The Alabama Cultural Resource Survey

August 27, 2015 § 5 Comments

Alabama is one of the forgotten states.  The chair of my department calls it a fly-over state, a place you look down upon when flying from Miami to Chicago.  The only time Alabama ever seems to enter the national discussion is when something bad happens here, or when the University of Alabama or Auburn University’s football teams are ranked in the Top 25.  But otherwise, Alabama only makes the national news when bad things happen.  It’s like Alabama is the butt of a joke the entire country is in on.

Not surprisingly, I find this problematic.  Alabama is a surprisingly diverse place, both in terms of racial politics, politics in general, and culture.  Like most states, the population and culture is not homogenous. Where I live, in Northern Alabama, the area is more culturally attuned to Nashville and Tennessee as a whole, rather than Birmingham or Montgomery.

The town I live in, Florence, is an amazingly funky little college town.  We have a bustling downtown with restaurants, cafés, nightclubs, and stores.  There are a series of festivals here and the people of Florence take pride in their downtown, which has been rejuvenated despite the fact the city is ringed with stripmalls, including two Wal-Marts.  Like many other towns and cities across the state, Florence is the beneficiary of Main Street Alabama, dedicated to the revival of the urban cores of the state.

Across the Tennessee River are three more towns (Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia) and collectively, the region is known as The Shoals.  Anyone who knows anything about music knows about the rich musical history of the Shoals area.  Every time I turn around, I see more potential public history projects.

One thing that we are involved in is the Alabama Cultural Resource Survey. This project is a collaboration between the Public History programme here at the University of North Alabama and the Auburn University History Department.  Since I arrived in Alabama last month, I have been to a series of meetings around Northern Alabama talking to people about the survey and its importance in leading up to the 2019 Alabama Bicentennial.  This project is unique, I cannot think of anywhere else in the United States or Canada where such a project has been undertaken.  We are asking the people of Alabama to contribute to a telling of their history for the Bicentennial.  Eventually, this survey will migrate over to the Archives of Alabama website.

So far the response has been impressive.  Alabamians are anxious to tell their stories, multiple and multifold as they are, to have them entered into this massive database for themselves and their descendants to use.

But this isn’t the kind of thing that Alabama makes the news for.  Maybe that’s a good thing, we can keep all the good stuff going on in our state to ourselves.


Ben Affleck Speaks

April 22, 2015 § 10 Comments

Well, Ben Affleck has spoken.  And he has said what I would have hoped he’d have said the first go around.  He posted on his Facebook page last evening:

After an exhaustive search of my ancestry for “Finding Your Roots,” it was discovered that one of my distant relatives was an owner of slaves.

I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.

Skip decided what went into the show. I lobbied him the same way I lobby directors about what takes of mine I think they should use. This is the collaborative creative process. Skip agreed with me on the slave owner but made other choices I disagreed with. In the end, it’s his show and I knew that going in. I’m proud to be his friend and proud to have participated.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t a news program. Finding Your Roots is a show where you voluntarily provide a great deal of information about your family, making you quite vulnerable. The assumption is that they will never be dishonest but they will respect your willingness to participate and not look to include things you think would embarrass your family.

I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story. We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing. I am glad that my story, however indirectly, will contribute to that discussion. While I don’t like that the guy is an ancestor, I am happy that aspect of our country’s history is being talked about.

Ben Affleck

Obviously, I wish he had said this last October, but kudos to Affleck to taking this head on.  I don’t think anyone can have issue with anything he (or, more likely his PR people) say here.  I would like, though, to see him do  more than just make this statement, I would like to see a Hollywood mega star actually start a discussion on the legacies of slavery.  But.  I suppose I’m asking for too much.

On Ben Affleck and Slavery

April 21, 2015 § 173 Comments

A few years back, I was contacted by the producers of Who Do You Think You Are?, a popular TV genealogy show, to help them with an episode.  The show was predicated on tracing the ancestry of celebrities, attempting to capitalize on the boon in genealogy amongst the masses, and was based on a popular British version.  For an upcoming episode, they were working with Rosie O’Donnell, whose Irish ancestors had passed through Montreal, living for a time in a long-defunct neighbourhood in the city’s east end.

So I met with people from the show when they came to Montreal, spent the good chunk of a day with them, showing them what mid-nineteenth century architecture in the city looked like, using Pointe-Saint-Charles in the stead of this defunct neighbourhood, which was destroyed by the expansion of rue Notre-Dame in the 70s.  Not surprisingly, the majority of the Montreal part was excised from the show, but I did get a wonderful brunch at Quoi de N’Oueuf.

In preparation for their visit, they had sent me the very first episode of the show, from 2010, which looked at Sarah Jessica Parker, then riding high on Sex and the City.  It turns out her ancestors had been in Salem in 1692.  As the show went to commercial, Parker was waiting on tenterhooks in the archives.  Was her ancestor the accused or the accuser?  Turns out her ancestor was the victim.  I have always wondered how this episode would’ve played out had Parker’s ancestor been one of the accusers?

Would Parker have responded to learning her ancestors were involved in dodgy dealings like Ben Affleck?  Affleck was on PBS’ Finding Your Roots last year.  The show, hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a lot like Who Do You Think You Are?, though perhaps more erudite, given the host and the network.  Anyway.  Emails released out of that hacking of Sony’s servers a few months back reveal that Affleck is the descendant of slave owners, but he wished that part of the story kept under wraps.  No doubt he was embarrassed by this fact.

According to The Boston Globe, Gates emailed the Sony USA’s boss, Michael Lynton as to what to do with Affleck’s request that his ancestor’s slave-owning past be excised from the show.  As Gates noted,

One of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors — the fact that he owned slaves. Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?

This led to a discussion about what to do, as Lynton said the information should be kept out of the show; Gates noted the moral problem with this kind of self-censorship.  Nonetheless, the episode aired last October, minus the information about Affleck’s slave-owning ancestors.

Now, I get why Affleck might be embarrassed by this information.  However.  Here we had a wonderful opportunity to have a discussion about the legacy of slavery and imperialism in this country.  If Affleck had stood up and said “Yes, some of my ancestors were slave-owners, I’m not proud of that, but it is what it is,” we could’ve discussed the fact that a good number of Americans, including some African Americans, are descendants of slave owners.  We could have faced up to this ugly part of history.

History is full of all sorts of uncomfortable things, which should be patently obvious to anyone.  Dealing with these uncomfortable truths is part and parcel of coming to terms with history as both individuals and societies.  Take, for example, the case of the Armenian Genocide of 1915.  Here we are, at the centenary of the genocide, and Turkey, the nation descended from the Ottoman Empire, which committed the acts, refuses to acknowledge its actions.  At this point, given the régime change at the end of the First World War, I am not entirely sure why Turkey is so steadfast in its denial.  On the other hand, Germany has faced its ugly past in terms of the Holocaust.

Facing ugly histories is the only way we can face understanding and healing.  It is the only way to come to terms with the past.  And Affleck, who fancies himself a humanist and an activist (and he has done some good work), has missed a wonderful chance here in the name of saving himself some temporary embarrassment.

Agnotology and Obama’s Religion

February 26, 2015 § 15 Comments

Jeff Jacoby is the resident conservative columnist at the liberal Boston Globe, the main Boston newspaper.  Jacoby is a very intelligent man and while I rarely agree with anything he writes, his column is usually well worth the read (as long as it’s not about climate change; he is delusional on this matter).  But yesterday, Jacoby set a new low.

In yesterday’s column, Jacoby ponders President Obama’s religion.  He takes to task reporters who asked Wisconsin Governor (and Republican presidential hopeful) Scott Walker about whether or not he thought the president was a Christian.  I agree with Jacoby thus far.  I don’t see the relevance of any of this to either Obama as President or to Walker as a prospective candidate.

Walker, of course, couldn’t resist.  He said he didn’t know if the president is a Christian.  This is a disingenuous response if there ever was one.  Jacoby then notes that Americans as a whole seem confused on the matter:

[Walker] has plenty of company.

During the president’s reelection campaign in the summer of 2012, the Pew Research Center polled a national sample of registered voters: “Do you happen to know what Barack Obama’s religion is?” More than one-third of the respondents — 36 percent — said they didn’t know. Only 45 percent identified the president as a Christian; 16 percent said he’s a Muslim.

That was the seventh time in a little over four years that Pew had measured public awareness of Obama’s religion. The first poll, back in March 2008, had yielded almost identical results — 36 percent couldn’t name then-Senator Obama’s religion, while 47 percent said he was Christian and 12 percent answered Muslim.

Indeed.  But this is where Jacoby goes right off the rails:

Over the years, the president has made numerous comments on religious topics, and his messages haven’t always been consistent. It isn’t hard to understand why a sizable minority of Americans, to the extent that they think about Obama’s religion at all, might be genuinely puzzled to put a label to it. Honest confusion isn’t scandalous.

This is NOT honest confusion.  Obama’s religious beliefs aren’t that complicated, he’s a Christian who doesn’t go to mass often, like most Christians.  What this is is racism.  This is the same racism that drove the Birther movement.  I severely doubt if John McCain had won in 2008, or if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, their religious beliefs would ever be a topic of discussion.  I seriously doubt that 36% of Americans would have no clue about the president’s religious beliefs.  As for the discussion that Obama is a Muslim:

public opinion polls show that despite liberal denial, at least one in five or 17% of Americans recognize that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.

This is the first sentence of an entry on Conservapedia on “Obama’s Religion” (the bold is in the original).  Note the “is” after the word “Obama” and before the word “a.”  Jacoby is dead wrong to go down this road, because this is exactly where he is going.

Agnotology is the study of deliberate ignorance.  Deliberate ignorance is easy to spot in our culture.  Examples include the insistence that Hitler was a communist because he led the National Socialist party. Or that because Lincoln was a Republican and he freed the slaves Republicans cannot be racist.  These are both fallacies.  Clearly.  Yet, there are people in the United States who will argue to their death that these are truths.  These kinds of beliefs are easily perpetuated in the so-called Information Age.  Scrolling through my Twitter feed on any given day, I can find any number of un-truths passed off as truths (especially by “facts” accounts, that claim to only tweet fact).  These un-truths get re-tweeted for all sorts of reasons, of course, but an un-truth repeated often enough eventually becomes believed as truth.  Thus, the editors of Conservapedia can, with a straight face, claim that “17% of Americans recognize that Barrack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.”  And how did 17% of Americans come to believe that Obama is a Muslim?  Because this lie has been repeated often enough that some people have come to believe it.

Jacoby disingenuously opens this can of worms in yesterday’s column.  Jacoby is smart enough to know that the “confusion” over Obama’s religious beliefs is irrelevant.  He is also smart enough to know that this confusion is a fine study in agnotology.  But, instead he appeals to the lowest common denominator and uses his column to perpetuate ignorance.

Stephen Harper’s War on Canada

January 30, 2015 § 6 Comments

Last weekend, the Toronto Star published a scathing article, looking at how Canada’s elected government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has muzzled, shut down, and otherwise sullied government branches.  Harper has silenced scientists working for Environment Canada and Health Canada, all in an attempt to keep them from publicising the harm caused by the Tarsands in Alberta.

Then there’s Harper’s war against the Library and Archives Canada.  This is the national archives and library of the country.  In other words, it’s kind of important.  Rather than fund it properly, ensure that Canadians have access to their national history, Harper has cut funding, shut down branches, and done everything it can to prevent us from knowing the history that his government spends too much time blaming us for not knowing.  This is unacceptable, and downright terrifying.

Mark Bourrie, the author of the article notes that: “In 2008–2009, Library and Archives Canada spent $385,461 on historic documents. In 2011–2012 it spent nothing. In Washington, the Library of Congress’s acquisition budget was between $18 million and $19 million annually from 2009 to 2012.”  Think about that.  In 2008-09, LAC’s acquisition budget was .02% of that of the Library of Congress.  In 2011-12, it was 0%.  This is a national disgrace.

During Daniel Caron’s reign of error at the the LAC, he and his management team came up with a code of conduct for employees:

Caron and his management team came up with a code of conduct banning librarians and archivists from setting foot in classrooms, attending conferences and speaking at public meetings, whether on the institution’s time or their own. The 23 pages of rules, called “Library and Archives Canada’s Code of Conduct: Values and Ethics,” came into effect in January 2013. Employees could get special dispensation from their bosses, but the fine print of the gag order made it unlikely that permission would be granted. The rules called public speaking, whether to university students, genealogy groups, historians and even other archivists and librarians, “high risk” activities that could create conflicts of interest or “other risks to LAC.” The code stressed federal employees’ “duty of loyalty” not to history or to Library and Archives Canada, but rather to the “duly elected government.” Employees breaking the code could find themselves reported to LAC managers by colleagues who turned them in on what James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, called a “snitch line.”

“As public servants, our duty of loyalty to the Government of Canada and its elected officials extends beyond our workplace to our personal activities,” the code said. It reminded librarians and archivists, many of whom do not consider themselves public menaces, that they must maintain awareness of their surroundings, their audience and how their words or actions could be interpreted (or misinterpreted). They were warned not to fall into the trap of social media. And LAC employees were warned that teaching a class or speaking at a conference put them at special risk, since “such activities have been identified as high risk to Library and Archives Canada and to the employee with regard to conflict of interest, conflict of duties and duty of loyalty.”

This is appalling.  I cannot think of a universe where giving a pubic talk is “high risk.”  Especially for an archivist.  How is it high risk? University students might learn how to use the archives?  Various publics may learn how to look for their ancestors?  And the very fact that Harper has farmed out aspects of LAC’s geneaology department to is criminal, and nothing short of that.

Then there’s the part about “loyalty to the Government of Canada and its elected officials.”  Um, no.  Civil servants DO have a loyalty to the Government.  It’s part of their job.  But a loyalty to the elected officials.  No.  Wrong.  The loyalty of civil servants in Canada is to Canadians, the taxpayers and citizens.  We have a right to know whether or not the tarsands are harming our environment.  We have a right to be able to go to the LAC to discover our history.

Harper’s war on brains, as The Star terms is, is unacceptable, wrong, and dangerous.  The way to build a healthy nation is through an educated populace.  But Harper clearly does not want this.  He wants Canadians to be poorly-educated, to not have the essential information they need to make decisions on matters of public policy.  Stephen Harper needs to be stopped.  The Government of Canada needs to recover its moral compass.  The government should serve Canadians, not see them as contemptuous and a nuisance to the government.

Harper’s behaviour is nothing short of undemocratic and un-Canadian.

Auschwitz and Newtown, CT: Sites of Atrocity and Remembrance

January 29, 2015 § 7 Comments

Monday was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  Survivors gathered there to recall their horrific experiences, and we continued to draw lessons from the Holocaust. Auschwitz, a collection of concentration and death camps, has become a tourist site.  Upwards of 1.5 million people a year visit, and over 30 million have visited since it was opened as a tourist site in 1947.  Most who go do so to draw on the lessons to be learned, to ponder the evil of Hitler’s plans to eradicate the Jews and Roma from the face of the Earth.  Some who go are survivors, other are their siblings, children, grand-children. Others seek answers from the dead, they seek to understand the Holocaust. People also go just to say they went.  And some people go to take horrible selfies.  Auschwitz as a site of atrocity and remembrance continues to hold a powerful grip on Western society.  It is one of the very few words that crosses linguistic boundaries and is instantly recognisable for anyone who hears it as a site of horrific acts.

Each time I hear the word “Auschwitz,” I think of Ann Frank, who was amongst the last ‘shipment’ of prisoners to the camp, before she was processed and sent on to Bergen-Belsen.  I also think of Viktor Frankl, who was also shipped there and then sent on to Dachau.  I feel the same slightly nauseous feeling that is connected to the word for me.  Each time I’ve typed the word in this post, my stomach has turned bit.

Far away from Auschwitz in Poland stands the Lanza family home in Newtown, Connecticut.  A week ago yesterday, the town council voted to tear down the home of shooter of the infamous Sandy Hook Massacre.  Neighbours had been demanding town council tear down the house, as it was a painful reminder of the massacre.  The house has stood empty since the morning of the massacre, when Lanza killed his mother, Nancy, before heading to the school.  Nancy’s other son, Ryan, sold it.  The bank that purchased it then turned the building and property to the town.  Everything in the house was incinerated, to avoid macabre tourists looking for keepsakes. Not that this kept tourists from visiting the property.

The house will be torn down this spring and, at least, for the time being, remain an open lot.  A proposal exists to create a fund so that any proceeds from a future development of the property will accrue to the victims.  The town also demolished the school in 2013, with plans to build a new one on the same spot.

I find the difference in response to these two sites of atrocity interesting. Clearly, there are huge differences between Auschwitz and the home of a perpetrator of a mass shooting.  Auschwitz was built for purpose, the Lanza home was not, nor was Sandy Hook Elementary School.  The Holocaust tore nations asunder, Hitler’s goal was the destruction of Europe’s Jews.  The Sandy Hook Massacre tore a town asunder.

The massacre took place in a small New England town.  The shooter was neighbour to the children he killed.  The families of the victims still live in the neighbourhood.  The school bus stop had to be moved because its location near the home was frightening for the children.  Residents of the neighbourhood spoke to town council of being unable to move on because they pass it multiple times a day.

I find all of this interesting for the simple fact that sites of atrocity, the remembrance of places of evil, and our public histories of them interest me.  How do we deal with atrocity? How do we deal with sites of horror?  Auschwitz is now a park, of sorts, to serve as to educate and preserve.  The Lanza family home will be torn down.  On university campuses, where shootings have taken place, the buildings, even the classrooms are still used.  Tuol-Seng Genocide Museum in Cambodia exists on the site, and using the buildings, that was once a high school, but became S-21, a prison during Pol Pot’s genocidal reign. The house where the Charlie Manson and his ‘family’ murdered Sharon Tate and her family in 1969 has since been demolished.  But not until 1994.  The last person to live in the house was Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.  He recorded two of his own albums, as well as Marilyn Manson’s début album, there.  When he moved out, however, he said he couldn’t handle the history of the place.

So that is what I am pondering. How do we handle those histories?  We do not do so consistently, obviously. Some sites of evil are preserved as memorials to the victims, as at Auschwitz and Tuol Seng.  Others continue their initial usages, such as the classrooms. Others are eradicated.  But, while some would suggest that the actions of the council of Newtown to destroy both the school and the home of the shooter are calculated acts of forgetting, I’m not so sure.  Tearing down the buildings will simply remove them from the landscape. They won’t remove memory of the atrocity from the people of Newtown any time soon.

Memory and the Screaming Trees.

January 26, 2015 § 4 Comments

Memory works in odd ways. So this course on space, place, landscape & memory.  Last Thursday, in addition to that article on Western Mass, we read Doreen Massey’s article “Places and Their Pasts,” from way ‘back in 1995.  And, this got me thinking.  About music.  I’m currently in a hard rock phase, where everything I’m listening to has loud, very loud guitars.  And inevitably, when I am in one of these phases, I come back to the Screaming Trees’ 1992 album, “Sweet Oblivion.”  My favourite Trees’ song, “Nearly Lost You” is on this album.  But, the album as a whole is one of my favourites of all-time.  I first bought it on cassette tape, back when it came out in the fall of 1992.  I bought it at the Record Runner, a legendary record store on Rideau Street in Ottawa, that closed in January 2006, after 31 years in business due to gentrification and condofication.  When I moved back to Vancouver the following spring, 1993, my best friend, Mike, had the album on CD.

We spent a lot of time driving around the Vancouver region that summer and fall, in his 1982 Mercury Lynx, which I had dubbed the Mikemobile. Mike had a Sony Discman, which he plugged into the cassette player of his car to listen to CDs.  It was incredibly moody and jumped when the car hit bumps.  Nonetheless, “Sweet Oblivion” was in constant rotation that year.  There is, however, a difference between the cassette and CD (and now, digital) versions of the album, however.  Track 6, “For Celebrations Past” was not on the cassette version.  I listened to the cassette version of the album a lot, but I’ve listened to the CD and digital versions of the album even more.  I’ve listened to this album hundreds of times, and I’d estimate at least 80% of those plays are either the CD or digital version.  And yet, every time I hear “For Celebrations Past,” it feels like a rude interlude into a classic album of my youth, even though I like this song, too.

I find it interesting that my initial memories of this album trump the memories of the version of the album I’ve heard many more times over the years.  I’m not sure what to make of this, really.  My memories of Ottawa in 1992-3 are not all that happy, though there was the diversion of Montreal and the Habs’ last Stanley Cup victory, but by the time Guy Carbonneau lifted Lord Stanley’s mug that spring, I was back in Vancouver.  So it is bizarre, I think that, my initial memories of the album trump the happier ones, back in Vancouver.  And yet, listening to the album, as I did last night, doesn’t transport me back the sub-Arctic cold of Ottawa anymore than it puts me back in the passenger seat of the Mikemobile.  Unlike a lot of the music of the early 90s, it’s not evocative of that time and place.  Maybe because I’ve continued to listen to the album in the years since.    Yet, for me, the proper version of the album lacks “For Celebrations Past” and goes straight from the organs and guitars of “Butterfly” into the vicious punk-inflected “The Secret Kind.”

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