On Black History Month

February 18, 2015 § 6 Comments

It is Black History Month.  Specialized history months exist for a reason.  They exist because black people, indigenous people, immigrants, LGBT people, women, etc., all get written out of history.  Take, for example, a typical US History survey course.  Usually US History survey courses at the college level are split into two parts, the first covers the period to Reconstruction, usually with the break coming in 1877; the second part goes from then to today.  In the entire broad expanse of American history, nearly every single textbook I have ever reviewed with an eye towards using reflects a triumphalist narrative of progress.  Certainly, some focus more on the people than the politics and wars, others focus on culture.  Some have a narrative centring around the American fascination with freedom and liberty.

But, still, the narrative is dominated by white men.  Indigenous peoples are the stars of the period before colonization, but that’s usually no more than a chapter.  Then they share centre-stage with the colonists.  Then they disappear from the narrative until the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, and then make a cameo during the story of Western expansion.  Women are almost entirely invisible from the main narrative; women, especially, get shunted into little featurettes, usually at the end of the chapters.  Possible exceptions are Seneca Falls in 1848, the 19th Amendment (sometimes), the Second World War, and Second Wave feminism to the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982.  As for African Americans, they feature, sort of, in the story of slavery.  But even then, the textbooks tend to represent slavery from the Euro-American perspective: why slave owners thought slavery just, why Northern abolitionists sought to end slavery.  Rarely do we get actual glimpses of the slaves themselves.  Then, after a brief light of Reconstruction, African Americans disappear until the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s.  And that’s it.  Thus, there is a need to focus on the history of a minority group, to focus on the contributions of that group, whether singly or collectively, to history.  Hence, Black History Month.

The very existence of Black History Month, however, is a result of racism.  The weight of history can be felt every single day, whether individually or collectively.  We feel our own histories, but we also feel the weight of societal history on us every day.  Where we are and what we have is in part a response to history.  As a middle-class, white, heterosexual man, I have privilege, all of which comes from history and the way in which society has been moulded by it.  Men benefit greatly from patriarchy, but not all men benefit in the same way from patriarchy.  For some men, their access to patriarchal privilege is modified by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class.

I got into a Twitter argument today over George Zimmerman and his murder of Trayvon Martin three years ago (Martin would have turned 20 next Thursday, 26 February).  The content of the argument doesn’t matter so much as what the argument represents.  Trayvon Martin was suspect to Zimmerman because Martin was black.  He aroused the neighbourhood watch captain’s suspicions for “walking while black,” a pretty common occurrence for black men and women in the United States.

Racism is very real.  And it is historic.  It doesn’t have to come with name calling and threats of violence.  It comes in more peaceable ways, too.  It is subtle, it is silent.  But it’s still very real.  Racism against black people has a long, long history in the United States.  But this was inherited from the British.  The British, and other European nations, were the ones who thought it acceptable to enslave Africans and sell them at auction for profit.  British cities such as Bristol and Liverpool became rich off the slave trade.  In the United States, though, racialized slavery reach its apogee.  And this history still weighs down American society 150 years after the Civil War ended.

Why?  Eric Foner argues that Reconstruction was an “unfinished” revolution.  I would suggest it was a failed revolution.  Either way, as Foner rightly notes, Reconstruction failed because African Americans were left free, but impoverished, as the racist mindset that lay behind slavery sill existed.  And let me remind you that many, if not most, northern abolitionists were just as deeply racist as southern slave owners.  Where they differed is that the abolitionists thought it immoral for someone to own another person.  The Civil Rights Era didn’t happen until a century after the Civil War.  And today, we live in an era of  backlash against the Civl Rights Era.

All of this, though, is due to the weight of history.  On this continent, racism pre-dates the founding of Canada, the United States, and Mexico.  In the United States, it dates back to the founding of Jamestown in 1608 and the Pilgrims reaching Plymouth Rock twelve years later.  The very idea of British superiority over black Africans underpinned the colonial project here, as settlers had the same ideas of their own superiority over the indigenous populations.  Thus it is perhaps no surprise that racism is so deeply ingrained in society.  And this is not a uniquely American problem.  Look at Canada, Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia, Brazil, the Netherlands, etc.

For those of us who have spent their lives fighting against racism (and various other forms of oppression), we are fighting back against the cumulative weight of history; we are trying to push a massive weight off us.  And until we do, we need to call out racism, but we also need to understand the reason for Black History Month this month.  And Women’s History Month next month. And Native Americans’ History month in November.

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Immigration in the United States, plus ça change

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:

  1. They HATE our Republic, and are trying to overthrow it.
  2. They HATE the American Eagle, and it offends them beyond endurance to see it worn as an ornament by Americans.
  3. They HATE our Flag, as it manifest by their grossly insulting it.
  4. They HATE the liberty of conscience.
  5. They HATE the liberty of the Press.
  6. They HATE the liberty of speech.
  7. They HATE our Common School system.
  8. They HATE the Bible, and would blot it out of existence if they could!
  9. 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.’
  10. They HATE Protestants, and are sworn to exterminate them from our country and the earth.
  11. They HATE the name of Washington, because he was a Republican and Protestant.
  12. They HATE all rulers that do not swear allegiance to the Pope of Rome.
  13. They HATE to be ruled by Americans, and say “WE WILL NOT BE RULED BY THEM!”
  14. They HATE to support their own paupers and they are left to be supported by the tax paying Americans.
  15. 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.

On Immigration, Redux

June 21, 2014 § 2 Comments

In response to my post on immigration and immigrants, my friends and I got into a discussion on Facebook, comparing the political rhetoric in the US, Canada, and the UK.  Certainly, attitudes such as that expressed by my Dallas friend exist in Canada and the UK.  And there are similarities and differences between the old Anglo-Atlantic triangle.  Canada takes in more immigrants per capita than any other nation in the world (bet you didn’t know that) and the United States takes in more immigrants in absolute numbers than any other nation in the world (bet you did know that).  Canada, however, while it does have some undocumented immigrants, does not have the same issues as the United States (which likely has the highest number of undocumented people in it) and the United Kingdom.  The UK gets the undocumented through Europe and its former empire, as aspirants sneak into the nation, or overstay their visas (if you want a heartbreaking account of the undocumented in the UK, I point you to Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, or, as it’s called in Cleave’s native UK, The Other Hand).

But. There is one fundamental difference between the three nations.  In Canada and the United Kingdom, the political parties that pander to racism and anti-immigration positions (and let’s leave the undocumented out of this for now, ok?) are not in the mainstream.  Certainly, these types exist in Canada’s governing Conservative Party, but they are not in the centre of the party, at the cabinet table, etc.  And in the UK, there are certainly a few in the governing Conservative Party that express these views, but they are also similarly on the margins, and the odious UKIP party is a fringe movement.  Whereas, here in the United States, the Republican Party panders to this mindset.  It doesn’t mean, of course, that the GOP does much about to tighten immigration laws when in power, but, it still gives credence to arguments such as my Dallas friend’s.  It seeks the vote of the likes of him.  So, ultimately, anti-immigration positions are very much nearer the mainstream in the United States than in Canada or the United Kingdom.

On Immigration

June 20, 2014 § 8 Comments

Earlier this week, I was told I shouldn’t be living in the United States because I don’t “love America.”  Dismissing this comment was easy enough, it came in response to the fact I am not cheering for the US at the World Cup (France, Argentina, and then any underdog, if you must know).  But. Yesterday, at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, a wealthy-looking, white, middle-aged man went on a rant about immigrants (not knowing I am one, he assumed because I was also white and middle-class, I must be American).  Something was on FoxNews on the TV in the lounge, I wasn’t paying attention.  I presume that’s what set this guy off.  He told me that immigrants do not belong in the United States, that they do not bring anything to the country, that they’re a drain on the resources of “this great nation.”  He opined that no immigrants whatsoever should be let into the country.  He didn’t go so far as to suggest they be rounded up and deported, though I have seen that opinion expressed on Twitter a few times.  At any rate, when I told him I was an immigrant, he looked a little confused for a second and then said, “Oh, I don’t mean you.”  I pointed out he clearly did, he said “all immigrants” are a drain and that “none” should be let in.  I walked away, leaving him looking like the idiot he was.

This unsettled me.  It’s one thing for an idiot to get mad at me for not cheering for the US in the World Cup.  That’s just knee-jerk idiocy.  It’s another for a guy to have a well-formulated, if ignorant, argument about the cost of immigration.  And before someone dismisses this as “well, that’s Texas,” let me point out that Texas is an immigrant-rich society, and not just Mexicans and other Hispanics, but also South and South East Asians.  And, for the most part, Texas, at least the cities, have integrated cultures.

At any rate, I stewed over this the rest of the day and on the flight home to Boston.  And then I got a cab home. My cabbie was from Guinea.  He couldn’t be much older than his early 30s, and he said he’s been in the US for 11 years, and made sure to note he has a Green Card.  We talked about the heat (it was hot here yesterday), the World Cup, and Montréal, and we spoke some in French.  I was his last fare of the day, the end of a 12-hour shift, 6am-6pm.  The end of a 6-day run driving a cab around Boston and the North Shore.  Today, he was up at 3am to get to work at 4am, at Dunkin’ Donuts, where he worked 4-12, as a baker.  Tomorrow, he’s back in his cab, 6am-6pm, but he is off Monday.  He works 60-70 hours a week driving a cab, and another 8-16 hours baking at Dunkin’ Donuts for a very simple reason: he needs to take care of his parents, his brother, his nieces and nephews back in Guinea.  He hasn’t been home in four years, but he keeps working to send money home.  Meanwhile, he’s also got a son here in the States, who he gets to see sometimes when he’s not working, though he supports his kid.

We often talk about how tired we are, because we’re always busy, working, etc.  But this guy was exhaustion personified.  He had dark rings under his eyes, and though he was at least pretending to be happy, his exhaustion came through.  And I thought, well, here is the face of immigration to the United States (or Canada. Or Britain.  Or France.  Or Germany).  A guy working himself to the bone at two jobs, partly to get himself ahead a little bit, but also to take care of his son, and to take care of his family back home.  He estimated if he just had to worry about himself and his son, he could quit Dunkin’ Donuts and only work 3-4 days a week driving a cab.  But, he has responsibilities and obligations.

I enjoyed talking to him, though I feel horrible for him.  But I respected his attitude, that he had to do this, it was his responsibility to his son, his parents, his brother, his nieces and nephews.  This is the immigrant life.  It is not, as my Texan friend claims, collecting welfare (immigrants can’t, just so you know, though refugees are entitled to some support), procreating, and being drug dealers, prostitutes, and terrorists.

Race, Class, and Food Insecurity

May 21, 2014 § 4 Comments

When we lived in Pointe-Saint-Charles in Montreal, we lived about two doors down from a community garden in the shadows of the massive Église Saint-Charles.  That community garden had been there as long as I could remember, it pre-dated my first residence in the Pointe back in 2002-4.  The people who used it were the poor, working-class and marginalised Irish and French Canadians who lived in the Pointe. But, by about 2009 or 2010, the garden had been taken over by the gentrifiers, forcing out the old school urban harvesters.  Many of these gentrifiers thought they were new and unique in gardening in an inner-city neighbourhood.  Indeed, this is something I saw over and over again in Montreal, on the Plateau, Saint-Henri, the Pointe, and other neighbourhoods, as hipsters discovered the benefits of community gardens.

But they were hardly new ideas in old working-class neighbourhoods, particularly in the Pointe.  The Pointe had long had community gardens.  Aside from this one in on the rue Island, there was also a bigger one in the shadows of the railway viaduct along the rue Knox.  And the problems arise when the original inhabitants of the Pointe were forced out of these gardens by the gentrifiers.  The gardens were used to supplement diets, obviously.  I also noticed something else when I lived in the Pointe in the early part of the past decade and when I was in Saint-Henri mid-decade.  In both neighbourhoods, the local IGA (grocery store), both owned by the same family, the Topettas, opened new, glitzy stores.  The IGAs in the Pointe and Saint-Henri had been in grotty store fronts, on rue du Centre in the Pointe, and rue Notre-Dame in Saint-Henri.  When the new IGA opened in the Pointe c. 2002 and in Saint-Henri in 2005-6, I noticed a lot of low income families wandering around the stores with a slightly dazed look on their faces, complaining about rising prices.  This was ameliorated some by the opening of the big Super C at Atwater Market, which generally had much lower prices than either IGA.

I was thinking about all of this as I was reading an excellent article on TheGrio about food insecurity and food gentrification.  The article was written by Mikki Kendall, an African American feminists in the States, about the process of food gentrification.  Kendall writes about having grown up poor and eating the more undesirable cuts of meat, like hamhocks, neck bones, and the like.  She recalls her grandmother being an expert at turning “turning offal into delicious.”  Kendall notes the gentrification of what I call poor people’s food.  As haute cuisine chefs re-discover these traditionally less desirable foods and turn them into fancy dishes for the wealthy, it drives up the prices of these cuts.

[As an aside, I can’t help but wonder if the joke is ultimately on the wealthy eating these cuts of meat at expensive restaurants and I think of Timothy Taylor’s brilliant début novel, Stanley Park, which recounts, in part, the story of Jeremy Papier, a chef and restaurauteur in Vancouver.  Papier favours local ingredients and culture and comes to rely on animals trapped in Stanley Park for his fancy restaurant on the border of the Downtown Eastside, the poorest urban neighbourhood in Canada.]

But to return to Kendall and the IGA and community gardens in Pointe-Saint-Charles: Kendall notes that with the rising cost of these traditional cuts of meat used by the poor comes an inability to purchase them:

Yet, as consumers range further and further afield from their traditional diets, each new “discovery” comes at the expense of another marginalized community. Complaints about the problem are often met with, “Well, eat something else that you can afford” as though the poor have a wealth of options, and are immune to dietary restrictions based on religion, allergies, access, or storage capabilities.

So, ultimately, the poor are left to eat processed food, which isn’t good for any of us.  That is the only thing that is easily accessible.  When I was student, I noted with deep and bitter irony that the cheapest meal option was often McDonalds.  Or, if I went to the grocery store, aside from Ramen noodles (a processed food I cannot stand), the cheapest option was Kraft Dinner (or Mac & Cheese for you Americans), another slightly vile processed food (full confession: KD remains my comfort food of choice, I import large quantities of it from Canada).

And the end result of all of this bad, processed food is the toll it takes on the health of the poor, both in urban centres and rural areas.  In the United States, African Americans are, on the whole, poorer than everyone else.  In Canada, it is the aboriginals.  It is no coincidence that food insecurity hits African Americans in the US hard.  It is also no coincidence that rates of heart disease, hyper-tension, diabetes, and obesity are much higher in African American and Canadian aboriginal communities than in the rest of both nations.

We can and must do better.

Hip Hop as Public History?

February 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Last week, the National Council on Public History (NCPH) asked on Facebook if the Facebook movies, celebrations of FB’s 10th anniversary, was public history.  Um, no.  They are no more public history than those wordle things were a few years back, images and video clips chosen by an algorithm programme designed to grab what in people’s timelines was most liked, most viewed, etc.  In other words, it was rather random.

But, this got me thinking about curation, narrative, and how it is we decide what is and what is not public history.  And this went on as I listened to Young Fathers, an Edinburgh, Scotland hop hop band comprised of three men of Nigerian, Liberian, and Scots heritage.  Their music is a complex mixture of trip-hop, hip hop, with hints of indie rock.  But the music is also full of African and American beats and melodies.

Hip hop, as everyone knows, is a music form that developed in the Bronx in New York City in the late 70s, it is an African American music form that has been globalised.  It has also been adapted wherever it has gone; at its core, hip hop is poetry, set to a beat.  Echoes of hip hop can be heard soundtracking everything from suburban teenagers’ lives to the Arab Spring to the struggle for equality on the part of Canadian aboriginals.

I’m a big fan of UK hip hop, I like the Caribbean and African influences on the music.  Artists such as Roots Manuva, Speech Debelle, and cLOUDDEAD have long incorporated these influences into their music.

So, as I was listening to Young Fathers whilst pondering public history, I was rather struck by the idea of hip hop, at least in this particular case, as public history.  Young Fathers have appropriated an American music form (one member lived in the US as a child), and then remixed it with a UK-based urban sound, and added African beats and melodies, to go with the occasional American gospel vocal.  In short, these artists have curated their roots into their music, and presented it back to their audience.  It’s the same thing Roots Manuva has been doing for the past decade-and-a-half with his Jamaican roots.

What, of course, makes Young Fathers and Roots Manuva different than the Facebook algorithms is that the music of these artists is carefully constructed and curated, they are drawing on their roots and background to present a narrative of their experiences in urban subcultures (whether by dint of music, skin colour, or ethnic heritage).  So, in that sense, I would submit that this is a form of public history.

Shameless

December 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

We’ve been watching the American version of Shameless off and on for the past year.  The American version is based on the British show, but is set in the South Side of Chicago.  It is centred around the big and cacophonous Gallagher clan.  The patriarch is Frank, played by William H. Macy.  Frank is a drunk asshole.  There’s no other way to put it.  His wife, the children’s mother, has up and left.  The family is held together by the eldest daughter, Fiona.  There are 5 more children, the youngest of which is 2 (and somehow African American in a family of white Irish Americans; this is never explained).  Fiona scrounges and scrimps and saves to keep food on the table and the roof over the heads of the other Gallagher kids.  The house is possessed by the Gallaghers through dubious means, involving some welfare scam on the part of Frank.  Fiona is left to scam to keep the family together and to keep the rest of the kids from ending in foster care.

I have to say, I enjoy the TV show, though occasionally it hits kind of close to home, in that I grew up mostly poor with an alcoholic and abusive step-father.  But, this show is a rather complicated look at poverty, particularly white poverty in America.  It also dovetails nicely with Michael Patrick MacDonald’s points about South Boston.  The show is set in Canaryville, the historically Irish section of Chicago’s South Side.  Canaryville, like Southie or Griff, is rather legendary for being both Irish and hostile to outsiders.

As I watch the show, I can’t help but wonder if Shameless romanticises poverty, portrays it accurately, or stereotypes poor people as scammers.  I find myself torn every time I watch it.

On the one hand, the Gallagher clan and their friends struggle everyday trying to make ends meet, but it seems they’re always able to put aside their money worries to have fun.  No, they don’t get drunk (except for Frank) and they don’t do drugs.  But they do have a lot of fun, there’s a lot of wisecracking, and teasing.  There’s also a lot of scamming of pretty much anything that can be scammed, from welfare officers to schools, to businesses and anyone else stupid enough to get involved.

When I was growing up, my life wasn’t exactly as glamourous as the Gallaghers, but it’s not like we spent our entire lives miserable because we were poor.  And the “system,” such as it were, was there to be scammed.  To a degree.  It was not like anyone I knew scammed welfare or Unemployment Insurance (as Employment Insurance was once called in Canada), and so on.  Scams tended to be smaller scale.  Like scamming free rides on the bus or the Skytrain.  Life wasn’t one thing or the other, it wasn’t black and white.  It was complicated.

And this is where I think Shameless is a brilliant show.  Obviously there is some mugging for the cameras and the creation of some dramatic storylines for entertainment purposes.  But it represents the life of these poor white trash Irish Americans in Canaryvlle, South Side Chicago, as complicated.  Their lives aren’t all of one or the other.  They live lives as complicated as the middle-classes.  Perhaps more so, because they’re always worried about having something to eat and having gas to heat the house.  In the end, Shameless represents the poor as multi-faceted, complicated people, who are pulled in various different directions according to their conflicting and various roles (as breadwinner, daughter, son, friend, lover, etc.).  In short, at the core, their lives are no different than ours.  They are, essentially, fully human.

Too often, when I see representations of the working-classes and the poor in pop culture, whether fiction or non-fiction, these representations are nothing more than stereotypes.  Poor people are lazy.  Poor people are scammers.  Poor people are dishonest.  Poor people are victims.  Poor people need help.  And so on and so on.  In reality poor people are none of these things and all of these things and more.  In fact, the poor are just like you and me.  And, at least in my experience, essentialising the working classes does them a disservice.

And this is where works like Shameless or All Souls come in.  MacDonald complicates our stereotypes of Southie.  He shows us the complications of the impoverished Irish of South Boston, and he makes it impossible for us to stereotype.  In the end, Shameless does the exact same thing.

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