Stanford historian’s first book wins two prizes

The Organization of American Historians (OAH) has recognized ALLYSON HOBBS, assistant professor of history at Stanford, with two of their annual awards for her book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life.

The prizes are the 2015 Frederick Jackson Turner Award, which is given to a first scholarly book about American history, and the 2015 Lawrence W. Levine Award, for the best book in American cultural history.

“I was absolutely thrilled to receive these awards. I am deeply honored and humbled to have my work recognized by scholars whom I greatly admire,” said Hobbs, who was among 50 recipients to receive OAH awards this year. The OAH is the world’s largest professional association dedicated to American history scholarship

Photo of Allyson Hobbs and her book cover.  "A Chosen Exile" A Chosen Exile addresses the topic of racial passing – the intentional attempt to assume a different racial identity. Hobbs examines how blacks passed as whites in American society, starting with the antebellum period and into the present day. Her book is the first to explore the many complex ways women and men of ambiguous race handled racial identity and racism in various historical eras.

The Frederick Jackson Turner Award Committee unanimously selected A Chosen Exile because it “illuminates the complexities of the double helix of race and identity in American life as few others do and richly deserves the acclaim of historians of the American experience,” according to an OAH press release.

A Chosen Exile homes in on what was lost rather than what was gained by practicing racial passing. Hobbs’ interest in this subject stems from a loss in her own family’s history. As a graduate student, Hobbs was haunted by the story of a distant cousin who – against her wishes but at the insistence of her mother – moved away from her family in Chicago to pass as a white woman in Los Angeles. She never again returned to her black family.

Hobbs said, “This story stuck with me and it set me on a 12-year journey to try to better understand this elusive phenomenon of racial passing.”

The Lawrence W. Levine Award Committee praised A Chosen Exile because it transforms how we think about the history of race and its changing meanings over time, and also makes us ask what constitutes history.

Hobbs said she was pleased to win the Levine Award because she has great respect and admiration for Lawrence Levine as a scholar, teacher, mentor and activist.

“He was a pioneer in bringing the lives of everyday people to the study of history,” Hobbs said of the late historian, who was a former president of the OAH.

A Chosen Exile is intentionally positioned as a contribution to cultural history and is accessible to scholarly and popular audiences alike. Hobbs is happy that this book has struck a chord with readers inside and outside of academia.

“The themes of identity and loss are so universal that anyone can read this book and relate to it,” she said.

For her next book project, Hobbs is investigating the migration and travel patterns of African Americans in the 20th century.

“I hope to challenge the American mythology of the ‘open road’ and instead show how the road could be a site of racial terror for black travelers. I also hope to show how the road became a critical terrain for the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s,” she said.