Happy Hour with Adriane Lentz-Smith

Photo credit: Betsy Ferney/Little Elephant Photo


V&V friend and team member, Marcie Cohen Ferris, had a chat with Duke University Professor Adriane Lentz-Smith. Read their conversation and then come hear more from Adriane at the next Vert & Vogue Happy Hour event on Friday, August 16th, from 5:30 – 6:30pm. Tickets are free, but space is limited. RSVP TO RESERVE YOUR SPOT! 


Adriane Lentz-Smith


Adriane Lentz-Smith is Associate Professor and Associate Chair in the history department at Duke University where she holds secondary appointments in African & African-American Studies and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. A scholar of the black freedom struggle, Adriane became a historian because it accommodated her sense of moral urgency and as she tells us, “her profound nosiness about other people’s lives.”  She is the author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I, as well as the book-in-progress, “The Slow Death of Sagon Penn: State Violence and the Twilight of Civil Rights.” In 2019, Adriane was selected as the “Distinguished Alumna of the Duke University Talent Identification Program.” She holds a BA in History magna cum laude from Harvard-Radcliffe and a PhD in History from Yale University.

Adriane lives in Durham with her husband, Christian Lentz (a professor of geography at UNC-CH), and their children, Zora and Langston.





Adriane, you are deeply interested in the stories that people, communities, and nations tell about themselves.  Tell us a (short!) story about you and the community of your childhood, Jonesboro, Georgia. 

I once brought conversation to a halt in junior high school by saying, “Y’all know it is a good thing that the South lost the Civil War, right?” When I was growing up, Jonesboro had a road, a church, and a football stadium all named after Tara, the fictional plantation in Gone with the Wind. The town boosters had gone all in on marketing the Old South and the Lost Cause even as they studiously avoided any discussions of plantation slavery and its legacies. I was struck then and remain struck now by how people combine eagerness to embrace comforting fictions with reluctance to contend with uncomfortable realities.




Some may imagine the profession of HISTORIAN as ‘of another era,’ yet your teaching, writing, and public engagement powerfully grapple with the challenging landscapes we negotiate daily in this country. What does it mean to you to be a historian in 2019 in THIS America?

Historians are like Bran Stark at the end of Game of Thrones: we offer context—the long view—and with context, perspective. This year I have noted how the myopic cruelty of our public discourse echoes the sabre-rattling of the 1890s white supremacy campaigns, and my undergraduates are asking whether the world has always been this bananas or whether something essential has shifted. My answer, in classic professor fashion, is “both.”



In a piece you wrote for Duke’s Kenan Institute For Ethics, you say: “When writing about the past, we have obligations to the dead and the living.” How so? 

The answer is simple but not necessarily easy: we have to be honest, and we have to be fair. To paraphrase another, wiser historian, we must take our subjects seriously without necessarily taking them literally. We owe it to those who lived in the past and those seeking to understand past and present to expand our archives, to capture the experiences of everyday folks as well as the elite, and to tell more complex and nuanced stories.





The relationship between historical memory and history---and racial trauma---is particularly fraught in the South, and for that matter, throughout the nation. From the issue of contested Confederate statues, to contemporary violence inflicted on black bodies, to the current mischaracterization of our country’s immigrant foundations, what role can historians play in negotiating the growing polarization of Americans?


The distinguished southern writer Robert Penn Warren once wrote, “If poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.” Understandings of the past are ever-shifting, and those shifts are related to current configurations of power. When Americans downplay the role of white supremacy in past U.S. domestic and foreign policy, they are less likely to see and name white supremacy’s current manifestations for what they are; they tacitly authorize them to continue. So historians must disrupt that willful unseeing and remind us that people in the past saw the redemption of American democracy as an urgent, unending project.    



You’re teaching a ‘First-Year’ seminar at Duke this fall. What is the focus? And, working with students in their very-first-semester-at-college, any advice for colleagues!? 


The class is on “US History in Fiction and Fact,” and the syllabus rocks if I do say so myself! I want students to think about history as both site of study and canvas, so we’re reading monographs alongside books like Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, and Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred. One of the great things about first-semester students is that they will do so much more work than anyone else—older students have yet to teach them the fine art of slacking off—so they come to seminars prepared, curious, and thoughtful. 





In your book, Freedom Struggles, what drew you to World War 1 and the experience of African Americans in that transformative ‘moment’ in American life?


Actually, I came to the project through the undergraduate course that inspired my first-year seminar. In college I took a seminar on “History in Fiction and Fact” that required a narrative history as our final paper. I found a research treasure trove in an NAACP investigation of a mutiny of black soldiers in Houston, Texas and wrote a paper that basically said, “Did you know there were black soldiers in WWI and people were super mean to them?!” My analysis has grown slightly more sophisticated since then, but people were super mean to them.



What are you reading right now? 


Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls which is a beautifully crafted retelling of The Iliad from the perspective of women. My son and I just finished Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie, and I think it’s one of my favorite books of recent years. My ten-year-old has me reading Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard



One or two women’s voices you particularly value in America today? 


(I won’t say Michelle Obama because that’s too obvious, but know that she has a standing invitation to my imaginary cocktail party.) 


Megan Rapinoe has ruled this summer. She’s frank and ferocious and stunningly talented. Also, Amber Ruffin, the comedy writer for “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” Her commentary for her “Amber Says ‘What’?” segment is at once silly and slyly incisive about race, politics, and contemporary culture.



Your blue glasses are the BEST.  Just saying. 


Ha! Thanks! I have been wearing glasses since the age of three so I feel more comfortable with them on than off. I just bought a pair of magenta frames at Upchurch Optical that make the blue glasses seem downright subtle.



And, as it is Happy Hour, have you uncovered any ‘beverages’ of note in your archival research? And your own favorite? 


The French 75 is the best World-War-I-era drink I know. And I could get kicked out of the fellowship of southern historians for not answering bourbon, but my drink of the summer has been a mezcal margarita, up. I’ll go back to bourbon when the weather cools down.