Whitney Nell Stewart

PhD Candidate
M.A. History, Rice University, 2013
B.A. University of St. Thomas, 2009
Fields of Study: 

African American History

Nineteenth-Century United States

Visual and Material Culture

Research Interests: 

My dissertation, “The Racialized Politics of Home in Slavery and Freedom,” argues that home—as an idea, space, and object—was central to how black Americans defined freedom in the nineteenth century. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, white Americans racialized home and the privileges associated with it, including privacy, so as to deny those core attributes of freedom to black women and men. While the racialization of home was a national affair, this project focuses specifically on the US South, where the institution of slavery and the racial structure supporting it most clearly shaped this process. Defining enslaved dwellings as unprivate—as consistently open to owners yet closed to those, white and black, without an owner’s permission to enter—had lasting effects on how white southerners justified the surveillance and intrusion of black homes. In both slavery and freedom, black Americans negotiated and countered this belief by physically building elements of privacy into their homes and instilling their domestic spaces with significant meaning. Yet important differences distinguished the experience of home and privacy for black southerners before and after emancipation, most especially access to legal recourse in the violent postbellum period. The antebellum belief in the unprivate nature of black dwellings, which had inadvertently provided a level of protection to those within, transformed into a conviction that black private spaces were open, public arenas for white southerners to surveil, intrude, and punish at will. Utilizing methodologies, theories, and sources from material and visual culture studies, legal history, architectural history, and historical archaeology, my work reorients our understanding of the black freedom struggle to include the crucial idea and space of home.

I am also passionate about bridging the too often disparate worlds of academia and public history. Having worked in numerous museums over the past several years, I believe that the need for smart, ethical, and accessible history is more imperative than ever. By expanding our perspective and including new objects and images in our tours, we tell the public that we value much more than just the history of elite white Americans. To make history relevant today, it is essential that scholars seek out broader audiences, and museums have historically served as one of the most effective ways of doing this. The value of museums and public history must not be underestimated by academics, politicians, or the public. But with declining admissions and ever-decreasing budgets, we must scrutinize what we say, how we’re saying it, and why it matters.