Phillis Wheatley walked the White City, thanks mainly to the black women of Pittsburgh. A bronze bust of the colonial-era poet, contracted by a local group of women citizens and crafted by African-American sculptress Edmonia Lewis, gazed out at the World’s Fair of 1893. The Paris-trained Lewis reduced her usual fees to finish the commission. “This is indeed a little history, and always to be remembered,” she wrote of recreating Wheatley. Around Wheatley, in the Woman’s Building, roughly 200,000 attendees came in waves. In a show of intellectual citizenship that amplified new political needs, American women gathered to hear a global congress of speakers address them in the poet’s shadow. Six African-American women leaders, all presidents or pioneers in diverse fields, stood ready to take the Chicago stage and talk history. Today, resuming my series on early American women intellectuals, let’s see another set of founders step out of their frames and speak. Continue reading
I’m a sucker for any historical reading related to the Enlightenments in Europe and America. Why? The expansion of knowledge. The romance of scientific discovery. New ways of thinking about religion. Skepticism about received values and traditions. Belief, however naive, in the ideas of progress and reason. Beyond the topics and ideas, it’s also the outstanding figures: Voltaire, Montesquieu, Denis Diderot, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Isaac Newton, David Hume, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and on and on. Continue reading
On Tuesday, February 7, professors, lecturers and graduate students in the school of Arts & Humanities at UT Dallas hosted an all-day read-in. The theme of our read-in was “Humanists for Humanity” — “humanity” as an all-inclusive noun indicating that we stand against policies that make some of our students or colleagues feel unwelcome, and “humanity” as an adjective indicating that we stand for treating others with kindness, whether they are minorities or immigrants or LGBTQ folks or anyone else who is part of our university community. From 9 to 5, volunteers took thirty-minute shifts and read aloud from whatever work or works each had chosen to share.
It was a very successful event. But it didn’t start out as an event. It started out as one person’s idea, then it became a shared goal among a few people with different ideas about how to best make it happen and who were willing to hear each other out, then it became a collective endeavor, then it became an organized event. That process, or something like it, is probably fairly common for grassroots activism – though if you don’t engage in activism very often, it may all feel a little strange and new. (Apparently, my “campus activism” clock strikes once every thirty years. We have our moments.)
Still, everything feels a little strange and new for a lot of us right now. At this historical moment, we seem to be in the midst of a new wave of political activism – a time of mass demonstrations, marches, protests, petitions, with small collectivities banding together to express shared values and call for action or change in accordance with those values, involving many people who have never before protested or demonstrated or marched for anything. So, for the historical record – as an act of faith that there will be a time beyond this present moment, that there will still be history and historians who write it – I thought I’d put together a post describing how our own modest but meaningful event came to be, and how it unfolded throughout the day.
Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Hunger Games and The Man in the High Castle.
Continuing my post from a few weeks ago that looked at the role of hope in popular depictions of rebellions, I will focus today on “savior” figures in film and TV that also deal with resistance in oppressive regimes, and consider how they intersect with norms of popular political ideology.
For a civilization saturated with the frameworks of Christianity, it is not surprising that Jesus figures can be found all over Western cultural output. Aslan the Lion, created by the great Christian author C.S. Lewis, is quite clearly and intentionally Jesus – less obviously, so is Harry Potter, who also has to die and be resurrected before saving the magical world of wizards.
The most recent iterations of the savior concept, however, seem framed less by a classical Christian concept of the messiah than the infatuation with individualism that permeates the culture of neoliberalism. Take, to start with, The Hunger Games. The hero and protagonist of the series, Katniss Everdeen, initially sparks the resistance not out of political conviction, but because the desire to protect her sister places her center stage in front of the entire nation. She hates the regime, of course, but her actions are motivated out of personal love and intimate commitment. It is not even until the third film (I have to admit to the usual ignorance of having only seen the movies) that she views coordinated cooperation with others – in this case a spectacularly well-equipped resistance army, considering the level of oppression they are apparently dealing with – as a helpful or simply necessary strategy to reach her end goal of living a normal life.
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!
Recently, the shuffle on my computer’s playlist scrounged up a track from one of my favorite bands, Oingo Boingo. Endearingly titled “Wild Sex in the Working Class,” the song proceeds from the point of view of an industrial worker who endures their work day by focusing on the sweet sweet love they are going to make to their partner once their shift is finally over.
And I may be greasing the wheels of a noisy factory
And I may be hunched over metal machines
Watching the gears as they move
Just reminds me of bodies in motion
The sweat and the sound
As I listened, I wondered what such a song, from the viewpoint of the average “working class” employee, might read like today. Certainly any lyrics about the grit and grime of a factory would sound nostalgic at best. To have any ring of authenticity, it would have to read something more like this:
She was named for the ship that stole her away. At seven years old, Phillis Wheatley crossed the Atlantic from West Africa, another dot in the mosaic of roughly six million enslaved Africans who landed in the Americas between 1700 and 1808. Small and so young, she became Boston merchant John Wheatley’s gift to wife Susannah. Early on, Phillis’ talent shone. She mastered Latin and Greek, earning transatlantic praise for her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first book of poetry by an African-American, published in London in 1773. She sat for an author portrait, toured England, met George Washington, and, finally, secured her freedom before dying, impoverished, in 1784.
Early Americans and early Americanists have pored over her too-brief career ever since. Phillis Wheatley’s byline alone, threading together her sacrifice and her sale, bears hard history in it. As an African-American founding mother of our national literary tradition, Wheatley owns a leading role in survey classes, public statues, and cultural memory. Wheatley’s last manuscript, 300 pages of poetry, may be lost; but we hold pieces of her legacy intact. Here at the Massachusetts Historical Society, I pass by her writing desk nearly every day. It’s not the one in her formal portrait. Rather, it’s the mahogany “card or tea table” that John Wheatley gifted Phillis with sometime during her long servitude. Ball-and-claw feet grip the carpet. A neat apron-front drawer has room enough for cards, ink, and a few cottony sheets of colonial paper. Sold at auction to settle her heavy debts, the poet’s desk is a rich artifact of literary technology, an Enlightenment-era laptop. Polished and bare, Phillis Wheatley’s desk raises the question: Who took up her pen? Continue reading
[Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of six guest posts by Holly Genovese, which will be appearing every other Sunday. — Ben Alpers]
I started college as a bright eyed 17-year old, intent on becoming a Civil War historian. Not a social historian of the Civil War era or a scholar of Civil War memory, but a war historian. I took a 3 week long course on the Revolutionary and Civil War at Johns Hopkins when I was 15. My Momma and I took many a summer trip to nearby battlefields. And I tried in vain to become a reenactor-but I wanted to reenact a solider and that wasn’t allowed. Friends who knew me before around age 20 won’t find this surprising-but others might wonder how a budding military historian became a social/cultural historian of race and incarceration?
It was a process. But in my sophomore year at Temple, I took a required humanities seminar, colloquially referred to as MOSAIC. Most of my classmates were education, business, and science majors-students who were frustrated with the course. But for me, a double major in History and Philosophy at the time (I changed it 5 times), I was in love. It was the first time I read Marx and Freire, the first time I was asked to annotate a text. It was my becoming.
But the most important text I read in that class was Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Before I took this course I knew there were people studying history and sociology in cities, but I didn’t understand the study of the city as a discipline in itself. That book blew open my mind.
The notes I left in the book, on pink and orange post it notes, are very bad. They are factual summary, nothing more. Or they are answers to the reading questions my professor had assigned. But looking at these notes, I can see the beginnings of my intellectual formation. I read this book long before I read Michelle Alexander’s work or talked to Dr. Heather Thompson about incarceration, but the statements I highlighted were all about crime and incarceration. My interests, and my future, are revealed in the notes and highlights of this book in a way that I had never recognized. My tattered copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities knew long before I did that my interests lie in race, incarceration, and cities.
I remembered excitedly telling my then boyfriend about how much I loved the book and how engaged I felt when reading it. His response was to tell me that I wasn’t actually interested in Jane Jacobs and urban studies because I had never mentioned it before, because I studied war and philosophy. He couldn’t conceive of it as being my first introduction to the city as a category of analysis or a moment in time that would change my intellectual path. But here I am, six years later, an urbanist.
Reading it now, for comprehensive exams, with new eyes, is a very different experience. I am thinking about Jacobs in the context of the historiography, in the context of the hundreds of books I have read since my Sophomore year in college. But in many ways this book transported me back to my bright eyed 19-year old self, discovering urban history for the first time. I hope it always will.
“There was no system for managing so sinister a mess.”[i]
My post today follows up on my previous one from November 28th. Recalling that post, The Plot Against America is a fiction in the form of an alternate history. In it, the novelist Philip Roth considers what would have happened had Charles Lindbergh, buoyed by the America First movement, won the presidency over FDR in 1940. The novel is the story of the turmoil experienced by a Jewish American family in Newark, New Jersey as creeping fascism sets in over several months from 1941 to 1942. Roughly, the mood in the family’s enclave in Newark moves from shock to anger, defiance, then crippling fear, until something very near to chaos ensues.
“The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”
American novelists have long depicted ambivalent or even terrifying parts of our national experience, most often loneliness and isolation, that dark twin of individualism, or with only a little less frequency, the specter of authority and authoritarianism, the sinister companion to a mass democracy. In his book Writing the Republic: Liberalism and Morality in American Political Fiction (2007) Anthony Hutchison has identified the latter as a central theme of the American political novel after 1945. As he shows, Melville struck the mold with Moby Dick, and several other novels were cast from it. In his reading, a republican narrative form has often characterized American political fiction, such that a conflicted narrator views autocratic or dictatorial figures with a certain measure of reflective detachment. The narrators tend to show rather than necessarily judge the central figures. They are immersed in and yet somehow above the monomania or unalloyed ambitions of the autocrat. This can often mean their undoing. Think here about Ishmael and Ahab in Melville’s masterpiece or Jack Burden and Willie Stark in Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.
On the morning of November 9, a former student of mine sent me an email, thanking me for assigning Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America in my Depression and War class this past spring. As the days unfolded since then, I continually went back to thinking about that novel and the alternate history it portrays. Roth describes what could have happened rather than what did happen, a freedom that historians sometimes indulge with writers of fiction, at least as a kind of parlor game with students or with other historians. It can sometimes be an exercise to think about historical causation or even nomothetic historical arguments, usually expressed in conditionals or “if—then” statements: “If Lincoln had survived the Civil War, then Reconstruction might have gone this way” or “when people do this, this often happens” and so on. I’m unsure about those kinds of games these days. History is now on our front porch, so to speak, and it’s an unwelcome visitor. Nonetheless, “alternate” histories seem to me a good way to cope with the stubborn feeling of unreality that has characterized recent events. Maybe more than ever, our historical consciousness is challenged by “the terror of the unforeseen.”