The History of White People

August 2, 2017 § 4 Comments

I am reading Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People.  For those who don’t know, Painter is Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton University.  She is, in academic parlance, a heavyweight.  This might be one of the most frustrating books I have ever read.  Not for its content argument and its basic argument, which is to trace the history of ‘whiteness’ as a social construct in American society, stretching back to the Greeks.  Rather, it is frustrating for a certain sloppiness and factual inaccuracy that dogs the book.

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Part of what we base our reputation and claims to authority on, as historians, is our attention to detail and our attempts to make sure we remain factually correct.

To wit, only seven pages in, in discussing the great Greek historian, Herodotus, Painter writes:

Herodotus’ world is still flat — that notion would stand for another thousand years.

She is correct, Herodotus did believe the world was flat.  So, too, did, amongst others, Homer.  But, for many Greek philosophers (to the Greeks, philosophy and science was the same thing), the world was anything but flat. Pythagoras (he of the theorem) was amongst many Greek thinkers who believed in a spherical Earth.  Plato believed the world was spherical.  So, too, did Aristotle.  Eratosthenes, around 240, attempted to estimate the Earth’s circumference.  He did this without any modern tools, of course, and though he was wrong in his estimation, he was only off by around 10%.  The great Ptolemy thought the Earth spherical. So, too, did the Romans.  Even the early Christian Church believed in the spherical nature of the Earth.  Indeed, the belief in a spherical Earth lasted into the Middle Ages and beyond.  Stephen Jay Gould argued that the belief in a flat Earth was non-existant amongst the educated classes of Medieval Europe.  So, clearly, Herodotus’ error in the belief in a flat Earth did not stand for another thousand years.

Other anachronisms abound.  For example, she discusses Samuel Stanhope Smith’s views on race during his academic career in late 18th and early 19th centuries.  And while, when introducing him as the president of the College of New Jersey, she notes that said college is now Princeton University, on the very next page, she calls Smith the President of Princeton.  He was not.  Princeton did not exist until 1896, until then, it was the College of New Jersey.

And then there is a long discussion of the works of Gustave de Beaumont, a French lawyer, more famous for his fiction and quasi-sociological studies of the United States and Ireland.  Beaumont is even more famous for being the second fiddle to Alexis de Tocqueville.  Beaumont and Tocqueville were life-long friends and Beaumont accompanied Tocqueville on his famous tour of the United States that led to his legendary Democracy in America.  In fact, Beaumont published his own work, a novel, that examined that which Tocqueville did not, race in America.  But, his Marie, or Slavery in the United States, a Picture of American Manners, while it won the Prix Montyon of the Académie Française, quickly faded from view.  Following their tour of the United States, the two French gentlemen made their way to Ireland, and were rather shocked by the wretchedness of the Irish peasants.

But here, Painter engages in some very sloppy and lazy historical accounting.  The Irish Famine was from 1845-52.  During the Famine, any number of ‘journalists’ headed out from London and other English cities to the Irish countryside, to see the conditions of the starving nation first-hand. Painter is correct to suggest many of these journalists thought the news reports sensationalized.  They discovered they were not.  But, she conflates, for example, Thomas Carlyle toured Ireland in 1849, two years after the worst of the Famine in 1847, but in the midst of the Famine.  Painter conflates the trip of Beaumont and Tocqueville a decade earlier, before the Famine.  She also goes on about the Famine conditions Beaumont saw and wrote about.  Except, of course, he was in Ireland six years prior to the Famine.

She also, I should add, claims that the Irish were slaves in North America.  That is the subject of another post, at an another time.

This is nothing but sloppy and lazy scholarship.  Painter is flat-out wrong in her characterizations of views of the shape of the Earth and Beaumont’s journey to Ireland vis-à-vis the Famine.  She severely mis-characterizes what Smith was president of.  Errors like this should cause the reader to stop and question the author.  Is the author to be trusted?  How could she make such lazy mistakes?

And this is most unfortunate.  Because The History of White People is a fascinating read for the very fact that Painter historocizes and problematizes whiteness as a category.  Anyone who knows anything about race and science knows that race is social, not scientific construct, and yet it still dominates our society.  So, quite frankly, unpacking the constructions of whiteness in the US is an important historical, sociological, and political act. I would say that this is a book that everyone should read, but such egregious errors with historical fact makes me hesitant.

Trump and the White Working Class

November 14, 2016 § 2 Comments

The chattering classes are twisting themselves into knots to try to explain and understand how and why Donald Trump won last Tuesday.  How did he win out in traditionally Democratic territory in the Rust Belt? This has been the $64,000,000,000,000 question.  Me? I don’t see it as being that complicated.

Underneath it all, there is a very simple economic message that Trump has communicated to his base: he has promised to cut up NAFTA and bring the jobs back.  The United States is currently reaping the consequences of ignoring the plight of a sizeable chunk of the population for nigh-on 30 years.  They have lost their jobs, their self-esteem, their way of life.  Time was, you could graduate from high school on Thursday.  And Friday morning, wake up and head over to the HR office of the local factory or plant.  They knew you; your dad worked there, so did your uncles and big brother. Your mom worked there, so did your sisters and your aunts.  They hired you immediately. And on Monday, you came to work for the first time.  And then you stayed there for 35-40 years. You made good money.  Got married, had kids, raised them.  Eventually, you retired.  Your thanks for your loyalty and hard work was a generous pension plan that took care of you in return for giving your working years to the company.  But that’s all gone.  Deindustrialization.  And free trade.

What happened when the jobs dried up?  People lost their homes; their cars; their marriages.  Alcoholism and addiction became more common.  Re-training programs were a joke, they didn’t plan anyone for a new career in computers.  Some were lucky and found a new career in the service industry.  But making $9/hr to stock shelves at Walmart doesn’t pay the bills.  Then there’s health insurance and benefits.  With GE, those were all taken care of.  Waffle House doesn’t take care of them.  Their churches tried to take care of them but most of them weren’t religious to start with. And their politicians? They paid lip service for a bit, both Democrats and Republicans.  But then they got bored and got obsessed with other things.  And so no one had these dispossessed, under- and un- employed people’s backs.

And as a result, the Midwest joined the South as the lands of cultural carnage. They got written out of the national narrative, except when something stupid happens (don’t believe me, go read this rant from the Bitter Southerner).  Think about TV and the movies.  Time was, they were set in Milwaukee and Minneapolis and Savannah, GA.  Now?  Not so much. And when they are, you get Mike & Molly; their characters met at Overeaters’ Anonymous.  And besides, it’s set in Chicago.  Chicago isn’t of the Midwest anymore. It’s a national city.  America no longer tells stories about the heartland anymore.  There are no more little ditties about Jack and Diane.  Midwesterners don’t see themselves on TV or the big screen, unless it’s a story about them going to NYC or LA.  For example, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Or Parks and Recreation, which also began as a mockumentary making fun of Lesley Knope and the residents of Pawnee, IN.

The United States has long been a deeply divided nation.  We like to think it’s North-South.  It’s not.  It’s the coasts and Chicago vs. the ‘flyover states.’ What’s more dismissive than referring the bulk of the nation as ‘flyover’ territory?  No one listens to the fears and frustrations of the former white working class.  And their visceral anger brings out all their latent fears of mistrust of anyone not exactly like them: African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ, and so on (and this in no way excuses hatred)  And then Trumpism occurs.

Donald Trump and his Cult of Personality came along in the 2016 election and he promised to be their champion, to get rid of NAFTA, to bring the jobs back.  I get this argument, I think I understand the visceral nature of it as both a son of the working class and an historian of deindustrialization.  My family lost out with the first FTA between Canada and the US in 1988.  My Old Man lost his job as his company sold out to a larger one south of the border.  And the brief period of relative prosperity we had in the mid-80s was gone.  He eventually recovered, luckily for us, he was a skilled tradesman, a welder.  And my mom was university-educated.  But. We lost.  And so many others.  Their anger is visceral.  Even now, 30 years on, I still maintain deep, deep suspicion to FTA agreements, for this exact reason, despite knowing the rational reasons to support it.

But Trump cannot deliver on his promises.  If he tears up NAFTA and other FTAs, the American economy will collapse, and so, too, will the world’s.  Those factory jobs aren’t coming back.  Automation, people.  The smallish factories across the region I live in, the South, do not employ more than a fraction of what they used to; automation.  More to the point, Trump doesn’t care about these people any more than anyone before him did.  He used them to get to the White House, he exploited their anger.

So what is going to happen when all these angry white working class people realize they’ve been lied to, again?  When Trump is revealed as nothing more than a false prophet, that anger will still be there.  But it will be amped up because he failed to deliver. And they will look for scapegoats, and all the people who already feel unsafe will feel it all the more.  Racism, homophobia, misogyny; these will all be amplified.  Maybe Trump will mollify them by blaming someone else, another shadowy group that hindered his ability to deliver on his promises as our leader.  Or maybe he’ll double down on the elitists, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, etc., etc.  I don’t feel optimistic either way.

On Chronology in History

November 7, 2016 § Leave a comment

In last month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, there is a review of what looks a fascinating book, Henry Petroski’s The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s InfrastructureThe review, however, is plagued by an inability to keep a historical chronology.  I always remind my students that chronology matters, especially in a history class. And when grading exams and essays, I find myself over and over again writing “Chronology?” in the margins.

The review, by Aaron Klein, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, is plagued by such problems.  For example, he recounts Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 ‘Report on the Subject of Manufactures,’ wherein he argued that the federal government had the constitutional authority to spend on internal infrastructure.  But then, in the next sentence: “Hamilton’s view was rejected by President James Madison and his successor, James Monroe, who both vetoed major infrastructure legislation passed by Congress” for constitutional reasons.  Problem is, in 1791, George Washington was President.  Madison was elected president in 1809, 18 years after Hamilton’s ‘Report,’ and 5 years after Hamilton was murdered in a duel by Aaron Burr.

On the next page, Klein recounts the creation of the interstate highway system in the US.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the key here, as almost anyone knows (you know, those signs on the interstates that note they are part of the Eisenhower Interstate System.  The key legislation here came in 1956.  Klein writes:

Eisenhower’s highways were part of a series of great infrastructure projects that helped usher in unprecedented prosperity.  Government investment and private entrepreneurship laid railroads across the continent; built huge power plants, such as the Hoover Dam; and provided universal phone coverage. Those projects generated economic growth and united the nation.

Factually, this is true. Infrastructure did aid in national growth and unity. But. The railroads were built in the late 19th century.  The Hoover Dam was built from 1931-33.  In other words, looooong before the interstate system.  And while Klein is making a larger point about the need for government investment in the US’s ailing infrastructure, his inability to maintain a chronological reality here undercuts his argument about the importance of the Eisenhower system, given it was the last of these infrastructural developments and nearly a generation after the other examples he provides.

In short, kids, chronology matters.

Margaret Sanger Was Not Who You Think

August 29, 2016 § 3 Comments

Margaret Sanger might be the least understood, most slandered person in American history right now.  Everyday in my Twitter feed, I see arguments over her, her beliefs on birth control, abortion, and African Americans.  She has been latched onto by many on the right as an example of what is purely evil with liberals in the US.  The problem is that the historical reality does not bear out this demonization of Sanger.

Nonetheless, the Twitter warriors persevere:

This isn’t limited to Twitter.  New Hampshire Representative William O’Brien (R) said that Sanger was a KKK member.  Herman Cain, in his run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2011, claimed that the whole point of Planned Parenthood, which Sanger founded, had a genocidal mission to prevent black babies from being born. Last fall, Ben Carson, on his own run to secure the GOP nod, declared that Sanger’s goal was to eliminate African Americans.

The belief that Sanger was a white supremacist and a member of the KKK is a particularly popular one on the American political right  This photo in particular has been circulating for years, after it was uploaded to the white supremacist site Stormfront in 2008:

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While it is true that Sanger gave a speech to a women’s auxiliary of the KKK, both this photo and the supposed message of her talk are lies (she talked to the KKK women about birth control and called it “one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing.”).  But, like any good lie or meme, this one is careful to be specific, even offering us a location.  This photo is a photoshopped version of this:

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Very different, no?

Yes, Sanger was a believer in eugenics.  So, too, were Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, H.G. Wells.  Even W.E.B. DuBois believed in aspects of the eugenics, though he was vehemently opposed to the racist viewpoint of many eugenicists, for perhaps obvious reasons.  And, let us not forget that the eugenics movement was one predicated on classism, racism, and almost every other -ism you can imagine.  At its purest, it was a movement devoted to purifying the human race of the disabled, criminal, addicted, and many others.  And that also included racism.  And, of course, eugenics is part of what drove the Nazis and the Holocaust.

Eugenics, however, was a mult-faceted movement.  In the United States, it was not simply a belief in sterilization of ‘undesirables’ and other medical horrors.  Rather, it also included a larger public health movement that sought to make Americans healthier through exercise, the creation of parks, eradication of STDs, clinics for maternal and infant health, immunization, and other aspects of healthy living.  And this is where Sanger’s beliefs largely lay. In a 1957 interview with Mike Wallace, Sanger stated that

I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world — that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being practically. Delinquents, prisoners, all sorts of things just marked when they’re born. That to me is the greatest sin — that people can — can commit.

Moreover, a belief in eugenics did not necessarily equate racism in the United States.  To take the case of Sanger: she did not believe in segregation, she opposed Jim Crow in the South.  She was a firm believer in birth control, and she thought all women, not just wealthy, white women, should have access to it.  That includes poor white women, hence the talk to the KKK auxiliary.  But this belief also brought her into African American neighbourhoods in New York, Chicago to open clinics there so African American women would also have access to birth control.  She also worked closely with African American ministers in her attempts to educate black women.

In her actual organization, Sanger would not tolerate racism, and fired people for racism.  More to the point, in 1966, Planned Parenthood honored Rev. Martin Luther King with its Margaret Sanger Award, which is granted to people who work to ensure reproductive health and rights.  King was unable to accept the award in person, sending instead his wife, Coretta Scott King.  She read his acceptance speech, which included this passage:

There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist – a nonviolent resister.

Thus, in the end: Sanger was not a racist, she did not advocate mass sterilizations of anyone, let alone African Americans. She was not a member of the KKK.  In reality, she was a rare person in the early 20th century: she believed in racial and class equality when it came to reproductive health.  And she was dead-set opposed to racial segregation and Jim Crow.

 

 

Whither the Poor? Or, Why You Need to Vote!

August 10, 2016 § 4 Comments

I live in the second poorest county in Tennessee, as defined by median income.  That puts it in the Top 50 nationally, with a median income of $28,086.  Here, the near impossibility of farming on top of a mountain, combined with the long-term effects of coal-mining are all over the place, from the environmental degradation to the deep poverty.

On Monday, I published a post on Lyndon Baines Johnson and his Great Society.  The Great Society was really the last time the government made an attempt to confront white poverty in the US.  But that was half a century ago. They were amongst the constituency of the Democratic Party.  But they’ve long since shifted their allegiances.  But the GOP doesn’t accord them any attention, they’re taken for granted.  The people here are the forgotten people of the country.

Nancy Isenberg, in her fantastic book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, argues that class has been central to American life and American history.  And for poor white people, they have been marginalized here for four centuries, just as they have been in England.  Americans like to think they live in a classless society.  They don’t.  At the time of the Civil War, a grand total of 6 per cent of white Southerners owned slaves. Yet, they managed to convince the other 94 per cent of the justness of a war to protect their economic interests.  For the massive majority of the South, these poor white people, the war was pointless.  And they came to realize this pretty quickly, as soldiers grumbled about the wealthy who sent them to their death.

By the late 1960s and into the 70s and 80s, the Republican Party gained their allegiance.  This came about due to a response on the part of poor, white Southerners to the Civil Rights Era, combined with the rise of evangelical Christianity.  In the first case, there was both frustration with being forgotten by the federal government, combined with a residual racism that dates back to the nineteenth century, when the Southern élite kept them in place by telling poor whites that, “Hey, it may suck to be you, but, you know, it could be worse, you could be black.”  And yes, this worked (don’t believe me, go check out David Roediger’s excellent The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class; think Roediger’s ‘biased’?, read this).  In the second case, the GOP nationally hitched its horses to the evangelical movement, which had its greatest successes in the South.

Driving all over the county this weekend, I noticed where the Trump supporters live.  There are people in this county who are well-off.  There is even a very tiny middle class.  But the Trump supporters, as defined unscientifically by bumper stickers and lawn signs, are the poor.  Trump stickers tend to be on older cars in various stages of disrepair.  The lawn signs tend to be outside of trailers, tiny houses, and cabins and shacks.

But what fascinates me about this is not who they support, but that they do so at all.  This is a politically mobilized group in my county.  During the presidential primaries in May, voter turnout in both the Democratic and Republican primaries was over 60 per cent.  Despite being forgotten, ignored, and left behind, the people of my county are still voting.  Angrily, but they’re voting.  They’re voting for Trump for what I see as obvious reasons: he speaks their language, even if he is a demagogic, power-hungry, liar.

A politician who could harness their anger and frustration and offer hope, something other than the dystopian view of Trump, whilst building a coalition that offered something to other frustrated constituencies (I’m thinking primarily of inner-city African Americans), could actually make a real change in the United States.

But, instead, we get the same hollow language of the Democratic nominee, versus this horrible, Hunger Games dystopian, crypto-fascism of the Republican nominee.

Freedom Isn’t Free

September 30, 2015 § 5 Comments

Here in the United States, it is common to see a bumper sticker that says “Freedom Isn’t Free.”  18244837-623x389These stickers pre-date 9/11 and the War on Terror and the devastating human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But they have taken on special meaning in the decade-and-a-half since 9/11.

I am, as usual, teaching American history this semester.  One of my classes is reading David Roediger’s classic book, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class.  While Roediger’s attempts to connect himself to EP Thompson are perhaps overdone, he still makes a powerful argument about the centrality of race in the development of a free labour ideology in the US.  He especially ties his argument to WEB DuBois’ conclusion in his Black Reconstruction of the psychological benefit the white worker received (in lieu of fair wages) through his whiteness, and its pseudo-entry to power.

Roediger digs back into what he calls the pre-history of the American worker, the period between colonization and the dawn of the 19th century and the beginnings of the American industrial revolution.  This involves a discussion of the compromise over slavery in the Constitution.  Roediger writes:

Even artisan-patriots with substantial anti-slavery credentials supported the Constitution as a compromise necessary to secure the world’s greatest experiment in freedom.

Indeed.  The freedom of white Americans, especially white American artisans/workers in the Revolutionary era came at the cost of the enslavement of African Americans.  On one hand, Roediger seems to be letting these artisan-patriots off the hook.  On the other, I have never quite understood the apparent lack of irony in the Revolutionary generation’s easy resort to slavery rhetoric to complain of Britain’s treatment of the colonies.  I find it preposterous and disingenuous.  And yet, this rhetoric became powerful during the Revolution.  At any rate, as Roediger reminds us, freedom isn’t free.

Emmett Till and the Security of African Americans

August 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

My department is co-sponsoring an exhibit on the murder of Emmett Till at the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library.  The exhibit itself opened Monday, 17 August, and will end on 17 September.  Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the events that led to Till’s murder at the hands of Roy Bryant and JM Milam.  In conjunction with the exhibit, our department is sponsoring a speaker’s series.  The first was last night, by my colleague, Ansley Quiros.  She talked about Till’s murder in the context of the long struggle for African-American freedom.

By coincidence, I was talking about slavery in my US history class today.  In particular, we were looking at the Fugitive Slave Laws of 1793 and 1850 and the fallout of Prigg v. Pennsylvania, an 1842 Supreme Court decision.  The case arose several years earlier when Prigg, a bounty hunter from Maryland, crossed into Pennsylvania to capture an alleged slave, Margaret Morgan.  Morgan had lived as a free-woman in Maryland (a slave state) before moving with her family (which included her husband, John, and at least three children) to Pennsylvania (a free state).  Prigg attempted to remove Margaret and her children to Maryland and into slavery.  When a Pennsylvania magistrate refused to grant Prigg a Certificate of Removal, due to her free status (John Morgan had been born free in Pennsylvania, as had at least one of their children), he and his partners kidnapped Margaret and her children.  They were indicted for kidnapping.  After a stand-off between Maryland and Pennsylvania, Prigg and his men were convicted.  Their conviction was upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court in DC, however, overturned their conviction. (All of this was too late for Margaret Morgan and her children, who were sold into slavery and never heard from again).

The Supreme Court found that the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, which had been passed by Congress, was problematic in that it guaranteed due process for the alleged fugitive slave, which was part of the problem for Prigg in the Morgan case.  Due process had worked in favour of Margaret Morgan and her kids.  The Supreme Court, though, found that any state laws that impeded the right of slave owners were de facto unconstitutional.  And more than that, alleged escape slaves were not entitled to due process by dint of the fact that they were not citizens of the United States.

In practical terms, Prigg nationalized the racial basis of slavery.  Any African American in a slave state could be presumed to be a slave.  With Prigg, however, this was nationalized: any African American in a non-slave state could now be presumed to be a fugitive slave . And this is exactly what happened to Solomon Northrup, the man whose story was dramatized in the 2013 film, Twelve Years a Slave.  In short, the 175,000 free African Americans in the non-slave states were in danger of being kidnapped and sold into slavery due to Prigg.

Emmett Till, a fourteen-year old boy was killed a century after Solomon’s ordeal, for the crime of making a comment of an undetermined nature to Carolyn Bryant.  She testified at Till’s murderers’ trial (one of the accused was her husband) that Till had made lewd comments to her.  It is pretty obvious she perjured herself.  Till’s case sparked a national furore and helped to spark the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

But in the past several years, mass indignation has emerged again, as a series of unarmed black men have been murdered at the hands of the police and private citizens, with next to no impunity, as was the case with Till’s murderers (Bryant and Milam confessed to the crime in Look magazine in 1956, as they could not be re-tried for the crime they were acquitted for the year earlier).  When Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman, a trigger-happy neighbourhood watch captain (who has since been in trouble with the law for a series of violent incidents), indignation erupted, made all the more intense when Zimmerman was acquitted.

President Obama was particularly struck by Martin’s murder, noting that if he had had a son, he might have looked like Martin. But this was just the first case of unarmed black men being murdered, the catalyst, so to speak of the #blacklivesmatter campaign.

After Ansley’s talk tonight, there were very few actual questions.  Instead, some older African Americans in the audience talked about their experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South.  It was powerful.  One man talked of growing up in DC, but whenever he went to Virginia, his mother reminded him to behave himself and to defer to white people. One woman talked movingly of her own experiences, including her mother being poisoned in a Mississippi restaurant after she attempted to take advantage of her civil rights in the 1960s.  This woman expressed fear for her grandchildren, about their security.

I couldn’t help thinking about what I was talking about in class today.  One of my students was incredulous about the Prigg decision and the consequences of it: she noted that African Americans were forced to live in fear.  There wasn’t much I could say in response to that.  She also drew on our previous class, noting that slavery was a system based on mutual terror.  The slaves were terrorized into compliance and the slave owners were terrified of a slave revolt.  Another student then noted that African Americans have never had much cause to feel much freedom.  Listening to these elders speak tonight after Ansley’s talk brought it home very powerfully for me.

A Storm of Witchcraft: Salem in 1692 & Ballyvadlea in 1895

December 15, 2014 § 8 Comments

IMG_0629I read my colleague Emerson Baker’s fantastic A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience this weekend.  Salem bills itself as “Witch City, USA”, the image of a witch on a broom adorns the police cars here.  My wife is on the board of the Salem Award Foundation, which seeks to draw

upon the lessons of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, [to promote] awareness, understanding and empathy in support of human rights, tolerance and social justice. We advance social change through educational programming, stewardship of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial as a place of reflection, and by awarding and celebrating contemporary champions who embody our mission.

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial

As a public historian, the Hallowe’en silliness has fascinated me, as ‘ghost walks’ are held all around town, showing some of the locations sort of connected to the Witch Trials.  I say ‘sort of’ because most of the action did not take place in Salem.  Most of the accused came from Salem Village (then apart of Salem, now Danvers) and Andover.  Some of the trials took place here, though.  Nonetheless, every year, hundreds of thousands of people come to Salem, in the wake of the murder of twenty innocent people in 1692-3, most of them on Gallows Hill, to engage in revelry and have fun.

But, this is the first time I’ve engaged seriously in the actual history of the events.  I knew the stories, I knew the outlines of what happened here and how those twenty people came to be killed in an explosion of mass hysteria.  But, in reading Barker’s book I’ve been impressed at just how deeply held was the beliefs in witches in 17th century New England.  Baker makes this argument forcefully, noting how a belief in witches, and in the wickedness of Satan drove Puritan beliefs.  In this way, as he argues, witches became a convenient scapegoat in tumultuous times in Massachusetts.  There was war with the aboriginals on the frontiers, from what is now Maine to towns located 15-20 miles inland from Salem, like Billerica.  The economy was suffering.  Puritans felt themselves under attack as religious toleration was extended.

Salem is itself named after the Hebrew word shalom, meaning peace, and is a shortened version of Jerusalem, or City of Peace.  Massachusetts was established as a city on the hill, and Salem is amongst the oldest towns in Massachusetts, settled in 1626 by Roger Conant and a group of Puritans, and is two years older than Boston.  In 17th century Massachusetts, Salem and Boston were the two major commercial and administrative centres in Massachusetts.  All of this was under attack in the late 17th century.

The story Baker tells is not unlike that told by Angela Bourke in one of my favourite books, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, the story of the burning to death of Bridget Cleary, a 25-year old woman, by her husband, Michael, in 1895 in Ballyvadlea, in rural Co. Tipperary, Ireland.  What seems a straight-forward case of domestic violence is more than that.  Michael Cleary claimed his wife had been taken away by the faeries, and he killed the changeling posing as his wife, as the real Bridget would return from the nearby ringfort, where she had been held captive by the faeries.  Bourke then ties the case of Bridget Cleary into larger stories of Irish nationalism and the fight for Home Rule; faeries, then, were a traditional folkway for the people of rural Ireland in a rapidly changing time.

Bridget is often called the ‘last witch’ to be burned in Ireland.  She was never accused of witchcraft, so that’s unfair (yes, I am aware of my title).  But what is interesting in the similarity of these two stories.

The Demeaning of Language

April 15, 2014 § 5 Comments

Slavery is, by definition, a condition where one human being is owned by another.  The condition of African Americans in the US South prior to the Civil War was one of slavery.  Slavery is NOT an unpaid internship.  It is NOT working a bad McJob.  It is also not what happened to African Americans after the Civil War in the South.

After the war, many allegedly free African Americans were made to work on the same plantations they had been enslaved upon.  They were not paid.  They were viciously, and cruelly exploited.  Their civil rights were deeply and fundamentally violated.  And this is a stain on American history that is not spoken of.  The standard narrative is that the slaves were freed and that was the end of that.  But this status of allegedly free African Americans after the Civil War in the South was not slavery.

There is a fine distinction to be made here between the ownership of someone else’s person and the exploitation of someone else’s body or economic power.  A slave has next to no rights.  Slave owners in the pre-Civil War South were free to buy and sell their slaves at will.  They had almost free range to do whatever they wished with and to their slaves.  Men violated and raped their female slaves.  Men beat and savaged their male slaves.  Slave owners broke up families because they could (see my post on the Carolina Chocolate Drops for a powerful story of a freed slave woman).

The allegedly free African Americans after the war, forced to work on the same plantations they had been enslaved on, were not slaves.  They were personally free, even if that freedom amounted to less than a hill of beans.

My college is hosting a partial film-screening of Sam Pollard’s 2012 film, Slavery By Another Name, this week, along with a talk by Rebecca Hill, an historian at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.  I fully understand Pollard’s rhetorical point in his documentary.  The term “slavery” is one of the few that still has the power to shock, and Pollard capitalises on that in drawing audiences in for his documentary and exposure of a more or less forgotten period of American History.  This is a documentary that all Americans and anyone with an interest in American Civil Rights should see.

But the problem is that when we use words like this, we demean their meanings, and lessen their impact.  Take, for example, the term “fascism.” That term is thrown around like it means nothing in political circles in both Canada and the USA, by all sides, to describe anyone and anything the speaker might disagree with.  In the end, “fascist” doesn’t really mean much anymore, and has no shock value.  That is not a good thing.

The same thing will happen with the words “slave” and “slavery,” too.  Especially if otherwise well-off white, college-educated young men and women continue to use those terms to describe their unpaid internships, or if we continue to describe the plight of adjuncts in the academy as a form of slavery.

Language is symbolic.  We use words to describe concrete and abstract theories and ideas.  They are meant to be symbolic for the theories, ideas, and things we are describing.  Language is obviously how we communicate, and if we demean and cheapen our words to the point where they lose their meaning, I’m not entirely sure how we communicate at all.

Happy Black History Month

January 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m an historian.  I teach history.  I study history.  I write history.  I even think about it in my spare time.  February is Black History Month.  In theory, I support this.  I support the teaching of Black history.  As well as the history of other groups who have been marginalised, oppressed, and written out of history.  I remain deeply influenced by the New Left of the 1960s, particularly the work of E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm.  Black history has to be incorporated into the rest of the curriculum, it has to be included in the story at the core.  Black History Month is important to raise awareness, but we need to do more than that if we’re ever going to get anything done.  African American history is central to the American story, and not just through slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights.

I was struck nearly stupid by a post on NPR.org today, “What Does ‘Sold Down the River’ Really Mean?”  Seriously.  This is considered to be a newsworthy blog post by the leftist, liberal, listener-supported public radio station.  The comments on the story on Facebook are predictable in many ways.  There are the liberals having pedantic arguments about whether the apocryphal river is the Missouri, Mississippi, or the Niger, whether the provenance of the phrase is American or African.  On the actual post on NPR.org,the liberals are arguing about whether or not slavery still exists today in relation to agricultural workers from Central America.  But back on Facebook, there are also people claiming that this is race-baiting, or “playing the race card.”  Others say that there is no racism in America today. Others say that its racist to even have a Black History Month, because there is no equivalent White History Month.  These are the folks who call Women’s Day sexist because there’s no Men’s Day. And then there’s the one who says that this is all ancient history and belongs “up there on the shelf with the other antiques where it belongs.”

Pointing out the history of slavery and the historic oppression of black people in this country is neither race-baiting nor playing the race card.  Pointing out that racism still exists today is also not race-baiting or playing the race card.  In fact, from my experience, those who make such claims are doing to from a place of racism themselves.  As for the one who said that racism and slavery are ancient history and belong up on the shelf with the other antiques, well, the less said about that, the better.

As for the claim that Black History Month is racist because there’s no White History Month.  Well, it’s not often I will outright say an idea is stupid.  But this is an exception to that rule.  The majority of the history we teach, in primary and secondary schools, in university, is about dead white men.  Still.  In the early 21st century.  There is a reason for this, of course, and that’s because most survey history courses are overviews and, at least when it comes to North America and Europe, it is dead white men who were the kings, presidents, advisers, cardinals, popes, explorers, revolutionaries, politicians, and rebels.  In short, in the United States, the history curriculum is still overwhelmingly about white people, particularly white men. So the suggestion that Black History Month is racist is ludicrous, ridiculous, and downright stupid.

But, it’s stories like this, and the comments made on them, that point out the real need for Black History Month.  We do need to spend some time privileging African American history, if only to draw attention to it.  And then to include it in the rest of the curriculum.   A high school teacher commented on the Facebook post that slavery IS taught in the schools, and to suggest otherwise is wrong and stupid.  Well, yes, it is taught.  And then once we get past the Civil War and Reconstruction, black history isn’t generally deal with again until the Civil Rights era, but then that’s it.  So, black history appears in relation to slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights.  In short, when the national story was dominated by issues related to race and African Americans.  When race and African Americans aren’t part of the national story, it’s back to the sidelines.  I don’ think this is good, it doesn’t create an inclusive history, it is an exclusive history.  The same is true of women and other minorities.

This NPR story and the comments to it on Facebook and NPR show that rather than moving towards a post-racial society (hey, remember those dreams in 2008?), we are caught in a stasis, and we need Black History Month now as much as ever.

 

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