The Author’s Corner with Tera Hunter

WedlockTera Hunter is Professor of History and the Center for African American Studies. This interview is based on her new book Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Marriages in the Nineteenth Century (Harvard University Press, 2017)

JF: What led you to write Bound in Wedlock?

TH:  I started thinking a lot about marriage during slavery as I was researching my book: To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Harvard Press, 1997).  I was especially drawn to documents that I found during the period of Reconstruction, which demonstrated the depth and feelings and the challenges that former slaves faced in reconstituting their family ties after slavery ended. These records are tremendously rich and I felt like felt like I could not go deep enough to fully capture the complexity and range of intimate relationships that I saw. They raised a lot of interesting questions that could not be easily answered by focusing on the period following emancipation alone. To fully understand post-slavery marriage and family, I needed to trace them over the entire nineteenth century.

I was also very interested in closely examining the internal lives of African Americans. The literature on family was preoccupied with whether or not they conformed to dominant ideas about nuclear structure and gender norms of male-headed households. This led to a very limited view of both the internal values and meaning of marriage to African Americans and also the external constraints that they faced in creating and sustaining these relationships.

More recent debates about the status of black families in the twenty-first century have often invoked the legacy of slavery, often in very ahistorical and problematic ways. I wanted to scrutinize the misinformed assumptions often articulated by both liberal and conservative scholars, commentators, and political pundits. There is a long history of black families being stigmatized.  These perceptions are used as a barometer to discern the capacities of black humanity and fitness for citizenship, with insufficient appreciation of the historical forces they were up against.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bound in Wedlock?

TH: The history of African-American marriage in the nineteenth century teaches us about a pattern that has been continually replicated with each iteration of the seemingly forward movement toward greater freedom and justice. African-American marriage under slavery and quasi-freedom is a story of twists and turns, of intimate bonds being formed, sustained, broken, and repeatedly reconstituted under the duress of oppressive conditions and yet vilified for not conforming to dominant standards.

JF: Why do we need to read TITLE?

TH: To fully understand the history of slavery in the U. S., we need to know the role that the denial of marriage and family rights played in preserving the system. Slaves were not allowed to marry legally, although they were allowed to marry informally, at the discretion of slaveholders. The main reason why those relationships were denied legal standing was to preserve enslavers’ preeminent rights to control their chattel property and to profit from the literal reproduction of slaves as capital. Legal marriages granted couples control over women’s sexuality and labor, and parental rights over their children. All of those privileges were associated with freedom and conflicted with the very definition of slavery as an inheritable, permanent system of exploitation.

To fully grapple with the devastation that slavery caused black families, we need to know how they fought against the degradation, how they managed to create meaningful relationships despite the enormous constraints that they were up against. They established their own standards for conjugal relationships, which involved accepting, revising, and even rejecting conventional ideas about marriage. They were always creative, resourceful, and practical in responding to conditions of cruelty and uncertainty of slavery and post-emancipation life.

We now live in a time in which the U. S. Supreme Court has sanctioned marriage equality for all, making marriage rights available to lesbians, gays, and transsexuals. Many people assume that the history of heterosexual marriage has always been a privilege accessible and enjoyed by all straights, but that has not been the case. It took centuries of struggle for African American heterosexuals to achieve marriage equality in the law.

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

TH: I became fascinated with history my first year of college. I entered thinking I would become a lawyer, but I became increasingly interested in doing historical research and writing. I had very good teachers in college who opened new ways of thinking about the past, and offered an introduction to primary research, which I had not encountered in high school and fell in love with.

I wrote an honors thesis in my senior year, which confirmed that I wanted to go to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. Ultimately. I saw doing historical research as an alternative, and a more compelling way, to achieve some of what I wanted to do as a lawyer. I could address some of the travesties of injustice by unearthing stories of common people to paint a more comprehensive and complex portrait of our collective past.

JF: What is your next project?

TH: My next project grows out the epilogue in the book. I’m interested in exploring twentieth century African-American marriage. By the turn of the century, marriage was nearly universal, with blacks marrying slightly more than whites. But that began to change most dramatically starting in the post-World War II era. A racial gap in marriage has widened every decade since. The marriage rates for African Americans declined significantly over the course of the twentieth century. Scholars in other fields, like Sociology, have researched aspects of this trend. I think we need a longer historical perspective to understand the various economic, social, and political factors that have encouraged this decline including growing permanent unemployment, pre-mature mortality rates, and mass incarceration.

JF: Thanks Tera!

Ed Sullivan and Civil Rights

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The Supremes on the Ed Sullivan Show, 1966

Hey Todd Allen, I think you should include something about Ed Sullivan in your Return to the Roots of Civil Rights bus tour.

Here is a taste of an article about a forthcoming documentary titled “Sullivision: Ed Sullivan and the Struggle for Civil Rights

Ed Sullivan and the Struggle for Civil Rights tells the story of the man who single-handedly changed the face of popular culture and impacted the minds and lives of both his performers and his viewers. This long-awaited, 70-minute documentary takes a surprising look at the man who was once television’s most influential personality. Visit www.mpslegacyproductions.com to learn more.

Suzanne Kay, daughter of the iconic actress and singer Diahann Carroll, and Margo Precht Speciale, granddaughter of Ed Sullivan, are Producers. They will participate in the film festival panel along with Diahann Carroll, Dwandalyn R. Reece, Ph.D., Curator of Music and Performing Arts, National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Ed Sullivan is best known for creating television’s longest running variety show and for introducing The Beatles to America. But he was also a risk-taker who consistently booked African-American artists despite threats from southern sponsors and letters from irate white viewers. He showcased unknown artists who are household names today, and he treated them with grace and dignity at a time when racism was the norm, challenging America to do the same.

Based on interviews with celebrities, Sullivan’s family members, and media analysts, this documentary shines a light on a little known chapter in America’s struggle for racial justice.  Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, Berry Gordy of Motown, Diana Ross, Oprah Winfrey, and Whoopi Goldberg are just some of those interviewed as they talk about how the show was a launching pad for their careers and changed their vision of America and America’s vision of African-Americans.

Read the entire article here

The Noose That Brought History To Life

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Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, has turned to the op-ed pages of The New York Times to address the noose found recently at the museum.

Here is a taste of his piece:

The person who recently left a noose at the National Museum of African American History and Culture clearly intended to intimidate, by deploying one of the most feared symbols in American racial history. Instead, the vandal unintentionally offered a contemporary reminder of one theme of the black experience in America: We continue to believe in the potential of a country that has not always believed in us, and we do this against incredible odds.

The noose — the second of three left on the National Mall in recent weeks — was found late in May in an exhibition that chronicles America’s evolution from the era of Jim Crow through the civil rights movement. Visitors discovered it on the floor in front of a display of artifacts from the Ku Klux Klan, as well as objects belonging to African-American soldiers who fought during World War I. Though these soldiers fought for democracy abroad, they found little when they returned home.

That display, like the museum as a whole, powerfully juxtaposes two visions of America: one shaped by racism, violence and terror, and one shaped by a belief in an America where freedom and fairness reign. I see the nooses as evidence that those visions continue to battle in 2017 and that the struggle for the soul of America continues to this very day.

Read the entire piece here.

I also recommend this conversation between Bunch and American Historical Association director Jim Grossman.

Four Myths About Slavery

BerryOver at The Conversation, Daina Ramey Berry of the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin separates “myth from fact” on the matter of American slavery.

Here are her four myths:

  1.  The majority of African captives came to what became the United States
  2.  Slavery last for 400 years
  3.  All Southerners own slaves
  4.  Slavery was a long time ago.

Read how she debunks these myths here.

Berry’s latest book is The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.

Lynching in America

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Each jar contains dirt from the sites where Alabama lynchings took place.

Earlier this week I was at the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama.  I am participating in a Civil Rights bus tour and this was one of our stops.  I wrote about the visit here.

The day of our visit was the day EJI went live with its new digital project on lynching in America.

USA Today took notice of the new project.  Here is a taste of Rog Walker’s article:

Visitors to the website can search a map of 4,300 lynchings in 20 states and hear how Elizabeth Lawrence, a school teacher in Alabama, was murdered in 1933 for reprimanding white schoolchildren for throwing rocks at her. Or how in 1893, 17-year-old Henry Smith, suspected of killing a white girl, was burned alive before a mob of 10,000 in Texas, his ashes and bones sold as souvenirs.

Another map shows the seismic population shift of the Great Migration as families were forced to leave to escape racial violence. A century ago nearly all African Americans lived in the South. By 1970 most lived outside of the South, many of them in industrial cities in the North and the West.

Read more here.

More on the Civil Rights Movement and America as a “Christian Nation”

Christian NAtionLast night I got a chance to listen to Carolyn Maull McKinstry talk about what it was like to live through the September 15, 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Avenue Baptist Church.

During the course of her presentation she referred to the United States as a “Christian nation.”  If you have been following my posts about the Civil Rights bus tour on which I am currently engaged, you may recall that Juanita Jones Abernathy also described the United States a “Christian nation.”

It seems like many participants in the Civil Rights Movement accepted the idea that the United States was a Christian nation or at the very least believed that the nation needed to work harder at becoming a Christian nation.

Today most African-American preachers are not very fond of calling the United States a Christian nation.  White conservative evangelicals have hijacked the term.  I saw this first hand when I spoke at a racial reconciliation conference at Wheaton College in October 2013.   Here is what I wrote following that conference:

This weekend I was at Wheaton College (IL) for the “Inhabit” conference sponsored by Pastor Ray McMillian‘s organization Race to Unity.  I sat on a plenary panel with Mark Noll and George Marsden (moderated by Tracy McKenzie, chair of Wheaton’s History Department) on the question: “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”  I also joined Noll and Marsden for a breakout session on race, religion and politics….

I must admit that when Pastor Ray first asked me to speak at this conference I was unsure if I would have anything to offer.  I did not fully understand why a conference on diversity wanted to devote an entire plenary session to the Christian America question.  But it did not take long to see what Pastor Ray had in mind….The evangelical African-American community is deeply offended by the notion, made popular by Christian nationalists such as David Barton, that the United States needs to somehow “return” or “go back” to its so-called Christian roots.  They view America’s founding as anything but Christian.  Many of the founding fathers owned slaves.  When the founders had the chance to choose the nation over the end of slavery (1776 and 1787) they always chose the former.  Slavery is embedded in the Constitution. Indeed, the entire debate over whether the United States is a Christian nation is a white Protestant evangelical issue.  One would be hard pressed to find an African-American evangelical who wants to return to what Christian Nationalists often describe as the golden age of American Christianity.

Read the entire post here.

The use of “Christian nation” rhetoric during the Civil Rights Movement might make for a nice little project that could take us beyond what I wrote on the subject in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

The Amazing Juanita Jones Abernathy

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Abernathy at Georgia State University speaking to the travelers on the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour

The highlight of Day 2 of the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour was meeting Juanita Jones Abernathy, one of the participants in, and organizers of, the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Juanita was marred to Ralph Abernathy, the pastor of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church and a famous civil rights activist in his own right. Ralph died in 1990 at the age of 64.

Juanita talked about the important role played by pastors (and pastor’s wives) during the bus boycott. Because pastors like her husband Ralph were not paid by the state, and thus were not “part of the system,” they were free to organize on behalf of Rosa Parks without the threat of losing their jobs.

She also talked about how the Abernathy children and the King children integrated an Atlanta elementary school sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s.  (Her son Kwame was with her at the lecture).  I found it interesting that she always referred to the kids as “my kids” or “Coretta’s kids.”When it came to the education of the children, the mothers were in charge.

I tried to write down some of the best lines of the talk.  They are as close to verbatim as possible:

  • “My husband Ralph used to say ‘there was no color on the bullets we were dodging in Germany during World War II…We were citizens fighting to defend democracy. Why couldn’t we enjoy it at home.'”
  • Donald Trump wants to “roll back the clock. But we aren’t going back.”
  • “My Lord and savior Jesus Christ was not violent. I didn’t learn non-violence from Ghandi, I learned it from Jesus.”
  • “Aren’t you glad you’re in America?  Lord I thank you for the United States of America and that we are not victims of the destruction going on around the world today.  I am blessed to live in the United States of America.”
  • “[The Civil Rights Movement in] Alabama saved America from itself.”
  • “The right to vote is a blood ballot. People died for that right.”
  • “We are a Christian nation. That’s what America is built on.”
  • “If there’s any such thing as going through hell while still alive, we went through it.”
  • When [the Abernathy’s and the King’s] lived on the west side of Chicago in the slums, we came from ‘down South’ to ‘up South.’ But both Souths had the same problems.”
  • “I hear all this stuff about King.  I saw a documentary on Georgia Public Television called ‘America since King.’ No, it was the Civil Rights MOVEMENT. It was not associated with just one man.”
  • “Today, all you have to do is write down your name and address and you can vote.  It doesn’t matter if you are white, black, native American, or Indian.  Voting applies to everyone, but there was a price to be paid to get it.”
  • “Young people will burn America down before they let Donald Trump take us back [in time]. They don’t understand non-violence, no one is teaching the young people “non-violence.”
  • “‘Make America Great Again’ is when blacks had no rights.”
  • “We weren’t trying to get above, we were just trying to get equal.”
  • “I love America with all of the mess.  We still are the greatest nation in the free world.  When I see that flag I salute it.”

What fascinated me the most about Juanita Jones Abernathy’s talk was how much it was grounded in appeals to common and universal values.  She talked about her love of country (or at least the ideals set forth at the founding).  She drew heavily upon a shared Christian faith as a source for non-violence.

She even described the United States as a “Christian nation.”  This was not unusual during the Civil Rights movement.  As I argued in chapter three of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?the Civil Rights movement made constant appeals to the Judeo-Christian values that they believed the nation was founded upon.  The best example of this is King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail when he says:

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Abernathy also described the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 in universal terms. Poverty affected all races–it was a universal problem and needed to be addressed this way.  She talked the same way about voting rights.

The appeal to ideals that brought together all human beings seems to be quite different from the identity politics we see today in most discussions of race in America. This morning on the bus we listened to a King sermon that referenced Washington Irving, Thomas Carlyle, and the Founding Fathers.  Elsewhere King referenced Augustine, Aquinas, Paul Tillich, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to name a few.  King assumed that his audience–both black and white–were familiar with some of these authors.  Would such appeals be effective today? I don’t think so.  King lived before what historian Daniel Rodgers has described as the “Age of Fracture.”

The more I listen to folks like Abernathy and King the more I realize that the “past is a foreign country.”  But as we think about race relations in America today I wonder if the past of Abernathy and King is a usable one.

Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour: Day 1

As I wrote earlier this week, I am spending the next seven days on a Civil Rights bus tour. Todd Allen and his staff have been running the “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour” since 2002 and they do a great job.  Messiah College, the school where I teach, sends several faculty and staff on the tour each year as part of its Christian commitment to racial reconciliation.  This year I am traveling (along with my wife and daughter) with several faculty members, admissions counselors, residential life workers, students, alumni, and even a member of the Board of Trustees!

We left Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (Todd’s base of operation and, I might add, the home of Joe Namath) early yesterday morning.  We spent most of the day on the bus, but did make a scheduled stop in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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We started the tour with some Oram’s donuts–a Beaver Falls, Pa. tradition,  Thanks Todd!

Our first major stop was North Carolina A&T University (Go Aggies!), a historically black college in Greensboro.  On February 1, 1960, four A&T freshman–David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and Joseph McNeil–staged a lunch-counter sit-in at the downtown Woolworth 5 &10.  Today, the Woolworth building serves as the home of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum (ICRCM).  (The Greensboro Woolworth was open from 1939 to 1993.  A non-profit organization saved the building from destruction and turned it into a museum in 2010).

Jean, one of the docents at the museum, gave a very lively tour.  The highlight, as you might imagine, was our visit to the room where the Woolworth’s lunch counter was located.  A refurbished counter, with original signage and dumbwaiters, is part of the exhibit. The sit-in is re-enacted on video screens that provide a perspective from someone standing behind the counter.  Frankly, I wish we could have spent more time in this room.  I wanted to soak it all in and reflect on the courage of these four students.  I often wonder how many of my own students sit in their dorm rooms, ponder the life-transforming ideas that they encounter in class, and put those ideas into action in ways that bring meaningful change to their local surroundings.

If you are in Greensboro, the ICRCM is a must visit.  A lot of the original Woolworth building remains.  As we walked down the stairs into the lower level of the building, Jean informed us that the chrome railings and staircase were original.  I had flashbacks to a nearly identical set of stairs, complete with chrome railings, at the J.J. Newberry’s store on Main Street in Boonton, New Jersey.  I spent a lot of time in that store as a little kid–mostly buying candy and baseball cards.  There was no lunch counter.

The museum is small, but it packs a big punch.  The exhibits themselves invoke empathy at every turn.  For example, an exhibit room called “The Hall of Shame” is filled with graphic images of violence against civil rights activists.  The “Colored Entrance” is a maze-like exhibit that forces visitors to see the world from the perspective of African Americans during Jim Crow.  The rooms in this exhibit are small, tight, and uncomfortable, forcing the visitor to “feel the way Blacks felt everyday” during segregation.  An older African American women in our group was particularly moved by the exhibits.  She told the group that she had been part of “week one” (February 8-15, 1960) of the lunch counter sit-ins in Durham, North Carolina while she was a student at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University).

After dinner, we drove from Greensboro to Greenville, South Carolina.  We watched documentaries in the bus during the day, but on last night’s drive we watched Denzel Washington’s Fences.

We are off to a good start.  Stay tuned.  We are in Atlanta today.

A few more pics:

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The “Greensboro Four” Monument at North Carolina A&T University

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Front entrance to Greensboro Woolworths (now ICRCM

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“Colored Entrance” to Greensboro Woolworths (now ICRCM)

Historians and the Nooses at The National Museum of African American Life and Culture

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Over at the Reformed African American Network, University of Mississippi graduate student Jemar Tisby writes that historians of race in America “have to possess a special kind of fearlessness.”  He writes in the wake of the news that nooses were found in the National Museum of African American Life and Culture in Washington D.C.

Here is a taste:

A noose represents the instrument of death often used in the thousands of lynchings of African Americans that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Leaving a noose at the only national museum dedicated to unveiling and proclaiming the history of the African diaspora in America is an assault on the dignity of black people everywhere. Unfortunately, this act is just an extreme version of the risk historians take when they rightly remember the past.

America is a nation that prides itself on…itself. Academic historians dedicate themselves to recovering the past and retelling it in a way that reveals both the virtues and the flaws in the events and the people they study. While there is much to admire about the men and women who shaped this nation’s history, a country that only knows how to celebrate its successes lacks the ability to lament, and recoils at counter-narratives that speak of its failures.

The risk of doing rigorous history is especially high for those who study race in America. Nothing demolishes the idea of American exceptionalism more thoroughly than an honest account of how people of color have been treated in this country. Racism reveals the hypocrisy of a land founded on the “inalienable” rights of humankind, yet for centuries, denied those rights to an entire group of people. This is not the past many Americans want to remember.

Read the entire piece here.  I will remember this piece as I head off on a Civil Rights bus tour on Saturday morning.

How Do Historians Measure Racial Progress in America?

LaskiGreg Laski has a great piece on this issue a Black Perspectives.  He raises several good questions in the process of plugging his new book Untimely Democracy: The Politics of Progress after Slavery.

You can read the entire piece here, but I was especially taken with the way Laski frames his discussion:

If the November 2008 election of Barack Obama to the presidency provided an occasion to measure the distance the United States had traveled from its origins in slavery, then Donald Trump’s rise to the highest political office has presented a different historical calculus. Viewed through the lens of this racial history, the new administration reminds us that structures and practices of exclusion endure across time.

Just how to conjugate the relationship between past and present in each of these instances is open to debate. But lurking behind these contemporary case studies is a more basic conceptual dilemma: What is the political function of historical comparison when it comes to measuring “progress” toward liberty and equality for all? If Obama’s presidency allowed us to celebrate racial progress, that is, what happens to democracy now, when that distance seems to have narrowed? To pose the query most plainly, does democracy require progress? If so, whose? And why?

My forthcoming book, Untimely Democracy, narrates the nineteenth-century backstory of these questions by studying the work produced by African American authors and activists after the official end of Reconstruction—and after the abolitionist aims of the Civil War had faded.

The Author’s Corner with Jason Opal

OpalJason Opal is Associate Professor of History at McGill University.  This interview is based on his new book Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Avenging the People?

JO: I had always been fascinated by Andrew Jackson and his intense following in the United States, especially in the wake of his controversial invasion of Spanish and Seminole Florida in 1818. I was also struck by the tone and vehemence of the Congressional debates that followed in early 1819. The pro-Jackson representatives talked about the “laws of nations” and the “rights of nature,” suggesting that Old Hickory symbolized a new claim to national sovereignty within the brutal world he saw.

But what made me want to dig deeper was what happened right after these debates—not the bitter controversy over slavery in Missouri, but the severe economic crisis that lasted from 1819 to 1822. Here, Jackson was an arch-conservative foe of public banks, stay laws, and other assertions of democratic sovereignty against international “laws” of commerce. Here, he rejected some of the most popular—and, in some sense, nationalistic—measures of his day. This just did not fit with the traditional view of Jackson as a patriotic champion and democratic reformer. Nor did it align with the usual critiques of Jackson, which stress his hostility to native peoples and black Americans.

So, I wanted to offer a new look at the towering enigma from Tennessee, one that stayed as close as possible to primary sources (rather than historiographical debates) and that scrutinized Jackson’s early career and political education (rather than his legendary times in the White House). I did not intend to besmirch Jackson, nor to condemn his fans. I just wanted to see what he was about, and to understand why so many Americans loved him so fiercely.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Avenging the People?

JO: I argue that Jackson led and embodied one version of American nationhood—of the American people as a nation who shared blood—that grew out of the long struggle with the British Empire and its native and black proxies during the post-Revolutionary decades. This kind of nationhood asserted American sovereignty vis-à-vis its enemies, including the right to avenge American blood around the globe, while restricting their sovereignty in times and places of peace, that is within the society they reluctantly composed.

JF: Why do we need to read Avenging the People?

JO: Especially since the United States, unlike most western democracies, still functions according to its first written Constitution (with amendments), it is always important to study the Founding era. In a way, this history is not history at all, but a kind of ongoing past.

Jackson was not one of the Founders of 1787, but he was probably the single most important figure in the later, longer rise of “democratic” models of American nationhood and popular sovereignty. Understanding that is especially important now that President Trump repeatedly and (I think) sincerely invokes Jackson’s name to authorize an “America First” course of action.

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

JO: I have loved history for as long as I can remember and was determined to become a history professor by the time I was in eighth or ninth grade. (One viewing of Les Misérables at the Shubert Theatre in Boston clinched it.) I honestly can’t imagine anything more compelling than the debatable record of what people have done and what it all means.

I decided to study the early United States after I took Mary Beth Norton’s class on the American Revolution at Cornell in the spring of 1996. I turned to cultural and social history after working with Jane Kamensky at Brandeis in 1999. Inspiring teachers have that effect!

JF: What is your next project?

JO: Moving to Montreal in 2009, right when I was starting this project, gave me a new vantage point on American history. It also revealed the importance of other languages, which had always been a weak point for me. I’m comfortable at last in French and am now studying Portuguese, both of which will help for my new book project, a global history of Barbados. As many early Americanists have shown, this island was the center of the early English empire and the starting point for its seventeenth-century turn to black slavery. I want to retell the island’s long ordeal by drawing in the associated histories of the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British empires and of the many African nations that later gave rise to the Bajan people.

I’m also working on two collaborative projects. The first is a collection of essays on the “Patriot” rebellions of the late 1830s along the US-Canadian border. I’m writing about the economic priorities that underlay US-British rapprochement and that helped to doom the Patriots. Maxime Dagenais of McMaster University and Julien Mauduit of Université du Québec à Montréal are editing this book, which I hope will reach people in both French and English Canada and in my native country. Second, I’m writing a history of epidemic diseases and the American people with my dad, Dr. Steven Opal of the Brown University School of Medicine.

JF: Thanks, Jason

African Muslims in Early America

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The National Museum of African American History & Culture website has a very informative feature on African Muslims in early America.  Online exhibits of this nature will go a long way toward debunking the myth, popular among many conservative evangelicals today, that the arrival of Muslims in the United States is a relatively new phenomenon.

Here is a taste:

While we do not know exactly how many African Muslims were enslaved and transported to the New World, there are clues in legal doctrines, slaveholders’ documents, and existing cultural and religious traditions. African Muslims were caught in the middle of complicated social and legal attitudes from the very moment they landed on our Eastern shores, and collections at the Museum help provide insight into their lives.

African Muslims were an integral part of creating America from mapping its borders to fighting against British rule. Muslims first came to North America in the 1500s as part of colonial expeditions. One of these explorers was a man named Mustafa Zemmouri, also known as Estevanico, who was sold by the Portuguese into slavery in 1522. While enslaved by Spanish conquistador Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Estevanico became one of the first Africans to set foot on the North American continent. He explored Florida and the Gulf Coast, eventually traveling as far west as New Mexico.

African Muslims also fought alongside colonists during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Multiple men with Muslim names appear on the military muster rolls, including Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali (also known as Joseph Benhaley), and Joseph Saba. Other men listed on muster rolls have names that are likely connected to Islamic practice, such as Salem Poor and Peter Salem, whose names may reflect a form of the Arabic salaam, meaning peace. These men often distinguished themselves on the battlefield.

The founding fathers were aware of Islam and the presence of Muslims in America. Thomas Jefferson, who owned a copy of the Qur’an, included Islam in many of his early writings and political treatises. Campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, Jefferson argued in the proposed “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” that, “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” Unfortunately, this language was amended before ratification to remove references to non-Christian groups. Jefferson was not the only statesman who recognized religions other than Christianity in his work. However, their knowledge of and theoretical openness to Islam did not stop them from enslaving African Muslims.

Read the piece and see the artifacts here.

Free Blacks as Refugees

Slave_kidnap_post_1851_bostonStephen Kantrowitz is the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History, African American Studies, and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In a recent essay at Boston Review he compares the racial plight of escaped slaves and free blacks in the antebellum North to 20th and 21st century immigrants to the United States.

Here is a taste of this piece “Refuge for Fugitives“:

The struggle of the 1850s began in and drew its animating energy from African Americans’ analysis of their own circumstances. Slavery hung a shadow over the lives of free black people, even in places where slavery had long been legally abolished, such as Massachusetts. There, African Americans possessed nearly every formal right on the same basis as the “free white persons” legally eligible for immigration and naturalization. But African Americans commonly experienced northern freedom as mocking, hostile, and violent. For the fugitive slave Frederick Douglass, liberty in Massachusetts included a constant, oppressive awareness of being perceived as an inferior. “Prejudice against color is stronger north than south,” he declared; “it hangs around my neck like a heavy weight. . . . I have met it at every step the three years I have been out of southern slavery.” Even in Massachusetts, African Americans were barred from nearly every avenue of economic or educational advancement. Railroad companies segregated black passengers in Jim Crow cars, a policy their conductors enforced with violence. State officials ejected free blacks from official processions, and ruffians chased them from Boston Common. The foremost form of popular entertainment, the minstrel show, mocked their appearance and aspirations. No wonder northern black activists bleakly called themselves “the nominally free,” or “the two-thirds free.” One African American newspaper was entitled the Aliened American.

In this sense, the free black people of the mid-nineteenth century prefigured the struggles of later generations of what historian Mae Ngai calls “alien citizens.” Ngai’s analysis reveals how the U.S. citizenship of native-born Americans of Chinese, Mexican, Japanese, and Muslim background has in practice been limited or nullified by what many consider to be their unalterable foreignness. The radical black activists of a century and a half ago well understood that their compatriots regarded them mainly through the prism of their racial association with slaves. So it has been since, for Chinese Americans figured as unassimilable aliens, Japanese Americans assailed as members of an enemy race, Mexican Americans dubbed “illegals” and rapists, and Muslim Americans branded terrorists. Even those formally vested with citizenship cannot escape the gravitational drag of their racialized association with a dangerous and foreign otherness. Even the mildest formulation of alien citizenship tells the tale: “Right, but where are you really from?”

Instead of seeking to overcome their association with slavery, antebellum African American activists built their activism around it. Defiantly dubbing themselves “colored citizens,” they pursued twin and inseparable projects: freedom to the slave and equal citizenship for all. Some embraced this course because they had been slaves themselves. Others did so because they understood that they could only escape from slavery’s stigmatizing shadow by asserting their common unity, dignity, and equality.

In one sense, the conditions of black freedom left them no choice. Most states that had abolished slavery did not require black people to prove they were free. But the U.S. Constitution’s Fugitive Slave clause curtailed this presumption of freedom. In theory, a 1793 law that gave teeth to this clause provided only for the capture and return of escaping slaves. But the law did not guarantee those accused of being fugitives the right to testify in their own defense, which made it quite possible to enslave a free person. Nor was this the only existential risk free black people faced: the demand for slaves birthed a kidnapping industry with hundreds (possibly thousands) of victims, among them Solomon Northup, who authored Twelve Years a Slave (1853) based on his experience of being illegally enslaved.

Read the entire piece here.

Summer Internship Opportunity at *Black Perspectives*

Black

Here it is:

Black Perspectives, the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), is currently accepting applications for our inaugural summer editorial internship program. The internship, which begins on June 1st and ends on August 31st, is open to graduate students and advanced undergraduate students.

About Black Perspectives

Black Perspectives is the leading online platform for public scholarship on global black thought, history, and culture. As engaged scholars, we are deeply committed to producing and disseminating cutting-edge research that is accessible to the public and is oriented towards advancing the lives of people of African descent and humanity. Formerly referred to as the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) Blog, Black Perspectives serves as the medium to advance these critical goals. Although many of the writers are historians, we provide a crucial online space for scholars working in various academic fields.

We understand African American and African diasporic thought in its broadest terms and encourage the use of interdisciplinary research approaches. We also value diversity and inclusion and welcome all scholars–regardless of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, or any other social category—to contribute as long as the research is thorough and accurate in its portrayal of black thought, history, and culture.

About the Internship

Interns will work closely with the blog editors on a part-time, unpaid basis for three months and receive practical experience in academic blogging. Each intern will contribute to the publication of the blog in a variety of aspects including research, copy-editing, fact checking, and formatting. Interns will receive a complimentary one-year membership in AAIHS and waived registration fee for the 2018 AAIHS conference.

The 3-month internship offers young scholars an opportunity to sharpen their writing skills and receive personalized feedback on their writing. It also provides interns with access to a diverse network of early career bloggers (and professors), and the opportunity to publish their pieces on a popular academic blog. The internship is online, which means that interns only need access to a computer and internet.

Qualifications

  • Currently enrolled in an accredited academic institution; graduate students (PhD and MA students) and advanced undergraduate students.
  • Preference will be given to candidates who major/specialize in History, African American Studies, English, and Journalism. However, we will consider applications from candidates in a variety of fields including Political Science, Sociology, Women’s and Gender Studies, International Relations and America Studies.
  • Must be motivated, detailed-oriented, and possess strong writing skills.
  • Must have a knowledge base and keen interest in black thought, history and culture.
  • Must have an interest in blog writing and social media.
  • Must be interested in working with a diverse group of scholars who are passionate about black thought, history, and culture.
  • Must be willing to devote approximately 10 hours per week to assisting with the blog; and be willing to attend mandatory online training sessions during the week of May 28th and attend one-hour SKYPE/Phone meetings (generally once per month).

Those interested in the program are invited to submit the following materials to Profs. Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi via email at aaihs10@gmail.com no later than May 25, 2017.

Yale Philosopher Brings Some Intellectual and Historical Weight to #BlackLivesMatter”

lebronChristopher J. Lebron, a political philosopher at Yale University, is concerned about the future of #BlackLivesMatter.  He believes that the movement lacks an intellectual foundation in black social and political thought.  His book, The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea (Oxford University Press), tries to remedy this problem.

Lebron’s work is the subject of Marc Parry’s recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Here is a taste:

To appreciate what distinguishes Lebron’s approach, start with the speech that first exposed his writing to a mass audience. It was January of 2015, and Lebron was invited to commemorate Martin Luther King Day at a YWCA in the affluent New York City suburb of Greenwich, Conn. Michael Brown had been shot dead in Ferguson, Mo., the previous August. In subsequent testimony, the police officer who killed Brown, Darren Wilson, portrayed the 18-year-old in quasi-bestial terms as a hulking, wild-eyed “demon.” The month before Lebron’s talk, a New York City grand jury declined to indict the police officer who had choked to death another unarmed black man, Eric Garner.

Lebron decided that the best way to honor King was to question the character of his mostly white audience. He did so by borrowing a page from Frederick Douglass. In one of Douglass’s most famous speeches, “What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” the slave-turned-abolitionist shamed whites for celebrating their freedoms while sustaining slavery. Lebron, like Douglass, opened his remarks by stressing the distance between the world of his audience and his own origins in a Puerto Rican family from the Lower East Side of Manhattan — a personal trajectory that, at various points, exposed him to welfare, food stamps, and unemployment. And, again like Douglass, he shamed his listeners for celebrating King’s achievements while blacks continued to suffer police brutality, job discrimination, and the segregation of schools and neighborhoods.

The persistence of these ills “indicates the eagerness with which white Americans have adopted the idea that securing racial justice was a matter of the passing of a law and the martyrdom of a great man,” he later wrote in a column based on the speech that appeared in The Stone, a philosophy series in The New York Times. “But this clearly will not do.”

That Times piece whetted the publisher interest that led to Lebron’s slim but ambitious new book. The study’s premise is that the sentiment “Black Lives Matter” represents a desire for civic equality and human respect as old as the push to end slavery. It pivots around a question: How can earlier black struggles for acknowledgment inform that same fight today?

Lebron answers that by extracting a collection of “radical lessons” from eight black thinkers. Through Douglass and Ida B. Wells, an anti-lynching crusader, he highlights the power of forcing Americans to face the gulf between their stated ideals and their brutal treatment of blacks (lesson: shameful publicity). He analyzes how Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston changed perceptions of African-Americans through literature that revealed the richness of black culture (lesson: countercolonization of the white imagination). To get at issues of gender and sexuality, he focuses on Anna Julia Cooper, a civic and educational leader who saw the improved position of black women as central to the betterment of her race, and Audre Lorde, a lesbian poet who stressed the importance of embracing one’s full identity (lesson: unconditional self-possession).

Lebron pits the thinkers he admires against four black public intellectuals whose ideas he opposes: Thomas Sowell, Randall Kennedy, Glenn Loury, and John McWhorter. In Lebron’s view, they have absorbed the wrong lessons of “white liberalism,” by which he means the idea of rugged individualism. They have perverted that notion into an insidious black conservatism that says African-Americans need to look for the source of their woes apart from whites.

Read the entire piece here.

Tips for Planning Your Class Trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture

MuseumOver at Black Perspectives, Joshua Clark Davis offers some good advice for teachers and others planning trips to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Here is a taste:

Taking students to the museum is a rewarding experience. Yet, it also comes with some challenges. It is more crowded and harder to get into than almost any other museum in the country. The line just to enter the historical galleries seems more like something one would encounter at Disney World rather than at a history museum. Also, the museum is massive—too large for guests to absorb fully in even a three-hour visit.

That said, any instructor will find that visiting the NMAAHC is a deeply meaningful experience for students that can elevate a good class into one that’s unforgettable. A bit of strategic logistical and pedagogical planning are necessary to pull off a student trip to this marvelous museum.

To start, if you are even considering taking students to the museum in the next year, keep a very close eye on the timed passes page, which offers directions for group passes to the museum. Unfortunately, group reservations are currently suspended due to a severe backlog of requests. But at some point in the near future, group tickets will be re-issued. If you’re even considering taking a group to the museum, determine your dates in advance and once the group ticketing re-opens, make your reservation even if you haven’t secured funding yet. You can always cancel tickets if the funding falls through. If the museum resumes the group reservation process it had until recently, you’ll need to call a number at E-Tix and possibly spend an hour or more waiting to speak with a representative to request your dates.

Another important consideration is how to prepare your students for this visit. Think about making this trip not only a museum visit, but also a larger exploration on the question of how to make our public history institutions more accessible and racially equitable. Learning about the decades of work staffers put into opening the NMAAHC gives students an important lesson on how museums—especially African-American history museums—do not appear magically, but are the product of years of struggle by public historians, activists, community members, elected officials, and scholars. Students may also benefit to learn about the long history of the Black museum movement, which predated the NMAAHC by decades, or concerted efforts by conservatives such as Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina to block the establishment of a Smithsonian museum devoted to African American history.

Read the entire post here.

 

Friday at the Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians in New Orleans

Bunch

Friday appears to have been a busy day for American historians in New Orleans.  The OAH offers some highlights at Process blog.

The highlight of the day was the afternoon plenary session “African American History, Art, and the Public Museumfeaturing Lonnie Bunch III, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

Here is a taste:

“This plenary session was a unanimous ‘no brainer’ for the program committee and OAH president Nancy Cott to organize,” said program co-chair Robert Self of Brown University. “We wanted to recognize and honor one of the most important developments in public history in the last decade or more.”

“The audience was not disappointed,” Self continued. “Lonnie Bunch explained the political strategy (make congressional allies before you need them), the economic strategy (tap corporations and the wealthy black donor class), the collecting strategy (encourage ordinary people to donate materials to local museums, which would feed the national museum), and the rhetorical strategy (African American history is American history). He and Richard Powell reflected on the decade-long process of collecting and curating more than four centuries of black history in North America. Bunch also revealed that an astonishing 70 percent of the museum’s permanent collection came from the attics, basements, and storage closets of ordinary people. The plenary offered a fascinating look at how Bunch guided the museum from an idea to an architecturally powerful new building on the National Mall, curating an intellectually honest and unflinching portrait of black American history and culture. Thank you, Lonnie, Richard, and the excellent moderator, Darlene Clark Hine.”

Read the entire post here.

What Was the Nation’s First Civil Rights Monument?

Incident

From the Desmond Herzfelder’s piece at The Washington Post:

The first civil rights monument in the United States is having its diamond jubilee. The monument isn’t a temple, obelisk or sculpture. It’s a mural installed in the spring of 1942 at the entrance to the Interior Department’s basement cafeteria. The artwork, “An Incident in Contemporary American Life,” portrays the racially integrated audience at the Lincoln Memorial concert by the great African American singer Marian Anderson. In part, the mural reflects the racial attitudes of the era; it also conveys a radical message about civil rights that deserves a gala celebration to mark this, its 75th anniversary.

Read more here.

The Author’s Corner with Sharla M. Fett

RecapturedAfricans.jpgSharla M. Fett is Professor of History at Occidental College. This interview is based on her new book, Recaptured Africans: Surviving Slave Ships, Detention, and Dislocation in the Final Years of the Slave Trade (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Recaptured Africans?

SF: This book has deep roots! While I was researching my dissertation, which became Working Cures, archivists at the Virginia Historical Society showed me a ship log written by a white doctor serving as a U.S. agent traveling with recaptive Africans to Liberia.  Then I learned that the recaptive men, women, and youth on that particular ship had been sold to slave smugglers working at the mouth of the Congo River.  In fact, Harper’s Weekly had published a large engraving of these same West Central African recaptives aboard the slave ship Wildfire upon their 1860 arrival in Key West, Florida. Together, the doctor’s log and the Harper’s image struck me deeply on a personal and intellectual level.  As a child of medical missionaries, I had visited the coast where the massive Congo River pours into the Atlantic.  The devastating history that linked those childhood memories to recaptives’ enslavement and displacement spurred me to learn more about recaptive African journeys resulting from U.S. slave trade suppression efforts. I also wanted to understand how illegal transatlantic slave trafficking—often sidelined in American history—shaped the turbulent politics of slavery in the years before the Civil War. So, the seeds of this book were planted quite a few years ago. By the time I finally began to work on the book in earnest, Atlantic world scholarship had expanded considerably, aided by digital history collaborations such as the Voyages: Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, African Origins and Liberated Africans databases.  This new scholarship offered essential context for the particular stories I traced.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Recaptured Africans

SF: This book argues that recaptive African youth and adults, rather than being “liberated” upon their release from illegal slave ships, entered a new phase of captivity defined by death, forced migration, and U.S. racial politics.  Under these conditions, shipmate relations between recaptives vitally shaped the particular strategies by which both child and adult slave ship survivors attempted to rebuild their social worlds in the midst of profound displacement.

JF: Why do we need to read Recaptured Africans?

SF: 2017 is a significant year for considering how long and difficult the road to a just emancipation can be.  For some time now, scholars like Saidiya Hartman have challenged the idea of a clear transition from the time of slavery to the time of freedom.  That was certainly the case for African children, women and men seeking to survive their “recapture” from illegal slave ships.  Their story underscores the human costs of slave trade suppression practices molded by U.S. racial inequality and political conflicts over slavery.  Many historical studies have looked at antebellum slavery politics primarily through the lens of sectional battles over domestic slavery.  By showing how Atlantic world slaving and emancipation deeply shaped responses to hundreds of African recaptives in U.S. custody, Recaptured Africans offers readers a new perspective on U.S. slavery debates in a much broader geographic context.

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

SF: As I tell my students at Occidental College, I don’t study history to bury myself in the past, but instead to understand our current world better, to gain perspective on American histories of race and slavery, and to broaden my vision of alternative paths humans can take in our troubled times.   Although I majored in Biology as an undergraduate, I always felt the pull of my elective classes in history, anthropology and politics. I credit my Carleton College history professor Robert Bonner for helping me discover that history was about interpretation not memorization of facts. After several years of high school science teaching and non-profit work, I finally took the plunge and applied to graduate school, pursuing a PhD in American History. I was lucky to take classes from Estelle Freedmen in women’s history during my MA program at Stanford.  At Rutgers, the opportunity to work with Suzanne Lebsock and Deborah Gray White affirmed my interest in U.S. southern history, women’s history, and the history of slavery.  I was particularly drawn to the study of antebellum U.S. slavery, a field at the time defined by imaginative new studies of enslaved community and culture.  The diasporic dimensions of African American history and the Atlantic World context for slavery studies became increasingly important in my research.  Recaptured Africans reflects my interest in how displaced Africans individually and collectively, navigated the daily realities of their condition resulting from the large-scale developments of Atlantic slaving and its abolition.

JF: What is your next project?

SF: In the long term, I have interests in exploring African American involvement with Belgian Congo between the 1880s and 1930s, especially in regard to Black women missionaries whose lives bridged the periods of American slavery to European colonization of Africa.  Currently, I’m working on several projects in American women’s history, including Black women’s activist networks and the nineteenth-century Colored Convention movement in California, in conjunction with the national digital humanities Colored Conventions Project.  Mid-nineteenth-century California is another venue where the fictions of the “free state” can be critically examined through studying the history of Black thought and collective action.

 

JF: Thanks, Sharla!