.
Have you gotten pushback against your work?
I’ve gotten a lot of support to do the work that I do in academic communities, and I think that slavery studies is a vibrant field and a lot of people are working on new and interesting things. There’s a real sense that this work is really important and a central part of doing American history and doing global history also. The CSSJ is a good example of universities acknowledging that this work is really important.
For me, it’s really important to talk about slavery in an intersectional way. History of slavery and the way it relates to race and racism, but also the history of slavery and how it relates to gender and sexuality. Of course it’s important to think of many other things when it comes to the study of the history of slavery, but those are the topics that I really care about. The way that I am trying to keep the conversation going is to look at sources that have been looked at before, but look at them in a new way. My work is focused on law, so I look at a lot of sources that legal scholars have looked at, but I’m trying to bring in these conversations in feminist theory, black feminist theory, and black queer theory over to the history conversation. We have all of these interesting feminist tools, and I want to know how do they help us to see this history differently.
How has your experience teaching the First-Year Seminar, "Slavery, Race, and Racism," been?
My students are fantastic, and they are all coming from different places with respect to the history of slavery. Some of them have been thinking about this for a long time, or were taught the history of slavery in high school. Others of them have not had that experience. They’ve had experiences attending high schools where slavery was not talked about or taught, or being in communities in which it was not taught or talked about. There’s a wide range of experience in my class, but one thing that I’ve been extremely impressed by from my students is that they’re just going with it. They have these different backgrounds, experiences, and assumptions, but they seem wide open and ready to learn. Our conversations have been really great and thoughtful. They’re smart, interested, and interesting. It’s been really great.
I think in the political climate of our campus and our country right now, teaching the history of slavery and racism takes on a different valence than it might in another period. One thing that I’m contending with in my classroom is how do I teach slavery as history, because it is history, but also teach in a way that is politically helpful and relevant. But I also do not want to alienate students—I don’t want to make assumptions about their political views and where they stand on issues.