American Studies
Black Studies

Meet Sharla Fett of American Studies (chair), history and Black Studies, who works in the fields of 19th-century Atlantic World slavery, the antebellum U.S. South, and race, gender and health.

Tell us about the research you’re working on right now. 

My most recent publications have focused on the experiences of African children and adults in the mid-19th century suppression of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Over 250,000 Africans, described as “Liberated” or “Recaptured” Africans were intercepted and freed from illegal slavers by naval patrols. My book Recaptured Africans: Surviving Slave Ships, Detention, and Dislocation in the Final Years of the Slave Trade,  examined a relatively small number of these recaptives who came into U.S. custody in the 1850s.Even after their so-called “liberation” many recaptives faced difficult conditions in forced migration, detention camps, and exploitive labor arrangements, implemented through colonial racist policies. While the American public is somewhat familiar with Black post-emancipation struggles in the U.S. following the Civil War, this is a history of global post-emancipation that is not well enough known beyond scholarly circles.

In December 2019, I had the opportunity to join an international conference on “Postcoloniality and Forced Migration” at the University of Aalborg in Denmark that brought together contemporary refugee studies scholars with historians studying the diaspora of Liberated Africans. We are now working to bring the scholarship from that conference to publication. This collaboration has deepened my understanding about how some of the practices and rhetorics governing refugee policy today, have roots in the 19-century slave trade suppression era.

How do you incorporate your own research into your classes? 

The “Women and Community Health” course (cross-listed in History and Black Studies) grew out of my first book Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Antebellum Slave Plantations. Building on my research interests in the history of Black women’s health and healing, this course explores how ideologies of gender, race, class, and sexuality have shaped women’s relationship to community health as both caregivers and health-seekers. With the support of Occidental’s Center for Community Based Learning, students in this class have had the opportunity to participate in meaningful community partnerships with the Southern California Library and reproductive justice organizations like Black Women for Wellness and California Latinas for Reproductive Justice.

What has been one of the proudest moments you’ve had with your students?

In 2016, twenty Occidental students in the “Women and Community Health” class helped to archive the organizational records of Black Women for Wellness and California Latinas for Reproductive Justice. With guidance from Occidental Library’s Special Collections archivists, students documented and created finding aids for the organizations’ records. We then transferred boxes of records for permanent safe-keeping at the Southern California Library in south Los Angeles, where they are accessible to researchers, activists, and community members. We were humbled that these organizations trusted us to work with their records. Students made presentations on the archiving process that featured key documents and images from the organization histories. I was so proud of the polished and respectful presentations that students from this class made to a monthly breakfast meeting of Black Women for Wellness (“Sisters at Eight”) and to a board meeting of California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (in both Spanish and English).

I have relished the opportunity to incorporate Los Angeles community organizations, museums, and performance spaces into my courses.”

How does Oxy’s L.A. location influence or inform your teaching and research? 

Our location in Los Angeles encourages Occidental faculty to think about how our teaching can reach beyond the walls of the classroom. I have relished the opportunity to incorporate Los Angeles community organizations, museums, and performance spaces into my courses. One notable field trip with first-year students in my “Remembering Slavery” cultural studies seminar was to a performance of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at the Mark Taper Theater in downtown Los Angeles. As we strolled back to the parking lot after an incredible performance, Phylicia Rashad (who played Aunt Ester) came out of the back door of the theater just as we were passing by. An excited group of students got to speak with her and ask for her autograph!

What are you doing when you’re not teaching or researching?

I’m a voracious listener and reader of novels. Two recent favorites are Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. However, I also like to get outdoors and clear my head. One beautiful place to do this is the Malibu Bird Sanctuary, full of flocks of California Brown Pelicans and regal Great Blue Herons.

Professor Fett’s Courses

Cultural Studies Program (CSP): 

Slavery’s Witnesses, Slavery’s Legacies

Emancipation: Black Freedom in the Making

History/Black Studies: 

Hist. 101: US Cultures and Society

Hist. 206: U.S. Women’s History

Hist. 277: Women and Community Health

Hist. 309: Slavery and the Antebellum South

Hist. 312: Race, Rights, Revolution in the Atlantic World

Hist. 300: Junior Colloquium: Interpreting Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction in U.S. History

Hist. 490 Senior Seminar -- History Comprehensive Thesis