Long before there was “Brangelina,” there was Josephine Baker, the American-born French dancer who in her later years adopted 12 children from around the world and raised them in a castle in the south of France.
“I love her imaginative politics. This was all built in the midst of the Cold War in which there were very clear lines that defined who was good and who was bad, who was trouble and who was not, and she disrupts all of that with these adoptions. She’s just a tremendously transgressive and challenging figure, an enigmatic subject for a biographer,” said Matthew Pratt Guterl, who is currently wrapping up a book about this lesser-known facet of the famous black dancer’s life.
Guterl approaches all his research subjects as he has the Baker book — with an historian’s eye for teasing out various transnational, global, and comparative perspectives. His other current project is a book on how people have come to see race and how the media and pop culture shape that perception.
Past projects have included a book on the changing dynamic of racial classification in New York City between 1900 and World War II. Told through the eyes of four very prominent people who came into contact with the changing language of race at the time, Guterl examined why classification of race went from a very specific national origin to very broad generalizations, like black and white, that had more to do with skin color than ethnicity.
He has also written a book on Southern slavery, linking the old South directly to the Caribbean.
These seemingly disparate topics share the common bond of focusing on the link between race and nation, something Guterl believes is an essential piece of U.S. history that doesn’t always get told.
“When we write the history of race relations and we talk only about whites and blacks, what we’re doing is reinscribing new categories back on old bodies. And when we write about ‘Brangelina’ as if he and she were brand new and radical and avant garde and part of the postracial context, really that’s a very old thing,” Guterl said.
Jointly appointed in Africana studies and American studies, Guterl is the first hire under the recently created graduate program in Africana studies. He received his Ph.D. from Rutgers University and went on to teach both African American and American studies as a professor at Indiana University. No stranger to Brown, Guterl was a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity from 2001 to 2003.
“I think of my two years here as a postdoc as being intellectually awesome. I have always loved this place and I feel tremendously fortunate to be back here,” Guterl said.
Recalling his departure from the University at a time when the humanities were being given renewed focus, Guterl, who penned an essay for Inside Higher Education titled “The Humanities Matter More,” said he’s excited to return to see the continuation of the initiative.
“I think nationally it’s become an accepted fact that humanists should be defensive about their place in the university. What I like about a place like Brown is that it seems to be bucking the conventional wisdom and remembering that what we do best in this country is humanistically inclined education.”