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November 2007: Jason Parker

1. First of all, you are formally an American historian but your work overlaps with British and British imperial history. What drew you into studying Anglo-American relations in the Caribbean?

JP: Like a lot of historians, I was drawn to my subject by both personal and professional gravities. I went to grad school to study U.S. foreign relations– especially the impact of race and decolonization on America’s Cold War diplomacy– and had plans to do a secondary field in modern Latin America/Caribbean. The more I dug into the literature, the more I concluded that all of the above converged in the British West Indies. Moreover, for all the riches it held, this was a largely overlooked story. It had been explored by a couple of scholars, but not yet with both the archival depth and interpretive framework to do it justice. I got lucky with the timing on the former, as a number of key archival collections opened up at exactly the right moment, and this allowed me to construct the latter. That is, the evidence let me present the West Indies’ path to independence as a story of inter-American, Anglo-American, U.S.-Caribbean, and U.S.-Third World relations; a story of World War II and the Cold War; and a story of the global “race-revolution” of the postwar era. It is thus inescapably and consummately an international history. As a scholarly field to till, you couldn’t ask for better.

On the personal side, my wife– whom I met before starting grad school– has roots in the French Caribbean, so that put the Antilles at the forefront of my mind and our lives. Even before that, I think I had the Caribbean on the brain, as a consequence first of too many pirate stories as a kid, and second of growing up in landlocked Oklahoma, dreaming of those heavenly beaches.

2. Did you have any important mentors that influenced your decision to become a historian or to choose your particular topic?

JP: In Tom Schwartz’s incredible seminar at Vanderbilt while I was doing my M.A., I read an essay by Bob McMahon that led me directly to where I am today. The seminar was among the more exciting intellectual exercises I’ve ever been a part of, and it convinced me that foreign-relations history was what I wanted to do. I had already chosen an M.A. topic in Southern and African American history, and was working full-time while going to grad school, so it wasn’t really feasible to switch at that stage. But we had read the McMahon essay that singled out decolonization as a promising frontier in foreign-relations and international history, and from his prose (and a follow-up discussion with Schwartz) I had the feeling that Bob was the kind of advisor I wanted. He proved to be a fantastic mentor. I feel like I really flourished in grad school, and it’s thanks to him.

Of course by that time I’d already decided to become an historian; Bob just showed (and shows) me the kind of historian I want to be. Before that, I came to history thanks to two people and one place in my undergrad days. The place was France, where I spent a semester abroad as a junior. I couldn’t read much French until late in my stay, so I devoured all the English-language books in the tiny library of our center. Those included classics (and not-such-classics!) on European history like Toynbee, Fuller, and Trevelyan– and I think the experience of reading them in a French city so suffused with history really clinched it. I “heard the calling,” so to speak. I was actually an English major, but I added a History minor when I came back to Vanderbilt, and was blessed to take classes with Michael Bess and with the late Hugh Davis Graham, two of the finest historians and finest people I’ve ever known. They inspired me to believe that I could make a living doing what I’d fallen in love with, long before I had much of an idea of what exactly I would study.

3. How does your American perspective provide you with a different interpretation of British imperial history than say, a formal British imperial historian?

JP: If you’re of an international-history persuasion to begin with, as I am, then it adds many colors to your palette. The hugely salutary development of the “empire-as-a-two-way-street” approach– tracing connections between metropole and colony in both directions– has in recent decades invigorated study of all the empires, perhaps British most of all. But even a well-lit two-way street, to continue the metaphor, can leave parts of the larger roadmap in darkness. A background in U.S. foreign relations, especially in the twentieth century, almost by definition ensures a broader and proper contextualization of the metropole-colony exchange.

An obvious example of this is something I pursue in Brother’s Keeper: the relationship between the Cold War and decolonization. It’s a thornier question than it first appears. Decolonization was negotiated between metropole and colony, in some cases over a course of decades– but it only came to fruition during the Cold War, and the superpower conflict could horribly warp the process. Even in places where neither superpower intervened militarily or covertly, the Cold War could speed up, slow down, or otherwise bend and alter the dynamics of decolonization. Nor was this confined to the postwar era. Erez Manela’s fantastic new book shows the impact of American actions and rhetoric, in this case Wilsonianism, on nationalist movements in the interwar imperial world. It’s a great reminder that even the deepest exchanges of politics, culture, language, or what have you can be best understood as not only two-way but multivalent. Of course any British-imperial historian can leaven his or her two-way story by adding the right dosage of external (not necessarily American) elements. But I find that a background in U.S. foreign relations ensures that one never forgets
the larger stage on which imperial processes occur. The lessons apply in the other direction, too: anyone studying twentieth-century U.S. foreign relations is studying empire whether so named or not, so some grounding in British imperial history is an extremely useful comparative to have at hand.

4. Do you see transnational history and the history of empires continuing to grow? Framed as a larger question: what direction do you see history as a profession moving?

JP: Yes. I think transnational history and empires-history will indeed continue to grow, and grow very much together. They lend themselves so beautifully to each other; in a sense they were essentially made for each other. Nations exist, and nations matter. But most are relatively new, and they are seemingly forever internally contested, always “in the making.” For a long time, too, where the circumstances of power permitted it, nations and empires were synonymous. The more we historicize the nation-state as a construct of the modern era– especially but not exclusively those nation-states assembled from faltering empires– the more fragile it tends to look. We see in our own time the ways in which sovereign nationhood is challenged by things like capital flows, alternative identities grounded in religion or language or culture, and the global media matrix. We are thus reminded daily that certain dynamics, processes, and movements simply are not contained within national borders. Students of empire especially know this is nothing new, having seen similar currents flow back, forth, and through their subject; and students of foreign relations know that formal diplomacy is sometimes a lagging rather than a leading indicator of changes in regional or global affairs. All told, and well beyond these two subfields, I think the international and transnational approaches will prove to have real staying power in our profession.

5. You just finished your first book, Brother’s Keeper: The United States, Race, and Empire in the British Caribbean, 1927-1962 (Forthcoming, Oxford University Press, April 2008). What is your next project? Does it involve British history?

JP: I’m currently at work on two book projects. In the first, British-imperial history will only make a cameo appearance, but in the second it will have a starring role. The first project is a study of U.S. Cold War public diplomacy in the Third World. This grew, somewhat indirectly, out of the West Indies project. My interest in race and decolonization as factors in U.S. foreign relations kept me attuned to American efforts at “image management” in the Caribbean, so along the way I kept notes about this. A lot of excellent work has been done recently on the activities of the United States Information Agency and other U.S. propaganda, notably Ken Osgood’s outstanding book. But a lot of this literature focuses either within the First World, or between the First and Second. My project seeks to fill that gap by looking at crisis-management public diplomacy in a series of case studies in U.S.-Third World relations. So the Brits will show up here and there, and much of the action will take place in the decolonizing British Empire, but it draws almost entirely on U.S. archives and is more of a “policy” story than a “relations” one.

The second project I’m working on, though, brings the British Empire back to center-stage. It is a comparative study of postwar federations in the Third World. This too grows out of the West Indies project, during which I became fascinated by the short and ill-starred life of the West Indies Federation. My fascination deepened when I looked around outside the region a bit, and discovered that there was a tremendous vogue for such federations from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. They seemed to hold out something for everyone: anticommunist stability for the U.S., continued influence for the British, and proof of pan-national solidarity for visionaries of “race”
consciousness and identity. Nor was this enthusiasm for federations confined to the British Empire. Most of the other empires tried it in one place or another, as did some newly independent entities. Even Europe itself got into the act at this time, in the form of the European Union. What I find amazing is that with the exception of the EU, none of these federations survived even a decade in their original form– and when they faltered and failed, they all did so in more or less the same way. They were coincident with the Cold War, but that conflict didn’t kill them. Rather, they fractured along “ethnic”– linguistic-cultural, or more broadly “racial”– lines. I think there’s a great story there, one that connects back to the Wilsonian dilemma, and forward to some of the lingering pains in the global South in the present day.

6. You took jobs or fellowships at West Virginia University, Ohio State, and now Texas A&M, all good schools. What advice would you give graduate students and younger faculty on how to more effectively apply for and win jobs or fellowships?

JP: There are two parts to it, and a deeper underlying connection between the two. You have to build a good CV, and you have to learn the art of the application. A good CV– highlighted by the accompanying materials– contains four crucial items. It has an interesting research topic, and frames it in ways that appeal to non-specialists and specialists alike. It has publications, done or in progress. It has teaching experience already in hand. And finally it has honors, grants, and fellowships, from both within your institution and from wider competitions too. The art of the application reflects the homework you’ve done about the job or fellowship. This allows you to tailor the application to the particular post, and to show how your CV and project make you a great candidate to take it on. This sounds obvious but a surprising number of applicants don’t put in the time to “fit” themselves into the parameters and objectives of the job or fellowship. And practice makes perfect– you have to be ready to apply to a wide range of things, and often multiple times for the same ones. The research-travel grant programs of some of the presidential libraries, for example, are very generous to folks working on dissertations; others are less so. In the latter case, you just keep refining your application, and keep trying.

The “deeper underlying connection” is the need, put simply, to think things through– to think strategically not just about a given application but about grad school as a whole. You want to be thinking about how every step of the process can pay dividends down the road. A seminar paper, for example, if carefully done can morph into both a grant proposal and a published article. In similar fashion, thoroughly researching a job or fellowship can help you find “angles” that let you apply different aspects of your CV to varied aspects of the post. And with apologies to Napoleon Bonaparte, luck is an important quality to have too; to the extent it’s possible, you want to put yourself in a position to be lucky when opportunities arise.

7. You participated in the British Scholar Conference this November. What did you take away from the experience?

JP: It was a wonderful experience. I’d already become friends with some of the UT grad students thanks to my being first a participant and then a faculty-leader in Roger Louis’s International Seminar on Decolonization. Those students are extremely impressive and I looked forward to more opportunities for our paths to cross. So when I got the invitation to chair a panel at the British Scholar Conference, I was delighted to accept. It was a marvelous meeting. The panel I was on was great fun, the papers there and at the other sessions I saw were of high-caliber, and the atmosphere was wonderful. I plan to take part every year; I see it as one of the perks of my new job at A&M, being here “in the neighborhood” in central Texas.

8. Any concluding thoughts on all things broadly defined as British?

JP: One of my favorite things about the Caribbean project was that I found it impossible to get bored with the topic. There was always another angle needing, and more importantly, rewarding attention. I suppose most historians feel that way about their subjects, but I found it exceptionally so thanks to the multiplicity of influences, histories, and agents at work in the Caribbean. My time on that project and with the Decolonization Seminar has shown me that “British/British empire history” is the same way. That broad realm, to borrow from Whitman, contains multitudes. It is endlessly rewarding, perhaps especially for students of foreign-relations. Decolonization not only brought down the modern European empires, of which the British was the largest and deepest. Decolonization also brought an end to “empire” as an organizing principle of statecraft. That principle goes back as far as Ramses. Its disappearance is a development of millennial importance, and one in which the British played an outsized role. I admit that some parts of that legacy puzzle me– the abiding love of cricket in the ex-empire, for example– but I am certain it will continue to reward
historians working on it, and reward their readers with a vibrant and growing literature.

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