Christina Vella is Visiting Professor in the Master’s of Liberal Arts Program at Tulane University, and a consultant for the U.S. State Department. This interview is based on her book George Washington Carver: A Life (LSU Press, 2015)
JF: What led you to write George Washington Carver: A Life?
CV: Carver, who lived from 1862-1943, was one of the most famous men of his time, one of the few black people who were instantly identifiable and respected all over the country. Yet today, people barely recognize his name. He was a genius and a saint, and a quirky spirit full of mischief. When I discovered that there was no recent, fair-minded biography for adult readers, I decided to try to bring him back into the public eye.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of George Washington Carver: A Life?
CV: A prodigious inventor who developed thousands of products from throw-away materials, Carver took his work seriously, but not himself. He had as many problems as anyone else—ambivalent sexuality, heartbreak in love, a rotten boss, jealous colleagues, stinging disappointments— but he overcame them with simple kindness, humor, and prayer.
JF: Why do we need to read George Washington Carver?
CV: He’ll make you laugh. And you will see the Deep South as it was through his eyes. His friends—Booker T. Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Henry Wallace—are a hoot. Carver’s time, like every time, was full of original, eccentric characters.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CV: I’m just a historian, period. I think we all need to read as broadly as possible to see our country against the background of a complex world. Without that perspective, we are likely to think everything that happens to us is the best or worst event in the history of mankind. I decided on history some time in college, when I realized that it’s a lot of fun and you can’t ever run out of it.
JF: What is your next project?
CV: I’m writing a biography of Kemal Ataturk (first president of Turkey, great reformer, liberator of women, and so much more). Another genius, but surely no saint.
JF: Thanks, Christina!