Women’s and Gender Studies Assistant Professor Robin Mitchell explores the complexities of gender and race, especially in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Paris, through a critical, historical lens. In addition to her affiliation with American Studies, Dr. Mitchell is also affiliated with African and Black Diaspora Studies, and the Department of History. She is no stranger to marginalization and believes that working from a peripheral standpoint provides an opportunity to ask different questions in order to arrive at new answers. This method of inquiry is interdisciplinary because it inevitably transgresses the boundaries of any single discipline. After traveling across the United States as the daughter of an air force officer, and working in numerous fields throughout the corporate world, she truly embodies the phrase she uses to describe herself: I am from everywhere.
Professor Mitchell’s book is currently titled Vénus Noire: Black Women, Haiti, and the Production of Gender and Race in France (1750-1850) and it will go into production in 2016 with the University of Georgia Press. It focuses on the representations of black women in France, particularly after the Haitian Revolution, a young girl named Ourika, who was sold as a house pet to the Duke of Orléans; Jeanne Duval, Charles Baudelaire’s common law wife; and Suzanne Louverture, Toussaint Louverture’s wife.
There weren’t that many [black women in France], but they seemed to pop up in these sort of odd places. They show up in paintings. They’d pop up in songs, just these really sort of odd places. They seemed to take up a lot of space in the French imagination. So I wanted to find out why these black women seemed to take up so much space. And that led me to the Haitian Revolution. I wondered how France made sense out of losing their number one colony. What I realized is that one of the ways that France was working out that loss was by transferring those anxieties onto an-other body, onto black women. It was very difficult to talk about black men, even though black women, of course, were also fighting in the Haitian Revolution. The nature of Revolution often becomes ‘military,’ which is equal to men for many people. When scholars talk about the Haitian Revolution, it’s usually only black men they’re looking at. What I realized is, you can still have a conversation about racial inferiority by [directing the discourse] to another body. Since [France couldn’t really] talk about the inferiority of black men because blacks had won the revolution, France put those anxieties on a black female body.
Dr. Mitchell teaches a course titled WGS 255 Deconstructing the Diva that is cross listed with American Studies. This course examines the history of the Diva. Throughout the course, the definition of Diva morphs from “women behaving badly” to “women who are perceived to be behaving badly.” As a result, the class studies witches, flappers, the prima donna, and racialized Divas like the Black Diva, the Latina Spitfire, and the Asian Dragonlady.
The passion she has in her teaching has not gone unnoticed. Dr. Mitchell has been the recipient of many awards involving her work with students including the Gerald Paetsch Aca-demic Advising Award, the “Woman of Spirit and Action” Award (for two straight years), and the DePaul University ENGAGE Award (for three straight years). We are incredibly fortunate to have her as a faculty member at DePaul.
And I know for a lot of students they’re never going to see a teacher like me again, and that’s a huge responsibility. I don’t take it lightly. I tell my students on the first day. I tell them on the last day too: it’s a tremendous privilege that I get to stand in front of you, but I take it very seriously. This isn’t the place for you unless you take it as seriously as I do, this is a gift that you get to sit in this room. I’ve gotten a number of awards from students and believe me I am so humbled by that. The fact that students feel that you’ve changed them or you’ve helped them. I’m very grateful. I’ve got these awards and notes on the wall because they mean something to me. Students that take the time to write something about you means a great deal to me, so I do not take it for granted.