Alejandra Dubcovsky is Assistant Professor of History at Yale University. This interview is based on her new book, Informed Power: Communication in the Early American South (Harvard University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Informed Power?
AD: I was writing a graduate student paper on the Stono Rebellion, the largest slave rebellion in colonial North America. I kept thinking: “how do the slaves in South Carolina know that if they reach Spanish Florida they will be freed?” Answering that seemingly straightforward question evolved into a dissertation and then into a book-length project that explored what information moved in the colonial world, who was responsible for spreading news, and how those processes unfolded. As I mapped the intricate and intersecting channels of information exchange, I realized that most of the nodes in these networks were made and maintained by native peoples. Furthermore, the ties that bound these networks together depended on non-epistolary and unofficial forms of communication. I had uncovered communication networks neither centered on European hubs nor dependent on written modes of communication. These multiethnic and multilingual channels of communication (and the relations they afforded) were actually instrumental for disseminating news and ideas in the American South, a region that lacked a regular mail system and operated until the 1730s without a printing press.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Informed Power?
AD: Informed Power argues that communication networks were crucial to the creation, development, and growth of colonial spaces and the conflicts that emerged within them. Indian, European, and African modes of communication, which are quite often unobserved and unremarked upon, help uncover everyday articulations of power that gave shape to the early South.
JF: Why do we need to read Informed Power?
AD: The study of communication networks provides a new approach to early American history. It shows the links among peoples who shared no consensus of the physical or political boundaries of their worlds without losing sight of the differences and inequalities among them. Examined alongside each other, Indian, European, and African networks generate a story about communication in which the main takeaway is neither the lack of information that plagued the colonial world nor the technological advances that, as time went on, supposedly facilitated the circulation of news. These communication networks show the uneven, varied, and interconnected relations that not only bound the early South but also informed power.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AD: I was a freshman at UC Berkeley and Robin Einhorn was my first professor; she taught history with such passion, power, and clarity that I was enthralled from day one. I did not grow up in the United States, so I was hearing the story of early America for the first time. American history was confusing, paradoxical, and fantastic in every possible way. I also found the whole process of doing history compelling: the archive, the sources, as well as the interpretative and analytical work. But for all my curiosity and drive, I would not be an American historian without programs like the McNair and Haas Scholars Program or the support of my teachers and mentors.
JF: What is your next project?
AD: My next project is on the multiple fronts of Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713). And I have two concurrent collaborative projects. The first is an interdisciplinary study of the role of translation and literacy in the colonial world. And the second is also an interdisciplinary study that uses and interrogates anthropology and archeology to study the American South.
JF: Thanks, Alejandra. Great stuff!