David Blight talks with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes about Frederick Douglass


Listen or read here.

A taste:


Multiculturalism, we use it so loosely that we don’t even know what it means anymore. Well, Douglass knew what it meant. It meant the dream put into reality that people of every kind of creed, every kind of race background, ethnicity difference, even though they’re going to fight it out, they’re going to fight like hell over the sources, and meaning, and religion, and interpretation. They’re going to fight like hell, but it’s possible to create a democracy in which all of them can actually live. 

Also this:


Let’s talk about your way into this man who, he’s one of these figures where… I think this is sort of the case a little bit with Hamilton and Chernow’s biography and then the musical, which is that, sure, it’s not like Alexander Hamilton is not famous. He’s famous. We know Hamilton’s a founding father, but the depth of complexity of the guy’s life, it’s like you read it. And you’re like, “Whoa, wow.” And Frederick Douglass is in a somewhat similar category in so far as like, yes, we know Fredrick Douglass. When we see his picture, we recognize him. But the sheer volume of his thought, his writing, his speaking, his political influence, his life experience. I had no idea the life this man lived.


Well, to go right back to your central point in your introduction. He did have a vision of a multiethnic, multiracial, multireligious America in a more robust way than almost anybody of his own time. Long before an idea like multiculturalism was any form of consensus in this country. He was the prose poet, if you like, of American democracy in the 19th century. He was a creature of words. We can come back to that if you want of just how a former slave, a kid who grows up a slave spends 20 years as a slave, become such a genius with language. But he managed to find in language, written prose, autobiographical prose, political editorials, thousands of speeches, even one work of fiction. He found ways to penetrate and explain, describe and explain the experience of slavery as both physical and mental. The experiences of racism, they didn’t use that term in the 19th century. They called it racial prejudice, et cetera. And, and he found ways to explain what was happening to the American nation, the country itself, because of this issue of slavery and its aftermath, like nobody else.

Whether he belongs on a Mount Rushmore. I don’t know, on that issue, it’s worth talking about as we go through these monument wars, whether we’ve almost been too obsessed with people on monuments, and maybe we need to think more and more about memorialization, about ideas and concepts and events and processes, and so on. This obsession with heroes sometimes just gets us in trouble because everybody’s got flaws. That’s why George Washington is now in trouble, right, on the monuments.

Read more here.

The Author’s Corner with David Hollinger

51BOYw8IuNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgDavid Hollinger is Preston Hotchkis Professor Emeritus at the University of California-Berkley. This interview is based on his new book, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America (Princeton University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Protestants Abroad?

DH: In the 1990s while writing books about multiculturalism (Postethnic America, 1995) and about Jewish intellectuals (Science, Jews, and Secular Culture, 1996), it struck me that many missionaries were precursors of the most defensible aspects of multiculturalism and were indeed the Anglo-Protestant equivalents of the cosmopolitan Jewish intellectuals who were famous for having expanded the horizons of American culture. I became annoyed at the patronizing and negative pictures of missionaries that were dominant among scholars and in popular culture. I also remembered, having long since forgotten it, what a powerful, charismatic figure was cut in my church-centered childhood by missionaries on furlough from China and India. As a little boy in Idaho and Washington, these people in their Sunday night lectures made me aware of a world much wider than my own surroundings.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Protestants Abroad?

DH: Deep immersion in foreign cultures led many missionaries to adopt relatively generous attitudes toward the varieties of humankind, causing these missionaries to question as provincial a great variety of Home Truths accepted by most of the folks at home. Between about 1920 and 1970, ecumenically inclined, anti-racist missionaries and their children advocated foreign policies friendly to the self-declared interests of non-white, decolonizing peoples, and promoted domestic initiatives that would later be called “multicultural.”

JF: Why do we need to read Protestants Abroad?

DH: To call attention to an egalitarian theme in the Christian tradition that is much less visible in the current era than it was fifty, seventy-five, and one hundred years ago. To make clear that Americans who have benefited from “white privilege” have done very different things with their color-produced opportunities, and have sometimes fought against the very racism of which they were the beneficiaries. To remind ourselves that contact with people very different from ourselves can liberate us from narrow understandings of what the possibilities for human life actually are.

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

DH: I wrote an entire essay (“Church People and Others”) answering exactly this question, posed by the editors of Becoming Historians (edited by James Banner and John Gillis, 2009), which I reprinted as Chapter 8 of my own book, After Cloven Tongues of Fire (2013). The short answer is that I did this because I did not know what I was doing! I thought it would be easier than philosophy and theology, the other fields that most interested me. I was mistaken. It proved to be very demanding, or so it has seemed to me. But what made me stay with it is probably more important than the naïve conceptions of the calling that led me to it. What made me stay with it was the ever-growing awareness that the study of history was a virtually boundless opportunity to explore an infinity of questions about what it meant to be human. The title of the “Church People and Others” piece refers to how I found my way from the society of my youth into the overwhelmingly secular circles of academia.

JF: What is your next project?

DH: Two things are in the works. First, I have been writing a family memoir that I may or may not publish, organized around my father’s difficult path to the ministry and his even more difficult departure from it. It is an account of a “Pennsylvania Dutch” family’s migration from Gettysburg to Saskatchewan, and how my father and his siblings were almost destroyed by the blizzards and by the unwise decisions of my grandfather, who was a leader of the Church of the Brethren and a Brethren in Christ bishop when the two denominations worked together in Canada in the 1920s and 1930s. Second, I am making notes for what might be a short, essayistic book (modelled on Postethnic America) about religion and politics in modern America. This book would address some of the problems that follow from the sort of thinking authorized by 2nd Corinthians 10:5 (every thought captive to Christ, etc.), and would attempt to bring some clarity to the widespread discourse about the function of religious ideas and affiliations in contemporary American public life.

JF: Thanks, David!  I can’t wait to read both of those books!

The Author’s Corner with Sean P. Harvey

Sean Harvey is Assistant Professor of History at Seton Hall University. This interview is based on his new book Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation (Harvard University Press, January 2015).

JF: What led you to write Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation?

SH: I started out intending to write an intellectual biography of Albert Gallatin, a figure prominent in the political and diplomatic history of the early republic. Inspired by Drew McCoy’s Last of the Fathers, I chose to begin my research with his retirement, by which time Gallatin had become a prominent ethnologist, so I started with his extensive correspondence with a prominent philologist, Peter S. Du Ponceau. Every letter I read seemed to prompt a dozen new questions, but I was not finding satisfying answers in the existing secondary literature to a couple of the most important ones: what role, if any, did knowledge about Native languages play in U.S. colonialism, and what place, if any, did that knowledge have in developing notions of race. Gallatin quickly became but one part in a study that centered those questions.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation?

SH: Native Tongues argues that knowledge of Native languages played a crucial role in several distinct facets of colonialism, including trade, missionary work, diplomacy, and administration, and that understandings of Native languages—among scholars, missionaries, officials, and the broader public—was central to the construction of savagery as a concept that justified dispossession, removal, confinement, and efforts toward cultural (including linguistic) eradication. Assumptions about language reflecting and perhaps shaping thought and about similarities in sounds, words, and grammatical forms indicating the shared ancestry of speakers, in turn, gave rise after 1820 to a racialized conception of Native languages that fused psychology and descent, but which gradually fragmented in the face of physical ethnologists’ sustained criticisms and philologists’ increasing understanding of the cultural divergence among speakers of related languages.

JF: Why do we need to read Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation?

SH: I think Native Tongues makes three important contributions. First, it adds to our understanding of the ways in which notions of race, especially those directed at Indians, were built upon far more than phenotype. Second, it traces the interconnections between missionaries, private scholars, learned societies, and federal officials and agencies in creating and using knowledge of Native languages for the administration of colonialism. Third, it highlights the centrality of Native people (as tutors and as philologists in their own right) to whites’ knowledge of Native languages and, thus, to the production of knowledge about race.

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

SH: I realized that I loved American history while I was an undergrad at Villanova, and I realized how fun it was to do history when I had the opportunity to look at Philadelphia newspapers from the 1790s: everything from the crumbling paper to the overheated charges hooked me. I didn’t realize what it would actually mean to be a historian, however, until I began my graduate training at William & Mary. Through the mentorship of teachers and peers, I came to learn that the archives are filled with subject matter that is intrinsically interesting and that the field is filled with people engaged in fascinating and important conversations that help us understand the past as it was and the world as it is now. I wanted to be a part of that.

JF: What is your next project? 
SH: After I finish an article on Native understandings of linguistic relationships in eastern North America, I will return to what I had originally intended to research: Albert Gallatin and his several milieus. He was a Genevan immigrant who rose to prominence as legislator, Treasury secretary, U.S. minister in Paris, leading New York banker, and prominent ethnologist. A project that uses his life as a pivot to center an examination of his political and financial friendships, social circles, and scholarly communities—in Geneva, western Pennsylvania, the federal city, Ghent, Paris, and New York City—offers an unrivalled opportunity to integrate Atlantic and continental perspectives on the U.S. early republic while exploring the circulation of diverse ideas and varied forms of private and public action in political, economic, and cultural life too seldom examined in light of one another.
JF: Can’t wait to hear about it. Thanks Sean!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Beth Lewis Pardoe Continues "Hope 2012: A Blog Relay"

Ed Blum passed the baton to me and like the U.S. 4 X100 meter women’s relay team I did not drop it.  I handed it off to  Beth Lewis Pardoe, the very thoughtful blogger at Mystories and the University of Venus.  Here is a taste of her Hope 2012 blog relay entry. 

My blogging idol, John Fea, threw down the gauntlet and demanded a statement on hope.  When I stood under a palm tree and watched two strangers exchange wedding vows, I knew what I needed to write.

The Scandinavian-American groom arrived in an Aston-Martin as opposed to dismounting from a white stallion.  His pasty female relations processed in saris revealing unfortunate shoulder tattoos before the Indian-American bride arrived in a palanquin to bollywood-bhangra-ballads.

As I stood chatting with Cuban-American National Humanities Medalist Teofilo Ruiz, the Hindu priest serenaded the couple with Kabhi Alveda Naa Kehna (never say goodbye).  They apparently share my love of Shah Rukh Khan romantic extravaganzas. So much so, that the fair-haired groom closed his vows with title of the Khan-Kajol classic, “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” (something’s happening).

Read the rest here.  Thanks, Beth!