Keisha N. Blain is making history
Acclaimed author/scholar credits Binghamton with laying the foundation for her success
Today Keisha N. Blain ’08 is a New York Times bestselling author with national accolades to her name and a faculty position in the Ivy League.
But when she arrived at Binghamton University, Blain was a first-generation college student with vague ideas about going to law school. “I was very nervous and, quite frankly, a bit terrified at the weather,” she says. “I had no plans to become a historian.”
Everything changed one day in a class on U.S. immigration history taught by Thomas Dublin. “He started lecturing, and I was just completely pulled in,” Blain says. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is powerful. I didn’t know any of this.’”
Blain, who was born in the Caribbean, grew up in Brooklyn. She saw many connections between her own experience and what she learned in Dublin’s class. By the end of that first year, Blain knew she wanted to major in history. She went on to take classes with Michael West, then on the faculty in the Sociology Department, and historians Anne Bailey, Jonathan Karp and Kathryn “Kitty” Sklar.
Later West persuaded first Blain and then her mother that Blain needed to go on for her doctorate. “He sat down with her and made a case for me to support my decision to apply,” she says. “It’s a testament to how amazing the professors at Binghamton were.”
Blain was accepted to Princeton University, where she did her doctoral work with historians such as Tera Hunter, whose books she had read as an undergraduate. Blain went on to a post-doctoral fellowship at Penn State before joining the history faculty at the University of Iowa and then the University of Pittsburgh. This summer, she will begin a new position in Africana studies and history at Brown University.
“The professors at Binghamton provided the model for the way that I mentor students,” she says. “Everyone’s office was always open. You could stop by, you could email and someone would respond. They wanted you to succeed. I credit my time at Binghamton for shaping my career.”
Blain met her husband and her best friend at Binghamton, where she was active in the Gospel Choir and Chi Alpha Christian fellowship. Now 36, she remains connected to her mentors
on campus and recently agreed to serve as a member of the board for the new Harriet Tubman Center for Freedom and Equity at Binghamton.
“Keisha Blain was a terrific student and now a wonderful scholar,” Bailey says. “I am so proud that she was a student at Binghamton and that I and other faculty members, notably Dr. Michael West and Dr. Jon Karp, had the pleasure to call her one of our own.”
Much as Blain can remember the moment when she set her sights on becoming a historian, she can trace her life as a public intellectual back to its starting point: a 2014 blog post for the African American Intellectual History Society. The piece, a reaction to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Americanah, was well received and helped Blain begin to build a following on Twitter.
Blain eventually became the editor of the blog. When a man murdered nine worshippers at a Charleston church in 2015, she felt a new sense of urgency about her writing.
“I was devastated,” she says. “And I was really frustrated when I heard people making bizarre statements like ‘This is the first time this has happened in American history.’ I thought,
‘People really don’t know American history. And they really don’t understand how this incident is connected to a long history of white supremacy and racist violence.’”
When historian Chad Williams tweeted that there needed to be a “Charleston Syllabus,” Blain went to work. Using her position as a blog editor, she published a crowdsourced syllabus with input from several other historians and librarians.
“I felt that it was necessary to use my skills as a historian, a writer and thinker to help inform people,” she says. “That’s the moment when I thought, ‘OK, I cannot continue the traditional path.’ I would become the kind of historian who would do all I could to shape public discourse, especially on matters of race and politics.”
Blain continued editing the blog and became a columnist with The Huffington Post. Along the way, she developed relationships with a number of Black writers and thinkers, including Ibram X. Kendi, and contributed to media outlets such as The Washington Post and MSNBC.
That work laid a foundation for one of Blain’s most significant professional accomplishments: Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619–2019. Blain and Kendi edited the book on an ambitious deadline, assigning each of 90 writers a five-year period of that 400-year history. The book debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in 2021, with contributions from journalists Wesley Lowery and Nikole Hannah-Jones, activist Alicia Garza and poet Jericho Brown.
“In 10, 20 — who knows, 100 years — people will look back at Four Hundred Souls and be able to use it as a primary source in many ways,” Blain says. “They’ll be able to get a sense of what a group of Black writers and thinkers were grappling with in the midst of a pandemic and the Trump presidency.”
While she was editing Four Hundred Souls, Blain was writing another book — one linking the life of a civil rights activist to contemporary issues of race and inequality. Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America was also published in 2021.
Blain says she first learned about Hamer in a class with Bailey at Binghamton. She mentioned Hamer in an op-ed for Time magazine, citing her critiques of people who offer thoughts and prayers but no tangible steps toward progress. People, including members of Hamer’s family, encouraged Blain to expand on it.
“One of the things that stood out to me when I first learned about Hamer was her unique ability to speak to the heart of any issue,” Blain writes in the book’s introduction. “Her demeanor and approach cut directly to the core of the problems facing Americans, without ever tiptoeing around an issue or worrying about anyone’s feelings or comfort level. Those who had the great fortune to hear Hamer speak left her presence completely transformed.”
Blain feels she’s doing the work she was meant to do, and she attributes much of her success to the power of mentoring.
“I owe it all to Binghamton,” Blain says. “Professors there saw in me what I didn’t even see in myself at the time. I marvel at that.”