OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

LaKisha Michelle Simmons

Portrait of LaKisha Michelle Simmons
Image Credit: Leisa Thompson

LaKisha Michelle Simmons is the author of Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans (2015), which won the Southern Association for Women Historians' Julia Cherry Spruill Prize and received an honorable mention for the Association of Black Women Historians' Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Award. She has published articles in American Quarterly, Gender & History, The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, and Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature. Simmons is an assistant professor of history and women's studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where she earned her doctorate. Before coming back to Michigan, she taught at Davidson College and at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York.

NEW IN 2022: The Global History of Black Girlhood (University of Illinois Press)

Simmons is also a co-creator and -organizer of the Global History of Black Girlhood conference, which first convened at the University of Virginia in 2017. She is the coeditor of The Global History of Black Girlhood. She is also currently writing a book on the history of black motherhood called "Segregated Motherhood," which explores reproductive health and histories of love and loss in black families, and beginning a new research project on black women's labor in rural Louisiana since Reconstruction.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

"Tenderness" tells a story of reproductive labor and care work during the Port Royal Experiment, a test-case for Reconstruction located in the South Carolina Sea Islands during the Civil War. Charlotte Forten Grimké, an educated, elite Black activist worked as a teacher and, for a short time, as volunteer nurse in the Sea Islands during the Civil War. Drawing on a reading of Charlotte Forten Grimké’s journal, alongside letters and documents that detail the conditions in which the Black families lived, Simmons reconstructs the intergenerational networks of care with the families on the island. These care networks informed how Forten thought about the possibilities of freedom that lay before her and the local freed community, and how they all navigated the trauma of disease and death. Not just about trauma, "Tenderness" also centers love. By centering Black women’s care work, Simmons considers what it means for Black women and children to deliver or receive a tender, caring touch in a world where blackness is stigmatized and crisis seems all around.
The #BlackLivesMatter civil rights movement is bringing international attention to issues of police brutality and the "school to prison pipeline" in African Americans' lives. Many people have focused on the dangers black men and boys face, but sometimes lost in this discussion are black girls' encounters with these same systems of violence. Professor Simmons presents a short history of violence against African American girls and then discusses the injustices black girls face today. She also highlights activism that centers both race and gender. African American youth have been speaking out, proclaiming that #BlackGirlsMatter, insisting that we understand how gender affects experiences of racial violence in America.
In this talk, LaKisha Michelle Simmons uses Louisiana sugar plantations as an example to help us understand how we build monuments to the past and whose stories get told (or silenced) in the plantation tours of the present. Simmons argues that Beyoncé Knowles-Carter's visual album Lemonade and artist/photographer Carrie Mae Weems' The Louisiana Project both work to center black women's memories of slavery. Alongside these artistic and popular images of sugar plantations, Simmons also presents the memories of formerly enslaved women.
This talk traces the "afterlife of slavery" by investigating narratives of infant loss in African American women's lives. Through an analysis of oral histories collected in the U.S. South in the 1930s-ex-slave interviews-- LaKisha Michelle Simmons details a black maternal embodiment that highlights a connection to the enslaved past, a "cultural familiarity" with death and mourning, and a need to claim loss as an act of radical black mothering. Simmons suggests that understanding the long history of loss and death of black infants and mothers helps contextualize African American women's current high rates of maternal mortality, miscarriage, premature and low-birth weight births, fibroids and endometriosis, African American infant's high rates of infant death and the need for reproductive justice frameworks.
For black women living in New Orleans during Jim Crow segregation, the pain and trauma of living as a "colored" citizen took place on the geography of the modern city. Black women faced segregated street cars, street harassment from whites policing the streets, and police brutality. In this talk LaKisha Michelle Simmons explores how black women and girls danced and paraded on the streets during Mardi Gras as a way to turn a "white only" landscape into a place of pleasure and fun.