I study American social and southern history, as well as South African history. My interest in the political economy of race and coerced labor in both societies led to me to examine a dramatic Gilded Age labor rebellion in the Tennessee coalfields against the use of convict workers, the subject of my first book, A New South Rebellion: The Battle against Convict Labor in the Tennessee Coalfields, 1871-1896 (UNC Press, 1998). I also co-edited, along with scholars from the University of the Witwatersrand’s History Workshop and the Radical History Review, History from South Africa: Alternative Visions and Practices (Temple University Press, 1991). This volume, though now dated, brought both more nuanced radical interpretations of South African history and provided an exposure of History Workshop historians to a wide range of American historians who sought deeper historical understandings of that country’s democratic revolution.
Committed to reaching audiences beyond a scholarly community, I have produced a film on the epidemiologist Sherman James and the origins of his John Henryism Hypothesis (2018) and co-produced two others – one on South Africans in North Carolina (2005) and one on the international Fulbright program (2011) – and have curated exhibits on Nelson Mandela (2008) and Jewish history and life in Durham, North Carolina (2013). By and large, these efforts have drawn on my abiding interests in the American South and South Africa.
I am now engaged in three distinct projects. The first consists of a biography of Archbishop Walter Khotso Makhulu, archbishop of Central Africa between 1980 and 2000. A graduate of the same seminary and a direct contemporary of Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu who served as Archbishop of Cape Town, Makhulu played a key role in the anti-apartheid movement. For years, he secretly funneled money from the Norwegian government and Norwegian state church to a wide variety of anti-apartheid activists inside of South Africa. In addition, he oversaw the demographic transformation of the African bishopric and facilitated the incorporation of African rituals into the Anglican Church in Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Archbishop Makhulu was also a critical voice in key debates in the Anglican Church, namely the ordination of women and gay rights.
Second, I am exploring South Africa’s apartheid-era emigration policy and its relationship to notions of citizenship and state formation, as well as the ways in which passports and other kinds of travel documents formed part of the oppressive apparatus of the successive National Party governments.
Third, I am researching the transnational careers of seven influential South African medics who came to North Carolina in the 1950s and ‘60s to work at Duke and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Primarily epidemiologists and family and community medicine doctors, this cohort adopted a "social medicine" approach. These pioneering doctors generally left South Africa when the National Party introduced apartheid in the late 1940s/1950s. Several ended up in North Carolina, where they had long and illustrious careers. I am interested in the ways in which these medics continued to explore the impact of social environment on health through epidemiological studies of North Carolina communities, as well as their efforts to establish health care facilities that harkened to those they had created in South Africa.