S.4 E.9: “Suspicious Persons”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews professor Kate Keller about French history, surveillance, and what led her to study history.
Posted on October 12th, 2020 by

Kate Keller, Professor of history and chair of the history department at Gustavus, on becoming a historian, her research and book on French officials’ surveillance of “colonial suspects” in interwar French West Africa and how she came to that topic, her current book project on one of the suspects, and the case for studying history.

Season 4, Episode 9: “Suspicious Persons”

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

Passionate, enthusiastic, and excited about history are just some of the words Gustavus students have used in praising the teaching of my colleague and history department chair, Professor Kate Keller. Kate joined the history department in 2011, after a stint at another liberal arts institution, Eckerd College in Florida. She earned her BA in history and French from Notre Dame in 1999. And her PhD in history from Rutgers in 2007. An expert in, to quote her, the history of connections between France and West Africa in the 20th century, especially related to colonialism. Kate is the author of the highly regarded book, Colonial Suspects: Suspicion, Imperial Rule and Colonial Society in Interwar French Africa, published in 2018.

Currently, she is at work on a second book focused on the life of one of those colonial suspects. Kate teaches a variety of exciting important courses in African, European, French and world history, and is active as a faculty leader, not only chairing our department both before and now during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also co-chairing the Global Engagement Committee, participating in the African Studies Program, which she will begin directing later this year and serving as the faculty representative on the all-important benefits advisory committee. She’s in short, an esteem college and accomplished historian and teacher. And I am delighted to have this chance to converse with her away from the proverbial office water cooler about history and her work. So welcome, Kate. It’s great to have you on the podcast.

Kate Keller:

Thanks, Greg.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure. We’re both historians, so let’s start the way historians typically do, with your own history, your own path. You attended Notre Dame, did you do an MA there as well? Or just the BA?

Kate Keller:

Nope, bachelor’s degree in history and French.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. So what what led you there, one, and two, what led you into both history and French?

Kate Keller:

Sure. A lot of times we talk about our students and how they select a college, and they don’t always make decisions, I think based on the things we think we would like them to. And I’m a perfect example of that. My sister was a student at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, which is a women’s college that’s a partner institution of Notre Dame and I visited her there. And I decided I wanted to go to Notre Dame. And so it was partly to get a little bit closer to my sister, and also that I knew it was a great school and a great university. I was a high school student in New Jersey and I had actually grown up in Ohio though. So I was a little bit more geared towards the Midwest. So more than I would say the other students at my New Jersey high school, and so Notre Dame just seemed like a great option for me.

As for history and French, French was something that I got really interested in as early as seventh or eighth grade, when I started taking French classes. I really wanted to keep up with the French language. I wanted to go to France so badly, and a Study Abroad program was an important thing I was looking for in a college. And so Notre Dame had a year long sophomore year program. That was another thing that drew me to the school. And I was just really interested in becoming fluent in a language, I had never been abroad before. The first time I went to France, to Europe at all was when I went for my Study Abroad program. So nine months in France and I didn’t come home that whole time.

I also…I had always loved history. As a kid, I loved things like Little House in a Prairie or fictionalized historical accounts. I loved social studies. I loved learning about people and where they were from, that was something that had always fascinated me. And going into college, I was thinking, I’m interested in French, I’m really interested in Europe, I think I’m going to study international relations, because that’s a practical field. That’s a practical choice. And so I took one class in international relations, which is a perfectly wonderful field, but it was not for me. Because I started really realizing that what I was interested in was ordinary people and their stories, more than high politics. So I would not have gone into sort of a history of high politics either or diplomacy, or anything like that.

So it was kind of like I knew, I always knew history was the thing I loved. And so I declared my history major before I went to France, my sophomore year. And then it was just really natural to do the French major too, because I had learned the language. So my main goal was to learn the language, but as you’re learning a foreign language, you study the literature. And so I loved studying French poetry, I loved reading French novels. And so I did the second major in French literature as well.

Greg Kaster:

Where were you in France, in the Study Abroad?

Kate Keller:

It’s Auge, France, it’s in western France. It’s a smaller city, it’s near Orleans or Nantes. It’s about an hour and a half train ride from Paris. And the idea that we were told was that it was a great place to learn French, because you weren’t in sort of international city of Paris, which is so global. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the best reason, but it was a wonderful experience for me. I lived with a French family and just learned so much from that experience. And just broadened my horizons in so many ways. I think I thought I would learn the French language and culture, but as most people know, you learn so much more on Study Abroad than just the language.

Greg Kaster:

Right. And I know how important Study Abroad is to you still as a professor and advising our students, and your work in internationalizing the curriculum, which maybe we can get into in a bit. I’m struck by the fact that you chose the school because you want it to be close to your sister. Some siblings [crosstalk 00:06:42] for the other way.

Kate Keller:

It was not the most… I mean, it is a good school, I’m glad I went there. I had a wonderful education. I had a great experience there. I guess I’m just trying to say it was not the most rational decision. I mean, I certainly did not have a career plan or anything like that. I knew they had this Study Abroad program that was appealing to me. I was probably not quite ready to be in a big city at that time. I was a little shy and nervous about starting college. And so yeah, those are all things that factor in, things that we don’t always think about when we’re professors, but as young people, you have so many things going on in your mind.

Greg Kaster:

That’s absolutely right. You’re reminding me, my brother and I attended the same school for our BAs, Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, outside of Chicago. And at one point, even roomed together, which was a total mistake, a nightmare, but we made it through and are still close. I assume you’re so close to your sister.

Kate Keller:

Oh yeah, absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

So from Notre Dame, you went to Rutgers, what was it about Rutgers and its PhD program that drew you there?

Kate Keller:

Well, Rutgers is in New Jersey, which is where my family was, and is still. And I heard about Rutgers history PhD program through my Notre Dame adviser, Tom [Kasselman 00:08:07], who’s a French historian. And we were talking about what are some programs for me, and I was again being irrational. I was thinking about places I’d like to live. Like, oh, North Carolina. I wasn’t thinking about what was the best history program for me? But Tom said, “You should look at Bonnie Smith, she is a great adviser of historians at Rutgers. And she’s a French historian.” And my first reaction was, I don’t want to go to Rutgers. I don’t want to go back to New Jersey. At that time, by the time I graduated from college, I was really ready to go to a big city. I actually really wanted to go to NYU at first, that was my thought. They do have a great French studies program there and I considered that school. And my mom was excited about me going to Rutgers and being closer to home.

I eventually visited the Rutgers history program. It’s a really great program. It’s a really large history program. And I met a lot of great students there. I met quite a few faculty in European history. At that time, I was really thinking about doing a project about France during World War II, I had not gotten into African studies in terms of my own research. And I actually ended up talking to Bonnie Smith on the phone, and talking to her about what was going on at Rutgers. And I knew that she was the right advisor for me. So I did actually end up making a good choice, I think, based on who would be a good advisor to me, and she was a really wonderful advisor and she still is. She’s just a wonderful person, professionally and personally, she’s hugely inspiring and I’ve learned so much from her. And so I did end up choosing my program based on my advisor, which was the right way I think, to choose a graduate program.

Greg Kaster:

Right, because especially in the… I mean advising is important at the undergraduate level and your case is another case in point. But also that PhD advisor choice is a fraught one. It can really sometimes make or break. And you did choose well. So how did you move into French West Africa? How did that come about?

Kate Keller:

Actually at Notre Dame, I did take a class on Francophone African literature, so that was kind of my first entry into that. But I didn’t really think that I was going to do that as in terms of my own research, for my dissertation or anything. So I started working on some research stuff and I had actually done as my senior thesis at Notre Dame, it was an independent study, it wasn’t required, but I had done research on a Frenchman who had done forced labor in Germany during World War II. And I had done oral histories with them, which was during some of my study abroad, that I had done that. And so I was really interested in World War II, I was really interested in the occupation and the kinds of moral choices people are forced to make under the circumstances of occupation.

And Bonnie, my adviser was kind of trying to push me to broaden my horizons a little bit. And she was like, “Why don’t you think about colonialism as another type of occupation?” The French are the occupiers, they’re not-

Greg Kaster:

Great point-

Kate Keller:

… subject to occupation. And she was right, World War II France was at that time, I think, a really oversaturated topic. And it probably is still, it’s something I love teaching about, have a course on it and I still love that subject. But I think she was right in saying, you should probably get broader than that. We were talking about possibly a comparative project. So I sort of moved into thinking about forced labor and the colonies. I was struggling with that topic though, because I wasn’t really finding the sources that I was interested in. And at that time, many other grad students in French history were beginning to work on colonialism. And I think a lot of people were going to Algeria, that was kind of the natural place to turn research attention to.

I picked West Africa, partly because I had studied some of the literature, and I guess I just thought maybe I would do something a little bit different from what other people were doing. I’m not really sure. I had an African history professor at Rutgers, [Al 00:12:54] Howard, who I had learned some of the Atlantic world stuff with. And he was really fantastic in helping me learn African history just by giving me lots of books to read and things like that. So that was kind of how I went in that direction. Then I started actually trying to figure out a dissertation topic, I was still trying to work on the forced labor situation before I went to France, which I had. So I had a fellowship to go do some research in France.

And I went in to see Bonnie and told her, I said, “I don’t think I can do the forced labor project, I just don’t think it’s going to work.” And she said, “Okay, well just go, go there and see what you find.” And I did. And that’s when I basically had to get into the archives. And I think that’s one of the challenges of doing research internationally, is that it’s really hard to know what you’re going to find in the archives. So you try to come up with a plan before you go, but I really had to start from scratch in the archives, figuring out what kind of topic I wanted to do. But at that point, I was really committed to this idea about the connections between France and West Africa. And where was I going to kind of go from there?

Greg Kaster:

It sounds like the topic, Colonial Suspects, what became your book, your dissertation then your book, kind of grew out of your work in the archives. Is that right?

Kate Keller:

Absolutely. I had one idea, which was something about sort of Paris and Dakar, and connecting those places and finding travel memoirs and newspaper articles. And I was really interested in Dakar as a city. And I was kind of trying to make that work and it wasn’t really happening. And then I decided, I was like, I’ll start looking at police records. Because that is an area where I could get a sense of what was happening in the city of Dakar. And I thought perhaps I would find these interactions between people, French people, African people, what is their sort of everyday story? Which was something I was looking for. I was expecting to find things like, people getting arrested, fights in bars, petty theft, that’s what I thought would be in the police files. And actually what was in it were the suspicious persons files.

Greg Kaster:

That’s so great.

Kate Keller:

Yeah. And some of the first ones I found were really about foreigners. And I thought, I guess I can’t use this, this is all about foreigners. I’m interested in French people, African people and their connections. And then eventually, I got to the point where I was like, oh, actually, I think I can, maybe this is a part of the story. And it did end up being a big part of my research. It’s a chapter of my book about the role of foreigners, and so that was exciting. And you know as a historian, that you can find things in archives that really make you… I mean, so much of archival research can be really dry. But then if you could find something that’s interesting to read, it’s just amazing.

Greg Kaster:

Your research and your book are anything but dry. And it’s just a great example of how some people might think, oh, well, maybe she’s a suspicious person herself, maybe that’s what drew you to the topic. Or you had it all figured out in advance, but you didn’t, which is not always, but often the case. What we find, either in particular sources that take us in a particular direction that we didn’t quite anticipate, or in your case, finding your topic in the archives. Let’s talk about the book. It’s a terrific book, it is a great read. And every time I read it, I imagine a masterpiece theater, or some kind of series based on it, with all the atmospherics. But tell us a little bit about the book. And maybe if you’d like, if the best way is to read a bit from it, by all means.

Kate Keller:

Sure. I’ll start by explaining a little bit about the book. As I was explaining to you earlier, I started with the suspicious persons files. And they were basically reports about people who were usually in Dakar, the capital city of French, West Africa, which is in Senegal. Now, it’s the capital of Senegal now, but also in lots of other parts of the Federation of French West Africa. And so, to me, that is the heart of the book. It’s actually the last three chapters of the book, is where I describe the suspects and what their life experience is. And there are Frenchmen, foreigners and Africans, their lives overlap. Some of them are involved in politics, some of them are involved in shady behavior that is, maybe they’re crooked, or they have a secret identity or they’re trying to escape their past, all kinds of things. It’s just this wide range of experience that emerge from the lies of the suspects.

The first part of the book is about the police and the government in general, and why they were looking into these suspects. And so that’s something that I read about pretty extensively, to kind of establish the context and why this was happening, and also to make some historical arguments about what this means for understanding French colonialism. And to try to engage with some of those historical debates. But I will read to you a little bit of the beginning of the book, which sets the scene in terms of who the suspects are, and hopefully it gives you a sense of why their lives are so interesting.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great, thank you.

Kate Keller:

So this is from the introduction to my book.

Greg Kaster:

Okay.

Kate Keller:

In the summer of 1937, Baron Paul Von Heinl, holding both Bolivian and Austrian passports, arrived in the Senegalese port of Dakar. His stay in Senegal followed a visit to the British African colony of Gold Coast, where he had met with members of the Nazi Party. In Dakar, he claimed to be researching business prospects in the sale of goods such as cameras and hurricane lamps. The passage of such a foreigner to the capital of French West Africa in the late 1930s was not unusual. Dakar was a city that teamed with itinerant Frenchmen and cosmopolitan foreigners, seeking opportunity and adventure. A seedy nightlife emerged, featuring epileptic dancers, strippers and lounge singers had emerged to cater to the pleasures of just such a crowd. Like many visitors to Dakar, Von Heinl might have dined with his foreign friends at the popular Hotel Metropole where the head chef, the Vietnamese, N’guyen Van Phu, once received a packet of Marxist journals from an anonymous source in Paris.

The Metropole did not look lavish from the exterior, but it was the place in Dakar to see and be seen, for Europeans seeking to catch wind of local entry. N’guyen as the cook lived in existence far removed from the Lifestyles of the well-heeled patrons who dined at the hotel. He had spent a few grueling years as the cook on commercial steamships based out of Marseilles. Now settled in Dakar with a steady paycheck and guaranteed room and board at one of the poshest addresses in town, he still lived an austere life. Just a few years prior to N’guyen’s reception of the unexpected journals, Monsieur Peyrissac, the owner of the firm were Von Heinl’s friends worked, became acquainted with a young Senegalese man named Amadou Sall, while spending time in Bordeaux. Sall had traveled to Paris and to the United States, spoke English and belonged to the Paris based group, League of Defense of the Negro Race.

Sall was generally reserved, but known to share confidences with the aid of a little wine. He also supposedly maintained correspondence with an extremist in Niger and somewhat mysteriously sent mail to an address in Brooklyn, New York. Although from very different strata of Dakar’s society, tenuous connections link Von Heinl, N’guyen and Sall. They have something else in common. They were all considered suspicious persons by the police and government general of French West Africa.

Greg Kaster:

It’s just great. I mean, again, first of all, the intrigue and the mystery I just love. And secondly, reviewers have readily commented on how lively and engaging your writing is, and it shows through there. And the way you make these connections. Was this it was kind of surveillance peculiar to the French in colonial West Africa? Do you know, or were there…

Kate Keller:

So there’s been a lot of actually research recent works on surveillance as a part of colonial histories. Not only of Africa, but going into like American colonialism and the Philippines and in North Africa and also in Asia. There’s lots of different examples of this where I would say, political surveillance was a part of life. And the main goal of these kinds of surveillance operations was largely to suppress nationalist movements. And so absolutely, it’s something that’s not unique to French, West Africa. What I’m trying to do with my work is to use sort of the files and use all the information that comes out of it, to kind of get an inside look at what was happening with people’s lives in this context. So I’m sort of working against the grain a little bit, in terms of, I do write about the police, and what they were doing, but I’m really more interested in what kinds of information you can get from those files. And to get a sense of, what these places were like and what it was like to be there and to experience that.

So in my reading on the subject in terms of the other secondary sources, I would say that while this kind of surveillance is really common, it’s really hard to find those kinds of details. And I’m not sure if it’s because other historians are just passing by them, whereas I get it. I’m always reading about, like, okay, this is going to be a book about surveillance. And then they’ll talk about the sort of methods and what they found, and not the kind of nitty gritty details that I’m more interested in.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, you wonder if it’s the lack of sources, or they’re passing it by, because they’re not… You just said you read against the grain, and that’s important. Could you explain for listeners what that means? Historians often write about, reading against the grain of the evidence.

Kate Keller:

So I mean, to read them with the grain, is to be like, what were the police thinking? What did they want? What were they using them for? Which I do in the book, I talk about that in the first two chapters. But then I try to be like, okay, what is sort of the story that’s underneath it? What if the person is not actually a communist like this man, this Vietnamese man at the hotel?

Greg Kaster:

Yes, the chef, right?

Kate Keller:

Yeah. What sort of life was he living? What was he doing in Dakar? Instead of… The French were like, was he a Marxist? And he actually had turned in all the journals that he received, he was trying to be an informant and a source. And they were just like, he is a suspect. So, that’s what they want to know, is what was he a Marxist? I did spend a lot of time when I first started this project being like, is this all paranoia, or did it really happen? Were there these massive movements of opposition to the French, or was it mostly their imagination? And I eventually kind of moved away from that. Because mostly I was interested in, who were these people, and why did they come to the attention of the police?

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:25:08] people. Go ahead, sorry.

Kate Keller:

Oh, no, just to say that that’s what I want to get out of the sources, but I also tried to read them with the grain in terms of understanding what the police wanted, and why they were doing what they were doing, as opposed to my own ends, which was to understand who this people were in this diverse society.

Greg Kaster:

Right. And so as you explained so well, reading against the grain allows us to get at the lives of people who might not have left letters or diaries, but show up in other sources. In this case, show up indirectly, in a way, in this case, the police sources. And the history of the people or the history, ordinary people certainly involves that technique of reading it against the grain, which you’re so good at. I always want to know more about that chef, as you know, so if you [inaudible 00:26:02]… You are onto this really, I think neat, next book project. Can you tell us a little bit about that? I think it goes directly out of your your book, right?

Kate Keller:

Well, I have a new title for the book, and you’re going to be the first to know, Greg. It’s A Magnificent Fraud. And that’s a direct quote from a document. It’s about the life of this man named Mamadou Alioune Kane, who was a Senegalese man who came to France probably during World War I, and then he returned in the 1920s. He started to call himself a prince and a wizard in the 30s and then also became known as a Muslim religious leader, which he wasn’t. He also collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. So it’s kind of bring me back to my World War II interest. So he is in some ways, a con man and a scam artist. But he also has just this really interesting trajectory that I’m trying to use to, again, inform readers about the connections between France and West Africa, just through his life. So the project did emerge from my original research, because he shows up at a suspicious persons file in Dakar, which is where he was from originally.

But ultimately, everything he did suspicion-wise happened in France, and so I didn’t end up writing about him in the book, but I kind of saved him, put him aside. Because everything he did… So everything in the book takes place in French West Africa, everything that he did almost exclusively took place in Paris. And so it’s really a story about France and colonialism, but sort of flipped, in that I’m taking the suspicious person from France who’s also an African person. And using his life to kind of get at some broader themes about the African community, what it meant to be an African person in France. So Kane was a French citizen, because he was born in one of these, there’s a few places in France where you if you are born there as an African, you get citizenship automatically. So he was free to travel. He was French, in terms of his citizenship, but he was also African and Senegalese, and he was really navigating this world by coming up with these scams and frauds.

And I’m trying to think about him as like, he’s both somebody who’s so reprehensible. And he’s also so clever and interesting. And so that’s what I’m writing about in my new book, and I have all the primary research done. I’m just taking the time to work on the writing. And I’m really hoping that this book will be more geared towards a popular audience or a wider audience, than my first book, which is, although I do think it is a pretty interesting read, as you said, it’s still tolerably monograph. And my new book is meant to be something that undergrads would really enjoy reading. It’ll elucidate all the themes about French colonialism in West Africa, and then World War I, and why did Senegalese people end up fighting in World War I? And then this immigrant community that was… some of them are immigrants, some of them are just migrants, because they were citizens, that was emerging in Paris in the 20s.

And he married a French woman, he drove a taxi, he had a fruit stand. So in some ways, his life is really reflective of that kind of typical migrant experience. And then he sort of goes off into this area where he’s like, I’m a prince, I’m a wizard and gains notoriety for that and fame. He traveled to New York.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, wow.

Kate Keller:

And was part of the World’s Fair there in 1939.

Greg Kaster:

Like as part of an exhibit or what?

Kate Keller:

No, no, he wanted to be. He got credentials as a journalist, but then he kind of tried to set up a sort of booth, I guess you would call it, where he could give… He started telling fortunes eventually, I’m not sure if he was doing it in New York. But he was just sort of a freelance exhibitor. He would wear a costume, he was very tall and he would wear a turban. And the New York Times wrote about him at the time, and he supposedly married an African American woman, and brought her back to France. He already had a wife, he had multiple wives. He’s just really a character and kind of like with my first book, he’s got a fascinating life, and that’s what has drawn me into his story. But then, I try to, as a historian be able to say, what can we learn about the time period from studying his life?

Greg Kaster:

Yes, now you do that so well in the first book, and I know you will in the second book too. Which is yeah, to use these lives to get these broader themes in the history of French colonialism and West Africa. I was thinking, it sounds like you do know what this fellow, what Kane looks like, are there photographs?

Kate Keller:

Yeah, there are many newspaper photographs of him. So he had several court cases, because in 1941, he was tried for a black market activity during the war. He was put on trial, and he wore his turban to the court. He also had all these close relationships with Senegalese politicians, and he’d wear a suit in a picture where he’d be photographed with politicians. And then he was put on trial again in 1945, for treason, and he was convicted of treason. So yes, I have many photographs of him. They’re from newspaper clippings, so the quality’s not always great. But yes, I absolutely know what he looks like. And there are many police reports about him, which is-

Greg Kaster:

I can imagine.

Kate Keller:

Yeah. That’s another thing that I like about this project, it has a lot of diversity of sources. So in my first book, I relied largely on police sources. And with this, I have police sources, but I also have court records and newspaper articles. And he also has written a lot of defenses of himself and tons of correspondence. Because whenever he was in trouble, he would be trying to get out of trouble by petitioning judges and things like that. So I also have [crosstalk 00:32:35] and it’s one of these things where every sentence is like, supposedly, this happened because there’s a lot of… You know he is trying to con people, so it’s hard to know when to trust him. But another interesting thing is during… So he was actually on trial for denouncing another Senegalese person to the Gestapo. And that person was supposedly killed. And so all the Senegalese testified against him.

Greg Kaster:

You raise an interesting point, which is, yeah, if you’re writing about a con man or woman, how, as a historian… That makes it even trickier, what can you trust? What’s reliable in the evidence? Is this fellow, is Kane also being surveilled by the police in New York?

Kate Keller:

I don’t know. And I would love to find that out. In fact, I have had thoughts about going to the New York Public Library and seeing if I could find anything in terms of the World Fair, like if there was any photographs taken there. I haven’t done research in the US Greg, so I don’t know how to do that.

Greg Kaster:

This is going to be a new direction for you.

Kate Keller:

Yeah, no, I would love to do that. And it’s something I have thought about doing, and would love to do at some point. Just to see. I have no idea. I’m not sure how closely those kinds of records would be kept. I mean, even in France, he was arrested many times and I don’t have those specific files. I mostly have these summary reports that say what happened. So I’m not sure how detailed that type of thing would be, if it still exists.

Greg Kaster:

Maybe you’ll even find his exhibit booth, who knows? Whatever, it just sounds like a lot of fun and very interesting and also illuminating of the larger history you’re really interested in, which is, again, the connections between France and West Africa. And this will definitely be a movie. I mean, my goodness.

Kate Keller:

I hope so.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, definitely. Let’s talk a little bit about your teaching. I know how much like any good teacher, excellent teacher, your research informs your teaching. Certainly does in your case, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in on a number of your courses. And I know you’ve really worked hard at innovating your teaching. And two projects in particular, I’d like you to talk a bit about. One is the project related to the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. And the other one involves having students use the Lutheran, that was a Lutheran Church archives at Gustavus. But tell us a little bit about those innovations.

Kate Keller:

Sure. So I got interested in the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, which happened in the 1950s, and is a topic that is, the more I get into it, the more complicated it is. It’s something that’s really misunderstood. It was described by the British as being this kind of like savage outbreak of violence, when actually it was an organized anti-colonial nationalist movement. And I started having my students read books about it, and then I had them locating primary resources. There are a lot of memoirs about the Mau Mau rebellion. And even the name itself is a controversial thing, because Mau Mau was this, [britishization 00:36:05] of a word, muhimu, which is a word that means the important ones. But anyways, so usually I put the word Mau Mau in quotes, just so you know.

Greg Kaster:

Okay.

Kate Keller:

And anyways, I decided to do this project-based learning which was something that I had learned about from colleagues at Gustavus. I decided to have them create a memorial or monument to the Mau Mau rebellion and in doing so, they needed to learn the history, try to make sense of all the different constituencies within it. So there’s people that fought for Mau, Mau, there’s people that helped them, there are people that opposed them. So there were Kenyan people who worked for the British as the home guards, they were basically the police. The Mau Mau was something that was part of the Kikuyu ethnic group, but there were many Kenyans that were not Kikuyu. So I encouraged them to think about sort of all the different perspectives and in doing so, to create a memorial or a monument. And I did this for the first time in fall of 2018. And the students had to basically design the monument, they didn’t have to build it, but they had to give a lot of very specifications to how it was going to be built, and what was it going to be made of, and how they were going to raise the money.

So I’m transforming this project into a challenge seminar, which is part of the new curriculum. So that the entire course will be for students from multiple disciplines to study this event in history, and then see if they can make sense of it. And I think this is so important now, when we are talking about what kinds of memorials and monuments we want to have in our public spaces. How can they represent us? How can they represent multiple constituencies, instead of just one part of society? So that’s something that I think gives it a lot of resonance for our contemporary situation.

Greg Kaster:

Absolutely, in a way so does your… not just in a way, it does, your work on surveillance. Since we live in this world where we’re all surveilled one way or another. Yeah, that project I think just sounds fantastic. I’m glad to hear how you’re going to move forward with it. Well, can you give us a an example or two? What the students came up with?

Kate Keller:

Sure. So some of them were… this is what I loved about the project too, is it allows students to be creative in ways that they normally wouldn’t be in a paper. And I am not as creative in terms of artistic representation, so I love watching them do it. One of the major grievances of the Mau Mau was about land, and so many of them incorporated the Kenyan landscape into their memorial, as a way to symbolize that. I remember one of my students was a geology major, and he selected a particular type of stone that was going to be used, that would change color in the rain. And now I can’t remember exactly what the significance of it was, but they had to explain what went into it. A lot of them use text, a lot of them tried to use text and images to tell the story of what happened as a way to memorialize it.

Some of them picked a specific moment, like a particular massacre that happened and tried to memorialize that, and use that to give a broader, more national sense of mourning. So I told them, they couldn’t create a museum. It couldn’t just be like, learn about it, it had to really be sort of a physical thing that people could visit. And they talked about different ways you could interact with it. We actually studied the Vietnam Memorial in DC as an example, because people have kind of made that monument their own in the aftermath. And so we talked about ways that they could imagine people say, leaving a flower or memorializing a particular name or something like that. So they had all kinds of creative ideas, and they worked on it in groups. So I think they ended up coming up with five different memorials.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great, it just sounds fantastic.

Kate Keller:

Thank you-

Greg Kaster:

Excellent project. And then the other one I find really interesting as it gets, again, gets students into the, not just the primary sources, but the archives, and we do have an archive in our library that has some interesting stuff there. Talk to us a little bit about that project.

Kate Keller:

Sure. So I learned through Jeff [Jensen 00:40:41], who’s in the library, that there were archives of missionaries who had been to Tanzania as late or as early as the 1920s. So these were Gustavus alumni who traveled to Tanzania as Lutheran missionaries, and they had left documents at… They had, in later years, collected their documents through the Lutheran Church archives. And they also have objects, things that they brought back. But what was really exciting to me was the idea that students could do primary research on African history right here at Gustavus, because it is hard to find sources in African history. And some of the sources… A married couple is the main sources I use, they’re Ruth and [Hobart Johnson 00:41:31] are the couple’s name. And Hobart was a doctor and a Lutheran missionary and he kept a lot of notes about his discussions with people about Christianity, that are super interesting.

And he’ll say things like, “Here’s a proverb that I learned.” Or one of the best ones is, one of the people said to me, “If Jesus was born so close to us, why are we only hearing about him now?” Because Tanzania is closer to the Middle East than America is. There’s just a lot of interesting conversations-

Greg Kaster:

That’s wonderful, I love that one.

Kate Keller:

Yeah. So what I ended up doing, I’ve had a couple of different iterations of this project. I had my students in groups select documents, and then they have to actually transcribe them. Which at first, they were kind of like, why transcribe it? We can just take a picture of it. But actually, a lot of them have are a little bit difficult to read if they’re handwritten, or maybe they have something crossed out. So you actually really have to make a choice about what is it saying. And so they transcribed them, they wrote introductions to them in class, they spent time analyzing them. And eventually I put together basically a digital primary source collection of these documents, so that future students can read them and analyze them and interpret them. So it’s something that’s like a little bit of a crossover between my imperialism course and my African history course.

So the imperialism, of course, is the group that did the primary source project. And we talked about, like how do you select a document? How do you find the one that needs to go in the collection? Is it the one that’s easiest to read? Or no, it should be something that you think is most interesting. And so we spent some time on that. And this way also, in terms of preservation of the collection, every semester, I don’t have people going in there. But we have a digital version of it, and then we can read it. And so I think it was a really useful project, in terms of thinking about, they read a lot of these primary sources in their classes, the edited collections, to kind of let them see what goes into making. And that’s a part of being a historian-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, exactly. That’s one of the things I love about the project, that it’s the raw materials. And as you say, it’s a multi-layered project, the different choices they have to make, including the choice about, what does that document say, if I can’t quite make it out. And what to include in the collection. So yeah, it’s just fantastic.

Kate Keller:

Yeah, it was interesting for them to see, there was a lot of discussion about imperialism as a negative force, which is not uncommon. That’s how we often think of imperialism. But then seeing Ruth and Hobart, I think they started identifying with them a little bit, and thinking about it. You really do see them trying to make sense of what’s happening. They actually are almost like anthropologists, the missionaries themselves, and so they are really complicated people and interesting. Also Ruth has a memoir about her experience, which we looked at too. So all kinds of opportunities there, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

That’s terrific. Thinking about this also reminded me, did you take students abroad or not?

Kate Keller:

No, it’s something I’d like to do-

Greg Kaster:

It’s just something you’ve thought about-

Kate Keller:

… and no. The last time I was in France, I visited some World War II sites to kind of plan some future trip like that. But right now, that’s not really happening. So one day.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, one day you will. You’re just an example of the kind of exciting innovations that go on in our teaching at Gustavus and all schools, I guess. But [inaudible 00:45:26] Gustavus best. And also, there’s a history of everything. Our students still need to understand that. There’s a history of surveillance, there’s a history of interactions between white missionaries or whatever they’re calling themselves, and those they are on mission to. Which kind of leads me into history. So you and I both well know, any historian, professor of history knows that history is perhaps always kind of a tough sell, what can I do with a history major? But especially now, with all of the emphasis on STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. As a professor of history at a liberal arts college, what’s your sales pitch for history? Why study history?

Kate Keller:

Well, usually I send them to talk to Greg Kaster, because he’s the ultimate salesman when it comes to history. Everyone knows that.

Greg Kaster:

You’re very good, you’re very good.

Kate Keller:

But I guess I think what I tell them is, first of all, while you’re in college, study what you love. That was what I did. I thought, I’ll try international relations, I’ll try something that’s more practical. And then I was like, no, no, that’s not what I want to do. If you love history, if you love learning from it, you are going to be a successful person in whatever you choose to do. And that, when you’re studying history, you’re developing so many skills. Historical thinking can help you tackle so many problems. Identifying what the problem is, what the question is, what are the sources that are going to help you answer the problem? Figuring out, how many sources do I have? Do I have tons and I have to skim through it? Or do I only have a few that I have to very carefully read? Those kinds of research skills, I think are really valuable.

But also just having a sense of the world, having an understanding of where we’ve come from, that’s just, everyone should have that, I think. You and I have talked about this, how historians have to have empathy for people in the past. And just thinking back to the things we’ve been talking about, Kane, my subject in my book, I have a suspicion of him, because I think he’s a conman, but I also have to have empathy to him as a historical actor. Why is he behaving this way? Who is he? Ruth and Hobart Johnson. Okay, maybe I have a negative impression of missionaries in the colonial period, but let’s try to flesh them out some more. And I think that the kind of empathy we get from seeing all the perspectives in history helps you be a really thoughtful and creative person.

Greg Kaster:

Agree, of course, music to my ears. And you’ve mentioned too, in another context, about the current pandemic giving you, you talked about yourself I guess, but an empathy for people living through the influenza pandemic of 1918. And not knowing as we know, looking back, not knowing how it might end, where it might go, which I think is another really important part of having a historical consciousness. I could go on forever. It’s so much fun, it’s so interesting. It’s always a pleasure to talk to a fellow historian of your caliber, I should add. Thank you so much. Thank you for all your work as chair too, of our department in this, shall we say, challenging time, is an understatement. And we’re recording this on the eve of classes beginning tomorrow. Goodness gracious. I guess we both better get back to our syllabi. But best of luck with the classes and I look forward to seeing you certainly online, if not also in-person.

Kate Keller:

Thanks, Greg. Thanks for having me-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, take care-

Kate Keller:

… I really appreciate the opportunity.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure, my pleasure Kate, take care. Bye-bye.

Kate Keller:

Okay, bye.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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