By Joni B. Cole
This Focus on Faculty Q&A is part of an ongoing series of interviews exploring what keeps Dartmouth professors busy inside—and outside—the classroom.
“There were so many questions in the field of Caribbean history that had not been fully explored. I thought I could make a real impact in the field,” says Assistant Professor Reena Goldthree. (Photo by Rob Strong ’04)
Scholarship, as well as a chance meeting, brought Reena Goldthree, an assistant professor of African and African American Studies, to Dartmouth in 2010. As a PhD student at Duke, Goldthree was on a Fulbright scholarship in Trinidad when she encountered a group of Dartmouth undergraduates studying abroad. Around the same time, she learned about the College’s Thurgood Marshall Dissertation Fellowship. Goldthree, whose work focuses on the history of modern Latin America and the Caribbean, was planning to move back to the United States to finish writing her dissertation. “I thought this would be a great place to do it,” she says. “I could talk about my work and people would understand and be interested in the history of Trinidad and Tobago.”
What was your first experience in the Caribbean?
It was a family vacation to Jamaica in middle school. I thought it was one of the most fascinating and visually stunning places I’d ever visited. From a young age I have been interested in the way other people live, particularly people my age. I ended up becoming pen pals with a girl who lived in rural Jamaica. I also had a pen pal in South Africa and in Japan, which now seems so quaint in a world of digital communication.
You entered graduate school intending to study African American history and U.S. southern history. What changed your focus?
My first year I took a seminar, somewhat by chance, on Afro-Brazilian history. I also enrolled in an incredible course that explored the historical ties between African Americans and people of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean. I realized that the Caribbean, as a region, is literally at the center of every major foundational issue in the history of the Americas, after the Columbian Encounter in 1492. It’s the first place of contact between Europeans and native communities. It's the first site of colonization in the Americas. It’s the first place in the western hemisphere where enslaved Africans are introduced. There were so many questions in the field of Caribbean history that had not been fully explored. I thought I could make a real impact in the field.
You’re working on a book about the Caribbean and World War I. Most people don’t associate the two.
Around 65,000 men from the Caribbean served; approximately 16,000 volunteering to fight for Britain in what was an imperialist war. So my book asks: What did World War I mean to those people at the geographic margins of the conflict? What did it mean for the 2000 British West Indian men who volunteered after they finished building the Panama Canal and were laid off work? What did it mean for the Trinidadian mother who watched her son march off to war, and wondered if he would come home? What did a war supposedly for democracy—as Woodrow Wilson famously claimed—mean for colonial subjects who were denied democracy, and what did they hope to gain by participating in it?
One of the courses you teach is specifically on slavery in that region. What’s something that surprises students?
At least 90 percent of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas were sent to Latin America and the Caribbean, not to the United States. For students to realize that more enslaved Africans were taken to the island of Hispaniola than to all of the U.S. makes them see questions about slavery on a very different scale.
You grew up in St. Louis. What was your family life?
My mother was a Spanish teacher, and my father taught physical education and health, and coached middle and high school sports for 35 years. So I grew up, quite often, at my parents’ desks. I also spent a lot of time heading off to sporting events with my father, or begging my mom to let me help her grade papers, or at least put the smiley faces on the 100s. To this day I love Post-It notes and binder clips.
Ferguson is a suburb of your hometown. Describe the protest you organized last December in response to the Michael Brown shooting.
I was flying into Lambert Airport when the decision was announced that Darren Wilson would not be indicted. You could see police cars all over north St. Louis County. I went to Ferguson and was overwhelmed by the devastation, and what it would it mean to rebuild in a way that actually empowers local residents. I came back to Hanover with this urgent sense that I needed to do something in solidarity with activists in Ferguson and across the United States. So one night I sent out an email to a group of mostly colleagues, but also a few students still on campus during the break, and in less than 24 hours there were notices posted on all the Upper Valley listservs. About 60 of us held a “die-in” in the middle of Hanover. I was struck by the diversity of people who participated.
Your fiancé is a sociologist from Trinidad and you're getting married in August. Have you started planning the wedding?
Not really, which is starting to freak me out, but I've been so consumed with my book and several articles. I imagine most of the planning will be done by my mother, which will probably work out for the best for both of us. [Laughing.]
What’s a typical weekend like?
There’s certainly a lot of reading and writing. And I have a small collection of Caribbean cookbooks that I’m working through. Then there's usually a Saturday night, very competitive, game of Monopoly. For two scholars invested in social justice, we're oddly competitive with Monopoly.
Where would you live if you could live anywhere?
Somewhere in the Caribbean, at least for part of the year. Every time I’m in the region, I draw so much intellectual energy from walking down the often very noisy streets, searching for rare documents in the archives, and seeing the ruins of old colonial buildings or World War I monuments, which I’m photographing for my book. One of the things that fascinated me so many years ago—long before I knew there was anything called “a professor of Caribbean history”—was that, outside of St. Louis, I’ve never felt so at home.
This interview has been edited and condensed.