Rebel Historian Who Reframes History Receives MacArthur 'Genius' Grant

Sep 25, 2019
Originally published on September 25, 2019 5:54 pm

While Kelly Lytle Hernández was growing up in San Diego near the U.S.-Mexico border in the late 1980s and early '90s, she watched as people from her community, friends and neighbors, disappeared: Black youths disappeared into the prison system; Mexican immigrants disappeared through deportations.

These experiences affected her deeply.

"It was growing up in that environment that forced me to want to understand what was happening to us and why it seemed legitimate," Lytle Hernández tells All Things Considered. "And I wanted to disrupt that legitimacy."

For answers to those questions, Lytle Hernández turned to the past. A historian and expert on immigration, race and mass incarceration, she is now a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is one of this year's 26 MacArthur Fellows.

"History is a narrative of the past. It is based upon the sources that we regard as relevant or that we can find," she says.

And so her work includes tracking down records that reflect marginalized populations and finding new, rigorous ways to understand those records.

"Where we come from matters deeply, and it shapes the present," Lytle Hernández says. "And how we understand that past, can shape our future."


Interview Highlights

On how and why she created a 'rebel archive'

With my most recent book, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, which is about the rise of mass incarceration in Los Angeles, I developed something called the "rebel archive."

The rebel archive is ... the records that have been authored by the people who have fought policing and incarceration across centuries [including court records]. ... Even cases that make it all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. It's also records that — by the grace of God — have somehow evaded destruction by law enforcement authorities over the centuries. And so it's a rebel archive because it has survived to tell the tale of what happened, and how it happened, and why.

On the debate of whether history can be rewritten

I think there's something, everything, good about reframing, and the dance of history, and the debate of history and where our present comes from. And that we should always engage in that debate rather than invest in a objective truth of the past.

And what we're talking about here is a power struggle, about the well-known phrase that "the winners are the ones who get to write history." Well, we're talking about developing newly empowered communities, new winners, and so we're beginning to rewrite our own stories.

My work and the work of many others is very much invested in telling the stories of communities that have been marginalized, that have been caged up, that have been locked out, that have been enslaved, and bringing our story, and our experience, to the center of the American narrative and helping us to change the American future with those stories.

This was adapted for the Web by Avery Ellfeldt.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's a moment that, for most of us, is the stuff of dreams - an out-of-the-blue call letting you know that you've been selected for a so-called genius award - $625,000 paid over five years. Now, for 26 lucky people, that dream just became a reality. They include artists, scientists, scholars selected by the MacArthur Foundation for their extraordinary originality. Among the new fellows is historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez. She was walking between meetings at UCLA where she teaches when she got the call and...

KELLY LYTLE HERNANDEZ: Literally melted on the spot when I found out. I definitely felt like it wasn't real - right? - that somehow you had been lifted into another level or atmosphere.

CORNISH: A professor of history, her work focuses on race, mass incarceration and immigration. I spoke with Lytle Hernandez about her work earlier today. She says growing up on the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1980s and '90s, she watched as black youth were disappearing into the prison system and Mexican immigrants were disappearing through the deportation system.

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: It was growing up in that environment that wanted me - or forced me to want to understand what was happening to us and why it seemed legitimate. And I wanted to disrupt that legitimacy. How I got to history and a historical analysis of this - I think that must come from family.

CORNISH: The history that you have unearthed and the narrative that comes out of it - it reminds me of all the ways we're rethinking history in this moment, right? There's been a lot of conversation around the 1619 Project from The New York Times in the discussion around slavery. How do you feel about this debate, this idea from people who say, look; you can't rewrite history, so to speak?

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: (Laughter) History is a narrative of the past. It is based upon the sources that we regard as relevant or that we can find. So some of the work that I have been doing and one of the other MacArthur fellows this year, Saidiya Hartman, is really about tracking down new records and finding new, rigorous ways to understand those records. So for example, with my most recent book, "City Of Inmates," which is about the rise of mass incarceration in Los Angeles, I developed something called a rebel archive. What the rebel archive is is, one, the records that have been authored by the people who have fought policing and incarceration across centuries.

CORNISH: Right, so that's activists and community members and sometimes things that come out in courts.

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: You got it - and even cases that make it all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. It's also records that, by the grace of God, have somehow evaded destruction by law enforcement authorities over the centuries. And so it's a rebel archive 'cause it has survived to tell the tale of what happened and how it happened and why.

CORNISH: I want to come back to something because when I first asked that question, you laughed - a very big kind of ha (laughter).

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: Sorry (laughter).

CORNISH: No, I'm glad you did 'cause I think it gets at the point. Like, what do you think of the debate?

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: No, I think there's something - everything good about reframing and the dance of history and the debate of history and where our present comes from and that we should always engage in that debate rather than invest in a objective truth of the past. And what we're talking about here is a power struggle - about, you know, the well-known phrase are - the winners are the ones who get to write history. Well, we're talking about developing new - newly empowered communities, new winners. And so we're beginning to rewrite our own stories.

My work and the work of many others is very much invested in telling the stories of communities that have been marginalized, that have been caged up, they've been locked out, they've been enslaved, and bringing our story and our experience to the center of the American narrative and helping us to change the American future with those histories.

CORNISH: That's professor Kelly Lytle Hernandez, MacArthur award winner.

Congratulations, and thank you for speaking with us.

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: Thank you for having me on.

CORNISH: And we have more coverage of the 2019 MacArthur awards elsewhere on the program. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.