Fulbright scholar brings research to Western

No doubt Coleen O’Brien was surprised to learn she was the recipient – for the second time – of the distinguished Fulbright scholarship.

The first time O’Brien received the honour, shortly after graduation, she travelled to Botswana to study a female South African writer. This time around, the United States Fulbright Scholar Program will bring the University of South Carolina Upstate English professor to Western. As the Fulbright research chair, she will spend the fall term researching the history of Black Loyalist communities and African-Americans who came to Canada following the American Revolutionary War.



“Part of the research I’ll be doing in Canada is about black soldiers who fought (in the war) and fought for the Crown. Because they wanted freedom and were promised land, the Crown sent them to Canada,” O’Brien said. She noted their contribution and numbers, according to some historians, has been underestimated and their subsequent determination is a catalyst for her project, Metaphors of Heart’s Blood and Home: Black Revolutionaries and Agrarian Freedom in the Americas.

“It’s kind of amazing to me, because they sent people to Nova Scotia with a yard of cloth and a spade, saying go farm and build houses. It’s amazing, the desire for freedom and self-sufficiency would be such that you would do that.”

O’Brien received her PhD in English and Women’s Studies from the University of Michigan and has published articles on transnational race relations, gender and sexuality. Her first book, Romance and Rebellion in the Nineteenth Century Americas, is in review at the University of Virginia Press.

There are roughly 1,100 American scholars and professionals doing research abroad this year through the Fulbright Scholar Program, a flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. Recipients are chosen based on academic merit and leadership potential and roughly 300,000 scholars have been received the scholarship to date.

This fall, while also teaching on the revolutionary era and the ideas of freedom in the Americas, O’Brien will be looking at archival documents available in Halifax and Ottawa that will help her delve deeper into the lives of Black Loyalists that migrated to Canada following the war, only to settle in Sierra Leone.

“The documents (available in Canada) will give me a better idea of their voice and their goals and I’m also interested in looking at the ways the white media and culture talked about these soldiers in the U.S. and in Canada,” she said.

She added Western is the perfect place to conduct this research.

“The American Studies program (at Western) is a terrific program and provides a great support network with faculty that is knowledgeable. Having the collegiality and support of people who do similar work and have similar expertise is very crucial. Western is rich in that expertise and scholarship,” O’Brien said.

Like most scholars, O’Brien is likewise looking forward to the time and space the Fulbright funding will grant her research.

“I have a heavy teaching load (at USC Upstate) so this is an opportunity to really focus on my research – even though I’ll be teaching a class relating to my research. It will help enliven it and I’ll have the time, archives, opportunities and space to focus on my project,” she said. “This is perfect timing and a great opportunity.”

O’Brien starts at Western this September and will return to USC Upstate – where she started in 2008 – in January, after the fall term. Prior to starting at USC Upstate, she was the Mellon Postdoctoral fellow in African Studies and History at Johns Hopkins University and has worked at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.