Afro-Am professor pens book on abolition

By Staff

Courtesy of The Univ of North Carolina Press

On a Friday morning at 5 a.m., Manisha Sinha – a professor in the University of Massachusetts Afro-American studies department – sat typing away at the 400-page manuscript of her upcoming book, “Redefining Democracy: African Americans and the Movement to Abolish Slavery.”

The book describes the role of African Americans, as well as white Americans, in the abolitionist movement during the 19th century.

It is a book on “reimagining the abolitionist as a whole, and all of its complexities,” she said.

Sinha still has two more chapters to write, and the Yale University Press plans to publish the book in 2013.

Sinha’s first book, “The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina,” focused on the Civil War, proslavery ideology, Southern white slaveholders and secession.

In contrast, she decided to write her upcoming book about people who favored abolition.

“I wanted to write a book about people I like, because I didn’t like the people I wrote about in my first book,” she said. “They were all defenders of slavery.”

Sinha became interested in 19th century American history when she recognized its relationship to her father and grandfather’s experiences living in India under British rule, noting connections to segregation and disfranchisement.

Their experiences are comparable to “the experiences of African Americans growing up in a predominantly white society, and one that did not accord them equality or respect,” she said.

Sinha said her inspiration for writing about history was sparked by discussions around the kitchen table with her immediate family.  Growing up in New Delhi, India, Sinha said she, her sister and her parents, all of whom earned advanced degrees in history, would discuss the subject over dinner. Today, her father writes military history, and her sister teaches history at the University of Michigan.

“It’s a real family vocation,” she mused.

Sinha said she also drew inspiration from professors she admired while studying at Delhi University.

“Here were people who were not being paid a lot of money, but who taught just for the love of the subject, and I really appreciated that,” she said.

It was because of a professor that she changed her academic focus. In 1984, Sinha attended Stony Brook University, in New York. Leslie Owens – a professor who focused on the history of slavery – inspired her to switch to American history.

“He was in the Afro-Am department, he was not in the history department, where I was,” she said.

She sought him out and became his teaching assistant. She said she loved working with him and her passion for American history, particularly African American history, grew.

He told her, “If you want to write about slavery, no one here can really work with you on it. You should move to another school. Don’t stay here.”

Sinha decided to leave a year later to pursue a Ph.D. in American history at Columbia University. But she said she never forgot all of the support she received from her professors at Stony Brook.

“They all wrote me fantastic letters of recommendation. They didn’t hold it against me that I wanted to leave. They realized that what I wanted to do, I couldn’t do at Stony Brook,” she remembered.

Sinha had believed that coming to America as an Indian pursuing a career in American history would be difficult.

She thought that people would say, “Americans have a better sense of American history than this Indian woman.”

But it hasn’t been a problem.

“There may have been people who may have doubted my ability, but it never really held me back, and I just decided that the best way to answer those doubts is just to be the best that you can be in your particular field, and then people actually listen to what you have to say,” she said.

Sinha noted how lucky she was for receiving scholastic fellowships, helping to finance her education. She added she worries that students today may be denied a college education due to a lack of funds.

“Now, educational institutions act like private corporations. They want to make money, but they don’t realize that education is a social good…you create an educated citizenry [through accessible education],” she said.

“I was lucky that I never faced that obstacle,” she continued.

Compared to other schools at which she’s taught, such as Columbia and Harvard, Sinha likes UMass, as she feels it is committed to making education financially accessible.

Sinha encourages students to take advantage of their years here.

“Remember that you’ll be working on something for the rest of your life, so don’t do something because you think it’s going to earn you just a lot of money, or it’s trendy…money is a means to an end.  Do something that you’re passionate about and you’ll be happy for the rest of your life.”

Mary Reines can be reached at [email protected]