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Welcoming Rachel Jean-Baptiste

Professor Rachel Jean-Baptiste has joined us in July 2023 as The Michelle Mercer and Bruce Golden Family Professorship in Feminist and Gender Studies. A social and legal historian, she works on gender and sexuality in colonial West and Equatorial Africa. She is the author of two books, Multiracial Identities in Colonial French Africa: Race, Childhood and Citizenship (Cambridge University Press, 2023) and Conjugal Rights: Marriage, Sexuality, and Urban Life in Colonial Libreville, Gabon (Ohio University Press, 2014). At Stanford, she will also serve as Faculty Director of the Program on Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (FGSS).

How did you become interested in African history?

I've always loved all things history, since my undergraduate years.  The courses available to me touched on nearly every corner of the globe - Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the United States.  The gaping hole was Africa. Yet, I wasn't even conscious of this gap until my senior year, when I saw Adwa, a documentary directed by
Haile Gerima, an Ethiopian-American filmmaker.  Using oral, visual, and textual sources, Gerima narrated the 1896 battle in which Ethiopian military forces of varied ethno-language groups defeated Italian forces and mitigated the expansion of colonialism. I was aghast that I never heard of such dynamic histories, and I wanted to learn more.  I applied for and secured a Thomas J. Watson fellowship, with which I traveled to West Africa and Atlantic Europe to explore how the trans-Atlantic slave trade was commemorated in public history and tourism circuits.  Upon my return, I spent a few years working in international health and development organizations in Washington D.C. However, as I did the research for grant proposals of projects that were to take place in Africa , I was struck by the outdated and inaccurate portrayals of African societies in published works that did not match the dynamism and complexities that I witnessed during my Watson Fellowship.  I then decided to pursue a PhD and become a researcher, writer, and teacher of African history, to contribute to more accurate and nuanced knowledge about African pasts.  

Your most recent book unpacks multi-directional processes of racialization in global history. What are some challenges you faced in conducting your research?

I faced several challenges.  One was in even getting access to sources.  For example, the relationships and stories that I explore were ones that colonial states and societies sought to keep hidden.  Therefore, there were files that I had to ask permission to access from French colonial archives or wait until time limits on their availability had passed.  Furthermore, there were moments during which civil unrest and material conditions limited my ability to travel to certain sites in Africa.  For example, the Republic of the Congo had experienced civil conflict for much of the early 2000's and the national archives were closed. When I was finally able to travel there in 2018,  three days after my arrival, part of the archives building fell into a sinkhole which made it impossible to continue to consult records.  Lastly, I was telling the intimate, familial, emotional history of people's lives. I had to be empathetic to how individuals expressed stories of loss, pain, and abandonment, to honor their stories and tell them in a way that respected peoples' wishes for both acknowledgment and privacy, and in ways that confirmed dignity. 

Which topics are you excited to teach at Stanford?

I'll be teaching in many different units at Stanford and will do so in a way that merges my focus on gender studies, history, and African and global affairs.  In the FGSS, I hope to teach about the ways in which societies across the globe and in different historical moments have lived and thought about feminism, gender, and sexuality. I am also excited to leverage Stanford's legacy in technological innovation to cultivate new coursework and undergraduate and graduate student curricular offerings in the global history of gender and technology/technologies. 

What texts inspired you the most in your career? Why?

Two texts have been inspiring, for different reasons.  One is Albert Camus’ The First Man. As a student of French language and literature, I appreciated Camus’ brilliant writing.  Yet at the beginning of this somewhat autobiographical novel, there is a quote about how poor people do not have robust memories, implying that poor people have no history.  This did not align with my research findings about how the most seemingly dispossessed people across time and space lived rich and impactful lives whether they travelled far and wide or remained in places of birth. To a certain extent, I've been striving to disprove this text by Camus over the course of my career! At the opposite end stands Michel-Rolph Trouillot's Silencing the Past.  Like me, Trouillot was born in Haiti. His book starts with "I grew up in a family where history sat at the dinner table."  This line encapsulates his exploration of how history lives in multiple spaces and places, and yet how unequal access to knowledge production shapes whose history gets told and how history is narrated.  It is a brilliant reflection on how to democratize historical research.  

You are an accomplished scholar, a dedicated teacher, and an impactful administrator. How do you balance these roles?

I think of higher education as an ecosystem in which many different units simultaneously operate to create learning opportunities. Given this dynamic, I've found that wearing different hats allows me to collaboratively contribute to expanding access and achievement. Pursuing scholarship, frequently through co-working with research partners, has allowed me to contribute to the production of knowledge and innovation that is at the core of what universities do.  Yet, a university can only truly thrive to the extent that it facilitates student exploration and learning; so that students take what they have learned to lead impactful lives. Thirdly, institutional policies and infrastructures profoundly shape research, teaching, learning, and all of the forms of labor that go into the operations of a university.  Therefore, serving in administrative roles allows me to contribute to the shaping of a culture and frameworks in which all members of a university community can thrive.