Laura Jeanne Ferdinand
Interdisciplinary PhD Candidate in Theatre and Drama in the Department of Theatre
Laura Jeanne Ferdinand is an Interdisciplinary PhD candidate in the Department of Theatre in the School of Communication. Her research examines how white southern women centered Blackness in their revisionist histories of the American South and the ways they attempted to bring that history to life. Laura is a Presidential Fellow, the most prestigious fellowship awarded to graduate students by Northwestern.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
I started with a simple question. I had long heard a revisionist version of southern history that white-washed the antebellum South, romanticizing plantation life and minimizing the horrors of chattel slavery. “Where did this narrative come from?” While researching, I found two glaring omissions in the scholarship: southerners were not represented in their own history (it focused on elite, white, northern men), and women and people of color were almost entirely absent. So, I went to the archives looking for them, and what I found was amazing.
I discovered that middle-class white women were some of the most prolific and influential creators of this revisionist history. I found that the racist representation of Black women as mammy figures was an essential component of this narrative, a component that centered (white representations of) Blackness at the heart of neo-Confederate lore. Not only did white middle-class women create these narratives and representations, they sought to bring them to life. My dissertation charts a wide spectrum of practices that attempted to turn the imagined past into reality. From early plantation tourism to civic events, education reform, and carceral legislation, the work of these women left an indelible impact on the way southern history, southern culture, and racial difference was—and continues to be—defined and regulated.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
I grew up in a historic southern town. As a young person interested in history, I volunteered with the local museums and ended up working at a history-themed day camp held on the grounds of a plantation where we taught open-hearth cooking, sewing, butter churning, and the Virginia Reel. One day, as I was making old-fashioned ice cream, I looked out over the land dotted with children—some children of color, but mostly white—and thought, “What are we doing?” While there was no pro-Confederate talk, no disregard of slavery, what we were doing was just as dangerous: we were creating an intimate, happy, and nostalgic connection to the plantation for a new generation of southerners. I witnessed first-hand the power of public history to shape conceptions of history, the power of immersive experiences to generate visceral encounters with the “past”—authentic or imagined. It is experiences such as this that have fueled my interest in the South and my role—as a southerner and a scholar—in contributing to more critical and ethical scholarship on the region.
How do you unwind after a long day?
Setting the tone for the day is as important as unwinding at the end. I like to start by engaging my mind and body: yoga, biking, and the New York Times’s crossword make a good morning. After work, I like to spend time with my partner, James, cooking, painting, and watching one of our favorite shows.
What books are on your bedside table?
I have read every night before bed since I was a kid. My nightstand is a teetering mess of new favorites (like Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers and Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive) and old classics (like Martin Luther King Jr’s Strength to Love and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass). I also have a habit of rereading beloved series like Anne of Green Gables and The Lord of the Rings.
What did you originally want to be when you grew up?
I am a curious, enthusiastic person by nature. Arts, sciences, dentistry—I wanted to do it all. I ultimately chose theatre and performance studies because it gives me freedom to explore all my interests and allows me to wear many hats.
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
My old professor, Howard Blanning, once told me: “Don’t be afraid to learn something that isn’t immediately useful.” Taking the time to explore ideas, hobbies, and experiences outside the limits of my dissertation has only made my life and work richer.
Tell us about a time when things did not go as you planned, what did you learn?
In many ways, I am truly grateful for all the things that have not gone according to plan. When you get everything you want, your life is restricted by the limits of your own imagination. When things go wrong, it opens the possibility of something beyond your wildest dreams.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
One of the happiest moments of my life was being named a Northwestern Presidential Fellow. It was the culmination of so much hard work, determination, and chutzpah. To be honored by a school I worked my way up to attend—and love so dearly—is an honor. I am grateful to my teachers, partner, and peers who helped me prepare.
Published: May 25, 2021
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