My professional career began twenty-two years ago as a documentary film producer. In my film work I was concerned with transmitting knowledge visually and aurally to affect the viewer emotionally. I learned that conveying knowledge in multiple dimensions—visual, aural, written, interactive—is highly effective and changes minds and enhances skills, both for film audiences and for students. While I worked as a film producer I also taught in American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University and had the opportunity to put these ideas into practice in the classroom.
To research and write, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in History at UNC-Chapel Hill; I did not intend to abandon my interest in visual, aural, and interactive forms. While in graduate school, I pursued a local oral history and photography preservation project in the Lumbee community. I then went on to found a non-profit arts organization and produce an outdoor drama, Strike at the Wind!, about Lumbee history. These projects intensified my passion for doing academic and creative work that would advance articulated community needs.
I have a long relationship with the practice of oral history, the richness of an oral tradition, and the research ethics, knowledge potential, and communication strategies of engaged scholarship. Since I was a child, I have heard this not-uncommon phrase among Lumbee Indians: “I didn’t learn [our] history, I lived it.” This saying broadly characterizes my current attitude about the purpose of oral history in the broader field of historical inquiry. Oral history is so compelling as a form of historical evidence because through the veil of memory (an interesting subject in itself), it reveals people’s immediate, emotive experience with the past. In my opinion, good historians are ethically and methodologically bound to try to re-create the past from the perspective of people who lived through it. Oral history is certainly not the only way to do this, but it shows something that our conventional primary sources almost never can—what it was like to live and act during a particular time.
But the idea of living history also reveals an epistemology that is fundamentally different than and expands the scope of document-based historical methods. The phrase implies that the study of history combines living and learning, and it follows that community engagement, not just archival engagement, is the most productive route to understanding the past. Community engagement has been the absolute heart of my work in documentary film, theater production, and oral history. Initiating these projects required consultation with the communities involved, not as an afterthought or as a response to a problem but as an integral element of the project design. Without knowing what the community wants and doesn’t want from the outset, the researcher is not solving a problem and only creates more problems. By making films, establishing archives, writing books, producing historical drama, and teaching and mentorship, I feel I’ve had an impact on how American Indian and American history is preserved and interpreted.
- Ph.D., History, 2005. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
- M.A., History, 2002. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
- M.A., Documentary Film and Video Production, 1997. Stanford University.
- A.B., History and Literature, cum laude, 1995. Harvard University.
- Director, Center for the Study of the American South, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, July 2017-June 2022.
- Director, Southern Oral History Program, Center for the Study of the American South, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, July 2013-June 2017. (On leave Aug 2015-Dec 2016)
- Associate Professor, Department of History, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, July, 2012-present.
- Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, July, 2009-June, 2012.
- Assistant Professor, Department of History, Harvard University. July, 2005-June, 2009.
- Lecturer, Department of American Indian Studies, San Francisco State University. January 1997-December 1998.