In summer 2020 Brasenose History student Sophie Gunning won the inaugeral Barbara Savage Prize for the best undergraduate thesis in Black History. Sophie writes about her experience writing her thesis, entitled, "A Taste of Freedom?" below. Brasenose College offers huge congratulations to Sophie on being awarded this fantastic new prize.
"As a history student you always know that the Hilary (Spring) term of your third year is the dreaded thesis term. You have eight weeks to produce a 12,000 word original research piece which can be about, basically, anything you’re interested in. The work really begins much earlier. In my case, by the middle of second year, I’d come up with several ideas none of which were feasible for reasons including: the sources were only available in a remote archive in rural Russia, the supervisor I approached about it was writing a book on the very topic, and most embarrassingly, in the middle of a meeting about the potential topic, I realised there was nothing really to say beyond what I had put in the initial email. I was in a bit of a flap even as second year came to a close, but after finishing a module on modern America in Trinity (Summer) term I knew I wanted to write about race and to write about it in a way which was different from some of the more classic texts I had read. I began to look into sensory history which aims to access the past not just through visual sources and eye-witness accounts but through the scents, tastes, textures and sensory experiences of individuals. My aim was to access the experiences and stories which were left out or suppressed in texts and sources written in a world where the default was whiteness.
After lots of stops and starts and support and patience from my supervisor Adam Smith, my thesis began to take shape. As my source base, I used the interviews taken by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s of former slaves in the state of Georgia. These interviews have often been deemed of little use for writing black history since they were recorded predominantly by whites and involved individuals in their eighties and nineties recalling their childhoods from seventy years prior. Yet, I was conscious that these sources still held huge potential. I decided to focus on memory as a way of taking the potential pitfalls of the source base and turn it into a subject for examination and insight: what could we learn about the black community in the 1930s from their collective and individual memories of slavery? Food and sensory memories emerged as a key theme in these interviews because they were a prism through which the past and present were bridged in the minds of interviewees but also because they were a medium through which whites sought to continue slavery, albeit under a different, legal name: Jim Crow.
Accordingly, my thesis had four chapters. The first - ‘Memories’ - demonstrated how white Georgians used food as a medium for constructing their own version of the slave past which justified the Jim Crow system of racial segregation. Chapter Two - ‘Bodies’ - examined how pleasure and consumption allowed blacks to appropriate the commodification of their bodies, both in bondage and then in memory. Next, I looked at ‘Spaces’ and considered memories of plantation cooking spaces in relation to African-American identity and the spatial politics of Jim Crow segregation. The final chapter - ‘Emotions’ - demonstrated how emotions of love, comfort, and loneliness were key in shaping the articulation of memories of food, smells, textures, and tastes in the 1930s and how simply feeling constituted a challenge to white supremacy.
A few weeks after I submitted my thesis, the world was shocked by the tragic and brutal killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter campaign awoke society to the entrenched and perpetual racism which exists in society today. A large part of this campaign involved drawing attention to the white-washing of history and the way that the past is continually used to justify and obscure the atrocities and prejudices of the present. Subsequently, in May, the History Faculty at Oxford held a meeting where students could raise their concerns, which ranged from the lack of diversity in module choices, lack of funding for research into non-white societies, and the lack of diversity in the teaching staff. The Barbara Savage Prize, which I was honoured to be awarded for my thesis, is one of the first outcomes of faculty reform regarding racial diversity and signals the faculty’s commitment to further change. Professor Savage, who was the Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at Oxford in 2018 and is a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, said of the prize, ‘The new Black History Thesis Prize is a step toward making this field more visible at Oxford. Black history offers opportunities for exciting new research across time and space. The prize also signals that Black lives mattered in the past, too. History always teaches us about the present. We cannot understand the nexus between racial legacies of the past and the pressing current moment without knowing that history.’
Writing my thesis ended up being a highlight of my degree at Oxford but also one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I have a few top tips for students about to embark on their theses that I wish I had known when I began.
- Don’t worry too much about sources. Initially, I fell into the trap of thinking you needed to find some magical sources which no one has ever used before - you don’t. If you find something new - great! But don’t be afraid to use sources which have been used before, just think about how to use them in a new way. Ask yourself: Whose voices are being hidden? How do you reach them? Why are they being suppressed? What does this tell us about the wider context?
- Ask lots of questions. Speak to a range of tutors, experts, and your peers to brainstorm and test out different ideas. You’d be amazed at how many questions and perspectives can arise from one discussion at lunch with students who look at things in a completely different way to you. Go into your meetings with your supervisor with a list of questions as you only have limited time with them and need to make the most of it.
- Read, but importantly, write. You can’t tell exactly what you want to say until you start to write - don’t wait until the middle of term. I had tens of paragraphs which never even made it into a draft but which were key parts of the process of getting the ideas I had out of my head and into some kind of comprehensible form. It also gives you a chance to practice and experiment with your personal writing style, which will be important when writing 12,000 words.
- Get to know your material very well. The best way to do this is to be creative with it. I made a map of where all the interviewees lived in Georgia just so I could get my head around the geography but it ended up revealing important patterns which made my arguments more robust and I included it in my piece. New insights can come from anywhere so looking for trends, patterns, and anomalies in your sources is a really helpful exercise; make maps, tables, Venn diagrams - whatever works! If nothing emerges, that probably says something also.
- Enjoy it and don’t panic. When writing your thesis, you have so much independence and this is an amazing thing. You can work exactly as you want, look into new areas, and develop your own style and voice. Try not to compare where you’re at with those around you; everyone’s timetables, work styles and patterns are all different and this becomes very apparent during thesis term. The horror stories of people who haven’t finished a first draft by a week before the deadline aren’t all true. But some are, so stay on track with your timetable and reach out for help if you’re dropping behind!"