Tag Archives: Atlanta

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.

Member of the Week: Katie Schank

Schank - UHA photoKatie Marages Schank

George Washington University, PhD, American Studies, May 2016

Emory University, Fellow, James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference, 2016-2017

@kmschank

 

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

In my current research, I explore the relationship between architecture, housing policy, race, and visual culture to study the history of Atlanta’s public housing program. The “rise and fall” narrative, which frequently relies on critiques of design, policy, and funding, has dominated public housing history, and I hope to demonstrate the ways in which visual representations and public relations had an equally vital and largely untold role of influence on this major municipal program. My research focuses on demonstrating that neither the early success nor the later failure of public housing was inevitable but both were the result of considerable rhetorical work dependent upon representations of modernist architecture, the social program, and residents. I also explore the unique, symbiotic relationship that existed between Atlanta – a city obsessed with image and self-promotion – and public housing. While focused on Atlanta, my research looks at larger questions about the ways that images and visual rhetoric operate as agents in urban politics, policy, and understandings of race.

I lived and worked in Atlanta for five years before moving to Washington, DC to start graduate school. It was unlike any other city I had lived in, and while it took a while to grow on me, I became fascinated with it. While I was working on a paper for a research seminar, I stumbled on a catalogue entry for a collection of papers at Emory University of an Atlanta real estate developer turned amateur documentary photographer, filmmaker, and public housing advocate. A year later, happy to have a reason to visit Atlanta, I took a research trip to view that collection. Within the first day of research, I had a feeling that I might have discovered my dissertation topic. This topic perfectly brings together my interests in the built environment, urban history, and visual culture. Now, as I’m taking my dissertation and revising it to become a book manuscript, I am still just as excited about this topic as I was when I started my research almost seven years ago.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

Last semester I taught a course at Emory University called “20th Century African American Urban History and Visual Culture.” We examined twentieth-century African American urban history through the lens of visual culture. As a class, we worked to develop a clear understanding of the historical and interdisciplinary frameworks that are available to analyze and “read” both documentary and popular visual materials such as photographs, television, and film. The class drew directly from the methodology that I use in my own work, and while we did study other cities, Atlanta was the main focus of the class. It was rewarding to see students develop the critical skills necessary to look at visual materials and begin to realize that photographs and films are not innocuous materials but serve an agenda to shape perceptions about race and the city.

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

I am always excited for new scholarship about Atlanta, so I am looking forward to Maurice Hobson’s book, The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta, which is being published by UNC Press this fall.

While it is not a publication, I am also looking forward to the 2018 release of documentary about the East Lake Meadows housing project in Atlanta by Ken Burns and his team. They seem to be taking a very balanced approach in telling the history of the program and the story of East Lake’s redevelopment. I know that they have gone to great lengths to find and interview former residents. I also had the honor of being interviewed for the film, so that certainly adds to my excitement about its release!

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

I would encourage them to attend the Urban History Association Conference! The conference draws scholars who are doing such interesting and important work. It is a great way to get a sense for all of the possibilities that exist in the field. Not only should they attend the conference, attend paper sessions, and present their own work, but I would urge them to make an effort to meet people – both senior scholars and their peers from other universities. As a grad student, I was admittedly nervous and hesitant to approach scholars whose work I had read and admired. Yet, once I began to talk with people, I found them to be very approachable and genuinely interested in talking to me about their work and my work. Since my first urban history conference five years ago, I have had the opportunity to get to know a number of people in the organization. They have provided me with great advice and support in terms of my research and career, and I now look to them as mentors. I also look forward to seeing my “conference friends” – people I’ve gotten to know who are at similar stages of their careers to me. It’s always great to have a chance to catch up and encourage one another. Because I hope to have a career in this field, these are people that I will see and work with for years to come.

What is one of the most unique or unusual visual representations of public housing that you have used as a source in your study?

I would have to say that the music video for Outkast’s “B.O.B (Bombs Over Baghdad)” is one of the most unique visual representation I have used in my work. In the video, Outkast’s Andre 3000 stumbles out of an apartment in the now-demolished Bowen Homes housing project in Atlanta. Instead of the drab brick buildings and poorly landscaped grounds that existed when the video was filmed, he’s surrounded by psychedelic purple grass and trees, bright yellow sidewalks, and neon green roads. Whereas so many images from this time period are focused on despair and the failure of the program, the vivid colors of the video combined with the fast tempo of the hip hop music offer an image of Atlanta’s public housing that was very different from the dominant narrative being circulated when the album was released in 2000. The music video offers the view of an alternate future and different possibilities for public housing residents by invoking Afrofuturism. It was a valuable perspective and important message that was not coming from anywhere else during this time period. I love that my interdisciplinary approach to urban history means that hip-hop videos and traditional archival sources each have a place in my work.