Raynor Bond-Ashpole’s thesis lives at the intersection of African American history and American environmental history. Titled “To Drown on Dry Land: Blackness, Jim Crow Modernity, and Counter-Modernities on the Levees of the Southern Mississippi River,” his paper argued that the levee, an embankment built to prevent river overflow, was integral in enforcing Jim Crow as a social and economic system.
“Like the railroads that eventually cross-hatched the South, levees were vehicles of Jim Crow modernity,” he explained. “Here I am borrowing the term from historian of the South, Sarah Haley, to emphasize that levee construction and maintenance was not only a modernizing project designed to protect river-adjacent infrastructure and the agricultural interests of the dominant plantation class, but that they were also used to delineate race in Jim Crow’s South—levee work was always intended to be the Black man’s work.”
The history major, who minored in both sociology and environmental studies, pulled from all of his academic fields of interest in his thesis, which focused on the significance of the Mississippi River in the history of racism in the United States. He notes the strong connection between Black labor, white economic interests, and the natural and built environments that enforce the racial divide. The story of the levee in America embodies that connection.
“The levee was also home to modernities that sought to counter its production and reproduction of Jim Crow modernity,” said Bond-Ashpole. “My thesis discusses both the New Deal-informed modernity pushed by the NAACP—focused on labor rights—and the more human-rights centered modernity sung by blues artists, who created soundscapes divorced from the violence that defined the levee.”
Bond-Ashpole was advised by Associate Professor of History Andrew Friedman, who helped him imagine the direction of his thesis. “He was very helpful in widening my conception of what a historical archive could look like,” he said. “For example, my favorite section of the thesis discusses blues songs as an archive of Black political imaginings that resisted the levee’s anti-Black violence.”
What are the implications of your thesis research?
My research made clear that the areas of the South on the Mississippi’s environs have long been defined by the connections between Black labor, white economic interests, the natural environment, and the built environment. Ostensibly a relatively benign architectural form used to protect crops, the levee emerged as a weapon, on which Black labor was subjugated in the service of a modernity that privileged white business interests. …
Unsurprisingly, understanding the history of Black labor, and how modernity has interacted with Black labor, is key to understanding the history of the South. My thesis seeks to add a new dimension to that conversation through discussions of nature, the levees that were built to combat nature in the service of white capital, and the Black men who were drafted as soldiers in the resultant battle and exposed to its abject cruelties.
What are your plans for the future?
I plan to eventually become a professor of either American studies or history, and hope to continue researching this topic and others like it in the future. I remain very interested in the intersections between African American history and environmental history—from the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the environmental legacies of red-lining, the environment constantly emerges as a pivotal actor in African American history.
In the meantime, I am working as a civil rights paralegal, and have already put the research skills I cultivated through my thesis to good use.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.