Owning History

 historiography  Comments Off on Owning History
Jul 152018

I was startled when I saw journalist Erin Blakemore’s recent Twitter apologia, in which she defended omitting citations in articles drawing on historical research. I wasn’t sure why she felt the need to do so; journalism isn’t scholarly work. Various historians responded, however, with complaints that such was theft of their work. Clearly here, a notion exists that the product — not just the form of presentation, but the history itself — belongs to these authors. It follows then that making use of the knowledge gained from secondary literature is thievery, nullified only by citation.

The historians’ claim springs from the framework of the discipline. Academics search out new areas of inquiry to examine, and success in the field lies in creating novel and compelling histories that make one notable within the profession. Citations are the recognition of historians’ work. Plagiarism — which includes passing off someone else’s research as one’s own — is theft of the intellectual property of another scholar, which, again, is mitigated only by the footnote.

Historians do go to significant expense and effort for their research. They often must travel to archives and other locations to cull through evidence, and grants never cover all of one’s financial obligations. Additionally, monographs represent countless hours of work — research, analysis, writing, and editing. It is one’s life, and having birthed a project, it is natural to have a sense of ownership over it. This is your work.

But, of course, it is ridiculous to suggest that the collective past of a body of people belongs to any one scholar or group of professionals. Firstly, the evidence left for historians to peruse is not theirs; it was made by someone else and most often is kept in places for the public trust (historical societies, museums, etc). The lived experiences this evidence presents are not the historian’s either. A scholar’s past may at best overlap, but histories are not memoirs. They are the stories of strangers, ancestors, and classes of people, rather than the author’s biography. As such, a historian cannot say that the history is theirs in a possessive sense.

Ownership lies solely in the storytelling — the creation of a book, essay, or presentation organizing and depicting the narrative. If a historian is successful with their work, the audience is enlightened, but the knowledge gained is also not owned by the scholar. No one can claim another’s understanding, even if they caused it. An idea once passed to another becomes part of the learner’s knowledge, stored in their memory for their use. It isn’t possible to possess another’s understanding.

Finally, the purpose of scholarship is to inform others. It’s a communal effort intended to better humankind — not enrich an individual researcher. Scholars do not receive remuneration for their interpretations. Acknowledgements are their considerations — benefits to the author, but readers do not purchase a share of ownership. Citations are an intellectual convention that point to a resource. Knowledge, however, has an existence outside of literary sources. You may commodify the histories, but the history cannot be owned.

Scholars err when they confuse compensation for delivery of learning with any claim on the knowledge itself. The work of writing history is altogether separate from the effect it creates. This is the difference between stories and comprehension, and education — the means for learning — undermines intellectual property rights even as it spreads content. We have come to think of the literature as information, when it is really a mode of communication. Hence, the citation belongs to the academy alone (which exists to exchange information). Professionals erroneously believe that novelty creates ownership, but they are the sole perpetuators of that fiction.


 Posted by at 5:27 pm

Histories Without Depth

 American history, historiography  Comments Off on Histories Without Depth
Mar 042018

This is not a review.

In general, I gave up reading history books some years ago. The academic ones are so little worth the effort, and I am no longer compelled to “be up on the secondary literature” as I am no longer member of the discipline, so it’s not a necessary requirement to skim them assess their interpretations anymore. I’ve been training myself in the art of historical story-telling — something my academic training was at cross-purposes with — so if I have any interest in reading historical non-fiction, it’s of the popular history varieties. I’m doing research in how non-academics put together their stories.

My most recent reading was Killers of the Flower Moon — a book that has garnered some praise and is apparently in the running for non-fiction book awards. Author David Grann is a journalist, and I was curious to see how he would approach the history. Also, the subject is one that I have peripheral familiarity with as I am from Oklahoma and have studied some Native American history.

Gliding through the book, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the story was disappointingly shallow. The superficial tale was noticeably researched, but there wasn’t a complexity or depth behind it providing a backdrop for the story. There was so much history about Oklahoma and the time period that could have been included that would have enriched the story greatly. For example, at one point Grann recounts the Osage’s desperate appeal to Senator Charles Curtis for help and protection. How much more poignant would that plea seem if Grann had developed Curtis as a character, exposing his assimilationist positions?

And, there was more. Grann seems to accept at face value that Governor Walton was legitimately impeached for corruption (thus supporting Grann’s points about impropriety in government in the state), but those knowledgeable about the subject understand the role of Walton’s anti-KKK activities in his removal from office. In a place where the governor is vulnerable to conspiratorial schemes for taking action against racial violence, what hope had the Osage — a racial minority — for justice?

Less ominously, why wasn’t Frank Phillips, founder of Phillips (66) Petroleum and a rich, powerful figure in state, a resource for aid for the people who granted him honorary membership in their nation? Grann describes the oil barons flocking to Pawhuska to bid on oil leases, but beyond that, he doesn’t examine their roles at all. Phillips was a noted collector of Native American art and artifacts as well as drilling rights, so his absence in the mystery is glaring. His failure to intercede is telling, for someone who regularly welcomed Native leaders to his ranch and celebrated territorial society. A historian approaching the subject would delve into such inquiries and recognize the value of interweaving these and other historical points (these few are just examples) into the story. Therein lies the difference between a journalist and a historian approaching the subject.

I don’t mean to single Grann out here. Indeed, the superficiality in his book is something I find common in history books penned by untrained historians. They know their immediate subjects — at least to a degree — but they aren’t steeped enough in other relevant histories to dig more deeply into their work. There’s more to extract (and it’s obvious to a historian), but they don’t even know what is there to mine. Sadly, no one will go back to more richly treat what Grann has already popularized now. It’s a loss and so typical of the lightweight histories that dominate the best-seller lists today.

More depressingly, the Osage murders remain a novelty this way — a curious story worthy of passing interest that never gets incorporated into the larger account of race relations, justice, and economics in the history of the State and States. Context would bridge the gap in this tale, but a journalist wouldn’t see the lack — and historians are too busy with their monographs and professional interests to bother. The result is perpetuation of the simple narratives that seem so indicative of US histories. There’s always so much more to the stories than the stories themselves.


 Posted by at 7:29 pm

History So Scary

 historiography  Comments Off on History So Scary
Feb 022018

The Washington Post recently ran a piece on its history blog, Retropolis, about the 1918 Spanish flu. Aside from scaring the bejesus out of folks, I’m not exactly sure what the purpose was. I guess people are interested in reading about the deadly outbreak, what with this year’s miserable flu season. The history is timely. It’s relevant — but is it useful?

After outlining the spread of the influenza outbreak during World War I and providing some shocking reports for effect, the article warns that we as a society are vulnerable to another such epidemic in the future. Quotes from medical experts drive home the potential threat. Current vaccinations are insufficient to prevent another deadly event, and today’s medicine doesn’t offer a cure. We could, then, see a repeat of a widespread outbreak, the blog entry warns, and similarly succumb.

Reading the essay — and it was compelling and a bit terrifying, so very effective — I wondered what the draw on a piece like this is for lay readers. It encourages fear of the influenza virus, but it offers no suggestions for action you can take in light of the threat to protect yourself (because there isn’t much). The entry isn’t informative in that way, which makes me wonder about the author’s view of the purpose of history.

Clearly, here is a historian who, thankfully, does not buy into that old saw about studying history so as not to repeat it. There’s no salvational element to this tragedy; it is utterly lacking in instructional value. Instead, the story’s appeal seems strictly in the entertainment vein. Here is the historical version of a horror story. It’s history designed for titillation and drama: non-fiction art to excite dilettantes.

Do we want to settle for that from our history though? Shouldn’t it do more than feed our curiosities? What’s the point of knowing things just to know them (or to be spooked by them)? I find myself inclined to history that is more substantive than that, and I wonder: do other historians not feel the same way? Do they just want to be experts in an interesting catalog of past happenings? Why get a PhD for that?

There’s so little space in popular outlets dedicated to historical inquiry that I hate to see it squandered. You want to be relevant and compelling, yes, but we ought to aim to make art that does more too. I’m frequently at a loss as to what the aims of my peers are on this point. It leaves me despondent to think the profession’s aim is simply a trivial pursuit.


 Posted by at 12:25 pm

What’s the Point of This Business Anyway?

 current events, historiography  Comments Off on What’s the Point of This Business Anyway?
Jul 302017

The divide between academics and lay historians is never more clear than when someone outside the guild engages in history-telling and stumbles into the dilemmas that professionals (and independent scholars) regularly face. Movies based on historical events frequently fit the bill, and because they do reach larger — and different — audiences than scholarly monographs, their representations can actually take on more meaning. While trained historians might parse these films for certain details, responses by non-historians offer alternative means for getting at historical issues. Movie reviews are a window into the artistic effect of popular histories in a way that scholarly reviews of professional writing are not. As such, they are often more telling about where we are as a society than our academic output.

One recent critique serves as a disappointing indicator. The Hollywood Reporter movie critic Todd McCarthy’s review of the new historical film Detroit is tragically oblivious and ignorant: it is seated in privilege and utterly lacks awareness of anything beyond that. McCarthy’s unconscious bias is, frankly, startling. For example, he writes:

“The cop in charge, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter, the kid in The Revenant), is a hideous racist and sadist of the worst kind (he’s also a fictional character, presumably, because whomever he’s based on in real life was found innocent in court and can’t be depicted as doing what the character is seen doing onscreen).” (emphasis mine)

Apparently Mr. McCarthy is so uninformed by the racial history in our country that he believes that if a white cop did something bad to citizens, s/he would be convicted of a crime and not having been convicted must mean that s/he did no violent acts. As noted, this is extreme obliviousness, but it demonstrates poor reasoning generally as well.

Sadly, it’s also the basis for his criticism of the film.  As McCarthy puts it:

“Historically, there’s little question that in Detroit the white authorities were the bad guys, so unless the creative artists are inclined to delve beneath this rendering to examine nuances on both sides, it’s uncertain what the film has to offer other than a punch to the gut.”

To that reviewer, value in a historically-based production such as this lies in moral and psychological examination of the (white) antagonists. While it’s tempting to mock such a position by taking it to its absurdity (replace “Detroit” with “World War II” and “white authorities” with “Nazis” and see what kind of film library you can build), McCarthy has actually stumbled into a historiographical quandary that is interesting to explore.

For those who lived through the racial upheavals of the 60’s and those born since, humanizing depictions of those events have immense value. They raise awareness and build cross-community understanding; they give us context for the issues we are dealing with today. McCarthy even acknowledges the latter:

“It’s impossible to sit through all this and not ponder how things are, or are not, the same a full half-century after the events on display.”

For the reviewer, however, the film’s failure to present the police with more complexity — and here he is assuming that racism can be situated or in some way rationalized, rather than existing as a simplistic ideology — robs it of profitability for viewers today. Obviously, when he talks about viewers, he means white viewers, because for black viewers, seeing an acknowledgment of the harms done to them and their community most certainly has a value in itself. It may even be more important for white Americans to watch such films, though, because it forces them to choose between historical denialism and acknowledging past acts; they are unable to blissfully continue in their ignorance when presented with the history. Hence, the issues here aren’t really about this movie specifically or McCarthy alone. They get to the heart of why we study history and learn about our often unpleasant past.

Historical understanding — be it through monographs, documentaries, historical fiction, or exhibits — makes us conscious about our past and our present and offers us the opportunity to inform our future with that knowledge. In that sense, it might be more valuable to be aware of our dark pasts than it is to take on the mantle of our former glories. As obnoxious as it is to say that there are lessons to be learned from history, it can inspire us to make different choices when we confront our failures from the past.

McCarthy comes thisclose to a historical epiphany just such as this when he notes:

“In its depiction of this cauldron of helter-skelter violence lies the implicit and entirely plausible suggestion that the mainly white police in every instance overreacted to what was going on; if the wee-hours revelers had just been left alone on that first night, it’s implied that nothing untoward would likely have resulted.”

Tragically, he is unable to fully embrace this insight about the possibility of de-escalation, largely because of his insistence — which must be based in racial preference — that the white characters gain focus, rather than it remaining strictly on the black victims. Sitting with the tragedy and trying to understand and even empathize with angry black crowds — which is a very profitable pursuit — is an activity McCarthy says only activists would welcome. Hence, his negative assessment of the picture culminates in this dismissive criticism:

“What we get instead is a ramped up “j’accuse” that will offer forceful connections with present-day incidents for those keen to find them.”

Overcoming this bias — the notion that issues of police brutality and violence in our black communities are for radicals and minority citizens only — is truly the greatest test our histories of this period face. In this, academics share the same challenge as the film-makers here. Is there anything in the art of the storytelling that breaks down that barrier, or does it so control the reader’s view that we have no hope of transcending our divisions through education and understanding?

Surely that is exactly the point of our stories. If it isn’t to build understanding, we really shouldn’t bother. What we don’t need, as a society, is to develop sympathy for the racists or to try to mitigate their behavior in any way. Such character studies might fascinate, but they lack a larger social benefit. They will not help to build bridges and they do not reflect democratic values. Pursuing a better republic requires continuing to tell stories about the victims, to lay the indecencies plain in order to fully face the past and embrace mutual opposition to state-sponsored violence against minority communities going forward. Our histories must accuse. It isn’t the history some want, but it is the history we need.


A Great Historical Noise

 current events, historiography  Comments Off on A Great Historical Noise
Jul 082017

Once, when I was in grad school, I went to an event with some union friends, and I was challenged there by an international student who demanded an explanation from me, as a student of history, why Americans did not celebrate May Day. I sighed, knowing what was coming, but proceeded anyway to talk about the labor movement in the U.S. My inquirer quickly cut me off to announce that it’s because of our society’s hostility to all things communist (and communist-tinged). Frankly, these kinds of interactions tend to be common when people discover you’re a historian: folks pretend to ask you to weigh in on something, but they really just want to announce their own thinking on the subject. Everyone thinks they know history.

They do not, and for two reasons. The first is that what people have been taught about history — including me — is oftentimes wrong or incomplete. Thus, people do not always know things as fully or as well as they think they do. Trust me, I’ve spent a lot of time educating myself over the years; learning is an ongoing process (which sometimes requires unlearning; ALWAYS show your work). Historians are slightly less susceptible to scholarly hubris (hence, they will defer to a certain degree when they are not experts in a particular area), and it’s in good part in keeping with the old saw that being educated means you are aware of all you don’t know. Laypersons, however, lack this humility almost entirely, which leads me to the second reason for their ignorance: a misunderstanding of what history is.

The downside of professionalization is that people have come to believe that history is a set of facts to be discovered and mastered. In reality, it is a practice: the mining of evidence which is then scrutinized and shaped into a useful narrative that provides insight into who we are as people. History is created, not found. Historians get trained in doing that — haphazardly, often, and uncritically, often, but at least practiced in it. Laypeople are not, but they insist on acting as historians anyway because they erroneously believe that their use of facts is historical.

Historians are, themselves, to blame for this ignorance. They tried to turn the discipline into a science and reduce the work to data that could be analyzed and reported. This led to the misconception that historians are merely more conversant in the facts than non-experts, and that insofar as they know the facts, non-historians function on the same footing as historical experts — as if years of practice simply translates into a greater assimilation of data. After going through the analytical process with me in class, students are quickly disabused of this nonsensical belief. Still, it pervades our society, which makes it so painful to participate in public conversations today.

Sweet baby Jesus, it’s so noisy out there. I used to think I had something to offer to the discussion, but so much of what dominates is superficial, ignorant, and mean-spirited. Who wants to be a part of that? What’s the point? It’s like trying to raise an umbrella in a tropical storm. The public is unteachable; no intellectuals seek paths less traveled. Everyone knows everything about politics and history and stays firmly within the bounds of their suppositions. There’s too much “J’Accuse…!” and not enough of The Crucible.

Truthfully, I find many of the conversations out there pathetically uninteresting. It’s horrifying to see how many educated people are so uncritically possessed by their 21st century-mindsets and historical biases that they tweet or opine the most ridiculous claims. Did you know this is the most divisive time in US history — eclipsing the hostilities of the actual Civil War? Did you know no previous presidents or politicians so blatantly abused their offices or used them to their own advantage — forgetting Teapot Dome, the old spoils system, and even passage of the Fugitive Slave Act by a government dominated by slave-holders? Really, the white middle class is losing its shit of late while minority critics loudly proclaim this the Nation it’s always been. It’s embarrassing as a white person, this modern-day Columbian discovery.

Again, all of this drama and errant thinking represents a failure by the historical profession. In celebrating the Founders, we have failed to educate people on the way the deferential society and personal power truly worked. In shutting ourselves up on college campuses to debate historical minutia with one another, we have failed to educate the public effectively. Case in point: I recently read a review of William Hogeland’s new book, Autumn of the Black Snake in which the historian-reviewer points out that the story therein is familiar to scholars, though not to larger audiences. The reviewer suggests it’s commendable for Hogeland to popularize the history, when, truthfully, it should signal historians’ abject failure at education (but, a boon for Hogeland, anyway). They know; they don’t ground. I wrote a whole book on this topic that will never see the light of day because it wouldn’t sell.

Anyway, the predicament leaves us with a lot — and I mean A LOT — of artless invectives dominating our current national dialogue verbally-abusive exchange. Educated columnists ignorant of their ignorance (or carelessly so because they are lost in their own rage) rant, stuffing their exclamations with half-baked or obvious and, often, unrelated historical facts. A bleating flock of historians appear on pedantic TV “magazines” and Op-Ed pages to hold forth in self-righteously angry, measured tones information that is uninspiring, unperceptive, and unprofitable. There’s no room for subtle creative voices. Our culture celebrates armband politics; it makes you wonder that we have landed anyone on the moon, tamed wild rivers with massive dams and birthed livable cities in uninhabitable places, or constructed frameworks of knowledge that have shaped perceptions for centuries. We still have no history that helps us understand ourselves. Most certainly, don’t look for it in all the noise.


 Posted by at 3:22 pm

Dishonoring Racism

 American history, historiography  Comments Off on Dishonoring Racism
Jun 112017

Conservatives — and by this I mean those interested in preserving the status quo in our society — have lit upon a new-fashioned fig leaf to cover their racism; their disguise isn’t half as clever as they think it to be, however. Their pretext is to claim that they are defending history from those who want to obfuscate through monumenticide. Posing as preservationists, they oppose removing the monuments, site names, and other honors given to Confederate and racist figures from our past. Conveniently, this sudden dedication to public history blocks efforts to denude southern cities of honorific remnants of our slaver past.

In the New York Times, Gary Shapiro blames the dilemma on “deferred maintenance of history” — whatever that nonsensical jargon means — but what he is trying to get at is that racists and their sympathizers object to removing Confederate emblems because it targets the legacy of white supremacy in our society. Part of disavowing racism is dishonoring it. Conservatives reject that repudiation, which is really just a first step in pursuing true equality in our country. They don’t want change (Indeed, they want to make our country “great” again.), which means white supremacy remains.

Now, while conservatives imagine their position smacks of historicism, intellectualism, and post-racialism — and perhaps it does to those who are historically ignorant (like its proponents), for those with any experience in practicing history, the bias is obvious. Sure, on its face, the traditionalists’ position claims to oppose historical denialism, sweeping the ugly parts of our history under the rug. Staters of this day — and in the future — should know that our ancestors celebrated and promoted racists — and it was certainly, in part, because of their racism. Richmond’s Monument Row lacks the instructive qualities that teach the past while condemning it, however, and it’s this indistinguishability between honor and historical recognition where the conservative approach fails.

Assuming good faith on the part of some traditionalists, it seems obvious that their defensiveness lies in their naivete. They believe, like so many, that history is canon and that mastering it means learning facts about the past. This is not, however, what history actually is. It is a practice — of collecting evidence and putting it together in interesting stories that tell us things about ourselves. A row of statues itself is not a history. It is just a collection of evidence. An exhibit or public history display does more than present pieces for people to observe. They are selected, arranged, and contextualized (with accompanying commentary or through careful presentation) so as to make a statement and encourage learning. Monuments are not historical exhibits. They are honorary displays, and fail as cautionary lessons.

In his essay, Shapiro suggested that adding instructive text and, perhaps, statues of slaves to Monument Row, as a way of rehabbing the display so that it reflects contemporary values. Merely cluttering the space is not the answer, however. More importantly, it makes for bad history. Overwhelming the site with too many statues creates a historical junkyard — not a cohesive, instructive narrative. Further, it does nothing to rectify the moral problem that the Confederate figures would still be recognized, while symbolic Anyman slave figures would perpetuate the dehumanization of black Americans. Presented namelessly and generalized — once more denied specific identities and singular significance like that of the white figures beside them — they would be again denied privilege of individuality, dignity of personhood, and historical actuality thus demonstrated. It’s likely that this kind of historiographical dilemma is unfamiliar to Shapiro and his like, precisely because they have no experience constructing histories. Unfortunately, such ignorance perpetuates discriminatory treatment.

Ours is not the first society to confront a repugnant past. The conservative element in our country does not see in removing Confederate monuments the populist toppling of statues of Vladimir Lenin or Saddam Hussein, however. The traditionalists still respect Lee and Davis; those men are not ignoble monsters to be rejected like the Communist dictator and Iraqi strongman, to them. In part, this is because conservatives are victims of the apologetic historiography they were raised in, which honored Confederate figures. However, those who want to reject racism must choose to repudiate those figures, and willfully failing to do so is a contemporary act of racial prejudice. Fundamentally, disavowing racism requires the dishonoring of these Confederate figures, specifically through their removal. Monument Row cannot be reconstructed. It must be dismantled. And, any deferral of that — especially in the name of history — is a great misfeasance.


History So White

 current events, historiography  Comments Off on History So White
Jul 282016

In the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that studying the history of great men is useful in that it inspires others to do great things like their heroes. In essence, good histories model noble behavior for later generations to emulate. Today, we like to think of history as more instructive than inspirational — at least our academic histories aim to be educational. The histories we see in movies and on TV, though, is more of the stirring sort. The new release Free State of Jones is a case in point.

The movie tells the story of Newt Knight, a farmer from Mississippi who lead a spontaneous revolt against the larger Confederate rebellion in 1864. Far from a pragmatic Unionist driven by a sense of nationalism, Knight’s a character who transcends the racism of his time and embraces equality between whites and former slaves — he’s a 21st century hero from the 19th century. He fights for a cause and not a political convenience. Knight is the Nietzschean ideal, inspiring and (unpretentiously) noble, and the film is suited to inspirational aims.

Many critics have faulted the film and its depiction of Knight for promoting the “white savior” trope. Here, the protagonist is the prototypical hero so often celebrated in our fictions and non-fictions. He’s the good white man who saves the day — and the former slaves who join him along the way. Vann R. Newkirk II called the picture’s portrayals “textbook examples of how not to have conversations about white privilege, ‘allyship,’ and black struggle.” It is surely that, but the movie seems to have less humbling and enlightening aims anyway. It’s an inspirational story intended for white audiences about liberality and leadership, and it tells us quite a lot about our time.

That a film starring a southern movie star repudiating the Confederacy on the merits of slavery is a mainstream offering is startling in itself. Ten or twenty years ago, it probably wouldn’t have been made. Indeed, it’s obvious predecessor, Glory, a notable film in the white savior genre, demonstrates the traditional good-Northern-hero version, which is more consistent within the trope. Nearly 30 years later, the Free State of Jones is reconstructing southern heroes in the same vein — even better, the hero here discovers his righteousness rather than his biases. Times have changed.

That it’s a true story offers something of theoretical value to white viewers — particularly southerners. Knight is someone they can aspire to emulate. They need not remain bound by the racist bigotry to which so many southerners cling. Instead, they can see themselves in the everyman hero of the movie (pure and successful, instead of conflicted or intolerant) and choose to do better than those around them. Indeed, they might be inspired to actively fight against racism in their society like Knight.

Of course, in embracing that mantle, there’s a danger that southerners can also conveniently excuse themselves from guilt or responsibility for generations of wrongdoing. Knight’s character is sure to stoke the “not-all-white-people” crowd and provide cover from acknowledging participation in the fruits of privilege. Again, though, that white southerners might want an anti-Confederate hero at all says something about today. We will have to see how the movie fares in the southern states to get any kind of handle on that. It would be quite something for them to even want to trade Robert E. Lee for Newt Knight though.

If this sounds like a new spin on the Civil War, it’s important to note in what ways it is not. Firstly, even our scholarly treatments of the Civil War do tend toward the white savior story. In most college US history classes, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe feature far more prominently than Robert Morris or Solomon Northup (and probably even Frederick Douglass) in lectures on abolitionism. Racism still pervades the stories we tell about that, and in that sense Free State of Jones fits with the usual narrative. Freedom from slavery is still presented as something granted to black Americans, rather than earned or taken by them (even in partnership). That’s part of the appeal for white audiences, consciously or not: these stories are ones of white people being noble and righteous. It offers something great with which to identify.

If abolitionism is often the testament of the magnanimity and nobility of whites in our histories, the civil rights movement of the 20th century belongs to America’s black citizens, who were the agents standing in righteousness there. You’re likely to find Martin Luther King, John Lewis and Fannie Lou Hamer in US history textbooks covering the freedom movement, but a typical US history course wouldn’t mention white allies much, if at all — except John and Robert Kennedy in all their complicated squeamishness (and Lyndon Johnson and his unheroic pragmatism).

Therein lies a lot of the great divide in the US. For many Staters, the civil rights movement — and the Black Lives Movement — pits “us” against “them.” The heroes are black and the villains are white — or the heroes are white and the troublemakers are black (or other minorities). Either way, it’s a conflict between racial communities that our histories seem to encourage that segregates us.

The question the allure of Free State of Jones and its ilk suggests is: could relations be less antagonistic if white Americans had a savior to admire from the civil rights movement too? Do white people just need a white hero? Would that allow them to buy in more emphatically on civil rights the way they do on abolitionism?

It’s possible — but, more importantly, is it good? White savior stories only perpetuate white supremacy, portraying whites as benevolent change-makers and minimizing the agency of black actors. So, even if successful, those narratives get us no closer to being allies or working together in true equality. Sadly, the buddy-cop film fits that ideal better than the usual historical narrative. It’s possible our society benefits more from 48 Hours et al than noble histories then. If so, our historiography fails us, doesn’t it?

Change will not come to our society without conscious effort; racism and discrimination will not be gently let go — and certainly not by white citizens who are blind to their privilege. That kind of advance requires a cultural shift, to which movies as well as scholarly works need to contribute. In the meantime, you can get the star power to open a film (again) depicting a white savior, but America seems very far from any inspirational ally trope. That historical blockbuster still eludes us.


 Posted by at 9:17 am

The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself

 historiography  Comments Off on The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself
Jan 052015
I am always amused when Staters describe our citizenry as “people of faith” — in part because faith, per the Good Book, is supposed to overcome fear.  Judging Staters on their responses to fearful situations or on acts indicative of their faith in themselves and the American Way to overcome doesn’t always suggest a people of confidence — more a community of doubt.
Looking back at our history, we can see that we have often been motivated by fear and that this has shaped the choices we’ve made — even as we see ourselves as a proud, powerful nation.  Ours is a superpower that acts repeatedly in panic and alarm.  One could argue that we are the perfect foil for terrorism; it’s almost Pavlovian the way our country behaves in the face of the pettiest of threats at times (much less when the situation warrants true concern). We don’t even seem to recognize the disconnect between the ways we act and the words we use to describe ourselves either.  We may swear that these colors don’t run, but they don’t hesitate to pass discriminatory laws or voluntarily surrender our rights in a panic just the same.
The Ebola epidemic, which has dominated headlines in the US for months and for which Congress recently appropriated $5.4 billion to fight after it claimed the life of one citizen, is the most recent example (and don’t kid yourself that Staters were eager to drop that kind of coin out of pure humanitarianism) — but it’s probably not the most egregious act.  Certainly, we’ve spent far more of our tax money on and expanded governmental powers to combat other threats before.  Robert Wiebe brilliantly described how the Progressives, driven by fear of immigrants, the poor, and those of other races (in combination with social and economic upheavals), created new mechanisms of control in the early 20th century in response to their anxieties about the disorder around them.  I think it wrong to see this exclusively as a Progressive trait or a temporary abnormality in outlook.  I think it American — though I’m not sure we are exceptional in this.
As a writing project for this year, I’m going to dedicate my blog posts to recounting some of the stories of how we have responded to and acted out of fear in the past.  Each month, I’m going to cover another example from our history that illustrates the effects of our fright and the things dread has prodded us to do.  Hopefully, these stories will be illustrative as much as embarrassing and entertaining. Truthfully, there has been a boldness to our fearful acts at times, and we hardly seem to fear what our fears make us.  In that, perhaps a sense of consciousness is the least we fear and the most interesting thing about American anxiety.
 Posted by at 12:05 pm

The Sit-ins That Didn’t Change America II

 American history, historiography  Comments Off on The Sit-ins That Didn’t Change America II
Jul 222013

I was reminded recently of a piece I read some time back by Andrew B. Lewis for the Los Angeles Times (“The Sit-ins That Changed America,” 2/7/10).  Lewis’s tribute to civil rights history began:

“The ‘Sixties’ were born on February 1, 1960…when four African-American college students staged the first sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.”

Lewis went on to describe how this and subsequent sit-ins inspired by the Greensboro example revitalized the civil rights movement, which had floundered after so many attempts to integrate southern schools following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education had failed and the successful Montgomery bus boycott had become a memory.  Lewis specifically noted that the young people involved in these sit-ins formed the separate Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to preserve their independence from the NAACP, which balked at their aggressive tactics.  This separation gave room for significant young leaders like John Lewis, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Stokely Carmichael, and Marion Barry to develop.  The success of the civil rights movement thereafter was largely the result of the aggressive egalitarian pattern set by these student protesters, Lewis claimed.  Because of these, our country was permanently and significantly changed.

Only, there were sit-ins in the US that pre-dated the events in North Carolina.  Civil rights groups desegregated literally hundreds of restaurants and public spaces between 1942 and 1964.  The organizers and participants of these protests never got national credit for their leadership like Bond and Carmichael, et al, and their sit-ins didn’t spark a chain of similar events around the country.  One has to wonder why – and, also, why we haven’t investigated that question more.  How is it that Greensboro has become a symbol in our memories but the others have been lost to our national consciousness?  History textbooks mark the beginning of the sit-in movement in North Carolina, but we in Oklahoma certainly know better.  We know that it came here first (or, rather, not – but we’ll get to that).  We also know that the rest of the country didn’t notice what happened in our state – and others nearby.  I bet most Americans aren’t even aware that there ever was segregation in Oklahoma.  They probably also don’t know that it was a couple of court cases from this state that led to the desegregation of public schools in our country.  Oklahoma was a pivotal part of the civil rights movement in the twentieth century, only the rest of the country doesn’t pay any attention to that.  Truthfully, it was the heartland that set us on the path to desegregation – places that we don’t think of when we think of Jim Crow were the vulnerable ways in for activists.

In 1939, the real first sit-in protest for desegregation in the south occurred in Alexandria, Virginia.  Five young black men went to the library there to obtain library cards, and when they were denied them, they took seats at various tables and sat down with books to read.  The men were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.  When the cases went to trial later, their attorney got a police officer to acknowledge on the stand that they were disorderly by being black in a library meant for white people.  After the judge continued the case multiple times to avoid issuing a ruling, it was let go without resolution.  Meanwhile, a black World War I veteran brought a lawsuit to obtain a library card there through legal channels.  The judge in that case affirmed that there were no grounds for denying the applicant a card, which prompted the City to delay issuing cards to black residents so they could hastily construct a separate library for them.  Although these incidents made the news, they were quickly forgotten after World War II broke out.  Attention turned elsewhere, and the Alexandria library system was left segregated.

During the war, a group of pacifists formed an organization they called the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).  They were influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi on nonviolent protest.  The group had white and black members, and its goal was to bring Gandhi’s form of non-violent resistance to the United States. Chapters of the organization sprouted around the country.  Their efforts kicked off in Chicago, where members undertook desegregating a noted restaurant in the City’s famous Loop district in October, 1942.  At first activists were denied service altogether; then, later, they were admitted but served garbage from the kitchen trash and inedible concoctions on multiple occasions.  In June of 1943, protesters finally had their first success after a lengthy sit-in.  Despite substantial waits, the parties were served properly for once.  There were sporadic incidences of poor treatment after that, but for the most part, the group had succeeded in obtaining equal treatment at the establishment.  By the post-war period, that had become the norm.

After the war, CORE’s St. Louis branch decided to challenge segregation there.  We don’t think of Missouri as a Jim Crow state like Mississippi.  It was, however, a former slave state and segregation had become the practice there too.  As in Chicago, CORE members opposed a well-accepted custom that reached well beyond the Old South.  At first, the group just handed out flyers denouncing segregation outside of a local store with a lunch counter which would not serve blacks.  Later, white members of the group went in to order food and shared it with their black cohorts who joined them inside.  Store employees closed down the counter in response.  Sit-ins at the counter became a weekly event then, and participants included veterans and women with babies whose pictures appeared in the local press as part of the coverage.  It took until 1954 before the store agreed to desegregate but eventually, the protesters won.  Subsequent sit-ins by CORE members and supporters in Baltimore had speedier results, effecting change within days.

Four years after the St. Louis protests ended, members of the NAACP Youth Council in Wichita, Kansas began organizing sit-ins at the drug store lunch counters in their city.  This effort was planned and executed by students, and they pursued it against the wishes of the national NAACP leadership.  Beginning with a two-day-a-week schedule in July 1958, their plan was to occupy all the seats at the lunch counter so that the store wouldn’t make any money if it didn’t serve them.  Other patrons wouldn’t have a place to sit and be served.  Here, white patrons, spectators, and employees tried to intimidate the protesters and were overtly hostile to them.  Despite the threats and insults, the young people persevered, and in 23 days, they met their first success.  In short order, the youth turned their sights on other local businesses and more victories followed.

On the heels of that first win in Wichita, young NAACP members in Oklahoma City also began organized sit-ins.  Some of them had gone to New York to perform at an event at the NAACP’s headquarters that summer and experienced for the first time what it was like to have equal access and service in public places.  When they returned home, they decided to organize a program to end the segregation in OKC; this included picketing, sit-ins and protests.  Their work gained support from the local Catholic Church and some other religious groups.  They had some quick successes and other longer campaigns.  The protests spread to various other parts of the state and continued until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to deny service in public places to anyone because of their race.

Clearly, then, there was a history of sit-ins and protests in the US that pre-dated Greensboro’s in 1960, yet Lewis’ take on North Carolina as a starting point for the struggle for desegregation is a common misconception that endures.  The idea persists that it began there – in the Old South.  In reality, it was the heart of our country that pioneered the change that later took off in the southeast.  In the days after the Greensboro protests began, students in Raleigh, Charlotte, Richmond and Nashville followed suit.  Not long after that, young people in Mississippi did the same.  Soon, sit-ins would spill into communities throughout the south – a river of change that somehow didn’t seem to flow from earlier protests.

Today, a piece of the Greensboro lunch counter sits in the National Museum of American History as a tribute to the wave of desegregation efforts the sit-in there set in motion.  Earlier successful protests, in contrast, have become part of a largely forgotten past, and the “Sixties” are now defined by a popular civil rights folklore that is shaped by how we remember rather than by the actual history.  Everybody knows about Mississippi, but they don’t know about Oklahoma or Missouri or Kansas, goddam.


 Posted by at 7:06 pm

More on the Usefulness of History

 historiography  Comments Off on More on the Usefulness of History
Sep 172011
I know I’m the only one who thinks about the usefulness of history anymore.  Academics study the thing for itself — knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  Laypersons are interested in history strictly for the entertainment value, and political scientists try to make history a primer for politics.  All due respect to George Santayana, circumstances from the past do not perfectly repeat themselves so that we get a second chance to retry the same problem (though some rough lessons can apply).  Even if historical knowledge gave us hindsight for practical application in the present, the frequency of its usefulness would be limited at best.  None of this is to say that history offers us no practical benefit.  I am always harping on how it gives consciousness to our lives and informs our choices.  Since that isn’t “hard” science with obvious application, some might resist embracing the notion that this makes history useful;  however, there is a concrete way of applying this consciousness that is an often ignored aid.
Happily, we have come to a point in human development where we have informed understanding of society and its function.  We no longer believe that events are caused by spirits and sprites or that divinity resides in the whims of the king and they are therefore to be honored.  We understand today about the structure and function of our society and our ability to shape our communities.  This is to say, we can exercise conscious management of our societies through planning and effective legislation, enforcement, and cooperation.  We see now that while our world may be a Ship of Fools, it still has a rudder.  Even such fools can learn to maneuver the boat, and our choices are the rudder that directs us.  You can’t control life, but we can manage our responses to it.
Friedrich Nietzsche noted more than a hundred and thirty years ago that history can and should serve the purpose of living life. Humans can use it to inform our choices — particularly if we are doing “critical history” or writing about the past in ways that undermine the worship of it.  Then, we are able to leave off and reject that past in search for something better.  Or, as Maya Angelou says:  “When you know better, you do better.”  History gives us knowledge from which we can learn and use to build a new future.  Since we can choose what we want our society to look like and what values we want it to reflect, we can look at the past and see what we have done before that helped in reaching our goals and what has not (and therefore needs to be abandoned).
So, firstly, we must use history to remind us of why we made these choices.  What was the impetus for doing this or that?  For example, the social and health effects of industrialization on workers were what led to passage of workers’ compensation programs and safety regulations.  Studying this development makes clear why there was a need and what the chosen response was.  Next, we look at how this solution operated in practice — what is the history of how that choice or action developed?  We want to see what we did.  This will of course allow us to avoid repeating errors as Santayana suggests, but it also lets us judge generally on how we are doing at achieving our ends.  Have we accomplished what we had hoped?  What is working?  What good have we done?  What isn’t working and what effect has this failure had?  Once we see how the thing developed and judged it, we can then make choices for the future.  We can reaffirm or redraft our goals.  We can adjust our efforts to respond better in areas in which we have not succeeded.  Or, we can expand our response or reduce it based on the effectiveness of past actions, need, and interest.
In short, history provides use a means for social analysis.   We can use it to make a grade card for ourselves.  As a community, we can assess our performance and make choices based on this for our future.  In this sense, history is a very real and obvious tool — and it has a substantive rather than just ethereal value.  Knowing this, failure to make use of our history indicates not just ignorance or foolishness but also that we are people who fail to try to exercise any will on our society and are content to lead lives lacking consciousness — in which case, we do no better at shaping our world than the unlearned or superstitious who came before us.
 Posted by at 10:48 am