I missed this sketch when it originally aired. SNL has been offering some good lessons in historical thinking lately.
I am not sure how many people have been following the exchange of letters between a group of conservative Catholic intellectuals led by Princeton scholar Robert George and the leadership of the Church of God in Christ, one of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States.
Here is a taste of a letter from Catholic intellectuals to the Church of God in Christ:
We, the undersigned Catholic scholars, express our gratitude to, and our solidarity with, the Church of God in Christ and Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake. We deeply admire your profound commitment and bold witness to the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions and to the protection of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable from womb to tomb. We applaud your work to uphold marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife and to rebuild the marriage-based family as the fundamental unit of society and the original and best department of health, education, and welfare. We acknowledge with gratitude your devotion to the cause of religious freedom at home as well as abroad and your labors to protect the conscience rights of the Little Sisters of the Poor and people of all faiths and shades of belief.
We pledge to stand with you, our Christian brothers and sisters of the historic Black church, and to work arm in arm with you in Christ-like self-sacrificial love to build in America a true culture of life and of family life. To the cultured despisers of religion and Biblical morality, we say we love you, but we will oppose you—and with our COGIC friends we will strive not so much to defeat you in a cultural and political struggle as to open your hearts and minds to the life-preserving and love-affirming truths of the Gospel that reason knows and faith confirms.
And Charles Blake, the Presiding Bishop of the Church of God in Christ, responds:
I want to express in the strongest possible terms my profound appreciation for the enormous outpouring of solidarity and love that you and your colleagues have exhibited in your remarkable letter of support for the Church of God in Christ. I was honored that such a distinguished collection of Catholic intellectuals would stand in unity with their black brothers and sisters in defense of life, family, and justice for the poor. The list of signers on your letter of support represents some of the most important scholars in the world. It is not often that the “high-octane wing of the low church” finds itself in dialogue with such illustrious men and women of ideas. Our shared commitment on these issues points to our essential commonality in the ultimate sphere of significance in life: faith in the One, True God. He is the ground of our agreement on issues of fundamental importance.
If I may address you personally, Robby, you have over the years been a faithful source of philosophical guidance and friendship for the Black Church. Of special note is your support for our efforts to protect the rights of the unborn, address challenges in the area of biomedical ethics, and defend the Christian understanding of marriage. Your scholarship has had a profound impact upon the best minds of the Black Church. This influence is increasingly spreading throughout black ecclesiastical circles beyond the realm of the Church of God in Christ. Indeed, your impact is felt internationally.
Some of you may recall our poston the recent March for Life event. We commented on this speech by Church of God in Christ bishop Vincent Matthews Jr. Notice how he links pro-life and Black Lives Matter rhetoric.
How come we don’t hear more about these connections?
Here is what Donald Trump said yesterday, the first day of Black History Month, about Frederick Douglass:
Later in the day, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said this about Trump’s comments on Douglass:
So it looks like the POTUS is a big fan of Frederick Douglass. If this is the case, perhaps Trump might appreciate learning more about Douglass’s views.
So I went on Twitter and started the #DouglassforTrump hashtag. Feel free to head over there and add your favorite Douglass quote. I know the hashtag is a bit long, but please try to tack it on to your tweet so that others can easily find your quote.
We at The Way of Improvement Leads Home are encouraged that Trump wants to give Douglass the publicity he deserves. So let’s help his speechwriters get up to speed with some of Douglass’s actual words.
Born and unborn.
Here is Bishop Vincent Matthews Jr. of the Church of God in Christ at yesterday’s March for Life. The Church of God in Christ is the largest African American denomination in the United States and the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States. With 6.5 million members it is fifth largest denomination in the United States.
This post draws heavily from a column I wrote for Patheos in March 2011 and my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:
Rarely, if ever, do we see the name Martin Luther King, Jr. included on a list of apologists for Christian America. Yet he was just as much of an advocate for a “Christian America” as any who affiliate with the Christian Right today.
Let me explain.
King’s fight for a Christian America was not over amending the Constitution to make it more Christian or promoting crusades to insert “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. It was instead a battle against injustice and an attempt to forge a national community defined by Christian ideals of equality and respect for human dignity.
Most historians now agree that the Civil Rights movement was driven by the Christian faith of its proponents. As David Chappell argued in his landmark book, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, the story of the Civil Rights movement is less about the triumph of progressive and liberal ideals and more about the revival of an Old Testament prophetic tradition that led African-Americans to hold their nation accountable for the decidedly unchristian behavior it showed many of its citizens.
There was no more powerful leader for this kind of Christian America than King, and no greater statement of his vision for America than his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
King arrived in Birmingham in April 1963 and led demonstrations calling for an end to racist hiring practices and segregated public facilities. When King refused to end his protests, he was arrested by Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s Public Safety Commissioner. In solitary confinement, King wrote to the Birmingham clergy who were opposed to the civil rights protests in the city. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” published in pamphlet form and circulated widely, offered a vision of Christian nationalism that challenged the localism and parochialism of the Birmingham clergy and called into question their version of Christian America.
A fierce localism pervaded much of the South in the mid-20th century. For Southerners, nationalism conjured up memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction, a period when Northern nationalists—Abraham Lincoln, the “Radical Republican” Congress, and the so-called “carpetbaggers—invaded the South in an attempt to force the region to bring its localism in line with a national vision informed by racial equality.
When he arrived in Birmingham, King was perceived as an outside agitator intent on disrupting the order of everyday life in the city. Many Birmingham clergy believed that segregation was a local issue and should thus be addressed at the local level.
King rejected this kind of parochialism. He fought for moral and religious ideas such as liberty and freedom that were universal in nature. Such universal truths, King believed, should always trump local beliefs, traditions, and customs. As he put it, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” Justice was a universal concept that defined America. King reminded the Birmingham clergy that Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln had defended equality as a national creed, a creed to which he believed the local traditions of the Jim Crow South must conform. In his mind, all “communities and states” were interrelated. “Injustice anywhere,” he famously wrote, “is a threat to justice everywhere.” He added: “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” This was King the nationalist at his rhetorical best.
King understood justice in Christian terms. The rights granted to all citizens of the United States were “God given.” Segregation laws, King believed, were unjust not only because they violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) but because they did not conform to the laws of God.
King argued, using Augustine and Aquinas, that segregation was “morally wrong and sinful” because it degraded “human personality.” Such a statement was grounded in the biblical idea that all human beings were created in the image of God and as a result possess inherent dignity and worth.
He also used biblical examples of civil disobedience to make his point. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego took a stand for God’s law over the law of King Nebuchadnezzar. Paul was willing to “bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” And, of course, Jesus Christ was an “extremist for love, truth, and goodness” who “rose above his environment.”
In the end, Birmingham’s destiny was connected to the destiny of the entire nation—a nation that possessed what King called a “sacred heritage,” influenced by the “eternal will of God.” By fighting against segregation, King reminded the Birmingham clergy that he was standing up for “what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-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.” (italics mine)
It sounds to me that King wanted America to be a Christian nation. The Civil Rights movement, as he understood it, was in essence an attempt to construct a new kind of Christian nation—a beloved community of love, harmony, and equality.
Barack Obama at Selma, March 7, 2015:
Chandra Manning is Special Advisor to the Dean at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. This interview is based on her new book, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War (Knopf, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War?
CM: The conclusion of my first book, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War pointed to a more fluid racial climate in the spring of 1865 than I expected, or than existed by the turn of the twentieth century, which made me want to understand how a reconstructed Union that passed constitutional amendments abolishing slavery, establishing black citizenship, and extending suffrage to African Americans—revolutions, all!—developed into the land of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and epidemic lynching. Books addressing similar questions (like David Blight’s Race and Reunion) focus on the 1880s and 1890s, but I wondered what happened earlier, in the 1860s. So I began my second book intending to write about race relations generally and citizenship rights specifically in the decade following the Civil War. At first, I planned to use contraband camps as interesting “scene-setters” in a brief introductory section, before delving into the real matter at hand.
Contraband camps were large encampments of former slaves who fled their owners during the Civil War to take refuge with the Union Army, and they were the first places in which Union soldiers typically encountered former bondpeople. As I began researching them, the United States prepared to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday in 2009, and shortly thereafter, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. In conjunction with those milestones, I received many invitations to give talks on emancipation and citizenship. On the face of it, those invitations fit perfectly into the book I set out to write, but I quickly discovered that emancipation and citizenship were two different things, and neither of them looked much like I expected. I realized that historians (including me) understood very little about the actual experience of emancipation, and even less about what immediately followed it, when the threat of re-enslavement remained very real, and the transition to freedom and citizenship was anything but certain. So I shifted my focus to understanding the passage out of slavery and into the unknown.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Troubled Refuge?
CM: In Civil War contraband camps, men, women, and children fleeing slavery allied with unlikely collaborators—the army and the U.S. government—and their alliance wrested freedom from the hands of people committed to using violence to deny it, helped to destroy slavery, warded off the persistent danger of re-enslavement, redefined what citizenship meant, and extended eligibility for citizenship to African Americans on the basis of freedpeople’s contributions to Union victory not just as soldiers, but also as nurses, laundresses, spies, and laborers of all sorts in contraband camps. At the same time, the alliance raised humanitarian questions about refugees in wartime and unsettling conflicts between civil and military authority with which we still wrestle, and it reshaped hard structures of power in ways that mattered not just for slaves-turned-citizens, but for all Americans, to the benefit as well as the lasting cost of African-Americans.
JF: Why do we need to read Troubled Refuge?
CM: One reason is to come closer to an understanding and appreciation of the experience of leaving slavery and making a bid for freedom. The first section of the book focuses on what it was like to exit slavery, and how emancipation actually happened. It also (I hope) restores the fragility and contingency of emancipation: far from being doomed as soon as slaves decided to depart masters, the institution of slavery and its supporters fought back violently, and the threat of re-enslavement remained acute for a very long time. What finally made the difference in the daily war between former slaves and the property owners who claimed to own them was that the United States government, which had sided with slaveholders in that daily conflict before 1861, switched sides.
Another reason was not in my mind at all when I started, but became inescapable as refugee crises proliferated around the world during the writing of the book, and especially once I finished it and awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis made it to daily newspapers. Troubled Refuge understands contraband camps as refugee camps, and in so doing, excavates 19th-century stirrings of humanitarian notions of the rights of the dispossessed, notions that most of the literature treats as originating later in World War I. The parallels between today’s refugee camps and contraband camps are so striking that they should emphatically prevent us from feeling superior to people in the past, since our world does not address the needs of the fleeing all that much better than 150 years ago.
The book also has quite a bit to say about the definition of citizenship. It highlights a continuing, though imperfect, federal commitment to former slaves at the end of 1865, underscores the importance of the 14th Amendment in securing the 13th Amendment, and reveals key roles played by formerly enslaved women and children (as well as men) in redefining citizenship in the United States. But it also reveals that the new definition of citizenship hammered out in contraband camps had already evolved into something a bit different by the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868. That evolution underscores the crucial point that defining citizenship is not a “once and for all” kind of task, but rather an ongoing process in which all of us bear some responsibility. Once again, news headlines from places like Ferguson, Missouri, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and many others make the urgency of that responsibility all the more plain.
Finally, the book is (among other things) an extended meditation on the tension between structure—forces too large for individual people or even groups to control—and agency, or how individuals act on and within those forces, often redirecting them in crucial ways, but never able to shape them entirely to human will. Troubled Refuge offers readers an invitation to reflect upon the meaning of freedom and the hard limits that power and violence impose on it, as well as the necessity of holding success and failure in one hand at the same time.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CM: The first draw was Little House on the Prairie. I began to read the book series between kindergarten and first grade, which drew me into the 19th century. Meanwhile, I was exceptionally close to my grandmother, who first of all taught me to read when I was two, and second of all had a fascination with the Civil War, so anything she was interested in, I was interested in, too. As a result, I read anything I could find about the Civil War. As a Navy kid, I grew up and went to school in several different parts of the country; it so happened that I attended first grade in Jacksonville, Florida, where we sang Dixie after the pledge to the flag in the morning. Pictures of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were on the wall. Later I became fascinated with Harriet Tubman, and that interest stayed with me. But it was not until much, much later that it occurred to me that serious study of the Civil War as an adult was a possibility, and once it did what drew me in was the wealth of sources from ordinary people, since the war separated so many family members from each other and left letter-writing as the way for them to share their thoughts, experiences, ideas, and hopes. Those letters allow us to enter the world of people in the past, which appealed to me. Once in that world, many other types of sources started beckoning, and offered other ways in, all of which is to say, at first sources drew me. Why I stayed in the field has to do with not just the 19th century, but what I think is important about teaching and learning history generally, namely that studying history inculcates empathy and humbleness. It fosters empathy because to study history well requires a willingness to set oneself aside and see the world from perspectives of people entirely different from oneself. It cultivates humbleness because study of the past demonstrates that we are neither the first people to face problems, nor necessarily the most skillful at resolving them.
JF: What is your next project?
CM: I am not sure. Troubled Refuge was a very difficult book to write on many levels, and it drained me dry. It will take awhile for the well to refill, especially because there are some either things that need my presence and attention right now. What comes next could be completely different.
JF: Thanks, Chandra!
Some of you may recall that in the Fall 2015 I taught an online graduate course on Colonial North America through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. I was invited to teach the course by Lance Warren and had the privilege of working closely during the filming of the course with Lance and his spouse Hannah Ayers.
Since then Lance and Hannah have left Gilder Lehrman to pursue their passion for documentary film work. They are in the final stages of a project on lynching in America. Lance and Hannah spent most of the summer traveling thousands of miles conducting interviews with historians and activists and talking with descendants of people who had been lynched in the Deep South.
A few hours ago Lance and Hannah released the first minute of the film. Here it is:
“An Outrage” will premiere in early 2017. Stay tuned.
With her stunning and surprise co-victory in the 100 freestyle last night (take THAT, Australia!) Simone Manuel became the first African-American female swimmer to win an individual Olympic gold medal.
After watching Manuel swim my mind eventually went back to a piece I heard on National Public Radio in 2008 about the history of segregated swimming pools in the United States. I did a quick Google search and found Rachel Martin’s interview with Jeff Wiltse, a history professor at the University of Montana and author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.
Here is a taste of that interview:
MARTIN: So, Jeff, you wrote that, in the late 19th century and early 20th, municipal pools, city pools, weren’t built, just weren’t built in African-American neighborhoods in the same way, or at the same rate that they were in other neighborhoods. Then things seemed to shift in the ’20s and ’30s. Pools were segregated, but separate-but-equal wasn’t really equal. Right? Talk about how those pools varied. What were the differences?
Dr. WILTSE: OK, well, first let me address what you brought up initially, which is that, during the late 19th and early 20th century, cities throughout the northern United States built lots of pools in poor, immigrant, working-class-white neighborhoods, but conspicuously avoided building pools in neighborhoods inhabited predominately by black Americans.
And then in the 1920s and 1930s, there was a pool-building spree in the United States. And there were thousands, literally thousands and thousands of pools that were opened up in the 1920s and 1930s, and many of them were large, leisure-resort pools. They were – some of them – larger than football fields. They were surrounded by grassy lawns, and concrete sundecks, and they attracted literally millions and millions of swimmers.
And yet, it was at that point in time that cities began to racially segregate pools throughout the north, and it then extended, obviously, all throughout the United States. And black Americans were typically relegated, if a pool was provided at all, to a small indoor pool that wasn’t nearly as appealing as the large, outdoor resort pools that were provided for whites.
And so, take the city of St. Louis. In St. Louis, black Americans represented 15 percent of the population in the mid-1930s. But they only took one-and-a-half percent of the number of swims because they were only allocated one small indoor pool, whereas white residents of St. Louis had access to nine pools. Two of them were the large resort pools that I’ve been describing.
MARTIN: Hm. And you have written about some specific instances where there was some real violence surrounding these swimming pools, when black people would try to access these white pools. Can you tell us about some of those incidents, specifically in Highland Park?
Dr. WILTSE: Yeah, sure. So, there were two ways in which communities racially-segregated pools at the time. One was through official segregation, and so police officers and city officials would prevent black Americans from entering pools that had been earmarked for whites. The other way of segregating pools was through violence.
And so, a city like Pittsburgh, it did not pass an official policy of racial segregation at its pools. But rather, the police and the city officials allowed, and in some cases encouraged, white swimmers to literally beat black swimmers out of the water, as a means of segregating pools, as a means of intimidating them from trying to access pools. And so there was an instance, well, there was a series of instances over two summers in Highland Park pool, when it was first opened in 1931…
Read the entire interview here.
“Negro family going to church,” Ellis County, TX, June 1937. Source
Check out this piece in the New York Times by “presidential historian” Michael Beschloss on Jackie Robinson’s political support of Richard Nixon in the election of 1960. Robinson also campaigned for moderate Republican Nelson Rockefeller in 1964, but could not bring himself to support Barry Goldwater, the eventual GOP nominee. In 1968, he voted for Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey because Nixon courted the support of segregationist Strom Thurmond.
Here is a taste of Beschloss’s piece:
In 1960, Robinson endorsed Nixon for president, declaring that the civil rights commitment of Nixon’s Democratic rival, John F. Kennedy, was “insincere.” In those times, an African-American Republican was by no means unusual. About 39 percent of black voters had supported the re-election of President Dwight Eisenhower and his vice president.
Jackie withstood intense pressure — including from his wife, Rachel — to follow King’s father in switching from Nixon to Kennedy; he later wrote that his decision had “something to do with stubbornness.” As a result, a ballplayer who had withstood death threats in 1947 to break the major leagues’ color barrier was denounced as a “sellout” and “Uncle Tom.” That November, Nixon won only a third of the African-American vote, a crucial factor in his hairbreadth defeat.
Good news: The U.S. will now have the highest number of African American senators in history.
Bad News. That number is 2 (out of 100).
Read all about it at The Christian Century blog.
In case you had not heard, earlier this week an African American woman took a bucket of yellow paint and threw it on the Shaw Memorial in Boston. Some of you may recall Col. Robert Gould Shaw as the commander of the 54 Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the focus of the movie Glory.
Kevin Levin, writing for The Atlantic, reflects on the incident and the representation of black soldiers in the Civil War. Here is a taste:
So, why would a black woman choose to deface this monument, and what exactly does she find so objectionable about how it interprets or memorializes the service of black Civil War soldiers? It is likely that we will never know, given reports concerning her mental health. But we do know that her act provoked a particular brand of outrage in Boston and elsewhere. The Shaw Memorial is unlike any other Civil War monument. In many ways, the stern and brave faces of Shaw and the men under his command, marching off to a battle that we know they will not survive, has become central to how many Americans now remember black Civil War soldiers and, more generally, the war itself.
It wasn’t always this way. For much of the 20th century, the Shaw Memorial was left in disrepair. It was only after the busing crisis of the 1970s that city leaders restored it as a symbol of racial healing. Its restoration also reflected changes in our scholarly understanding of the roles of blacks in the Civil War. In comparison to other monuments such as Thomas Ball’s Freedmen’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Shaw Memorial depicted black soldiers as men who played an active role in pushing the boundaries of race and citizenship. The strong feelings that many of us feel in the wake of this event reflect our embrace of this particular narrative.
At the same time, we would do well to remember that monuments are never static sites. They are, by definition, selective representations of the past, and they are influenced by those individuals and organizations responsible for their construction and dedication. In a recent post on this website, I argued that even the Shaw Memorial and the movie that has shaped our view of it offer the public a partial interpretation of the history of this famous regiment. What they leave out, downplay, or ignore entirely might possibly be the difference between something to celebrate or condemn, regardless of race.
This blog post by Matthew Cressler is getting a lot of attention by the American religious history-types on my Twitter feed and Facebook wall. Cressler is finishing a Ph.D in Religious Studies at Northwestern under the direction of Robert Orsi and writing about African American Catholics in Chicago.
His dissertation work has led to some very insightful observations about the current generation of scholars working in African American Religious Studies. This generation is challenging three “persistent theses” about African American religion:
1. That black people are naturally religious, or at least more religious than other Americans.
2. That black religiosity is emotional and “politically liberationist.”
3. That if a black people are not religious in an emotional and politically liberating way, then they are “racially suspect.”
The members of this so-called “next generation” include scholars such as Curtis Evans, Barbara Dianne Savage, Danielle Brune Sigler, Sylvester Johnson, and Kathryn Lofton.
For those of us who do not work in African American history, Cressler’s piece is a very helpful overview. It will certainly aid me in my teaching.
Check out this great post at Northwest History (republished from 2008 in memory of Andy Griffith) in which Larry Cebula learns that there were, indeed, black people in Mayberry.
The Andy Griffith Show ran from 1960 to 1968, at the very height of the Civil Rights movement. For millions of white Americans part of the appeal of the show was its nostalgic portrayal of an idyllic South, one without bus boycotts or sit-ins or indeed any black people at all.
How did I find this? Well, today Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory posted a little clip from The Andy Griffin Show in which it is revealed that no one in the town of Mayberry seems to know what the Emancipation Proclamation might be. Well why should they, I thought, there were no blacks in Mayberry. Suddenly it occurred to me how strange it was that the most popular TV series ever set in the American south didn’t have any black people. Or did it?
I Googled up this defensive fan FAQ: “There are MANY towns in the south without black people. Also, you are wrong that there were no blacks in Mayberry. If you watch the people in the background, you’ll see several black townspeople walking down the sidewalk and being a part of town.”
While you are at it, head over to the African-Americans in Mayberry website.
Whatever you think about Cornel West, I want to recommend Lisa Miller’s excellent article on him and his move to Union at New York Magazine. Miller explores West’s childhood, his relationship with Barack Obama and Tavis Smiley, his inner demons, and the course of his career as a public intellectual. In an age of blogs and websites you don’t often get to see this kind of long-form journalism anymore. I found the article fascinating. Here is a taste:
West talks a lot about love, but he doesn’t have many close friends. Rabbi Michael Lerner, the founder of Tikkun magazine, worked with West on a book in 1995. “Cornel is a very lonely person,” he told Rolling Stone magazine several years ago. “For a long time, I thought I was his best friend … But he had probably about 1,000 best friends. He was best friends with everybody. That made him more isolated.” West’s inner circle consists of three people: his mother, Irene, who is 80 (his father is deceased); his older brother, Clifton; and the media entrepreneur Tavis Smiley, who is also his business manager and de facto publicist. Smiley talks to West almost every day; he publishes his books; he keeps in close touch with West’s mother. When West wore out his shoes on a trip to New Orleans, Smiley bought him a new pair of Cole Haans. “He is the older brother I never had, and I am the younger brother he never had,” says Smiley. “There is nothing I enjoy more than sitting at his feet, listening, and laughing on him because I love him so deeply.”
The friendship with Smiley has exponentially increased West’s visibility. West has always done more than 100 lectures a year and has long been a regular on cable news and Bill Maher’s show. Now he co-hosts a weekly public-radio show with Smiley, and over the past month the two men have been touring the country promoting their new book, The Rich and the Rest of Us, which they call a “poverty manifesto.” With Smiley’s help, West is flogging the book through his 350,000 Twitter followers. West, a technophobe, “doesn’t punch the button,” Smiley told me. “He quotes his tweets” to a graduate student Smiley knows at the University of Southern California, who posts them on the live feed. “But Doc says push the send button more than I do.”
People who have known West for decades believe the alliance with Smiley plays to West’s greatest flaw: his hunger for adulation. (In interviews, more than one person compared West to a precocious child, clamoring to be seen. “Look at me! Look at me!”) These friends hope the move to Union will help him get back to the purity of purpose that marked earlier phases of his career. West “needs to be part of a community, not part of a couple,” says one. “You can’t separate [Smiley and West]. There’s no public separation where one begins and one ends.”
So argues Harriett Beecher Stowe scholar David Reynolds in today’s New York Times. Much of our false perceptions about the character of Uncle Tom in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin have come from late 19th century stage productions of the novels. Reynolds writes:
The first dramatization of the novel appeared in 1852, the year it was published, and countless others followed. By the 1890s, there were hundreds of acting troupes — so-called Tommers — that fanned out across North America, putting on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in every town, hamlet and city. Some troupes even toured internationally, performing as far away as Australia and India.
The play, seen by more people than read the book, remained popular up to the 1950s and still appears occasionally, including a staging last fall at the Metropolitan Playhouse in New York.
But as the story moved from the book to the stage, Stowe’s revolutionary themes were drowned in sentimentality and spectacle. Eva’s death was frequently a syrupy scene in which the actress was hauled heavenward by rope or piano wire against a backdrop of angels and billowing clouds.
Uncle Tom, meanwhile, was often presented as a stooped, obedient old fool, the model image of a submissive black man preferred by post-Reconstruction, pre-civil rights America.
It was this Uncle Tom, weakened both physically and spiritually, who became a synonym for a racial sellout by the mid-20th century. Black musicians, sports figures, even establishment civil rights leaders were all tarred with the “Uncle Tom” label, often by younger, more radical activists, as a way of demeaning them in the eyes of the African-American community.
But it doesn’t have to be that way; Uncle Tom should once again be a positive symbol for African-American progress.
After all, many people who over the years were derided as Uncle Toms — Jackie Robinson, Louis Armstrong and Willie Mays, to name a few — are now seen as brave racial pioneers.
Indeed, during the civil rights era it was those who most closely resembled Uncle Tom — Stowe’s Tom, not the sheepish one of popular myth — who proved most effective in promoting progress.
Rosa Parks didn’t mind the Uncle Tom label, since she believed that great change could result from nonviolent moral protest. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., though often called an Uncle Tom, also stuck to principled nonviolence.
Their form of protest was just as active as Tom’s, and just as strong. Both Stowe and Tom deserve our reconsideration — and our respect.
David Graham, writing at The Daily Beast, has an informative piece about efforts, led by Jesse Jackson Jr., to “sell” the sesquicentennial of the Civil War to African-Americans.
Here is a taste:
Historians, educators, and politicians worry that many blacks don’t know and don’t care much about the Civil War—even though it’s the pivotal moment in African-American history. So with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War beginning this spring, they’re pushing for ways to make sure the black community is invested in commemorating the war, including a new emphasis on the role of slavery as the primary cause of the war—pushing back Confederate apologists who insist the war was fought over states’ rights.
“I’m for an interpretation of the war that includes more Americans,” says Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who’s been a major driving force of the changes. “The federal government, which draws its strength from having saved the union, is under an obligation to tell a broader story at the battle sites that it has preserved, and that includes an interpretation of American history where people can better understand the causes and effects of the war.”
But it’s a difficult battle, facing obstacles from lack of funding, political opposition, and apathy in the black community. Black indifference to the war is partly a legacy of botched commemorations of the war’s centennial 50 years ago, experts say.
With civil-rights battles raging across the South, the federal commission and its state counterparts stuck to discussing bullets, bombs, and battlefields, leaving the thorny question of “why” unanswered. “In a way, the civil-rights movement eclipsed the centennial and was seen by many people as being more relevant than observation and commemoration of military battles,” recalls James McPherson, an eminent Civil War historian at Princeton. “There was an idea that this war was about something that wasn’t really talked about.”
Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Gettysburg College historian and award-winning author Allen Guelzo sheds some historical light on the relationship between Blacks and the Democratic Party. Here is a taste:
In June, a Charleston businessman named Tim Scott won the Republican nomination for South Carolina’s First Congressional District, defeating Paul Thurmond, the son of state political legend Strom Thurmond, with nearly 70 percent of the primary vote.
And Tim Scott is black.
Even more surprising, Mr. Scott’s platform is a repudiation of Barack Obama’s agenda. He promises to support a repeal of the health-care law, simplify the tax code, and cut federal spending. Overall, the GOP has fielded more than 30 African-American candidates for federal office, including Ryan Frazier in Colorado’s Seventh Congressional District and Vernon Parker in Arizona’s Third Congressional District…
With black unemployment at 15.6 percent, African-Americans are questioning what Democrats have done for them. What’s more, this year’s black Republican candidates were far from being upper-middle-class racial mascots. Scott grew up in a poor Charleston neighborhood with a divorced mother who worked double shifts as a nurse’s assistant. Vernon Parker (who lost his August primary) was born to a single mother in Houston, and grew up in California with his grandmother, a housekeeper.
Still, black Republicans will have to face four decades of skepticism about GOP bona fides on race, not to mention the opposition of a Democratic party with the first African-American president as its head. But the most important question they’ll face from black voters will be the one they’ve posed themselves to Barack Obama and his party: “What have you done for us lately?” Only if the new black Republicans can answer that question will the pendulum of black political loyalties fully swing.
Charles Blow started yesterday’s column with a couple of paragraphs that really caught my attention:
Which political party’s members are most likely to believe that Jesus will definitely return to earth before midcentury? The Republicans, right? Wrong. The Democrats.
This was revealed by a report issued last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
According to Blow, and he seems to be right, this trend can easily be explained by the fact that African-Americans and Hispanics are very religious. They also vote Democrat.
On the one hand, unlike John Kerry before him, Barack Obama made a strong play for the religious vote on his march to the White House. It worked so well that it’s likely to continue, if not intensify, among Democratic candidates. On the other hand, the religious left is not the religious right. The left isn’t as organized or assertive. For the most part, it seems to have made its peace with the mishmash of morality under the Democratic umbrella, rallying instead around some core Democratic tenets: protection of, and equality for, the disenfranchised and providing greater opportunity and assistance for the poor.
The unanswerable questions are whether these highly religious, socially conservative Democrats will remain loyal to a liberal agenda as they become the majority of the party and their financial and social standing improves. Or whether Republicans will finally make headway in recruiting them. The future only knows.
Then again, the world as we know it may not have much of a future if, as these Democrats believe, a deity will soon descend from the sky.