From Africa across the Atlantic: New Directions Fellow Laurent Dubois on the Banjo

If you really want to tell the story of the Caribbean, you have to understand and utilize other sources—oral history, religion, song, and more. A cultural understanding is critical to being a historian of that region.

Laurent Dubois is a professor of romance studies and history at Duke University, where he is also director of the Forum for Scholars & Publics. An expert on Caribbean history and culture with a particular emphasis on Haiti, he has deep knowledge of how the world has shaped that region—and how the region, in turn, has shaped the world.

When he was awarded a New Directions Fellowship by the Mellon Foundation in 2010, Dubois chose to focus on a topic that, on the surface, may have seemed entirely divorced from his expertise: he studied the banjo. But his fellowship, it turned out, was the perfect complement to his traditional area of study.

First built and played by enslaved peoples in the Caribbean and North America, and only later taken up by white musicians in the 19th century, the banjo is an instrument derived from African prototypes and is considered to be one of Africa’s primary contributions to American music. As a New Directions Fellow, Dubois—an amateur banjo player himself—took courses in musicology and ethnomusicology, following the history of music, sound, and instrumental traditions from Africa to the New World. Out of his research came a new book, The Banjo: America’s African Instrument.

We sat down with Professor Dubois to hear about his experience as a New Directions Fellow, how his interest in the Caribbean brought him to study the banjo, and why he founded the Forum for Scholars and Publics.

Why was Haiti an important factor in your undergraduate and graduate and doctorate research?

In the 18th century, Haiti became really the only place where a full-scale revolution was carried out, in which slavery as an institution was overthrown, and an entirely new nation was born as a result. In fact, because of the Haitian revolution, core aspects of the concept of universal rights were formulated. They weren't necessarily European – they emanated from revolution in the Caribbean, where enslaved people articulated this idea that slavery was a violation of basic human rights. That’s significant – and often overlooked.

SlaveDanceand_Music.jpg"The Old Plantation," attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina, circa 1785. Photo courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

You have a PhD in anthropology and history from the University of Michigan and you teach romance studies and history. How did you come to write a book about the banjo?

Caribbean studies is an interdisciplinary field, and study by anthropologists, historians, and literary critics often overlaps. That’s because the written archives we use are often from a colonial perspective—they're largely created by the masters, by the planters, and by the colonial administrators of the time. But if you really want to tell the story of the Caribbean, you have to understand and utilize other sources—oral history, religion, song, and more. A cultural understanding is critical to being a historian of that region. And music in the Afro-Atlantic world served as a vehicle to articulate a different vision, a vision of a world free of slavery.  Where those sounds came from, how they were made, and the relationship between music, politics, and religion was always really interesting to me.

I had begun playing the banjo a few years before applying for the New Directions Fellowship. About a decade ago, I became aware of an event that brought together African musicians and African American musicians, and various banjo makers, to talk about the sometimes-forgotten roots and history of the banjo. That was where I first really started learning a lot about the instrument – and it was my first foray into understanding the Caribbean side of the its history. It turned out that my interest in the banjo intersected with my broader expertise in the Caribbean.

HaitiBanja_ECU.JPGA replica of the Haitian Banza, similar to the banjo shown in “The Old Plantation” (see above). Photo courtesy of Pete Ross Custom Banjos.

How did you learn about the New Directions Fellowship?

I had known a few colleagues who were recipients, and so I'd heard about the program. But it was through my university’s sending out a call that I immediately realized this was a huge opportunity. I was beginning to think about a project on the history of the banjo, but I realized that the methods and approach in my existing toolkit were not enough. That made the Fellowship a perfect fit.

How did your familiarity with the banjo shape how you approached the New Directions Fellowship?

I really wanted to understand how scholars think about music. That meant starting with music theory—it was kind of like going back to school. I took ethnomusicology seminars and worked with instrument makers and artisans. The project was about trying to understand how this instrument emerged historically, and to really understand what it was, at its core, as an object.

What constitutes a banjo? While instruments like a guitar are built entirely of wood, a banjo is differentiated by animal or synthetic skin on top of some kind of resonator. And how a banjo is built had a big impact on where it appeared, and how it appeared, geographically and throughout history.

The beautiful thing about the New Directions Fellowship is it really just allowed me to stop and go back to school and say, I don't understand how you think about these things. It allowed me to discover other approaches and perspectives that I otherwise might not have employed.

Laurent_teaching_2.jpgLaurent is a professor of romance studies and history at Duke University. Photo courtesy of Megan Mendenhall and Jonathan Lee, Duke University.

How did the Fellowship affect your career course?

The New Directions Fellowship for me was critical because the work was obviously about new directions within the academy and approaching new disciplines, but also very much about connecting with various constituencies outside the academy.

Not long after I completed my New Directions Fellowship, I founded the Forum for Scholars & Publics, which is focused on connecting universities and communities, and thinking about public scholarship in a variety of ways. The Fellowship really played an important role in terms of how I see my approach as an individual scholar, but also how we promote certain forms of scholarship to the public as well.

How can public scholarship contribute to improving public perception of higher education?

I think there is the perception of higher education as somehow removed, that there is a nebulous benefit to research that is somehow disconnected from society more broadly. It’s a curious perception, so I do think it raises questions of how we present and brand the role of the academy, and how we demonstrate the interconnectedness of the world.

And I think when people hear "humanities" outside the university, its meaning can be unclear, and it’s incumbent upon us to translate it. That ultimately lies in the kinds of stories and histories we tell about ourselves as a society, how we analyze where ideas come from, and more. We all need to understand how history is formed, by whom it’s written, and realize that it’s all connected with and to our everyday lives.

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