by Web on June 13, 2018
Millsaps College alumna Kelly Brignac discovered as an undergraduate her interest in French history.
"I took Heritage (of the West in World Perspective) with Dr. Amy Forbes during my freshman year at Millsaps, and that class sparked my interest in history, especially French history," said Brignac, a 2012 graduate of Millsaps who earned a master's degree in history in 2014 from Vanderbilt University. "My spring semester research paper explored gender in the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XVI, specifically probing the question of why the French vilified Marie Antoinette and admired the wife of Louis XIV. That was my first introduction to writing history papers."
Brignac, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Harvard, is still writing history papers, only this time the focus is her dissertation for her doctorate.
Helping Brignac complete that work is a recently-awarded Fulbright scholarship that she will use to conduct research for nine months related to her dissertation. She follows in the footsteps of 10 recent Millsaps graduates and a professor who have been recipients of prestigious Fulbright awards.
In the 2018-2019 academic year, Brignac will focus on archival research in France, particularly the cities of Aix-en-Provence, Paris, Nantes, and the island of Réunion. She will also conduct research in Senegal in Dakar and in the UK in London.
Brignac's dissertation examines the use of African indentured labor in the French empire in the nineteenth century.
"After the French abolished the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1817, they began purchasing slaves from African merchants and offering the slaves their freedom, with a caveat: they had to work on French plantations or for French merchants for up to 14 years before attaining freedom," she said. "My dissertation explores the beginnings of this practice in the interior of Senegambia and its exportation across the empire, especially to the western Indian Ocean, where the growing nineteenth century slave trade provided ready access to potential laborers."
Most of the archival materials that Brignac relies upon are written in French, a language she speaks, reads, and writes fluently.
"I also speak Wolof, one of the primary indigenous languages of Senegal," she said. "I studied Wolof at Harvard and at the ACI Baobab Institute in Dakar, Senegal."
Brignac's decision to study French history was inspired by her roots and Forbes's passion for French history.
"I am interested in the history of the French empire because I am originally from New Orleans, a former colony of France," she said. "I grew up surrounded by that history, which in turn inspired me to study the history of the French empire."
Brignac still recalls as a sophomore that she asked Forbes how she could become a historian of French history.
"She asked if I knew French," Brignac said. "I said, ‘No,' and she said, ‘That's step one! Learn French.' I did, studying French at Millsaps and abroad in Nice for a summer. I continued studying history and served as a Ford Fellow for Dr. Forbes in my senior year. I taught Heritage of the West in World Perspective with her. That experience solidified my decision to study history in the hopes of becoming a professor."
Brignac, who served as president of the History Club, worked as a research and technology assistant at the Millsaps-Wilson Library, and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Omicron Delta Kappa, and Phi Alpha Theta, hopes to become a college professor, "preferably at a liberal arts school like Millsaps."