GHG - Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

About Gretchen Gerzina

Gretchen Gerzina | Photo by Michael Benabib
Gretchen Gerzina | Photo by Michael Benabib Slideshow

I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but moved just before my fifth birthday to Springfield, Massachusetts. It was a good place to grow up, and although my mother loved it, my father longed to move to California. He never made it, but my sister and I both managed to live in the Bay Area. After the Summer of Love, I was determined to leave Springfield for more exciting places (Paris? New York? San Francisco?), but only got as far as Syracuse, New York for a misbegotten college year, finally settling into three years at Marlboro College, in Vermont. I've lived in California, New York, Montreal, Vermont, Boston, Oxford, and London, and had nice stints in Exeter, England and Rome, Italy. I still wake up surprised to find myself in Northampton, Massachusetts, just half an hour from where I grew up, now that everyone else is gone.

As a writer, I am drawn to biographies and lives of those who cross boundaries of history, time, place or race: Carrington: A Life; Black London: Life Before Emancipation (published in the UK as Black England); Frances Hodgson Burnett: A Life; and Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Eighteenth-Century Family Moved out of Slavery and into Legend. I've edited two editions of The Secret Garden; Black Victorians/Black Victoriana. In April, my edited book Britain's Black Past was published by Liverpool University Press, and I'm thrilled that my book Black England has been revised and updated, and will be published in September 2022 in the UK by John Murray Publishers with the title Black England: A Forgotten Georgian History. Zadie Smith has written a foreword to the book, and praise has come in from many writers, including Bernardine Evaristo.

I also am writing a memoir about growing up mixed race in Springfield, all those years ago, Growing Up on the Corner of Black and White. It's time to put the past to bed.

As a media person, I hosted for nearly fifteen years the nationally syndicated "The Book Show." I've appeared on television in both the US and the UK a number of times. My ten-part radio series, "Britain's Black Past," aired on BBC's Radio 4 in 2016. In October I was an hour-long guest on the classical music program "Private Passions" on the BBC. I'm also actively involved with several organizations and projects about Black Britain, its history and its art. I appear on several British podcasts, and work with a group of curators and scholars on Black People in British Portraiture. In recent months I've been giving many (virtual) keynote addresses and lectures, including to Oxford, Exeter, MIT, and conferences in the UK and US.

In recent years, I rediscovered a forgotten early novel by an African American woman, Sarah E. Farro, of Chicago. In the first week of my publicizing the find in The Conversation, the announcement received over 70,000 hits, and I've now published two pieces on her and the novel, and given public talks on her and the importance of her book.

I've been a tenured full professor at Vassar College; Barnard College/Columbia University; Dartmouth College; and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. At both Dartmouth and UMass I held named chairs in biography. At Dartmouth, I was the first African American woman to chair an Ivy League English department, and was the Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor in Biography. In 2010 I was named by Oxford University and the Rhodes Trust to be the Eastman Professor at Balliol College, a one-year honor given to a single American professor selected each year. I left Dartmouth for UMass in 2015, where I was the Dean of Commonwealth Honors College from 2015-2020, and I now continue as a Professor of English and the Paul Murray Kendall Chair in Biography. In 2017 I was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 2019 to the American Antiquarian Society. In 2023, I received the Samuel F. Conti Faculty Fellowhip award from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Harvard Radcliff Institute Fellowship.

I live with my husband, Anthony Gerzina, who not only speaks Italian, but has stayed with me all these years, through all the moves and books, and without our mutual research the true story of Bijah and Lucy Prince wouldn't be known. Several years ago, he was able to get us both Italian passports, making us dual citizens. We have two wonderful sons, Simon and Daniel, and three wonderful grandchildren. We divide our time between Northampton and Brooklyn.