Dr. Robert Hawkins Wins the American Studies Association 2011 Ralph Henry Gabriel Dissertation Prize

May 3, 2012

Written by: Dr. Amy Scott

Dr. Robert Hawkins joined the Department of History in August 2011 after earning his PhD from Saint Louis University.  Shortly after arriving on the Hilltop, he was awarded the 2011 American Studies Association’s coveted Ralph Henry Gabriel Dissertation Prize for his innovative dissertation “Natural Born Ease Man? Work, Masculinity, and the Itinerant Black Musician.”  The nationally competitive award is the most prestigious prize for doctoral candidates in the disciplines of American Studies, American Ethnic Studies and American Women's Studies.  Dr. Stacey Robertson, Chair of the History Department, praised Hawkins’s accomplishment, noting, “Professor Hawkins' dissertation rose to the top because it combines lucid analysis with original research and beautiful writing.”  She predicted, “His work on African-American musicians will continue to win awards and intrigue audiences.”

Hawkins’ dissertation explores how disparate ideas of what constituted “work” were determining factors in constructions of masculinity surrounding itinerant black musicians between 1896 and 1941.  His study combines the methodologies of history, literary analysis, visual and sonic culture, and critical race and gender studies to argue that differing beliefs about the nature and value of work yielded understandings of masculinity that diverged along lines of race and class.  Itinerant musicians straddled the line separating the formal and informal economies, blurring distinctions between labor and criminality; consequently, Hawkins argues, these musicians serve as excellent indicators of where various social groups drew the boundaries of legitimate work and, correspondingly, of legitimate manhood.  By examining how people viewed black street performers and similar figures, Hawkins explains how those people defined work and how they understood masculinity.

On the one hand, his study shows the unique role that work played in working-class black gender identity during the Jim Crow era.  But by comparing the assumptions about work and gender evident in responses to black itinerants, it also demonstrates that black musicians became central negative referents for the gendered work identities of white citizens and middle-class black activists.  Through a close reading of the vagrancy statutes, Hawkins reveals that the legal language of such statutes placed street musicians and other black itinerants outside the bounds of manhood and working citizenship, thereby securing both as the province of whites—an exclusion which depictions of black sloth and innate musicality reinforced in the realm of popular culture.  Black activists like W.E.B. Du Bois and A. Philip Randolph, on the other hand, celebrated the accomplished musicians of the race, but reserved their praise for those who complied with standards of middle-class respectability and whose talents appeared to result from perseverance in formal study.  Meanwhile, rather than rejecting outright the idealized work ethics that animated white notions of legal employment and black projects of racial advancement, itinerant musicians improvised on these themes to express unique values of work and masculinity which better accorded with working-class black experiences.  Engaging in activities that were both work and play, both pleasurable and productive, itinerant musicians complicate the historical narrative on the early twentieth century transformation of masculinity—ordinarily understood as a shift from stressing economic production and physical discipline to emphasis on consumerism and physical pleasure. 

Dr. Hawkins has begun revising his dissertation manuscript for publication.  Ultimately, he hopes that his book will convey the importance of ideas about work to the construction of masculinity and demonstrates that working-class black musicians were central, rather than peripheral, figures in the shaping of gender identities across lines of race and class.