Clayborne Carson is the Latest to Talk to the World Socialist Web Site About the 1619 Project

Clayborne Carson


Clayborne Carson and former Black Panther Ericka Huggins at Occupy Oakland Protest, November 2, 2011

Clayborne Carson is professor of history at Stanford University and director of its Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. He is the author and editor of numerous books on King and the civil rights movement, including The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.

Here is a taste of his interview with Tom Mackaman at World Socialist Web Site:

Q. …I think one of the things that is missing in the lead essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones is any appreciation of the power of the contradiction that was introduced in 1776 with the proclamation of human equality, and also the impact of the Revolution itself. I thought in our interview with Gordon Wood he took that question up very effectively, pointing out that slavery became very conspicuous as a result of the Revolution. Also disregarded is the Afro-Caribbean historian Eric Williams, who analyzed the impact of the American Revolution on the demise of slavery. Instead the Revolution is presented as a conspiracy to perpetuate slavery.

A. Yes, and it’s wonderful to concentrate on that contradiction because that to me explains Frederick Douglass, it explains King. What all of these people were united on was to expose that contradiction—and we should always keep exposing it—the contradiction between the self-image of the United States as a free and democratic country and the reality that it’s not. If you are a black leader, your job is to expose that contradiction. If you go through a list of all the great orations in African American history, nearly all of them focus on that. They want to expose that and use that contradiction.

Read the rest here.

Click here to see our previous posts on the 1619 Project.

What White Evangelicals Can Learn About Politics From the Civil Rights Movement

 

MLK GRave

In June 2017, I spent ten days with my family and several colleagues from Messiah College traveling through the American South on a civil rights movement bus tour. Our trip took us to some of the most important sites and cities of the movement. We made stops in Greensboro, Atlanta, Albany, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Memphis, and Nashville

Along the way we spent time with some of the veterans of the movement. In Atlanta we heard from Juanita Jones Abernathy, the wife and co-laborer of Ralph Abernathy, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest associates. In Albany we sang civil rights songs with Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original Freedom Singers.

In Selma we met Joanne Bland, a local activist who, at the age of eleven, participated in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches. In Birmingham we talked with Carolyn Maul McKinstry and Denise McNair. McKinstry was fifteen years old when she survived the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. That explosion took the life of McNair’s sister, whom she never had a chance to meet.

In Nashville, we listened to the inspirational stories of Ernest “Rip” Patton, one of the early freedom riders, and Kwame Leonard, one of the movement’s behind-the-scenes organizers.

As I processed everything that I learned on my colleague Todd Allen’s “Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights” bus tour, I kept returning to thoughts about the relationship between religion and politics. Donald Trump had been in office for under five months, but my anger and frustration upon learning that 81 percent of my fellow evangelicals had voted for him were still fresh.

As I listened to the voices of the movement veterans, walked the ground that they had walked, and saw the photographs, studied the exhibits, and watched the footage, it was clear that I was witnessing a Christian approach to politics that was very different from the one that catapulted Trump into the White House and continues to garner white evangelical support for his presidency. Hope and humility defined the political engagement and social activism of the civil rights movement. The movement served, and continues to serve, as an antidote to a politics of fear and power.

****

Those who participated in the civil rights movement has much to fear: bombs, burning crosses, billy clubs, death threats, water hoses, police dogs, and lynch mobs—to name a few. They feared for the lives of their families and spent every day wondering whether they would still be around to continue the fight the next day. For these reasons, many African Americans, understandably, did not participate in the movement and prevented their children from getting involved. The danger was very real.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew this. When we visited the old Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church where King was baptized and where he (and his father) served as pastor, his final sermon, the one he delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, was playing over the speakers.

King was in Memphis to encourage sanitation workers fighting for better pay and improved working conditions. I sat in the back pew and listened:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m no concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing anything. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

It was a message of hope. Because of his faith, God had given him—and the women and men of the movement he led—all the strength they would need to continue the struggle. King made himself available to do the Lord’s will. Now he was looking forward. Was he talking about his eternal life in what now seems like prophetic fashion, or was he talking about God working out his purposes on earth?

No matter: King was confident in God’s power to work out his will: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” An assassin’s bullet took King’s life the next day, April 4, 1968, but the movement went on.

Can evangelicals recover this confidence in God’s power—not just in his wrath against their enemies but in his ability to work out his purposes for good? Can they recover hope? The historian Christopher Lasch once wrote this: “Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to most who lack it.”

I saw this kind of hope in every place we visited on our trip. It was not mere optimism that things would get better if only we could elect the right candidates. Rather, it was a view of this world, together with an understanding of the world to come, forged amid suffering and pain.

Not everyone would make it to the mountaintop on this side of eternity, but God’s purposes would be worked out, and eventually they would be able to understand those purposes—if not in this life, surely in the world to come. The people in the movement understood that laws, social programs, even local and voluntary action, would only get them so far. Something deeper was needed.

There was something kingdom-oriented going on in these Southern cities. I thought of the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

I saw this kind of hope in the eyes of Rip Patton as he sat with us in the Nashville Public Library and explained why (and how) he had such a “good time” singing while incarcerated with other freedom riders in Parchman Prison in Jackson, Mississippi.

I heard this kind of hope in the voice of Rutha Mae Harris as she led us in “This Little Light of Mine” and “Ain’t Gonna Turn Me ‘Round” from the front of the sanctuary of the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church in Albany.

As I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, I wondered if I could ever muster the courage of John Lewis and Joanne Bland as they marched into the face of terror on Bloody Sunday. Such audacity requires hope.

But too often fear leads to hopelessness, a state of mind that political scientist Glenn Tinder had described as a “kind of death.” Hopelessness causes us to direct our gaze backward toward worlds we can never recover. It causes us to imagine a future filled with horror. Tyrants focus our attention on the desperate nature of our circumstances and the carnage of the social and cultural landscape that they claim to have the power to heal.

A kernel of truth, however, always informs such a dark view of life. Poverty is a problem. Rusted-out factories often do appear, as Trump once described them, like “tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” Crime is real

But demagogues want us to dwell on the carnage and, to quote Bruce Springsteen, “waste our summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets.” Hope, on the other hand, draws us into the future, and in this way it engages us in life.

*****

It is nonsensical to talk about the civil rights movement in terms of political power, because even at the height of the movement’s influence, African Americans did not possess much political power. Yes, the movement had its leaders, and they did have time in the national spotlight. But when the movement leaders entered the halls of power, they were usually there to speak truth with a prophetic voice. King, for example, was willing to break with Lyndon Johnson when he disagreed with him on the Vietnam War, even if it meant losing access to the most powerful man on earth.

Most of all, though, the civil rights movement was shaped by people of humble of means who lived ordinary lives in ordinary neighborhoods. Many of them never expected to step onto a national stage or receive credit for leading the great social movement in American history. These ordinary men and women fought injustice wherever God had placed them. They offer us a beautiful illustration of what scholar James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence.”

For Hunter, a theology of faithful presence calls Christians to serve the people and places where they live. The call of faithful presence, Hunter writes in his book To Change the World, “gives priority to what is right in front of us—community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which these are constituted. It is in these places, through “the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of people with whom we are in long-term and close relation—family, neighbors, co-workers, and community—where we find authenticity as a body of believers. It is here, Hunter adds, “where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy. This is the crucible with which Christian holiness is forged. This is the context in which shalom is enacted.”

I thought about Hunter’s words as I stood in the hot Selma sun and listened to Joanne Bland explain to us the significance of a small and crumbling patch of pavement in a playground behind Brown Chapel AME church. This was the exact spot, she told us, where the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches began. For Bland, who was raised in a housing complex across the street from the church, this was a sacred space.

The humility on display during the civil rights movement was just as countercultural then as it is now. This is usually the case with nonviolent protests. Those who participated thought of themselves not as individuals but as part of a movement larger than themselves.

Rip Patton was a twenty-one-year old music major at Tennessee State University when he met Jim Lawson in 1959. Lawson trained Patton (and others) in nonviolent protest. Soon Patton found himself seated at a lunch counter in downtown Nashville, where he would be spit on, punched, covered with ketchup, mustard, salt, and water.

Patton did not retaliate because he had been educated in the spiritual discipline necessary for a situation like this. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a political and social movement, but he was also the high priest of a spiritual movement, something akin to a religious revival.

The civil rights movement never spoke the language of hate or resentment. In fact, its Christian leaders saw that all human beings were made in the image of God and sinners in need of God’s redemptive love. Many in the movement practiced what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described as “the spiritual discipline against resentment.” They saw that those who retaliated violently or with anger against injustice were only propagating injustices of their own.

Instead, the spiritual discipline against resentment unleashed a different kind of power—the power of the cross and the resurrection. This kind of power could provide comfort amid suffering and a faithful gospel witness to the world.

The Mississippi voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said it best: “The white man’s afraid he’ll be treated like he’s been treating the Negroes, but I couldn’t carry that much hate. It wouldn’t have solved any problems for me to hate whites because they hate me. Oh, there’s so much hate! Only God has kept the Negro sane.”

****

Where does all this reflection leave us? Where did it leave me as I got off the bus and headed back to my working-class, central Pennsylvania neighborhood. How might hope and humility inform the way we white American evangelicals think about politics and other forms of public engagement?

It is time to take a long hard look at what we have become. We have a lot of work to do.

This essay draws heavily from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, which was recently released in paperback by Eerdmans Publishing

The Author’s Corner with Anna Mae Duane

educated for freedomAnna Mae Duane is Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut. This interview is based on her new book, Educated for Freedom: The Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Slave Schoolboys Who Grew Up to Change a Nation (NYU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Educated for Freedom?

AMD: I was exploring the archives at the New-York Historical Society and I came across a skit included in the records of the New-York African Free Schools. This 1822 skit depicts two students, one student chastising the other for having a slothful mother who keeps him from getting to school on time. I wanted to know what it was like to be a nine–year-old child, and to stand on stage and act out a script that depicted your mother–and by extension the other mothers at the school–as being too lazy, or too ignorant to understand the great importance of getting to school on time. Since that day, I’ve been told many times that this is, perhaps, the wrong question to ask. We can’t ever know how any historical person really felt, and in this case, the evidence made it seem like a particularly futile question to ask. These were children, Black children in a slave nation no less, reading words written for them by white adults, which they dramatized before a public that would judge them on their performance. In other words, we must recognize that these two schoolchildren were utterly subaltern: it’s a fool’s errand to try to hear them speak.

Educated for Freedom is a response to that objection. As I’ve researched the work of the school, and the lives of the two of the remarkable people who have attended it (one of whom, Dr. James McCune Smith, turned out to be one of the kids in the skit), I’ve realized that the historical and the literary documents offer ample proof that these children and others like them were part of broad conversations about the nation, about power and, most particularly, about the future.

So while this book is a biography of two men who became giants of Black abolitionism, I wanted to keep the dialogue open between their lives as adults and their experiences as children by pausing at moments when their “adult” work–in medicine, science, and politics—was shaped by Black children in their lives, sometimes strangers, sometimes fugitives, sometimes their own children. Much work on Black abolitionism has stressed the ways in which the activists sought, understandably, to gain access to a citizenship that was coded both male and adult. I sought to structure the book in a way that braided the personal with the political, the needs of a child, with the demands of a citizen, to reflect how mutually constitutive these terms were in the process of determining how slavery was defined, attacked, and defended in the years leading to the Civil War.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Educated for Freedom?

AMD: The book begins with Black students being told that they could never be fully American, and ends with one of those students speaking before Congress: that journey helps us understand the power of Black political organizing both in the public and private realms.  We can’t understand how the intertwined concepts of freedom and Americanness were transformed in the nineteenth century without fully recognizing the revolutionary work of African American students, parents and activists: people who were never meant to claim the role of free American citizens. 

JF: Why do we need to read Educated for Freedom?

AMD: Well, to start with, the lives of James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet are incredibly exciting!  Smith and Garnet are far from household names, but they were players in many of the century’s most momentous events. The  impoverished sons of enslaved mothers, they managed to meet the Marquis de Lafayette, earn a Medical degree, fight off angry mobs, influence John Brown and his fateful raid, speak before crowds of thousands, challenge the terms of white abolitionism, and address Congress. Their lives and work allows us to reimagine  how we imagine the scope of African Americans’ influence in pre-Civil War America.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American Historian?

AMD: At first I thought I’d be a literary critic of the Renaissance! And then I enrolled in an early American literature class, and I was hooked. I was immediately intrigued by  how the New England settlers worked so diligently to place their suffering–and the suffering they imposed on so many others–within a coherent symbolic framework. Since then I’ve been fascinated with the stories we tell ourselves about the past, particularly about how often those stories return to the tableau of an endangered child.

JF: What is your next project?

AMD: I have two projects that I’m in the process of developing. The first, tentatively titled “American Orphans” builds on Educated for Freedom‘s argument that children are not bystanders in American history or rhetoric. Instead, they have been key to how the U.S. has explained itself symbolically. I’ll be researching schools, prisons, and other sites to chart how their  subjection to, and resistance of, their national role has shaped definitions of citizenship and freedom. I’m particularly interested in exploring how  the trauma of orphanhood became celebrated as an American rite of passage on the way to independence in ways that justified–even glorified–separating children of color from their homes and communities

My second project–in the very early stages–will be a developing series of biographies of the New York African Free School students aimed for younger audiences.

JF: Thanks, Anna Mae!

American Exceptionalisms

American Exceptionalism

Gutacker (left) and Foley (right) respond to questions at the panel on Race, Religion, and American Exceptionalism

Martin Spence is Associate Professor of History at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He is writing for us this weekend at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City.  Enjoy his latest post.  –JF

The interplay between race, religion and American exceptionalisms was the theme of a panel in the second round of papers at day one of the ASCH in New York city. The panel sits squarely in the center of the conference’s overall theme: Whose América: New Perspectives Contours and Connections in Church Histories.

The plural exceptionalisms was a key note sounded, particularly in the papers by Malcolm Foley (Baylor University) and Nichole Renèe Phillips (Emory University) which discussed how African American conceptualizations of American exceptionalism could critique America’s oppressive and violent racial attitudes while simultaneously affirming that the American experiment was indeed built on unique ideals. In fact, such endorsement of American exceptionalism was often used to call white Americans to reform. This suggests that American exceptionalism is not always a cipher of bellicose ethno-nationalism, but can also act as a sternly prophetic voice. Indeed, I was left pondering how severe critique of the nation’s sins can still be a form of implicit nationalism, since the very act of chastisement for sin tacitly accepts the normative status of national claims to uniqueness and special importance.

I was particularly intrigued by Foley’s presentation of Black Presbyterian Pastor Francis Grimke (1850-1937). Foley showed how Grimké was troubled by an apparent contradiction between African American experiences of inequality and violence in America and the foundational commitment and loyalty to the country that he witnessed among many African Americans. Yet, according to Foley, Grimké himself displayed some of this same ambiguity, castigating and critiquing, yet never able to quite give up on the America of the mind.

Meanwhile Paul Gutacker explored the way in which church history could be used by Americans of both European and African descent in the nineteenth century. European Americans drew on the broader myth of Protestant freedom and Anglo-Saxon liberty to envision America as the arena wherein the story of the English people would find its climax, the result of America’s victorious disaggregation of church and state. Gutacker focused part African American Christian leaders, by contrast, stretched further back to emphasize that the early church Bible belt was in North Africa, and that the most revered of all theologians, even among Protestants, Saint Augustine, was, of course, African. Interestingly, both African and European Americans could plug into the dominant anti-Catholicism of the era. Black theologians perpetuated a narrative that held the Catholic church as responsible for slavery, while European leaders saw anti-Catholicism as the great unifying creed of freeborn American Christians.

Anti-Catholicism, which was to some extent a proxy for nationalism in the nineteenth century in both Britain and the United States, will recur as a theme at ASCH in a panel on Sunday with papers from John Wolffe, Geraldine Vaughan and John Maiden. Prof. Wolffe told me in conversation after today’s panel that he sees anti-Catholicism scholarship making a resurgence. This is an intriguing fact given current hostility to immigrants and outsiders at work in American (and British) society at the moment. I am reminded of Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr.’s comment that prejudice against Catholics is “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.”

Civil War Historian James McPherson on the Problems with the 1619 Project

1619

What is the 1619 Project?  Get up to speed here.

Prize-winning Civil War historian James McPherson talks to Tom Mackaman at the World Socialist Website.  Here is a taste of the interview:

Q. What was your initial reaction to the 1619 Project?

A. Well, I didn’t know anything about it until I got my Sunday paper, with the magazine section entirely devoted to the 1619 Project. Because this is a subject I’ve long been interested in I sat down and started to read some of the essays. I’d say that, almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history. And slavery in the United States was only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries. And in the United States, too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement. So I thought the account, which emphasized American racism—which is obviously a major part of the history, no question about it—but it focused so narrowly on that part of the story that it left most of the history out.

So I read a few of the essays and skimmed the rest, but didn’t pursue much more about it because it seemed to me that I wasn’t learning very much new. And I was a little bit unhappy with the idea that people who did not have a good knowledge of the subject would be influenced by this and would then have a biased or narrow view…

Q. We’ve spoken to a lot of historians, leading scholars in the fields of slavery, the Civil War, the American Revolution, and we’re finding that none of them were approached. Although the Times doesn’t list its sources, what do you think, in terms of scholarship, this 1619 Project is basing itself on?

A. I don’t really know. One of the people they approached is Kevin Kruse, who wrote about Atlanta. He’s a colleague, a professor here at Princeton. He doesn’t quite fit the mold of the other writers. But I don’t know who advised them, and what motivated them to choose the people they did choose.

Q. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead writer and leader of the 1619 Project, includes a statement in her essay—and I would say that this is the thesis of the project—that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”

A. Yes, I saw that too. It does not make very much sense to me. I suppose she’s using DNA metaphorically. She argues that racism is the central theme of American history. It is certainly part of the history. But again, I think it lacks context, lacks perspective on the entire course of slavery and how slavery began and how slavery in the United States was hardly unique. And racial convictions, or “anti-other” convictions, have been central to many societies.

But the idea that racism is a permanent condition, well that’s just not true. And it also doesn’t account for the countervailing tendencies in American history as well. Because opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.

Read the entire piece here.

Abdul-Jabbar: Are Slavery Movies Good for African Americans?

hero_harriet-movie-review-2019

NBA Hall of Famer and public intellectual Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wonders if movies like Harrietthe new movie about Harriet Tubman–“risk defining African American participation in U.S. history primarily as victims.”  Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Hollywood Reporter:

On the one hand, these films are necessary to correct the misperceptions many Americans have about slavery as a result of inaccurate school textbooks, ill-informed teachers and conservative propaganda. Because many of them are prestigious enough to garner critical acclaim (12 Years a Slavealone won 32 awards, including three Oscars), they bring a gravitas to their message that people are more likely to take seriously. Such movies have the potential of raising awareness among white audiences about the horrific past so that they’re more sympathetic to the current economic and social plight of marginalized minorities, the cause of which is the domino effect directly from slavery.

On the other hand, some may see these films as snowflake overkill that desensitizes white audiences, putting them on the defensive about being blamed for something in which they had no part. That resentment could cause them to turn a blind eye to the current state of racial inequity.

I also worry that so many movies about slavery risk defining African Americans’ participation in American history primarily as victims rather than as victors in a continuous battle for economic and social freedom. The thousands of black soldiers who died fighting on behalf of the country, the martyred civil rights leaders, even our many scientific innovations and inventions that transformed American society — from refrigeration to blood banks — get dismissed, diminished or ignored because all that some white Americans remember are angry black faces crying “Unfair!” This puts a heavy burden on blacks to continually have to prove how vigorously they support the country that once enslaved them. They are expected to ignore the current inequities and just be grateful the country unlocked the chains. We stopped beating, branding, raping and lynching you — isn’t that enough?

Read the entire piece here.

Reenacting the 1811 German Coast Slave Uprising in Louisiana

1811_German_Coast_Uprising

Check out Rick Rojas’s recent piece at The New York Times: “A Slave Rebellion Rises Again.”  Rojas covers the reenactment of an 1811 Louisiana slave rebellion know as the German Coast Uprising.

Rojas writes:

The 26-mile march, a re-enactment of the 1811 German Coast Uprising in southeast Louisiana, began Friday morning and will conclude Saturday. It was timed to the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia, a moment that has ignited considerable reflection about the specter of slavery still hanging over the United States and the depths of its influence…

The performance was conceived, in part, to demonstrate how the ghosts of slavery have endured; the institution itself is gone, but the animosity and oppression have evolved and lingered. Staging a provocative revival of a violent rebellion, recounted in unsparing detail, stirred fears that the performance might turn into a very real confrontation.

Read the entire piece here.

Over at The New Republic, writer Nick Martin writes about the difficult work of diversifying historical reenactments.  Here is a taste:

Diversifying all forms of historical reenactment, whether an amateur showing, a school activity, or a professionally produced motion picture, is clearly a step in the right direction. That’s why communities of color have been focusing on this for decades: It’s a chance to render erased histories visible in a particularly physical way, taking up space the people in these histories have long been denied, and becoming a source of pride for communities of color. It’s hard to imagine any rational, good-faith objection to that: After all, white reenactors have been claiming for decades that education and pride in history is the whole point.

I am not a big fan of reenactments.  I don’t go to them. Reenactors think that history is all about authenticity–wearing the right number of buttons on a uniform or marching in a way that reflects the time period.  )Check out the late Tony Horwitz’s book Confederates in the Attic on this front). This approach to the past fails to let the past speak to the present and vice-versa.  Reenactments are antiquarianism, not history.  The doing of history requires an exploration of context, change over time, causation, contingency (which I guess could be captured in an reenactment as fans watch actors make choices), and complexity.

Yet reenactments, like historical movies or Broadway shows, do get people engaged with the past.  They have the potential to get observers to learn more about the past through reading or a visit to a historical museum that properly curates the past.

But the reenactment of the German Coast Uprising seems to be more of an example of reenactment as activism rather than reenactment as antiquarianism.  In other words, this seems to be something quite different from the traditional Civil War reenactment.  The goal is both understanding and social change.

Movies About Women of Color in History CAN Make Money

hero_harriet-movie-review-2019

Over at VOX, film critic and The Kings College (NYC) English professor Alyssa Wilkinson interviews Gregory Allen Howard, the writer of the screenplay for Harriet. Wilkinson writes: “it’s surprising that Harriet is the first biopic about such an important woman in American history, considering how this is an industry that loves making historical biopics — surprising, that is, until you remember that Hollywood has typically exhibited skepticism toward the idea that movies led by women and people of color can make money.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

Wilkinson: Hollywood has taken a really long time to accept the fact that movies about black people might be told on screen, and that audiences would embrace them. Were there any movies over the years that showed you what could happen if that ever changed?

Howard: Of course, and there are movies that proved that to my producers, too. For [producer] Debra [Martin Chase], it was Hidden Figures. Mine is 12 Years a Slave. See, what I had heard for all those years was, “Nobody’s going to pay to see the slave movie, Greg. Get out of my office.” But I said, “But it doesn’t matter. If the movie’s good, people will see it.”

“No, we don’t want it,” I’d hear back. “No one’s going to pay to see a slave story.” I swear to God, I heard that for over 20 years.

And then 12 Years a Slave came out and did massive business. It made almost $200 million worldwide. That’s when I took [Harriet]off the shelf again. And I said, “You can’t tell me what you’ve been telling me all this time.” And they said, “Yeah, but see, that was a different movie.” They came up with a different excuse.

But the truth was that the business was changing. If this movie has been made 10 years ago, it would’ve been an outlier, and no one in town wants to be an outlier. Fear drives our industry, and I don’t know that anybody’s ever gotten fired for passing on a movie.

But boy, if you say yes to something, or even go fight for it, you’re risking your career. You’re certainly risking your job.

Read the entire interview here.

Five New Digitized Manuscript Collections at the William L. Clements Library

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William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

They are:

African American History Collection, 1729-1966 (bulk 1781-1865) at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/a/africanamer/

Lydia Maria Child Papers, 1831-1894 at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/child/

Fort Wayne Indian Agency Collection, 1801-1815 at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/fortwayne/

Henry James Family Correspondence, 1855-1865 (bulk 1859-1865) at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jameshenry/
Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society Papers, 1848-1868 at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/r/rochester/

Learn more here.

Eric Foner on the “Buried Promise of the Reconstruction Amendments”

Foner new bookOver at The New Yorker, Isaac Chotiner interviews historian Eric Foner on the promise of Reconstruction.  Foner, of course, remains the foremost historian of  Reconstruction.  I have taught his book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 several times over the years.  Foner’s current book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, focuses on the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.

Here is a taste of his interview with Chotiner:

You say early in the book that, in one sense, “Reconstruction never ended.” What exactly do you mean?

I defined Reconstruction in two ways. One, it’s a particular time period of American history. You can debate the dates. It starts in 1865, when the Civil War ends, or maybe it starts in 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation is issued, and it ends sometime in the eighteen-seventies, although there’s debate about that also.

But, I think, more importantly, Reconstruction is a historical process. And the process is, How does the United States come to terms with the results of the Civil War? The unity of the nation we seem to have come to terms with. But the other matter is the destruction of slavery. How does the United States deal with the fact that four million people who were slaves became free? What role would they have? What rights would they have? How would they be treated? And those debates are still going on. Pick up today’s newspaper, and you’ll find things which relate back to the legacy of slavery. So in that sense, the reckoning has never happened, or we’re still grappling with the consequences of two hundred and fifty years of slavery.

Did you write this book because there was an area of Reconstruction you wanted to learn more about or teach people more about, or had things changed in your understanding of your previous scholarship?

Why does one choose to write a book in the first place? It may be some archival discovery, which was not really the case here. It may be the way debates are going on in the present. That did influence me. The issues central to the Fourteenth Amendment, the Fifteenth Amendment, the right to vote, are still part of our politics today. Who should vote? Who should be a citizen? What does equality before the law really mean? But, most important, and without trying to denigrate any other scholar, I lecture a lot about Reconstruction—I lecture in law schools, I lecture in history departments, I lecture to public audiences outside the academy—and I have found that there’s very little knowledge of why the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments are important, or what they were trying to accomplish, even in law schools.

One of the things that I think needed to be corrected is that so much discussion of these amendments is based on just law-making places, like Congress and the Supreme Court. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m a historian. You’ve got to look at the whole society. Everybody was debating these questions during Reconstruction. So if you want to find out the meaning of these amendments, you’ve got to look way beyond Congress and the courts to see the general debate. And I felt that hadn’t been really illuminated enough.

Read the entire interview here.

The Author’s Corner With Christopher Cameron

Black FreethinkersChristopher Cameron is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte. This interview is based on his new book, Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism (Northwestern University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Black Freethinkers?

CC: Like countless scholars of African American religion, I began this project after reading Al Raboteau’s classic book Slave Religion. Toward the end of the work, he mentions that not all slaves “too solace in religion” and some could not believe in a just and all-powerful God who would allow his people to suffer under slavery. Raboteau’s discussion of atheism and agnosticism occupies just two pages yet was incredibly intriguing to me, as I’d encountered no other historians who explored religious skepticism in nineteenth century slave communities. This discovery led me to begin searching for examples of black freethinkers, both in the era of slavery and in the twentieth century, and what I found convinced me that black freethought was much more prevalent and important than scholars have realized.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Freethinkers?

CC: African American freethought began as a response to the brutality of the institution of slavery and developed in tandem with movements such as the New Negro Renaissance and Black Power. While freethinkers have constituted a small segment of the black population, they have nevertheless played critical roles in African American intellectual and political life since the mid-19th century.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Freethinkers?

CC: Probably the most common response I get when discussing this book with people is “I didn’t know that person was a freethinker.” This is the case when discussing lesser-known figures such as Louise Thompson Patterson or more well-known freethinkers such as Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. Black Freethinkers demonstrates that religious skepticism was prevalent among some of the most prominent voices in African American history, including Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Phillip Randolph, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Huey Newton. And these were not simply intellectuals and political activists who happened to be freethinkers but rather people whose political ideology/activism and literary production were profoundly shaped by their religious skepticism. Black Freethinkers thus helps us to more fully understand the intersections between religion and African American literary, intellectual, and political history, especially in the twentieth century.

JF: Tell me a little about your research and sources for the book.

CC: Following up on the discussion of atheism among slaves in Raboteau’s book, I began the research for Black Freethinkers by reading dozens of slave narratives. While historians have used these sources to document various aspects of slave religiosity, they are also useful sources to document the presence of religious skepticism in southern slave communities. For later chapters of the book, novels, poetry, memoirs, newspapers and other periodicals were key sources. I likewise found archival sources such as letters, unpublished memoirs, sermons, and records of liberal congregations such as the Harlem Unitarian Church to be incredibly valuable in writing the book.

JF: What is your next project?

CC: I have two projects in the works right now. One is an edited collection (with Phillip Luke Sinitiere) entitled Race, Religion, and Black Lives Matter: Essays on a Moment and a Movement. The second is a monograph entitled Liberal Religion and Race in America that explores African Americans engagement with liberal sects such as the Unitarians and Universalists from the revolutionary era to the creation of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism in 2015.

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

Penn Live: “It’s time to remember the central role slavery played in the making of America”

Virginia sign

This piece at today’s Penn Live/Harrisburg Patriot-News will look somewhat familiar to readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  A taste:

In August 1619, a shipment of “20 And odd Negroes” from Angola arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia. They got there because earlier in the year English pirates stole them from a Portuguese slave ship headed for Vera Cruz, Mexico, and sold them to the earliest Jamestown settlers in exchange for food.

While the story of these Africans is complicated, historians agree that the August 1619 shipment was the beginning of slavery in the English colonies of North America. On Sunday, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of slavery in the colonies, The New York Times released a series of essays and a website called “The 1619 Project.” The Times describes the project as a “major initiative” to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who were are.”

The 1619 Project is excellent. Some of our best scholars of African American history, slavery, and race have contributed articles. The racist legacy of slavery in America, they argue, has shaped everything from capitalism to health care, and traffic patterns to music. I hope that teachers will use it in their classrooms.

But not everyone is happy about the 1619 Project. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh called it a “hoax” and a threat to “American greatness.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz told his Twitter followers that the project is a political attempt by the left to rewrite America’s history. He questioned the journalistic integrity of The Times

Read the rest here.

This is the Best You Will Get from the *National Review* on “The 1619 Project”

1619

Jim Geraghty writes about everything that is missing from the story of African-American history told in The New York Times 1619 Project.  The National Review writer seems to think that the project is an African-American history textbook that must cover everything.

But David French sees some merit in the project:

The black American argument for liberty is achieving new prominence in part because of the New York Times’s “ 1619 Project” — an ambitious effort to reframe the arrival of the first slaves on America’s shores as our nation’s “true founding.” Many of the accompanying essays are interesting and provocative, though they don’t truly make the case that America came into being as a result of slavery rather than through the ratification of one of the most stirring and aspirational documents in human history. The true founding of our nation resulted in the creation of a series of painful conflicts between the promise of liberty and the reality of oppression, and the promise of liberty has prevailed time and again. But the focus on 1619 should provide modern Evangelicals — many of whom are in a state of near-panic — with a healthy dose of perspective.

I like French’s piece because he draws upon African-American history as an antidote to evangelical political pessimism.  A lot of his thoughts here echo the last chapter of Believe Me in which I suggested that the Civil Rights Movement could serve as a model for white evangelical political engagement today.

Ring a Bell on August 25, 2019 to Honor the First Africans to Land in English America

Church bell

The National Park service is calling for a national “day of healing” on August 25 to “honor the first Africans who landed in 1619 at Point Comfort and 400 years of African American history.”  A commemoration will take place at Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton Virginia on the 25th. The staff of that site is inviting all 419 national parks and the general public to ring bells for four minutes–one for each century of the African-American experience.

Here is a taste of the National Park Service announcement:

Bells are symbols of freedom.

They are rung for joy, sorrow, alarm, and celebration…universal concepts in each of our lives. This symbolic gesture will enable Americans from all walks of life to participate in this historic moment from wherever they are–to capture the spirit of healing and reconciliation while honoring the significance of 400 years of African American history and culture.

Since its establishment on August 25, 1916, the National Park Service has cared for extraordinary historic and cultural sites that are pivotal parts of the American narrative. Parks and our programs can be places of healing and reconciliation. As we gather at parks on this day across the country to commemorate the landing of enslaved Africans 400 years ago, we honor this powerful moment in American history and the significance of four centuries of African American history and culture.

Find a Bell

Your bell could be big, small, old, or new. It could be lots of little bells, one church bell, or a carillon. Be creative as you create a moment that has personal meaning, power, and resonance for you and your group. 

Make your connection–explore the messaging above about the symbolism of bells. Does your site feature a bell? Share a picture or story about a historic bell, maybe the bell of a ship, on a writing desk, in the collection, in a building, in transportation. What does your bell symbolize? Joy, work, celebration, time, education, technology? Can you connect it to the concept of healing and reconciliation?

Plan Your Event

The nationwide bell ringing will take place at 3:00 p.m. EDT on August 25, 2019, the 400th anniversary. Choose a location that accommodates your audience comfortably and, ideally, is a place that has a connection to your group or community’s unique story. You may want to gather a few minutes early to be sure you’re ready at 3:00 p.m. EDT.

Read the entire announcement here.

A quick Google search reveals that churches and denominations will taking-up the National Park Service’s call, including The Episcopal Church, USA.

Will evangelical churches ring their bells on August 25th?  I hope so.  But this might be difficult since most evangelical megachurches do not have church bells or steeples.  🙂

The Author’s Corner with Katherine Gerbner

Christian SlaveryKatharine Gerbner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.  This interview is based on her book,  Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Christian Slavery?

KGI started Christian Slavery with a simple question: how could seemingly good people support something that was morally abhorrent? Specifically, I wanted to know why European Christians, and especially missionaries, accepted slavery. What I was uncovered was a deeply troubling story that is important to understand today. It shows how people with good intentions can play a terrible role in perpetuating injustice, and it demonstrates the long history of complicity between Christianity and slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian Slavery?

KGI have three main arguments: (1) far from being forced to convert, enslaved and free blacks had to fight their way into Protestant churches; (2) Protestant missionaries paved the way for pro-slavery theology by arguing that conversion would not lead to freedom for the enslaved; and (3) White Supremacy grew out of “Protestant Supremacy”—the idea that enslaved people could not become Christian.

JF: Why do we need to read Christian Slavery?

KGThere’s a lot of discussion about White Supremacy right now. In those conversations, it’s essential to explore what we mean by “whiteness” and where this term comes from. What history shows us is that the word “white” replaced the word “Christian” in colonial records as a way to justify enslavement. In other words, whiteness was created under slavery in order to exclude people of African descent from freedom. So if we really want to understand White Supremacy, and to combat it, we have to acknowledge the complex relationship between Christianity and slavery.

My book also shows the possibilities for combating racism & White Supremacy. Some evangelical Christians and Quakers played a central role in the abolitionist movement, showing that Christianity could be used to support emancipation. And most importantly, enslaved and free blacks who fought their way into Protestant churches defined their faith around the concept of liberation, in opposition to pro-slavery theology.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KGI studied Religion and Middle Eastern Studies in college. But when it came time to write a Senior Thesis, I chose a historical document: the first antislavery petition written in the Americas, which was authored by German and Dutch Quakers in 17th c. Pennsylvania. I started by researching the origin of that document and its reception. As I did so, I realized that the anti-slavery Protest was rejected by English Quakers in Philadelphia. I was surprised by this—I grew up in Philadelphia and attended a Quaker school, but I had only learned about Quaker abolitionism. I was shocked to discover that there were Quakers who owned slaves. I wanted to know what else had been left out of the conventional histories. I started there, and I haven’t stopped researching since.

JFWhat is your next project?

KGI’m writing a book about slave rebellion and religious freedom, tentatively called Constructing Religion, Defining Crime. I noticed in my research for Christian Slavery that black Christians and other religious leaders were often blamed for slave rebellions. In response, white authorities created laws designed to criminalize black religious practices. My new research suggests that we cannot understand religion – or religious freedom – without examining slave rebellion. The history of slavery can help us to understand how and why some religious practices have been, and continue to be, excluded from the lexicon of “religion” and even criminalized.

JF: Thanks, Katherine!

Another MLK Scholar Weighs-In on the Garrow Article

fc141-martin_luther_king_jr

Jason Miller, an English professor at North Carolina State University and a King scholar, defends David Garrow’s controversial article on MLK’s moral indiscretions.  (See our coverage of Garrow’s article here).

Here is a taste of Miller’s article at The Conversation:

It’s natural to want to defend King – to say, “let’s wait and see.”

Others might try to argue that abuse precedes abuse, and that the long legacy of slavery still informed the actions of these revered black clergy who subconsciously became like their oppressors. This legacy, of course, often included white men raping black women and sometimes disowning their children.

But I don’t think any filter of rationalization can soften this portrait of King. I’m not prepared to wait eight years, and I’ve halted my two scholarly projects about King.

I’ve also started thinking about what happens next.

What will the next Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations look like? Will other details emerge? Will more women come forward? Will community centers, schools and streets need to be renamed? Will statues come down, or will they remain – and give fodder to those who justify keeping Confederate monuments?

King espoused nonviolence. If these memos are true, such a stance feels hypocritical.

The narrative has just changed. And if scholarship and true biographical research matters at all, one thing is clear: These FBI memos may have forever damaged King’s legacy.

Read the entire piece here.

How is David Garrow’s MLK Article Faring Today?

King preaching

We are starting to hear from historians and others on today’s David Garrow’s Standpoint piece on Martin Luther’s King’s moral indiscretions.  I linked to the article here and blogged about it last night.

Here is some news/commentary on Garrow’s piece that we found today.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution covers Garrow’s piece, has an article about Garrow, and explains to readers why it is covering this story.  In the latter piece, the AJC mentions that Garrow approached the paper with his findings and wanted to work together on an investigative report. AJC declined because it did not have access to the King tapes.  (The tapes will be released in 2027).

Meanwhile, the Washington Post quotes several historians.  Gillian Brockell’s piece notes that Garrow has been skeptical in the past about using FBI memos on historical research.  Garrow makes the case that the MLK memos are different. Yale’s Glenda Gilmore questions the veracity of the hand-written notes in the memos.  (This is relevant because the reference to King watching a rape is hand-written). Gilmore adds that FBI files often contain “a great deal of speculation, interpolation from snippets of facts, and outright errors.”  Nathan Connolly of Johns Hopkins is also “deeply suspicious” about Garrow’s sources.  He said that Garrow’s decision to publish these documents is “archivally irresponsible.”

From this article at Insider we learn that the Guardian originally accepted the piece and then retracted it at the last minute.  It was also rejected by The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Intercept.

I am sure there are historians working on op-eds and blog posts as I type this.  I will monitor this as best I can.

Of course I have no idea if any of the allegations in Garrow’s piece are true.  Historians will offer interpretations.  The way they respond to this story could have career-defining implications.  I think you will see a lot of caution and hedging over the next few days and weeks.  And, I might add, this is a good thing.  Historians should be the last people to rush to judgement (one way or another) on a story like this.

Journalists will now try to track down people who know something about what is written in these FBI memos.  They will shape the so-called “first draft” of this story.

Indeed, as Connolly and Gilmore note, we need to think about bias in these FBI sources.  This is important, especially in light of what we know about J. Edgar Hoover.  I read some of the documents embedded in Garrow’s piece and I also had suspicions about the hand-written marginal comments.  The memos Garrow found were documents that were obviously part of an ongoing editing process.  I am guessing that the final, more polished, reports are with the tapes.  Once historians see them they will be able to make more definitive statements about how the FBI interpreted the tapes.

We also know that context teaches us that King was not a saint when it came to these encounters with women who were not his wife.  Any historian will take this into consideration. King historians can comment on just how far of an intellectual leap is needed to get from what we already knew about King to the allegations in the FBI memos.

And what if we learn that Garrow is right about King?  This will be a reminder that all historical figures are complex and deeply flawed people.  Stay tuned.

This is also a great opportunity for teaching students and others about how to read the Internet responsibly.  (See Sam Wineburg’s new book and our interview with him here).  Different news outlets and opinion sites are already reporting this story in different ways.

Dinesh D’Souza Thinks He Knows Something About How African-American History is Taught

David Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King Jr., will drop a bombshell tomorrow (Thursday) when Standpoint magazine will publish an article, based on memos that discuss FBI tapes, that paints the Civil Rights icon in a very unflattering light.  Here is what Garrow claims:

  • FBI documents from the 1960s allege Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs with 40 women and stood by as a friend raped a woman, a new report said.
  • An article by the King biographer David Garrow set to be released on Thursday in Standpoint magazine will detail the FBI memos, London’s The Times reported.
  • Garrow said the memos say King engaged in orgies, solicited prostitutes, and “looked on and laughed” as a pastor he knew raped a woman.
  • The memos were part of a huge US National Archives data dump in early 2019.
  • The FBI secretly recorded King in a years long effort to discredit him. The tapes themselves remain under seal in the US National Archives. And Garrow’s article was rejected by more prominent news outlets. So the story carries many unanswered questions about the accuracy of the FBI material.
  • The King Center, which chronicles King’s life, has not yet commented on the allegations.

Learn more here.  Let’s see how this unfolds tomorrow as Civil Rights historians respond to Garrow’s article.

In the meantime, Laura Ingraham and the Fox News crowd are all over this story.  I am guessing they could not find a legitimate historian of King or the Civil Rights movement to comment on Garrow’s article so, as Fox News is prone to do, they turned to conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza. Watch:

D’Souza seems to be basking in all of this.  By the way, who are all of these progressive historians who “hate” and “do not want to teach” Frederick Douglass, Ida Wells, and Harriett Tubman?  I don’t consider myself a “progressive historian,” but I certainly consider myself a critic of D’Souza. I have been teaching Douglass every semester for two decades.  David Blight of Yale just won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Douglass.  Douglass’s Narrative remains a fixture on history syllabi across the country.  I am sure scholars of Wells and Tubman can weigh-in as well.

And D’Souza continues to think the Republican Party has not changed on issues related to the plight of African Americans and race since the Civil War. I wrote about this here, but I will defer to Princeton’s Kevin Kruse.