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Helen Gibson

Helen Gibson

Postdoctoral Researcher


10/2015 – 12/2021  

Doctoral Candidate, Graduate School of North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin

10/2012 – 09/2014     

M.A. in American History, Culture and Society, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

08/2001 – 05/2005    

B.A. in American Studies, University of Virginia


Academic Employment

Since 05/2021: Research fellow, Professorship of North American History, University of Erfurt

10/2020 – 03/2021: Lecturer, JFKI, Freie Universität Berlin

04/2013 – 04/2014: Tutor, Amerika-Institut Writing Center, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München


Grants and Awards

08/2022 - Rolf Kentner Dissertation Prize, Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA)

09/2020 - 12/2020: STIBET grant, German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD)

10/2015 - 09/2019: Doctoral Fellowship, German Research Foundation (DFG)

03/2017: Heidelberg Spring Academy grant, Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA)

06/2016: Futures of American Studies grant, John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies

Conferences and Colloquia Co-Organized

"From Canada to Mexico: Doctoral Lab in North American History," Freie Universität Berlin, May 2016 – May 2019.

16th Annual NYLON Conference, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, March 23-25, 2018.

Postgraduate Forum (PGF) of the German Association for American Studies (DGfA/GAAS), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, November 9-11, 2017.

“Flows and Undercurrents: Dimensions of (Im)mobility in North America,” GSNAS Graduate Conference 2016, Freie Universität Berlin, June 2-4, 2016.

Workshops Organized

with Cedric Essi and Anna-Lena Oldehus: "The GAAS in 2030: Imagining Future Practices of Critical Diversity in American Studies." Workshop co-conducted at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, October 12, 2020.

with Nadja Klopprogge and Hannes Langguth: “NYLON Mixtapes: A Workshop on Critical Social Research.” Workshop co-conducted at the 15th Annual NYLON Graduate Student Conference, New York University, NYU Institute for Public Knowledge, March 31-April 2, 2017.


NYLON Berlin

German Association for American Studies

Winter Semester 2020/21

Bachelor Program

"On Care Work: Black Midwifery and a History of Science, 1619 to 1877" Wednesdays 12:00-14:00

Courses Taught

"The History of Felon Disenfranchisement and Race in the United States Pre-1877" (WiSe 2017/18)

Joyriding across the Color Line: Automotivity and Citizenship in the United States, 1895-1939

Dissertation in History

Mentoring team:
First supervisor: Prof. Sebastian Jobs
Second supervisor: Prof. Anke Ortlepp
Third supervisor: Prof. Grace Elizabeth Hale

Despite having driven cars from the advent of the automotive century, Black motorists continue to face both terror in the routine act of driving and erasure in the historical record. This is especially significant because driving is an essential component of American citizenship. While the phrase ‘Driving While Black’ has been circulating since at least the early 1990s, the targeted policing of Black drivers is a phenomenon as old as driving itself, with roots in the chattel slavery-era policing of Black mobility. This dissertation analyzes the (metaphysical) violence of driving. It is an appeal to consider the phenomenological realm of emotions (terror, humiliation, anger, joy) as an alternative epistemology. My analysis foregrounds the everyday experience of driving for Black Americans between 1895 and 1939, from the racializing, criminalizing discourses of ‘joy riding’ to analysis of the history of access to cars for Black motorists working as chauffeurs, redlining in automobile insurance issuance, and the affective possibilities of escaping the Jim Crow emotional norms of humiliation and terror in speeding vehicles.

The experience of ‘Driving While Black’ is inherently mired in questions of subjectivity and critical phenomenology as well as what I identify as a Jim Crow economy of emotions that helped determine the emotional and affective horizons of possibility of the experience of driving for members of Black communities. From the theoretical juncture of Afropessmism, planetary humanism, and Black mysticism, I analyze speculative historical possibilities with the help of the archives of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Library of Congress, historical newspapers and periodicals. My analysis is national in scope, starting in Fort Worth, Texas and traversing such settings as Miami, Florida, Kansas City, Missouri, Bakersfield, California, and New York, New York. This geographical scope is profoundly significant, both as a contribution to the reframing of civil rights historiography and because the handful of extant histories of driving written about Black motorists in the early twentieth century have focused almost exclusively on the city of Miami.

I posit that automobiles both helped constitute and exceed the violence of ontology. I show that race was made and felt on public transportation in the Jim Crow era, and that early-twentieth-century Black Americans sought refuge in cars. I analyze Black chauffeurs’ establishment of ubiquitous unions in response to racism from white chauffeurs, and the fact that access to mobility in cars was violently contested by white terrorists who sought to secure not just professional advantage but also exclusive access to pleasure in mobility. This dissertation elucidates evidence that Black motorists transgressed limits on their mobility by speeding outright, and that white police officers drove head-on into and shot at Black motorists to prohibit their automotivity. I demonstrate that cars beckoned to African American motorists in spite of racialized terror, and that cars have historically helped delineate practices of consumption and of citizenship along racial lines.

This dissertation contributes significantly to recent interventions in the fields of both Black history and mobility studies as well as to ongoing debates on the interrelatedness of critical theory and new materialism. At its core, this dissertation explores the question of whose humanity was recognized under what circumstances in the semi-private space of the car and through such supporting infrastructures as public liability insurance in the first several decades of American automotive life. I demonstrate that cars complicate teleological understandings of material, technological sites of mobility such as ships and trains. The history of Black motorists’ dignity, refusal, fugitivity and stasis in automobiles recounted in this dissertation raises important ethical questions about how to reimagine our world from the perspective of access to labor, to leisure, and to material resources.

Book Reviews

Rezension zu: Reid, Jack: Roadside Americans. The Rise and Fall of Hitchhiking in a Changing Nation. Chapel Hill  2020, in: H-Soz-Kult, 03.09.2020, 


Rezension zu: Farmer, Ashley D. Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2017, 288 pp. Amerikastudien/American Studies Volume 64, Issue 4 (2019): 619 - 621,

Rezension zu: Michael, Butter; Franke, Astrid; Tonn, Horst (Hrsg.): Von Selma bis Ferguson. Rasse und Rassismus in den USA. Bielefeld 2016 , in: H-Soz-Kult, 27.04.2017,



"Felons and the Right to Vote in Virginia: a Historical Overview" in The Virginia News Letter 91, no. 1 (January 2015): 1-9.


Journals Edited

with Anne Potjans, Simon Rienäcker, and Jiann-Chyng Tu (eds.), Current Objectives of Postgraduate American Studies (COPAS) 19, no. 1 (2018), https://copas.uni-regensburg.de/issue/view/37.


Invited Lectures and Public Panels

"Diversity Roundtable Initiatives." Panelist at "(out)Rage in America (and elsewhere)--Structural Racism, Resistance, and Responsibilities: The situation in the US and Germany" Townhall Meeting, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, June 24, 2020.

"Chauffeur Blues and Joy in Cars: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Early American Automotivity." Lecture prepared for the Historisches Institut: Nordamerikanische Geschichte department colloquium, Universität Köln, May 14, 2019.

"Jim Crow Automobile Insurance: Racialized Logics of Joy and Risk on American Highways." Lecture prepared for the Geschichte des europäisch-transatlantischen Kulturraums department colloquium, Universität Augsburg, January 16, 2019. 

"Leisure and Risk in Cars: Resisting Racist Surveillance by Early Automobile Insurers.” Lecture prepared for the Ringvorlesung 2018/19, John. F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, December 5, 2018

“Limits of the Open Road: Driving While Black in Jim Crow America and Today.” Lecture prepared for the annual Chemnitz and Rostock American Studies Teacher Seminars, Sächsische Bildungsagentur Chemnitz and Universität Rostock, March 14 and 16, 2018.

"The Divide - Photography by Raymond Thompson, Jr.: A Portrayal of Collateral Damage of Incarceration on Families in the United States." Exhibit opening talk with Raymond Thompson, Jr. Amerikahaus München, January 26, 2018.

“‘We the People?’ Nation/State/Community.” Panelist at the 10th Anniversary of the Graduate School of North American Studies conference (“The Fault Lines of Democracy: Conversations, Contestations, and Cross-Cultural Comparisons”), Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, October 20, 2017.

Speech given at Rathaus Schöneberg on behalf of the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies/Freie Universität Berlin at large in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of John F. Kennedy, May 29, 2017.


Papers Given

"Access to Leisure in Cars: Early Black Motorists' Worldmaking in Miami." Paper prepared for the conference Imaginaires et mobilités touristiques aux Etats-Unis, Université Paris-Saclay, February 6-7, 2020.

"Joy, Terror, and Humiliation in Cars: Emotional Black Worldmaking at the Twilight of the Long Nineteenth Century." Paper prepared for the symposium African American Worldmaking in the Long Nineteenth Century, Universität Potsdam, October 12, 2019.

"Volatile Humanity: Joy and 'Joyriding' in Cars." Paper prepared for the 17th Annual NYLON Conference ("Knowledge Production in Volatile Times and Spaces"), London School of Economics and Goldsmiths, April 5-7, 2019.

"Remembering Jim Crow Auto Insurance." Paper prepared for the Young Scholars Forum of the 41st Annual Conference of the Historians in the DGfA/GAAS, Franken-Akademie Schloß Schney, Lichtenfels, February 9, 2019.

"'Oh, if I had that Ford V-8!': Automotivity, Anti-Lynching Campaigns, and Imagined Black Liberation, 1934-39." Paper prepared for the Joint 32nd European Association for American Studies and 63rd British Association for American Studies Conference, King's College London, April 4-7, 2018.

“The Invisible Whiteness of Being: Thoughts on the Annual Conference of the German Association of American Studies.” Paper prepared for the workshop Diversity and/in the GAAS, Amerikahaus München, October 21, 2017.

“Chauffeur Blues: Cars as Spaces of Social Transgression, 1895-1939.” Paper prepared for the Heidelberg Spring Academy, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg, March 20-24, 2017.

“Joyriding across the Color Line: Chauffeuring and Citizenship in the United States, 1895-1918.” Paper prepared for the Young Scholars Forum of the 39th Annual Conference of the Historians in the DGfA/GAAS, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg, February 11, 2017.

“Joyriding in the Early Twentieth-Century United States: Race, Mobility, and the Right to Consume.” Paper prepared for the Futures of American Studies Institute, Dartmouth College, June 20-26, 2016.

"Hog Stealing in Virginia's Colonial Statutes: Racially Discriminatory Seeds of Felon Disenfranchisement Sown in the Colonial Capital." Paper prepared for the 5th annual Lemon Project Spring Symposium, College of William & Mary, April 10-11, 2015.