University of South Carolina

Historianís star is on the rise

By Peggy Binette,, 803-777-7704

A young history scholar at the University of South Carolina is a finalist for one of the most coveted awards for the study of the African-American experience.

R. Blakeslee Gilpin, an assistant professor of history, was named one of four finalists for the 14th annual Frederick Douglass Book Prize for his book, “John Brown Still Lives!: America’s Long Reckoning With Violence, Equality, and Change.” He is the second USC scholar to be selected a finalist for the award.

John Brown Still Lives!
John Brown Still Lives!

Matt Childs, an associate professor of history, was named a finalist in 2007 for his book, “The 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cuba and the Struggle against Atlantic Slavery.”

“I am honored and thrilled to be a finalist,” said Gilpin, who joined the College of Arts and Sciences’ faculty last year. “My advisor at Yale, David Blight, won this prize in 2001, and I have always dreamed of having a book that would be considered. It is flattering to be associated with Frederick Douglass in any way but particularly for a prize that has honored so many books and scholars I admire.”

Released last November, Gilpin’s book challenges long-held notions by writers, artists and activists about the 19th-century abolitionist who was associated with the Bleeding Kansas conflict and Harper’s Ferry raid. Throughout the book he addresses numerous distortions about Brown’s legacy, some more troubling than others.

“I’d call it a tie for most glaring distortions about John Brown,” Gilpin said. “I am equally disturbed by the approach of generations of the devoted, who treat Brown as a peaceful saint, and the equally passionate treatment of his detractors, who portray Brown as an insane and unscrupulous criminal.”

While understanding history may not solve our nation’s problems, including race relations, Gilpin said it can be a step in the right direction.

“When we think about our history and legacy of American slavery, everyone would like a more straightforward and more positive story,” he said. “Because our nation’s path toward racial justice is filled with wrong turns, Brown provoked generation after generation to sound out what racial equality could and should mean.

“Tracing Brown’s persistent presence across nearly 200 years of American life shows us that we are still trying to sort out the meaning of our founding documents and the way they would be applied. History does not always provide answers but it shows us where we’ve stumbled and trumped before – those are valuable lessons.”

The Frederick Douglass Prize is awarded by Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition. The other finalists include “The American Crucible,” by Robin Blackburn; “Black Gotham,” by Carla Peterson; and “Domingos Alvares,” by James Sweet. The winner will be announced mid-Fall and awarded Feb. 28 in New York City. A $25,000 award comes with the non-fiction prize.

Gilpin, who earned his doctoral degree from Yale University in 2009, won the 2010 C. Vann Woodward Prize from the Southern Historical Association for the best dissertation in Southern history.

His passion for Southern history extends to his sophomore year at Yale when he visited Monument Row in Richmond, Va., and was sealed by a chance encounter with Blight, the Yale professor who was lecturing at Cambridge University while Gilpin was working on a master’s degree in British history. “I’ve always had a passion for music, particularly the rural music of North Carolina and Mississippi. It was serendipity that David Blight spoke to the American historians’ group about the song ‘Home Sweet Home,’ which I had been playing quite frequently on the banjo. His talk sparked my obsession with exploring the connections between music, literature and history of the American South.”

It was Blight who would later plant the seed with Gilpin for writing a study of how America remembers Brown.

“I delved and was amazed at the personalities who had been drawn to Brown both during this lifetime but especially after his death. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, W.E.B Du Bois, Robert Penn Warren, Orson Welles and the list went on and on,” Gilpin said. “Brown was sung about, painted and eulogized for 150 years. I quickly realized that I had found a rich vein to explore big questions surrounding what Brown stood for: racial equality and violence as a tool for social change.”

Prior to joining USC’s faculty, Gilpin was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina and the United States Centre at the University of Sydney.

Gilpin’s co-edited volume of Virginia writer William Styron’s correspondence, “Selected Letters of William Styron,” will be published by Random House in December. His teaching this year will include “American to 1877” and “Southern Intellectual and Cultural History.”

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Posted: 07/20/12 @ 4:00 PM | Updated: 08/10/12 @ 4:35 PM | Permalink