Storytelling matters to Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs
ALLYSON HOBBS, assistant professor of American history, finds much of the inspiration for her research in the stories of her own remarkable family. Telling those stories – and connecting them with larger themes in U.S. history – is one of the things that matters most to her.
Hobbs was the featured speaker recently at the popular “What Matters to Me and Why” noontime discussion series, sponsored by the Office for Religious Life. The series asks members of the Stanford community to reflect on matters of personal values and beliefs.
Hobbs is the author of A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, published by Harvard University Press in 2014. The book, which won the 2015 Frederick Jackson Turner Prize for best first book in American history and the 2015 Lawrence Levine Prize for best book in American cultural history, was inspired by a story Hobbs’ beloved aunt told her about a distant cousin.
That cousin, Hobbs told the audience, was born on the South Side of Chicago in the 1920s. Light skinned, the cousin was forced by her mother to leave her home and pass for white in Los Angeles. Hobbs told the heartbreaking story of how the cousin, married to a white man and raising children who were unaware of their mother’s heritage, was unable to return to Chicago to see her dying father lest her secret be revealed.
The story, Hobbs said – as well as her extensive research for A Chosen Exile – proved to her that “passing was all about loss.” That theme emerged throughout her examination of the phenomenon of racial passing from the late 18th century to the present.
Hobbs is currently writing a book about black travel during the early- to mid-20th century, when the legacy of Jim Crow meant that businesses routinely refused to serve African Americans.
Like A Chosen Exile, Hobbs’ research on black travel was prompted by a family story. Her grandmother told Hobbs about witnessing the brutal treatment of blacks, including a man being kicked off a moving train. That experience prompted the family to move from New Orleans to Chicago to seek a more supportive culture.
On a trip back to New Orleans, the family’s car broke down. Her grandparents and their young family suffered the humiliation of having to sleep in their car until they could find a mechanic because local establishments refused to rent them a hotel room.
Her family’s experience was similar to those of blacks who braved the nation’s roads in the early to mid-1900s. Hobbs has studied their stories, using The Negro Motorist Green Book as a guide. That travel guide, designed for blacks, alerted travelers to businesses that were receptive to African Americans throughout the nation.
As part of her research, Hobbs took to the road herself, retracing routes from New Orleans to Nashville to Chicago. Although many of the establishments highlighted in the Green Book no longer exist, Hobbs said she “found ghosts of my own family” along the way, including a family-owned funeral home destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.
Hobbs considers her work to be “telling stories that need to be told,” even when the experiences described are “heartbreaking and ugly and painful.”
“Taking knowledge and bringing it to the public is something we can all do,” she said.
“What Matters to Me and Why” next welcomes President JOHN HENNESSY on April 27, followed by SIDNEY DRELL, professor emeritus of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and his daughter, PERSIS DRELL, dean of the School of Engineering, on May 4.