She did not see this state historian gig coming. Not at all.
When New York-born Claire Oberon Garcia arrived from Boston, she was new to the West, starting to rear twins while working on a doctorate in literature and hoping to one day find a niche at a small liberal arts college.
Fast-forward 40 years, and here she is, adding the role of Colorado State Historian to a résumé steeped in storytelling and a life deeply rooted in the region — and all of it makes perfect sense. The current English professor at Colorado College, where she has worked for the past three decades, begins her one-year term on the Aug. 1 celebration of Colorado Day. She takes over for Colorado State University history professor Jared Orsi.
(To celebrate Colorado Day, History Colorado offers free admission to its museums across the state and special festivities at the History Colorado Center in downtown Denver.)
While Garcia brings a wide academic perspective to the position, her deep background in literature reinforces the importance of stories — the scaffolding of our shared history — to a greater understanding of who we are, collectively, as Coloradans.
After earning an undergraduate degree in philosophy and literature at Bennington College in Vermont, Garcia arrived in Colorado in 1983 when her husband, an attorney, took a job in Colorado Springs. She envisioned a dream career teaching at a small liberal arts college, but eventually pursued her doctorate at the University of Denver, commuting for six years. She also taught as a sabbatical replacement at Colorado College.
When a tenure-track position opened up at CC, she applied and realized her dream, joining the English department in 1993.
Garcia’s teaching covers an incredibly wide swath, with courses touching on the African diaspora; 19th-century African American women writers and slave narratives; “deep dives” on individual books by Black authors, including an entire course devoted to the literary allusions in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”
Her favorite class — made possible by CC’s one-class-at-a-time academic calendar — involves taking students to France for three and a half weeks to study writers like Langston Hughes and others from the African diaspora who converged “to live, work and agitate against colonialism and for civil rights in Paris before the 1960s.”
Her early academic life, and her doctoral dissertation, focused on the author Henry James, and so she also teaches late 19th-century and turn-of-the-century American literature and a host of other courses.
Although her appointment at Colorado College is in the English department, Garcia identifies herself as an interdisciplinary scholar. Both her research and teaching cross boundaries. Virtually all the courses she teaches are cross-listed with at least two other departments — including race, ethnicity and migration studies, feminist and gender studies, the French department and comparative literature.
Shortly after her return from France — just a family vacation this time — and on the eve of her induction as state historian, she shared her hopes for her upcoming term with Colorado Sun writer Kevin Simpson.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Colorado Sun: After 30 years as a professor of literature, did you ever think you’d find this kind of role in the realm of history?
Garcia: No, and actually it’s because I had an old fashioned, outdated view of what a state historian was. If anyone had told me two years ago that I would be Colorado State Historian I’d have said, “What?” But I think within the current framework of how they’re looking at the position, as not being the ultimate expert on Colorado history who knows the answers to all of the questions but rather looking at scholars who bring different perspectives to Colorado history, it makes perfect sense now.
Colorado Sun: So two years ago, when you were approached about first joining the five-member State Historians Council, which fills the state historian role on a rotating basis, what made you say yes?
Garcia: I am very dedicated to bringing scholarship to a broader public. My work has always been connected with making scholarship interesting, engaging and relevant to a broader audience. And I’ve always been interested in history. In fact, most of the work that I do as a scholar is archival and historical — not “purely literary” but looking at literature in a historical context.
I think the upshot is just that I’m committed to bringing (to the role) all sorts of scholarship, and the work that scholars do goes beyond the academy and beyond our particular students that we teach year after year.
Colorado Sun: How do you think your strong background in literature will influence your term as state historian and add to the way we understand Colorado’s history?
Garcia: Well, I think both literature and history, at least the literature that I study and teach, are basically stories. They’re stories that people tell themselves and each other and their communities to make sense of the world. And because most of the work that I do is in the past, looking at literary text as a way to make sense of our present, especially given my focus, the work that I’ve done on Black writers from throughout the diaspora, I feel very strongly that our past shapes our present.
The questions and issues that we’re confronting now as communities, as nations, are all based on stories. And then we have to understand those stories as a way of understanding people’s lived experience in the past.
Colorado Sun: So as a practical matter, how do you see that literary perspective shaping the way you approach your year as state historian? What would you like to be the defining projects or contributions during your term?
Garcia: First of all, I see my role as state historian as primarily supporting the projects, the exhibits, the activities that History Colorado has already planned. So I think primarily, I’m going to be focused on where my perspective, my experience both as a teacher and a scholar, can be a value added to projects that they’re already doing. So for example, I’m really interested, both professionally and as a citizen, in the question of multicultural democracies.
I do a lot of my research, a lot of comparative work, between France and the United States, which are both nations that have held themselves up since their revolutions as sort of epitomizing republican/democratic values and have very clear ideas about the responsibilities and duties of citizenship.
I’m also really interested in the new project Blaxplanation. That’s a relatively new project focused on Black communities in Colorado getting away from the usual narratives where slavery or oppression is the central theme, but sort of broadening people’s understanding of the lived experience of Black people in Colorado past and present.
Colorado Sun: You’ve mentioned that recent initiatives from History Colorado, like the new Sand Creek exhibit, have changed our collective historical focus to include previously marginalized perspectives. How far have we come — and how much further do we have to go?
Garcia: I think we have quite a bit to go. I think there’s still people who are, for whatever reasons, perhaps resistant to a more inclusive, multilayered, complex view of history. And I think that that’s exemplified not so much in Colorado and what History Colorado has been doing, but in larger national debates about the role of history in the curriculum, especially for K through 12.
But I think that we’re only at the beginning of fruitful communitywide conversations about the meaning of history, the role of history in our society right now. And I think it’s an especially high-stakes conversation, given how polarized we are, because on a broader level as a nation, we’re really at an inflection point where we’re asking who we are collectively and what our values are. And it seems that a lot of values and perspectives, on the face of it, seem to be incompatible. Like, “either-or.”
As an interdisciplinary scholar who also uses intersectionality in the work that I do, we can’t be an either-or society. And unfortunately, a lot of the conversations about history have been reduced to either-or propositions. All situations are “both-and.”
People’s identities are both-and, not either-or. And I think our shared histories are both-and, not either-or. The conversations around history have become even more high stakes, which is a good thing, because all people, even people who aren’t professional scholars, need to think critically about the discipline of history and its role, its significance and relevance to our present, and our future.
Colorado Sun: You bring a wide set of skills and perspectives to the role. What does this year as state historian offer you?
Garcia: I see this as an opportunity to learn. As a liberal arts educated person and a teacher at a liberal arts college, it’s always been a sort of touchstone that it’s about lifelong learning. It’s not like you master knowledge or you become an expert, but you learn how to learn throughout your life, both formally and informally.
And so I see this year as a wonderful chance for me to learn to expand my knowledge base not only about Colorado history in particular, but the different communities that make up our state right now, and what their questions and issues are. I know that there are sometimes what seem to be divides between rural perspectives, perspectives of those living in rural Colorado and our bigger cities and sort of upscale resort towns. So I’m really looking forward to learning more about the state in which I’ve lived for 40 years or so, and the people who make up our present as well as our past.