MCEAS Fellow Profile: Derek Litvak


Derek Litvak is a Barra Postdoctoral Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. His research focuses on the intersection of African-American, constitutional, and intellectual histories of race and slavery. In this interview, Dr. Litvak discusses the influences that brought him to the field of early American studies and what he loves about the research process.

Q: What drew you to the study of early America?

Litvak: Initially nothing. I ended up interested in early American history by pure chance. The summer before my sophomore year of college, I attempted to narrow down what areas of history I actually found interesting. I initially only majored in history because I was good at it in grade school. Going into my second year, I knew I needed to figure out what actually interested me about history, because I would be taking a methods course. I was very worried about doing original research for the first time and writing a fifteen-page paper, easily longer than anything I had written before. As part of this narrowing down process, I read books and articles on various parts of U.S. history, and also watched lectures on iTunes U. I happened across Joanne Freeman’s American Revolution course and watched the entire thing quickly. I think what really hooked me was learning more about an area of history that is so often spoken about in this country, yet so often misunderstood or misrepresented. I learned so much about the American Revolution watching that course, and more importantly had many ideas about that period set straight. I wanted to do that for other people afterwards. To take a period so many Americans feel attached to and knowledgeable about, and teach them more about it. 

Q: Who is an author that you think more early Americanists should read?

Litvak: This is probably a somewhat unorthodox answer, but I would say Saidiya Hartman. Many early Americanists would look at Hartman’s work, particularly Scenes of Subjection, and rightly point out she is primarily a scholar of 19th-century race and slavery. And yet, reading Scenes completely changed how I approached the study of early America. Hartman taught me how to not only interrogate the archive, but how to think about and represent enslaved people and the larger institution of slavery. While early Americanists would rightly point out the changes that occurred in race and slavery in the 19th century, I would argue there are many continuities across these centuries that have yet to be fully appreciated. Furthermore, I think early Americanists can learn from Hartman how ideas that developed in early America could foster and perpetuate the system of slavery in subtle, but important, ways. They could then interrogate the origins of those ideas in new ways, which is what my own work seeks to do. 

Q: What is the primary source you’ve most enjoyed using in your research?

Litvak: In one of my chapters I speak about the first two petitions from Black Americans to Congress. While both are very interesting to me, the first one, in 1797, is probably one of the sources I most enjoy speaking about. The petition is quite simple and asks for Congress to intervene in North Carolina’s anti-manumission laws. The petitioners, four North Carolinian men who had been freed by their (likely Quaker) enslavers, all made their way to Pennsylvania to escape re-enslavement. The petition includes short biographies of each man and how they, and some of their families, escaped the South to protect their freedom. Yet, they still lived in fear of re-enslavement, as North Carolina law forbade their manumission, and thus still considered them slaves, and fugitive slaves at that. What I find so interesting about the petition is how the petitioners sought to break down the established ideas surrounding slave law. It had been agreed upon by many, on both sides of the slavery question, that slave law was the purview of individual states, not the new national government. Yet, the petitioners argued this was false and put forth a radical new vision for the relationship between state and national governments. One that not only allowed, but necessitated federal intervention in state slave law, and the protection of, as they argued, Black citizens of the nation. 

Q: What do you find most rewarding about the research process?

Litvak: This is quite simple really. I love when I’m able to make connections between sources that are not obvious. A lot of my research deals with things that are left unsaid. Thus, making the argument that people thought a certain thing or in a certain way can be difficult, because there are often few sources that say anything explicitly. Whenever I think of interesting connections between sources that help me prove the quiet part, I get very excited. 

Q: What are you most enjoying about your Fellowship at the McNeil Center?

Litvak: Being able to meet a lot of new people and learn from them has been great. We get stuck in our own work so often, that it can be hard to learn new things about fields wholly outside or even just adjacent to us. Yet the McNeil Center brings in such a great cohort of people, along with a host of other scholars throughout the year. It has been very rewarding. 


Derek Litvak is a Barra Postdoctoral Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Read more about his dissertation-to-book project on his bio page.