Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Chandra Manning

Chandra Manning graduated summa cum laude from Mount Holyoke College in 1993 and received the M.Phil from the National University of Ireland, Galway, in 1995. She took her Ph.D. at Harvard in 2002. She has taught history at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and was Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University. Currently, she serves as Special Advisor to the Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

Manning's new book is Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
For pleasure, I am always reading books aloud with my children, and a couple more myself. With my sons, I am currently revisiting one of my childhood favorites, the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In fact, that series must shoulder some of the blame for me becoming a historian, because it was how I fell in love with the nineteenth century! It is very interesting to return to the books as an adult, and notice things that passed me by as a child. Certainly, how we talk about some subjects and groups has changed since publication in the 1930s –portrayals of Native Americans, for example—and the changes offer opportunities for interesting conversations with my kids, especially the ten-year-old who is old enough for fairly sophisticated ideas, and is also on the autism spectrum and so he encounters the world in unique ways and often sees things in completely different ways that have a lot to teach the rest of us. He and I talk about the obvious points, like how there are certain words that people used that are not acceptable, and how there are always multiple points of view in any given situation. Ma was sincerely frightened of Indians, but at the same time, they had a point about trespassers on their land! Yet more than a superficial chat about changing vocabulary, the books give us a chance to engage in what I see as one of the most important things history can teach us, and that is to be humble. Good people in books from the past said and did things we would not and should not tolerate today; they did so not because they were hypocrites, but because they were human and as humans, we all have blindspots. That includes us. There are ways in which people will look back on us in horror someday, too, so we should not feel superior to our forbears in the past. At the same time, we need to be alert to the ways in which the world has not treated all people and all groups fairly, and still does not. Most of all, we can try to be alert to what our blindspots are, and see if we can amend any of them now, rather than wait for future generations to do so.

On my own, I typically like to have both a fiction and a nonfiction book going. In fiction, I have just started Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, partly because it is all over the place these days, partly because I thoroughly enjoyed his earlier novel, John Henry Days, and partly because it uses the art of literary fiction, rather than the discipline of history, to explore themes that Troubled Refuge also explores. I love that, because the questions at the heart of Troubled Refuge –about human dignity and freedom alongside the limits that structural forces and hard power put on them—are such large questions, that no one discipline or method of inquiry has a lock on how to answer them. Truly wrestling with them requires a willingness to do so in numerous ways. Plus, of course, Whitehead’s prose is simply a joy to read.

In terms of nonfiction at the moment, I am deep into City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence, which is an account of Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. The parallels between conditions in Dadaab and conditions in contraband camps are downright chilling. Even more moving are the parallels between the lives and experiences of the nine individuals whom Rawlence follows through his taut but lyrical pages, and the lives and experiences of men, women, and children who fled slavery and sought to build new versions of freedom and citizenship in Civil War contraband camps.
Learn more about Troubled Refuge at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: Troubled Refuge.

--Marshal Zeringue