Jacobson appointed Sterling Professor of American Studies and History

Matthew Frye Jacobson
Matthew Frye Jacobson

Matthew Frye Jacobson, who has transformed understandings of race in America, has been appointed the Sterling Professor of American Studies and History, effective April 17.

The Sterling Professorship is awarded to a tenured faculty member considered one of the best in his or her field and is one of the university’s highest faculty honors.

Jacobson is a professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences' Departments of African American Studies, American Studies, and History, and the Program in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration.

A member of the Yale faculty since 1995, he has transformed how we understand the history of race in the United States, and, through his powerful advocacy for scholarship that is deeply engaged with community and the broader public, has changed the way that humanities scholars work. Jacobson is the author of seven award-winning books, creator of three documentary projects, convener and curator of numerous exhibits and community events, and an exceptional member of the Yale community.

Jacobson’s work on historical articulations of whiteness in the United States has illuminated the ways that ethnicity and race shape American life. In “Special Sorrows,” he traced how nationalist bonds and experiences of exile influenced the experiences of Jewish, Polish, and Irish immigrants in the United States. “Whiteness of a Different Color” built on these questions and argued that race resides not in nature, but in politics and culture; expertly articulating how European immigrants to the United States experienced processes of assimilation through which they became white. The book was awarded the John Hope Franklin Prize for Best Book of the Year from the American Studies Association, the Ralph J. Bunche Prize from the American Political Science Association, and was named Best Book of the Year on the Social Construction of Race by the American Political Science Association Section on Race, Ethnicity, and Politics.

In recent years, Jacobson has turned his attention to the musical and protest cultures of the civil rights era: in 2019, he published “Odetta: One Grain of Sand,” which revealed how the singer used folk repertoire as a vehicle for radical expression; his next publication will be “Dancing Down the Barricades: Sammy Davis, Jr. and the Long Civil Rights Era.” He is also working on a book called “Historians Imagine,” a collection of interviews with scholars on creativity and the craft of history writing.

Jacobson is not just a historian, but a scholar of the practice of writing and documenting histories: in “The Historian’s Eye: Meditations on Photography, History, and the American Present” (2019), he offers a wholly original analysis of the practice of recording history, combining photographs and narrative to offer both a meditation on the histories that led to the present moment and a reflection on the role of the historian. Through his leadership of Yale’s Public Humanities program, he has curated exhibits of photography and art and he has modeled how historians can use the medium of documentary film to create community-driven work.

Jacobson, who is currently serving as chair of the FAS Senate for the second time (he was also chair in 2017-18), served as chair of American Studies from 2006 to 2012 and in 2018-19, and was chair of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration from 2015 to 2018. He has played a vital role in a number of important administrative bodies, including the President’s Committee on Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, the GSAS Executive Committee, the Digital Humanities Steering Committee, and others. His leadership at Yale reflects his intellectual commitments to equity and reckoning with the legacies of whiteness and white supremacy.

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