Public History, Autoethnography, and Community: An Interview with Jodi Skipper

In today’s post, Celeste Henery, a regular contributor of Black Perspectives, interviews Dr. Jodi Skipper on her new book, Behind the Big House: Reconciling Slavery, Race, and Heritage in the U.S. South (University of Iowa Press, 2022). Skipper is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. Behind the Big House gives readers a candid, behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to interpret the difficult history of slavery in the U.S. South. The book explores eight years of Skipper’s collaboration with the Behind the Big House program, a community-based model used at local historic sites to address slavery in the collective narrative of U.S. history and culture. In laying out her experiences through an autoethnographic approach, part memoir and part ethnography, Skipper also seeks to help other activist scholars of color negotiate public scholarship with the nuances of place, the academic public sphere, and its ambiguous systems of reward, recognition, and evaluation.

Celeste Henery (CH): The project at the heart of this book is the collaborative effort to create a heritage tour around the enslaved in Mississippi. Can you say more about the “Behind the Big House” project?

Jodi Skipper (JS): Behind the Big House is a collaborative effort between several individuals and groups working to retool a Mississippi city’s historical narrative from one which largely interpreted the lives of slave-owning families to a more comprehensive incorporation of the lives of the enslaved. The program was started in 2012 by two private homeowners, Jenifer Eggleston and Chelius Carter, who have a slave dwelling on their property, the Hugh Craft House. The program largely serves as a counternarrative to the city’s Annual Pilgrimage Tour of Historic Homes and Churches, its oldest and biggest tourist attraction. As a scholar-in-collaboration, I work as a program docent; am on the board of Gracing the Table a local racial reconciliation group that assesses the program’s impact on the local community, and helps to preserve material culture through public archaeological excavations (with my bioarchaeology colleague Dr. Carolyn Freiwald) at the Hugh Craft House. 

CH: The book is highly interdisciplinary and you call it a work of public scholarship. Which conversations do you hope this book might influence? 

JS: I hope that my book might influence conversations about interdisciplinarity and about what it means to write for broader audiences, especially those outside of academia. I was largely trained by activist anthropologists, who were also Black studies scholars; historical archaeologists; and public historians at the University of Texas. After shifting from graduate school to an academic position, I realized that there was a barrier between how I framed my work as activist scholarship and those in other fields, largely the humanities, doing comparable collaborative community projects. My academic training crosses several disciplinary boundaries and public scholarship seems to be a more accessible term for interdisciplinary audiences. 

To me, public scholarship mandates sharing authority with and supporting community collaborators with their specific goals. We create knowledge together through sustained, complex work. I think that public scholars, including those who consider themselves activists, are much better at framing this kind of work than they have ever been, but stop short of what it means to write for the communities for whom and with which we work. I hoped to do that with this book, but I don’t think that I was successful at that effort. It still largely reads like a book for academics, that places community voices on a similar theoretical plane. At best, I was able to write across disciplinary boundaries, a skill that I don’t think most academics have because it’s not an institutionally valued one. Interdisciplinarity, although valued in academic rhetoric, isn’t valued in academic practice. I now believe that interdisciplinary writing is the logical first step to writing for audiences outside of academia. That’s one conversation that I hope this book might influence. 

CH: This book centers on the collaborative and local nature of your scholarship in Holly Springs to which you just gestured. You write, “My method was to support and learn from community members. My theory is the retrospective learning from this experience.” Can you speak to both aspects as personal and academic values? 

JS: I started my work in Holly Springs with two goals in mind: 1) a service-learning experience for my students and 2) to work with people who were helping to remedy the silencing of enslaved people on the Mississippi antebellum tourism landscape. I did not have a research project or agenda. The support that my students and I gave to those who founded the Behind the Big House slave-dwelling interpretation program, and those who founded Gracing the Table is how I learned to do slavery interpretation and racial reconciliation work. Somehow, I knew that would happen. I was okay with the unknown. What I didn’t expect was how much that slow work would conflict with my academic job requirements. In retrospect, what I gained personally from that collaborative work is a supportive network of people outside of academia, who were ready, willing, and emotionally healthy enough to do the work of racial repair. What I gained academically is a rich and nuanced understanding of public scholarship, and race relations, that I hope can benefit others in academia seeking to do similar work. 

CH: Although you share about the intense work of collaboration, you write about the rewards of your engagements. Simultaneously, you speak about the lack of academic rewards you received for such grounded work during your tenure process. Can you speak to this juxtaposition and what you hope to impart?

JS: I call the section of the book in which I write about this “Research: Publications by Another Name,” because I wanted to speak to how collaborative work’s value, at least at my institution, is innately tied to published research on that collaboration. The results of that work might enhance the reputation of the University with local communities, bring service-learning opportunities to students, and enhance faculty knowledge, but doesn’t weigh much when it comes to faculty evaluations. We are evaluated based on service, research (meaning publications), and teaching, with research carrying a disproportionate value. Even when my university institution publicized that it valued work that transformed communities, there was no structural support in that tenure and promotion process that qualified that value. No journal or book publications essentially meant no research. I felt stuck, without the ability to advocate for research that inextricably linked service and teaching. I’m still not sure how to do that. I guess that this book is one way. I received tenure, because I eventually published, not because I did meaningful community work. I think that if universities ask academics to help transform communities, without incentives in the T&P process for doing so, then they hope for a failed experiment, or for boundless labor that benefits the institution, publicly, while taking personal tolls on engaged academics, privately. 

CH: You write about making difficult professional decisions and ultimately ones to create an academic path reflective of your values. I observe a similar effort in how you crafted the book. What were the advantages and disadvantages of documenting your research autoethnographically?

JS: Autoethnography gave me a lot of freedom to write my personal experience into the narrative of slavery interpretations of Mississippi. I wasn’t separate from it in practice, so it didn’t really make sense for me to separate myself from it in writing. I struggled with finding a book series and/or editors who understood what it means to sit in academic disciplinary ambiguity and write through that with life experience. The University of Iowa Press’s Humanities and Public Life Series gave me some much-needed flexibility in framing research and writing methods. 

The disadvantage is that some other academics tend to segregate this method as an activist and, not academic, which is not how I was trained to think. I also just believe that academic work is innately political and that such a separation isn’t optional. The disadvantage is that this book might not be accessible to people accustomed to differently structured forms of writing.

CH: You mention loneliness a couple of times in the text, and even accepted its presence in your academic life. I had a visceral sense of it through the tone and reflection in your writing. I also think it’s something present in academia, but less discussed. Can you elaborate on your understanding of loneliness in research and academic life and why you chose to speak specifically about it? 

JS: I think that the loneliness that I felt in academic life was the result of coming from a graduate program in which I felt included and transitioning to spaces in which people thought about academic work differently. I didn’t realize how similar I was to those in my doctoral program cohort until I was no longer with them. I was trained with method and theory that doesn’t resonate with the majority of anthropologists. In addition, I came into my academic job in a Sociology & Anthropology department, with no anthropologists doing comparable work; and with a joint appointment in southern studies, which leans heavily towards literary critics and traditional historians. Those in my department who did community-engaged work were sociologists. I didn’t feel like I fit anywhere and, when I left graduate school, didn’t know that might even be an issue. In retrospect, I was naïve. I disproportionately leaned on other Black women, who understood my struggles at some level, and became even lonelier as they began to leave the University. Even if I didn’t see them consistently, knowing that there were there meant something. Losing them has been a difficult void to fill. 

CH: Ethnographies capture a certain time and space, which means that more recent changes aren’t reflected in the text. Where are things now with the tour and your collaboration? 

JS: Covid-19 caused us to postpone the Behind the Big House tour in 2020 and 2021. I continued to work through Gracing the Table, with Facebook Live discussions on contemporary race issues. That has helped us to reach a broader audience. Behind the Big House resumed momentarily to film components of the program to make it accessible, during times when we literally can’t be together, or as an archive for an uncertain future. Behind the Big House is an all-volunteer effort, with private homeowners, and managed by a local historic preservation entity, Preserve Marshall County and Holly Springs, Inc. One homeowner, who was a major program collaborator, died in January of 2021, and many of the homes on tour (all private) are either at risk, due to neglect, or the difficulty of maintaining them economically. I am now part of a newly developing non-profit, North Mississippi Roots and Wings, which hopes to help with local history preservation and to bring awareness to the need to save slave dwellings, like the ones in North Mississippi. In 2015, the Behind the Big House program was adapted by the historic preservation alliance of Arkansas, Preserve Arkansas, through the leadership of fellow archaeologist Dr. Jodi Barnes. The Arkansas program continues to be active. In addition, the tour is spreading to another Mississippi city, Columbus, sponsored by the Preservation Society of Columbus. I am optimistic that Behind the Big House will become the replicable model that its founders hoped it to be. My collaboration is to help them to sustain that effort as long as they can. 

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Celeste Henery

Celeste Henery is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of race, gender, and health. Her work explores what it means to feel well in a world crosscut by inequality. She is a Research Associate in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

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