On the Spot: Vincent Brown

‘History unfolds in discernible but unpredictable patterns.’

 ‘The best museum? The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.’ Image: Wiki Commons.

Why are you a historian of slavery?

I found my calling when I heard Bob Marley sing about black people: ‘We’re the survivors, like Daniel out of the lion’s den.’

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?

How it unfolds in discernible but unpredictable patterns.

Which history book has had the greatest influence on you?

C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution.

What book in your field should everyone read?

Stephanie E. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

Back to any future free of war, exploitation and indignity.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?

David Barry Gaspar, Steven Hahn and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich each helped me cultivate my interests, hone my skills and find my voice in indispensable ways.

Which person in history would you most like to have met?

Paul Robeson. 

How many languages do you have?

My native English, plus fractions of Spanish and French. 

What’s the most exciting field in history today?

Environmental and/or gender history.

Which genre of history do you like least?

History that takes no risks, changes no minds and reaffirms smug certitudes.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

I began my historical studies convinced that slavery had deprived African Americans of history, culture and tradition; I’ve spent the rest of my career atoning for my error.  

Is there a major historical text you have not read?

I’m so far behind, this question makes me feel anxious.

What’s your favourite archive? 

The British National Archives at Kew have been so so good to me.

What’s the best museum? 

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

Normans or Anglo-Saxons? 


Rome or Athens? 

Rome. It was the setting for so many great movies during my childhood. 

Braudel or Gibbon? 

W.E.B. Dubois.

Michelangelo or Frida Kahlo?

Frida Kahlo.

What is the most common misconception about your field?

That the history of slavery is the history of black people.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?

Our inability to live lightly upon the Earth.


Vincent Brown is Charles Warren Professor of History and Professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University. His latest book, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Belknap, 2020), is a finalist for the 2020 Cundill History Prize.