UCL History Undergraduate Student, Jermaine Chong, Wins National Essay Prize

31 July 2023

UCL History hears from Jermaine Chong who has won the 2023 BrANCH Harriet Tubman Prize essay competition which seeks to reward the best undergraduate essay or research project by black, Asian, or other minority ethnic students based in the UK.

Harriet Tubman Mural found Cambridge US

Hi Jermaine - huge congratulations on this prestigious, national prize. We are very proud!

JC: Thank you! My interest in nineteenth-century American history - and my entry into the BrANCH Harriet Tubman Prize competition - owes to a brilliant seminar led by Dr Jane Dinwoodie, called 'The Disunited States: Contested Visions of America, 1775-1860'. For me, this seminar provoked a thoughtful and comprehensive recalibration of 'traditional' American history, by devising a focus on the alternate imaginings of the new nation by communities side-lined by the Anglo-American master narrative.

Can you tell us a little more about your winning essay?

JC: The coursework essay that I wrote was titled, ‘‘The word 'marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” (Defence of Marriage Act, 1996). Was this statement true in the United States before 1860?’  

What was important to me in this essay was to place a focus not only on the character of marital unions permitted within the law, but the sorts of unions which were able to exist outside the law. I was able to explore the diversity of public and private lifestyles experienced by non-conforming individuals; narratives usually left untouched by accounts that hold a sole focus on the letter of the law. In particular, I was quite touched by how some of these extra-legal unions were permitted to exist openly. This included the publicly tolerated ‘marriage’ of two women, Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake. Homosexual unions, interracial unions, and ‘female husbands’, to name but a few - these were the sorts of extra-legal and non-conforming unions that I came across while conducting research for this essay - images and concepts which almost never come to mind when we picture nineteenth-century American society!

As you come into your third year at UCL, what advice would you give to students in their first and second years or anyone considering studying history at UCL? 

JC: Given the sheer diversity of modules and specialisms that the department has to offer, I would recommend taking advantage of that by exploring new historical areas. You might surprise yourself with what you find interesting. Though challenging, I think that taking in more diverse perspectives and utilising more varied source material makes you a better thinker and a better writer overall. I can't wait for my final year.

Thank you, Jermaine. Well done again!

*UCL History students have now won the prize for three years running!

Read the winning essay

Image credit: Harriet Tubman Mural, Cambridge MA, US (Free to use via Kit Morris, Unsplash)