The Author’s Corner with John Marks

John Marks is Historian and Public History Administrator for the American Association for State and Local History. This interview is based on his new book, Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery: Race, Status, and Identity in the Urban Americas (University of South Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: The idea for this project began developing for me in graduate school. In reading widely about the history of race and slavery in the Atlantic World, I began to recognize patterns in the lived experiences of African-descended people in urban spaces that often went unmentioned. Historians of the United States almost never talked about parallels with Latin American society; Latin Americanists, for their part, often referenced older, or more abstract, examples from US histories when drawing broad comparisons. A deep engagement with current scholarship for both regions, however, revealed parallels I just couldn’t ignore: namely, the opportunity for free people of color living in cities before the end of slavery to carve out spaces of autonomy for themselves, claim a degree of distinction within their communities, and conduct themselves in ways that defied white expectation—and often the law. Recognizing major differences in law, culture, and attitudes towards racial difference across the Americas, I wanted to understand with greater precision the ways African-descended people navigated daily life in these places. As I began researching, I recognized as well that explicitly comparative history in some ways represented an unfulfilled promise of the turn to the “Atlantic World” as a perspective for analyzing the history of the United States and other American societies. Few scholars had conducted the kind of careful social history research in service of a transnational and comparative project I thought was necessary to really understand local dynamics. Once I realized such an approach could make a unique contribution to our understanding of race and slavery, there was no turning back.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: Throughout the urban Americas before the end of slavery, free people of color relentlessly pursued opportunities to improve their circumstances and provide for their families, staking claims to rights, privileges, and distinctions not typically granted to African-descended people. These efforts represented part of an international struggle for Black freedom, as free Black residents in Charleston, Cartagena, and beyond subtly challenged ideologies of white racial supremacy that linked the Americas together and undermined the foundations of white authority in the Atlantic World.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: 2020 has revealed for many Americans, especially white Americans, the degree to which racial injustice and inequality are still pervasive and pernicious features of our society. In order to fully understand the persistence of both individual racial prejudice and systemic racism, we need to understand the history of how race has operated and affected the lives of African-descended people. To fully understand that story, we need to at times look at the history of race and slavery from an international perspective.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, free people of African descent in the United States, Colombia, and throughout the Americas had to confront broadly shared notions of white supremacy among the country’s ruling classes in order to advance efforts to provide for themselves, their loved ones, and their communities. Today, anti-Black racism and a wide range of persistent racial inequalities are pervasive from Canada to Chile and everywhere in between. When demonstrations against systemic racism and police violence erupted this summer, they extended to places like Puerto Rico, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia, in addition to across the United States. These international demonstrations were not just in solidarity with the US, they were protests against the particular, local histories of white supremacist violence and injustice.

Linking the histories of race and slavery in these places, exploring how and when racial dynamics were the same and different, offers new perspective on the histories of the United States, Latin America, and the Atlantic World, and I hope offers some insight into how we should understand efforts to combat white supremacy in the present.

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

JM: High school was the first time I really recognized that I had an uncommon interest in (and knack for) reading and writing about the past, but it wasn’t until college that I realized it could be a career. As an undergrad at Lynchburg College (now University of Lynchburg), I had the opportunity to pursue several locally-focused research projects, and I grew to enjoy the archive, the search for material, and the process of putting a puzzle together when you’re not really sure if you have all the pieces. As a New Jersey native researching race and slavery in Virginia, I also became keenly aware of regional differences in present-day racial dynamics, and I wanted to know more about how understandings of race developed over time. Moving forward through graduate school and now a career in public history, the way I think about what it means to be an American historian has certainly changed. But I’m as committed as ever to using research, writing, and engagement with the public to better understand the past and think through how it can help us solve problems in the present.

JF: What is your next project?

JM: I’ve got a couple things kicking around that I hope to be able to say more about soon. In both my scholarship and my day job (for the American Association for State and Local History), I’ve been thinking a lot about anniversaries and how historians can use them as opportunities to expand, challenge, and learn from the public’s understandings of history. 2022 will mark the 200th anniversary of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy in Charleston, and 2026 represents the 250th anniversary of the United States. I know planning is underway already for both commemorations, so I’m interested in using those events to think in new ways about the history of race, slavery, and freedom—whether for books, articles, public history projects, or other endeavors.

JF: Thanks, John!

The Author’s Corner with David Kirkpatrick

KirkpatrickDavid C. Kirkpatrick is Assistant Professor of Religion at James Madison University.  This interview is based on his new book A Gospel for the Poor: Global Social Christianity and the Latin American Evangelical Left (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write A Gospel for the Poor?

DK: Writing this book was an exciting journey that took me to five countries and allowed me to interview fascinating characters around the world. I was especially motivated to bring the voices of marginalized yet deeply influential Christians into established and ongoing conversations. As I started the project, I began to uncover ways in which the influence of Latin Americans had been hidden or excluded, including through translation and adoption by American leaders. As a Spanish speaker myself, I was also motivated to translate Spanish materials for an English-speaking audience and to narrate the ways in which these leaders navigated their bilingual world. At times, progressive Latin American evangelicals used their bilingualism to their advantage, saying one thing in English and another in Spanish. This type of historical recovery motivated me throughout the project. But more importantly, I think their story was worth telling: A Cold War generation of Latin Americans who demanded a place at the table of global evangelical leadership, seeking to strip Christianity of its white, middle-class, American packaging. Within a fraught and contested space, they sought to construct a gospel for the poor.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Gospel for the Poor.

DK: In A Gospel for the Poor, I argue that the intellectual scaffolding of the Evangelical Left was built not in the American public square but in Cold War Latin America. In this context, transnational conversations provoked the rise of progressive evangelical politics, the explosion of Christian humanitarian organizations, and the infusion of social justice into the very mission of evangelicals around the world and across a broad spectrum of denominations.

JF: Why do we need to read A Gospel for the Poor?

DK: A Gospel for the Poorfuses the worlds of Pope Francis and Billy Graham. Many of the main characters in the book are familiar to readers—Graham, John Stott, Carl F. H. Henry, Stacey Woods (founder of InterVarsity-USA), Gustavo Gutiérrez, and others. This story not only recasts well-known Christian leaders but also argues for the importance and inclusion of lesser-known activists such as René Padilla, Orlando Costas, and Samuel Escobar. In order to do so, I utilized a far-flung set of archival materials mostly outside the United States—dusty boxes in René Padilla’s Buenos Aires garage, binders in Samuel Escobar’s apartment in Valencia, Spain, John Stott’s travel diary at Lambeth Palace library in London, long-thought-lost meeting minutes from Seminario Bíblico in San José, Costa Rica, papers of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students in Oxford, and, of course, the collections at Wheaton College to name a few. Alongside bilingual interviews, this subaltern dataset flavors the narrative and reframes key events and leaders.

A Gospel for the Poor seeks to answer key questions about progressive Christianity such as, why did many evangelicals in the North greet these ideas as family rather than foein contrast to their reaction to the so-called Social Gospel of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Thus, we turn not to centers of power but to a revolutionary Latin American university environment, examining a cluster of political and social forces reshaping the post-war Americas:  rural-urban migration flows, the resulting complications of urbanization, and the rapid expansion of the universities, where Marxist ideas of revolutionary change presented a growing appeal to students around the world. In turn, this produced a renaissance of social Christianities in the U.S. and buttressed an increasingly interventionist evangelical foreign policy, as well.

For the Evangelical Left, they required theological justification for their political action and when searching for words to describe a gospel for the poor, key members turned to the Global South and language that was forged within the Cold War. In the words of Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren, the Latin American Evangelical Left provided a “different theological ecosystem.”

Ultimately, A Gospel for the Poor contributes to an exciting ongoing conversation on evangelical internationalism and social Christianity. In this story, progressive Latin Americans became trailblazers, playing the role of controversial truthtellers and prophets, bringing to bear the reality of the Majority World into the consciousness of powerbrokers in the North. The role of progressive Latin Americans as a bridge between younger, emerging evangelical leadership in the Global South and the evangelical establishment was crucial to the task of challenging loyalties. In fact, it is fair to say that one cannot understand the contextual turn of global evangelicalism in the postwar period without understanding their role within it.

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

DKMy path to becoming an historian of World Christianity was rather circuitous. I have long been fascinated by the relationship between the United States and Latin America, with all their crucial intersections whether migration, religion, or politics. In college, I studied Spanish and lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, between my sophomore and junior years. Through many journeys prior and since, I fell in love with Latin American culture and history. In conversations and research, the shadow of the United States was ever-present. In grad school, I fell in love with archival research and interviewing—a love relationship that still motivates my work. But perhaps more than anything, two mentors shaped my journey as an historian—Doug Sweeney at TEDS and Brian Stanley at Edinburgh. They took me under their wing and, through hundreds of hours of mentorship, taught me how to think, research, and write. To me, they are also tremendous examples of Christian voices in our contentious contemporary world. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

JF: What is your next project?

DK: I have two current book projects that are well under way, both surrounding the issue of global religious violence. I am co-editing a collection of essays with Jason Bruner provisionally titled A Global Vision of Violence: Persecution, Media, and Martyrdom in World Christianity. We have a tremendous lineup of scholars with diverse perspectives. My second monograph is titled Blood and Borders: Violence and the Origins of the “Global War on Christians.” Blood and Borders situates American evangelicalism within in a transnational frame and foreground religious violence against Protestants in Latin America. It provides a fresh take on how American evangelicals view themselves, their neighbors, and their place in the world—a world that declared war on their perceived global family.

DK: Thanks, David!

Does Nativism Still Exist Among U.S. Catholics?


Catholic University historian Julia G. Young believes that it does.  Here is a taste of her piece “‘We Were Different‘”:

A few years ago, I taught an undergraduate course on migration at the Catholic University of America. During one lecture, I compared nineteenth-century Italian migration and contemporary Mexican migration to the United States. A hand shot up, and a student—one of several with an Italian surname—objected. “They’re not the same,” he protested. “My great-grandmother came here legally, and learned English—Mexicans don’t do that.”

As a historian who studies Mexican immigration to the United States, I’m used to hearing statements like this. Concerns about new immigrants’ legal status and failure to assimilate are widespread, and nativism has re-emerged in recent decades. Still, I wondered why this proud young Italian-American Catholic was so unwilling to compare his ancestors to the Mexican Catholic immigrants of today. Why did he not feel a sense of sympathy and solidarity for contemporary immigrants, who share so much with the great waves of Irish, Italians, Poles, and other immigrants of the late nineteenth century?

At the time, I didn’t quite grasp how many U.S. Catholics feel the widespread American discontent over immigration. After all, the Catholic hierarchy is vocally pro-immigrant, and the U.S. Catholic population is entirely composed of immigrants and descendants of immigrants. Catholics have a proud tradition of social justice, and numerous Catholic organizations have done immensely valuable work to protect immigrants. Nevertheless, in our new Trumpian era of border walls and travel bans, it has become more apparent to me (and others, such as Paul Moses in a recent piece for Commonweal, “White Catholics & Nativism,” September 1, 2017) that white Catholics have a nativism problem of their own.

Given the history of Catholic immigration to the United States, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Catholic nativism toward other Catholic immigrants is a recurring sentiment that dates to at least the second half of the nineteenth century, when the influx of Catholics changed the religious landscape of the United States. From then until today, Irish, Italian, Polish, Mexican, and other Catholics have fought over power, identity, religious practice, and shared spaces.

Read the entire piece at Commonweal.

Episode 20: La Vida Baseball

podcast-icon1It’s that time of year again—Opening Day. Once again, host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling make their way to the ballpark and get ready to discuss Americas’1 pastime. This time around, they tackle race and ethnicity in baseball while also discussing this year’s prospects for their favorite teams. They are joined by University of Illinois historian and La Vida Baseball (@lavidabaseball) editor-in-chief Adrian Burgos, Jr. (@adburgosjr).

1No, that is not a typo. For an explanation, listen to the episode!

Brazil’s Statue of Liberty?


This is how American religious historian Thomas Tweed describes “Christ the Redeemer,” the statue of Jesus that looks down over Rio. Tweed’s reference to the statue as Brazil’s “Statue of Liberty” is from Michelle Boorstein’s recent Washington Post piece, “The Many Meanings of Rio’s Massive Christ Statue.”

Here is a taste:

Christ the Redeemer” — or “Cristo Redentor” — rises almost a half-mile into the Rio sky, and is perhaps the most recognizable Christian image in Latin America.

Yet Cristo’s meaning to Brazilians varies. Some see it as a tribute to Catholicism while others consider it a salvo against secularism. Still others in the rapidly diversifying country consider it a general symbol of welcome, with arms open wide. One of its original creators called it a “monument to science, art and religion.”

Cristo is an iconic image of Brazil. It is “reproduced everywhere,” read a 2014 BBC feature, “in graffiti art, sand sculptures on Copacabana beach — and even on skin.” During Carnival, there is a street party called Christ’s Armpit, or ‘Suvaco do Cristo,” that weaves its way at the base of the mountain, called Corcovado.

Thomas Tweed, a history professor and Latino Studies Institute fellow at the University of Notre Dame, compared Cristo to the Statue of Liberty — national iconic images that can’t help but stir debate about what, specifically, they say.

“The statue looms large on the landscape, but it hides as much as it reveals about the diverse religious life of Brazilians,” Tweed said Monday.

When the project began in the 1920s, Brazil was almost entirely Catholic. It made perfect sense for the most ambitious public art project to be funded through the Catholic Church. Until as late as 1970, 92 percent of Brazilians identified as Catholic, according to a Pew Research poll.

But today, Tweed noted, Brazil is “a remarkably diverse religious world.” A quarter of the country is Protestant — mostly evangelical — 10 percent more are unaffiliated, and there is a great deal of blending of faiths and beliefs.

According to the BBC, the original idea for a monument to Christ came from a group of Brazilians who, “in the wake of World War I, feared an advancing tide of Godlessness. Church and state had been separated when Brazil became a republic at the end of the previous century, and they saw the statue as a way of reclaiming Rio — then Brazil’s capital city — for Christianity.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner With Caitlin Fitz

FitzCaitlin Fitz is Assistant Professor, Department of History, Northwestern University.  This interview is based on her new book, Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions (Liverlight/W.W. Norton, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Our Sister Republics?

CF: The summer before my senior year of college, I was holed up in a dark corner of the Tennessee State Library and Archives, shivering from the air conditioning and dizzy from the microfilm reader.   I had stumbled into a last-minute summer job as a research assistant for a biographer of the celebrated lawyer Felix Grundy, and it had been a slow day reeling through the early nineteenth century newspapers: no big finds, no surprises, mostly just the usual articles on horse races and land sales.  Maybe it was the musty books I had read on “frontier” life in Tennessee, or maybe it was the rudimentary appearance of the newspapers—the long “s,” the simple four-column layout, the uniformity of the fonts—but for whatever reason, my mental image of early Tennessee featured tobacco-spitting, whiskey-swilling, gun-toting rustics, a pugnacious assembly of David Crocketts and their hardscrabble wives.  I had learned from the papers that these people read about Europe, and about other parts of the United States.  But mostly I assumed that they were consumed with their own local affairs: felling trees, fighting Indians, trading slaves, counting votes, planting tobacco.

I still remember when a new headline finally jolted me to attention: an article on “the Brazils.”  Another followed, and then another.  Soon I was seeing articles on “Caraccas,” “Buenos Ayres,” and “Carthagena.”  I couldn’t explain it.  These people had a taxing, hazardous journey just to get to New Orleans and Natchez, not to mention the pulsing ports of the East.  I could understand their interest in neighboring Mexico.  But South America?  It seemed so exotic.  Maybe these people were less insular than I had assumed.

Still, I was researching Felix Grundy, and Grundy didn’t appear in the South American news reports.  I moved on, but the discovery lingered in my memory.  When I got to graduate school several years later—having just returned, in fact, from a year in Brazil—it resurfaced, and I slowly realized there was a bigger story to tell about early U.S. relations with Latin America.  Those cosmopolitan Tennessee clodhoppers were just the beginning.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Our Sister Republics?

CF: In the 1810s and early 1820s, the United States teemed with grassroots excitement for Latin American independence, despite well-known racial and religious differences.  Our Sister Republics brings that inter-American ardor to life, showing how the early United States took shape in an age of hemisphere-wide, American revolutions and why that matters.

JF: Why do we need to read Our Sister Republics?

CF: Some of the most exciting recent work on the early United States has illuminated the young republic’s connections to Europe and, increasingly, the Caribbean.  But that North Atlantic focus has simultaneously overshadowed a rich and complementary history of interaction between North and South America.  By the United States’ fiftieth anniversary in 1826, most of the Western Hemisphere was politically independent from Europe, and most of the new nations were republics.  Looking below the equator rather than across the Atlantic, Our Sister Republics shows how Latin America’s independence wars shaped U.S. nationalism and distilled popular U.S. thinking about race, equality, revolution, and republicanism.

There were many surprises for me along the way.  First, I was surprised that people in the United States followed events in South America so closely—that ordinary farmers, for example, named their firstborn sons after Spanish-speaking generals, and that July Fourth patriots routinely toasted Latin America.  Second, given what we know about white U.S. audiences’ widespread contempt for Haiti, I was astonished that the popular excitement for republicanism’s spread in Spanish America usually overshadowed concerns about the insurgents’ Catholicism and about their antislavery sympathies; white people’s sanguine optimism about Spanish American independence suggests that plain folk throughout the nation were more receptive to the abstract ideals of equality and abolition than we often assume.  Third, if the standard story of U.S.-Latin American relations emphasizes conquest, aggression, and political puppetry, Our Sister Republics recalls a time when people in the United States hailed their southern neighbors as fellow American revolutionaries, and it shows how that earlier optimism arguably helped to fuel antebellum aggression.  Fourth, it complements more traditional diplomatic histories with a bottom-up view of how ordinary people understood (and sometimes influenced) foreign relations, from privateering and weapon trafficking to newspapers and the ballot box.  Fifth, it shows an important moment in the evolution of American exceptionalism.  By the United States’ fiftieth year—which coincided with the end of the inter-American revolutionary age—the United States was the only republic in the Western Hemisphere that endorsed slavery’s expansion.  That broader context helps explain how ideas about national superiority fused to ideas about white superiority with greater force and assurance, forming a stronger public rhetoric of white U.S. exceptionalism.

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

CFIn retrospect, I could tell a pleasantly linear story about how I was destined to be a historian.  By the middle of elementary school, I had devoured all of the historical fiction in my school’s little library: Johnny Tremain; Caddie Woodlawn; Sarah, Plain and Tall; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; the Little House books.  Around the same time, my indulging parents happened upon a set of Fisher-Price “Spellbinder” cassette tapes that narrated stories of the American Revolution, Gulliver’s Travels, Rip Van Winkle, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn.  Rip and Gulliver gave me nightmares, but I spent years falling asleep to the sound of Benjamin Franklin debating Lord North over imperial tax policy.

It sounds so predetermined that I’m a little embarrassed to write it down.  But it’s not as though I always planned to be a historian.  Does anyone?  In my central Pennsylvania high school, I imagined myself a future biologist, a public servant, a nonprofit maven.  Even when I decided to become a history major at the end of my freshman year of college—are you out there, Suzanne Marchand?  Your European history survey did me in!—I didn’t plan to make a career out of it.  If I had scored higher on my LSAT practice tests, I may well have defaulted to law school.  I finally realized how much I wanted to be a historian during my senior year, as I wrote a 150-page thesis on the Tennessee antislavery movement.  I loved every minute, and I still had more to say, more to find out.  I was hooked.

JF: What is your next project?

CFI’m working on a few things, including a biography of John Calhoun and his wife Floride Calhoun.  I’m also digging more deeply into the life of someone I discuss in Our Sister Republics: a pardo (or “mulatto”) revolutionary from northeastern Brazil named Emiliano Mundrucu.  Inspired by the Haitian Revolution, Mundrucu helped to lead an 1824 uprising against the independent Brazilian monarchy.  When that failed, he fled to Boston, where (after voyages to Haiti and Colombia) he became an important figure in Boston’s abolitionist community and waged an early battle to desegregate transportation.  Born the same year that the Haitian Revolution began, Mundrucu died just months after celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation alongside Boston’s leading black abolitionists, and his story sheds light on inter-American connections within African-American and abolitionist communities.

JF:  Thanks, Caitlin.  Great stuff!

Let’s Not Forget Pope Francis is a Latin American

Writing at The Anxious Bench blog, Gordon College history professor Agnes Howard offers a unique angle on Pope Francis’s visit to the United States.  She wants us to think harder about the Pope’s identity as a Latin American, his advocacy of Hispanic immigrants, and what it all means for how we move forward.

She writes:

First, American-history education should do due diligence to Spanish-colonial formation of many parts of the United States. Both in regions still distinctly marked by Spanish settlers’ experience (say, California) and those where traces are much fainter (Alabama), the period of Spanish presence should figure significantly in self-understanding. Part of the solution could be supplied by more robust instruction in state histories within U.S. history curricula. Another step toward getting our America right is the winsome approach of Felipe Fernández-Armesto, who demonstrates that Hispanic history is our American history.
Second, American kids should learn Latin American history, at least as a survey, at least for a year, because proximity, foreign policy, and culture make it useful to know.  Too many of us go about with woeful ignorance about our neighbors.
Third, the spectacle of non-Catholics cheering a new-world Pope should pique the curiosity of those unacquainted with the story of Catholicism and American freedom or insufficiently disgusted by the current of anti-Catholicism long in circulation here.  The influence of Catholicism is not only a nineteenth-century immigrant phenomenon but enters with the thirteen original colonies. That means you, Maryland, but also eighteenth-century Urusline sisters in Mobile and New Orleans, plus clusters of Catholics elsewhere in the colonies, often facing hostility.   Recent discoveries hint that there may even have been a Catholic presence in Jamestown.
Read her entire post here.

Francis, the Poor, Liberation Theology, and those "Calvinized" American Catholics

Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter has been offering some very helpful commentary in the midst of the whole papal conclave and choice of Jorge Maria Bergoglio as Pope Francis.  In this piece at The New Republic he discusses the challenges that Latin American bishops face in dealing with what the Church calls “the preferential option for the poor” and Bergoglio’s ultimate rejection of liberation theology. In the process, he takes some shots at the “Calvinized” nature of American Catholicism.

Here is a taste:

The Latin American bishops have spent the last fifty years wrestling with one dominant question: What does it mean to exercise a preferential option for the poor? In the U.S., Catholics live in an affluent society and have grown tone-deaf to the essential understanding of the Christian Scriptures: The Gospels are good news for the poor. The Catholic Church in America certainly provides many and varied social services to the poor, but the Church has only incidentally and sporadically questioned the roots of our market economy. In the U.S., even the Catholics have been “Calvinized” over the years. To the extent that religion plays a role in evaluating the economy it is as an add-on, encouraging people to give to charity once they make their millions.

In Latin America, where millions of Catholics go to bed hungry and live in slums, the cause of the poor is not only about providing social services. The Church in Latin America, for historical and cultural reasons, plays a great role is shaping society in foundational ways. The question of providing for the poor in Latin America, and throughout the global South, has been asked at a deeper level, intellectually and practically, than one finds in the affluent West.

Many Latin American theologians in the late 60s and 70s were attracted to “liberation theology,” which started with a Marxist-inspired analysis of social structures and tried to craft a Christian response. But, the liberation theologians strangely mimicked the neo-con capitalists they criticized, exercising an economic reductionism that equated the achievement of social progress with salvation. The neo-cons suggest the market will heal human ills, and the liberation theologians thought Marxist analysis would achieve the same end. Both ended up diminishing the most obvious Christian doctrine—original sin—and collapsing their hopes for the end time into a political program. Liberation theologians and neo-con American Catholics are loathe to admit it, but both committed the same mistake, reducing the mystery of man to a manageable problem capable of either Marxist or market manipulations. They approached the problem of the poor from different directions, but their relationship is strangely symbiotic.

Bergoglio was never seduced by the promises of the liberation theologians.

Read the rest here.

So What CAN You Do With a History Major: Part 25

Become a Pulitzer-Prize winning newspaper reporter and award-winning author!

Today’s interview in our continuing series, “So What CAN You Do With a History Major,” is with Sonia Nazario.

Sonia has spent 20 years reporting and writing about social issues, most recently as a projects reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Her stories have tackled some of this country’s most intractable problems: hunger, drug addiction, immigration.

She has won numerous national journalism and book awards. In 2003, her story of a Honduran boy’s struggle to find his mother in the U.S., entitled “Enrique’s Journey,” won more than a dozen awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, the George Polk Award for International Reporting, the Grand Prize of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and the National Assn. of Hispanic Journalists Guillermo Martinez-Marquez Award for Overall Excellence.

Expanded into a book, Enrique’s Journey became a national bestseller and won two book awards. It is now required reading for incoming freshmen at dozens of colleges and high schools across the U.S.

In 1998, Nazario was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a series on children of drug addicted parents. And in 1994, she won a George Polk Award for Local Reporting for a series about hunger among schoolchildren in California.

Nazario has been named among the most influential Latinos by Hispanic Business Magazine and a “trendsetter” by Hispanic Magazine.

Nazario, who grew up in Kansas and in Argentina, has written extensively from Latin America and about Latinos in the United States. She is now at work on her second book. She began her career at the Wall Street Journal, where she reported from four bureaus: New York, Atlanta, Miami, and Los Angeles. In 1993, she joined the Los Angeles Times. She serves on the advisory board of the University of North Texas Mayborn Literary Non-fiction Writer’s Conference and on the board of directors of Kids In Need of Defense, a non-profit launched by Microsoft and Angelina Jolie to provide pro-bono attorneys to unaccompanied immigrant children.

She is a graduate of Williams College and has a master’s degree in Latin American studies from the University of California, Berkeley.

JF: What inspired you or led you to become a history major?
SN: I had led a fairly sheltered life until I was 13 years old. Then my father died of a heart attack. And my mother decided to take the family back to Argentina, where she and my father were from. It was just as the so-called dirty war was cranking up, where the country’s military would ultimately “disappear” nearly 30,000 people.
The experience made me want to study history for two reasons. First, it was clear many Argentines hated Americans. When I spoke English with my American accent, sometimes people would spit on my shoes in disgust. What role, I wondered, had the U.S. played in the world to make people behave this way? Having grown up largely in Kansas, I felt so ignorant about the world. Argentines all knew where Kansas was. Few Kansans could tell you where Argentina sat on a map. I felt so ignorant I remember spending a week trying to read the Encyclopedia Britanica! Second, after having two journalists killed by the military in my neighborhood, I increasingly understood how repressive regimes thrived by stifling the free flow of information. I decided to become a journalist at 14 after seeing the blood of those two journalists on a sidewalk near my home in Buenos Aires. To write about today’s reality in Latin America—or the U.S. for that matter—it seemed clear to me that the best foundation would be an understanding of history.

JF: Tell us a bit about your undergraduate experience as a history major at Williams College.
SN: At the time, the offerings seemed very limited. It seemed that the world was made up of Europe, Japan, China, and the U.S. east of the Mississippi. There were hardly any course offerings about the rest of the world, including Latin America. That really bothered me. It seemed that the rest of the world simply wasn’t worth studying. This has changed drastically since then. Williams is now a very diverse college, and the offerings reflect diverse interests.
Despite the limitations, the professors were top-notch. Being curious about a lot of places, I did a winter study in China, and a year abroad in Spain and England. Charles Dew, a renowned expert on the U.S. Civil War, did an independent study with me for my honors thesis on the Congressional response to the Vietnam War. He and others were willing to do whatever it took to teach me, even if that meant going into subject areas they knew little about.

JF: What led you into journalism?
SN: It was a desire to write about social justice issues in Latin America after my experiences in Argentina as a teenager. I was determined to go back and write about that part of the world. When I graduated from college, I went to work at the Wall Street Journal. By the age of 25, I was the back-up Latin American correspondent. After living out of a suitcase far too much of the time, I decided there were plenty of social issues I could write about here in the U.S. I have often focused on writing about people that don’t get a lot of ink: women, children, the poor, and immigrants.

JF: In what ways did your undergraduate history major help prepare you for your work as a journalist and writer? (Any so-called transferable skills?).
SN: In a very practical way, it taught me to do research, where to look for needed documents, and to write. More important, however, it taught me to think critically. Because when you look at events in history, by looking at how those situations were resolved you can understand a lot about what is going to happen in the future. The past is prologue.

JF: Would you recommend that students interested in careers in journalism or writing do an undergraduate major in history?
SN: I think that is a tougher call today than when I graduated from college. In the 1980s, you could leave college with the knowledge and skills history taught you, and assume that someone in a newsroom would teach you the craft of journalism. Back then, editors had time to teach new hires how to report and write. With the huge cutbacks in newsroom staffs, that is no longer the case. So you really have to pick up those journalism skills now in college if you hope to be successful in a newsroom. There’s not much learning on the job any more.

JF: When will Enrique’s Journey be coming to HBO?
SN: HBO worked on it for years as a six-part mini-series, but unfortunately it stalled there. It may be revived at a network in the near future. In the meantime, the book has inspired at least two of the three films that have come out recently about immigrant children coming to find their mothers: Sin Nombre, a feature film, and Which Way Home, a documentary that was nominated for an Oscar this year. I’m told a fourth film, looking at an Ecuadorian mother who makes the journey atop freight trains through Mexico with her child is in the works. It’s wonderful, especially in a time of so much hostility towards immigrants, to see that the book has inspired so many to make films that are helping to educate people about this issue and about migrants.

JF: What advice would you give to undergraduates majoring in history or those considering a history major?
SN: I believe that in many different careers, employers are looking for people who can do research, think critically, understand past events and put current events in context, and can write clearly. I cannot think of a better major than history that gives you all that.

Thanks, Sonia!

Readers: Get out there and buy a copy of Enrique’s Journey.

A Little History Behind Pat Robertson’s Remarks

We have already expressed our outrage at Pat Robertson’s view of the earthquake in Haiti. But what exactly was he talking about when he said Haiti had made a pact with the devil? At the very least we can get a history lesson out of this.

First, Robertson has his facts mixed up. Napoleon III was not born until 1808, seventeen years after the Haitian revolution. He is right, however, when he says that Haiti was “under the heel” of the French. It was a French colony.

Robertson also exaggerates the significance of the supposed “pact with the devil.” He is referencing the famous Bois Caiman ceremony that probably took place sometime in August of 1791. (Bois Caiman is a place, roughly translated “Alligator Wood”). As the story goes, slaves gathered here to plan their revolt against French rule. They were led by a black slave driver named Dutty Boukman, who was apparently a vodou priest. Boukman prophesied about the rebellion. Then, amid a violent rainstorm, a woman holding a large knife appeared. She did a tribal dance and then sacrificed a pig. The slaves in attendance drank the pig’s blood out of a wooden bowl and committed themselves to follow Boukman. The priest then announced the names of those who would lead the rebellion against France: Francois Papillon, Georges Bisassou, and Jeannot Bullet.

Scholars continue to debate whether this event actually happened and its significance to the 1791 revolution. My guide in this post has been the University of Florida’s David Patrick Geggus and his book Haitian Revolutionary Studies (Indiana University Press, 2002). Geggus believes that the ceremony did in fact take place, but, as he puts it, “much of what has been written about it is unreliable.” He notes that the Bois Caiman ceremony does not appear in any manuscript source. What we know about it comes from three published eyewitness accounts, the earliest of which dates back to 1814.

In the end, the most important meeting of slave rebels did not occur in Bois Caiman, but actually took place earlier, at the Lenormand de Mezy plantation. Geggus concludes:

What, then can be said of the ceremony’s role in the revolt? Principally, that it served to sacralize a political movement that was then reaching fruition. The decision to launch a rebellion, taken seven days earlier at the elite meeting of slave-drivers and coachmen, was at Bois Caiman directly communicated to a perhaps predominantly African group of field slaves, in a religious setting calculated to mobilize support. A widespread conspiracy was already in place by the time the ceremony was held and, more than this, was slowly being uncovered by the white colonists...

The Bois Caiman ceremony surely infused its participants with courage and a heightened sense of solidarity, but the number of slaves who took part cannot have been great. If they were more numerous than the 200 or so at the Lenormand meeting, they probably would have left more trace in the historical record…The significance of the Bois Caiman ceremony has been overstated because it is usually confused with the earlier meeting on the Lenormand de Mezy plantation. All the evidence suggests that with regard to the organization of the 1791 insurrection, the Lenormand meeting was the more important. Even the prayer of Boukman, if authentic, was evidently spoken there and not a Bois Caiman. It is therefore fitting that August 14 should be celebrated as an anniversary of national significance in Haiti, although it is not the anniversary of the Bois Caiman ceremony and may have had nothing to do with vodou.