Tag Archives: race

What will history make of your desk’s contents?

1 Jul

I pick up the Washington Post Express on my commute most mornings, and yesterday, among the numerous things that I totally have to check out (FOLKLIFE IS DOING R&B AND THE DIXIE CUPS WILL BE THERE, oh Internet don’t even get me started on girl groups I can’t even), there was this piece about “For All The World To See”, an exhibit about the narrative of the civil rights movement as told in everyday objects, currently at the National Museum of American History. Which, first of all, I totally have to check out. But second of all, I had a bit of a chuckle at the vaguely startled tone of the article. Everyday objects? In a historical collection? Interrobang?!?!?

Dude, that’s what history is. That’s why, for all the jokes that got made when the Library of Congress announced it was going to start archiving tweets, it’s important that they’re doing it: because history is the little things. Museums might put the shinies on display, but the tiny fraction of their catalogues that you see are joined, behind the scenes, by the less-pretty things that will tell you a lot more about the realities of everyday life.

In conclusion, for all you historians from the future, the contents of my desk are as follows: tea, chocolate from the UK, a broken rubber band, a post-it containing the details of an appointment with my therapist, my keys, a couple of Kate Beaton cartoons, a pair of scissors, and some packing tape. And binder clips. Lots of binder clips.

(Actually, now I’m going into Material History mode and I am getting ready to tell you all what impressions I, a historian, might draw from those things, but that’s an entry for another time.)


In which I read things: The Pirate’s Daughter, by Margaret Cezair-Thompson

2 Oct

The Pirate's Daughter, paperback coverI was catching up with a friend last week and she said “so, Jules, what have you been reading lately?” This was not a question I planned to answer on the blog, since only one of the books I read in September was really historical, but then I realized an important counterargument, in the form of “hey, why the hell not?”

One of the books I read this month (the one that actually was an historical novel) was Margaret Cezair-Thompson’s The Pirate’s Daughter. In 1946, Errol Flynn comes to Jamaica, and this is the story of the women–well, and some men, but mostly women–whose lives he affects: primarily a woman named Ida, a preteen girl at the story’s beginning, with whom he later has an affair, and their illegitimate daughter, May.

This book is, in a lot of ways, not at all the kind of thing I usually read–multiple points of view, a sprawling story that sweeps across several decades in scope, and, heck, four out of every five books I read are young adult–but this was a wonderful story, beautifully written, and contains the one thing that will generally make me give something more of a chance, namely a lot of ladies, and ladies of color besides. It’s a story of women and race, women and inheritance, women and land. In writing her memoirs as an adult, May says:

It used to give me a ghostly feeling to hear stories about the days when men like Bligh and Admiral Nelson were in Jamaica. Not that they were ghostly but that I was, creeping about their big, conspicuous ruins. I’d feel ghostly too when I’d hear stories about my father. Because women like my mother, Sabine [a local ghost], the White Witch of Rosehall [a horror story], women like me, are usually heard of only in legends about haunted places. But it’s not a haunted house that I’ve inherited; it’s history.

In a LiveJournal post I linked to earlier, user Oyceter commented that the white man/woman of color pairing dynamic in what these people need is a honky stories plays out as “colonialism in miniature”; that idea is explored thoroughly here. The celebrated white man comes to Jamaica, loves it, but loves it as his vacation spot, not for what it actually is but for what it can offer him; he paints it as a charming, quaint little place and never even pays for his own meals (Ida’s father, his usual tour guide, pays for their dinners and drinks together). He loves it so much that he seduces a young woman from the island, then abandons her, and only meets their daughter once (at which point the child has no idea who he is). Colonialism is acted out in and upon the bodies of the characters, and May begins to come into her own and come to terms with her past against the backdrop of the political violence in Jamaica in the 1970s. Not entirely shocking, then, that The Pirate’s Daughter also contains one of the best descriptions of privilege I’ve ever read:

“I can’t tolerate men who are careless about other people’s lives. […] There was no malice in what Errol did to people, just thoughtless galloping over everyone, like a princeling.”

Basically this is one of the best books I’ve read in ages and I really cannot recommend it enough.

In which I am ambivalent about TV.

12 Sep

So I am a reluctant (very, very, very reluctant) fan of the CW television show Supernatural, which just had its fifth season premiere last night. When I say “reluctant”, let me tell you, I mean reluctant. I mean I was told by friends for four years that there were things I’d love—the family dynamics, Dean Winchester’s Oldest Sibling Angst, the way folklore (American folklore in particular) is drawn upon to create horror stories, the American backdrop, and the occasional guest appearance by Jeffrey Dean Morgan—and resisted right up until the end of the fourth season.

In An Open Letter to Eric Kripke, Alaya Dawn Johnson, of The Angry Black Woman, articulates a lot of the reasons why I’m such a reluctant fan, and why I’m so ambivalent about the show at the best of times. The misogyny and racism in the show are appalling, and the misogyny and racism in the fandom are, in some ways, even more so (which reminds me; you may not want to read the comments, because a lot of them are pretty depressing).

Mr. Kripke, one of your show’s characters—who, surprise, surprise, was later brutally killed—said it best: stop calling me “bitch”.

In which I explain to Chris Matthews that correlation is not causation.

28 Aug

So Chris Matthews was on The Colbert Report the other day, talking about his special on the Kennedys, and he said something that kind of irked. I was sort of thinking it might just be that I misheard or he misspoke, but whatever, I guess it’s ~timely~.

Colbert: Why the Kennedys, Chris? Why talk about these guys now?

Matthews: Because I can — because I think American politics for the last forty or fifty years would’ve been completely different without them. I think they changed everything. I think — you wanna ask me why?

Colbert: Why?

Matthews: Okay. Well we can start with they saved us from nuclear war in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the two Kennedy brothers, they created the civil rights movement, back before they came along they had “white only” on restrooms, “white only” on soda fountains, water fountains, all across a big part of the —

Fortunately at this point, Stephen Colbert interrupts him to say that he loved JFK’s “I have a dream speech”. This is good because otherwise I would have to punch Chris Matthews. Unfortunately he then goes on to get a little defensive and say “well, they did it, they did civil rights, they created it”, so seriously, Chris Matthews, shut up.

I don’t disagree that the Kennedys had a huge impact on the face of American politics, actually, nor that they did a lot for the civil rights movement, but to credit them with creating it is so fucking stupid and offensive and detracting from the actual black people who were involved from the beginning, I can’t even. There’s this phenomenon in some geek circles, a movie trope referred to as what these people need is a honky, and I’m going to rely on that to describe what Chris Matthews is crediting the Kennedys with doing here.

Leaving aside how offensive this is — or, actually, let’s face it, just getting offended from another angle, becuase it’s me we’re talking about here — this also shows a huge level of ignorance of history, because no, the civil rights movement did not actually begin in the 1960s. Leaving aside that “the civil rights movement” can refer to a whole boatload of different things (lol trying to get historians to agree on anything), and assuming for the moment that Matthews is referring to the American movement of the mid-20th century, the decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was handed down in 1954, and Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. JFK and RFK did a lot to help the civil rights movement (as, for that matter, did Ted) and that’s awesome and deserving of respect and recognition, but they did not fucking create it.

In conclusion: no, Chris Matthews, no.

Link: Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy

20 Aug

AMAZING TOOL REPORT, which I found by googling something I figured wouldn’t return any useful results, and then I found EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED. Oh, Internet, I love you so much. Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy 1718-1820, an incredible database. From the introduction:

In 1984, a professor at Rutgers University stumbled upon a trove of historic data in a courthouse in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. Over the next 15 years, Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a noted New Orleans writer and historian, painstakingly uncovered the background of 100,000 slaves who were brought to Louisiana in the 18th and 19th centuries making fortunes for their owners.

Poring through documents from all over Louisiana, as well as archives in France, Spain and Texas, Dr. Hall designed and created a database into which she recorded and calculated the information she obtained from these documents about African slave names, genders, ages, occupations, illnesses, family relationships, ethnicity, places of origin, prices paid by slave owners, and slaves’ testimony and emancipations. In March 2000, the Louisiana State University Press published published Dr. Hall’s databases on a CD-ROM.

Internet. Historians. Why so amazing. This is a stunningly useful tool, not only for the depth and breadth of information (French and Spanish slave records, the site explains, were generally much more detailed than English) but also because it’s completely intuitive to use.

Review: Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith

12 Aug

So things got a bit rough for awhile there, but I’m going to give this whole thing another try. One regular feature from now on is going to be me talking about historical I’ve read recently. Definitely novels, maybe some non-fiction as well, popular or academic.

Title: Flygirl

Author: Sherri L. Smith

Period: 1941-45

Location: USA

Let’s not mince words: I loved this. Flygirl is the story of Ida Mae Jones, a young black woman from New Orleans, who decides to pass as white and join the WASP—Women’s Airforce Service Pilots—program. The WASP was instituted to free up male pilots for combat duty; women ferried planes, test-piloted new aircraft, and flew targets during practice.

If you know me at all, you will know that I like a lot of the following things:

  1. women doing awesome things
  2. examinations of how race, class, and/or gender intersect
    1. in American history
  3. young adult fiction
  4. family and duty-to-family issues

If you do not know me…well, now you know that. :D Basically this delivered all of those things, and as a consequence, I freaking adored it.

As I said, in order to join the program, Ida Mae must pass as white. I said this quickly, and if in doing so I implied that the decision is made or treated lightly in the book, that’s my mistake, because it so totally is not. In fact, one of the things that drew me to it in the first place was the fact that the issue of passing was addressed; it was something I hadn’t read much about in the past and was interested in learning more on. Ida Mae agonizes over the decision to pass, not only because of the constant care she must take (she makes excuses not to sunbathe with the other WASP and comes up with an elaborate system to keep her hair from getting wet when swimming), but because in passing, she must cut herself off completely from her family. Ida Mae’s brother goes missing in action; when their mother comes to the Texas base where WASP training takes place to deliver the news in person, Ida Mae must tell the other girls in her flight that the woman is “my mother’s maid”. Though the issue is a constant struggle, it’s not repetitive in the least: this is such an essential conflict in the narrative, and is so skilfully handled, that to ignore the constant agony Ida Mae endures is to short-change the character and the readers both.  Flygirl raises a whole lot of difficult questions and issues, with regards to race and gender both, and it doesn’t offer easy, pat answers to them, though Smith still manages to wrap everything up into a satisfying (if open) ending.

And then, of course, there are the characters. Ida Mae narrates the story, and her voice is crystal-clear, brisk, and engaging. The characters, particularly her strong-willed mother and fellow WASP airwomen, are lively and rich characters—not an easy thing to accomplish in a first-person narrative. This is a war story, so some of the cliches that go along with that exist here, but this is…I don’t want to say a subversion, because that’s totally not what it is. This is the story of a black woman’s war, and more than that, it’s a powerful reminder that yes, by God, such a thing existed.