November 15, 2018 § 2 Comments
Last week I mentioned the haunting and beautiful Irish Famine memorial carved from bog wood by the artist Kieran Tuohy.
I spend a lot of time thinking about and, ultimately, teaching Famine memorials in both Irish and Public history classes. For the most part, Famine memorials are similar to Tuohy’s sculpture, though perhaps not as haunting. They show desperate, emaciated figures carrying their worldly goods in their arms and trying to get to the emigrant ships leaving from the quay in Dublin, Derry, Cork, etc. The Dublin memorial is perhaps the most famous.
The Irish memorials tend to reflect stories of leaving, the desperate emigrants heading to the so-called New World. Death is secondary to these narratives, though just as many people died as emigrated due to the Famine. Take, for example, my favourite memorial on Murrisk, Co. Mayo. This one depicts a coffin ship, though unlike many other monuments, it reflects death, as skeletons can be found aboard the coffin ship. In fact, if you look carefully at this image, you can see that the netting is actually a chain of skeletons, depicting the desperate refugees who died aboard these ships.
The stories told by Famine memorials in North America differ, however. They offer a solemn view of the refugees arriving here, sometimes acknowledging the arduous journey and the pitiful conditions in Ireland. But they offer a glimpse of what is to come. Perhaps none more so than the Boston Famine Memorial.
The Boston Famine Memorial is located along the Freedom Trail in Boston, at the corner of Washington and School streets downtown. Like most Famine memorials around the world, it dates from the era of the 150th anniversary of the Famine in the late 1990s. The Boston memorial was unveiled in 1998. It is not a universally popular one, for perhaps obvious reasons, and attracts a great deal of mocking. It’s got to the point that now there are signs surrounding the memorial asking visitors to be respectful.
It is comprised to two free-standing sculptures. The first shows the typical, desperate, starving, wraith-like Famine refugees. The man is desperate and cannot even lift his head, whilst his wife begs God for sustenance as her child leans towards her for comfort.
But it’s the second sculpture that is problematic. This one shows the same family, safe in America, happy and healthy. In other words, we get the triumphalist American Dream. But, there are a few gaps here. First, perhaps the obvious gap, the nativist resistance the Irish found in the United States. And perhaps more to the point, whereas the man is dressed like a worker from the late 19th/early 20th century (even then, this is 50-60 years after the Famine, the woman is dressed as if it’s the mid-20th century, so 100 years later.
Certainly, the Irish made it in the United States. The Irish became American, essentially, and assimilated into the body politic of the nation. But this was not instantaneous. It took a generation or two. It is worth noting that the first Irish president was also the first Catholic president, and that was still 115 years after the start of the Famine, with John Fitzgerald Kennedy being elected in 1960. Irish assimilation in the US was not easy, in other words.
And then there’s the triumphalism of the American Dream which, in reality, is not all that accessible for immigrants in the United States, whether they were the refugees of the Famine 170 years ago or they are from El Salvador today. And this is perhaps something unintended by the Boston memorial, given the time lapse between the Famine refugees and the successful, American family.
February 5, 2018 § Leave a comment
We live in an era in the United States where, in many states, politicians are picking their voters, not the other way around. This is because in most states, the boundaries of congressional districts are in the hands of politicians, and the majority of the party in the state house has more or less carte blanche to manipulated these boundaries as they see fit. In most democracies, this is handled by an independent commission to avoid just this kind of silliness. When left in the hands of politicians, I can see how the temptation to gerrymander is too great to resist. The logic is simple: If we gerrymander the boundaries of congressional districts, we can not only perpetuate our control of the state house, we can also manipulate and control the congressional party from our state, and if others in other states do it, preferably in our political party, then we can control government.
Of course, this is not how it’s supposed to work. And yet, we end up with congressional districts like these two, from California. We tend to hear in the news that Republicans are the ones who gerrymander. But they’re not alone. Democrats do, too. But, without question, Republicans do it more often. Anyway, look at these two congressional districts. One is the 11th District in California, the other is the 38th. One was Republican, one was Democratic. Both images are from c. 2004, and both districts have been re-drawn.
The gerrymander has been used in nearly every democracy, and is one of the many dirty tricks politicians have used to maintain power. That the gerrymander is, by definition, anti-democratic is another matter. The first time the word was used was in the Boston Herald, in March 1812.
That year, Massachusetts state senate districts had been redrawn at the behest of Governor Eldridge Gerry. Not surprisingly, Gerry’s gerrymander benefited his party, the Democratic-Republicans. The Herald’s editorial cartoonist was not impressed with the re-drawing of the South Essex district:
The Herald charged that the district looked like a mythical salamander, hence we get gerry-mander. It’s worth noting, though, that Gerry’s name wasn’t pronounced ‘Jerry’, but, rather, ‘Geary,’ so, in early 19th century Boston, it was supposed to be pronounced ‘Gearymander’. One theory I’ve read is that the Boston accent re-appropriated the word to ‘Jerrymander.’ More likely, though, something else happened: In the rest of the nascent United States, the name Gerry was likely to be pronounced ‘Jerry,’ not ‘Geary.’ And there we go.
For the remainder of 1812, Federalist newspapers and commentators around the country made use of the term to mock the Democratic-Republican party, which was then in the ascendancy. The Democratic-Republicans were Thomas Jefferson’s party, and it controlled the White House from his election in 1800 until the party split in 1824, largely due to Andrew Jackson. His branch eventually became the Democratic Party we have today. The other branch eventually became the Whigs. Together, the Democrats and Whigs were the core of the Second Party System of the United States, c. 1824-54.
The term also travelled out of the United States, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the United Kingdom, and north to Canada. To be fair, the coining of the term in March 1812, came on the brink of the outbreak of the War of 1812 in June of that year. So, for the British, this was just another way to mock the Americans. But, either way, the term became an accepted term in the English language by 1847, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
November 4, 2016 § 2 Comments
I grew up as a fan of the Montreal Expos, or ‘Nos Amours,’ as they were known. I went to my first game with my dad in 1978, not long before my sister was born, when I was 5 years old. I was transfixed by the experience at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. It was still new, it had not yet become the albatross hanging around the neck of the franchise. It was glorious. So were the hot dogs, consistently ranked amongst the best in Major League Baseball. I don’t remember who the ‘Spos played that day, I don’t remember the score. But I remember the centrefielder, Andre “The Hawk” Dawson. He quickly became my favourite player. Others loved Gary Carter, the charismatic catcher. Or Tim Raines, the left fielder. And eventually, ‘Le Gros Chat,’ first baseman Andres Gallarraga.
In 1987, Dawson left the Expos. His knees were bad and the notoriously horrible artificial turf at Olympic Stadium made them worse. He signed with the Chicago Cubs. For a brief moment, I shifted my allegiances. It made sense to me, I was a kid. Plus, I was a Chicago Bears’ fan, and had been since I first discovered the beauty that was Sweetness, the Bears running back, Walter Payton, 4-5 years earlier. So I got a Cubs cap. And I was a Cubs’ fan. But old allegiances die hard, and in my heart, I remained an Expos fan. Imagine my disappointment in 1994.
But, underneath, I remained a Cubs partisan, and experienced heartbreak after heartbreak. But then Major League Baseball colluded and Nos Amours were stolen from Montreal in a skeezy deal that saw them move, eventually, to Washington and the horrible owners of the Expos, Jeffrey Loria, get the Miami franchise, while the owner of the Miami franchise, John Henry, moved up to Boston to take over the Red Sox. I was angry and devastated. I swore off baseball. Even today, I refuse to recognize the validity of the Washington team.
And then, in 2012, we relocated from Montreal to Boston. And I needed to cheer for at least one Boston team. See, the problem is this: I hate the fucking Boston Bruins. Hate them. The only thing on God’s Green Earth I hate is that team. Cheaters. Liars. Dirty SOBs. Hate them. And that deep, abiding hatred for the Bs seeped out to the other Boston teams, especially the Patriots. But, when I was a kid, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox tended to be the two teams that rivaled each other for the AL East title. And I always cheer against the Jays, so, by default, I kinda cheered for the Sox. So, I took up a fandom for the Boston Red Sox. The fact that they play in Fenway Park helped. I love that stadium. And, they also won the World Series in 2013, which I appreciated, it being my first full year in Boston and all.
But I always kept an eye on the Cubs. In 2015 I tuned into a baseball game and watched it start-to-finish, without doing something else, but actually watched it, for the first time in forever. On 30 August 2015, the Cubs, beat the LA Dodgers 2-0. And pitcher Jake Arrieta got a no hitter. The last time I watched a complete baseball game was on 28 July 1991, when those very same Dodgers were victim to another no hitter, this time a perfect game, against the Expos and the brilliant pitcher, Dennis “El Presidente” Martinez. So I felt I had come full circle. I was still a Red Sox fan, but my affection for the Cubbies remained.
I enjoyed the 2016 baseball season. Both the Red Sox and Cubs were contenders, both won their division. Both made the post-season, though the Sox crashed out in the ALDS to Cleveland (I will not use that team’s nickname, as it is racist). The Cubs, on the other hand, made it to the World Series, against Cleveland.
On Wednesday night, the Cubbies won the World Series for the first time in 116 years. The last time they won was 1908. The last time they even made the World Series was 1945. In my lifetime, since Dawson signed there, they had met heartbreak after heartbreak. In 1989, they won the NL Central, but were easily defeated in the NLCS by the San Francisco Giants. They made the playoffs a handful of times between 1989 and 2015, and each time came up short. And let’s not get into that Bartman incident.
I was at a concert in Nashville Wednesday night, but kept checking my phone for the score. I was really caught up in it. I thought they had it in the bag when it was 6-3 in the 6th. But then, all of the sudden, it was 6-6, after Aroldis Chapman gave up a homerun. And it went to extra innings. And then there was a rain delay. All of this meant that by the time we got back to the car for the drive home, the game was still going on. We found it on the radio, and caught the final out and the victory. And it happened. The Cubs won the World Series.
I was down in Atlanta yesterday running errands. Wearing my Cubbies hat. And had all of these conversations with people. Everyone kept asking how it felt. I felt a little bad, not being a die-hard Cubs fan, but, I still found myself saying that it didn’t feel real. It doesn’t. It doesn’t feel real. I can only imagine what a real Cubs fan feels.
January 8, 2016 § 7 Comments
I’m reading a bit about theories of place right now. And I’m struck by geographers who bemoan the mobility of the world we live, as it degrades place in their eyes. It makes our connections to place inauthentic and not real. We spend all this time in what they call un-places: airports, highways, trains, cars, waiting rooms. And we move around, we travel, we relocate. All of this, they say, is degrading the idea of place, which is a location we are attached to and inhabit in an authentic manner.
I see where these kinds of geographers come from. I have spent a fair amount of my adult life in un-places. I have moved around a lot. In my adult life, I have lived in Vancouver, Ottawa, Vancouver again, Ottawa again, Montreal, Western Massachusetts, Boston, and now, Alabama. If I were to count the number of flats I have called home, I would probably get dizzy.
And yet, I have a strong connection to place. I am writing this in my living room, which is the room I occupy the most (at least whilst awake and conscious) in my home. It is my favourite room and it is carefully curated to make it a comfortable, inviting place for me. It is indeed a place. And yet, I have only lived here for six months. In fact, today is six months sine I moved into this house. I have a similar connection to the small college town I live in. And the same goes for my university campus.
So am I different than the people these geographers imagine flitting about the world in all these un-places, experiencing inauthentic connections to their locales? Am I fooled into an inauthentic connection to my places? I don’t think so. And I think I am like most people. Place can be a transferrable idea, it can be mobile. Our place is not necessarily sterile. It seems to me that a lot of these geographers are also overlooking the things that make a place a place: our belongings, our personal relationships to those who surround us, or own selves and our orientation to the world.
Sure, place is mobile in our world, but that does not mean that place is becoming irrelevant as these geographers seem to be saying. Rather, it means that place is mobile. Place is by nature a mutable space. Someone else called this house home before me. This house has been here since 1948. But that doesn’t mean that this is any less a place to me.
September 23, 2015 § 2 Comments
Sometimes I’m shocked by segregation, in that it still exists. It exists in Canada. Don’t believe me? Look at East Vancouver, the North Side of Winnipeg, the Jane-Finch corridor in Toronto, or Saint-Michel in Montreal. But, in the US it is even more shocking. Boston was the most racist place I’ve ever seen, the casual racism of Bostonians towards black people, the comments on BostonGlobe.com. Or the fact that people told me that The Point, an immigrant neighbourhood of Salem, MA, was a place where “you can get shot.” Or the simple fact that residential segregation was very obvious in and around Boston. Unless you take public transit (as in the bus or the subway), you could live your entire life in Boston without noticing people of colour there.
Down here in Alabama, though, it’s not a simple question of race, class is also central to residential segregation. I live in a small city (so small, in fact, that my neighbourhood in Montreal is about the same size as this city in terms of population). I live in a neighbourhood that is comfortably middle-class, veering towards upper-middle class the closer you get to the university. But, in the midst of this, there are a few blocks that look like something you’d expect to see in the 1920s in a Southern city. These images below are from one of these streets, a block behind my house. These houses are essentially a version of a shotgun house. The block behind me is about 70% black, 30% white. It is also full of abandoned houses, empty lots, and lots with the ruins of homes. The street itself is about a car-width wide, and where I come from, would be called a back alley.
What is perhaps most shocking to me is how an apartment complex (which my neighbours all eye suspiciously) ensures this segregation with fencing designed to keep the riff raff out. To me, the very clear segregation of this block is shocking. Almost as surprising and shocking this block is in the midst of my neighbourhood. For example, the final photo is of the next block over from this street.
January 22, 2015 § 6 Comments
I’m teaching a course on space, place, landscape, and memory this semester. To get us thinking about these things, I have my students reading this article from the Boston Globe last week. In it, the author, llison Lobron, claims that Bostonians don’t care about Western Massachusetts. This isn’t exactly news, Western Mass is another world from the Boston region, and this has been blatantly obvious going back to the Revolutionary Era and Daniel Shays’ Rebellion in Springfield in 1786. There are still bullet holes in the Springfield Armory from Shays’ Revolt, apparently.
Anyway. Lobron goes on to make a claim that Western Mass is really more attuned to New York City than Boston, that there are more Giants and Yankees caps than Patriots and Red Sox caps where she lives, in Great Barrington, etc. Her TV stations come from Albany, NY, not Boston. (It’s also interesting that, in 2012, Lobron claimed that Great Barrington was “Cambridge with more time.” She is, after all, a transplanted Bostonian) I find this an interesting argument in a lot of way, given that she is essentialising Western Mass as a whole based on her experience in Great Barrington. My experiences in the Hilltowns of Western Mass and the Pioneer Valley say otherwise. Here, the Red Sox and Patriots are the main teams; here, the “city” is Boston, not New York, for the most part. TV stations here are Boston-based, too. She claims that where she lives, it’s easier to get your hands on the New York Times than the Boston Globe. Here, they’re about equal.
So what? So, it is incredibly difficult to generalise about space and region, apparently. Great Barrington is about 60 miles southwest of where I’m sitting in Amherst right now. Amherst is about 90 miles from Boston. Great Barrington, on the other hand is about 140 miles away, which is, coincidentally, the distance from Great Barrington to New York City, but it’s only 45 miles to Albany.
Lobron is correct, I think, when she notes that for most people in the Boston region, the world ends just to the west of Worcester. She is right to note that the state government in Boston generally ignores the western part of the state (I would add that it tends to ignore the central part, too). Newly-installed Governor Charlie Baker, for example, has no one from Western Mass in his cabinet or transition team. Plus ça change, says I. Even when Martha Coakley, who lost to Baker in the November election, was in power in Governor Deval Patrick’s team, despite her Western Mass roots, focused more on her adopted home of Cambridge, than her hometown of Pittsfield.
But. What I take away from Lobron’s article more than anything is that place tends to mean an intensely thing; our “place” is tightly bounded, and generalisations like “Western Mass” or “Central Mass” really don’t mean much in the larger scheme, because the 60 miles that separate my office at UMass-Amherst from Lobron in Great Barrington are huge, just as huge as the 90 miles between here and Boston. Somewhere between here and Great Barrington, on the other side of Springfield and the I-91 corridor, Massachusetts becomes Eastern New York.
August 7, 2014 § 8 Comments
I am doing a bit of research into the Know Nothing movement of the 1840s and 50s in the United States. The Know Nothings were a secret society that eventually evolved into a political party, based on the premise that immigration was bad for the United States. In short, the Know Nothings, who also formed one of the bases of the nascent Republican Party in the late 1850s, were nativists. They believed in a United States for Americans only. We could, of course, note the irony of that statement, given every person not of Native American heritage in this country is of immigrant stock. But, we’ll leave that alone. They were called Know Nothings not because they were ignorant (as my students always suppose), but because, as a secret society and asked about the society replied that they “knew nothing.”
I came across this list of things that Roman Catholics hate about the United States from the Boston Know-Nothing and American Crusader in July 1854. The Know-Nothing and American Crusader was one of the main newspapers of the Know Nothings, and Boston was a major centre of the nativists. Boston was ground zero, in many ways, in the ‘invasion’ of Irish immigrants and refugees in the years of the Famine and afterwards. Here’s the list:
- They HATE our Republic, and are trying to overthrow it.
- They HATE the American Eagle, and it offends them beyond endurance to see it worn as an ornament by Americans.
- They HATE our Flag, as it manifest by their grossly insulting it.
- They HATE the liberty of conscience.
- They HATE the liberty of the Press.
- They HATE the liberty of speech.
- They HATE our Common School system.
- They HATE the Bible, and would blot it out of existence if they could!
- The Priests HATE married life, and yet by them is fulfilled the Scripture, to wit: ‘more are the children or the desolate, than the children of the married wife.’
- They HATE Protestants, and are sworn to exterminate them from our country and the earth.
- They HATE the name of Washington, because he was a Republican and Protestant.
- They HATE all rulers that do not swear allegiance to the Pope of Rome.
- They HATE to be ruled by Americans, and say “WE WILL NOT BE RULED BY THEM!”
- They HATE to support their own paupers and they are left to be supported by the tax paying Americans.
- They HATE, above all, the ‘Know Nothings,’ who are determined to rid this country of their accursed power.
The author of this wonderful list signed his name as “Uncle Sam.” Newspapers in general allowed correspondents to use anonymous pseudonyms in the 19th century, so this isn’t surprising. But the nom de plume of our correspondent is telling of the cause of the Know Nothings.
As I am doing this research, I’m thinking back to my experiences in June, when I was told by a table mate that the AP Reading I was at that I don’t belong in the United States because I “don’t love America” (I don’t “love” Canada, either, for the record). And, thenthen, on the way home, at a layover in Dallas, another traveller, watching the news, told me that all immigrants should be rounded up and deported (this one didn’t know I was an immigrant). And as I watch the drama unfold about the refugee children from Central America in this country, and see the horrible rhetoric coming from the right wing, I can’t help but think that, even if 170 years have passed since “Uncle Sam” published his list of things Catholics hate in The Know-Nothing and American Crusader, in some ways, nothing has changed. The rhetoric of “Uncle Sam” echoes that of some far right politicians, commentators, and regular citizens I’ve seen on Twitter in the past month.
Of course, the Know Nothings were never a majority of Americans, any more than those so violently opposed and hard-hearted to the plight of children today are even close to a majority. The overwhelming majority of Americans then and now do not have a problem with immigration and immigrants. But, then as now, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.