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JCWE Author Interview: Alaina E. Roberts by Hilary N. Green

Today we share an interview with Alaina E. Roberts, who published an article in the June 2020 issue, titled “A Different Forty Acres: Land, Kin, and Migration in the Late Nineteenth-Century West.” Alaina is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh and was the 2017-18 Richards Center Postdoctoral Fellow. Her forthcoming book, I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land (University of Pennsylvania Press, Spring 2021), uses archival research and family history to upend the traditional narrative of Reconstruction, connecting debates about Black freedom and Native American citizenship to westward expansion onto Native land. Her writing has also appeared in the Washington Post, the Western Historical Quarterly, and Al Jazeera.

Thanks for participating in this interview, Alaina. Many of our readers have read your article in the June 2020 issue, but could you briefly summarize the focus and argument of your article?

“In “A Different Forty Acres,” I argue that nineteenth-century Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) allows us to see that, for some people of African descent, the acquisition of land was more important than the realization of political rights. Black women and men enslaved by Chickasaw Indians had a unique quandary: they could opt to receive 40 acres of land (as a consequence of post-Civil War negotiations between the Chickasaw Nation and the U.S. government) or they could leave the Chickasaw Nation (where they had no rights as citizens) and live in the United States, where they could share in the citizenship and political rights African Americans had just won. Surprisingly (to me, anyway!), a very large number chose to stay in the Chickasaw Nation as a people without any clear civic status. I believe this is a great case study in the diversity of Black historical actors’ definitions of freedom and belonging.”

One of the things I appreciate most about this article is how you demonstrate the value of reading the Dawes Roll testimonies for recovery of black and mixed-race Chickasaw freedpeople’s voices.  Can you talk a little about your process and any scholars guiding your reading practices?

“Two of the primary issues scholars who write about marginalized people face are a lack of sources written by the people they study and the fact that the majority of the archives we have were created to tell the stories of those with power, influence, and wealth. Following the lead of scholars like Tiya Miles and Marisa Fuentes, I read against the grain and used multiple sources to “fill in the blanks” when I could not locate any information on a specific person I wanted to write about. In this article (and in my forthcoming book, from which this article is derived), I take an archive (the Dawes Commission records) that was created to delegitimize and classify people of African descent and I use it to closely examine what Chickasaw freedpeople were trying to tell their listener about themselves, their families, and their communities.”

The entire interview can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.