We are honored to announce that the 2022 S-USIH Annual Book Prize has been awarded to Jordan Watkins (Brigham Young University) for Slavery and Sacred Texts: The Bible, the Constitution, and Historical Consciousness in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press, 2021). Honorable Mention is awarded to Gregory Jones-Katz for Deconstruction: An American Institution (University of Chicago Press, 2021). Huzzah and congrats!
Award winners receive a $250.00 prize and their work is recognized at an upcoming S-USIH annual conference. The 2022 S-USIH Book Award is given for the best academic book in U.S. intellectual history published in English in the period between Jan. 1, 2021 and Dec. 31, 2021. You can learn about past prize winners and their scholarship in our Spotlight/Insight interview series. Plus, stay tuned for our #USIH2022 conference program, coming soon, which will feature a special related roundtable at the Presidents’ Lunch.
We are deeply grateful to the 2022 S-USIH Annual Book Award committee of Lilian Calles Barger (Chair), Andrew Jewett, and Stephanie Y. Evans. Here is the committee’s statement on Jordan Watkin’s prize-winning scholarship:
“In Slavery and Sacred Texts Watkins offers a nuanced and layered reflection of how readers create relationships to historical texts and the complicated imagination of proximity—assumed distance or closeness—to thoughts and thinkers. The historical texts, in this case, are the Bible and the U.S. Constitution. Slavery and Sacred Texts is a three-dimensional work of historiography. The author offers insight into how we construct readings of race and racism in relation to readings of slavery in the antebellum era and how that reading is also complicated by a relation to how those in the antebellum era constructed readings of race in the founding documents of the nation. This query centers Blackness and the institutionalization of enslavement, offering an intellectual genealogy of parallels and intersections of “religious sacred” texts and “legal sacred” texts. A temporal exploration of arguments for and against enslavement maps the labyrinth of assumptions offered by constitutional framers, antebellum legislators and politicians, abolitionists, pro-slavery advocates, and Black would be citizens in both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. The book is an ambitious close reading of primary and secondary texts tracing the construction of arguments leading up to the Dred Scot case, and also shows convergences and divergences of arguments by those, like abolitionist William C. Nell, Frederick Douglass, and Mary Ann Shad Cary, who were intimately involved in national debate in a way that connected Dred Scot to Crispus Attucks. This reading situates Black people’s freedom as the crux of meaning in the concept of freedom and justice for all in the United States. Through this compelling study of moral and legal arguments, we better understand how “historical consciousness” is shaped, reshaped, and manipulated to justify what is “right and wrong” and how religious judgments crash against what is legal and illegal according to the shape-shifting impermanence of the constitution. Given the centrality of religiosity and constitutionality to the ongoing discussion of citizen rights in the American experiment, and with the general unwillingness to admit the willful construction of American racism this necessary reading of the knotty fabric of historical meaning is not only expertly researched and beautifully written, but timely. Slavery and Sacred Texts contributes to the history of constitutional interpretation, religion, race and racism, political culture and informs the current crisis in the Supreme Court’s interpretative role and philosophy.
Honorable Mention, Gregory Jones-Katz Deconstruction: An American Institution: Gregory Jones-Katz offers a critical history of the American origins and cultural/political influence of deconstruction and how its originators of the Yale School (Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller) reconceived literature as socially and politically situated. The Yale School challenged the New Critics’ view of literature as self-contained, self-referential aesthetic objects. Jones-Katz’s history revises the understanding of deconstruction as the French import of Jacques Derrida and as a nihilistic and bankrupt theory. In constructing the political and cultural contexts Katz shows a firm grasp of how this literary theory made its mark. He traces the spread of deconstruction through the teaching, publications, and lectures of the Yale School and to the MLA and other departments and schools. Taken up by feminists and gay theorists to advance their political projects, deconstruction was charged with destroying the humanities and having a corrosive effect on culture. Its influence on how we read texts and conceive of everything from architecture, fashion, and politics was part of the climate, not the cause, in which neoliberalism triumphed in higher education. Deconstruction: An American Institution contributes to the history of education, philosophy, theory, and late twentieth century culture and politics.”