A Doll-Sized Helping of Public History: An interview with Rebekkah Rubin

By Past@Present

P@P: First, it’s so exciting to see your photo on the cover of the new issue of The Public Historian—Congratulations!  Can you tell us how that came about?

RR: Thank you! I knew The Public Historian was publishing a special issue about childhood, gender, and play, but it was a surprise when the editor contacted me about using one of my photos for the cover. It’s such an honor to have my work recognized by colleagues in the field.

P@P: More than 3000 people follow your Instagram feed, @iamexcessivelydollverted.  When and why did you launch that project?  And how do you use this platform as a public historian?

RR: I began @iamexcessivelydollverted three years ago as a way to discuss and expand upon aspects of history related to American Girl’s historical characters. Over time, the project has transformed into a discussion of the history that is overlooked by American Girl. In recent years, American Girl has introduced more characters from marginalized backgrounds, but the vast majority of the dolls they sell are white and all but two of their historical characters are Christian. I am really interested in the idea of historical fiction as public history and how we can use fiction as an entry into understanding history, so I began creating my own historical characters from time periods and marginalized communities overlooked by American Girl. I use these original historical characters to discuss histories of non-white and non-Christian communities in the United States and elsewhere. I also use this project to connect history to contemporary events. All of American Girl’s canonical historical characters fight for justice and equality in their books, so it makes sense to me to use these historical characters to discuss contemporary issues of justice and equality and to trace how contemporary racism, sexism, and inequality is rooted in history.

As a public historian, this project is an extension of my other work. I typically write history articles for online and print outlets, on topics ranging from suffrage history to environmental history. On @iamexcessivelydollverted, I often discuss topics that I’ve written about for websites and magazines, but I’m able to interact with a different readership—over half of my followers are 18-34 years old and the majority are women. Too often, history writing aimed at a popular audience is synonymous with weighty tomes about men written by men. By using American Girl dolls to discuss history for a popular audience, I’m fighting against that stereotype; writing popular history is and should be a feminist act.

American Girl dolls dressed as early 20th-century suffragists used for the cover of The Public Historian’s February 2021 Issue.

An American Girl doll in front of Herter from Rebekkah’s first doll photoshoot in 2017

P@P: Public historians often emphasize the importance to our practice of the co-creation of knowledge.  How does the platform here—Instagram—shape your ability to connect with your audience?

RR: One of my favorite parts about having @iamexcessivelydollverted on a social media platform is that I’m able to collaborate and communicate with the folks who are reading my work. Collaboration is such an integral part of public history work, but because of the nature of writing popular history, I typically have few opportunities to collaborate with others. On @iamexcessivelydollverted, I’ve worked with a middle-school teacher to research the history of Black women’s church clothing, sparked by a bright green dress that American Girl made for Melody, their Civil Rights-era character. I’ve worked with an artist who illustrated a caption I wrote about how American Girl’s historical Jewish character, Rebecca, would have celebrated the springtime holiday of Purim in New York City in the 1910s. I also use @iamexcessivelydollverted to talk about what public history is and what it means to be a public historian, and, as a result of some of those conversations, I’ve met aspiring public historians and I was invited to speak with undergraduate students in an African-American history seminar at Converse College in South Carolina.

P@P: At UMass, you focused on our concentration Writing Beyond the Academy; in fact, that’s part of what drew you here for your graduate work.  This week we welcome our sixteenth Writer-in-Residence, the historian and filmmaker Gregg Mitman.  Now that you are a few years beyond graduation, what stands out to you about your studies in this area?

RR: I really appreciate that, during my graduate studies, I was able to both hone my scholarly research and writing skills as well as the skills that I would use for writing popular history. The Writing Beyond the Academy concentration really is about so much more than just writing—I learned how to synthesize information and communicate clearly and concisely, and these are skills I use every day, whether it be writing a 5000-word biography for a museum, giving a virtual lecture, or writing an Instagram caption for @iamexcessivelydollverted.

P@P: We know—in part from your February 2021 NCPH Instagram Takeover—that you’ve been writing and speaking lately about the history of women’s suffrage; what are you working on now?

RR: My history of women’s suffrage at Oberlin College was just published and I recently finished writing a piece about Shirley Graham Du Bois, who was the first Black woman to write, compose, and produce an opera with an entirely Black cast, as well as a history of a small village outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, that was founded by Black men and women after the Civil War. I am also working as a historical consultant for a long-term research and writing project at a museum affiliated with the National Park Service.

Rebekkah giving a talk about suffragist Lucy Stone at the National First Ladies’ Library in Canton, Ohio (in pre-pandemic times).

P@P: It’s internship season here at UMass Public History, and your internship with Belt Magazine comes to mind. How did that experience prepare you for the work you’re doing now?  What advice might you have for students embarking on internships this year?

RR: My internship at Belt Magazine was crucial in helping me understand the skills involved in writing short-form popular history. If you can, choose an internship where you can get a feel for the work that you might want to do once you graduate. Because of advice I received from the 2016 Writer-in-Residence, Rebecca Onion, I knew that I wanted to spend my internship writing popular history. I was familiar with Belt Magazine’s work, and I emailed their publisher asking if they would host my internship. I’m so glad I did. Plus, I recommend staying in touch with your supervisors after your internship ends. Because the editor of Belt Magazine was familiar with my work, I was asked to write one of my favorite pieces to date, Oral Histories of the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire, which was published in an anthology of Belt Magazine’s best writing of 2019.

Thanks, Rebekkah, for sharing these thoughts with P@P!  We’ll keep following along with you on Instagram, and hope you’ll stay in touch, too!

Photo of the recent issue of The Public Historian featuring Rebekkah’s suffragist American Girl Dolls.

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