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What I’m Reading: An Interview With Historian Sharlene Sinegal-DeCuir

Sharlene Sinegal-DeCuir is an Associate Professor of History at Xavier University of Louisiana. She received her PhD from Louisiana State University in 2009 and her areas of concentration are in American, African American, and Latin American history.

What books are you reading now?

I am reading several books at the moment, including: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander; Witness to Change: From Jim Crow to Political Empowermentby Sybil Morial; and White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson.

What is your favorite history book?

My favorite history books are W. E. B. Dubois’s Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880and Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro.There are many more history books that I enjoy and consider my favorites but for me, those two are the classics. 

Why did you choose history as your career?

I don’t actually think I chose a career in history, it chose me. I began my college career as a pre-med major at Xavier University of Louisiana, a small private liberal arts college that is known nationally as being number one for placing African-Americans into medical schools. After the second semester of my sophomore year, I found myself questioning if I wanted to be an MD or if it was the path my parents chose for me. I decided to change my major to history because I remembered how much I liked it in high school and I had decided that I was going to be a lawyer. Fast forward to senior year, I took the LSAT and began applying to law schools, all the while questioning if that was the right choice for me because I realized I LOVED history.

At the last minute, I decided I would go to graduate school instead of law school. I told myself, I was only going to get a master’s degree than go to law school. I had not taken the GRE, had not applied to any programs and had no clue how I was going to get into any program. So being a Louisiana girl, I took myself over to LSU, walked into the graduate admissions department and told them I wanted to earn a master’s degree in history. I was allowed to take courses as a non-matriculating student for a semester while I prepared for the GRE and applied to the actual master’s program in history at LSU. I got accepted into the program and thought, okay, after this, law school. Well, literally right after defending my master’s thesis, the department chair asked me if I would like to stay at LSU and complete my PhD. Without even hesitating, I said yes, and the rest is history. Best decision I ever made!

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

You most definitely have to be open-minded and passionate. You must be willing to allow history to speak to you, no matter how difficult the subject. You also have to have a passion for history because I promise you, those long nights of research, preparing for conferences, writing articles, teaching, etc. can be daunting. If you have a passion for the subject, especially the subjects you teach/focus on, the little things don’t bother you and that passion will be felt by others. I have students every semester that enter my classroom telling me how much they hate history. I always tell them, “no, you don’t hate history; you hate the way it has been taught to you.” If you are passionate about what you teach, the students become passionate, active learners ready to soak up everything. Over the years of teaching, I have had several students change their majors to history after taking one of my classes. I think that’s the most fulfilling part of being a professor.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

I have had several amazing history teachers. Many of my undergraduate professors at Xavier University of Louisiana became my colleagues -- a few have since retired -- but Dr’s Jonathan Rotondo-McCord, Gary Donaldson, Shamsul Huda, and Sr. Barbara Hughes, have all contributed to my love for history.

My PhD advisor at Louisiana State University, Dr. Gaines Foster, is amazing. I remember thinking if I could be half the researcher and professor as him, I would be okay. Dr. Foster just had that quality about him. He was extremely helpful but very stern. With him, I couldn’t cut corners and get away with it. I must admit I was a bit intimidated. I have since had the pleasure of serving on a panel with him. After the panel, he complimented me on my research and my ability to engage the audience. He said I had a presence. I thought to myself…wow! That compliment meant so much to me because I truly value his opinion.

Another graduate school professor that had an impact on me was Dr. Leonard Moore. Dr. Moore had a captivating teaching style that was both engaging and passionate. I served as his teaching assistant for a few years in graduate school and learned a lot about lecturing and the delivery of information.

What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?

Receiving my first student evaluations is one of my most memorable experiences. As a new professor you often question yourself about content and teaching: am I teaching relevant information? Do the students have a clear understanding of the information? And how can I make the information relatable? I remember reading those evaluations and feeling a sense of accomplishment because the majority of the students spoke about how I changed their perceptions of history. I fondly remember one student mentioning that I made a “boring” subject interesting and relatable. Another student said and I quote, “Dr. Sinegal-DeCuir, knows her sh*t,” -- when I am having a hard day, I think of that comment. It makes me smile every time.

It is also very rewarding to get emails, cards, and letters from current and former students expressing the impact I have made on their lives as a professor.

What are your hopes for history as a discipline?

I hope that the discipline continues to embrace diversity. Diversity in interpretations of historic events and diversity in scholars and scholarship. The facts of history don’t change but as long as we are accepting of diverse interpretations, history will forever be relevant.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

I don’t have any rare historic collectables but I do have a few sad irons and one antique coffee grinder. I also have a large number of books pertaining to history and a small collection of Christmas ordainments from every museum I’ve visited across the U.S. and overseas. I am trying to start a Clementine Hunter collection; right now I have several prints, my plan is to replace the prints with the original paintings.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career? 

The most rewarding thing about my career is becoming known as a scholar in my field. I have written a New York TimesOp-Ed, appeared on MSNBC with Al Sharpton, and have done a few local interviews about historic events. I enjoy putting myself out there. What is frustrating is that many people dismiss the field of history as not being important or not being as prestigious of a field like medicine or law. 

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

It has become more inclusive to different interpretations of events and to diverse fields. The field of history is no longer limited to a cookie cutter view of the past. Historians are uncovering amazing new stories and revisiting old ones with through the lens of gender studies and minority studies, to name a few.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

I have not come up with my own saying but I really like this one, “History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul,” by Lord Acton. We should all be open to understanding the events of the past whether it is our own family history or the history of our country. Don’t hide the ugly truths and only embrace the good, happy times; we should learn from it all.

What are you doing next?

I am continuing to put myself out there through my scholarship. I am in the process of researching and writing a book proposal. 

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