Teaching American History after Charlottesville

Charlottesville

Process, the blog of the Organization of American Historians, is running a round table on teaching in the wake of Charlottesville.  Participants include Jarred Amato, Beverly Bunch-Lyons, Michael Dickinson, Emily Farris, Kevin Gannon (don’t miss him on Episode 26 of the TWOILH Podcast), Nyasha Junior, and Heather Cox Richardson.

Here is a taste:

Did the events in Charlottesville change the topics and questions you were planning to address this semester or quarter? If so, how?

Beverly Bunch-Lyons: No. The events in Charlottesville did not change the topics and questions I planned to address this semester. I am teaching the first half of African American History this semester, which covers 1450-1865, so while these issues are certainly important, timely, and relevant, I believe they are better suited to the second half of the course. I have an obligation to my students to cover historical topics that fall within the time period we are covering. I will discuss Charlottesville this semester, but only if students initiate the conversation. I realize that events like Charlottesville can be important teaching moments, but as educators I believe it is important to make sure that we provide deep and thorough historical context for students if we choose to broach these recent issues in classes where the topic may be outside of the historical scope we are covering.

Michael Dickinson: The recent events in Charlottesville did not directly change the topics I planned to address. The events did, however, demand that I alter the timeline of my syllabus. I am currently teaching an undergraduate seminar in early African American history. While concepts of race and racism are critical to the entire course, discussions of the Civil War necessarily fall toward the end of the semester. That said, recent events posed an opportunity more than a challenge. Events such as those in Charlottesville remind historians that our work is about more than the past; our work is vital to the present. Tragic moments of national mourning and conflict, while certainly unfortunate, are opportunities to help students better understand—and develop the skills of critical analysis to combat—ignorance and hate. These are objectives neatly built into syllabi but the events in Charlottesville and elsewhere pushed me to consider concepts of historical memory, race, and slavery in ways temporally out of place in the syllabus but pragmatically necessary for the contemporary moment.

Emily Farris: The events in Charlottesville occurred right after I put the finishing touches on my syllabus this fall for Urban Politics. While Charlottesville and the monument movement aren’t officially on my syllabus, I do plan on talking about these issues (and others) with my students as examples for the concepts we are going to study. For example, one section of the class looks at power and representation in the city. During those days, we will analyze what power looks like in cities and assess which groups have power and are represented in city decisions. I plan on bringing two recent events in our city, Fort Worth, into the discussion: the racially divided decision by the Fort Worth city council to not join the #SB4 immigration lawsuit and the movement I helped lead to rename Jefferson Davis city park. I find current events like these and Charlottesville help ground students in larger ideas, particularly more theoretical ones.

Kevin Gannon: As director of my university’s teaching center, I’ve certainly observed a “Charlottesville effect.” Issues of diversity, inclusion, and justice have been at the forefront of many of our conversations since last fall. There seems to be more urgency for some of us, as well as many students, in the wake of Charlottesville. An urban campus, our university is diverse compared to our state as a whole, but that’s not saying much. The student body is 90% white, and getting at issues of structural racism and historical memory, as well as privilege and power, can be fraught. Much of my work with faculty centers on handling difficult discussions, teaching inclusively, and classroom climate, and my center’s programming on these topics is well attended (faculty have requested even more, which I am glad to facilitate). It’s one thing for an institution to say it values diversity and inclusion and stands against racism. It’s another to actually commit the time and resources to doing the work behind those proclamations. Charlottesville isn’t that long ago, but my initial impression this year is that more faculty (adjunct and full-time) are thinking intentionally about these issues than is usually the case. Our students certainly are.

Read the entire round table here.

 

How Did African Americans Remember the Civil War?

Confederate Charleston

Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, a Ph.D candidate in the History department at Rutgers University, tackles this question in a piece at Black Perspectives titled “Beyond Monuments: African Americans Contesting Civil War Memory.”

Here is a taste:

African Americans worked from the end of the war to this current moment to consistently affirm and interpret the Civil War’s meaning for them.  Due to its power and influence, confronting the Lost Cause is a large part of this collective memory.  The Lost Cause movement includes the historical memories, myths, commemorative events, and invented traditions of many white Southerners that first took shape after the end of the Civil War. The Lost Cause was as much about upholding white supremacy as it was about commemorating the white Southern Civil War experience.  It is not incidental, for example, that the Keystone, a publication for Southern white clubwomen and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) published stories of Confederate heroism alongside dedications to “faithful slaves” and praise for books like Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman.  White Civil War memory has long dominated conversations about how the war is remembered, even now when it involves anti-racist activism.  The idea that “both sides” should be celebrated and honored was largely an invention of white Southerners and Northerners in order to reunite the nation.  African American Civil War memory was sidelined in its service.  As a result, we know considerably less about the long tradition of Black anti-Lost Cause resistance that culminated with Bree Newsome snatching the Confederate flag down from the Statehouse grounds of South Carolina in 2015 and Takiyah Thompson toppling a Confederate monument in Durham, North Carolina on August 14 of this year.

On March 27, 1865 African Americans flooded the streets of Charleston, South Carolina to celebrate the coming end of the Civil War.  The result was a grand spectacle, with dozens of Black men marching while tied to a rope to symbolize those bound in chains while being sold down South. A hearse followed with the sign “Slavery is Dead. Who Owns Him? No one.  Sumter Dug His Grave on 13th April, 1861.” Behind the hearse, fifty Black women marched dressed in mourning clothes, but were laughing and happy. “John Brown’s Body” was a popular song among Black and white Union troops and was commonly sung in the various military parades across the South as Union troops marched in victory.  The school children marching in this parade focused on singing one verse in particular loudly: “We’ll hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree . . . As we Go Marching On.”

Read the entire piece here.

 

Black Boston

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Robert Gould Shaw Monument, Boston

The Tufts Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and the Tufts Data Lab are working together to document Boston’s African-American history.  Learn more about the African American Freedom Trail Project in this piece at WBUR.

Here is a taste:

Boston is a city rich in American history. Tourists come here to explore the city’s central role in some of the United States’ pivotal moments. But its historical narrative is whitewashed, often omitting the influence and accomplishments of the city’s African-American community.

That’s according to Kerri Greenidge, who teaches history at Tufts University and the University of Massachusetts Boston. She specializes in the African diaspora in New England and the Northeast.

“If you have the same people tell the story, you’re not going to get recent scholarship that challenges the story we accept,” says Greenidge.

The narrative Boston has accepted, Greenidge notes, doesn’t exactly highlight the African-American influence and experience beyond slavery.

The Tufts Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, where Greenidge is on staff, wanted to help change that. So, together with the Tufts Data Lab, the center embarked on a mission to document significant sites that reflect local African-American history.

Greenidge and Kendra Fields, the center’s director, created a digital map that both tourists and curious locals could use to explore underrepresented but important events in the city’s history.

Read the entire piece here.

The Civil Rights Movement and the Search for a Usable Past

TheoharisOver at The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill interviews Brooklyn College political scientist Jeanne Theoharis about the various ways the Civil Rights Movement has been used in present-day politics.  Some of you may recall that this issue of the Civil Rights Movement and “usable pasts” was on the forefront of my mind this summer when I took a Civil Rights-era bus tour.

Theoharis is the author of the forthcoming A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.  Here is a taste of the interview:

JS: Before we get into some of these specific examples, I’m just wondering about your overall view of how key historical figures or moments in the civil rights movement are kind of used or inaccurately portrayed in our current discourse, either by politicians or by ordinary people having arguments online.

JT: I mean I think what we’ve seen, and this has happened over the past number of decades and I would argue since really Reagan changes his position and signs the King holiday, is the kind of creation of a national fable of the civil rights movement.

And so now the civil rights movement is used to make Americans feel good about themselves. You know, from 50th anniversary commemorations of the March on Washington, to the Selma to Montgomery march, from the dedication of King’s statue on the Mall, from the statue of Rosa Parks in Statuary Hall. All of these events have become places where we now celebrate the United States, where we feel so good about the progress we’ve made.

And I think in the process, these kind of dangerous ideas about what the civil rights movement was, what it entailed, how it went forth have become cemented. And so, as you’re implying politicians, citizens, constantly invoke the civil rights movement in the present to justify certain kinds of positions, to chastise contemporary movements; whether it’s Black Lives Matter, whether it’s Colin Kaepernick’s stand that has now turned into a much broader stand by athletes. We’re constantly being bombarded with, “This is not what King would do.” You know, “Be like King, be like Parks,” that strip and utterly distort what the civil rights movement was and what people like King and Parks actually did and stood for.

Read the entire piece here.

The Women Behind the Lost Cause

UDC

Over at The New York Times, historian Karen Cox tells the story of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the role the organization played in instilling “Southern white youth a reverence for Confederate principles.”

Here is a taste of her piece “The Confederacy’s ‘Living Monuments’“:

The Daughters’ primary objective, however, was to instill in Southern white youth a reverence for Confederate principles. Indeed, they regarded their efforts to educate children as their most important work as they sought, in their words, to build “living monuments” who would grow up to defend states’ rights and white supremacy.

Members of the U.D.C. developed a multipronged approach to educating white children about the “truth” of the “War Between the States.” They developed lesson plans for teachers, a number of whom were members of the organization. They placed pro-Confederate books in school and public libraries, which they insisted students use when they competed in U.D.C.-sponsored essay contests. They led students in the celebration of Robert E. Lee’s life on his birthday and placed portraits of Confederate heroes, festooned with the battle flag, in classrooms across the South and even in some schools outside of the region. They also formed Children of the Confederacy chapters for boys and girls ages 6 to 16, intended to serve as a pipeline for membership in both the U.D.C. and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a parallel organization.

Read the entire piece here.

Does Ta-Nehisi Coates Give Whiteness Power?

Williams

Thomas Chatterton Williams

I am still trying to get my head around Thomas Chatterton Williams‘s piece on Coates at The New York Times, but I think he may be on to something.  While I chew on it a bit more, I offer up a taste (and a link) for your consideration:

I have spent the past six months poring over the literature of European and American white nationalism, in the process interviewing noxious identitarians like the alt-right founder Richard Spencer. The most shocking aspect of Mr. Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish.

This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr. Coates, whiteness is a “talisman,” an “amulet” of “eldritch energies” that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early-20th-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a “meta-biological force,” a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path. It is a dangerous vision of life we should refuse no matter who is doing the conjuring.

This summer, I spent an hour on the phone with Richard Spencer. It was an exchange that left me feeling physically sickened. Toward the end of the interview, he said one thing that I still think about often. He referred to the all-encompassing sense of white power so many liberals now also attribute to whiteness as a profound opportunity. “This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist,” he told me gleefully. “This is why I’m actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip.”

However far-fetched that may sound, what identitarians like Mr. Spencer have grasped, and what ostensibly anti-racist thinkers like Mr. Coates have lost sight of, is the fact that so long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes. We will all be doomed to stalk our separate paths.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Robert Cook

51BmfDCLdAL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Robert Cook is professor of American History at the University of Sussex. This interview is based on his new book, Civil War Memories: Contesting the Past in the United since 1865  (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Civil War Memories?

RC: I’ve been working at the intersection of race, politics, and historical memory in the United States for more than two decades. This book grows directly out of a previous research project on the Civil War Centennial of the 1960s and a conviction that a deeper awareness of how and why particular strands of Civil War memory have been constructed over time can enhance our understanding of the war’s impact on contemporary culture wars.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Civil War Memories?

RC: I argue that four principal strands of Civil War memory – Unionist, southern, emancipationist and reconciliatory – were constructed during the late nineteenth century by the men and women who lived through the turmoil of the 1860s and 1870s. Social and political change in the United States enabled the Lost Cause and reconciliatory narratives to dominate the field of Civil War memory until the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century raised the profile in public memory of the previously marginalized and predominantly African American story of black liberation and martial service to the United States.

JF: Why do we need to read Civil War Memories?

RC: The lethal violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 highlighted the continuing resonance of the Civil War in contemporary debates over race and historical commemoration. This book provides the essential backstory to the current controversy and will contribute positively to an informed and constructive debate over removal of Confederate symbols and statues.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Or if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

RC: As a teenager growing up in the English midlands I enjoyed reading the Civil War histories of Bruce Catton. However, I didn’t decide to become an American historian until I was a student at the University of Warwick where I enrolled in Bill Dusinberre’s classes on the African American experience and the antislavery movement. Bill was an inspirational teacher. He encouraged me to pursue a PhD in American history at the University of Oxford in the early 1980s. I researched the early history of the Republican party in Iowa, focusing particularly on the party’s remarkably strong support for black rights in the Civil War era.

JF: What is your next project?

RC: I’m currently in the early stages of a project that investigates African American responses to different manifestations of the Lost Cause since 1880.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

 

From the 1850s to the 1950s in 10 Minutes

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Taylor Branch

Tonight should be an interesting one for students in my Civil War America class.  We are currently studying the 1850s and the political, social, cultural, economic, and racial lead-up to the Civil War.  The class usually runs from 6:15-9:15pm, but tonight we are stopping at 7:15pm so we can walk over a lecture hall on campus to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch deliver the 2017 Messiah College American Democracy Lecture: “King’s Dream for Justice: Then and Now.”  It takes about ten minutes to walk from our classroom to the lecture hall.  In class we will be discussing race in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  The Branch’s lecture will ask students to think about race in America 100 years later.

Next week we should have a good discussion about “change over time” and “continuity.”  It’s going to be fun!

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Historians

Coates

After his article “The First White President” appeared in The Atlantic, social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates tweeted:

Coates draws heavily from the work of American history, particularly historians of race and slavery.  I first encountered Coates when he writing blog posts on Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery–American Freedom.  I have been following him ever since.  Whatever one thinks about his views on race in America, Coates has done his homework.

At The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jordan Michael Smith writes about Coates’s relationship with historians.  Here is a taste:

When I spoke with him a few weeks ago, Coates was no less effusive about the significance of scholarship. “I really enjoy talking to historians, for the most part, because there’s so much — this is going to sound elitist but it’s true — there’s just a basic ignorance about facts in American history” among members of the public. He points to recent debates over the Confederacy, spurred by attempts to have monuments of Confederate leaders removed from public spaces. The disputes over whether Confederates were fighting to preserve slavery or states’ rights “would not fly in most history programs in this country,” he says. Even among journalists, he argues, there is a dearth of knowledge about something as crucial to understanding America as the Civil War.

There is in Coates’s work evidence of a fanboyish enthusiasm, an earnest affection for certain people, places, and things. They include rappers (his Twitter avatar is an image from an album by a member of the Wu-Tang Clan), the French language, and comic books. Among the adored are historians, political scientists, and sociologists. “He’s like our biggest supporter, and that’s really refreshing,” says Bryant Simon, a historian at Temple University. “I don’t know anyone else who deliberately” foregrounds a reliance on the work of academics to the same degree.

[Historian Manisha] Sinha describes Coates as “one of those rare writers who can effectively mine historians’ work. He has an intuitive grasp of the issues involved.” What Sinha finds particularly interesting is that Coates will develop his own take based on his reading, making him as much an active participant in the historicizing process as the people he reads.

Indeed, part of what sets Coates apart from other journalists or public intellectuals is that he tells his audience that historians’ works need to be consulted if they want to understand American history. Like any good high-school math student, Coates shows his work, illustrating which history books lead him to his conclusions.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Are the NFL Protests Religious?

Kap

In the movie “Concussion,” Dr. Bennett Omalu, the medical researcher who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopahty (CTE) in the brains of deceased NFL players, is told that he is going to war with a corporation that “owns a day of the week, the same day the church used to own.”  Here is the scene

I thought about this scene as I read Tara Isabella Burton’s piece at Vox titled “Football really is America’s religion. That’s what made the NFL protests so powerful.

She writes:

But, for better or for worse, football — like many American sports — has always been, if not political, then at least politicized. The popularity of American sport culture is deeply rooted in the history of a particular kind of American “muscular Christianity,” a conflation of nationalism, nostalgia, piety, and performative masculinity. From the football stadium to the basketball court, American sports have been as much about defining a particular kind of male and typically Christian identity as they have been about the game itself.

For participants and spectators alike, sport culture is quite religion-like. As professor and theologian Randall Balmer put it in an article for Sojourners, “the sports stadium has replaced the church sanctuary as the dominant arena of piety at the turn of the 21st century, especially for American men.” And that makes the decision of athletes to protest during the “sacred” time of the game, rather than off the field, all the more powerful.

To better understand how American sports culture developed, we should turn to Victorian England, where “muscular Christianity” originated as backlash to the culture of the time. The rise of the middle class and the development of industrialization meant that your average Victorian gentleman wasn’t exactly physically active. And Victorian religion tended to focus on women and female piety. Women were generally seen as the “angels in the house” who would domesticate their men — and make them better Christians.

Read the entire piece here.

This brings a whole new perspective on “taking a knee.”

Mexico in the American Political Imagination

GuardinoSome of you will recall Indiana University historian Peter Guardino‘s visit to the Author’s Corner last month.  His latest book is The Dead March: A History of the Mexican Amercian War.

In  recent History News Network piece which I read at the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail, Guardino argues that “Mexico hasn’t figured in US politics like this since 1848.”  Of course the United States fought a war against Mexico between 1846 and 1848.

Here is a taste:

In February 1847, Ohio Senator Thomas Corwin called the war a grave threat to American democracy, telling the Senate that each chapter of American history written “in Mexican blood may close the volume of our history as a free people.” Corwin argued that injustice does harm beyond its most direct victims by also damaging its perpetrators and putting at risk the political institutions of the aggressors.

He correctly predicted that the war of conquest against Mexico would soon lead to civil war between the North and South. Years later, Mexican-American War veteran Ulysses S. Grant also emphasized the connection between that war and the Civil War. In his memoirs, he wrote that “nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”

The racialized rhetoric some politicians used in 1846-1848 caused great suffering and death in Mexico, and lasting damage to the United States. Today, very similar racialized rhetoric promotes policies that also cause suffering and death for Mexicans and people of Mexican descent.

At the same time, it damages the United States by reinforcing some of the worst baggage that we bring with us from our past: The notion that if some whites are having trouble achieving their dreams, it must be because racial Others are too successful in achieving theirs.

For shame.

Read the entire piece here.

Race in America: 1860 and 1960

King

Next week Martin Luther King Jr. biographer Taylor Branch will be at Messiah College to deliver our annual American Democracy Lecture. (Admission is free, but you need to pick up a ticket at the Messiah College box office).  I teach my Civil War class on the evening of the lecture.  We are planning to meet for the first hour of class and then walk over to the hall.  I had been thinking about some different ways of helping my students make the jump from the 1850s/1860s to the 1950s/1960s when I ran across this piece by Civil War historian James McPherson at the Oxford University Press blog.

Here is a taste:

The civil rights movement eclipsed the centennial observations during the first half of the 1960s. Those were the years of sit-ins and freedom rides in the South, of Southern political leaders vowing what they called “massive resistance” to national laws and court decisions, of federal marshals and troops trying to protect civil rights demonstrators, of conflict and violence, of the March on Washington in August 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial and began his “I have a dream” speech with the words “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been scarred in the flame of withering injustice.” These were also the years of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which derived their constitutional bases from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments adopted a century earlier. The creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau by the federal government in 1865, to aid the transition of four million former slaves to freedom, was the first large-scale intervention by the government in the field of social welfare.

These parallels between the 1960s and 1860s, and the roots of events in my own time in events of exactly a century earlier, propelled me to become a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction. I became convinced that I could not fully understand the issues of my own time unless I learned about their roots in the era of the Civil War: slavery and its abolition; the conflict between North and South; the struggle between state sovereignty and the federal government; the role of government in social change and resistance to both government and social change. Those issues are as salient and controversial today as they were in the 1960s, not to mention the 1860s.

Read the entire piece here.

Gerson: Trump is a “racial demagogue”

buffalo-bills

It is rare when a white evangelical who is politically conservative calls someone a ‘racial demagogue,” but that is actually what Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson has called the President of the United States.  Here is a taste of his piece on the NFL protests this weekend.

Here is a taste:

Stop and consider. This is a sobering historical moment. America has a racial demagogue as president. We play hail to this chief. We stand when he enters the room. We continue to honor an office he so often dishonors. It is appropriate but increasingly difficult.

In this case, demagoguery is likely to be effective, in part because protesters have chosen their method poorly. The American flag is not the racist symbol of a racist country. It is the symbol of a country with ideals far superior to its practice. This is the banner under which the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry — the first African American regiment organized in the Civil War — fought the Confederacy. This is the flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol on July 2, 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed. This is the flag that drapes the coffins of the honored dead on their final homeward trip, to a flawed nation still worthy of their sacrifice.

The extraordinary achievement of America’s founders was to elevate a set of ideals that judged (in many cases) their own hypocritical conduct. With the Declaration of Independence, they put a self-destruct mechanism in the edifice of slavery. They designed a system that eventually transcended their own failures of courage. At least in part. With more to go….

Read the rest here.

Maybe it is time to take a knee when Trump enters the room.

The National Park Service and American Amnesia About Reconstruction

Recon
Check out Maura Ewing’s piece at Pacific Standard on the ways the National Park Service is bring the Reconstruction Era to the forefront of America’s historical consciousness. Here is a taste:

During the restive years following the Civil War, the Era of Reconstruction—often referred to as the nation’s Second Founding or the first Civil Rights Movement—America saw a virulent backlash from white supremacists in response to profound political, economic, and educational gains made by African Americans. During these years, more African Americans held office than at any other period in American history; in 2014 Tim Scott became the first African-American United States Senator elected in South Carolina since Reconstruction. Newly freed slaves established churches, schools, and businesses, and negotiated labor contracts with their former owners. Simultaneously, the period saw the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, which used violence to impose a race-based social order where law no longer did; black codes were created to suppress African-American freedom, and segregation was institutionalized. White supremacists lynched an average of two to three African Americans weekly.

In more recent years, a somewhat unlikely agency—the National Park Service—has stepped up to consider how and whether to mark this period by way of national historic sites. In July the NPS released a report, the product of two years of commissioned academic research, detailing what events and locations should be marked for their historic significance relative to the Reconstruction era. It is a call for communities to take the next step and erect markers, with the agency’s support. The NPS’s ambition to have events of this era designated as National Historic Landmarks could have a great effect on the public’s understanding of racism’s pervasive roots in this country—a bold, and important, move for an agency that only recently began to take on the racial complexities of the Civil War.

Read the entire piece here.

 

A Member of Ben Sasse’s Dissertation Committee Offers Him Some Advice

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse has a Ph.D in American history from Yale.  Here is an exchange between Sasse and Yale historian Glenda Gilmore.  She served on Sasse’s dissertation committee along with Jon Butler and Harry Stout.

Slavery and the 1619 Fallacy

jamestownvasign

Over at Black Perspectives, Davidson College early American historian Michael Guasco complicates our understanding of the “20. and odd Negroes” who arrived in colonial Virginia in 1619.  He concludes: “Unfortunately, 1619 is not the best place to begin a meaningful inquiry into the history of African peoples in America.”

Here is a taste:

...the most poisonous consequence of raising the curtain with 1619 is that it casually normalizes white Christian Europeans as historical constants and makes African actors little more than dependent variables in the effort to understand what it means to be American. Elevating 1619 has the unintended consequence of cementing in our minds that those very same Europeans who lived quite precipitously and very much on death’s doorstep on the wisp of America were, in fact, already home. But, of course, they were not. Europeans were the outsiders. Selective memory has conditioned us to employ terms like settlers and colonists when we would be better served by thinking of the English as invaders or occupiers. In 1619, Virginia was still Tsenacommacah, Europeans were the non-native species, and the English were the illegal aliens. Uncertainty was still very much the order of the day.

When we make the mistake of fixing this place in time as inherently or inevitably English, we prepare the ground for the assumption that the United States already existed in embryonic fashion. When we allow that idea to go unchallenged, we silently condone the notion that this place is, and always has been, white, Christian, and European.

Where does that leave Africans and people of African descent? Unfortunately, the same insidious logic of 1619 that reinforces the illusion of white permanence necessitates that Blacks can only be, ipso facto, abnormal, impermanent, and only tolerable to the degree that they adapt themselves to someone else’s fictional universe. Remembering 1619 may be a way of accessing the memory and dignifying the early presence of Black people in the place that would become the United States, but it also imprints in our minds, our national narratives, and our history books that Blacks are not from these parts. When we elevate the events of 1619, we establish the conditions for people of African descent to remain, forever, strangers in a strange land.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Do We Need to Change Our Vocabulary When We Teach American History?

Compromise

Should this be called “The Appeasement of 1850?”

According to Christopher Wilson, the Director of the African American History Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, removing Confederate monuments is only the beginning.  In his recent piece at Smithsonian.com, Wilson argues that the vocabulary that we use to talk about American history is also tainted with Confederate values.

Here is a taste of his piece “We Legitimize the ‘So-Called’ Confederacy With Our Vocabulary, and That’s a Problem“:

Historian Michael Landis suggests professional scholars should seek to change the language we use in interpreting and teaching history. He agrees with people like legal scholar Paul Finkelman and historian Edward Baptist when they suggest the Compromise of 1850 be more accurately referred to as an Appeasement. The latter word precisely reflects the sway that Southern slaveholders held in the bargain. Landis goes on to suggest that we call plantations what they really were—slave labor camps; and drop the use of the term, “the Union.” A common usage in the 19th century to be sure, but now one we only use “the Union” in reference to the Civil War and on the day of the State of the Union address. A better way to speak of the nation during the war, he argues, is to use its name, the United States.

In the same way, we could change the way we refer to secessionist states. When we talk of the Union versus the Confederacy, or especially when we present the strife as the North versus the South, we set up a parallel dichotomy in which the United States is cast as equal to the Confederate States of America. But was the Confederacy really a nation and should we refer to it as such?

When historian Steven Hahn participated in the 2015 History Film Forum at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, he noted that using these customary terms to tell the story of the Civil War —Hahn suggests we use “War of the Rebellion”—lends legitimacy to the Confederacy.

“If you think about it,” Hahn said, “nobody in the world recognized the Confederacy. The question is can you be a state if no one says you are a state?”  

Read the entire piece here.

Historians Discuss American History in the Age of Trump

Ashbrook

Tom Ashbrook interviews historians Judith Giesberg and Julian Zelizer on his WBUR-Boston show “On Point”

Listen here.

Themes discussed and things learned:

  • Julian Zelizer is writing a book about Newt Gingrich
  • Zelizer says that we should be careful not to place Trump solely in “long term continuums.”  There is a lot about him that is unique, new, and unprecedented.
  • Giesberg trashes Newt Gingrich’s attempt to compare the culture wars with the American Civil War.
  • Giesberg reminds us that Confederate monuments were erected during Jim Crow.
  • Zelizer:  If you think that we are living in “two different countries” today, try learning something about the 1960s.
  • Giesburg assigns Eric Foner’s biography of Abraham Lincoln in her Civil War class at Villanova.
  • Giesburg argues that Lincoln learned a lot during his presidency.  So can Trump.  (But she is not optimistic).
  •  Zelizer:  In the 1990s, Gingrich pushed a kind of conservative populism similar to Trump’s base.
  • Zelizer connects Trump’s populism to Father Coughlin and George Wallace.  Trump is the first president to ride this wave of conservative populism to the White House.
  • Zelizer: Race-based nativism never went away.  Trump is not “restoring” anything.
  • Evangelicals Christian do call NPR stations and make thoughtful comments
  • Giesburg compares the Trump victory to the period of “redemption” at the end of Reconstruction.

An Outline of the August-September 2017 Chapter in a Future Trump Biography

Trump Arpaio

Trump and Joe Arpaio

Future historians will not miss this.  We like to connect the dots and see trends.  The Trump presidency is only seven months old and there is already enough material to write an entire book on Trump and the politics of race.  But just think about the last several weeks:

I.  Charlottesville (August 12, 2017):  Trump draws a moral equivalence between white supremacists and the people protesting against white supremacists. White supremacists were thrilled.

II. Arizona (August 25, 2017): Trump pardons Sheriff Joe Arpaio from a jail sentence he was given for disregarding a court order in a racial-profiling case.  Trump’s base was thrilled.

III. Washington (September 5, 2017):  Trump ends the DACA program, leaving over 800,000 young people in limbo for the next six months about whether or not they will be deported.   Trump’s base is very happy.

What do these three things have in common?