Brenda Stevenson’s 2023 Prothero Lecture: video available

28 July 2023

The video of this year’s Royal Historical Society Prothero Lecture is now available. The 2023 lecture — ‘To Do and Be Undone: Enslaved Black Life, Courtship, and Marriage in the Antebellum South’ — was delivered on 5 July by Brenda E. Stevenson, Hillary Rodham Clinton Professor of Women’s History at Oxford University.

Professor Stevenson’s lecture centres on the familial ideals and realities of enslaved Black people in the American South via their courtship and marriages, ritually and experientially. The trope of the missing Black family has lived large in the ambitious research designs of scholars, the critical imagination of the public, and the caustic decisions of policy makers. The reality, however, is that even through the pain and loss brought on by centuries of slavery and systemic racialised inequalities of all sorts, Black people wanted and were able to create family ties that fostered humanity, assured survival, and even undergird post-emancipation progress across the generations.

The lecture describes and analyses courtship/romantic attitudes and behaviours, the traits that adults desired and despised in a partner, the negotiations with family and captors regarding one’s choice for a spouse, and the various kinds of ceremonies (or not) that signified one’s marital commitments.

The Royal Historical Society’s annual Prothero Lecture is named for the historian George W. Prothero (1848-1922) who — as President of the Society between 1901-05 — played a significant role in the professionalisation of the historical discipline and the Society’s role in supporting the historical profession.

Prothero Lectures have been given annually since 1969. Previous Prothero lecturers include, among many others, Joanna Bourke, Linda Colley, Stefan Collini, Natalie Zemon Davis, Roy Foster, Olwen Hufton, Sujit Sivasundaram and Keith Thomas.