Malick W. Ghachem ’89 is associate professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a senior scholar at the University of Maine School of Law. He is a leading scholar in the law of slavery and race, with expertise in the 18th-century Atlantic world and the revolutionary era in France, the Caribbean, and British North America. He is an accomplished writer.
“My interest in history really began at Hotchkiss,” says Ghachem. “I owe a great deal to faculty members Tim Katzman, Tom Trethaway, Peter Philip, and Tom Drake for stimulating this interest – all wonderful and dedicated teachers in their different ways. Looking back, I am amazed at how little I knew at the time but how much I thought I knew. They helped me to start thinking seriously about what it was I did not know but needed to learn – one of the hallmarks of a great teacher. After Hotchkiss, I went to Georgetown, thinking (wrongly) that I knew what I wanted to do, namely go into the foreign service or diplomacy. A year and a half later, I enrolled at Harvard with an eye toward studying history and have been doing so ever since, albeit in a sometimes roundabout way!” Ghachem was graduated in 1993 with a B.A., magna cum laude, with highest honors.
In pursuit of advanced degrees in history, Ghachem changed coasts and schools and matriculated at Stanford University. He soon added law school to the mix, realizing “there was a side of me that responded to the pull of current events in a way I could not express solely through history. The same was true of law school relative to history. So I careened back and forth between the two degrees over the next few years before submitting my history dissertation early on the morning of September 11, 2001, and then finding myself, suddenly, with a new set of priorities.” In 2002, a time Ghachem aptly describes as “a bit of a blur,” he received his Ph.D. from Stanford and his J.D. from Harvard Law.
Ghachem spent 2004 in a clerkship for Judge Rosemary Barkett, then of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (Miami, Florida) – “another memorable teacher, who helped me to see that I could be a lawyer" – before moving to Boston to practice law. Ghachem worked primarily in the areas of criminal defense, employment discrimination, and commercial/securities litigation, but also began to teach public law in MIT’s political science department in the evenings. After five years, in 2010, he took up a full-time position at the University of Maine as associate professor of law, teaching criminal law and procedure, legal history, and law and religion. In 2013, Ghachem became an associate professor of history at MIT.
Now full-time in the practice of history – a “first love” – Ghachem teaches courses that draw on the full range of his experiences. “My favorite course is ‘Libertarianism in History,’ from ancient times to the present. A key goal is to help students see how expressions of the ideal of freedom, particularly freedom from government, necessarily compete over time with other values, and change in the process.”
A large part of Ghachem’s focus, interest, and expertise has involved Haiti. His 2012 book, The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge University Press), covers the history of the law of slavery in Saint-Dominque between 1685 and 1804. “The story of Haiti is an important one in the development of democracy,” notes Ghachem, “and it is not always appreciated as much as it should be. The revolution in Haiti inaugurated the process of emancipation for slaves in the rest of the Atlantic.” For this book, Ghachem not only received the American Historical Association’s J. Russell Major Prize for the best work in English on French history, but was also co-winner of the Caribbean Studies Association’s Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Prize for the best book published in the field of Caribbean studies over the past three years. (The other winner of the Lewis Prize was none-other than his wife, Erica James, also a Haiti scholar.) The couple were married in 2005 on the eve of January 1, a Haitian holiday marking the country’s independence from France. They have two children, Ayanna and Faisal.
Ghachem is now working on his second book, a study of how France, like Britain, became a global power through the vehicle of an 18th-century transnational trading corporation (the French Indies Company).
Though Ghachem has managed to combine his interests in both history and law, he notes the challenges. “In these days of academic specialization, it is much harder to do both. But I have found my little corner in the study of 18th-century Atlantic history, a period of time absolutely formative to where we are today. The past and the present are not separate and to imply otherwise – including through the very use of those words – is to impose a false blueprint on the experience of time. We are always living in a moment of continuity with one or another past event. It is often hard to recognize this at any given point in time, but doing so is the challenge of this kind of work.”
For a person who balances much professionally, Ghachem has not ruled out returning to practicing law. “I do miss the courtroom experience representing clients. But, right now, I love even more the feeling of sitting down at my desk on any given morning and trying to recreate the feeling and significance of things that happened a long time ago. It is a gift to be paid to do what one loves most.”
Ghachem followed his sister, Sophia ’86, to Hotchkiss. Both came to Lakeville from an American school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “It was tough for the first year or so being that far from what was then home, but the support from faculty members and playing sports, particularly squash (another newly rediscovered love), helped quite a bit. In retrospect, I would have liked more time to develop friendships with my classmates. My admiration for them remains great, and I want to salute them, not least for their continued commitment to Hotchkiss.”