The following is a guest post from Martin Griffin, associate professor in the English Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Along with several articles, Martin is the author, with Constance DeVereaux, of Narrative, Identity, and the Map of Cultural Policy: Once Upon a Time in a Globalized World, (Ashgate, 2013), and Ashes of the Mind: War and Memory in Northern Literature, 1865-1900, (Massachusetts, 2009). He is also the co-editor, with Chris Hebert, of an upcoming collection of essays entitled Stories of Nation: Fictions, Politics, and the American Experience (University of Tennessee) which will appear this spring. I’m very pleased that Martin has chosen to write for us. Enjoy everyone!
At a festival held last April at the University of Tennessee to celebrate the works of Herman Melville (1819-1891), one of the events involved a community reading of Melville’s well-known 1853 short story “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” Before the lunchtime reading, there was an open panel discussion on how relevant Herman Melville is, or could be, today, and five speakers from UT Knoxville set out their readings of Melville from various professional and personal angles, among them movies, fiction writing, theater, and Melville’s relationship to Islam. My own contribution drew out three different threads in Melville’s life and writings that connect in intriguing and sometimes unexpected ways with our present times. I sketch these “relevancies” as a non-linear track that starts with Melville at (or just past) the crest of his career, bends back to his first novel Typee in 1846, and leaps forward to the final, obscure years in New York City.
(1) Wall Street and “Bartleby”
The Occupy Wall Street movement that began in late summer 2011 was the most recent political attempt to challenge the deeper-rooted assumptions of our economic system on its home turf. The Occupy campaign in New York exercised a certain talent for theatricality, as many noticed at the time, and at its best it deployed elements of irony and misdirection as well as traditional activist tools, knowing perhaps that such an “occupation” was ultimately going to be more performative than substantive. In some ways it was the exercise of a negative preference, a preference not to be clueless pawns in the production of other people’s wealth and our insecurity. Melville did not make it onto the campaign’s radar screen, and that’s a pity because “Bartleby” might have become a political meme backed by a certain amount of cultural resonance.
To those who might not know, I lived most of my life in Israel/Palestine. Thus I am quite familiar with how a seemingly marginal site of conflict can become worldwide news. I have also often had to explain this dynamic to people, both in the US and Israel/Palestine and elaborate why I do not buy the all-too-easy anti-Semitism argument—that a ubiquitous hatred for Jews leads the world to scrutinize the Jewish state far beyond the attention it really warrants. The answer once you think about is quite simple: context. To understand why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict attracts more attention than many other larger or more bloody conflicts we need to appreciate its symbolism; the “work” that it does for people still engaged with the struggle over colonialism and its heritage. It has become a flashpoint for the billions still reeling from or still under colonialism, on the one hand, and for the hundreds of millions attempting to legitimize their positions of power in the West, on the other hand. It’s not only that many in the West cultivate an affinity to Israel as a settler-colonial society, and many who oppose colonialism share strong affinities with Palestinians, it is also that Israel/Palestine is in some ways a well-worn issue for which the two sides have dug deep trenches and find it compelling for symbolic reasons to take to these trenches every time the opportunity arises. And of course that three different religions find the land itself sacred adds much fuel to the fire.
After Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from 7 muslim majority countries, American liberals and the American left went into overdrive. Protests sprung up almost immediately in airports across the country. Lawyers immediately started working and thanks to the ACLU, a stay was put in place. And across social media, people began singing the praises of immigrants and critiquing Trump’s policies.
But alas, many social media posts, especially those made by liberals, discussed America as a nation of immigrants. Others called the policies “un-american.” These statements, while surely meant as a show of solidarity with immigrants, yet again erase the histories of people of color and immigrants from American history. Native Americans and African Americans were not immigrants to the United States and to argue for the United States as a nation of immigrants, as a “melting pot,” is to discount the contributions of these groups to the development of the United States.
Even more egregious, are the comments about how these policies are un-american and that this nation was founded for and by immigrants and in the name of religious freedom. These comments ignore the history of oppression and nativism the United States was founded on.
For the class I am TAing this semester, American Revolutions, we just finished The Puritan Dilemma by Edmund Morgan. It’s a little dated, but has reminded me of some early American history that many have seemed to have forgotten. The Puritans came to America searching for their own religious freedom, but had little tolerance for the religious freedom of others. Early colonists to Virginia came to the states not searching for freedom, but searching for gold. Need I not remind you that in the quest for “rights,” these colonists killed and displaced many Native Americans.
In the early 20th century, as immigrants from Italy and China and Ireland increased, nativist impulses in the United States deepened. In the early years of the Holocaust, Jewish refugees were denied entry to the United States, including the family of Anne Frank. And Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps during World War II. These are but a few instances in our history.
This post isn’t meant to be a depressing list of America’s worst impulses: instead it is meant as a reminder that in many ways, the foundation of the United States has always been oppressive and nativist and exploitative for people of color. Freedom of religion generally meant freedom of religion for white protestant men. A country of immigrants, for a long time, referred to a country of white protestant immigrants with little tolerance for those of other backgrounds. And importantly, the rallying cry of “a country of immigrants” erases the lives and contributions of African Americans and Native Americans from American history.
As we fight the Trump Administration and anti-immigrant policies, it will behoove us to remember that we are fighting the very impulses that America was built on. As we protest, write, and tweet we are fighting for the very best version of America-a version that has never existed and may very well never exist.
I’m delighted to announce that Holly Genovese, who has been guest blogging for us for the last several months, is joining the blog as a regular contributor. Holly is a Ph.D student in history and gender and sexuality studies at Temple University. She received her B.A. in history and political science from Temple in 2013 and her M.A in history at the University of South Carolina in 2015. Her dissertation project focuses on prisoner rights organizing in New Orleans from the early 20th century through Katrina. She is contributing editor at Auntiebellum Magazine and has written for The Establishment, Scalawag Magazine, and Auntiebellum. Her interests include the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power, African American intellectual history, carceral studies and public history. She’ll be posting every other Sunday. Please join me in welcoming her!
Yesterday Black Perspectives published a fascinating essay on the importance of black bookstores to the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Joshua Clark Davis’ piece, a summation of a chapter from his larger book coming out this August titled From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, is a reminder of the importance of intellectual spaces to intellectual history. I was intrigued by the essay—not just because of its fresh perspective on the intellectual history of Black Power, but also because African American bookstores played an important role in my own intellectual development. And as we begin to think about African American intellectual history in the 1980s and beyond, I suspect we will find that black bookstores continued to play an important role in the development of many African American intellectuals.
Historical Perspective: The Women’s March of 2017 and the Woman Suffrage Procession of 1913
By Michele Rosen
Since November 9, I’ve been thinking a lot about Alice Paul. I’ve always found it remarkable that Paul continued to fight for women’s rights even after putting her body on the line for seven years to win the fight for women’s suffrage. If she were alive today, I think Paul would be saddened but not surprised by the loss of the first female major party candidate for president. I also think she would have been front and center at the Women’s March on Washington. Given these thoughts, it’s no surprise that, while participating in the Women’s March, I saw the unfolding events in part through the lens of the Woman Suffrage Procession, which Paul organized on the day before Inauguration Day in 1913, and at which thousands of women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to demand their right to vote in the first large-scale inauguration protest (Dwyer).
As Alan Barth wrote, “News is only the first rough draft of history.” As a former journalist, I felt as if I was standing in just such a rough draft from the moment I arrived on the steps of the Capitol on the way to the rally on January 21, 2017. Emerging as it did in the skeletal remains of the inauguration, with barriers, fences, and stands still lining the streets, the March felt like a rebirth: a phoenix rising out of the ashes, wearing a knitted pink pussy hat and carrying a sign that read, “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.” We cannot know now how historians of the future will perceive the march, whether it will be a footnote or one of the first signs of a re-emergent progressive movement. But a number of speakers at the rally emphasized the event’s historical significance. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand explicited referred to the Woman Suffrage Procession, adding that the March represented “the beginning of the revival of the women’s movement.” Angela Davis asserted that the marchers must “recognize that we are collective agents of history.” Several other speakers referred to feminists and activists of the past, from their mothers and grandmothers to Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth. While we cannot know the place of the March in history, we can afford ourselves of the lessons of history by considering the March in the context of the Woman Suffrage Procession and its aftermath.