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Q&A With Lehman's Newest Distinguished Professor Dr. Laird Bergad

August 14, 2009

Lehman sophomore Joanna Gomez sits down with the College's newest Distinguished Professor Laird Bergad to discuss his research on slave-based plantation societies in the Americas and his new book.

6 Minutes 2 Seconds

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This is Joanna Gomez, a sophomore at Lehman College. Recently, Lehman named its newest distinguished professor. Dr.Laird Bergad is a professor of Latin American and Puerto Rican Studies, and an award-winning scholar. He is the founding director of the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center.

In this interview, Dr. Bergad talks about his landmark research on slave-based plantation societies in the Americas and his latest book.



My experiences in Cuba in the early 1980s,which led to the publication of my second book which was a history of-- the province of Matanzas, which was the greatest sugar-producing and slave-holding region in the Caribbean during the 19th century-- led me to visualize another project.

Which I initiated-- with some colleagues at the University of Havana. Which led to the writing of my third book, which was called The Cuban Slave Market. And that-- the research for that book was-- was undertaken by a team of researchers--comprised of 13 Lehman College students who I recruited and taught for a year before they went to Cuba on all the nuances of Cuban history. And 12 students from the University of Havana.

I trained them to read historical documents. Now, these are handwritten documents on-- that were transcriptions of the-- sales of slaves. I was building a data base-- to try to gain some notion of-- the-- particular characteristics of how slavery functioned in Cuba from an economic and social and demographic point of view.


In 1992, I brought those students to-- to Lehman College-- which as far as I know is the first time that a group of Cuban students came to the United States. It was a little bit easier. Travel restrictions were not as stringent-- in that period of time.

And they stayed at Lehman for a month-- also sitting in on classes, interacting with students. So, it was, I think, a very rewarding sperie-- experience-- for Lehman College, for the students at Lehman College and especially for these Cuban students.



What was your reaction to being named a distinguished professor?



Well-- a great deal of gratification. I think it's a great honor to having been named a distinguished professor of Lehman College. And I certainly am-- very ecstatic and happy about that. And I'm very-- thankful to the support-- for the support of my colleagues in my department.

Especially to Professor Milagros Ricourt who-- initiated this process and nominated me. And my other colleagues who have supported me. It's a great experience and I'm certainly very happy about it.



Okay, so what projects are you currently working on?



I have several new projects in mind. I'm not sure which I'm going to--embark upon. I may be writing a comparative history of the Hispanic Caribbean. I'm not sure. One of the things I'm going to be doing in the-- in the next year for sure-- relate to this center that I founded in 190-- in 2001 and I direct. I'm going to be doing some smaller studies on Latinos in the United States-- that are not treated in my book. And I do a lot of mentoring of students here. And I'm involved in something that is-- very important to me as a scholar and asa director of this center and as an-- in some ways a social and political activist.

And I'm-- ch-- I've embarked upon a program--in collaboration with some-- people and-- the City University of New York and here at the graduate center to raise funds to create fellowships for Latinos to enter Ph.D. programs.

There is an extraordinary underrepresentation of Latinos in the-- ranks of-- American universities at the professorial level. Very, very underrepresented. Only about two to three percent of professors in the United States are Latinos. And one of the reasons is that they're not getting Ph.D.s. And one of the reasons they're not getting Ph.D.s is because there is no funding-- fellowships that are offered to Latinos.


So my center here has embarked upon a project and we're looking for support all over the place-- to create an endowment which will fund-- Latinos who want to enter or successfully are admitted to graduate programs and-- at the graduate center here at CUNY.



Okay, what do you want people to take away from your work?



Again, I started graduated school in 1973. That's a long time ago. So I've been involved in this academic world for a very long time. And I-- I view my work as part of-- sort of almost a collective effort.

I'm a historian. I work on things. Other historians are working on similar things. Together, if you look at the body of scholarship, we're contributing to pass on knowledge to future generations,knowledge that will be taken and examined and reexamined. And some of the things that I've written will be challenged and rejected. And so what-- I think w-- if I was to say what kind of academic or intellectual legacy that I would want to leave, I wanna stimulate others to examine the kinds of questions that I have posed and challenge them and question them and validate or-- invalidate some of the findings that I've had.

If future generations of scholarship use some of the works that I've produced as a point of departure for asking new questions and providing new answers-- that would provide me with a great deal of satisfaction.