Francesco De Salvatore
Ph.D. Student in American Studies
The George Washington University
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
Growing up in a blue-collar, immigrant family in Cincinnati, Ohio has left me with many questions about race, politics, and cities. Several aspects of my childhood, such as the abandoned industrial factories near my home, the occasional xenophobic attacks against my family, the presence of the opioid crisis, or the anti-black racism that was commonly expressed in my own and many other communities in Cincinnati, have stuck with me. I have distinct memories of the Cincinnati Rebellion of 2001 and how many people in my community subscribed to anti-black racism, rather than choose to listen to the legitimate demands that were being made by activists. In conjunction with these memories, I also remember how even in the midst of these structural and interpersonal issues, communities in Cincinnati were also filled with life, work, and at times, unity; a reality that is sometimes left out of the typical declension narratives about the late 20th century.
All of this has certainly informed my current interests in late 20th century urban history. I am most curious about why and how people emotionally invest in political ideologies–specifically, right-wing and white supremacist politics. Going forward in my Ph.D. program at GWU, I plan to focus on the history of emotions within various urban communities and the role of affect in developing populist discourses and actions in the late 20th century. Lately, I have been specifically interested in populism and vigilantism in New York City in the late 20th century. By closely examining the cultural landscape of the late 20th century, and the daily routines and interactions of urban residents, I am interested in uncovering how individuals and groups developed and enacted their affective states throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.
You’ve done some public history work in the past. How did those experiences shape your research interests?
Prior to attending graduate school, I worked as an oral historian, producer, and manager at StoryCorps and the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago. During these professional experiences, I honed my skillsets in oral history; a method that I plan to primarily use for my dissertation research. Additionally, some of the most rewarding projects that I worked on during these professional experiences were the public events that showcased oral histories. One event in particular that stands out was a project I worked on at StoryCorps, entitled Dismantling Barriers to Life. My colleagues and I spent over a year and a half working closely with community organizations in the South and West Side of Chicago to record stories about the legacy of mass-incarceration. After the extensive collection of oral histories, we worked with community members to create a public event that showcased segments of these oral histories and included facilitated peace circles after each story. What was so special about this event was how it transformed a community space into a place for reflection and healing for those who have been impacted by the legacy of mass-incarceration. Ultimately, these professional experiences in community engagement and oral history have influenced me to consider ways to think beyond the typical manuscript form of the dissertation and consider other interactive platforms and events to showcase and transform my research.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
Some of the most recent publications that I have enjoyed reading have been Daniel HoSang’s and Joseph E. Lowndes’s latest book, Producers, Parasites, Patriots: Race and the New Right-Wing Politics of Precarity, Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason Williams’s Shaped by the State, Elizabeth Todd Breland’s A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s, Monica Munoz Martinez’s The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas, Beth Lew-Williams’s The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America, and Elaine Tyler May’s Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy. I have also been digging into political and affect theory over the past year. I have learned a lot from Elisabeth Anker’s Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom, Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, and Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Going forward, I am excited about reading Erika Lee’s forthcoming manuscript, America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States, Adam Goodman’s study of the deportation machine in America, and Keeanga Yahmatta’s Taylor’s Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership.
What advice do you have for M.A. students preparing a thesis project related to urban history or urban studies?
There were a few lessons that I learned while completing my M.A. in history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The first was to always find ways to be kind to myself. I discovered very early on how easy it was to stumble into a self-deprecating worm hole. On top of the normal pressures that come with graduate school, I also dealt with a lot of insecurity around being a first-generation student and a blue-collar, immigrant kid. I never thought in a million years I would be able to attend graduate school, let alone pursue a Ph.D. Fortunately, I was surrounded by such supportive and caring advisers (shoutout to Elizabeth Todd-Breland and Robert Johnston!), an amazing cohort, a loving partner, and encouraging family members and friends. Another lesson that is related to this first one is about how important it is to create both an academic and nonacademic committee that will hold your work accountable in different manners. It is so crucial that our work be in conversation with both the historiography and the grassroots movements that are fighting for change. My last piece of advice would be to stay humble and listen to the individuals and communities you are studying! There’s a lot of talk in academia about the production of knowledge. While this is certainly occurring at times, I also think that it is important to recognize that some of the ideas and narratives that we think we are “unearthing”/”uncovering”/”revealing” (I hate these words!) have already been felt and spoken about for decades in poor and working-class communities.
You have a BFA in Dramaturgy! How has your knowledge of, and experience in, theater benefited you throughout your historical training?
First and foremost, my background in theatre has taught me that acts of empathy and witnessing are so important. Testimony is such an important aspect of theatre and so is having an audience to serve as witnesses. Consequently, as a scholar, I like to think of myself as a highly trained empathetic witness. Another lesson that I have learned is that narratives really do have power to create radical social change. While obtaining my BFA I was pushed by my professors to consider how inequities exist within the arts. A large effect of these inequities is that there are so many stories and histories that are not valued in the same manner. Additionally, for many poor and working-class people, it can be difficult to find efficient and well-funded avenues to tell their stories and histories on their own terms. I know this training has influenced me to think deeply about how to customize the typical dissertation process by making it more collaborative with the communities I am working with. My background in theatre has also forced me to work in an interdisciplinary manner. In addition to history, I cannot imagine not dipping into fields like political and affect theory, critical race and performance studies, geography, and public history. Lastly and most importantly, theatre has really pushed me to think about how to use different elements to make people not just think, but also feel. Going forward, I hope that my academic work will convey a balance of emotion and intellectual rigor.