The Author’s Corner with James Gigantino

Jim Gigantino is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Arkansas. This interview is based on his forthcoming book, The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865 (University of Pennsylvania Press, October 2014).

JF: What led you to write The Ragged Road to Abolition?

JG: I originally went to graduate school to study slavery, though with a project in mind that focused on the antebellum South. Ragged Road actually began after I read C. Vann Woodward’s Strange Career of Jim Crow in a graduate seminar on the American South. He has a short paragraph about the decline of slavery and racial formation in the North, something I obviously knew about but had not really given much thought to. With very little written on New Jersey, the last northern state to begin gradual abolition, it became a really interesting case study for the interplay between how slavery died (or in reality did not die) and its impact on our understanding of slavery, freedom, and citizenship.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Ragged Road to Abolition?

JG: This book challenges historical understandings of slavery and freedom by chronicling the experiences of slaves and free blacks, as well as abolitionists and slaveholders, during slavery’s slow death in New Jersey. Slavery’s persistence in the state—roughly a quarter of the state’s African American population in 1830 was still held in some degree of bondage—limited free black community formation, dulled white understanding of the meaning of black freedom, and shattered the easy dichotomy between North and South as New Jerseyans continued to interact with southerners as a former slave state as the nation moved closer to Civil War.

JF: Why do we need to read The Ragged Road to Abolition?

JG: I think Ragged Road is particularly important because it challenges much of what we know about slavery’s end in the North—we knew it died slowly but not the implications of its messy death for both slaveholders and slaves. The fact that white New Jerseyans resisted slavery’s end almost until the Civil War showcases just how powerful slavery was to northerners not only economically but to their concept of race and citizenship. For them, slavery was not a distant institution—it literally continued to exist in their own backyards. Therefore, slavery’s persistence influenced how northerners thought about colonization, citizenship rights for African Americans, colonization, and the sectional issues (fugitive slaves and westward expansion) that eventually ripped the nation apart.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JG: The first history book I can remember reading was a tattered copy of From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki from my elementary school library. I was hooked on history after that. I was drawn to the stories of the past but as time progressed I really was interested in the people, why had they made these choices and how had those choices influenced their future. Originally I wanted to be a high school history teacher, but by the time I headed to the University of Richmond for college, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school to become a professional historian and study slavery and abolition.

JF: What is your next project?

JG: Well, I actually have three projects right now: two are edited books and the third my next monograph. The first is an edited collection of nine essays called The American Revolution in New Jersey: Where the Battlefront Meets the Home Front (Rutgers University Press, April 2015). The essays explore the interconnections between the events on the battlefield and the daily lives of ordinary Americans from multiple different vantage points. It has been a fun project to do and a great group of historians to work with. The second edited collection, Slavery and Secession in Arkansas: A Documentary History (University of Arkansas Press), has been a real exploration for me of a whole different set of historiographical issues I only touched on in Ragged Road. The volume looks at the integral role that slavery played in the Arkansas secession debates and has been a real joy to work on since it has forced me to step a bit outside of my comfort zone and really interact with some fresh ideas. I plan to deliver it to the press in the next month or so.

My next monograph is going to explore some of the same issues I did in Ragged Road, though from a very different vantage point. I am going to use the life and experiences of William Livingston, New Jersey’s first governor, to explore three themes central to the Revolution’s impact on society—wartime destruction, wartime loyalty, and class conflict. I do not want it to be a traditional biography of Livingston, but rather a book that will use Livingston’s life in New Jersey to explore larger issues about dependency, class, race, citizenship, and loyalty. The project is still in its early stages so I am sure that it will evolve over time—a research leave in Spring 2015 will, I hope, solidify some of the project’s parameters more concretely.

JF: Sounds promising! Thanks Jim.

Thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of the Author’s Corner