Bookmark This is a feature that highlights new books by College of Arts & Sciences faculty and alumni, published on the first Friday of every month during the academic year.
Featured book: Black Towns, Black Futures: The Enduring Allure of a Black Place in the American West (UNC Press, November 2019) by Karla Slocum.
Q: Can you give us a brief synopsis of your book?
A: Black Towns, Black Futures is about rural Oklahoma towns that, starting in the late 19th century, attracted thousands of black Americans seeking a secure and safe place to live during the Jim Crow era. While the towns are known for their history as economically vibrant and socially mobile black places, my book argues that the appeal of black towns is not only in the past. I introduce the reader to regular bus tours of black towns that draw in groups to learn of black towns’ historic and contemporary significance, rodeos where throngs of people convene to participate in a vibrant black community experience, and black town residents working to build up the communities’ local economies. Readers also learn about features — such as rural gentrification — that undermine black towns’ sustainability and identity as black places for social mobility. Ultimately, the book is about the enduring appeal and challenges of small, historically significant black places.
Q: How does this fit in with your research interests and passions?
A: As someone who studies rural communities largely made up of people of African descent, I’m interested in how black people’s pursuit of freedom figures into the communities’ historic and contemporary place identities and experiences. Of what significance to how black people organize and live their lives is a rural place where those people’s ancestors lived and achieved social mobility? Black Towns, Black Futures allows me to engage these interests as it looks at such issues as how black town residents question the appropriateness of a prison built in their town that was formed to uplift rather than lock up black people. As another example, the book discusses how black towners grapple with new social divisions that emerge when white people move into their town and live more grandly than most black people in the community.
Q: What was the original idea that made you think: “There’s a book here?”
A: My grandfather, Mozell C. Hill, was a sociologist who studied Oklahoma’s black towns in the 1930s-’40s. Having looked at his research and the broader work on black towns, I realized that no social science books on the topic had been written since his studies. Add to that the fact that the rural black experience is largely understudied especially compared to the urban black experience. I wanted my book to update what we know about the black town story and also give a fuller picture of where black experiences are located.
Q: What surprised you when researching/writing this book?
A: It’s not as much of a surprise as a pleasant outcome: the people I met in black towns are thrilled that there is a book out about them. Many people feel like black towns are either under-recognized for their important contribution to American history or passed over as “has been” places. So, to see something about their lives in print really moved a lot of people and, consequently, moved me. I knew they cared about this but I was surprised — and pleased — at the level of their excitement.
Q: Where’s your go-to writing spot, and how do you deal with writer’s block?
A: This is an interesting question to answer during our present moment. Of course, I’m writing at home now and we are all so distracted by current events that writer’s block seems to be a norm for many of us. I’m no exception. Before COVID-19 arrived, I was not a fixed-in-place writer. I wrote at home, in my office, in a coffee shop, in writing groups. It was “catch as catch can” for me. This is largely because, besides being on faculty I’m a parent and hold an administrative position so my time is stretched all over the place and I have to steal writing moments where and how I can. As for dealing with writer’s block, I step away from the computer. I take a break and maybe eventually jot some ideas on paper in a freeform sort of way to at least get some thoughts out that may eventually turn into sentences and hopefully paragraphs.