Barbara Savage Prize for best thesis in Black History

The Faculty is pleased to announce that the first recipient of the newly created Barbara Savage Prize for the best thesis in Black History is Sophie Gunning for her thesis ‘A Taste of Freedom?’.

Sophie writes:

It is a real honour to be awarded the Barbara Savage Prize for my thesis ‘A Taste of Freedom?’ which focused on how former slaves’ memories of food, cooking, taste, and smell worked to build and unite the black community in Georgia and undermine white supremacy in the 1930s.

I knew from the outset I wanted to write about race, and more specifically the construction of narratives about race, in America after studying the paper 'The Making of Modern America' with Stephen Tuck in my second year. Through this paper, I saw how both popular and academic narratives of race and the experience of blacks in America have been, and in many ways continue to be, shaped through white frames of reference.

My thesis used the interviews taken by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s of former slaves. These interviews have often been deemed of little use for writing black history since they were recorded predominantly by whites and involved individuals in their eighties and nineties recalling their childhoods from seventy years prior. Yet, I was conscious that these sources still held huge potential.

By focusing on memory and more specifically, food memories and sensory memories, I attempted to understand not if what the interviewees said about slavery was aligned with the white narrative or even present understandings of slavery, but rather what we could understand from how they remembered slavery. Food and sensory memories emerged as a key theme both because they were a prism through which the past and present were bridged in the minds of interviewees but also because they were a medium through which whites sought to continue slavery, albeit under a different, legal name.

Accordingly, my thesis had four chapters. The first - ‘memories’ - demonstrated how white Georgians used food as a medium for constructing their own version of the slave past which justified the Jim Crow system of racial segregation. Chapter Two - ‘bodies’ - examined how pleasure and consumption allowed blacks to appropriate the commodification of their bodies, both in bondage and then in memory. Next, I looked at ‘spaces’ and considered memories of plantation cooking spaces in relation to African-American identity and the spatial politics of Jim Crow segregation. The final chapter - ‘emotions’ - demonstrated how emotions of love, comfort, and loneliness were key in shaping the articulation of memories of food, smells, and tastes in the 1930s and how simply feeling constituted a challenge to white supremacy.

I found writing this dissertation to be simultaneously enjoyable, shocking, and highly enlightening and I’m very grateful to my supervisor - Adam Smith - for helping me unravel this complex topic and bring together and resolve all the ideas and tensions which arose from this source base.

The Barbara Savage Thesis Prize was created in 2020 following a town-hall meeting run by the Faculty consulting students to ask what could be done to make the teaching of history more diverse and inclusive and to advance race equality. Professor John Watts, Chair of the Faculty Board stated "creating the Black history thesis prize was something that we realised we could do right now, this year, to make explicit recognition of the excellent work of our students in the field, and it signals that the Faculty is committed to further change".

The Prize is named for Professor Barbara Savage, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Savage was the Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at Oxford in 2018.

On the creation of the prize, she said " The new Black History Thesis Prize is a step toward making this field more visible at Oxford.  Black history offers opportunities for exciting new research across time and space.  The prize also signals that Black lives mattered in the past, too.  History always teaches us about the present.  We cannot understand the nexus between racial legacies of the past and the pressing current moment without knowing that history. 

I am excited that the prize will encourage Oxford students to explore black history with the creativity and commitment I saw during my time there as Harmsworth Professor in 2018-2019.  It honors the field in which I work and am humbled that it bears my name."