PastForward 2019 Preview: Celebrating Women’s History – Dr. Tiya Miles

By Forum Online posted 08-20-2019 12:06


Tiya Miles is the author of three multiple prize-winning works in the history of early American race relations, a prize-winning work of historical fiction, and various articles and op-eds on women’s history, history and memory, black public culture, and black and indigenous interrelated experience. She is a past MacArthur Foundation Fellow, Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellow, and a current National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholars Award recipient. She is currently a Professor of History and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at Harvard University.  In preparation for the TrustLive on Celebrating Women's History  at PastForward 2019, we asked Dr. Miles a few questions about her work.

What do you think is important for preservationists to understand about telling the stories of women at historic sites?

Diverse women’s stories and the social dynamics of gender relations are crucial elements of the past and of historical change. We can’t fully understand the meanings of historic sites or fulfill the responsibly of interpreting them for and with the public without attending seriously to these themes. While domestic spaces may lend themselves more readily to interpretations of women’s stories, struggles, and contributions, all places have gender histories. Military forts, merchant shops, medical offices, factory floors, churches, entertainment halls, and places in nature are as much about women’s historical presence—or enforced historical absence—as kitchens, homesteading cabins, or Victorian abodes. We may have to dig a little deeper for these stories and spend more time connecting the dots for audiences, but the additional work is worth it. Telling the stories of women and girls represents the past with greater complexity and also enlivens the past for diverse constituencies.

How does your role as a historian influence transform the way you tell stories about women in historical fiction?

Authors of historical fiction rely heavily on research to develop characters and storylines and to create credible contexts and settings. My turn to fiction after writing two histories on slavery in the Cherokee Nation (the second of which, The House on Diamond Hill, focused on a state historic site in Georgia) may have moved in the opposite direction. While doing archival research and piecing together events for my academic books, I became frustrated by the gaps in the historical record—especially regarding the lives of women of color. I first turned to fiction to address invisibilities in the archive, rather than turning to the archive to shore up my fictional plots. However, once I entered into the topsy-turvy creative process that is fiction writing, I found myself intertwining these motivations of addressing fissures in the record and using the extant record to tell a compelling story. Ultimately, what became paramount for me in writing my novel, The Cherokee Rose, was exploring that space of overlap between the past and the present and highlighting the meaning of history in contemporary women’s lives.

Tiya Miles Headshot

What else do you think our conference attendees should know about you prior to the TrustLive?

I am convinced that old structures are largely responsible for my deep interest in people and places of the past. When I was a tween and teen, I used to explore the abandoned buildings of my downtown neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio. Certainly this was unsafe, and I would not recommend it to young people or anyone else! However, walking through those 19th- and early 20th-century row houses and taking in the architectural details as well as the deterioration filled me with questions about who had lived there, how their lives had unfolded, and why the buildings had fallen into such sad states of disrepair over time. The answers to those questions inform urban, African American, American, and public history—and, of course, women’s history.

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