I teach history at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. I love history, Carnegie Mellon, and Pittsburgh–but I never would have expected my life to lead me here. That is one of the greatest lessons history has taught me: the future is ultimately unpredictable.
I was born in Los Angeles and raised in California’s Mojave Desert. My mother was a single parent. She worked many different jobs but spent most of her career as a public school teacher. More than anyone else, my mom inspired me to love teaching and to believe in the power of education.
When I was fourteen, my older brother was the victim of a hate crime. He was attacked by skin heads and lost his right eye. My brother’s father was from Nigeria and had returned there when I was a few years old. Growing up in a multi-ethnic family, with an African American brother and an African American step-father (not my brother’s father…it’s a long story), I had developed a strong curiosity about how race works in the United States. My brother’s struggle infused that curiosity with urgency and purpose.
My brother always had big dreams and I inherited many–chief among them to play professional basketball like my childhood hero, Magic Johnson. I credit my high school science teacher, Ed Sparks, with helping me let go of professional basketball and turn toward a more realistic path to success–college. Dr. Sparks is one of thousands of teachers changing lives every day in our public schools. I cannot imagine a more committed, skilled, and effective teacher.
Dr. Sparks helped me get into the Quest Scholar’s Program, an initiative housed on the campus of Stanford University that helped low-income kids develop new skills and networks. (The Quest program has evolved into QuestBridge, a major nationwide organization that helps low-income students get into college.) Going from the Mojave Desert to the Quest Program was like traveling to another planet—a planet full of inspiring people and ideas. The Quest Program reinforced my belief in the power of education. It also helped me get into Stanford.
As an undergraduate at Stanford, I studied pretty much everything except history. I earned two interdisciplinary degrees, one in Earth Systems and the other in the Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities. After graduation, a Rhodes Scholarship allowed me to study environmental change and management at Oxford University. There, I realized that ecology was not quite right for me. While I continued to love science and to care deeply about the natural environment, my heart was with the humanities.
After teaching english at a high school in Mountain View, California, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in history at Harvard University. I chose history because several of my mentors told me that history was inherently interdisciplinary. I was also drawn by the prospect of learning lessons from the past that could be applied to social problems in the world today. My teachers at Harvard, especially Jim Kloppenberg, Lizabeth Cohen, Sugata Bose, and Evelyn Higginbotham, helped me realize that history was the ideal discipline for me. I came to love history not just because of its interdisciplinarity or its utility to the present, but because of the rare beauty of worlds that once were and are no longer. The fact that my brother passed away in a car accident in 2003 deepened my sense that the past is more than a source of lessons for the future. The past was the present for those who lived it.
It was at Harvard that I started what eventually became my first book: Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India. Colored Cosmopolitanism connects histories very close to my heart–the civil rights movement in the United States and freedom struggles in India. My connection to South Asia began with a three-month research trip to Nepal in 1999. I visited India for the first time in 2002 and returned over and over again during the next decade. Originally drawn by India’s diversity and beauty, I quickly became committed to helping, in some small way, to redeem the full promise of the world’s largest democracy. Like the United States, India is home to vast inequalities but also to many talented people struggling to make democracy work for everyone. I feel blessed to consider India my second home.
At Carnegie Mellon, my research and teaching continue to focus on the history of race and social change in the United States and India. I am proud to participate in several of Carnegie Mellon’s innovative educational initiatives, including the Arts Greenhouse, a hip hop education program for Pittsburgh teenagers, the Carnegie Mellon Social Change Semester in Qatar and India, the Bajaj Lab for Rural Development, and Social Change 101.
I am also proud to call Pittsburgh home. Like many native Californians, I originally associated Pittsburgh with snow, steel, football, and not much else. I fell in love with the city when I first arrived and my love has only grown deeper with time. Pittsburgh has blessed me in many ways, most importantly by introducing me to my wife, Emily Mohn-Slate, a poet, teacher, and proud Pittsburgh native. Our son, Kai Peter Kimball Slate, was born in April 2014. And our daughter, Lucia Ann Iona Slate, was born in January 2016. I love to imagine them growing up in this beautiful, soulful city.