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.

 

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!

 

Why the Columbus Statues Should Stay

Columbus

I am in complete agreement with this piece by Laura Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra. (And it is not just because I am half Italian).  If we are going to make an argument against Robert E. Lee statues because of the Jim Crow context in which they were erected, then we can make an argument for Columbus statues based on the same principle–the meaning Italian-Americans gave to these statues at the time many of them were erected.  (I also blogged about this here).

A taste of Ruberto and Sciorra’s piece at Process:

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Italian immigrants saw the American idolization of Columbus as a way to deflect the onslaught of xenophobic and racial prejudice and violence they encountered, and for which they were relatively unprepared, as new arrivals in the United States. They bought into and contributed to a specific Italian reading of Columbus in relationship to their brutal experiences of bigotry. Italian Americans built their emerging identity as provisional whites out of this hagiography.

The connections between Columbus and Italian Americans developed in great part through the work of Italian immigrant prominenti, ethnic leaders who served as intermediaries between WASP elites and the working poor and who supported an upper-class notion of Italian national identity. These included Angelo Noce, a publisher who spearheaded the first declaration of Columbus Day as a state holiday, in Colorado, in 1907, and Carlo Barsotti, a banker and newspaper editor who solicited funds from primarily working-class immigrants to erect New York City’s Columbus monument in 1892. These leaders, many from northern Italy, “argued for full inclusion as Americans based upon an imagined ‘Italian’ heritage of civilization and whiteness,” as historian Peter G. Vellon reveals. In Columbus, they perceived a tool by which to forge an Italian national identity which did not exist among the vast majority of immigrants from southern Italy whose geopolitical affinities were to their local villages. By perpetuating ideas of a united Italian community based on racial hierarchies and a grand history of an assumed, singular Italian civilization, the prominentiimposed elitist notions of a unified Italian American community that was removed from working-class understandings of history and social formations, and that relied on Italians aligning themselves with a white majority. At the same time, the prominenti devalued and inhibited a whole host of Italian working-class cultural expressions that became more and more associated with ignorance and vulgarity—from undermining the practice of Catholic street feasts to belittling the use of Italian regional dialects.

The quintessential prominente, Generoso Pope, was instrumental in cementing Italian Americans to Columbus. A powerful businessman and influential newspaper owner in New York City, Pope was pro-Fascist. He used his Italian language daily Il Progresso Italo-Americano during the 1920s and 1930s as propaganda for the Italian dictator, and he led Columbus Day gatherings at Columbus Circle where audience members made the fascist salute (and anti-fascist Italian Americans protested both vocally and physically). Critical in securing the Italian American vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt, he later lobbied FDR’s administration for an annual national Columbus Day, eventually proclaimed in 1937.

Significantly, many Columbus statues around the country were commissioned, paid for, and built by Italian immigrants. The statues were not created—as in the case of Confederate statues—to impose political dominance over others; on the contrary, the monuments were a means to gain entrance into a racist society under the cover of whiteness. Theirs was no doubt a troubling, but all-too-common, approach to assimilation. Contributions of small change from working-class Italian immigrants helped underwrite statues like the grandiose marble one dedicated in 1892 in New York City or the smaller bronze one erected in 1930 in Easton, Pennsylvania. In some communities like Easton and Richmond, Virginia, the Ku Klux Klan actively campaigned to prevent the placement of Columbus statues in public spaces in opposition to Catholics and “foreigners.” In short, these monuments were historically contested sites where Italian immigrants sought visibility in the remaking of local landscapes and the larger political sphere.

Read the entire piece here.

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.

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.

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.

A Metric to Help Us Decide if a Monument Should Stay or Go

Confederate_Monument_-_W_face_-_Arlington_National_Cemetery_-_2011

John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University and one of our leading public intellectuals, offers this metric:

  1. Was the person’s or cultural artifact’s historical impact exclusively focused on slavery and racism?
  2. Did the person insist on their support of segregation and racism even in the face of vigorous arguments otherwise?
  3. Is the monument an ever-present part of experience?

Read how he develops these points here.  There is much to commend here. But even if we accept the metrics that McWhorter proposes I imagine that there will still be debate over how to parse their phrasing.  For example, what defines an “ever-present part of experience?” What qualifies as “vigorous arguments otherwise?”

The Author’s Corner with Max Mueller

C7ntXjAUwAAmfNwMax Mueller is Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This interview is based on his new book, Race and the Making of the Mormon People (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Race and the Making of the Mormon People?

MM: I’ve always been fascinated with Mormons as a people who have become the “stand in”—a synecdoche, if you will—for “American”—family oriented, patriotic, conservative in comportment, dress, speech, and often in politics, industrious, white, and often wealthy. But the church as an institution (as J. B. Haws has argued) is still seen as an outsider—even suspect—organization. I wanted to explore this paradox.

But I also wanted to explore how non-white Mormons—and yes, there have always been some (including Mormons of African and Native American descent)—have grappled with Mormon conceptions of whiteness, and whiteness as close to “godliness,” or better put, whiteness as signifying humanity in accord with God’s plan. Such an exploration must begin with the Book of Mormon, Mormonism’s foundational text. At its heart, the Book of Mormon is about how sin within the human family leads to schism, and schism manifested as curses of blackness/darkness. In 1830 when the Book of Mormon was first published, this view of race was (and, alas in some corners, still is) the dominate view of how the “black” and “white” races came to be, based on the standard interpretations of biblical curses (see Cain and Abel; Noah and Ham), which arose to justify the enslavement of people of African descent. (It’s key to note here, that the Book of Mormon, however, contains neither “white” Europeans, nor “black” Africans in its narrative, though it’s often been read as such. Instead, at least according to its “translator, Joseph Smith Jr., and earliest adopters, the origin story of America’s pre-Columbian Native peoples). But where Mormonism parts with the standard biblical hermeneutic, is that the movement’s earliest leaders taught that since race was not of God’s design—but the result of human family—race could be overcome and nonwhites could restore themselves to the original white (as in raceless) human family.

That’s the start of Mormon story with race—a story of (relatively) radical racial universalism, at least for the 1830s, which most people don’t know about. Due to internal and external pressures, within a few decades of the church’s history, what began as “white universalism” quickly became the sole purview of “white” Mormons. But fundamentally, my purpose was to move beyond the history of this “declension narrative” by focusing on how non-white Mormons participated in—fought against, accepted, acquiesced to—the evolving Mormon theology of race. So I try to highlight the histories—and as best as possible, the words of—the few African and Native American Mormons for whom we have records, to show how they negotiated living within—and also helped shape intentionally or not—this highly racialized community.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Race and the Making of the Mormon People?

MM: That the history of “race” in America begins first from the written word—notably written scriptures—and then gets read onto flesh and bone bodies. Race requires narration, an origin story of how different races came to be.

 JF: Why do we need to read Race and the Making of the Mormon People?

MM: There has been a lot of great scholarship on race and Mormonism as of late. But my book, I hope, makes two key contributions:

First, instead of looking at how “white” Mormons responded to outside pressures—especially non-Mormons’ racialization of Mormons as something less than white (the legacy of the fight over polygamy), and did so to assert their superior whiteness—my book examines how race emerges internally from Mormon theology and history. And, again, that begins with a careful reading of how the Book of Mormon shaped early Mormon conceptions of race.

And second, my book centers non-white Mormons’ stories to show that they aren’t peripheral to this history, but central to it (and often so in ways that are tragic). 

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

MM: Frankly, I cannot remember when I wasn’t going not to be one (save when I was in second grade and was going to be the first left-handed second baseman for the Cubs, save and a summer—not too long ago—when I was without an academic job and sending applications out to consulting firms…). I love American history, in large measure because I believe in this country’s exceptionalism—but (a version of) the exceptionalism that John Winthrop first articulated on the Arabella, in which the success of America’s experiment was conditional on its people’s the pursuit of justice. I’ve always been fascinated with how outsiders to the American mainstream (from Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Jarena Lee, William Apess, and Frederick Douglass, to Malcolm X, Caesar Chavez, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ta-Nehisi Coates) have been the most cogent articulators of this American exceptionalism and the fiercest critics (in the Jeremiad tradition) to how much America is failing to live up to it.

 JF: What is your next project?

MM: My next project is Wakara’s World, a material-culture biography of Wakara (1808-1855), who was a central figure in my first book as he was ordained a Mormon elder in the early 1850s, but then later went to war against his Mormon brethren when they began to destroy his people’s sacred lands and disrupt his most profitable endeavor: trafficking in Indian slaves. During the mid-nineteenth century, when he and his pan-tribal cavalry of horse thieves and slave traders dominated the Old Spanish Trail, Wakara became one of the U.S. Southwest’s most influential settler colonialists, capitalists, and statesmen. Yet in most historical narratives, Wakara has been reduced to the epitome of the incorrigible savage “Indian” in what Richard White calls the theater of “inverted conquest.” Wakara’s World is an attempt to recover the environmental, cultural, and political worlds of Wakara and his people by exploring material archives along with written ones. Each chapter of the biography focuses on one material object—from “Wakara’s Fish,” the sacred foodstuff of the chief’s tribe that was decimated by the arrival of the Mormons’ irrigation ditches, to “Wakara’s Skull,” which late nineteenth-century ethnologists from the U.S. Army Medical Museum dug up from the chief’s elaborate burial site in order to compare its cranial volume with other races.

JF: Thanks, Max!

Season 4 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast is Almost Here!

BakerWe were all in the studio today recording Episode 25 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  This is our first episode of Season 4.

In this episode we discuss race and Charlottesville with Kelly J. Baker, author of the highly acclaimed Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930.

The episode drops here on Sunday.  As always, it will be available at your favorite podcatcher.

While you wait, please “like” our new Facebook page and follow our new Twitter feed: @twoilhpodcast

And if you really like our work (and we hope you do), join our growing number of supporters by heading over to our Patreon site and making a pledge.

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.

A Young Confederate is Transformed by the Study of History

DewOver at History News Network, Robin Lindley interviews noted Civil War historian Charles Dew.  (On a personal note, I am using Dew’s Apostle of Disunion in my Civil War America course this semester).

The interview centers on Dew’s 2016 book The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade.

Here is a taste of Lindley’s introduction to the interview:

Professor Dew illustrates how he and generations of white southerners were poisoned by racism as if by osmosis, a word he uses advisedly to describe his own experience growing up with demeaning images of African Americans and rules that penalized and dehumanized them at every turn. He explores the vexing issue of how otherwise seemingly admirable people, including members of his own family, could embrace the odious tenets of white supremacy and the oppression of others.

But Professor Dew also describes his evolution from a “young Confederate” to an outspoken critic of racism, thanks in large part to his education at Williams College, and particularly his study of history. He details how he became a scholar of the South and its deeply conflicted past, and how that study revealed the noxious, insidious influence of white supremacist ideas that has poisoned whites there since the dawn of slavery.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Robin Lindley: I was surprised that your father, with his Jim Crow ideas, encouraged you to go to college at Williams in the far North.

Professor Charles Dew: Looking back on it, it does seem strange, but on the other hand I think he thought, as I say in the book, that the armor in which we were clad as Southerners was impenetrable and we could come to a New England college and, as he would say, we’d learn to speak well and write well and get a good liberal arts education. Then we would come back south with our cultural norms intact. It didn’t work that way. I think he anticipated that what he called “our Southern roots” were so firmly implanted that they weren’t going to be uprooted by four years of college in New England.

Robin Lindley: But your racist beliefs were uprooted, and your evolution—the unmaking of your racism–is a marvelous part of your story. What were a couple of incidents or moments that were particularly eye opening for you?

Professor Charles Dew: The experience of having an African American classmate and having someone I went to the dining halls with. We were in the same freshman vertical entry in the dormitory. You did a lot of things together with the kids in your entry. There were two senior advisors who lived in the entry with us and they planned activities for us together.

I was reacting as a social equal for the first time in my life with a person of color. I mention telling that dialect joke as my classmate walked down the stairs outside the dorm room in which I was telling this. I was so humiliated; I stopped and never told another joke like that in my life. I made a point of introducing myself to him a day or two later. I had to find out if he heard me. I was so upset. As I said, my mother had taught us not to humiliate anybody, and never to humiliate ourselves, and I thought I had done both. He didn’t let on that he had heard. We shook hands. That was the first time I’d shaken hands across the color line. I was 17 years old.

That was a profound experience for me. I started seeing things I hadn’t noticed before about Jim Crow customs in the South. I mention the curtain being pulled across the dining car on the train as it was going south. I had never noticed that before.

Just being in an educational institution in the North where I had classmates who were African American was life altering. I didn’t come out of that culture all that fast. It was a step or two forward, a step or two back. I still am puzzled by how blind I was to a lot.

I evolved with some tardiness, but I did evolve, and by my senior year, I was fully out from under. And that’s where those conversations with Illinois were so important. That’s the final thing that led me to break free from the racism that I had been raised under.

Robin Lindley: How did you come to study history and then to specialize in the history of the South and slavery?

Professor Charles Dew: I was fascinated by the South. Most boys who grew up in the South dream of Civil War battles, but I had some great teachers at Williams—historians who got me hooked on history, first as a major and then as something to study to understand Southern history.

I was fascinated by the region and I also began to ask questions about the South that I had never asked before. How did we come to embrace slavery? What caused the Civil War? How did the Jim Crow South evolve in the period after Reconstruction? I read a lot of C. Vann Woodward as an undergraduate and that made me want to go to Johns Hopkins and study with him, which I did.

So I think it was being fascinated with the South and its culture and history and absorbing that Confederate mythology and having that pretty well smashed to bits when I was studying it in college. So, instead of going to law school like everyone else in the family, I decided I wanted to go to grad school. It was a question of my growing up there and being fascinated by the South and then being educated about it in college in ways that were brand new to me. And just wanting to understand the region, which I still find fascinating and still find challenging.

Read the entire interview 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?

Lonnie Bunch III: Dismantle Confederate Statues, Group Them Together, and Contextualize Them

Confederate_soldier_monument,_Union_County,_AR_IMG_2583

I just read Robin Pogrebin and Sopan Deb’s New York Times article titled “Trump Aside, Artists and Preservationists Debate the Rush to Topple Statues.” The article quotes Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Here is a taste:

Mark Bradford, the renowned Los Angeles artist, says Confederate statues should not be removed unless they are replaced by educational plaques that explain why they were taken away.

For Robin Kirk, a co-director of Duke University’s Human Rights Center, the rapid expunging of the statues currently underway needs to be “slower and more deliberative.”

And Lonnie G. Bunch III, the director the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, proposes that the dismantled statues be grouped together and contextualized, so people understand what they stood for.

In state after state this week, artists, museum curators, and historic preservationists found themselves grappling with lightning-fast upheaval in a cultural realm — American monuments — where they usually have input and change typically unfolds with care. Many said that even though they fiercely oppose President Trump and his defense of Confederate statues, they saw the removal of the monuments as precipitous and argued that the widening effort to eliminate them could have troubling implications for artistic expression.

“I am loath to erase history,” Mr. Bunch said. “For me it’s less about whether they come down or not, and more about what the debate is stimulating.”

Read the entire article here.

The Octavius Catto Memorial

CattoI first learned about Octavius Catto about ten years ago when we took our daughters to Philadelphia for a short vacation.  During our visit we took full advantage of the city’s “Once Upon a Nation” storytelling benches.  Professional storytellers at each bench–there are fifteen scattered around the Independence Hall area–tell stories about famous Philadelphians.  I don’t know if the program has changed over the years, but when my kids were young they could get a free carousel ride and an ice cream cone in Franklin Square if they visited all fifteen benches.

I vividly remember one of the “Once Upon a Nation” story tellers (I think it was outside the National Constitution Center) telling my girls the story of Catto’s civil rights activism in Civil War-era Philadelphia

I was thus pleased to see that Philadelphia will be erecting a statue near City Hall to commemorate Catto’s contribution to the city’s history.

Over at Philly.Com, writer Jonathan Lai reports on a recent program for teachers on Catto’s life and his contribution to Philadelphia’s African American history.

Here is a taste:

Catto was murdered in 1871, at just 32 years old. He sought to protect fellow African Americans who were trying to exercise their right to vote, which had just been ratified by the states the year before. But his name had been largely missing from the modern discussion of civil rights, organizers have said.

As he has been brought back into popular consciousness — a sculpture is set to be placed next month on the southern apron of City Hall — the School District of Philadelphia, the Catto Memorial Fund, and the National Archives partnered for Thursday’s event, the first in a yearlong series aimed at helping teachers include Catto in their curricula, the educational counterpart to the physical memorial.

The statue is the first of a named African American on public ground in the city. The work, titled Quest for Parity, will feature the 12-foot-tall bronze statue, a stainless-steel ballot box, and five granite pillars symbolizing streetcars.

“The Catto story is the national story. It is part of the story of our Constitution. It is the story of how ordinary citizens work, some every day, to make the Constitution live,” said V. Chapman Smith, an organizer of Thursday’s event who works at the National Archives and who is on the board of the Catto Memorial Fund.

Read the entire article here.