Formerly a modern dance performer and arts administrator, Karen Graubart was born and raised in New York City, and attended Hunter College High School and Barnard College before receiving a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Her research looks at the ways that disenfranchised peoples of all kinds experienced colonialism and enslavement and — using a mixture of tools from their colonized environment — made sense of the world. These were elite indigenous women in early colonial Peru, who argued to viceregal authorities that their political culture enabled women to inherit the highest political office available to conquered communities, the cacicazgo. Or they were enslaved men and women who collectively seized their freedom through fugitivity, and then negotiated with Spanish governors to form free towns, paying tribute and policing other fugitives in exchange for an end to hostilities. They were also urban residents, indigenous people who purchased homes in cities where they were excluded from running for municipal office but invented a language of creolization to celebrate their status; or Muslims in fifteenth century Christian Seville, who also created titles to reflect a hierarchy that promoted artisans within a relatively poor and disenfranchised but self-governed community. She tells these stories not to romanticize individual accomplishments but to think about the strategies people, as individuals or communities, used to carve out spaces for themselves in a world that they could not dominate.
She is more generally a historian of colonial Latin America and the Iberian Atlantic. Her first book, With Our Labor and Sweat: Indigenous Women and the Formation of Colonial Society in Peru, 1550-1700 (Stanford University Press, 2007), won the Ligia Parra Jahn Prize for best work in gender history from the Rocky Mountain Council for Latin American Studies (2008). Her articles also appear in many journals and edited collections, including Hispanic American Historical Review, Colonial Latin American Review, and Slavery and Abolition. She won the James Alexander Robertson Prize from the Conference on Latin American History for her article, “Learning From the Qadi: The Jurisdiction of Indigenous Rule in the Early Colonial Andes,” (Hispanic American Historical Review 95:2).
Currently an Associate Professor of History, Concurrent Associate Professor of Romance Literatures and Languages and Gender Studies, and Affiliated Faculty in Africana Studies, Dr. Graubart teaches courses on colonial Latin America; Latin American forms of slavery; gender and colonization; law and empire; and the history of race and ethnicity in Latin America. She is also a faculty fellow of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. In 2019-2020 she served as the first internal Scholar-in-Residence of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Notre Dame.
Her work has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (2004, 2008, 2009, 2013, 2017); The American Council of Learned Societies (2009); the American Historical Association (2002); The John Carter Brown Library (1997, 2009); the American Association of University Women (1996); and Fulbright (1995).
Her most recent project, Republics of Difference: Racial and Religious Self-Governance in the Iberian Atlantic, studies governance strategies from above and below in 15th century Seville and 16th century Lima. It analyzes how the laws and policies used to differentiate and administer Muslim, Jewish and sub-Saharan African communities under Christian rule in in late medieval Iberia were transformed to accommodate the integration of indigenous and African peoples into the new Spanish empire. These systems of governance, which offered limited autonomy to most subject peoples, produced an astonishing variety of local experiences. By focusing on the local – mapping where urban residents lived and worked, and how they acted through or despite different social and juridical categories that were asserted from above – the book demonstrates how forms of delegated governance created a multi-jurisdictional society that shaped everyday life.
Another upcoming project is tentatively titled Fugitive Blackness, and looks at multiple forms of Black self-governance across the circum-Caribbean. That comparative study, linking maroon palenques to Black towns to Black confraternities and other institutions, will examine the ways that Spanish disciplinary formations intersected with Black self-governance projects, using gender as a means of focusing comparison.
Her only lasting regret is never getting to perform as a backup dancer for Beyoncé.
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