An Interview with Rhonda Ragsdale
An Interview with Rhonda Ragsdale
Over the course of this series of interviews with my fellow #Twitterstorians I have had the opportunity to chat with a wide range of researchers, academics, historians, and activists. Rhonda Ragsdale ticks each and every one of those boxes. A passionate teacher and researcher, Rhonda has very graciously given up her time to talk with me in detail on a variety of issues connected to the study of history. Enjoy the interview…
Let’s start at the beginning – what made you want to study history and what, specifically, drew you to the topic of migration?
I have loved history my entire life, and I studied it independently long before it was a collegiate pursuit. However, after I made a decision to leave corporate management and training for a life in academics, I considered what disciplines best suited my goals. I wanted to teach critical analysis, and I knew that many disciplines provided this arena, but history and sociology seemed broad enough to cover any human experience. I was sure courses in these fields, if taught well, allowed students to think critically about themselves and the world around them. Additionally, history satisfied my ferocious appetite for authenticity, intimacy, and celebration of the human spirit to survive. As a childhood survivor of abuse and a natural disaster, I learned to recognize the power of celebrating survival in my own history. Those experiences have guided my historical journeys and my pedagogical approach. Likewise, I believe my childhood experiences with migration also connected me trans-temporally to migrant experiences thought history. I came to see both survival and migration as fundamental components of the human experience.
I see that your PhD thesis is based upon The Black Town Movement (1870-1920) – can you tell us a bit more about that?
My dissertation project is a sociological and historical analysis of about 150 historically black towns in the territories that became or were part of the United States. These communities were founded as early as the 1720s, but the height of the black towns as a social movement took place after the Civil War and Reconstruction. During the antebellum era black towns were frequently the destination points on routes of the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, confronted with disfranchisement, lynching, and Jim Crow segregation, thousands of African Americans chose to resist through migration and community-building. The black towns of America became sites of refuge and resistance as well as springboards for political involvement, economic opportunities, and fruitful educations.
My dissertation includes a meta-analysis of black towns by era, data sets and an online open source digital archive, which will extend far beyond my PhD work. (blacktownsproject.org)
Unlike many historians you have a strong online presence, how have you found this has (or has not) impacted your work?
Actually, I have maintained a strong online presence much longer than I have been a historian. I have always been equal parts geek and nerd, and I was a member of a BBS (bulletin board service) as early as 1986 or 1987. Throughout the many stages and twisting turns of my career, I have found that keeping an online presence has been very helpful. I am a strong advocate of the use of technology in improving any area of our lives, and social media, blogging, and personal websites are all a part of that for me. Digital archives, primary sources, databases and a multitude of other online resources should enhance the teaching and learning of all students and instructors who can access such material. I don’t claim that anyone should give up the traditional hard copy and in-person methods; however, I believe that it should only be a part of what we utilize as scholars, instructors, and public intellectuals.
How, if at all, has Twitter impacted how you reach out to the general public and other historians?
Twitter has significantly enhanced my ability to network, learn, and teach in a public space. I haven’t done anything new on Twitter or other forms of social media; meeting people, connecting others, and asking questions even to strangers is something that I have always been compelled to do. However, as a single mother, activist, graduate student, and professor with a full-time double overload teaching schedule, my time and resources are limited. Traveling to conferences and finding other ways to network can often be extremely difficult for me. Social media and Twitter, in particular, provides a cost-free and efficient space for important connections. Hashtags, chats, and lists provide quick access to communities and discussions of interest. It is simply brilliant.
Speaking of the general public, do you feel that historians are generally doing enough to spread their research?
This question might be opening up Pandora’s box for me. I have even been labeled a radical historian concerning the responsibility of scholars, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences. I believe that historians should be sharing their resources, research, analysis, and debates – not only in a public sphere but for a public sphere. It is a grievous atrocity that the knowledge of thousands of brilliant scholars remains hidden in dusty archives, in high priced subscription-based journals, and behind other similar elitist doors. Historians, among others, have chastised the world for numerous sins while keeping the knowledge base around those tragedies confined to lecture halls and hidden behind convoluted language. While academics shame so-called lesser intellectuals for their limited language, the scholars themselves remain steadfastly opposed to the use of vernacular, or even succinct wording. I won’t be making much, if any, money off of my books and articles because I will be making this material available on-line, in some form, for free. Historians have not traditionally made vast sums of money from the distribution of their limited audience books anyway. I will simply have to supplement my income in some other fashion than to withhold the information so generously provided to me by the communities that lived through such interesting times. I expect that many scholars will protest and shake their finger at the open handed approach, but the cycle must be broken.
I see that you had a quite a varied career before entering academia – what inspired the change, what inspired you to enter the academy rather than continuing in a more traditional work place?
In the corporate world, I was making rich men richer. I was seeking wealth and not integrity. I followed the dollar and not the need. It made me miserable, and it was supposed to make me feel powerful and accomplished. My soul seemed to beg me to leave the career path I had so strategically planned. I knew I felt a calling to teach and promote – the university seemed to be saying, “I’ve been here all along … waiting for you.” Once I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to making this world better, it was a quick jump from boardroom to classroom.
Can you tell the people reading this a bit about what you are working on now and what they can look forward to from you in the future?
I am currently in the final stages of a decade long project documenting and preserving the histories of between one hundred fifty to two hundred historically black towns existing between the 16th and 20th centuries in the United States. This has been a fascinating journey, which began as an undergraduate at Texas Woman’s University. My dissertation will be completed this year, and it will accompany the release of an online archive and interactive website for the black towns. (blacktownsproject.org) This site will include bibliographies, maps, blogs, and other resources related to historically black towns in the United States. The website and the Black Towns Project will remain the primary work of my career in many ways. I will continue to work as an activist and public intellectual, but I am remaining open to a variety of projects. I don’t think it will not be traditional, tenure-track, or limited access endeavors.
And finally: if there is one thing – one lesson, if you like – that you would want people to take away from your work, what would it be?
Knowledge — particularly about the way society works, what history can show us, how change happens – it must be shared. Elitism is the enemy of democracy, and it is the enemy of equality. I cannot preach against these things while withholding what I know from others. I give myself to those who want to learn. This is my mission. I beseech other scholars to share in this idea. Who knows what can happen?
You can follow Rhonda on twitter @profragsdale
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