A book written by a Mississippi College faculty member that explores the dynamics of how Native Americans and people of African descent were characterized and treated under four distinctive ruling governments in the burgeoning river city of Natchez has received an award from the Mississippi Historical Society.
“Complexion of Empire in Natchez: Race and Slavery in the Mississippi Borderlands” by Dr. Christian Pinnen, associate professor of history and political science at MC, has been named the best Mississippi history book published in 2021 by the society.
Published by University of Georgia Press, the book has drawn rave reviews. One member of the society’s selection panel called it “deeply researched and original” and “engaging to read.”
“It is filled with individual stories as well as thoughtful analysis, and engages with Mississippi history in a truly global context,” the panelist said. “Pinnen weaves together legal history, race, and gender to show how the interplay of Native Americans, people of African descent, and European and American settlers created the changing landscape of slavery in early Mississippi.”
Given to the best book on a subject related to Mississippi history or biography, the Mississippi Historical Society Book of the Year Award includes a cash prize of $700. Pinnen will accept the award and deliver a lecture during the society’s annual meeting March 10-11 in Hattiesburg.
An outgrowth of Pinnen’s doctoral dissertation, “Complexion of Empire in Natchez” took a decade to write, and his research carried him from Natchez to Texas to the Library of Congress to, ultimately, Seville, Spain. Pinnen said he chose to focus on the Natchez District because of its unique placement under four legal systems – French, British, Spanish, and American – during the Colonial Era, which provided a unique opportunity to understand how enslaved people and Native Americans learned to navigate each empirical shift.
“It investigates the story of enslaved people arriving in what was then Colonial Mississippi and tracks the development of how Black people were perceived, how different European empires described blackness, and how they then legally tried to relegate black people to slavery,” Pinnen said. “It was really difficult for people at that time to describe blackness as slavery. I show the development of that process, how every empire that came into Natchez brought a different approach, and how people went to court and fought back to challenge their status as enslaved people.
“It was really important to me to tell the story of these enslaved people that no one had ever heard about, but had toiled their lives away to essentially build one of the wealthiest cities in the nation: Natchez.”
Dr. Patrick Connelly, chair of the Department of History and Political Science at MC, said he is pleased that Pinnen’s book is being recognized by the society and is grateful for the model of scholarship he provides.
“We are very proud of Dr. Pinnen for winning this award and the attention it brings to his efforts, our department, and Mississippi College,” Connelly said. “Despite pouring time into teaching and mentoring students, as well as serving the institution through vital committee work, Dr. Pinnen has produced a work of high quality worthy of the accolades it is receiving.
“Scholarship energizes teaching, and I have no doubt that this will be the case for Dr. Pinnen.”
Connelly praised Pinnen’s strong work ethic and noted he has helped guide numerous students to honors theses and on to graduate school programs.
“He recognizes potential in students and challenges and encourages them to excel,” Connelly said. “It is unusual for someone at an institution that prioritizes teaching and service to have the time and energy to write works of rigorous scholarship. This book serves a valuable purpose in the historiography of slavery, with its focus on the unique location and dynamics of the lower Mississippi valley and Natchez in particular.”
Pinnen said having the Mississippi Historical Society recognize his work was very meaningful.
“I’m very pleased and ecstatic that they would select my book,” he said. “It’s just an honor. I’m a member of the society, I’ve been on the board there, and I know the books go through a pretty rigorous process.
“Mississippi is quite a well-researched area, and I’m sure there were quite a few books submitted for the award. It’s very gratifying that a committee of experts looked at all these books and picked mine. That is quite humbling.”
Pinnen said it is important for Mississippi College faculty to gain recognition for the work they do each day to provide high quality educational opportunities for their students.
“In particular in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, we are the faculty that can,” he said. “We’re doing service and we’re doing teaching, which we all love and excel at, but we’re also coming to that teaching with exceptional training.
“We are experts who are able to bring our research to bare at this college. Our knowledge and expertise can compete with the bigger schools in the state. This award is proof of that.”
A native of Bonn, Pinnen received his undergraduate degree from the University of Cologne, Germany, and obtained his master’s in history in 2008 and his doctorate in 2012 from the University of Southern Mississippi. He began teaching at Mississippi College in 2012.
Recipient of the 2017 Pitman Young Faculty Award and the 2020 Humanities Teacher Award from the Mississippi Humanities Council on the Clinton campus, Pinnen is well-regarded in his field. He teaches U.S. history, history of the Old South, Latin American survey, the American Revolution, and American slavery. He is also the co-author of another book, “Colonial Mississippi: A Borrowed Land,” with Charles Weeks.
Founded in 1858, the Mississippi Historical Society encourages outstanding work in interpreting, teaching, and preserving Mississippi history.
For more information about Pinnen’s books or to hear him talk about his books on podcasts and other media, visit www.christianpinnen.com.