- The Southern Social Network
Hola and welcome: I am so grateful for this opportunity to address you as the eighty-second president of our Southern Historical Association (SHA), as the nomination came at an ebb tide in my personal and professional life. This honor has buoyed me during the transition from teaching southern studies abroad back to my patria chica and an endowed chair at the University of Texas at San Antonio.1
I had always fantasized the most popular presidential address might include a few pleasantries before announcing, “The bar is now open.” But my right hand in this and so many matters, our invaluable SHA secretary-treasurer, Stephen Berry, had already contemplated modifying tradition by welcoming glasses aflow and table seating during our presidential session.
This is our first annual meeting on the beach since 1972—when the SHA met at Hollywood-by-the-Sea, Florida. That presidential address, “The Making of a Feminist,” was a departure: Mary Elizabeth Massey was the first woman president of the organization since 1953, and the word feminist appeared for the first time in the annual program.2 Mine will strike an equally different chord, emphasizing our annual meeting as part of a southern social network, with autobiographical and historical observations interwoven along the way.3 [End Page 7]
My path to this podium has been a long and winding road: as I have often joked with friends, my academic career might provide a cautionary tale, that you could “publish and perish.” What I rarely could do was hold my tongue; I began my career as a Cassandra and continue a scold.
Cassandra was allegedly seduced by Apollo with the gift of prophecy, but when she refused him her body, he cast a spell: no one would believe any of her warnings. She became a kind of exile as a madwoman. Cassandra has always been to me the patron saint of those fighting sexual harassment, an issue I will return to later.
My first formal teaching post was at the University of Benghazi in 1974, and you could only go up from there: Complaining about sexism? Try teaching in a fundamentalist Islamic republic. After my doctoral stint of four years at Princeton University (1975-1979), I secured a tenure-track job in upstate New York at Union College, where I spent four years before landing at Harvard University as an assistant professor in the Department of History in 1983. I was married by then and settled near Cambridge, and my chair explained to me that the history department was “like a monastic order”—just in case I had not yet figured out my unsuitability for permanent faculty status. A 1998 Boston Globe exposé of the Harvard history department explained that the last time someone was promoted to tenure through the ranks in American history, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.4 By 1989, two books published and another manuscript in progress, one child and two miscarriages later, I sought refuge from dwindling prospects with a temporary post at Brandeis University.
After my second child was born in 1989, I was called back to another department at Harvard. Following the death of Nathan I. Huggins, a friend and champion, the Afro-American studies department (my alma mater, as I had majored in Af-Am as an undergraduate) was in limbo. My temporary appointment provided a jill-of-all-trades, while Barbara Johnson and Werner Sollors put shoulders to the wheel to salvage the struggling enterprise, bringing on board Henry Louis Gates Jr. to reinvent the program. The department, born of revolution and revived from life support, was transformed into an academic powerhouse, and its renaissance over the past twenty-five years has been historic. [End Page 8]
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But in 1991, with two young sons, I moved to Connecticut for my husband’s work, commuting to Harvard and then, for a semester, to Brown University. Finally, I decided to abandon teaching to write full-time, which included joining the Screen Writers’ Guild and acquiring...