Author Interview: Alaina E. Roberts

Author Interview: Alaina E. Roberts

Today we share an interview with Alaina E. Roberts, who published an article in the June 2020 issue, titled “A Different Forty Acres: Land, Kin, and Migration in the Late Nineteenth-Century West.” Alaina is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. Her forthcoming book, I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land (University of Pennsylvania Press, Spring 2021), uses archival research and family history to upend the traditional narrative of Reconstruction, connecting debates about Black freedom and Native American citizenship to westward expansion onto Native land. Her writing has also appeared in the Washington Post, the Western Historical Quarterly, and Al Jazeera.

Thanks for participating in this interview, Alaina. Many of our readers have read your article in the June 2020 issue, but could you briefly summarize the focus and argument of your article?

“In “A Different Forty Acres,” I argue that nineteenth-century Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) allows us to see that, for some people of African descent, the acquisition of land was more important than the realization of political rights. Black women and men enslaved by Chickasaw Indians had a unique quandary: they could opt to receive 40 acres of land (as a consequence of post-Civil War negotiations between the Chickasaw Nation and the U.S. government) or they could leave the Chickasaw Nation (where they had no rights as citizens) and live in the United States, where they could share in the citizenship and political rights African Americans had just won. Surprisingly (to me, anyway!), a very large number chose to stay in the Chickasaw Nation as a people without any clear civic status. I believe this is a great case study in the diversity of Black historical actors’ definitions of freedom and belonging.”

One of the things I appreciate most about this article is how you demonstrate the value of reading the Dawes Roll testimonies for recovery of black and mixed-race Chickasaw freedpeople’s voices.  Can you talk a little about your process and any scholars guiding your reading practices?

“Two of the primary issues scholars who write about marginalized people face are a lack of sources written by the people they study and the fact that the majority of the archives we have were created to tell the stories of those with power, influence, and wealth. Following the lead of scholars like Tiya Miles and Marisa Fuentes, I read against the grain and used multiple sources to “fill in the blanks” when I could not locate any information on a specific person I wanted to write about. In this article (and in my forthcoming book, from which this article is derived), I take an archive (the Dawes Commission records) that was created to delegitimize and classify people of African descent and I use it to closely examine what Chickasaw freedpeople were trying to tell their listener about themselves, their families, and their communities.”

I really appreciated being introduced to Josie Jackson. What drew you to her testimony? What does her experience reveal about the gendered definition of land, space and belonging in the Chickasaw Nation? By extending the gaze beyond southern states, what does her experience reveal about the diversity of freedpeople’s experiences during Reconstruction? 

“I decided not to make it the focus of this article, but much of my work revolves around the histories of my own family members. Josie is my great-great-grandmother. When I began looking into my own genealogy, hers were some of the first words I ever read from someone I descended from. It was amazing to read about her courageous nineteenth-century journey in her own words, but also to realize, as I looked through the Dawes sources, that she was one of a number of Black and mixed-race women in the Chickasaw Nation (and other Indian nations) who, as heads of their households, made choices about mobility that impacted their families socially, politically, and economically. Black western history offers a wealth of narratives like Josie’s that have much to teach us about the intersection of race, gender, labor, and migration.”

On pp. 221, you state that only 73 out of 1,523 freedpeople who testified had “temporarily left the Chickasaw Nation.” I fully understand that few individuals might have the means to participate in postwar migration. Based on their testimonies, what are some of the reasons/factors causing them to remain?

“Not to promote my book too much, but its title, “I’ve Been Here All the While,” is actually taken from the Dawes testimonies I read. Approximately 76 people used the phrase “all the while” or something similar to denote the fact that they had lived in the Chickasaw Nation their entire lives or much of their lives. Proving their residence was essential for claiming a land allotment. But perhaps more importantly for them, the space of the Chickasaw Nation represented their kinship connections and the coerced labor they and their families had endured. For these people to never venture out of the nation or, if they did, to quickly or regularly return, meant that they were committed to remaining in a place they saw as their well-deserved home, despite the violence and hardship they faced there.”

 

Thank you again, Alaina, for participating in this interview! Your work is a wonderful example of how Civil War era historians can—and should—consider stories that are outside the traditional geographical scope and explore the rich diversity of freedpeople’s experiences during Reconstruction.

You can read the article on Project Muse, and if you have questions for Alaina, she is happy to chat on Twitter@allthewhile1 or drop her a line in the comments below!

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