Tyler Stovall Was a Groundbreaking Historian of Modern France

Forged in the best traditions of American radicalism, historian Tyler Stovall remained loyal to the struggle for a better world throughout an illustrious academic career.

Tyler Stovall speaking at the University of California, Berkeley, for the “Berkeley Writers at Work” series on October 31, 2012. (University of California, Berkeley)

On December 10, 2021, Tyler Stovall suddenly and unexpectedly passed away in New York City. In addition to being one of the most prominent American historians of France, Stovall, my academic mentor and close friend, was deeply committed to fighting for labor rights, gender equality, and racial justice. He is survived by his wife, Dr Denise Herd, and his son, Justin.

Tyler Stovall should be remembered as a scholar who firmly believed that the writing and teaching of history was a political act. Throughout his vibrant career, he used pathbreaking research, critical analysis, and engaging lectures as weapons in the fight for social justice. Despite studying some of the worst aspects of human behavior, he always remained optimistic and held that a better world was possible, and that education was central to that goal.

The Red Belt

Stovall published ten books and scores of articles in a range of leading journals. Throughout his career, his research on the French working class never strayed from his commitments to class politics. As his work evolved, Stovall increasingly engaged in a critical study of race in France. He also challenged the stale notion that history should be confined within the framework of the nation-state.

The historian’s analysis of race in French history questioned that nation’s self-congratulatory attitude that racism was an Anglo-Saxon problem. It ruffled the feathers of many North American scholars of France, who were frequently privileged white Francophiles.

Stovall’s 1990 work The Rise of the Paris Red Belt was a sociopolitical history of the City of Light’s impoverished and neglected suburbs. The book explains how in the interests of capital, nineteenth-century urban renovation pushed the Parisian working class to the city’s northeast margins. Angered by the lack of basic infrastructure such as reliable water and gas, these neighborhoods voted for the far left. Desperate material conditions turned these suburban municipalities into reliable bases for the French Communist Party (Parti Communiste Français, PCF) for most of the twentieth century.

The Rise of the Paris Red Belt was based on Stovall’s 1984 doctoral dissertation, which had been supervised by the legendary Marxist historian and Jean Jaurès biographer Harvey Goldberg at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It rejected Cold-War-era ideological explanations for the rise of the PCF, restoring political agency to the French workers. As E. P. Thompson did with his classic study of the English proletariat, The Making of the English Working Class, Stovall sought to save its French counterpart from “the enormous condescension of posterity.” The book’s argument resonated with the Upper Midwest’s tradition of “sewer socialism.”

Color Lines in France

While he had been trained as a traditional social historian of white industrial workers, in the 1990s, Stovall pioneered the history of race in France. His focus shifted from housing crises and food riots to the experiences of people of color. Two important articles, “Colonial Labor in France During World War I” in Race and Class, and “The Color Line Behind the Lines: Racial Violence in France During the Great War” in The American Historical Review, questioned the cherished transatlantic myth of a color-blind France.

In 1996, Stovall published Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light. Based on years of scholarly research, the book was crafted for a wide audience. Its lively and entertaining narrative recounts how black American soldiers in the World War I discovered a white world free of Jim Crow. Treated as men and not a racial category, they could eat and drink with white men without the fear of fisticuffs and dance and seduce white women without the fear of lynching.

As Paris welcomed generations of black Americans, the city became an almost mystical place for many who were still in the United States. Josephine Baker and James Baldwin figure prominently in the narrative, but so do scores of lesser-known musicians, intellectuals, activists, and entrepreneurs who sought refuge from American racism.

However, Stovall himself did not fall in love with the city. He placed this image of a supposedly color-blind paradise in the context of a city where France’s colonial and postcolonial population actually faced prejudice, economic exploitation, and police harassment.

At one point, he recounted his own experience of being rudely stopped by the police who demanded to see his papers. Their attitude changed dramatically when they learned that he was an American and not a postcolonial immigrant. As Stovall noted, white people were not subject to such treatment in the streets of Paris.

A Colonial Turn

For Stovall, the proverbial French paradox was the way in which the French congratulated themselves on their hospitable treatment of black Americans just as they subjected black people from Africa and the Caribbean, Arabs, Berbers, and Southeast Asians to institutional racism, ugly acts of individual prejudice, and racialized violence. The massacre of several hundred Algerians in central Paris on October 17, 1961, stood in sharp contrast to the adulation enjoyed by Josephine Baker.

Stovall befriended Jean and Melvin McNair, who in 1972 had hijacked an American plane to join the Black Panthers in Algeria. When Stovall met them, they had served time in a French prison and were living in exile in France. He would later speak at Jean McNair’s memorial in Paris and publish a short biography of her in Felix Germain and Silyane Larcher’s Black French Women and the Struggle for Equality.

Stovall pursued the history of race in France in articles such as “From Red Belt to Black Belt: Race, Class and Urban Marginality in Twentieth-Century Paris” in L’Esprit Créatur, “Remaking the French Working Class: the Postwar Exclusion of Colonial Labor” in Representations, “Race in French History” in Cahiers d’Histoire, and “Faith, Freedom, and Frenchness?: Race, Class, and the Myth of the Liberatory French Republic” in Yale French Studies in the early 2000s.

Stovall played a crucial role in the “colonial turn” in French history. After decades in which historians had either ignored or romanticized the French colonies, there was an explosion of critical empire studies. As a graduate student, I saw this firsthand. While one advisor told me not to study French imperialism as it was a backwater in the discipline, Stovall enthusiastically encouraged me to write my dissertation on white supremacy in French Indochina.

Always a collaborator (in the best sense of the term!), Stovall coedited volumes such as French Identity in Question: Nationalism, Colonialism, and Race, The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France, and Black France. These anthologies challenged older scholarship (and scholars), opening the way for a new critical history of race in France seen in the work of his students, including Robin Mitchell, Felix Germain, and myself.

Stovall challenged the notion that the history of France could be contained within the political boundaries of the nation-state or even the metropole and its colonies. He published several articles and two textbooks that integrated French history into world-historical narratives. A second edition of his 2015 work Transnational France: The Modern History of a Universal Nation is forthcoming. In Paris and the Spirit of 1919: Consumer Struggles, Transnationalism, and Revolution, Stovall placed his earlier research on the material motivations of radical French working-class politics in a global context.

Lamps and Liberty

In 2017, Stovall served as the president of the American Historical Association, the discipline’s highest institutional honor. That year, he penned a series of personal reflections on his relationship with history. “Irene’s Lamp,” the final installment, meditates on a family heirloom. The lamp that sat on his desk was originally purchased by his great-great-grandmother, Irena Claytor, who was born enslaved.

In his presidential address, “White Freedom and the Lady of Liberty,” Stovall presented the central argument of what proved to be the last of his books that he would see in print (two forthcoming volumes will be published posthumously). 2021’s White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea examines the intersections of white supremacy and political privilege in France and the United States. In many ways, the book is a culmination of the historian and the man that was Tyler Stovall.

Stovall was brought up to be a political radical. He frequently mentioned the fact that he was born in 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education, and on September 4, the anniversary of the Third French Republic’s foundation in 1870 (delighted to learn that I was born on June 19, he gave me a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth for my birthday). He claimed that his parents moved from Kentucky to Ohio because they did not want him born in a former slave state.

Raised in Columbus, Ohio, his mother, Barbara Fuller Stovall, was a social worker who directed the South Side Settlement House, a community center akin to Chicago’s Hull House. His father was a child psychologist. The NAACP lay at the center of his family’s social and political life. The frequently occupied guest room in the Stovall home hosted a succession of activists, from demonstrators headed to Chicago in the summer of 1968 to the writer James Baldwin.

Every summer, Stovall attended the Twin Lakes Camp (later known as Camp Hurley), a Marxist summer camp run by the United Community Centers of Brooklyn. He fondly remembered performing plays by Bertolt Brecht and serving on the script committee for an original musical about the Industrial Workers of the World; later in life, he was always quick to drop a Brecht lyric in casual conversation. At camp, he forged lifelong friendships with a number of left-wing Jews from New York City.

At the age of eighteen, Stovall gave his first public speech at a demonstration against the American war in Vietnam. He would go on to become a powerful lecturer.

Student Days

Stovall attended Harvard from 1972 to 1976. He did not have fond memories of those years. He persevered through microaggressions from elitist students and macroaggressions in the streets of Boston. During the height of the city’s anti-busing riots, a white man threw acid in his face. When I asked him about his time at Harvard, he said it wasn’t a great place to be a young black Maoist.

In contrast to his undergraduate years, Stovall loved his experience at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He met one of the bombers of Sterling Hall, lived in an alternative cooperative community, and joined the labor movement, serving as a shop steward in the graduate student union.

He was mentored by Harvey Goldberg, a charismatic speaker and dedicated socialist. Stovall was Goldberg’s last doctoral student, and he initially became a historian of France because that’s what Goldberg studied, rather than because he had any great love for the country. This made him stand out among other French historians who were mostly rabid Francophiles.

As a black man, Stovall also stood out because French history was one of the whitest fields in the academy. Further microaggressions ensued. Once, I witnessed an older white male professor approach Stovall at a conference reception. In slow and halting French, the man asked Stovall if he was jet-lagged.

Confused, he replied in flawless French that he was not, and then switched to English to politely probe the inquiry. The man complimented Stovall for being so articulate and said he knew that it was a long series of flights from Africa. Appalled, Stovall exited the conversation and guided me toward the bar for a stiff drink.

A Lifelong Commitment

In 1990, Stovall joined the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). Despite the radical reputation of the campus, both its faculty and the student body lacked diversity. Stovall worked to make the university more welcoming to students and faculty of color.

At UCSC, Stovall supported the graduate students as we fought to unionize. I personally saw several professors from my department cross our picket line. Stovall did not. As he ascended the academy’s ladder of power, he never betrayed his commitments to organized labor or to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In the tradition of his mentor Harvey Goldberg, Stovall was a dynamic lecturer. Charismatic, witty, and erudite, he possessed a unique ability to combine insightful theoretical discussions with engaging real-world examples. He never forgot that so many of us love history for the stories. Stovall’s lectures always contained colorful anecdotes that illustrated his larger argument.

In 1999, I became Tyler Stovall’s first student to earn a doctorate. He supervised five other PhDs and sat on some two dozen dissertation committees, leaving his mark on a new generation of historians of France and African-American history.

From 2001 to 2015, Stovall was a professor and then dean at the University of California, Berkeley, where his wife Dr Denise Herd is a professor of public health. He then returned to Santa Cruz as dean of humanities and distinguished professor of history in 2015. In 2020, he became Fordham University’s dean of graduate studies.

Unlike many scholars who enter university administration and then stop writing, Stovall remained prolific. Even though his activism was lifelong, I would argue that the nexus of his politics and scholarship intensified in the last five years, especially as he embraced transnational and Franco-American topics. Stovall’s last publications critique the global history of white supremacy, arguing that French and American notions of freedom were built upon the unfreedom of people of color.

While the man had a powerfully cynical sense of humor, Stovall was an optimist. This was not the naive serenity of liberals who put their faith in institutions, but the optimism of an activist. He believed in fighting for justice instead of simply expecting it to happen. He firmly believed that we could build a more just society — and that we have a moral obligation to do so.

Stovall taught me that a better world is possible. For him, being a historian was a political act. I’m heartbroken to lose Tyler as a friend and a mentor, but also as a comrade in our unfinished struggles.