Category Archives: Academics

Visiting Scholars: Dr. Robert Stephens

With the reopening of the Georgia Historical Society’s newly expanded and renovated Research Center, GHS is again getting visits from scholars, students, and researchers from all over the world researching and studying a wide variety of topics. Off the Deaton Path would like to introduce our readers to some of these visiting scholars and share with you what they’re working on and what they’re finding at GHS.

This week we’ll spotlight Dr. Robert Stephens, a Professor of World Music at the University of Connecticut.

Tell Us About Yourself:  I was born in Savannah and spent my formative years there, graduating from A. E. Beach High School and Savannah State, where I received my B.S. degree. After graduation, I spent several years teaching public schools in Florida and Georgia, intersected by a tour in Vietnam. Who could have known that Army service would alter the trajectory of my career path? I certainly did not, because my service allowed me to pursue an M.A. in music education and M. Ed. in Educational Administration from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Music and Ethnomusicology.

My teaching career ranges from public school marching bands, the introductory course in World Music, guided student research experiences on the Hopi reservation in Northern Arizona, Havana, Matanzas, and Santiago de, Cuba. I have taught various graduate courses and courses exploring African-American History and Culture. My teaching at Montclair State University and the University of Connecticut helped forge my research interest in the sacred drumming of Santeria, spending some ten years studying and writing about the tradition in Cuba and the United States.

My current interest includes collaborating with the Balinese scholar Dr. I. Made Bandem on a work focused on the Balinese Gamelan. My most recent research on sound, movement, and word, looks to tie Gullah expressive culture to divine contact, social commentary, and psychological battles won during enslavement, not with force but with the most potent tools available, resilience and creativity. This work grows from five competitive awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Landmarks in American History funding “Gullah Voices: Traditions and Transformations,” a workshop for elementary-secondary school teachers I led with my colleague Dr. Mary Ellen Junda.

Tell Us About Your Current Project:  My work explores new ground using creative expression. My role is to examine the history, stories, beliefs, and creative practice of the Gullah, critical antecedents to a subsequent African-American culture, and its role in the broader American mosaic. 

A barbershop on West 45th street operated by Mr. Ulysses Davis sparked my interest in a culture widely known in the area but rarely discussed in depth. Other young men in our community and I received the “scriptures from a Savannah Barbershop.” He was the storyteller/ artist, and we, the listener/learners. This was not an ordinary barbershop. But getting a haircut was one piece of the pie. Other tasty slices include the stories he told of Africa, its kingdoms, rulers, and beauty supplemented by his hand-carved sculptures. It was a remarkable contrast to the Africa portrayed in Tarzan movies. My friends and I always looked for the same thing in his stories, to learn new things and bask in the pride of an Africa we could barely imagine. Mr. Davis knew that. And he was always ready to reveal his carefully gathered evidence for doubters at a moment’s notice. Mr. Davis lit my Gullah/Geechee fire, and for that, I will forever be grateful.

Research at the Georgia Historical Society has helped me probe connections between context and function in African and Gullah creativity. To put it another way, as my investigation unfolds, I am beginning to see how external factors fueled seen and unseen changes in Gullah life. For instance, how expressive space built around sorrow, joy, hope, and fear fades the line between the real and imagined; how sound, image, gesture, movement, and material objects communicate their interrelatedness and give voice to the emotions of the lived experience. There is little doubt that the relationship between sound structure and social structure is key to understanding Gullah’s expression, a point that has not received wide scholarly attention.

Cultural survival relies on compliance with the authority of customs, ways of life, and tradition. A heavy responsibility hangs over those who use sound to translate customs and life depicting feeling into expression. Because “words under words,” as the poet Naomi Shihab Nye describes them, carry meaning resting in meaning and can instigate or change decisions. Material culture—where people create objects and images and attach importance—like words, unravel the complex lives of those who make them. No matter the tool, the creative voice of the Gullah community is as encompassing and as powerful.

Cornelia Bailey, the matriarch of Sapelo Island, was fond of saying, “if you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” That “come from” history informs my interest. Knowing “where you’re going” not only prevents getting lost on the way, but it also explains religion, art, music, and movement, prescriptions for living. At the same time, the imagination creates alternative geographies in mind-broadening perspective and informing practice. These collected factors are the foundation for the book that will emerge from this research. The uniqueness of this approach, in my view, not only explains how different we are but also how much we are alike while simultaneously encouraging a fuller understanding of the American experience.

What Are you Finding at GHS? Tell us here what collections you’re looking at, what you’re finding in them, and how it relates to your project. The Lydia Austin Parrish Letters, 1947-1952 (MS 607) have been informative and allow today’s readers to visit another place differently. They paint a picture of a woman of means fascinated by old songs of the enslaved. The letters reveal many Parrish relationships whose backstories wander into the conversation, often with their sentimental views. Particularly fascinating is the structure of these conversations and what they tell about the writers and their social interactions. But Parrish is best known for her work with “The Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia” in the 1920s, later known as the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Parrish’s actions enabled the singers and others to transmit ordered bits and pieces of memory to those who follow both inside and outside the Gullah community. Generational inheritance.

Her research efforts began when she heard her housekeeper, Julia Armstrong, singing one of the old songs. That experience prompted Parrish to visit former plantations searching for other people who knew similar old songs. These efforts led to the formation of the group. The letters offer a fascinating insight into Parrish, what motivated her, and how she used the group in her social settings.

Another essential collection is the archives of Muriel Barrow Bell and Malcolm Bell Jr. (MS 1283). The Bells are best known for their work with the Works Progress Administration in 1939, documenting African Americans in coastal Georgia through photographs. These files provide essential detail on the people interviewed for the writer’s project. Malcolm Bell published important work on “Major Butler’s legacy,” where his interest is not academic categories but stories of people.

Also, the Dancy and Woods Family Papers, 1836-1940 (MS 1305), and the Keith M. Read Collection, 1770-1907 (MS 648), both provide insight into life in the compounds. William Brown Hodgson’s Notes on Northern Africa (1844) for language, and the Richard Leake Plantation Journal and Business Records, 1785-1802 (MS 485), have all been beneficial.

Q&A: Reading and Writing with Michael Van Wagenen

Dr. Michael Scott Van Wagenen is associate professor and public history coordinator at Georgia Southern University. He is the author of the award-winning, Library Journal best seller Remembering the Forgotten War: The Enduring Legacies of the U.S.-Mexican War (University of Massachusetts, 2012), The Texas Republic and the Mormon Kingdom of God (Texas A&M, 2002), as well as several articles and book chapters. He is also co-editor with W. Paul Reeve of Between Pulpit and Pew: The Supernatural World in Mormon History and Folklore (Utah State University, 2011). In the past 30 years, he has written, produced, directed, and/or edited over 20 documentary films. His work has twice won highest honors at the National Education Film and Video Festival and been screened at the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Margaret Mead Ethnographic Film Festival, Chicago Latino Film Festival, and several other venues. Dr. Van Wagenen received his BA from Brigham Young University, an MAIS from the University of Texas at Brownsville, and his PhD from the University of Utah.

What first got you interested in history?

When I was very young my grandfather would tell me stories about his experiences as a Navy officer in the Pacific during World War II. That definitely sparked an awareness in me that there was this adventurous place called “the past” that you could visit through stories, books, museums, and films.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

The first book I read was an “abridged for young readers” edition of Robinson Crusoe. I was in first grade and binged it all in a day. I was hooked on historical fiction and non-fiction after that.

What book did you read in grad school that you never want to see again—and what book was most influential?

I studied folklore to enhance my understanding of history and really struggled with Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957). I’m sure it was me, not him. On the other side of things was Michael Kammen’s Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991). I couldn’t put that book down, and it really inspired my interest in the theories of collective memory.

What’s the last great book you read, fiction or non-fiction?

It’s a bit of a local cliché, but I finally got around to reading John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil this summer. I loved it—much better than the film.

You’re a documentary filmmaker: what movies and documentaries most inspired you when you were young? What filmmakers?

I don’t really remember watching documentaries as a kid. I watched a lot of old war movies and historical dramas on television: The Thin Red Line, Beau Geste, and Nicholas and Alexandra come immediately to mind. I also loved the satirical war television series F-Troop and Hogan’s Heroes. As far as filmmakers go, the first director I can remember being aware of was Akira Kurosawa. In high school in Los Angeles, I would go to the art house theaters to watch his films. Toshiro Mifune was my original action hero.

When you’re not reading for your particular field of history, what else do you like to read? What genres do you avoid? And what’s your guilty reading pleasure?

I am a complete sucker for a beautifully illustrated coffee table book. I have my own large collection of folk art books that I read and reread—my guilty pleasure, I suppose. As far as what I avoid: definitely self-help/motivational. Anyone who thinks they have the answer likely doesn’t.

What do you read—in print or online—to stay informed?

I consume it all, from left to right. I like to make my own decisions about things after I have read or listened to as many perspectives as I can. As you can guess, my politics are confusing to most people.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

As a kid I visited my grandparents who were staying on a secluded part of the California coast. We were hit by a big storm with lots of wind, rain, and pounding waves for a couple of days. There was no television or radio—just a blanket, a lamp, and a stack of pulp westerns to read. I know I’ve romanticized that moment, and I have tried to recreate that environment over and over with no success. Hurricane season is not through yet this year, so who knows?

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

The Giant Joshua by Maurine Whipple (1941) is a historical fiction novel about Mormon polygamy in the mid 1800s. While it made a modest literary splash when it came out in 1941, it is largely forgotten today.

What book or collection of books might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I have a small collection of books about UFOs. I was raised during the new-age UFO revival of the 1970s, so that shaped my childhood. I have actually published on historical UFOs and will likely develop a class on them. My approach to UFOs is similar to that of Carl Jung, who viewed them as another way to interpret the values and beliefs of a people.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

Sadly, less MAD Magazine.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Grasshopper Jungle (by Andrew Smith, 2014). I like a good young adult fiction book, and this one was widely praised and loved. I guess my own childhood was too urban, too undersexed, too lacking in actual alien encounters for me to connect with it.

What book would you recommend for America’s current moment?

Don’t Bite Your Friends by Lisa Rao (2009).

What do you plan to read next?

My daughter is a professional writer, and she just sent me her latest manuscript. I’m thrilled to be diving into that one!

What is the next book or article you’re going to write?

I am putting the finishing touches on an article titled “Mormons, Memory, and the Mexican War: The Role of Mormon Battalion Commemoration in the Formation of Latter-day Saint Identity, 1921 – 2021.” I use as a case study the United States’ only religiously segregated military unit to explore how collective memory and identity are constantly evolving to serve a number of social, political, and religious agendas. What’s next after that? I am writing an article about a Mexican folk art particular to the Otomí people of central Mexico. Between the early nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries they created a particular style of crucifix, called a cruz de ánimas, that they venerated to end their ancestors’ suffering in purgatory. These artifacts serve as a preliterate genealogical pedigree, and very little has been written about them.

When and how do you write?

Mornings and nights are best for me. There are too many distractions during the day. I am one of those people who need large blocks of time to find my focus.

With which three historic figures, dead or alive, would you like to have dinner?

I have three immigrant ancestors: one Dutch from the 1600s, one Irish from the 1700s, and one Scottish from the 1800s, who I would love to meet. I would cook Tex-Mex food and ask them so many questions that they would be begging to crawl back into their graves!  

Podcast S4 E10: We Salute You, and Farewell

This week Stan remembers the birth and death of two iconic musicians from the 20th century, and the recent deaths of five historians whose work over the past 60 years helped redefine several eras of American history.

Two Giants of History Remembered: Phinizy Spalding & Carl Vipperman

Dr. Deaton remembers two UGA history professors–both of them outstanding scholars, teachers, and gentlemen–who profoundly influenced his decision to become a historian. Learn more about the lives and careers of Phinizy Spalding and Carl Vipperman in this Dispatch.