Pulitzer-prize winning historian Steven Hahn advocated for a new perspective on the historical legacy of the Civil War yesterday evening to a crowd largely made up of fellow academics.
In his talk, entitled “‘Slaves at Large’: Slavery and the Emancipation Process in the U.S.” Hahn, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested that the divide between North and South was not as distinct as historians portray it, and that emancipation was a longer and more gradual process.
Hahn emphasized the importance of looking at the Civil War period with this fresh point of view, in order to explore ideas usually overlooked.
For example, rather than looking at the Northern emancipation and the Southern emancipation as distinct phases, they should be seen as one long, connected process, he suggested.
In an interview before the lecture, Hahn explained his take on this part of history.
“I’m interested in playing around with one of the central frameworks of American history, which is the idea of sectional conflict, and the idea that slavery was a regional institution rather than a national one,” Hahn said.
In what turned out to be a controversial comparison, Hahn likened the communities of African-Americans in the North during the nineteenth century to the Maroons in the West Indies, groups of fugitive slaves during the same time period.
“The northern settlements and enclaves, like Maroons, shared a fundamental orientation to the world around them: they were under siege,” Hahn said.
Several audience members vocally disagreed with this analogy.
Linda M. Heywood, a professor of history in the African American Studies department at Boston University, took exception with this comparison.
“In no way is the concept of Maroon relevant to the political status of African-Americans during this period,” she said in an interview after the lecture. “Let’s look at these people as Americans who had in fact taken in the notions that are inherent in the Constitution.”
However, Heywood did not necessarily dismiss Hahn’s argument.
“I always like when speakers give us a new take on an old subject,” she added.
Hahn is a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in History and the Bancroft Prize in American History for his latest book, “A Nation Under our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration.”
He is slated to give two more lectures for Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research this week at this year’s Nathan I. Huggins lectures, an annual series that features a distinguished scholar in the field of African-American history.
Hahn will lecture again today on slave rebellion and tomorrow on the black nationalist Marcus Garvey in the Barker Center.