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Discussing Dangerous Subjects with Ken Coleman

October 16, 2017

Today Ken Coleman talks with us about his new book Dangerous Subjects: James D. Saules and the Rise of Black Exclusion in Oregon. Dangerous Subjects is Ken’s first published book and explores the unique story of James D. Saules, a black sailor who settled in Oregon in 1841.

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OSU Press: Briefly describe your book Dangerous Subjects.

Coleman: It’s an account of what I refer to as the “Americanization” of Oregon centered around one person. The Americanization of Oregon was a colonial process that began when Anglo-American farm families began arriving in the region in large numbers in the 1840s. In some ways, it’s a story that’s been told many times before, but most historians have either focused on American settlers or—in recent years—indigenous or mixed-race communities. Instead, I was interested in how the arrival of the Oregon Trail immigrants coincided almost immediately with a series of laws banning black people from living in Oregon. I centered my narrative on one man, James D. Saules, someone whom historians have either ignored or treated as a peripheral figure in early Oregon history. Saules was a black man who settled in Oregon two years before the first major wagon trains arrived, and is most often cited as the man who inspired Oregon’s first black exclusion law. The book is not only about the local and national context of Oregon’s early black exclusion laws, but about how Saules coped with and adapted to massive social, political, and cultural shifts in Oregon.

OSU Press: What about James D. Saules’ life initially drew you in to his story? Why did you originally feel compelled to write this account of his life?

Coleman: When I began researching black exclusion in Oregon several years ago, I was struck by how often Saules appeared in the historical record. Truth be told, compared to white elites of the same period, it wasn’t much. But for a member of a racialized minority like Saules, it was significant. Secondly, Saules was a sailor. Oregon’s black exclusion laws and the rhetoric political figures used to support them often singled out black sailors as a particular threat to the nascent American settlement. Many suggested that black sailors would incite Native people to violence against white settlers. I knew Saules was actually arrested for doing just this, so I tried to find out as much as I could about him. It turned out he lived an extraordinary life, and the more I found out about him, the more his life took on an epic scope.

OSU Press: Why study the colonial and racial history of the Pacific Northwest through the eyes of this particular figure? What, if anything, does that do for the account of history? Are there concerns with limiting the perspective to one particular individual or does it provide a unique opportunity? If so, why?

Coleman: I don’t think it’s possible to “see” history through the eyes of a historical figure, since we only know historical figures through textual evidence. This is made more difficult since most of evidence about Saules was written by white elites, and I come to this subject as a privileged twenty-first century white male. That being said, once I narrowed my focus to Saules, ironically the story became much bigger and I was able to connect Saules to larger national and transnational historical processes. Saules was a free black man from Connecticut who had worked as a whaler in the South Pacific and later served as a cook on the United States Exploration Expedition, a naval voyage of discovery unprecedented in size and scope. This led me to research such topics as the nineteenth-century international maritime economy, merchant capitalism, U.S. and European imperialism during the Age of Sail, and the experience of black people who worked aboard sailing ships. These were all topics I doubt I would have encountered had I researched and written the book as a more local study of race relations in Oregon. For instance, by focusing on Saules, it became even more apparent that the United States was shifting from a maritime nation to one that looked to its own interior for economic resources. This fact would have a major impact in Oregon, and Saules was present when these changes occurred. I also learned that legislation targeting black sailors for exclusion was not unique to Oregon and was common in other parts of the United States, particularly the American South.

Historians who grapple with issues relating to race, class, gender, and sexual orientation often face a dearth of sources about the lives of specific people whose lives were affected by these axes of inequality. And as I mentioned before, most readily-available primary sources from the first half of the nineteenth century are written by white elites: government officials, military officers, journalists, missionaries, merchants, financiers, etc. Because of this, social historians have to read existing sources against the grain and often have to generalize to address silences in the historical record. I certainly wasn’t immune to this. As I wrote this book, I had to generalize, speculate, and engage in deductive reasoning to try to fill in the blanks. But when you focus on one person, I think you can keep generalization to a minimum and write about topics like black exclusion and white supremacy not as abstract historical processes, but as very real things that involved and affected very real human beings. For the reader, I hope this makes this account of history more intimate and less abstract.

OSU Press: Why publish this particular account today? What kind of impact do you hope this book will make? How do you hope this book to be received? What kind of audiences do you hope to reach?

Coleman: As I wrote this book, the phrase “black lives matter” and the activism around it entered into the American consciousness after the death of Trayvon Martin. My simplest answer is that I hope this book makes some contribution to the notion that the black lives mattered in the past as well.

When I began researching this project in 2011, certain political commentators were still describing the United States as a “post-racial” nation, that somehow the election of Barack Obama proved that white supremacy was a thing of the past. Obviously, this claim is belied by almost everything that has occurred since, not the least of which was the election of a president who made racial fear and scapegoating the centerpiece of his campaign.

On a more local level, my hometown of Portland, Oregon in the same Willamette Valley where Saules once resided remains one of the least racially diverse cities in the United States in a region—the American West—increasingly defined by its ethnic diversity. I insist this lack of diversity was by design, not happenstance.

The United States is a nation founded on the theft of indigenous land and the labor of enslaved human beings, and white supremacy and ethnic cleansing was central to U.S. imperial expansion. Yet I insist that racism is not an ahistorical aspect of human nature, and race itself is a social and historical formation. Because of this, I believe it can be overcome. But it can’t be eradicated overnight by the election of a president, and it won’t be overcome unless we begin by taking an honest and clear-eyed look at our collective past. Therefore, I think it’s essential that Americans in general and Oregonians in particular remember that they live in a colonized space. A phenomenon like the Oregon Trail should be viewed as more than the heroic trek of hardscrabble pioneers. It was also a tactic of American imperialism in which Anglo-American settlers imposed their own racial and social order with little regard for the Native, mixed-race, black, and Pacific Islander people who lived there.

Yet the task of a historian is to understand the past rather than pass judgment on historical actors. I think my account of Saules’ life and times complicates tidy narratives. Such as one of my central points, that Saules was both an agent of empire and a victim of it; for white settlers, he occupied a liminal state between colonizer and colonized. Furthermore, historical forces like colonialism, racism, and capitalism are multifaceted and dynamic, and historians need to track these changes.

As for an audience, I am trained as an academic historian, but I wrote the book to appeal to an audience beyond academia. I tried to keep jargon and esoteric references to a minimum in an effort to connect with readers of any background. In particular, I hope high school and college students could read the book and come away with a solid understanding of Oregon colonial past and present.

OSU Press: What insights do you have after publishing this book with the OSU Press?

Coleman: This was my first book. And I’m sure just about every first-time author has the same thought: If I ever have the opportunity to write another one, I would do just about everything differently. In particular, I eventually learned how crucial it is to not lean so heavily on digitized sources. It’s important to get off the computer, leave the house, hit the physical archives, and, most importantly, talk to a wide variety of people and actually listen. It was through these personal interactions that I had my biggest breakthroughs.

Another major lesson I learned through working with OSU Press is that regardless of the fact that my name is on the cover, writing a book is a deeply collaborative process. Once my rough manuscript began passing through the hands of various readers, reviewers, and editors, it kept reemerging as something different and far stronger. This can be a painful process, especially when criticism strikes a raw nerve, but it improved the book significantly.

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