A mysterious email message hit the inboxes of five people in the Triangle in late February. They were among nearly 3,000 who had applied for Guggenheim Fellowships, and the message said their names had been forwarded to the foundation’s board of trustees.
Good news, right?
“But then there was the part that said, ‘Don’t tell anybody, it’s not official until the final vote,’ ” recalled Laura Edwards, one of the five. “Which seemed odd. On the one hand, great. On the other, I was left wondering, ‘What if they decide on everybody but me?’ ”
Having to keep the news to yourself for a couple months is part of the Guggenheim mystique, and Edwards and the other four were all on the official list released last month. Members of the Triangle’s latest Guggenheim class work in history, poetry and photography, and their Guggenheim-funded projects involve everything from Alaskan fishermen to a 19th-century South Carolinian whose story reads like a movie script.
It’s a prestigious honor that has gone to notable figures including composer Aaron Copland, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and scientist Linus Pauling in years past. Duke professor Cathy N. Davidson, an Obama appointee to the National Council on the Humanities and co-director of the MacArthur Foundation’s digital media and learning competitions, calls the Triangle’s high number of Guggenheim winners a singular accomplishment.
“The Guggenheim Fellowship is one of the most prestigious in all academe, and it goes across all fields,” said Davidson, a 1986 Guggenheim recipient. “That the Triangle has five recipients this year is a great honor. Relative to how many compete and how few are given, it is a true accomplishment and a tribute to the rich academic excellence of our area.” The five local winners are among 181 receiving five-figure grants this year.
Lisa A. Lindsay, 45
Associate professor of history, UNC-Chapel Hill
Project: “Atlantic Bonds: A Family History through Slavery, Freedom, and Colonization”
The story of James Vaughan, a free black from pre-Civil War South Carolina, sounds like an epic big-screen cross between “Forrest Gump” and “Little Big Man.” It began in 1840, when Vaughan’s father gathered the family around his deathbed and exhorted his children to return to his African homeland.
All six kids pledged to go but only James followed through, going back a decade later in search of his father’s ancestors. That launched him on a remarkable odyssey through Liberia and Nigeria, with Christian missionaries, slave rebellions and colonial uprisings all figuring into events. Vaughan was captured and sold into slavery, but he managed to escape and eventually became a prosperous merchant in Lagos, Nigeria. Lisa Lindsay will tell the tale with a book tentatively called “Atlantic Bonds.”
“There’s this stream of slavery, freedom, colonialism, anti-colonialism and nationalism,” she said. “And there’s also comparisons between the lives of Vaughan and his descendants in Nigeria, and his siblings back in America. Some of his American siblings became successful enough to leave a paper trail, although it took about two generations longer than in Africa. They had to live through the Civil War, then Reconstruction, Jim Crow and all the restrictions on blacks owning property.”
Vaughan’s journey may have been inspired by something that was more fable than fact. His father claimed he was born in Africa, captured and brought to America as a slave (he was eventually freed after his master died). But Lindsay found a family Bible from the 19th century that recorded marriages, deaths and births. It listed Richmond, Va., as his father’s birthplace.
“When I brought this information to Vaughan’s descendants in Nigeria, they were skeptical of that,” Lindsay said. “So it might never be known for sure. The main part of the story is to ask what the biography of Vaughan and his relatives says about the world they lived in. Then the epilogue will have the whodunnit aspect of the ancestors’ life-cycle.”
Joseph Millar, 67
Project: Still-untitled poetry collection
Before he was able to pursue a writing career, Joseph Millar wound up “kind of stuck in this blue-collar life,” working for years as a commercial fisherman in Alaska. He has since become a writing teacher at Pacific University, N.C. State and other schools while publishing five poetry collections over the last decade.
But that time as a deckhand stuck with him, and Millar wants to revisit it. So he’s going back to Bristol Bay, Alaska, to rekindle the memories. It’s not unlike fishing.
“You never know if you’ll actually get poems or not, but you do the best you can,” he said. “So I’ll go make some notes and see what I can make of it. I’d like to go listen to these men talk about things like going down the California coast in the winter and seine fishing for squid at night. They turn the lights on, set the seine, squid come up toward the light and they catch them that way. That’s an adjustment that’s occurred over the last 15 years as a way to keep working. Just trying to stay alive, feed their families and make payments on their boats.”
In his approach, Millar’s project sounds like a documentary that will draw from journalism as much as poetry. One thing he’ll be talking to the fishermen about is a proposed mine. A mining company wants to put a huge copper mine near Lake Iliamna, Alaska, source of much of the world’s salmon, stoking much controversy in the region.
“William Carlos Williams said that one cannot get the news from poetry, yet men die every day for the lack of what is found there,” Millar said. “His particular school of writing focuses on the world, its images and patterns of everyday speech. I’m like a distant great-great grandson of his.”
Laura F. Edwards, 48
Professor of history, Duke University
Project: “A Nation of Rights: A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction”
Most historical accounts of the Civil War and Reconstruction focus on the conflict’s social history, while some cover its legal history. They tend to be separate lines of inquiry, but Laura Edwards aims to bring them together with “A Nation of Rights.”
Two of the era’s key pieces of legislation – the 14th and 15th amendments, which abolished slavery and extended suffrage to African-Americans – will figure into her book. The 14th Amendment was even more far-reaching, because it put control over the protection of individual rights into the hands of the federal government.
“In theory, at least, this transformed everybody’s relation to the government,” Edwards said. “Not just African-Americans, but all Americans. Most people have no conception that the rights we take for granted now did not exist in the same form in the 19th century. A lot more was left up to states, which could do as they saw fit. That’s why some states could have slavery.”
With whatever time she has to spare, Edwards will work on a parallel project that’s going to take a decade to complete: a history of clothing, which was the most valuable property most 18th-century women owned.
“They didn’t have currency like we do now, so clothing became a form of currency and wealth,” Edwards said. “On Monday, women would pawn their clothes and use that loan to buy household supplies and earn enough during the week to get their clothes out of hock in time for church on Sunday. Clothing was used in a lot of ways like that, which opens up questions about economic development, women’s property, market value, political identity.”
Wendy Ewald, 60
Photographer, Duke Center for International Studies
Project: “Portraits and Dreams Revisited”
From 1975 to 1980, Wendy Ewald worked with a group of elementary-school kids in Appalachian Kentucky, getting them to take pictures representing themselves, their families and their dreams. That yielded a book, 1985’s “Portraits and Dreams,” which Ewald plans to update by returning to Kentucky to see what became of her original subjects.
“I thought they would give up photography and most of the boys would become coal miners, and the girls stay-at-home moms,” Ewald said. “For the most part, that hasn’t really been the case. A lot of them are doing much more adventurous things than their parents did, and they’re much better off than they were as children. One boy who did some amazing photos of his dreams of flying became an engineer, started several of his own companies in China. And a girl, Denise Dixon, has become kind of famous as an underground photographer. So they’ve pursued things in different kinds of ways, and it’s been very moving to see.”
Along with the “Dreams” project, Ewald will continue her work in Tanzania with the Literacy & Justice Through Photography program. One of the group’s more ambitious projects is to make a set of printed visual curriculum posters that will serve as textbooks for all 16,000 elementary schools in the country.
“That would cost $100,000, which is a lot of money,” Ewald said. “But it’s not that much, considering how much it could change things. Tanzania is such a gratifying place to work because so much needs to be done, and the changes you can make are relatively low-cost.”
John Aldrich, 64
Political science professor, Duke
Project: “Party Politics and Race in the South and in the Nation”
For about a century after the Civil War and Reconstruction, the South was essentially a one-party region, with Democrats in charge of virtually every political institution – a stranglehold that lasted into the 1970s.
John Aldrich’s book “Party Politics and Race in the South and in the Nation” will examine that phenomenon and its effects, in two parts. Part one, which is already pretty far along on, is to ask if the South has since been better off with two competitive political parties in terms of education, income and infant mortality rates.
“In asking if the South fell behind under one party and caught up under two, the answer is yes,” Aldrich said. “Which leads to part two, asking why the rest of the country let the South get away with one-party rule for so long. That’s something I’m still investigating. A lot of it comes down to institutional constraints – veto points, sometimes literal.”
Not surprisingly, the late Jesse A. Helms casts a long shadow over this particular subject. Helms switched parties from Democrat to Republican in 1970 and was elected to the U.S. Senate two years later, serving five terms and earning the nickname “Senator No” for his vehement opposition to anything liberal Democrats would view as progress.
“Jesse Helms is a very important figure for the unraveling of the one-party South,” Aldrich said. “He and (South Carolina’s) Strom Thurmond were important in giving plausibility to the idea of Southerners voting for Republicans. So they had symbolic as well as practical value. Looking at them, ambitious young politicians could imagine running for office as Republicans.”
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