The project has two big aims: trying to localize and identify forms of creativity emerging in that violent world of slavery, and trying to have a mental intervention in histories of knowledge production. In other words, the innovation of creativity and models for empirically dealing with nature were not strictly European or coming from spaces in academia in Europe.
DTH: How did you think of the topic for this book?
PG: The topic of the book actually came out of examining a very rich set of sources that are very unique. These sources are records, which are not usual sources that we use to talk about histories of knowledge-making related to nature. They contain what are probably the best recordings of voices of both Africans and Black communities in the Caribbean and in the Americas up to the 19th century. It was through the combination of those sources that I realized that they were very much engaging with the same sort of intellectual processes that their contemporaries were, and that they were actually the most important knowledge makers and collectors of nature in the Caribbean at the time.
It was also very humbling to read these sources and realize the conditions of slavery. This slavery is different than that of the plantation systems of the 18th and 19th centuries. It is interesting and important how these men and women were able to create these very, very rich works. That is one of the things that challenged me to tell this history in a way that does not repeat certain kinds of narratives that either has people of African descent as doing the work of data collectors, or European projects that people have called natural histories, or natural philosophies or natural sciences-based projects, but did not portray them in processes that were only related to religion or to similar ways in which they have been portrayed in the past. It was inspiring figuring out new ways to tell their stories.
DTH: How did you become interested in studying the early-modern Atlantic?
PG: I decided to enter graduate school because I was very interested in the questions involved with knowledge-making and, more largely, how people think of their bodies. I came to graduate school thinking about doing more contemporary histories of medicine, but I took a course on the history of the Atlantic, slavery specifically. I worked on a paper with these sources, and I just thought it was fascinating. Another truth about the Atlantic world is that because it seems somehow foreign to us, it seems that we allow for the illumination of certain kinds of questions that are very much with us today. It is easier to examine those questions in the world of people in the 17th century. It involves engaging with questions we face today about how we conceive ourselves and our societies.
DTH: Are there any modern parallels or applications to your examination? What has translated to modern society?
PG: Of course, I am a historian, so we are very much aware of the problems of creating epistemological narratives about histories of African diaspora that, in many cases, are portrayed as being static throughout the past few centuries. It was very interesting to precisely talk about how the communities have engaged, in very localized ways, their activity rather than specifically being invested in preserving certain kinds of troupes. I say that because I believe we are questioning how we bring justice to the ways in which people in non-European, non-American and non-white communities deal very maturely with the world. It is not only how they conceive of things in terms of culture, or in terms of seemingly intangible constructs, but rather how they very effectively and very powerfully deal with nature and the realities of their own bodies. So, how can we create a level field of speaking to those works that still exist with us? Not exactly in the ways they did in the 17th century, but certainly in amenable ways through scientific and biomedical ways of examining bodies or nature.
DTH: What will you be discussing with the UNC community?
PG: I hope that we can have a good discussion precisely about these questions that I am very interested in. I am interested in specifically seeing how people talk about the portrayal and examination of uses of creativity, uses of intellectual mobility and the imagination of the world, and how they relate to the concerns that we have today. But also, that they are able to see the histories of African diaspora in the Caribbean and elsewhere under a different lens that does not only require the use of assistance or use of oppression, but also these beautiful histories of shaping the world in their own terms.