“It was about the extension of white supremacy”

HoweI just finished lecturing on Andrew Jackson in my U.S. survey course.  (Actually, I still need to cover the bank crisis. I will do that in lecture on Monday).  One of the central themes of this lecture is that Jackson’s understanding of democracy was directly tied to white supremacy.

Everyone seems to be talking about Jackson these days. Slacktivist recently called my attention to a 2010 blog post by public intellectual and award winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates in which Coates quotes from Daniel Walker Howe’s Pultizer Prize-winning What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.  The quote comes from Howe’s section on Jackson and Indian removal:

Seeking the fundamental impulse behind Jacksonian Democracy, historians have variously pointed to free enterprise, manhood suffrage, the labor movement, and resistance to the market economy. But in its origins, Jacksonian Democracy (which contemporaries understood as a synonym for Jackson’s Democratic Party) was not primarily about any of these, though it came to intersect with all of them in due course. In the the first place, it was about the extension of white supremacy across the North American continent.

A Tale of Two Thornwells

Thornwell Hoops

Sindarius Thornwell

Today’s guest post, written on the eve of the Final Four, comes from Patrick L. Connelly.  Patrick is Chair of the History & Political Science Department at Mississippi College and a University of South Carolina alum (Class of 1994).  Enjoy!  –JF

 I am a Columbia SC native and a graduate of the University of South Carolina, where my late father taught History from 1969 until his death in 1991. Naturally, I’m beyond thrilled at the improbable run of my alma mater through the NCAA tournament. When a Duane Notice dunk put an exclamation point on an Elite Eight victory over Florida, I shared the disbelieving joy seen in crowd shots of Gamecock fans accustomed to the agony of defeat. The tears of Darius Rucker were all our tears (Let him cry, y’all). Then there is Sindarius Thornwell, whose number 0 jersey will soon be hanging in the rafters at Colonial Life Arena. Where would we be without the passion and commitment of this native son?

Several recent profiles have documented the story of Sindarius Thornwell, who was raised by a single mother with help from a devoted uncle in the small upstate community of Lancaster, SC. The town has experienced the fate of many Southern communities whose textile mills have closed or moved, resulting in a declining population. Sindarius was highly recruited and could have pursued more prestigious programs but wanted to help his home state and go where his family could see him play. His recruitment was the crucial cornerstone of Frank Martin’s rebuilding project at the University of South Carolina. Lancaster takes immense pride in what he has accomplished. He often visits home and remembers affectionately the community that molded him.

The journey of Lancaster’s favorite son may seem a long way from a 19th century Southern Presbyterian advocate of slavery who once served as the president of the institution represented by Sindarius in the Final Four. James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862) was known for his talents as an orator, scholar, theologian, and advocate of Old School Presbyterianism. His legacy also includes support for racial hierarchy, a vigorous defense of slavery, harsh critiques of abolitionism, hostility toward Catholicism, and endorsement of the Confederacy (after holding Unionist views prior to the war).

James Henley Thornwell was born the son of a plantation overseer in Marlboro County, SC, two counties over from Lancaster. He attended South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) and accepted a pastorate in Lancaster in 1835 after graduation. It was there that he met his wife Nancy Witherspoon, whose influential family owned a plantation nearby. Soon thereafter, he was drawn back to Columbia to teach at his alma mater, beginning a lifelong trend of alternating between pastoral stints and serving at South Carolina College as a professor, president (from 1851-1855), and trustee. Benjamin Palmer, his hagiographer and fellow Southern Presbyterian, wrote that the Thornwells “acquired, by marriage” a small Lancaster plantation that included slaves to whom Thornwell was “an easy and indulgent master.” The Lancaster plantation was a refuge for the Thornwells from the heat and mosquitoes of Columbia. Enslaved residents of the plantation would travel back and forth from Lancaster to Columbia with the Thornwells.

JamesHenleyThornwell

James H. Thornwell

I’m struck by the juxtaposition of these journeys. Sindarius Thornwell, with his deep attachment to family, friends, and hometown, frequently travels back and forth from Lancaster to the University of South Carolina. Over 160 years earlier, James Henley Thornwell completed a journey to the same place—albeit one whose social, political, and technological context made it a profoundly different experience. But is there more of a connection between these Thornwells?

One can’t help but wonder. Perhaps there is a direct historical link, forged in the crucible of slavery, between the ancestors of Sindarius Thornwell and the family of James Henley Thornwell. Is it simply a coincidence of geography and the sharing of a distinct last name? Maybe. Maybe not. The question is impossible to answer without knowing the genealogy and family history of Sindarius Thornwell.

But here is what I do know: Sindarius Thornwell has put my home state in the national spotlight for reasons more than its tragic history of slavery, the horrific murder of innocents at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, or the specter of the Confederate flag. It’s not just his vital role in orchestrating a magical run through the NCAA Tournament. Sindarius Thornwell is an African-American and South Carolinian leading a racially diverse team comprised of local, regional, national, and international players coached by Frank Martin—a son of Cuban immigrants who happens to be married to the daughter of Jamaican immigrants.

The irony of Southern history indeed.

Quote of the Day

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

Abraham Lincoln to Joshua F. Speed, August 24, 1855

HT: John Craig Hammond

A New History of Race?

StampedI am not a historian of race, but, as an American historian, I do teach a lot about the role that race has played in the history of the United States.  This week in my Pennsylvania History class we have been discussing the 1838 Pennsylvania Constitution and the framers’ decision to restrict voting rights to free white men.  The new constitution allowed Pennsylvanians to get up to speed with the universal (white) manhood suffrage that was pervading much of Jacksonian America, but it also represented a step backwards for free blacks.  The original 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution gave voting rights to all free men, including blacks.  The 1790 Constitution limited voting rights to taxpayers, but did not distinguish taxpayers based on race.

Studying these three Pennsylvania constitutions reminds us that history does not consistently bend toward progress.

I do my best to keep fresh on new books related to race in America.  The Author’s Corner helps.  So do my attempts at curating the history Internet in an attempt to keep this blog going.  I thus always appreciate historiographical posts like Eran Zelnik‘s piece at U.S. Intellectual History Blog: “Should we be talking about the new history of race?

Here is a taste:

Over the last several years there have been numerous discussions, panels, articles, and other commentary about the “new history of capitalism.” Books such as Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, Edward Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told, and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams have been on everyone’s radar as a fresh new historiographical tradition. While I have learned much from these books, one of the most unfortunate aspects of this so-called “new” history is that it views itself as new and novel rather than rooted in a long tradition of black radical thought. (Walter Johnson is less guilty of this than Beckert and Baptist). And for the most part we historians have embraced this historiography at face value as new.

Another historiographical tradition that has its roots in black radical thought has emergedover the last several decades much more quietly—perhaps because it refused to claim its novelty. Often grounding itself much more explicitly—and in my opinion thoughtfully—with this powerful intellectual tradition, the recent history of race as a social and cultural construction has changed the way we think about race. In hindsight it now seems to me that 2016 was the year in which the intellectual history of racial constructions reached new heights with three truly ground-breaking works of intellectual history: Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation by Nicholas Guyatt, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution by Robert Parkinson, and, of course, the National Book Award winner, the magisterial Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram Kendi.

Guyatt’s book provides a much-needed inquiry into the intellectual history that made the patently contradictory and heinous notion of “separate but equal” thinkable and compelling for Americans. It also offers historians a crucial template for assessing anti-black and anti-Indian racism within the same intellectual landscape. Parkinson’s book is an exhaustive account of how ideas about race galvanized the opposition to the British during the American Revolution. It is the best attempt so far to finally wrest the intellectual history of the American Revolution from the stranglehold of the republicanism/liberalism debates. Kendi’s book is quite a marvelous achievement of intellectual history that charts the history of anti-black racist ideas. Cutting through numerous Gordian Knots with impressive intellectual precision, I believe that it will replace Winthrop Jordan’s classic White Over Black as the seminal intellectual history of race in American historiography.

Read the rest here.

Is Steve King Really on the Fringes of the GOP?

Was right-leaning political commentator Margaret Hoover correct earlier this evening on CNN when she described Steve King as part of the Republican Party’s lunatic fringe?

In case you have not heard, King, a congressman from Iowa,  has been making some rather racist comments of late.  (Get up to speed here with our earlier post placing King’s comments in some historical perspective).

If King is part of the white nationalist wing of the GOP, then Ted Cruz might be right there with him.  Let’s remember that King was influential in helping the Texas Senator and GOP presidential candidate win the Iowa primary last January.  In fact, Cruz made King the national co-chair for his campaign.

Here is Ted Cruz praising his good buddy:

I have yet to see a Cruz condemnation of King’s remarks.

This is Racism

Here is Chris Cuomo’s interview this morning with Iowa congressman Steve King:

Here is a transcript of the last minute or so:

CUOMO: There are a lot of people teaching hatred in their families who are white, Irish, Italian, who are Muslim. A lot of people preach hate. There’s hate in a lot of different groups. I get you have Muslim extremism that there’s a concern in this country about it. But I asked you something else. These people are either all equal or they are not in your view. A Muslim American, an Italian American, German American like you and your blood, your roots. They are either all equal or they are not in your mind. What is the answer? 

KING: I’d say they’re all created in the image of God and they’re equal in his eyes. If they’re citizens of the United States they’re equal in the eyes of the law. Individuals will contribute differently, not equally to this civilization and society. Certain groups of people will do more from a productive side than other groups of people will. That’s just a statistical fact. 

CUOMO: It’s not as a function of race. It’s a function of opportunity and education. You’re not more likely as a Muslim American to contribute to American society. It’s about your education and your opportunity, not what your blood is. 

KING: Chris? 

CUOMO: Yes. 

KING: It’s the culture, not the blood. If you can go anywhere in the world and adopt these babies and put them into households that were already assimilated in America, those babies will grow up as American as any other baby with as much patriotism and love of country as any other baby. 

It’s not about race. It’s never been about race. In fact the struggles across this planet, we describe them as race, they’re not race. They’re culture based. It’s a clash of culture, not the race. Sometimes that race is used as an identifier. 

This idea that some cultures and races are inferior to others and are thus incapable of making meaningful contributions to American society has a long history in the United States.

Here is Ben Franklin in 1751 writing about the influx of Germans in Pennsylvania:

Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation…and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain…Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it…I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties…In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.

Here is King again. This time he is promoting something similar to the racial hierarchies that motivated the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act:

I noticed that King did not include Southern Europeans in his definition of “Western Civilization.”  Yup.  My ancestors have been there.

Italians

1888

Why doesn’t King just take his remarks to their logical conclusion by naming those groups that will be less “productive” members of American society.

Roger Taney Apologizes to Dred Scott

Dred Scott

Dred Scott

Well, actually both Roger Taney and Dred Scott are dead.  But this did not stop a descendant of Taney (also named Roger Taney) from apologizing to a descendant of Scott.

Here is a taste of an article from The Washington Post:

Lynne M. Jackson winced outside the Maryland State House on Monday as she listened to Charlie Taney repeat some of the words his great-great-grand-uncle wrote in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision 160 years ago.

Black people cannot be U.S. citizens and have no rights except the ones that white people give them. Whites are superior to blacks. Slavery is legal.

“You can’t hide from the words that [Roger Brooke] Taney wrote,” Charlie Taney said, standing a few feet from a statue of his ancestor, who lived in Maryland and was chief justice of the nation’s highest court from 1836 until his death in 1864.

“You can’t run, you can’t hide, you can’t look away. You have to face them.”

Then Charlie Taney turned to Jackson, the great-great granddaughter of Scott, an enslaved man who sued for his freedom. He apologized — on behalf of his family, to the Scott family and to all African Americans, for the “terrible injustice of the Dred Scott decision.”

Read the entire piece here.  Lean more about the Dred Scott decision here.

The Author’s Corner with Judith Weisenfeld

New World A Coming.jpgJudith Weisenfeld is Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton University. This interview is based on her new book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (NYU Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write New World A-Coming?

JW: I have been interested in the black new religious movements of the Great Migration period since I read Arthur Huff Fauset’s 1944 ethnographic study, Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North, in an undergraduate course. Fauset was concerned with questions about what the religious creativity fostered by the migration and urbanization of African Americans in the early twentieth century revealed about the dynamics of black religion, particularly with regard to connections to African religious traditions. In this way he was participating in a broader scholarly conversation among anthropologists about “African retentions” in African American culture. As I thought about revisiting some of the groups Fauset had profiled and my fascination with their charismatic leaders, distinctive theologies, and novel rituals and social organizations grew, it became clear to me that I brought different questions and tools to the project than had Fauset.

Two aspects of Fauset’s approach remained important for me as I researched and wrote the book, however. First, although a number of wonderful historical and ethnographic studies have been published in recent years examining the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission, congregations of black Jews, and the Moorish Science Temple – the groups on which I focus in New World A-Coming – most examined a single group of a number of groups under the same religious umbrella. Like Fauset, I wanted to think comparatively and, as a historian, to think about what gave rise to these novel movements in the early twentieth-century urban North, about commonalities, and differences. Second, Fauset attended not only to the leaders of the movements and their theologies but to the members, asking questions about what appealed to them and what they gained in joining these groups. Trying to recover some sense of the experiences of members of the groups was what really motivated me to take up the project, and the challenge of finding sources to do so was both exciting and frustrating at times.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of New World A-Coming?

JW: Through attention to the theologies and religious practices of the leaders and members of these groups, I explore how people of African descent debated the nature of racial categories and discussed their impact on political, social, and spiritual opportunities. I argue that the appeal of the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, Father Divine’s Peace Mission, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews lay not only in the new religious opportunities that membership in them afforded, but in the novel ways they formulated an inseparable, divinely ordained religio-racial identity.

JF: Why do we need to read New World A-Coming?

JW: The book provides a fresh look at the black religious movements of the Great Migration period, emphasizing the experiences of both leaders and members who proposed new ways of thinking about black history, individual and collective identity, and sacred future. The book’s attention to African American religious diversity is also significant. Because religious African Americans have largely been affiliated with Protestant denominations, the field has focused on church history. Yet, African Americans have demonstrated great religious creativity and have challenged black Protestant orthodoxy in ways that have important implications for our understanding of the history of religion in American life.

New World A-Coming also adds to the literature on the history of race in the U.S. by highlighting the work of black peoples to challenge or redefine categories of race. Moreover, by locating religious identity and narrative at the core of the study, the book demonstrates the critical role that religion has played in shaping understandings of race in early twentieth-century African American life. As a study of modes of interaction between religion and race in the American past, the book also provides valuable insight into contemporary trends, particularly in light of racially-inflected religious discourse and religiously-inflected racial discourse in American public culture. Current discussion of America’s achievement of or failure to reach the status of post-racial society have taken place without full understanding of the complexities of black racial identity in nation’s past. The book breaks the limited binary of racial/post-racial and provides a more complex picture of racial identities and discourses.

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

JW: I came to the study of American history through Religious Studies. My undergraduate work as a Religion major at Barnard College explored the transnational history of black theology in connection with the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and, in deciding to go to graduate school in Religion, I knew I wanted to focus on African American religious history specifically. In fact, I proposed a project something like New World A-Coming in my application, but ended up writing a dissertation on another aspect of African American religion in the period: a history of African American women’s political and social activism in the New York City Young Women’s Christian Association. I remain fascinated by early twentieth-century African American religious history, particularly in arenas outside of churches and denominations, and I enjoy the archival challenges of telling these sorts of cultural histories.

JF: What is your next project?

JW: My current research examines late nineteenth and early-twentieth-century psychiatric discourses that connected race, religion, and mental illness among African Americans and explores how these racialized discourses shaped the approaches of mental hospitals, courts, and prisons to people psychiatrists deemed disabled by virtue of religiously grounded mental illness.

JF: Thanks, Judith!

Martin Luther King’s Christian America

21712-mlk-in-birmingham-jailThis post draws heavily from a column I wrote for Patheos in March 2011 and my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

When we think of the defenders of a Christian America today, the Christian Right immediately comes to mind. We think of people like David Barton or Ted Cruz.

Rarely, if ever, do we see the name Martin Luther King, Jr. included on a list of apologists for Christian America. Yet he was just as much of an advocate for a “Christian America” as any who affiliate with the Christian Right today.

Let me explain.

King’s fight for a Christian America was not over amending the Constitution to make it more Christian or promoting crusades to insert “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. It was instead a battle against injustice and an attempt to forge a national community defined by Christian ideals of equality and respect for human dignity.

Most historians now agree that the Civil Rights movement was driven by the Christian faith of its proponents. As David Chappell argued in his landmark book, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, the story of the Civil Rights movement is less about the triumph of progressive and liberal ideals and more about the revival of an Old Testament prophetic tradition that led African-Americans to hold their nation accountable for the decidedly unchristian behavior it showed many of its citizens.

There was no more powerful leader for this kind of Christian America than King, and no greater statement of his vision for America than his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

King arrived in Birmingham in April 1963 and led demonstrations calling for an end to racist hiring practices and segregated public facilities. When King refused to end his protests, he was arrested by Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s Public Safety Commissioner. In solitary confinement, King wrote to the Birmingham clergy who were opposed to the civil rights protests in the city. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” published in pamphlet form and circulated widely, offered a vision of Christian nationalism that challenged the localism and parochialism of the Birmingham clergy and called into question their version of Christian America.

A fierce localism pervaded much of the South in the mid-20th century. For Southerners, nationalism conjured up memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction, a period when Northern nationalists—Abraham Lincoln, the “Radical Republican” Congress, and the so-called “carpetbaggers—invaded the South in an attempt to force the region to bring its localism in line with a national vision informed by racial equality.

When he arrived in Birmingham, King was perceived as an outside agitator intent on disrupting the order of everyday life in the city. Many Birmingham clergy believed that segregation was a local issue and should thus be addressed at the local level.

King rejected this kind of parochialism. He fought for moral and religious ideas such as liberty and freedom that were universal in nature. Such universal truths, King believed, should always trump local beliefs, traditions, and customs. As he put it, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” Justice was a universal concept that defined America. King reminded the Birmingham clergy that Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln had defended equality as a national creed, a creed to which he believed the local traditions of the Jim Crow South must conform. In his mind, all “communities and states” were interrelated. “Injustice anywhere,” he famously wrote, “is a threat to justice everywhere.” He added: “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” This was King the nationalist at his rhetorical best.

King understood justice in Christian terms. The rights granted to all citizens of the United States were “God given.” Segregation laws, King believed, were unjust not only because they violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) but because they did not conform to the laws of God.

King argued, using Augustine and Aquinas, that segregation was “morally wrong and sinful” because it degraded “human personality.” Such a statement was grounded in the biblical idea that all human beings were created in the image of God and as a result possess inherent dignity and worth.

He also used biblical examples of civil disobedience to make his point. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego took a stand for God’s law over the law of King Nebuchadnezzar. Paul was willing to “bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” And, of course, Jesus Christ was an “extremist for love, truth, and goodness” who “rose above his environment.”

In the end, Birmingham’s destiny was connected to the destiny of the entire nation—a nation that possessed what King called a “sacred heritage,” influenced by the “eternal will of God.” By fighting against segregation, King reminded the Birmingham clergy that he was standing up for “what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” (italics mine)

It sounds to me that King wanted America to be a Christian nation. The Civil Rights movement, as he understood it, was in essence an attempt to construct a new kind of Christian nation—a beloved community of love, harmony, and equality.

The Author’s Corner with Paul Harvey

boundsoftheirhabitationPaul Harvey is Professor of History and Presidential Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado. This interview is based on his new book, Bounds of Their Habitation: Race and Religion in American History (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Bounds of Their Habitation?

PH: First, I was approached by the historian John David Smith, editor of a particular series called “American Ways” published by Rowman & Littlefield (in this series is also a wonderfully fun book called How America Eats, basically a history of American foodways, that I highly recommend for holiday serious/fun reading). He asked me if I wanted to write a book for the series. Previously I had published a book called Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity with Rowman & Littlefield, so I was pleased they wanted me to do another.

At the same time, I was beginning work on an edited volume for Oxford University Press on race and religion in American history. I thought writing this book, a “long-range” view of race and religion in American history, alongside editing the Oxford Handbook of Race and Religion in American History, which involves corralling 35 authors doing various essays, would be a fun and interesting experiment. And so it was/has been, and continues to be as we (my co-editor Kathryn Gin Lum and myself) finish up the Oxford volume. I wrote up a book proposal for Bounds, it was enthusiastically accepted, and it is now published pretty closely to how it was conceived in the first place.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bounds of Their Habitation?

PH: Religious ideas created racial categories and imposed race upon individual human bodies – what scholars refer to as “racialization.” But religious ideas also helped undermine racial hierarchies.

JF: Why do we need to read Bounds of Their Habitation?

PH: In this book, I aim to show how the terms “religion” and “race” (both highly malleable terms undergoing constant change), while always contested, ultimately solidified into social formations that fundamentally shaped American life. However constructed “race” may be, it acts as a real force in history; and however much the term “religion” is always being redefined and reformed, it has been a central ordering force in the most basic conceptions of American nationalism. My book tries to translate this story through piecing together the individual biographies of diverse people over four centuries. In this way, I hope it “translates” higher-order scholarly discussions of religion and race into narratives that any ordinary reader could pick up and understand.

Racial constructions remain a central ordering fact of religious life. Americans remained united by an unusually high association with faith, with religious belief, but divided by faith since the institutions reflecting those beliefs are still largely divided by race, culture, and politics. Given the history of race and religion in America, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise. And yet, given that history, it is possible to envision it being otherwise.

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

PH: I was for 2 years a biology major in college, intending to go to law school (don’t ask). One day I was perusing the college catalog, and the light from Damascus hit me – I was going to be an historian. I can’t explain it, other than it was just blindingly obvious. I have pursued that love ever since, in college, graduate school, postdocs, periods of unemployment, and now as Chair of a History Department. My colleague at the University of Colorado, when asked if we could offer a particular course that a visiting person could teach, said “sure, of course, I’m in favor of the history of anything.” I totally accord with that – I find the history of virtually anything to be fascinating.

JF: What is your next project?

PH: I want to write a book on the history of race, religion, and citizenship in American history, from 1790 to the present. The last election campaign obviously brought those issues up in full force, but the long history of how citizenship has both a narrow legal and a broadly social component in its definition is of great interest to me. I’ve also been asked to write a short (200 p.) biography of Martin Luther King Jr., for Rowman & Littlefield’s African American Lives biography series. I might take that one on next year, but I haven’t decided for sure yet.

JF: Thanks, Paul!

Coates and Obama Talk Race: Part 3

coates-obamaHere is an excerpt from Part 3 of their conversation on race published at The Atlantic. (See our previous post to get up to speed).

Obama: …And then you’ve got Skip Gates being arrested, which, to me, I was saying something pretty obvious. They ended up handcuffing this middle-aged, elderly man on his own porch. No matter how much he cursed you out, you overreacted, and it probably would not have happened had there not been some assumptions about who he was based on his race. Again, immediately folks ignored the discussion.

So this is part of the reason why when I hear people say we need a dialogue about race, or we need commissions on race, or this or that, I’m always somewhat skeptical, because trying to engineer those kinds of conversations on a national level in a way that could actually capture reality is very hard. What can happen, I think, is for us to act in ways that show mutual regard, propose policies that safeguard against obvious discrimination, extend ourselves in our personal lives and in our political lives in ways that lead us to see the other person as a human worthy of respect. It’s what we do more than what we say, I ultimately think, that saves us. All right?

Coates: All right.

Obama and Coates Talk Race: Part 2

coates-obamaHere is an excerpt from Part 2 of their conversation on race published at The Atlantic. (See our previous post to get up to speed).

Coates: Okay. The second part, you’re talking about how the country has changed, and the consciousness, and I think we both agree that 150 years ago that wasn’t true. And I wonder, is it the work, perhaps maybe not of presidents but certainly of people outside of government, to change that mind-set? And if one can come to see, for instance, that, yeah, it is true that nondiscrimination should be a basic value that we share, that, as I would put it, responsibility for our history is one, too?

Obama: Right. And I think that it is. I want my children—I want Malia and Sasha—to understand that they’ve got responsibilities beyond just what they themselves have done. That they have a responsibility to the larger community and the larger nation, that they should be sensitive to and extra thoughtful about the plight of people who have been oppressed in the past, are oppressed currently. So that’s a wisdom that I want to transmit to my kids. And it may be that we found an area where you’re more optimistic than me. But I would say that’s a high level of enlightenment that you’re looking to have from a majority of the society. And it may be something that future generations are more open to, but I am pretty confident that for the foreseeable future, using the argument of nondiscrimination, and “Let’s get it right for the kids who are here right now,” and giving them the best chance possible, is going to be a more persuasive argument.

One of the things you learn as president is, as powerful as this office is, you have limited bandwidth. And the time goes by really quickly and you’re constantly making choices, and there are pressures on you from all different directions—pressures on your attention, not just pressures from different constituencies. And so you have to be pretty focused about where can you have the biggest, quickest impact. And I always tell my staff, “Better is good.” I’ll take better every time, because better is hard. Better may not be as good as the best, but better is surprisingly hard to obtain. And better is actually harder than worse. [Laughter]

It requires enormous energy for us to cut the African American uninsured rate by a third. A lot of scars. Bernie Sanders would say, “You still have millions of African Americans who aren’t insured, and if we had a single-payer system, that wouldn’t be the case.” And that’s true. But it is my judgment that had I spent the first two years trying to get a single-payer system, all those folks who now have health insurance that didn’t have it would still be uninsured. And those are millions of people whose lives are impacted right now. I get letters from them right now. “You saved my child’s life.” “I did not have to sell my home when my wife got sick.” And that is what, as a policy maker, I’m trying to achieve during the short period of time that I’m here.

Now, you as a thinker, you as a writer, you as a philosopher, you want to stretch the boundaries of thinking, because you’re not constrained by trying to move the levers of power right now. And so I think that these are all worthy topics of conversation. Sometimes I wonder how much of these debates have to do with the desire, the legitimate desire, for that history to be recognized. Because there is a psychic power to the recognition that is not satisfied with a universal program, it’s not satisfied by the Affordable Care Act, or an expansion of Pell grants, or an expansion of the earned-income tax credit. It doesn’t speak to the hurt, and the sense of injustice, and the self-doubt that arises out of the fact that we’re behind now, and it makes us sometimes feel as if there must be something wrong with us, unless you’re able to see the history and say, “It’s amazing we got this far given what we went through.” So part of, I think, the argument sometimes that I’ve had with folks who are much more interested in sort of race-specific programs is less an argument about what is practically achievable and sometimes maybe more an argument of “We want society to see what’s happened, and internalize it, and answer it in demonstrable ways.” And those impulses I very much understand, but my hope would be that, as we’re moving through the world right now, we’re able to get that psychological or emotional peace by seeing very concretely our kids doing better and being more hopeful and having greater opportunities. And your son thriving at some United Nations model conference, and me seeing Malia and Sasha doing amazing things. And some of the mentees that I was talking to at A and T overcome incredible disadvantages and starting to gain confidence in what they can do in the world. And I’ll stop there.

Read the entire conversation here.

What Readings Would You Put on a 2016 Election Syllabus?

cowieProcess: A Blog for American History , a blog run by the Organization of American Historians, asked historians to tweet some book recommendations to help people understand the 2016 election.

What a great exercise!

Here are some of the books recommended by American historians:

Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class

David Roediger, Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class

Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Matthew Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race

George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Landon Storrs, The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left

W.E.B. Du Bous, Black Reconstruction in America

Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracutre

Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education

Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism

Thomas Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

 

Read the entire list here.

Are You an Intellectual?

kendiIbram X. Kendi‘s book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America recently won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.  Last week he delivered the doctoral commencement address at the University of Florida where he teaches in the history department.  His address, titled “Are You Intellectual,” is worth reading in full.  He has posted it to the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.

Here is a taste:

The point of my address is to ask you a simple question: are you an intellectual?

I am asking this question because you need to know that having a doctorate does not make you an intellectual. It is so embarrassing, but there are doctorates who are not intellectuals. Just like there are MDs who are not healers. Just like there are JDs who are not about justice. Just like there are Reverends who are not about God. Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a Reverend who is not about God? Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a JD who is not about justice. Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a MD who is not a healer? Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a doctorate holder who is not an intellectual?

Today you are joining the illustrious academy of doctoral recipients. But I want to talk to you today about joining the even more illustrious academy of intellectuals. No doctorate degree is required to join the intellectual academy. This is an inclusive academy with all types of people with all types of backgrounds. There are people with only a GED in this intellectual academy. There are incarcerated people in this intellectual academy. There are homeless people in this intellectual academy. There are poor people in this intellectual academy.

When I say intellectual, I am not referring to someone who knows a wealth of information. How much you know has no bearing on how much you are in intellectual.

I define—and many others define an intellectual as someone with a tremendous desire to know. Intellectuals are open-minded. Intellectuals have a tremendous capacity to change their mind on matters, to self-reflect, to self-critique. Intellectuals are governed by only one special interest that is rarely self-serving—the special interest of finding and revealing the truth.

Read the entire address here.

Barack Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates Talk Race and the Presidency

coates-obamaThe Atlantic has published a fascinating discussion between Barack Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the powerful Between the World and Me.

Here is a taste of the first of three conversations:

Coates: …I didn’t really grow up around white people, but even the abstract construction was as a malignant force in my life, which I had to make my way out of much, much later in life, in my 20s, when I had intimate contact. And I wonder how much of that general optimism you think emanates from your biography. The exposure too, the cosmopolitan nature of all you’ve seen.

Obama: Yeah. I mean, look, I think all of the above. I think I was deeply loved by my mom and my grandparents. I felt that, and I carried that with me. I spent time outside of the United States, which gives you a perspective on how people of all kinds of different races, and ethnicities, and religions, and backgrounds can figure out ways to divide themselves and try to be superior to others. So that I ended up looking at race in America as one example of a broader human problem, rather than something that was unique and I was trapped in. Right? But I also, I think, benefited from the very particular era that I was growing up in, because in some ways, the last 55 years—the years I’ve been on this Earth—have a very particular trajectory of progress that is incomplete, is partial, that middle-class African Americans enjoy in ways that really impoverished African Americans do not yet feel. But that trend would feed my optimism as well.

Now, you know, what’s interesting is the work that I did as an organizer in Chicago would help to temper that optimism and ground it so that it wasn’t just a bunch of happy talk. And it’s one of the reasons why, for the generation just ahead of me, I would learn of the anger, frustration, bitterness of my elders and respect it and understand it even if I ultimately did not agree with it.

Michael Eric Dyson on Identity Politics

dysonIn light of some of the things I have been writing on identity politics lately, someone on Facebook who disagrees with much of what I have written so far asked me to respond to this New York Times article by Michael Eric Dyson.

First, let me say that I have learned a lot from Dyson over the years. I would love to host him at Messiah College some time.

Last Winter I was driving through Alexandria, Virginia listening to C-SPAN radio and heard Dyson talking about his book The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America.  I found the interview so compelling (I have written about this before here at the blog) that the following week I bought a copy of the book at Hearts and Minds Books, Byron Borger’s bookstore in Dallastown, PA.  I took it home and read it in two sittings.  It helped me to better understand the Obama presidency and the subject of race in America more broadly. (You can see that interview with Dyson here).

Here are some thoughts on Dyson’s current piece:

  1. I think it was unfair of Kanye West, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to say that George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people.”  Dyson apparently disagrees.
  2. I also think it is unfair to equate Donald Trump’s views on race with the views of liberals and progressives such as Bernie Sanders or (implied) Mark Lilla. (More on Sanders below).
  3. Dyson does not distinguish between the universal ideals at the heart of the American Revolution (or at least the way these ideals were used by social reform movements through American history) and the failure of white people to apply them in American life.  For example, the idea that “all men are created equal” was used in arguments on behalf of women’s rights, abolitionism, the opposition to Jim Crow, and other reforms.  See, for example, Pauline Maier’s American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence.  So here is my question: Do the ideals of equality and human rights transcend race?  I would answer yes.  In other words, they are universal Enlightenment ideals that all human beings share.  And if one wants to argue that they are “white” ideals, then it seems that we should be thanking white people for introducing them into global history.
  4. But there is more to the story.  I largely agree with Dyson’s account of American history.  Yes, these universal ideas were not consistently applied in American history. (And we should not be thanking white people for that).  This is the history any American with a conscience must confront.  This is why I think the deep connections between American Slavery and American Freedom (as Edmund Morgan put it) must play a prominent role in the teaching of American history.  It is also why I think history is needed more than ever as a means of teaching people empathy for the stories of all Americans within a national narrative.  As a historian my vocation is to tell the story.  It is then up to my students and my audience to decide what to do about the story. (The latter work can take place in the history classroom, but it is not this is not the exercise that drives what happens in the history classroom). After telling the story my work as a historian is done.  (Of course my work on this front as a human being, a Christian, a citizen or a community member should not end, although one’s involvement in the cause will vary from person to person).
  5. So let me say a word about moving beyond the classroom.  Should we throw out these American ideals just because they were not consistently applied in the past? Some would say yes. They would say that the weight of racism (the failure to apply these principles) in America cannot be lifted.  They would say that the idea of “we shall overcome” is a relic of the past.  I must part ways with such thinking.  I will cast my lot with Martin Luther King and other early leaders of the Civil Rights movement who longed for and prayed for an integrated society.  My America, like the America King talked about in Washington and in a Birmingham jail cell, is a nation where we must continue in the long hard struggle to apply the principles that our founders put in place in the eighteenth-century.  As a Christian who believes in sin, I doubt we will ever get there on this side of eternity, but that is no excuse to stop working.  (And we have a lot of work to do–I have a lot of work to do–when opportunities arise). We are called to advance the Kingdom of God on this earth and, with a spirit of hope, await its ultimate fulfillment,.
  6. I like what Dyson said about Obama in the C-SPAN interview I cited above: “When black people’s backs are against the wall as American citizens…the president should take the side [of black people]….When they are being gunned down in the streets…and especially vulnerable to racist rebuff, you must use your billy pulpit to amplify their cause and their claims and you must do so not simply as the ‘first black president’–that may be inessential at this point.  What is essential, however, is that you as the representative of the state must speak on behalf of all citizens including African American people.” (Italics mine, although Dyson does inflect his voice on these words).  Here Dyson is appealing to the ideals that bind us together as a people. He is making what appears to be an appeal to the ideals of the nation and the responsibility of the POTUS (and by implication all of us) to apply them to the cause of racism.
  7. I agree with Dyson that the administration Trump is assembling is not equipped to handle race in America and will not be up to the task as I have just described it.
  8. As you might imagine by this point, on the question of “identity politics” I find myself siding with Bernie Sanders.  I believe that Bernie is correct when he says that we need to move beyond identity politics and toward a more national vision that seeks to address the things that affect all Americans–economic equality, the power of Wall Street, and climate change.  These things affect people of all colors.  I see a lot of Eugene Debs in Sanders–or at least the Debs that Nick Salvatore writes about in his book Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist.  What I take away from Salvatore’s treatment of Debs is the way that this prominent turn-of-the century socialist invoked the civic humanism of the American founding.  Debs’s civic humanism was certainly limited.  Our does not have to be.
  9. To suggest Sanders is a racist is wrong. (I don’t think Dyson is saying this).  To say that he does not care about black people or race in America is wrong.  (And I don’t think Dyson is saying this either, but he may come close).  I also don’t think a Sanders presidency would have ignored race.
  10. In the end, I see Sanders reaching beyond racial identity to make an appeal–primarily–to the things that all  Americans must address.  Isn’t this what the POTUS should be doing?  Isn’t this the politics we need to move forward?  Citizens of the United States must continue to frame their arguments about race in the context of the national ideals.

OK–there are some quick thoughts.

From the Archives: “Our historical narcissism indicts us”

GEA-HJSniper2.jpg

Wounded police officers outside the Downtown Howard Johnson Hotel in New Orleans–December 31, 1972

If you read my previous post, you know that today I watched (for about the fifth time) Barack Obama’s March 2015 speech at Selma.  There is so much I appreciate about this speech.  For example, Obama, like those who marched at Selma, connected the Civil Rights Movement to the ideals of the nation–ideals that we all share.  He also talks about the progress that has been made in civil rights over the last two centuries.

I returned to this speech after a conversation I had this morning about race in America. One of the people in the conversation said something like “racial tension is worse today than it has ever been in America.”  As the historian in the group, I said that I was not so sure about the validity of such a statement.  Race relations in America are better today than they were fifty years ago.  Obama makes this clear in his speech.  Progress can be a good thing.

And then I was reminded of a post I did back in September about Rick Perlstein’s piece at The Baffler titled “Time Bandits: Why Our Political Past is Rarely Prologue.”  I also remember quoting from this piece in a public lecture I gave a few days later at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Mass.

Here is my post from September 20, 2016:

Rick Perlstein, the author of several excellent (and big) books on American conservatism since the 1950s, is skeptical about the way his readers have turned to his work for historical analogies in this election cycle.

Here is a taste of his recent piece in The Baffler:

History does not repeat itself. “The country is disintegrating,” a friend of mine wrote on Facebook after the massacre of five policemen by black militant Micah Johnson in Dallas. But during most of the years I write about in Nixonland and its sequel covering 1973 through 1976, The Invisible Bridge, the Dallas shootings might have registered as little more than a ripple. On New Year’s Eve in 1972, a New Orleans television station received this message: “Africa greets you. On Dec. 31, 1972, aprx. 11 pm, the downtown New Orleans Police Department will be attacked. Reason—many, but the death of two innocent brothers will be avenged.” Its author was a twenty-three-year-old Navy veteran named Mark James Essex. (In the 1960s, the media had begun referring to killers using middle names, lest any random “James Ray” or “John Gacy” suffer unfairly from the association.) Essex shot three policemen to death, evading arrest. The story got hardly a line of national attention until the following week, when he began cutting down white people at random and held hundreds of officers at bay from a hotel rooftop. Finally, he was cornered and shot from a Marine helicopter on live TV, which also accidentally wounded nine more policemen. The New York Times only found space for that three days later.

Stories like these were routine in the 1970s. Three weeks later, four men identifying themselves as “servants of Allah” holed up in a Brooklyn sporting goods store with nine hostages. One cop died in two days of blazing gun battles before the hostages made a daring rooftop escape. The same week, Richard Nixon gave his second inaugural address, taking credit for quieting an era of “destructive conflict at home.” As usual, Nixon was lying, but this time not all that much. Incidents of Americans turning terrorist and killing other Americans had indeed ticked down a bit over the previous few years—even counting the rise of the Black Liberation Army, which specialized in ambushing police and killed five of them between 1971 and 1972.

In Nixon’s second term, however, they began ticking upward again. There were the “Zebra” murders from October 1973 through April 1974 in San Francisco, in which a group of Black Muslims killed at least fifteen Caucasians at random and wounded many others; other estimates hold them responsible for as many as seventy deaths. There was also the murder of Oakland’s black school superintendent by a new group called the Symbionese Liberation Army, who proceeded to seal their militant renown by kidnapping Patty Hearst in February 1974. Then, in May, after Hearst joined up with her revolutionary captors, law enforcement officials decimated their safe house with more than nine thousand rounds of live ammunition, killing six, also on live TV. Between 1972 and 1974 the FBI counted more than six thousand bombings or attempted bombings in the United States, with a combined death toll of ninety-one. In 1975 there were two presidential assassination attempts in one month.

Not to mention a little thing called Watergate. Or the discovery by Congressional investigators that the CIA had participated in plots to kill foreign leaders and spied on tens of thousands of innocent protesters, as well as the revelation that the FBI had tried to spur Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide. Or the humiliating collapse of South Vietnam, as the nation we had propped up with billions in treasure and 58,220 American lives was revealed to be little more than a Potemkin village.

And now? We’re drama queens. The week after Dallas, the host of the excellent public radio show The Takeaway, John Hockenberry, invoked the Manson murders: “America’s perilous dance with Helter Skelter . . . Individual feelings of fear and revenge do not ignite a race war—yet . . .” Yet.

There followed a news report about the civil war in South Sudan, one side loyal to the president, the other to the former vice president. Now that’s a disintegrating society. The Baffler is a print publication, and perhaps between this writing and its arrival in mailboxes we’ll start seeing, say, armed black militants in a major American city randomly killing scores of innocent white people, as in an earlier age—following which, I want to add, American society, no, did not disintegrate.

Our historical narcissism indicts us. Please don’t drag my name into it.

Perlstein adds:

The longing to assimilate the strange to the familiar is only human; who am I to hold myself aloof from it? But it’s just not a good way to study history, which when done right invites readers to tack between finding the familiar in the strange and the strange in the familiar. History roils. Its waves are cumulative, one rolling into another, amplifying their thunder. Or they become attenuated via energies pushing in orthogonal or opposite directions. Or they swirl into directionless eddies, with the ocean’s surface appearance as often as not obscuring grander currents just below.

It’s dispiritingly reminiscent of the consensus I sought to demythologize in Before the Storm that some see Trump only in the ways he is exceptional to the usual waves, currents, eddies of our history—except for that time Rick Perlstein writes about in his books, when Americans hated each other enough to kill each other. “How Did Our Politics Get So Harsh and Divisive? Blame 1968,” was how one recent rumination on the sixties-echo effect in the Trump movement got headlined in the Washington Post. Why not blame 1776, when the nation was born in blood and fire, brother fighting brother? Or 1787, when the Constitution repressed the contradictions between slave and free states, with all the core unresolved tensions slowly simmering until the nation had to be born again, from the blood of the better part of a million Americans slaughtering one another? “How Did Our Politics Become So Harsh and Divisive? Blame 1860.”

Heck, why not blame 1877, when an estimated one hundred people were killed in railroad strikes that involved some one hundred thousand people? Or the “Red Summer” of 1919, which set in motion race riots and lynchings, killing hundreds by 1921, when as many as three hundred died in the Tulsa riot alone? Or 1924, when it took the Democratic Party 103 convention ballots and sixteen days to settle whether the party would be represented by its pro– or anti–Ku Klux Klan factions, while tens of thousands of hooded Klansmen rallied across the river in New Jersey? Or 1945–46, when almost two million Americans went on strike? Or 1995, when a madman blew up a federal building and killed 168, including children in daycare? Why not start at the beginning and blame 1492, or the year the English settled in Massachusetts Bay?

Great stuff here on historical thinking, the uses of history, and historical analogies.  I may use this in my Intro to History course

I should add that I did use this in my Intro to History course and it led to some nice discussion.