Member of the Week: Danielle Wiggins

headshotDanielle Wiggins

Doctoral Candidate in History

Emory University

@from_dlwiggins

 

 

 

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I’m currently writing my dissertation about the development of black politics in Atlanta in the 1970s and 1980s by examining how members of the black political class–namely, mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young as well as people on the city council and county commissions, in the Georgia Assembly, in the Department of Public Safety, and within the the black business community–governed through issues of crime and urban development. More specifically, I investigate how these figures responded to rising crime rates, in particular what they identified as “black-on-black crime,” and escalating fear of crime, as well as deepening inequality with punitive public safety policies and market-based economic development programs based in notions of law and order, personal responsibility, and the sanctity of capital. I argue that these leaders accomplished this with the approval of much, though not all, of Atlanta’s black electorate by drawing on a black reformist liberal tradition that emerged in the late 19th century, a political moment of revanchism similar to that of the 1970s and 1980s. More broadly, I consider the ways in which shifts in black politics on the urban level provide insight into the broader rightward shift of the post-Great Society Democratic Party.

I came to this topic in the aftermath of the murder of Freddie Gray and the uprising in Baltimore. I wanted to understand how putatively liberal, Democratic black political officials could come to condone systems of policing and urban redevelopment that criminalized poor black people and exacerbated racial inequality. My research shows that black leaders not only condoned these practices, they designed them, and furthermore, they defended them by appealing to traditional ideals in black political culture.

Describe your current public history work. How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?

This year, I’m working as an editorial assistant with the Washington Post’s “Made By History” blog. It’s a forum that enables historians to share insights about current events and their historical context with a broad audience. It has been really fun as a historian to learn about the work other people are doing and to read fascinating pieces outside of my field. It has also been really rewarding as a scholar committed to dismantling barriers between the academy and the wider world to help other scholars make their work accessible and cogent for a broader audience.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

When I’m not writing my dissertation or editing pieces for the blog, I’m working on an article that provides a genealogy of the concept of “black-on-black crime.” It has really surprising origins in black progressive politics that provide insight into the role of African Americans in constructing the carceral state. As for the work of other scholars, Brian Goldstein’s The Roots of the Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem has been really instructive for me as I try to untangle the messy politics of development within black politics. I also really enjoyed Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, which is not only a well-researched historical study, but is a real page-turner. I think it would make a great movie a la The Big Short.

What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies? 

As I was struggling to write my dissertation prospectus, Nathan Connolly advised me to spend some time reading the records of city council proceedings. This really helped me to get a sense of what issues were really important to city legislators and their constituents and what they believed was at stake in how the city governed on particular issues. Issues that I thought would be really significant based on the secondary literature–affirmative action and animosity between the mayor and the business community, for example–were not nearly as inescapable or as contentious as the crime issue, which of course was inextricable from the development issue and the push to make Atlanta the “next great international city.” This realization changed the entire project. So my advice would be to start by spending a good amount of time with city council records to see what people actually cared about and how they went about addressing their concerns.

You have served as a teaching assistant and editor with the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, in which Emory University undergraduate students are examining unsolved and unpunished racially motivated murders from the modern civil rights era. What was one of the most memorable moments–either experienced by you, or a student, or shared as a class–from the time you worked on the project? 

The Cold Cases Project  is an important initiative and I’m very happy to been able to contribute. There isn’t quite one particular moment that stands out because the course, and the project itself, was very much a process of discovery. We spent the semester examining one case, the murder of James Brazier in southeastern Georgia. Each week the students examined different components of the case and gradually they were able to put the pieces together. As a teacher, I enjoyed helping students do the real work of history–examining different kinds of evidence such as autopsy reports and witness statements, putting these pieces of evidence in conversation with each other and the secondary literature, and creating a narrative that provides an informed explanation of the case.

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