Interview with Caleb McDaniel

Caleb McDaniel is Mary Gibbs Jones professor of humanities and professor of history at Rice University. He specialises in slavery, abolitionism, transatlantic reform and the 19th-century US. His latest book, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America, based on the experiences of Henrietta Wood, a 19th-century woman who survived kidnapping and re-enslavement to sue her captor, won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in History.

Where and when were you born? 
I was born in a small south Texas town in 1979.

How has this shaped who you are?
Before moving to San Antonio around the age of 10, I grew up on cotton farmland with lots of open space, and I had parents who encouraged my education and love of books. Looking back on it now, I think even at an early age I had an interest in history. Near our house was a set of old outbuildings where, I later learned, migrant farm workers from Mexico had once lodged earlier in the 20th century. I remember exploring those buildings and wondering about how they came to be there and what the experiences of the people living in them were like.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was a liberal arts student. Although I majored in history, I took an equal number of classes in English and philosophy and eventually acquired a master’s degree in philosophy before deciding that I was a historian at heart. I was the kind of undergraduate who looked for classes by particular professors more than for particular classes, and I often encourage my own students to do the same thing. Figure out who the good teachers are and learn from them, whatever they teach!

What drew you to researching slavery and the 19th-century US?
My first book was about the transatlantic abolitionist movement. It became clear to me in writing that book how many of our present dilemmas in the US can be traced to the 19th century and to the struggle over slavery. One of the leading abolitionists I studied was Wendell Phillips, who said after abolition that although slavery had ended, the slaveholder remained. That was one of the insights that got me thinking about how jagged the process of emancipation was, and how resilient slavery proved to be. I moved from my first book to doing research on Confederate planters who tried to evade the Emancipation Proclamation by forcing tens of thousands of enslaved people to march to Texas during the Civil War. One of the people forced to make such a march was Henrietta Wood.

Why did you decide to tell the story of Henrietta Wood?
I first learned of her story in 2014 and began intensively researching in 2015, a moment that was very similar to the one we currently find ourselves in. The sesquicentennial of the Civil War and protests over the killings of unarmed black men by police had led to renewed debates about Confederate symbols in public life and about the legacies of slavery. Ta-Nehisi Coates had published an award-winning magazine article in 2014 titled “The Case for Reparations”. Wood’s lawsuit – she sued one of her former enslavers, Zebulon Ward, and won $2,500 (£1,900) – struck me, potentially, as a case of reparations that might inform ongoing debates. It was also clear that her story of survival and struggle deserved a book-length recounting.

How do you think universities should tackle their own links to slavery? 
I’m currently serving as co-chair for Rice University’s Task Force on Slavery, Segregation and Racial Injustice. It’s one of many such efforts that have started on university campuses, inspired by books such as Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy and commissions like Brown University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. These examples encourage me that progress can be made by universities doing what they do best: fearless truth-seeking, democratic exchange and correcting course when correction is needed.

Given the global Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, are we now at a pivotal moment of change in terms of tackling racism and equality?
I certainly hope so! Historians are better at understanding and explaining the past than they are at predicting the future. Whether this turns out to be a pivot will depend on all of us, but if history is any guide – and if Wendell Phillips was right – change will be mixed with continuity, and the need for continued struggle will not simply go away.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Eureka moments for historians often come in the archives, and I’ve certainly had moments, in the quiet of a reading room, where the force of something I read hit me and changed the way I was thinking. I talk about one of those moments in the epilogue to my book on Henrietta Wood, which details the story of finding the case file for her restitution suit against Zebulon Ward.

What keeps you awake at night?
These days, what doesn’t?! This year has brought unprecedented challenges for all of us in higher education, as well as for all of us engaged in the work of history and scholarship anywhere. My worries probably aren’t particularly insightful or unique. Like many people, I worry about the world my children and my students will inherit, but I also gain hope from seeing their creativity and moral clarity.

When were you, or are you, happiest?
I’m happiest spending time with my family, so if there’s a silver lining in all of the turmoil of recent months, it's that I have gotten to do a lot of that.

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