Historian helps connect students to the often unheard voices of the past
October 24, 2017
By Amy Ratelle
An expert on slavery and gender in colonial Latin America, Tamara Walker joined U of T’s history department in the Faculty of Arts & Science this fall as an assistant professor after teaching at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I’ve long-admired the people who work in the history department here, and when I came to visit, I was so impressed with its diversity in terms of the fields that were represented,” she says.
“In a lot of ways, it reminded me of where I went to grad school at the University of Michigan, and there was a part of me that felt I had come back to the kind of place that formed me. So professionally and personally, it felt like a good intellectual fit.”
Walker brings a dynamic range of interests with her, including a passion for travel, and its power give young scholars the experience and confidence to succeed.
“The reason I became a specialist in Latin America is because I had an early formative experience when I was 16 and got to go to Mexico. So I know how lucky I have been in that regard,” says Walker, who is also a freelance writer for publications like Slate and The Guardian.
“As a black woman travelling to places in the world that are fraught with their own racial histories, writing has really been important to create space for conversations about my own experiences, and to shine a light to the degree that I can.”
Walker is teaching a first-year course on the African Diaspora in the Americas, a 200-level class on The History of Colonial Latin America, and a graduate-level seminar on Race, Gender, and Citizenship in Latin America.
Her first book, Exquisite Slaves: Race, Clothing, and Status in Colonial Lima, examines slavery and dress in colonial Peru, and she has two other books in the works, one on slavery and piracy in the Southern Pacific, and another on race and gender in Latin American visual culture.
One of the challenges of her research is a lack of traditional historical records such as diaries and letters. However, through persistence and painstaking techniques – including combing through testimony in court records – Walker’s research gives voice to the slaves of that period.
“If you are creative and patient and willing to work with these kinds of fragments, you can still piece together some very rich and compelling details about the lives of people who didn’t realize their stories would have so much meaning for us all these centuries later.”
Finding as many ways as possible to connect to the lived experiences of people from the past is a lesson she has impressed on her students, often having them study original and primary documents “so they can hear from people in their own words.”
As the first member of her family to go to college, Walker is mindful to make her work and writing as accessible as possible to a broad audience beyond the academic community.
The Wandering Scholar, a non-profit she co-founded while in graduate school, was inspired by a similar philosophy about access and opportunity. Attending a luncheon for her and fellow Fulbright Scholars studying in Latin America, Walker looked around the room and thought about how many low-income students were denied a chance for the same kind of international experience.
“It was important for me to do what I could to help train and prepare that next generation of ambassadors for the opportunities that would put them in those rooms.”
She’s even thinking of expanding the program, given her new location.
“Right now, our focus is low-income students from all over the U.S., but that might change now that I am in Canada.”