Fresh Faculty: Mary Hicks
Issue   |   Fri, 09/04/2015 - 00:51

Assistant Professor of Black Studies and History Mary Hicks received a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Iowa in 2006 and a master’s degree from the University of Virginia in 2010. She completed her doctorate this past year at the University of Virginia. This semester she is teaching two courses that examine the black experience in the south Atlantic.

Q: What research are you currently working on?
A: My current book manuscript is about African and Creole mariners, and their influence on maritime commerce in the 18th and early 19th century.

I focus on the south Atlantic, so I look at the relationship between the northeast of Brazil and the Bight of Benin in West Africa. It’s kind of an expansive project. About half of my project takes place in Brazil, and the other half in West Africa, so the courses I’m responsible for teaching here are Black Atlantic courses. I teach the history of the entire Atlantic basin. The south half of the Atlantic is what my research pertains to.

Q: What courses are you teaching this semester?
A: I’m teaching Intro to the Black Atlantic, from African encounters to the Age of Revolutions.
It looks at the history of the African diaspora, beginning in the middle of the 15th century, when Europeans first encounter West African peoples in West Africa. It covers the duration of the slave trade, the formation of complex slave societies in the New World, a lot of which were based on plantation agriculture. And it ends with the formation of an active black political class, who are agitating for the end of the slave trade, for the end of slavery. So it traces that long arc of history, looking at the U.S., the Caribbean, Latin America and West Africa.

Q: So this is a new course?
A: Yes, this is a totally new course. The other class that I’m teaching is about the second half of the story. It’s about the emancipation of slavery — what led up to it, and what the ramifications were of the end of slavery. In a lot of places like Jamaica, Haiti and the U.S., it ended in almost total social revolution.

Q: How did you become interested in studying the black Atlantic?
A: When I was younger, my father collected historic memorabilia, specifically African American historic memorabilia. I never really read a lot of history growing up, or even through high school, but I guess through osmosis, I must have become interested in it. When I was an undergraduate, I took all sorts of courses — I took anthropology, I took literature, I took political science — but I just found myself being the most attracted to history.

So I took lots of different kinds of history courses, and in the last year of my degree, I started taking courses on Latin America and Brazil, and it was just fascinating because it was an entirely new world that I wasn’t familiar with. I had no immediate connection to it.

Q: What would you describe as your academic mission at Amherst?
A: A lot of historians believe that if students develop a historical consciousness, if they come to understand our contemporary world as being the result of a lot of processes and events that happened a long time before we got here, then they can understand with greater depth what’s going on right now. So that’s something I really try to instill in my students.
And teaching about places like the Caribbean, West Africa, Latin America — these are places people might not necessarily have any personal experience with. So I really want people to expand their horizons and see that because we live in a global world, a lot of the things that we take for granted as just being American, like democracy or capitalism, really have all these connections to this huge, expansive region.

So I want people to understand how they’re connected to this broader world through this history.

Q: In what ways do you hope to expand Caribbean studies at Amherst?
A: I’m teaching two courses now where one of the centerpieces is the Haitian revolution. It’s sort of a forgotten event right now, but it was an interesting moment in time because at the moment it happened, Haiti was one of the most important centers of capitalism in that global economic system. So we don’t tend to think of places like Jamaica or Haiti or Cuba as being these central places of a modern capitalist network, but they were. Haiti was also one of the places where I personally believe that modern ideas about democracy and how it should function, who should be included as citizens, were being formulated for the first time.

So it’s an interesting place. It was on the vanguard 200 years ago and now we think of it as a place that’s totally backward and inconsequential. One of the things I try to tell my students is that Toussaint L’Ouverture, one of the founders of the Haitian nation — his ideas about democracy actually probably have more in common with our contemporary ones than Thomas Jefferson’s did.

Q: What are your first impressions of Amherst?
A: I really like the intellectual atmosphere here. It seems like it’s a mix of both intellectual rigor — there’s a lot of emphasis on students developing critical thought — with a sort of autonomy that is encouraged.
We want students to blaze their own intellectual paths. So it combines being a very nurturing environment where there are a lot of resources, where there are a lot of people interested in helping people, with encouraging people to strike their own path, toward what they find fascinating.