Humanities’ Lens

UNH scholars look to history, literature for context on contemporary racial reckoning
By Krysten Godfrey Maddocks ‘96
In 2020, against the backdrop of a global pandemic, racial tension escalated in the United States, sparked by the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, hateful attacks on Asian Americans, the rise of white supremacist groups and COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black and brown people. At the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, confederate statues were toppled and the United States elected its first female vice president, Kamala Harris, who is African-American and South Asian American.
More than 50 years after the civil rights movement in the United States, these events underscore a struggle that persists, and the continued need to understand the complex dynamics of that struggle.

By digging into the humanities and social sciences, UNH faculty members tackle the history of racism throughout the world and how we can learn from it to respond to our present moment of racial reckoning. Through their scholarship, faculty are able to provide broader context related to what’s happening today, says Michele Dillon, dean of the College of Liberal Arts (COLA).

Kabria Baumgartner, associate professor of English and American studies and faculty fellow for equity and inclusion

Photo by Jeremy Gasowski

“We have 16 different departments across the performing arts, the humanities and the social sciences doing work that grapples with issues that are directly or indirectly associated with racial inequality,” Dillon says. “Many of our faculty have long been engaged in this research.”
19th Century Activism Sets the Stage
Kabria Baumgartner, associate professor of English and American studies and COLA’s first faculty fellow for equity and inclusion, looks at 19th century African American history and literature to help us better understand the origins of the civil rights movement. Her first book, “In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America” (New York University Press, 2019), examines the history of school desegregation in the 19th century Northeast by focusing on the experiences of African American girls and women. She believes studying the long history of Black activism allows us to track and trace how African Americans have waged their fights for equality leading up to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s…and into today.
In Pursuit of Knowledge book cover
“I think there’s a usable past for today,” she says. “What happens when we know what leaders were fighting for? What strategies can we draw upon and what new perspectives might we consider? It becomes important to look to the past for inspiration and guidance as we try to craft legislation that responds to racial injustice and systemic racism.”

Baumgartner is now writing a book that studies the life and activism of Robert Morris, a largely unknown African American lawyer and activist who practiced in 1850s Boston. Morris’s papers provide insights into his racial justice work related to education, labor, abolition and the rights of fugitive slaves. That fact that most people aren’t familiar with his work shouldn’t surprise us, Baumgartner says.

“Scholars have argued that white New Englanders tried to bury slavery and the contributions of African Americans to this region in order to differentiate New England from the South,” she explains. “As a scholar of Black New England history and culture, I’ve had to dig deeper into this history and find it. Many documents have been destroyed, misplaced or are difficult to locate.”

“I think there’s a usable past for today. It becomes important to look to the past for inspiration and guidance as we try to craft legislation that responds to racial injustice and systemic racism.”
Kabria Baumgartner, associate professor of English and American studies and faculty fellow for equity and inclusion
Jason Sokol
Jason Sokol
The Heavens Might Crack
Jason Sokol, professor of history, researches the evolution of 20th century American politics, race and civil rights. Most recently, he examined the reaction to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in his book “The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.” (Basic Books, 2018).

Although King is now canonized as a civil rights hero, he was initially seen as a polarizing figure, “scorned by many white Americans, worshipped by some African Americans and liberal whites, and deemed irrelevant by many Black youth,” Sokol writes. King’s legacy evolved after his death, although the book reveals that the deep divisions between Americans at the time of his death still exist today.

Dennis Britton
Dennis Britton
African American Activism and 17th Century England
UNH faculty research also reveals that religious and political doctrine dating back to 17th century England still influences beliefs related to race and religion today. In the works of Shakespeare and Milton, for example, researchers are able to make connections between race and Christianity and post-reformation England’s influence on African American political activism.

Dennis Britton, associate professor of English, is the author of “Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern English Romance” (Fordham University Press, 2014). In it, he looks at the intersection of race and religion, arguing that the post-reformation English church developed a theology that created skepticism about the possibility of conversion if one was not born and baptized into the Christian religion.

“The ways in which Protestant theologians connected religious identity to race still manifest themselves today,” says Britton. “For example, those who believed President Obama was Muslim assumed he must have the same religious identity as his Black, African, Muslim father. Religious identity was assumed to be inherited in the same way that racial features like hair and skin color are.”

Becoming Christian Book Cover
Reginald A. Wilburn, associate professor of English, specializes in African American literature and culture, Milton and intertextuality studies. His monograph, “Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt: Approaching Milton in Early African American Literature” (Fordham University Press, 2014), is the first work of literary criticism to theorize African Americans’ subversive receptions of John Milton, England’s epic poet of liberty. Wilburn explains that early African American authors were attracted to Milton because of his preeminent status in literary tradition, strong Christian convictions and poetic mastery of the English language. He looks at Milton’s presence in the works of Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass and other African American authors to suggest that Milton’s influence helped inspire revolt, freedom and cultural liberation.
Reginald Wilburn
Reginald Wilburn
Preaching the Gospel of Black Revoult cover
View Toward the Future
In addition to advancing her research, as a faculty fellow Baumgartner will spend the next four years on initiatives that aim to create a more equitable and inclusive college — including crafting a mandatory social justice requirement for undergraduates, coordinating programs that showcase the work of Black, Indigenous and other people of color and organizing student cohorts to study race-based topics with researchers and other organizations at a to-be-developed Global Racial Justice Lab.

“This brings further attention to the research mission of UNH, and it’s another way to elevate attention to global racial issues,” she says.