It’s a difficult time right now not to talk about race relations in America. Recent events have thrust the matter into the limelight: the incident in Jena, Louisiana last year and the protest that followed, the nomination of Barak Obama for President, polls on the news indicating that white Americans still harbor negative stereotypes about blacks, etc. I see at work all the time how oblivious white people can be to issues of race. Now, it seems so in the forefront that you’d have to be intentionally, willfully obtuse to be ignorant of racial conditions in the U.S.
Reports of individuals calling Obama supporters “nigger-lovers” and lingering views of black citizens as lazy and less scholastic than whites make me grieve. I wonder if we will ever break free from the horrible legacy of slavery and white supremacy. I am generally pessimistic about it. I don’t have a lot of faith in my fellow compatriots.
Because of this, I make a point of talking to my students about race. I try to permeate all my lectures with it. Usually, my classes are largely white. The students come from small towns and counties where there aren’t a lot of black residents. From lack of contact, these kids (and frequently the older non-traditional students) believe that equality has been achieved in America, and they blame racial tensions on complaining blacks. They resent affirmative action because they don’t see the need, and they’re not looking for it anyway. Some of them grew up in former “sundown towns” and Klan enclaves. They carry their own prejudices.
Into my sense of hopelessness wafts a breeze of encouragement this semester. Talking with my students this year, I find them very aware of discrimination toward blacks in our society and critical of our system, which perpetuates the problem. One asked: “Why do we say we’re a melting pot anyway?” I asked them if we were, and five conversations started at once. I was surprised to find that they are very cynical about the matter. They think our leaders pander on the subject. They are pessimistic about the future of race relations. They told me it will never change — this is a permanent condition in America. I told them they were too young to have the hope beaten out of them.
The curious thing about this conversation is that their cynicism gives me new hope. They are aware of the problem. They reject the white supremacy theory. Being already pessimistic, I think they won’t be disillusioned — they lack illusions to begin with. So, I think maybe they won’t give up the fight. They won’t buy into that nonsense that race relations in the U.S. are good and equal opportunity reigns. They will see discrimination when it happens, and — as is already apparent — they will vocally oppose it. I am giddy with naivete almost, having found hope for the next generation. Their Ipods are diversity-builders. Who knew?
I have tried to stay away from talking about the election, as I think there is little more obnoxious than historians huffing and puffing about current events. However, there are moments you experience that are so obviously historical that as a historian you can’t help but play with how future scholars will interpret them. You think about what you would say and how you would analyze it. Sometimes I envy future historians because they will get to know things I cannot (confidential information, for example) and they will get to pass judgments I will not.
The candidacies of two women in this election is just such a significant event and entices me to interpret from an incomplete record. I will not get to write the official take on this, and I envy those who will. If, perhaps, my little record endures, my two cents may live to be part of future interpretations, so I give way to the urge:
I have been struck lately by the differences between Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton. Clinton was a nominee whose candidacy was driven by support from women voters. Palin is a nominee selected by the male-dominated system. Is Palin a man’s female candidate while Clinton is a woman’s? Clinton wears pantsuits; Palin wears skirts. Clinton has short hair; Palin wears hers swept up. Palin is tan — a former beauty pageant contestant — and wears a good deal of make-up (in inviting warm neutrals). Clinton, on the other hand, is known for her fat ankles and sometimes awkward style. Palin has started a trend in eye-wear; somehow, I associate Clinton with the monocle. Are these differences precisely what makes each palatable to their nominators? Palin is attractive, motherly (literally, with a baby newly weaned), and conservative. Is this what made her attractive to a male candidate to select as his running mate (passing over less attractive and conservative, qualified female candidates)? Is Clinton, in contrast, a woman’s candidate because she has a reputation as a ball-buster and she’s about substance and certainly not style? I would be inclined to think that Palin is someone men can support and who can serve a token role better — providing a palatable example of what a female candidate should be: attractive, pro-life, and second-fiddle.
The last bit is so important. The Republicans are touting her nomination as a rupture of the glass ceiling, but, of course, they’re promoting her for the Vice Presidency rather than the Presidency. No Republicans were campaigning for her to take the left seat. No one clamoured for a Republican female candidate to run in the primaries against McCain, Romney, et al. Palin didn’t clinch the second spot because she gave the men a good run for the first (as is a traditional way of securing the nomination for Vice President). And, it is irksome to think that she only got this opportunity due to the patronage of a man — which runs counter to the purpose of the feminist movement and the American ideal of equal opportunity with success based on merit. I’m not naive enough to believe that women compete with men on an equal footing, but I am not interested in being pacified with a token either.
So, I wonder how future historians will characterize the Clinton and Palin candidacies and how voters’ genders played a role in the same. Is one really a woman’s candidate while the other is favored by men? The outcome of the election will certainly shape the final analysis. What the voters of each sex do at the polls will tell. Of course, future historians will have access to insider information I do not and that will make a difference too. Perhaps I am unwarrantably skeptical and pessimistic. Perhaps I do not go far enough. That is for those who come after me to know. Mine is to live with the sour distaste in my mouth.
“I’m not a humanitarian. I’m a hell-raiser.” — Mother Jones
“…raise less corn and more hell.” — Mary Elizabeth Lease
How to talk to my students about progressivism? Historians generally heroize Progressives. Through associations and community outreach, they worked to improve American society. They fought for improved heath and sanitation in cities, reform in government, and access to education. They set standards of decency and respectability. I can’t stand them.
For me, the ends don’t justify the motivation. Yes, these reformers brought better working conditions and safety to our society, but behind their benevolence lurked racism, bigotry, and narrow mindedness. They wanted to force their values on others. They wanted people to raise their children how they saw fit and conform to their standards of morality and appropriate behavior. Take, for instance, the United Way: Oh, they said, by pooling financial resources and implementing oversight, we can improve charitable giving in our country. Only, to receive funds from this agency, you have to meet its criteria for appropriate, respectable charity. You have to become part of the machine that socializes mother to follow proscribed (“accepted”) standards for pre-natal and child care. You have to promote respectable living and health standards. It goes on. Really, it’s the forcible re-education of the people — without the gulag. Rather than send you to hell, they leave you in it, if you don’t comply. It’s conditional charity — and that grates. Progressives just wanted to control others. They were anti-democratic, anti-Christian professionals out to break anyone that didn’t share their vision of the world.
My heroes are those who want to help people have the power to make their own choices. You can attack the problem without attacking people. Why do you have to force respectability down their throats? I say: raise more hell! The solution to corruption in government, inflated CEO pay, limited health care, etc. is not to take it lying down. A well-aimed tomato can do more good than a dozen research journals. Studies, meetings, hearings — that kind of crap is counter-productive. They impede real change. They waylay reform and bog down the fighting spirit. Take the front door! Demand change and take action to do something about it.
Those freaking Progressives even managed to sanitize rebellion. Now, change is “reform” and it’s about efficiency and responsibility. Whatever. One Huey Long is worth fifty social workers. Buttoned-up, tight-fisted Progressives have left us with bloated government and moralism up the wazoo. It’s enough to make you almost resent a well-planned, elegant street grid system.
This is gonna be an interesting lecture.
The new textbook I have is in some respects a damned sight better than the last, but the author clearly leans toward favoring big business. He must have written the book to pass muster with Texas public school boards (Why? It’s a *college* text.). He manages to make the robber barons seem rational. They were in some ways, but now it’s going to be damned hard for me to make my students understand how we morphed from monopolistic industry to free market idealism, the role the government played in handicapping the labor movement, and why Americans felt so unsure of their world with the economic upheavals of the late 19th century!
Here’s an obnoxious quote:
“A family with an annual income of $1,000 in the 1880s would have no need to skimp on food, clothing, or shelter.”
Yeah, but the average wage of a white male factory worker then was about $400 a year (when $600 was considered a livable wage). How can you gather from his statement why people put their kids to work? He doesn’t even mention child labor – and he makes the 8-hour workday sound like a fait accompli. Plus, most people still worked in agriculture then and never received wages. They bought on credit and used the proceeds from their annual harvest to get back out of debt (in a good year). He talks about women moving into teaching and secretarial work and utterly fails to mention that the status and pay for these jobs declined significantly as women filled them. Oh, well, at least he mentions Mother Jones and Alice Paul in passing, which is more than the last book did.
It’s bullshit like this that makes me crazy that the profession still pretends that history can be written objectively. It isn’t so. We all have an agenda (including me). The best you can do is admit that you’re a rabid pro-capitalist, anti-democracy, Babbitt-wannabe jackass and be up front about it. (Oh, and I forgot “small-minded” – the book doesn’t even mention that free blacks had no chance in hell of making $1,000 a year back then.) The good thing is that, as the teacher, I have the last word.
There’s the road less traveled, and then there’s the path deserted. I’m not always sure that the route I’ve chosen isn’t really the latter. I am aware that my elected method of practice makes my life difficult at times. The day job is demanding in itself, being an adjunct adds more work to my limited personal time, and writing a blog and a book — which has been largely forgotten of late — means I have little left to myself. I’ve been sick recently, which has prompted a measure of reflections and, of course, some self-pity.
Practical voices all around me argue that I’m making my own life harder than it has to be. I should suck it up and get the PhD (self-righteousness be damned), so I can teach full-time. I’d make better pay. I’d have more time of my own and I could spend my days studying history. That’s the best case scenario, but a lesser version would still be an improvement over my present situation.
The best argument against this is a moral and idealistic one: my current tack gives me the freedom to write and study as I wish. I am bound only by time and money constraints. Plus, the self-righteousness and a dollar buys a cup of coffee. Some of the people I love best are sell-outs. The back and forth over art and money is continuous. It’s an old story, and I am not the only protagonist engaged in that struggle. I might be slightly older than the usual idealist — age and mortgages breed practicality — but I haven’t yet outgrown my youthful hostility to posers.
There are two bastions that reinforce my stalwart obstinacy. The first is a passel of like-minded rebels: My capitalist-in-residence, David, who is no Babbitt, is one. He thoroughly believes that if you keep working at it, you can find ways to parlay your passion into a paying proposition. The other heavy-hitter is Karl, who may be a pacifist-anarchist at heart. He’s my reminder that, for some of us, a full pocket with an empty soul leads to a life not worth living. With friends like these, who needs patrons? When I whine, they point out that this is time lost from working. Life isn’t easy, but at least mine is fulfilling for me in a way that the lives of others with their myspace pages dedicated to picking the one with the “best hair” and passing out electronic high fives could never be.
The other enabler is my own passion. I know my history nerd-love is incomprehensible to most, who think I pointlessly joust with windmills. But, that’s the way it is with a calling. Even when I’m worn down and tired like last week, I can read some crazy interpretation or watch politicians abuse our history for their purposes and the fire re-ignites. The coals just need a little stoking and I’m back on my soapbox. For me, studying history isn’t a job or an exercise in curiosity. It’s my great love and true vocation. I’m stoked.
I sometimes think that we write histories backasswards. Historians are all about interpretations of events and explaining why things happened. They look down on chroniclers, who they accuse of making empty lists. Recounting facts without analysis is a lower form of knowledge that learned historians disdain. But starting with interpretation before you have a good chronicle of events is putting the cart before the horse.
While I do agree that interpretation of events is an innate human endeavor and a valuable activity (I do it.), I think there has to be a place for the chronicle, and forcing this kind of work out of the discipline handicaps us in the long run. Writing stories about things that have happened without a full accounting of the facts leads to incomplete and paltry storytelling. This is one of the reasons we do so poorly at writing histories that synthesize events.
When writing general histories, scholars select a theme for their narratives and inevitably limit these by invoking a standard that impedes their very efforts. They begin by asking themselves: What is important for people to know about this history? You have to do this to some degree; you can’t include everything that’s ever happened without bogging your story down and creating a quagmire of incoherence. However, starting with that question automatically limits what you will select and assures that historians will focus on what they already know or have learned to connect together. This is one of the reasons so many general histories focus on politics. There’s a tradition there and it’s hard to reinvent the wheel. Also, you can seemingly connect civil rights issues and economic ones and social ones in this way. We haven’t quite figured out how to link things without writing a political narrative of our nations.
You’d get a different story if you’d start with a good chronology instead of a theme, though. If you start by reviewing the events and looking for ways to connect them, you might come up with something novel and interesting. Historians start with what they know instead of what is there for consideration. Using a chronology would encourage us to ask new questions and – God forbid – learn.
When I write my lectures, I often feel frustrated by what I don’t know. I long for a good almanac – yes, a chronology without analysis or interpretation – so I can find a new story to tell. If I had some solid dates and facts, I’d have to rise to the challenge of re-imagining the age I am discussing. I want examples, dammit. These are the bricks for building.
If I had time and Bill Gates’ money (and a research team), I would start an almanac project. I think I would start with the year 1900 (it’s a good round starting point) and comb through newspapers and magazines from cities all over the country (NOT just New York and Boston) to build a substantial timeline of events for that year – and others thereafter. With that information, I could really start to tell a good story. I would have lots of facts and details, and this is the fodder for a meaty tale. Then, I could see what that age was really about because I would be starting with what happened. I could fill my story with specifics and would have to create a history that was really national. We tend to focus on what happens on the East Coast in American history. Well, this is because we don’t have a good understanding of what was going on in Montana and Hawaii and Arizona at the same time. Looking at things more broadly might create conflicts in a national tale. Perhaps what was going on in Massachusetts wasn’t what was gripping the rest of the country, or maybe feeling in New Jersey might not jibe with public sentiment in Missouri. You’d have to account for the differences then. This is just one example, but it illustrates why a good chronology is valuable. It would raise new questions and force a broader interpretation.
Until we amass more facts, our stories are stunted and potentially misleading. It’s a lot of work to do that kind of breadth of research, but working collectively on it, we could build a reference tool that would benefit all. Until we value that kind of basic knowledge, though, such a project will never get off the ground. We do ourselves no favors by not partnering with chroniclers to achieve a better result. I would be a better historian, if I only had an almanac.