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The Scarlet & Black

Dan Kaiser talks new book on Black history in Grinnell

Dan Kaiser speaks in Burling First Lounge about his new book, the product of his research on early Grinnell history as Professor Emeritus. Photo by Isabel Torrence.
Dan Kaiser speaks in Burling First Lounge about his new book, the product of his research on early Grinnell history as Professor Emeritus. Photo by Isabel Torrence.

By Miraya Baid

Burling library’s first-floor lounge was packed on Monday, Feb. 18 for historian and College Professor Emeritus Daniel Kaiser’s talk about his latest book, Grinnell Stories: African Americans of Early Grinnell.

Kaiser discussed how he came up with the idea for his book and what he learned during his research. Kaiser said that it wasn’t in his initial plans to write stories about African Americans when beginning work on the book. However, as he scanned through Grinnell’s history, he was shocked by how little they mentioned African Americans. This helped him to understand that these were the stories he wished to bring to light: the stories of important people in this town whose lives had been left on the side.

“Following this route, I discovered some things I hadn’t realized earlier. I have always enjoyed looking away from the person speaking. You know how it happens on the tube, when somebody comes in to read the news? I always want to see the person next to the person reading the news, to see how that reaction is registering in that person’s life,” Kaiser said.

Kaiser views history as a deeply humanistic field. “History tells us something about what it means to be human. And from my way of thinking, every life that we add to that story, we understand better what it means to be human. … When you’re looking for the lives of people who aren’t at the center of activity – who aren’t eligible for all of the attention media devotes to people – when you’re looking at their lives, you’re looking at a scant historical record, almost invariable,” he said.

The Grinnell College Historical Museum published Kaiser’s book as an attempt to better tell the story of Grinnell and what it means to be a human in Grinnell. Generally, the museum has been a reflection of an incomplete narrative, because it housed almost no artifacts that attested to the lives of African Americans. Kaiser’s book aims to broaden its scope.

The S&B spoke to several students at the event about their reasons for attending. Diane Roberston, a Grinnell resident, said, “We’ve known Dan for a while, and we’ve been to his other talks, which were great. Most of all, we’re just interested in the subject matter.” Anna Perdue ’23 said, “My history professor, Paul Lacson, recommended it, and it just seemed like an interesting event!”

Perdue said, “I really enjoyed seeing the pictures from the talk. I think this is a different perspective of history that we really never get to see, and so seeing all of these different people that are never really shown and photographed and learning about their lives is interesting.”

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