Publication Date

November 1, 2003

Perspectives Section


Eve Troutt Powell, AHA member and associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, was astonished and delighted—like many others who received similar calls on September 29—when she was informed over the telephone that she had been selected to receive one of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowships for 2003. Troutt Powell had in fact, been writing up a grant proposal for yet another project when she received the news of this most generous grant coming her way. The fellowships, which are awarded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, are designed to honor the "exceptional creativity" and innovative spirit of "individuals across all ages and fields." Rather than rewarding past achievements, the $500,000 grant (paid in quarterly installments over five years) recognizes a person's "promise of continued and enhanced creative work."

Eve Troutt Powell fits this description perfectly. She has been venturing creatively onto barely or badly trodden paths in a field—Middle East history—that still suffers from many burdens, such as lingering Orientalist intellectual perspectives, commodification of scholarship for meeting the demands of the academic marketplace, and ideological indulgences. She has undertaken research on contested and polemical terrain, but has been exploring it with zeal and integrity.

Troutt Powell, who specializes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has published two books and numerous articles on race, slavery, culture, nationalism, and imperialism in the Nile valley and the Arab Middle East. Her most recent publication, Different Shades of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain and the Mastery of the Sudan, 1865–1925 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2003) deals with political and literary discourse, but also visual and lyric representations of race and empire, slavery, and the dilemma of the “colonized colonizer” in the formative years of Egyptian nationalism. A year earlier, Troutt Powell coedited (with historian John Hunwick) The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam (Markus Wiener, 2002), a selection of primary sources and texts on slavery. Troutt Powell’s work offers, through the lens of race, new perspectives on colonial political and intellectual cultures and structures. Moreover, as an African American, she has been able to read and question sources differently from mainstream historiography, and could thus challenge received scholarly notions and narratives.

But Troutt Powell is not just an innovative and industrious scholar but is also a generous and committed woman and mother. She is also an energetic, lively, and eloquent teacher who combines deep knowledge of her subject with personal charisma to communicate to students her passion for history. The MacArthur fellowship will not alter her daily life, she said in a recent telephone conversation recently. Nor will the grant lead her to revise professional or personal plans that had already been made. She will not give up either her teaching and mentoring obligations (especially to her graduate students) or her research and writing objectives. On the contrary, the grant will facilitate them, Troutt Powell said. She is presently working on Josephine Bakhita (1869–1947), a Sudanese-born woman who was enslaved and taken to Italy, where she became a Catholic nun. She was ultimately canonized in 2000 as Saint Josephine—the first Sudanese Catholic saint. Troutt Powell will travel to Cairo with her family next summer researching the history of Saint Josephine. Delighted as she is with the grant, Powell sees no need to alter a career in which she finds both fulfillment in the freedom of writing and thinking a historian benefits from, and joy in teaching history.

Troutt Powell's colleagues in the department of history at the University of Georgia (where she began teaching after receiving her PhD from Harvard University in 1975) were immensely delighted to hear of the honor she received. They see the award also as a vindication of the department's progressive but demanding recruitment policies.

Georgia University is also justifiably proud of the fact that Troutt Powell is "the only faculty member in the southeastern United States and one of only four faculty from four-year colleges and universities to be named a 2003 MacArthur Foundation Fellow."

Since 1981, the MacArthur Foundation has awarded the fellowships to a total of 70 historians (including those specially categorized as historians of America, religion, science, and art). Several of these scholars went on to become presidents of the AHA.

The MacArthur Foundation does not accept applications for the fellowships. Instead, nominees are first chosen by a group of more than 100 anonymous nominators from all professional horizons. Potential candidates are then elected by an equally anonymous, diverse, select, and independent 12-member selection committee, which, in turn, makes its recommendations to the president and board of directors of the foundation. Each year, between 20 and 25 grants are awarded; this year's 24 fellowships that went to artists, scholars, writers, and activists, reflect the program's much advertised trademark eclectic striving for recognizing inventive minds.

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