Top Young Historians: 91 – Micki McElya


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

91: Micki McElya, 5-13-08

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Assistant Professor of History, University of Connecticut, August 2008 –
Assistant Professor of American Studies, University of Alabama, August 2003 – August 2008
Area of Research: 20th Century U.S., History of Women and Gender, History of Sexuality, Cultural History, Race and Representation, the U.S. South, Visual Culture, Memory, Feminist and Queer Theories
Education: Ph.D., Department of History, New York University, 2003
Major Publications: McElya is the author of Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007) winner of the 2007 Myers Center Outstanding Book Award, Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights. She is currently working on “Flesh Trades: Capitalism,
Prostitution, Micki McElya JPGand Anti-Slavery Politics, 1820 to the Present.”
McElya is also the author of numerous scholarly journal articles, book chapters and reviews including among others: “Painter of the Right: Thomas Kinkade’s Political Art” in Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall, Alexis L. Boylan, ed. (Durham: Duke University Press, forthcoming); “Commemorating the Color Line: The National Mammy Monument Controversy of the 1920s,” in Monuments to the Lost Cause: Women, Art and the Landscape of Southern Memory, Cynthia Mills and Pamela Simpson, eds. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003); “Trashing the Presidency: Race, Class and the Clinton-Lewinsky Affair,” in Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the Public Interest, Lauren Berlant and Lisa Duggan, eds. (New York: NYU Press, 2001).
Awards: McElya is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
2007 Myers Center Outstanding Book Award for Clinging to Mammy, Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights, Boston, MA;
Newberry Library Short-Term Resident Fellowship for Individual Research, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois, Summer 2005;
Univeristy of Alabama: Research Advisory Council Grant, Summer 2006;
Faculty Development Grant, Spring 2005;
New York University: Prize Teaching Fellow, Department of History, 2002-03;
Warren Dean Dissertation Fellow, Dept. of History, Spring 2002;
Penfield Fellowship, Department of History, Fall 2001;
Margaret Brown Fellowship, Department of History, 2000-01 Summer Predoctoral Fellowship, Graduate School of A & S, 2000;
Summer Research Grant, Department of History, 1998.

Personal Anecdote

I was a pretty awful student in college. I skipped a bunch of classes and toured through several majors, eventually declaring in History because I had taken more courses in the subject than any other and I wanted to graduate on time. In the fall of my senior year, I took the required, but dreaded, methodologies course that had a reputation for being both difficult and boring. Yet at midterm, with the jolting suddenness and impact of a body blow, I realized that I had to become a historian when we read Said’s Orientalism and then the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality. I can recall that class and those few weeks with great clarity, for it was the moment everything— everything—changed for me. It was no longer possible to see the world in the same way, to take school and my privilege for granted, or to understand the archives, history, and history-making as anything less than deeply political. With this new understanding of power and the transformative possibilities of engaged scholarship, I was drawn not only to graduate but on to graduate school and to work on identity, political culture, and memory.

My first book began as a dissertation on the attempt by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to erect a memorial to “the faithful colored mammies of the South” in Washington, D.C., in 1923 and the furious controversy that ultimately (and thankfully) stopped it. This history is included in the book, which is a wider examination of the incredible hold the idea of the mammy has had on American culture, politics, and imaginations across the twentieth century to the present day. It explores why this particular story about slavery, the South, gender, race, and sexuality has been so durable and what this has meant for women in the U.S. and for national and local politics, what it says about historical memory and its effects, and the scope of resistance to these images within black freedom struggles.

My continued interest in the way the U.S. has, or has not, reckoned with the history of slavery and its impacts upon contemporary experience and political economies threads through my current research. My next book is a study of the rhetorics of slavery and abolition in American anti-prostitution campaigns from the antebellum period to the dawn of the twenty-first century. With a focus on politics and popular culture and organized around three historical moments—antebellum reform and abolitionism, the Progressive-Era “white slavery” panic, and current activism to end global sex trafficking—I hope this book will make important contributions to the histories of feminism, prostitution, capitalism, and racial formation.

A required course changed my life. As a teacher now, my primary aim is to disrupt tendencies toward passive learning, jar students’ assumptions about their environments and historical knowledge, and to ignite their critical vision and sense of the moral urgency of studying U.S. history and culture. I believe the ability to historicize— meaning not only to contextualize and assess development over time, but also to recognize dominant narratives and the workings of power—is a necessary skill for leading a thoughtful and engaged life, in and out of the classroom.


By Micki McElya

  • The myth of the faithful slave lingers because so many white Americans have wished to live in a world in which African Americans are not angry over past and present injustices, a world in which white people were and are not complicit, in which the injustices themselves—of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing structural racism—seem not to exist at all. The mammy figure affirmed their wishes. The narrative of the faithful slave is deeply rooted in the American racial imagination. It is a story of our national past and political future that blurs the lines between myth and memory, guilt and justice, stereotype and individuality, commodity and humanity…. Clinging to Mammy The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America JPG W.E.B Du Bois famously predicted in 1903 that the twentieth century would be defined by “the problem of the color line.” This book examines how that line was drawn and violently maintained through stories of interracial affection and faithful slavery, and how it was given shape in fantasies about black women who crossed it. It also explores the diversity of black activisms that have challenged, and at times, strategically affirmed this version of black womanhood and history, and to what ends. The problem of the color line, with its animating faithful slave narratives, has persisted into the twenty-first century. If we are to reckon honestly with the history and continued legacies of slavery in the United States, we must confront the terrible depths of desire for the black mammy and the way it still drags at struggles for real democracy and social justice. — Micki McElya in “Clinging to Mammy The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America “

About Micki McElya

  • Few American icons have been as comforting or as destructive as the black mammy. If lynching was the brutal face of white supremacy, Aunt Jemima and her ilk were the face of the white fantasy of harmonious race relations. With exceptional scholarly craft, McElya reveals the distortions, hardships, and tragedy that the smiling face and jovial demeanor of the mythic black mammy were intended to obscure. This book signals the arrival of a talented new historian. — W. Fitzhugh Brundage, author of “The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory” reviewing “Clinging to Mammy The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America “
  • Americans loved Aunt Jemima and their mammies. There is no more powerful and damaging popular symbol in American culture than the faithful slave in all its manifestations. McElya’s sensitive, surprising, and enlightening book will make readers wonder at how desperate white America was to believe that slaves were loyal and content. This book is painfully marvelous scholarship that should reach a broad readership. — David Blight, author of “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory” reviewing “Clinging to Mammy The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America “
  • McElya’s powerful blend of cultural and political history illuminates the ways twentieth-century white Southerners tried to maintain their historic privilege while denying the violence of their past. Following the trajectory from Aunt Jemima to Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen,” Clinging to Mammy traces white Americans’ efforts to define, coerce and reap the benefits of African American women’s labor while maintaining a firm grip on political power. — Jane Dailey, author of “Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia” reviewing “Clinging to Mammy The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America “
  • McElya shows vividly how “mammy” serves as a perfect archetype for analyzing cultural politics of race and gender, and how they changed. She gives us parlor theatrics, courtroom drama, legislative debate, and movement politics. This is a wonderfully expansive book. — Scott A Sandage, author of “Born Losers: A History of Failure in America” reviewing “Clinging to Mammy The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America “
  • “If only every tacher was like her.”… “Always willing to meet with students, very understanding, makes material intersting. Overall, my favorite instructor in my 3 years at UA.”… “She is an excellent professor ,and willing to take time with her students to help them better understand what she is teaching.”…” Dr. McElya is one of the few teachers at the University who genuinely cares about her students’ progress in the class. Very honest and understanding person.” — Anonymous Students

Posted on Monday, May 12, 2008 at 12:08 AM

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