Shirley Stewart is an alumnae of the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College, and the author of The World of Stephanie St. Clair: An Entrepreneur, Race Woman and Outlaw in Early Twentieth Century Harlem. She will be coming to Sarah Lawrence on December 3rd at 5:30 in Heimbold 208. Here is a sneak peek at her research process and advice for those interested in writing History.
- How did you come to choose Stephanie St. Clair as the subject of your book?
The choice was a no-brainer. I mean it was just so obvious to me. On a shallow level, she was a beautiful and a professionally-successful woman in a time when most black women were not considered beautiful and success was hard to come by for anyone. Early on though I realized that there was so much more to St. Clair, so I was hooked on her story.
- What was your process for locating primary documents about the life of Stephanie St. Clair? What was your biggest challenge in locating primary documents, and how did you address that challenge?
The process was haphazard in the beginning. There was no road map (no autobiography or biography), and the sparse information I did find was wrong and continues to be perpetuated to this day (I think because that information is sexier than the truth). Anyway, I had to find a starting point that I could prove was factually correct in the form of a primary document. I then researched backwards from that point and moved forward locating more and more primary documents as I unearthed more information about her. The documents were all dated so that helped a great deal in creating a timeline of her life.
- What was one of the most interesting experiences/finds you had while researching Stephanie St. Clair?
I was fascinated with how invested Harlem residents were in their community. Socially and economically it was a diverse place with the tension that can entail. That same diversity, however, also allowed for Harlem’s vibrancy. In New York there is currently a discourse about gentrification. The idea that one group could displace a less economically viable group just did not happen during that era. Elite and middle-class blacks moved from other areas in Manhattan and Brooklyn to Harlem without a substantial displacement of the working-class or poor.
- What do you feel you gained from the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence that most shaped the professional path you chose after graduation?
The Women’s History Program confirmed what I suspected all along—that history is not static. As I began the program someone (a highly-intelligent someone at that) said to me, “all the important history has been done already.” She was, of course, referring to all the “facts” found in all those texts found in the countless primary, intermediate and high schools across the country. However, documents are being unearthed every day and with digitization we can now cross-reference a wide range of people who experienced the same event. We can now have a more dynamic, nuanced and democratic view of a historical fact. Stephanie St. Clair was a perfect example of a woman who lived through some of the most important events in America’s history, and we have her actions and reactions to those events.
- What advice do you have for Women’s Historians that would like to turn their thesis work or budding research project into a book someday?
Instead of thinking of your thesis as a requirement for graduation, think in the long term. Find a thesis topic that will keep you engaged for at least three years. If the subject is not interesting to you, I guarantee that you will put all that hard work in a desk drawer and never look at it again. To complicate matters, life won’t stop because you are working on a book so plan to make choices so that the disparate pieces of your world become a more workable mess. Finally, understand that writing is a solitary process and it is possible that the only one who will see the value of your work in the beginning is you. Some of your friends and loved ones won’t understand your decision to spend an evening writing over other activities. Having said all that, I would not change a thing. The feeling of accomplishment is amazing.