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Alumnus Gerald Goodwin's book examines African American experiences during Vietnam War

Ohio University alumnus Gerald Goodwin's new book Race in the Crucible of War examines African American experiences with racial issues during the Vietnam War.

Goodwin, who earned a Ph.D. in History and a Certificate in Contemporary History in 2014 from the College of Arts and Sciences, teaches courses on U.S. history and world civilizations in New York and continues writing about the topic he became immersed in for his dissertation.

In his book, published in January by the University of Massachusetts Press, he argues "that African Americans experienced and interpreted racial issues—race relations, prejudice, and discrimination—in Vietnam through a lens heavily influenced by their personal experiences with these same issues in the United States, as well as the larger historical experiences of African Americans."

"My book looks at a host of issues, including race relations within the military, incidents of racial discrimination, racial violence, Black interactions with and perceptions of Vietnamese civilians, and combatants and veterans’ difficulties. My account was greatly strengthened by interviews with over 50 Vietnam veterans," he said.

How does Goodwin's academic trail go from Canada to Kentucky to Ohio to Indiana to New York, yet his academic passion is Vietnam? Professor of History Ingo Trauschweizer interviewed Goodwin about his journey.

Q&A with Gerald Goodwin

Q: What did you do after graduating from OHIO, and what led you down that path? How has your educational experience steered you to where you are today?

A: I received my undergraduate degree in history at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. I received my  M.A. from the University of Kentucky in 2008 and then enrolled in the Ph.D. program in history at Ohio University. In 2012 I moved to Bloomington, Indiana, with my wife, Maria, who was attending Indiana University. For the next two years, I worked on my dissertation, "Race in the Crucible of War: African American Soldiers and race relations in the ‘Nam,’" which I successfully defended in 2014.

Soon after graduating, I began teaching American history, world history, and American politics at Ivy Tech Community College-Sellersburg and Ivy Tech Community College-Bloomington, both in Indiana. In 2017 my wife and I moved to Syracuse, New York, where I began teaching at Onondaga Community College-SUNY and Le Moyne College.

In the summer of 2017, my article “Black and White in Vietnam” was published in the New York Times. At around the same time, I had another article, “‘You and me-same same’ and ‘They called me 'monkey’”: Conflicting African American Views of Vietnamese Civilians” published in World History Connected. Both pieces had their origins in my dissertation. The New York Times article inspired an NPR documentary, “The Forgotten History of a Prison Uprising in Vietnam,” for which I was a consultant.

I continue to teach, but I also do a fair bit of writing. My wife and I also do a lot of volunteering, mentoring, tutoring and advocacy work for refugees in Syracuse. Our daughter, Gabrijela, was born in June 2022, and she also keeps me very busy.

Q: What made you decide to study history? What led you to  studying at OHIO? 

A: Simply stated, I grew up in a household where history and politics were discussed and appreciated. My father has a Ph.D. in history and is a retired professor of United States history. He never pressured me to follow in his footsteps. He and my mother would have been supportive had I decided to do something else, but at a relatively young age I knew I wanted to do something related to the study of history. One of my professors at UK suggested I apply at OHIO, and after visiting the campus, I decided the program was  the right fit for me.

Q: Were there any particular professors or OHIO experiences that were meaningful to you during your time here?

A: My advisor was Dr. Chester Pach. A seminar he taught was memorable for its readings and the debates that it engendered. I wrote my final research paper in this class on African American Vietnam veterans, which was the basis for the final chapter in my book, which looks at how African American servicemen were treated when they returned from service in the Vietnam War.

I also “performed” a song in Vietnamese with my friend Huong for an Asian Studies event one year. I don’t know if seeing a guy with a bad voice and whose Vietnamese was spotty at best singing a love song about a shared bicycle with a native Vietnamese speaker with a strong singing voice left positive memories for the large audience, but it was certainly memorable for me. I have the tape to show it.

Q: What were your biggest challenges as a graduate student at OHIO? How did you overcome these obstacles?

A: Frankly, one of my biggest challenges was adjusting to small town life. I actually lived in The Plains the entire time I attended classes at OHIO. However, I grew up in a relatively large city of over a million people. I moved to Ohio from Lexington, Kentucky, which isn’t a huge city, but is probably about 10 times the size of Athens. It was an adjustment to live in a place where you shopped at places by default and the nearest airport was an hour and half away. That said, it also meant fewer distractions and allowed me to get work done in peace. I would say I overcame these challenges by going to the gym a lot, focusing on my studies, and traveling to Columbus with my wife occasionally.

Q: What advice would you give to incoming OHIO graduate students?

A: I would say that grad school isn’t the easiest thing in the world, and anyone making the decision to attend should make sure it is something they really want to do. Choose a topic that you are actually passionate about it. I am extremely passionate about my research, and I am sure that made it much easier than it would have been otherwise. I also stepped away from my dissertation for a few years before revising it into a book. This gave me the opportunity to rethink some things. A much better book resulted.

March 16, 2023
Staff reports