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 newest book, Republics of Difference: Religious and Racial Self-Governance in the Spanish Atlantic World will be published in summer 2022 by Oxford University Press. Republics of Difference asks why it matters that Muslims, Jews, and non-Muslim West Africans in 15th century Seville, like Indigenous peoples in 16th and 17th century Lima, were granted limited self-governance in their internal affairs; and why it matters that Black subjects in the New World were largely not. These systems of governance produced an astonishing variety of local experiences and ways of articulating identity to outsiders. 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 (and their refusal) created a multi-jurisdictional society that shaped everyday life.
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). Among her most recent articles is one that examines an extraordinary petition sent by four enslaved men to the king of Spain in the late seventeenth century, arguing that they, and others who share their particular experiences of enslavement, should be freed. Look for it: “Pesa más la libertad: Slavery, Legal Claims, and the History of Afro-Latin American Ideas,” William and Mary Quarterly 78:3 (July 2021): 427-58.
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; Indigenous histories (and the field of ethnohistory); Latin American forms of slavery; gender and colonization; law and empire; and the longer 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. She has been named a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, NJ) and was in residence there in Fall 2021.
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 current project looks at forms of collective action in sixteenth-century Panamá, where the urban Black and mulato (Black-Spanish) population litigated to exempt themselves from tribute payments. That study links Black residents to Indigenous pueblos (including those formed by formerly enslaved Indigenous men and women), to cimarrón communities in the dense forests, and to Spanish residents who sought special status as frontier settlers. The stories revealed in their litigation allow us to understand the roles played by gender relations, labor, slave-catching militias, and piracy in the early circum-Caribbean.
Her only lasting regret is never getting to perform as a backup dancer for Beyoncé.
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