About me

I started thinking about racial economic inequality early. At the start of fourth grade, my family moved from a U.S. airbase in Germany to Southern Maryland. We had lived in England before that. Entering a new classroom in Charles County, I noticed something that seemed unfair. Some students paid less for their lunch tickets, and a few got theirs for free. Back at Ramstein Air Force Base, inequality was hard to see in olive drab uniforms and uniformly drab base housing. Everyone shopped at the same commissary, and there were no lunch tickets. Something else stuck out: Black children tended to be in line for free and reduced meals. Why?

The fourth-grade curriculum didn’t help with that. It taught us that Maryland was a place of equality and a cradle of religious toleration. But there were other clues in the landscape. Seeing Black workers in the tobacco fields near school cutting the broad pungent leaves and laying them in long trails–they didn’t seem equal to the White man pointing at them. Neither did the school janitors, who were African American . They picked up a bucket for work, and my dad picked up a briefcase. So I asked my mom, a high school science teacher, who said the unfairness wasn’t lunch tickets but denying education to Black people in the first place. That didn’t make sense either. My fourth-grade teacher and the school principal were both Black. And they were educators. But mom said she was pretty sure they worked a lot harder for what they achieved than if they were White. And got less in return.

No one knew it then, in 1984, but US wealth inequality between typical Black and White families was as narrow as it had ever been. The gap would grow over the coming decades.

I began studying the roots of American racial inequality at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, through the words of Frederick Douglass and in the soil layers of archaeological sites in St. Mary’s City. I recall feeling a shiver pacing the packed dirt floor of a standing 1840s cabin built to house several families around a central hearth. The rough-hewn boards were sturdy, and the cabin had been partitioned in the center. It stood in sight of an elegant farmhouse, but both buildings were moved in 1994 to expose the 17th-century sites beneath. The removal was an act of willful blindness in retrospect, a grown-up version of the fourth-grade curriculum. Yet my interests soon ran to abstract ideas of truth, justice and goodness, and I studied philosophy and English literature for a year at Oxford. A mentor suggested developing a growing interest in religion at Harvard Divinity School. But I arrived in Cambridge as a theological kindergartner studying the Greek New Testament while sampling Jewish philosophy. It turned out that early Christians were also bookmakers. My final project returned to Frederick Douglass’s writings, using methods of biblical textual analysis to analyze the transmission of Douglass’s autobiography in the 1840s and 1850s.

Entering the University of Virginia’s history doctoral program, I followed an interest in Douglass, studying African and Southern history. The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies was abuzz with discussions of race and justice, and after completing a Master’s thesis on Douglass’s rhetorical performances, I embarked on a dissertation exploring his contexts: the family strategies of enslaved Americans in the 19th-century Chesapeake. As the project took shape, I was fortunate to receive a Smithsonian pre-doctoral fellowship at the National Museum of American History (2006) with exceptional mentors researching African American economic history and material culture. In 2008 I began teaching at Arizona State University in the Sonoran Desert.

At ASU, I offer seminars on the American Civil War Era, Business History, and have taught thematic courses like “Slavery and Human Trafficking,” “Global History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” and self-designed courses like “The Vernacular History of African Americans.” My teaching philosophy is, succinctly, that nothing human is alien because we are all involved in humanity. It was a starting point for making connections across time and geographic space, for learning to teach in ways that reflected ASU’s amazing student diversity. I teach history because, at its best, historical thinking organizes our experience by supplying context and through it empathy across intersections of gender, race, economic strata, and language, opening on understanding, hope, and a glimpse of the possible. ASU has recognized that effort with a Centennial Professorship, awarded by the Associated Students of Arizona State University (2011) and the Zebulon Pearce Distinguished Teaching Award (2019), which is the highest distinction in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

I am author of Unrequited Toil: A History of United States Slavery, The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860, and Money over Mastery, Family over Freedom: Slavery in the Antebellum Upper South.