On the Spot: Richard J. Blackett
‘I’d like to go back to midnight on 1 January 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.’
Why are you a historian of 19th-century America?
Arriving in Pittsburgh, my interest was piqued by the life of Martin Delany, a leading intellectual of 19th-century Black nationalism.
What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
How to understand a people’s search for freedom and equality.
Which history book has had the greatest influence on you?
Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery.
What book in your field should everyone read?
Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists.
Which moment would you most like to go back to?
Midnight on 1 January 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.
Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
C.L.R. James and E.P. Thompson.
Which person in history would you most like to have met?
Frederick Douglass and Toussaint Louverture.
How many languages do you have?
English, plus a little French and Spanish.
What historical topic have you changed your mind on?
The initial reaction of the Western Powers to the Holocaust.
What is the most common misconception about your field?
That the enslaved did not play a major role in the struggle for freedom.
Who is the most underrated person in history…
…and the most overrated?
What’s the most exciting field in history today?
All forms of Native American history.
Is there an important historical text you have not read?
I have yet to read the West Indian Emancipation Act in its entirety.
What’s your favourite archive?
Boston Public Library.
What’s the best museum?
The British Museum.
What technology has changed the world the most?
Historical drama or documentary?
Documentary. Specifically, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement, which ran from 1987-90.
The Parthenon or Machu Picchu?
What will future generations judge us most harshly for?
Our inability to ensure equality for all.
Richard J. Blackett is Andrew Jackson Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. His latest book is Samuel Ringgold Ward: A Life of Struggle (Yale University Press, 2023).