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Q&A with NEH Public Scholar Malinda Lowery

February 2, 2016

Name:  Malinda Maynor Lowery | @malindalowery
City and State: Durham, NC
Book Title: The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle
Publication date: Fall 2017
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Agent: N/A
Amount of Public Scholar grant award: $50,400 (12 months)

  1. Tell us the first thing you did when you learned you received an NEH Public Scholar grant.
    I gasped and threw my hands over my mouth. We were in a friend’s living room when I checked my email—as soon as I gasped, my seven year old daughter ran over and said “Mommy what’s wrong?!” I said, “hold on!” and re-read the email, because I thought for sure it was a rejection notice! Then I gave her a big hug and said, “I can’t believe it, nothing’s wrong! Everything’s great!”
  2. What’s your writing or academic background?
    I have a Ph.D. in History from UNC-Chapel Hill, and I’m a documentary film producer. I’ve written one book (Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South, published in 2010), about fifteen academic book chapters and articles, and lots and lots of grant proposals.

  1. How did you find your book project?
    I’m a member of the Lumbee Indian Tribe of North Carolina, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi, so a lot of my family and community members read my first book. We tease a lot and I knew they liked the book when they said, “this is great and all, but can’t you make it more understandable?” Once I heard that a number of times, I began to picture how to tell that book’s story in a more accessible way, as if I were making a film. Quickly it became apparent that what they really wanted was a survey of American history from a Lumbee perspective, to touch any potential reader who might be familiar with the outlines of US history but know little about Native American or Lumbee history.
  2. What sources are you using for your research?
    I’m an ethnohistorian, so I’m using a lot of familiar sources, such as archival manuscript records, ethnographic records, public and government documents of all kinds, newspapers, memoirs, and oral histories (both recorded by me and by others). As a community member I am grateful to have access to family stories (both mine and other Lumbee families) that illuminate some of the themes that written records have not captured.
  3. Why do you want this project to have broad appeal?
    I am telling the story of both Native American dispossession AND survival; more people understand the first part, and fewer understand the second, but both are necessary to grasp how the United States came to be and how we fulfill our potential as a nation.

  1. What is the biggest challenge of writing a scholarly book for a general audience?
    The biggest challenge is resisting the historian’s habit of explaining an incident’s significance by unraveling and analyzing it from every angle and bringing every possible tangential piece of information to bear on it. That style is informative for historians but deadly boring for non-historians. Here I have to find the right stories and write them in a way that lets them speak for themselves, as if I’m making a film—showing, not telling.
  2. Do you have a model or a favorite popular scholarly book?
    I really admire Kathleen DuVal’s Independence Lost for its character depth and Elizabeth Fenn’s Encounters at the Heart of the World for the way it handles a broad range of sources over a long, long period of time.

  1. How has the Public Scholar grant award made a difference in your project?
    I started this project in 2011, and before I received this grant I was drafting an average of one chapter a year, on top of teaching and directing UNC’s Southern Oral History Program. I just never had the time to make any of these chapters good. Now, thanks to the program and to my university’s generous support, I can produce something not only worth writing, but worth reading.

The NEH Public Scholar program for well-researched books in the humanities for a general audience is open for a second round of applications. Click here to learn more about this grant opportunity and here  to download the .pdf with the Public Scholar application guidelines. The application deadline is February 2, 2016. Contact with questions.