Posted on September 04 2020
An Assistant Dean and Associate Professor at NC State, an award winning author, a seasoned podcast producer and host, and lauded by History News Network is one of the top tweeting historians, Blair L.M. Kelley is active inside academia and out. Recently, Kelley started Amplify History Training and Consulting to provide historically-based racial equity courses. We caught up with Blair to talk about her journey as a historian, her upcoming book, and how social media and history have come to intersect.
Join us on Zoom from 5:30-6:30pm as Blair L.M. Kelley talks about what led her to this work, what we should know about our history as North Carolinians, and what it’s like to be a tweeting historian. RSVP here and you’ll receive a personalized Zoom link on Friday, September 18!
Tell us a little bit about where you’re from.
I’m from South Jersey, right outside of Philadelphia but I’ve been in Durham all my adult life. My family migrated from the South to Philadelphia from Georgia and South Carolina on my mother’s side of the family, and the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia on my father’s side. I’ve been exploring those ancestral journeys in my current book, so it has been a real gift to learn much more about them through documents and to spend time writing and theorizing about that journey.
Was there a moment that you realized you wanted to be a historian? Was it more of a gradual journey?
I have older parents, so both my father and mother, told me lots of stories about their experiences growing up. Living through the end of WWII as small children, being teens in the fifties, being part of the first generations to desegregate. So I’ve always had a keen sense of the past from what they shared with me. My maternal grandparents did the same, so the kind of history I strive to write is grounded in the stories they told me growing up, from the perspective of everyday people.
The History News Network highlighted you as one of the top tweeting historians and you’re known as one of the first generation Twitter historians (@profblmkelley). What do you see as the responsibility of historians on social media platforms and how do you hope that a platform like Twitter can broaden the scope of learning?
I have always enjoyed Twitter as a community, as a space for interaction with folks I might not have a chance to know in real life. Twitter taught me that lots of people who are not historians enjoy history, and care about learning about the past in order to better understand our context. As a historian of social movements, I also appreciate the opportunity to watch today’s movement unfold in real time. It's been powerful to bring to bear what I have learned about the past to inform an unfolding present moment.
Your podcast Historical Blackness explored how history can bring perspective to current events. 6 years after the release of the podcast, each episode still rings relevant today. It strikes home the reality of the endurance needed in activism. In a society that expects everything at the speed of Amazon Prime, this necessary endurance seems like it could be a hard pill to swallow. How do you tackle this with your students?
My book Right to Ride is about a generation of activists who protested the passage laws segregating trains and streetcars. They were all just in their cause. They were the forerunners of the civil rights struggles to dismantle segregation and none of them lived to see their cause be a success. So it’s a reminder that the movement is bigger than us and it's constant. We can’t rest.
What do you wish more North Carolinians knew about in regards to our state’s history and voter suppression?
That this generation of voter suppression via gerrymandering that we’ve been struggling against since 2010 is fueled by the low turnout at midterm elections. It’s a reminder every election matters. Always do your best to show up and participate.
Tell us about your upcoming book Black Folk: The Promise of the Black Working Class.
Black Folk is a history of the black working class from first emancipations to the present. So often when people discuss the working class, they think of white working men. Black Folk explores what difference it makes to look at the world from the perspective of the black working class. It’s a tremendous labor of love that has given me the chance to incorporate the stories of my family into the larger narrative of Black history, the way I’ve always thought about it. I feel fortunate to be at work on it.
What are you reading right now?
Beyond reading for the book project, I’m excited to read Martha Jones’ Vanguard, Jessica Marie Johnson’s Wicked Flesh, Shannon King’s Whose Harlem is This, Anyway?, Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, and LaRhonda Manigault Bryant’s Talking to the Dead. There are always more books in my cue!
Who are some other historians we should be following on social media right now?
I love so many voices on Twitter, this is hard. I follow a variety of scholars from different disciplines so just history is tough, but here goes.
My friend LaShawn Harris @madameclair08, is an amazing scholar and a generous advocate for the discipline. She is the author of Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners. In her feed she is always encouraging and amplifying other scholars.
I must shout out my fellow Duke alum Charles McKinney, @CharlesWMcKinn2, he tweets so well about history, politics, the Movement for Black Lives, and being a father and a husband. It’s a smart and funny twitter feed.
My friend Martha Jones, @marthasjones_ is also a must-follow historian! She is so generous and brilliant, her new book Vanguard at the top of my must-read list this month!
During these unprecedented times, what are some ways that you’re taking care of yourself?
I’ve made space for my work, my family, for music, dancing, and good food.
What do you look forward to most post-pandemic?
Vacation with my family and a weekend getaway with my husband.
And, as it is happy hour, what is your beverage of choice?
Crown Royal peach.
BLAIR L.M. KELLEY BIO
Blair L.M. Kelley is Assistant Dean for Interdisciplinary Studies and International Programs in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and Associate Professor of History at North Carolina State University. Author of the award-winning book, Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson, Kelley is currently working on a new book project called Black Folk: The Promise of the Black Working Class. A veteran podcast producer and host, Kelley has been a guest on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry Show, NPR’s Here and Now, and WUNC’s The State of Things. She has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Ebony, and Jet Magazine. Active on twitter as @profblmkelley for over ten years, Kelley was named one of the top tweeting historians by History News Network.
Kelley received her B.A. from the University of Virginia in History and African and African American Studies. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in History, and graduate certificates in African and African American Studies and Women’s Studies at Duke University.
WE HOPE YOU’LL JOIN US ON FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 18TH TO HEAR FROM OUR SPECIAL GUEST BLAIR L.M. KELLEY. RSVP HERE AND YOU WILL RECEIVE A PERSONALIZED ZOOM LINK ON THE DAY OF THE EVENT!