UCLA history professor Brenda Stevenson spends much of her academic life inhabiting the stories of people who lived through some of our country’s most painful moments and eras.
She largely does this by dutifully unearthing and listening carefully for the quietest voices from our shared history, seeking out the perspective of those most silenced and least acknowledged thanks to their race, gender or social standing. And as a historian of slavery and the Antebellum south, Stevenson often finds herself immersed in the stories of those who encompass all three.
Stevenson will share her approach with a talk titled “The Gifts of the Storyteller,” Wednesday Oct. 30 during UCLA’s 127th Faculty Research Lecture.
“It’s about women who tell stories of other women,” said Stevenson, who holds the Nickoll Family Endowed Chair of History at UCLA. “For someone like myself, a social historian, who is really interested in the details of a person’s life in the past and who wants to recreate their voice as much as possible, listening to the stories that women tell about other women is key.”
Stevenson grew up in Virginia listening to her mother tell stories of their female ancestors.
“I’ve always tried to honor that,” she said. “For women of color, enslaved women, women from the South, we don’t have much in the way of documentary evidence of their lives. They didn’t write letters, their lives weren’t really recorded, or were recorded in shallow and inconsistent ways.”
A historian who cares about hearing those women’s voices must work as an investigator, following every lead, capturing every possible scrap of information that might illuminate their inner lives and corroborate their experiences, and applying critical analysis and context to what she finds, Stevenson said. Early in her career she found herself frequently combating naysayers who lamented the lack of evidence of women’s stories.
“I’ve always sought to fight against the notion that only the elite and males produced documents that can be used,” Stevenson said. “Because social history is not just about those stories.It can’t be.”
One of the stories Stevenson will share in her lecture is about a woman known simply as “Aunt Rebecca,” a slave whose master allowed her to conduct nightly prayer meetings and who attended them along with the rest of the household. Stevenson found Aunt Rebecca’s story by way of a 1930s WPA project that entailed interviewing remaining former slaves in the United States. One of the female interviewees of that project had talked about prayer meetings led by Aunt Rebecca.
“It was so unusual. It threw me for a loop because they didn’t let women command religious meetings at the time, let alone slave women,” Stevenson said. “It made me wonder how she got put in this position and what it meant to her.”
Stevenson said she hopes her talk will help reveal the passion and curiosity that drives her work.
“I want the audience to get to know me as a scholar and understand how we as historians go about taking the things we are passionately interested in and turn that into a commitment to creating knowledge,” she said.
An award-winning author, Stevenson is often lauded for her accessible narrative style.
The topic of her lecture could easily be drawn back in a circle to find herself — a woman telling stories of other women.
Stevenson’s acclaimed 2013 book “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the LA Riots,” re-framed the way we think about the deeply unsettling L.A. Riots of 1992, setting the roots of that event back a year earlier than the notorious Rodney King beating and trial and providing a deeper contextual framework of that event.
Stevenson deftly wove the stories of three women interconnected by fate — the fatally shot African-American teenager Harlins, the female Korean shop owner who shot her, Soon Ja Du and the Jewish female judge, Joyce Karlin, who presided over Du’s manslaughter trial and sentenced her to probation, setting up a powder keg of racial tension in the community that exploded the following year.
“I was intrigued by this story primarily because of the female characters,” Stevenson said. “They were so present and so important, and it was such an incredible opportunity to look at three different females from different classes and see how they processed the same event.”
The Faculty Research Lecture — a UCLA tradition since 1925 — is free and open to the public and will be held at 3 p.m. on Oct. 30 in the Schoenberg Music Building. Click to register.