Claude Andrew Clegg III: Elijah Muhammad, Then and Now

The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad, by Claude Andrew Clegg IIIWe welcome a guest post today from Claude Andrew Clegg III, author of The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad. Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975) was one of the most significant and controversial black leaders of the twentieth century. His followers called him the Messenger of Allah, while his critics labeled him a teacher of hate. Southern by birth, Muhammad moved north, eventually serving as the influential head of the Nation of Islam for over forty years. In this authoritative biography, Clegg not only chronicles Muhammad’s life, but also examines the history of American black nationalists and the relationship between Islam and the African American experience.

In today’s post, Clegg considers Elijah Muhammad’s ideas of race and Islam in his own time and in ours.

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In thinking again about the black separatism and racialized Islam that characterized Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, I am struck by both the continuities and disjunctions between his time and ours. Born in Georgia in 1897, Muhammad (then known as Elijah Poole) saw some of the worst predations of the postemancipation Jim Crow South, including debt peonage, labor abuses, and even lynchings. His move to Detroit in 1923 and subsequent membership in one of the many race-conscious, ideologically quixotic movements that emerged from the depths of the Great Depression reinforced his interpretation of his southern experiences, philosophically grounding him in an inverted racial ethos of African American superiority and religious chauvinism.

The Nation of Islam, which Muhammad would lead for forty years until his death in 1975, did not come into its own until the late 1950s, when sensationalized stories about “black supremacists” thrust him and his followers, including Malcolm X, onto the national stage. Still, even with the landmark legislation and social changes that resulted from the black freedom movement of that period, Muhammad remained remarkably consistent regarding his views on race, his heterodox brand of Islam, and his apocalyptic vision of a coming reordering of black-white relations.

From our contemporary perch in the twenty-first century with its benefit of historical hindsight, many of Muhammad’s beliefs and goals appear, at best, anachronistic. There has been much progress in various realms of American life in regard to race, whether one considers African American access to the ballot box, gains in the workplace and the professions, educational attainments, or social mobility in general. Some have mused that we now live in a “postracial” society in which one’s demographic background and identity no longer serve as discernible barriers to entry into the circles of power, influence, and opportunity in American society.

As a corollary to this view, the election and re-election of Barack Obama as the first African American president are often cited as the quintessential testament of U.S. progress in the area of civil rights and racial equality. To a substantial degree, this position holds some merit against the broader backdrop of American race relations. Undoubtedly, Elijah Muhammad could scarcely have imagined an America as open to black participation and inclusion as the one in existence today, much less an African American chief executive. In other words, the possibility of a Barack Obama would have challenged foundational elements of Muhammad’s understanding of the country, as well as how he viewed white Americans.

Notwithstanding these historical ruptures in expectations and experiences, our America is a product of Muhammad’s America and to know our times is to appreciate the era in which he lived.  Continue reading ‘Claude Andrew Clegg III: Elijah Muhammad, Then and Now’ »

Gregory F. Domber: What Putin Misunderstands about American Power

Empowering Revolution: America, Poland, and the End of the Cold War, by Gregory F. DomberWe welcome a guest post today from Gregory F. Domber, author of Empowering Revolution: America, Poland, and the End of the Cold War (October 2014). During the 1980s, both the United States and the Soviet Union vied for influence over Poland’s politically tumultuous steps toward democratic revolution. In Empowering Revolution, Domber examines American policy toward Poland and its promotion of moderate voices within the opposition, while simultaneously addressing the Soviet and European influences on Poland’s revolution in 1989.

In today’s post, Domber counters Vladimir Putin’s current denouncements of American manipulation of regime changes throughout the world with an account of America’s backseat approach to revolution in Poland 25 years ago.

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This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the revolutions that brought an end to Soviet-dominated Communist governments in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. And while these countries have all successfully rejoined Europe, the mythology of the revolutions of 1989 is now echoing further to the east—in the Ukrainian crisis—where Russian President Vladimir Putin’s worldview is informed by a skewed vision of America’s central role in undermining the Soviet Union’s empire. As numerous commentators have noted, Putin is pushing a new nationalist conservatism with a strong strain of anti-Americanism, promoting a vision of the United States as the primary conspirator pulling strings to foster international chaos and regime change.

As former Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul noted recently in the New Yorker, “Putin has a theory of American power that has some empirical basis.” The CIA overthrew governments in Iran and Guatemala, the United States bombed Belgrade to remove a dictator, and there is, of course, Iraq. However, a close examination of American policy toward Poland—the country the United States pushed hardest to break from the Soviet sphere in the 1980s—brings to the fore just how far the Russian president’s views are removed from reality. The United States is not nearly the revolutionary mastermind Putin seems to think it is.

From the birth of the Solidarity trade union in 1980, the U.S. government understood the movement’s potential to overturn the status quo; it was an independent trade union in a country where the government’s legitimacy grew out of an ideology based on defending workers. But the Carter and early Reagan administrations initially restrained their direct contacts with the movement because Solidarity distanced itself from foreign governments and only accepted things like fax machines, office supplies, and printing equipment from other trade unions.

After General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in December 1981 and Solidarity leaders were either jailed or forced into the underground, the United States took a more provocative line. Continue reading ‘Gregory F. Domber: What Putin Misunderstands about American Power’ »

Excerpt: Framing Chief Leschi, by Lisa Blee

Framing Chief Leschi: Narratives and the Politics of Historical Justice by Lisa BleeIn 1855 in the South Puget Sound, war broke out between Washington settlers and Nisqually Indians. A party of militiamen traveling through Nisqually country was ambushed, and two men were shot from behind and fatally wounded. After the war, Chief Leschi, a Nisqually leader, was found guilty of murder by a jury of settlers and hanged in the territory’s first judicial execution. But some 150 years later, in 2004, the Historical Court of Justice, a symbolic tribunal that convened in a Tacoma museum, reexamined Leschi’s murder conviction and posthumously exonerated him. In Framing Chief Leschi: Narratives and the Politics of Historical Justice, Lisa Blee uses this fascinating case to uncover the powerful, lasting implications of the United States’ colonial past.

In the following excerpt (pp. 70-72), Blee examines how the war in Iraq informed the Historical Court of Justice’s decision to exonerate Chief Leschi 150 years later.

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[Ezra] Meeker wrote in the introduction to Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound and the Tragedy of Leschi: “To tell the truth about [Indians] is no more than justice.” Although Meeker intended the “truth” to rescue the honor of the “pioneers,” one hundred years later the petitioners also equated truth and justice to argue for Leschi’s exoneration in the Historical Court.[1] The expert witnesses relied upon a mix of nineteenth-century documents to build their case: government reports, settlers’ letters, newspaper reports, public meeting minutes, journals, accounts of the legal proceedings, and other publications. They also used settlers’ memoirs penned in the 1890s, because those writings held information about Leschi that was especially helpful to the petitioners’ case. Meeker, for example, laid the blame for Leschi’s death upon territorial officials, which helped the petitioners build a tidy legal argument but obscured the fact that non-Indians benefited for generations from federal aid and the use of military force against indigenous peoples. The petitioners seemed to accept Meeker’s depictions of settlers’ innocence as long as the judges admitted that a mistake had been made. In 2007, one of the petitioners’ legal advisers said: “It doesn’t matter if it’s a binding decision or not. Leschi’s still dead . . . [but at least] Stevens is discredited.”[2] The petitioners used settlers’ writings to build an argument in a narrowly defined legalistic case, but the continuities in colonial ideology expressed in these documents remained largely outside of this specific framing.

The Committee to Exonerate Chief Leschi and its legal counsel used the documentary record to develop an argument advocating for the legal status of combatants in U.S. wars, an approach that seemed especially tailored to engage with an on-going debate in the early twenty-first century. In 2003 and 2004, a flurry of books and films from across the political spectrum questioned the so-called War on Terror, especially the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the Bush administration’s efforts to justify it.[3] Much like the Puget Sound War in the mid-nineteenth century, U.S. overseas conflicts in the early twenty-first century were arguably an outward manifestation of domestic economic, political, and cultural crisis—“an attempt to manage or defer coming to terms with contradictions besetting the American way of life,” as Andrew Bacevich puts it.[4] This context of war and public debate about its righteousness shaped the petitioners’ legal arguments and the judges’ interpretations of the documentary record related to Leschi. Although the military law experts who testified in the Historical Court did not mention the current wars, one judge recalled afterward that “all of us were aware of what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan” as they deliberated Leschi’s case.[5] Leschi’s exoneration offered the judges the opportunity to confirm America’s commitment to liberal values of equality and freedom in the midst of an increasingly unpopular war. The judges’ decision could help Americans declare the United States as both powerful and good.
Continue reading ‘Excerpt: Framing Chief Leschi, by Lisa Blee’ »

  1. [1] Meeker held a paternalistic view of Indians, which was typical for the period. See Meeker, Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound and the Tragedy of Leschi, 222–25. [Tribal historian Cecelia] Carpenter used quotes from Meeker’s book for her testimony, especially pp. 206–11. Ironically, Meeker’s legal and political perspectives could also undercut the petitioners’ legal case in 2004. Meeker described Indian nationhood and land title as fictional, and, although he characterized Leschi as a principled combatant, he denied that Nisquallies had reason to resist land loss and that they had the right to commence war. Meeker, Seventy Years of Progress in Washington, 349. The writings produced at the turn of the twentieth century had various results. On the one hand, older non-Indians taught a younger generation of Washingtonians negative stereotypes about their indigenous neighbors and dismissed the legal force of Indian treaties. On the other hand, Meeker’s sympathy for Leschi heavily influenced twentieth-century historians. In the second half of the century, writers used Meeker’s work to create romantic depictions of preservation Indian life and exalt Leschi as a tragic victim. By the close of the century, Leschi had been used to promote a variety of liberal critiques of American culture, from capitalism and environmental destruction to racism and militarism. See Binns, Mighty Mountain; Chaplin, “Only the Drums Remembered”; Emmon, Leschi of the Nisquallies; Vaughn, Puget Sound Invasion; and Eckrom, Remembered Drums.
  2. [2] Interview with Thor Hoyte.
  3. [3] Bacevich, New American Militarism, 4–5. Michael Moore’s documentary Farenheit 9/11 opened at number one in U.S. theaters in the summer of 2004. Dawson and Schueller, Exceptional State, 13.
  4. [4] Bacevich argues that Americans’ tendency to conflate liberty with consumerism leads to imperialist wars justified as a defense of Americans’ freedom. Bacevich, Limits of Power, 5–11.
  5. [5] Kluger, Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek, 282.

Stephen Cushman on one of the quieter anniversaries of the Civil War

Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War, by Stephen CushmanOver at our Civil War blog, Stephen Cushman, author of Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War highlights a Civil War anniversary likely to be overlooked in this year’s sesquicentennial observances. He writes:

It is one thing to skim, in a few distracted seconds, an online chronology of the war and think, for example, That’s right, spring and summer 1864, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, the Crater, check, check, check, check, check. It is another to observe, in any way one chooses to observe it, the anniversary of Cold Harbor on June 3, and then to discover that June 8 was the 150th anniversary of the nomination of Lincoln, at the convention of the National Union Party in Baltimore, for a second term as president. Merely to list the two events one after the other in a bare-bones chronology is to risk missing altogether what a long, overshadowed, dispiriting interval the five days between the two events must have been—for the eventual nominee, for the delegates who nominated him, for the people they represented. Yet this silent, fretful interval remains invisible amidst a procession of bigger anniversaries that sail past like parade floats.

Overshadowed, dispiriting, fretful intervals have their anniversaries, too, but they rarely get much attention, even though they took up most of the 1500 days of the war for one side or the other. For one thing, such intervals do not offer us the stuff of spectacular reenactments. How do we stage public reenactments of the epidemic tightness in the chest or roiling in the stomach, the insomnia or melancholy or panic experienced by millions after First Manassas–Bull Run or the fall of Vicksburg? For another, anxious, doubtful intervals rarely come neatly packaged in single moments or artifacts we can point to and date and commemorate on their anniversaries. But there is at least one, and its memorable form came from Lincoln’s pen.

So far in the sesquicentennial we have observed anniversaries of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg address, and early in March 2015 we will be observing the anniversary of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. But it is quite likely that Saturday, August 23, 2014, will come and go for most of us without our pausing to think about two sentences written by Lincoln 150 years earlier, on a busy Tuesday on which he also thanked the 147th Ohio Regiment for its services, recognized a new consul of Peru at San Francisco, and signed the order for the sale of valuable land in “the late Winnebago Indian Reservation, in Minnesota.” Lincoln’s two sentences, memorized and recited by very few, go this way: “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.”

Read Cushman’s full post, “The 150th Anniversary of Probable Failure,” at UNCPressCivilWar150.com.

 

Chantal Norrgard: The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission: Tribal Sovereignty in Action

Seasons of Change: Labor, Treaty Rights, and Ojibwe Nationhood, by Chantal NorrgardWe welcome a guest post today from Chantal Norrgard, author of Seasons of Change: Labor, Treaty Rights, and Ojibwe Nationhood. From the 1870s to the 1930s, the Lake Superior Ojibwes of Minnesota and Wisconsin faced dramatic economic, political, and social changes. Examining a period that began with the tribe’s removal to reservations and closed with the Indian New Deal, Norrgard explores the critical link between Ojibwes’ efforts to maintain their tribal sovereignty and their labor traditions and practices. Norrgard shows how the tribe strategically used treaty rights claims over time to uphold its right to work and to maintain the rhythm and texture of traditional Ojibwe life.

In the following post, Norrgard explains what tribal sovereignty means and one way that the Ojibwe exercise it.

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Sovereignty is a contested term in Native American and Indigenous Studies, but as political scientist David Wilkins has asserted, tribal sovereignty is not the same as Western concepts of sovereignty. It exists as a “spiritual, moral, and cultural force” that propels a tribal community towards political economic and cultural integrity and “mature relationships” with itself, with other groups, and with the environment. The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) exemplifies this definition and shows how tribal sovereignty applies to the complex process of decolonization among Lake Superior Ojibwe.

GLIFWC was born out of Ojibwe struggles to exercise their treaty rights in the 1980s. In 1837 and 1842 treaties, Ojibwe Bands in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan collectively reserved the hunting, fishing, and gathering rights in territory they ceded to the United States. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Ojibwe people struggled to exercise these rights in the face of federal Indian policy restricting their mobility and livelihoods. State conservation laws targeted Indians and arrested them for exercising the rights reserved in treaties to hunt, fish, and gather.

This changed in 1983, when the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Seventh Circuit affirmed that Ojibwes in Wisconsin had the right to hunt, fish, and gather off-reservation in what is known as the Voigt Decision. Following the Decision, tribes and the state hashed out the nature and scope of these rights in a series of tense litigation that lasted until 1991.

In order to counter state regulation of treaty rights, Ojibwe leaders from communities around Lake Superior sought to create a governing body that would enable them to reaffirm their treaty rights and to co-manage natural resources and  communicate with nontribal governments. In 1984, 11 tribal governments of Ojibwe Bands from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan met and asserted that they had the authority to organize themselves. They decided that they would use their tribal sovereignty to create a self-regulatory, inter-tribal agency: GLIFWC.

GLIFWC has been instrumental in uniting Ojibwe communities in the midst of their continual struggles to exercise treaty rights. In 1990, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe filed suit against the State of Minnesota because it refused to recognize the Voigt Decision. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Not only did GLIFWC play an active role in supporting the litigation, but it also brought together Ojibwe people to address one of the darkest events in their history on which the case hinged. Continue reading ‘Chantal Norrgard: The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission: Tribal Sovereignty in Action’ »

Excerpt: Common Threads, by Sally Dwyer-McNulty

Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American CatholicismA well-illustrated cultural history of the apparel worn by American Catholics, Sally Dwyer-McNulty’s Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism reveals the transnational origins and homegrown significance of clothing in developing identity, unity, and a sense of respectability for a major religious group that had long struggled for its footing in a Protestant-dominated society often openly hostile to Catholics. Focusing on those who wore the most visually distinct clothes—priests, women religious, and schoolchildren—Dwyer-McNulty tracks and analyzes changes in Catholic clothing all the way through the twentieth century and into the present, which finds the new Pope Francis choosing to wear plain black shoes rather than ornate red ones.

In the following excerpt (pp. 60-63), Dwyer-McNulty reveals how nuns’ attire in the nineteenth century could lead to ill health and harassment. Adaptation of attire became a necessity for the well being of women religious.

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Adaptation and Anti-Catholicism

Similar to early-nineteenth-century Catholic priests, sisters believed that a certain amount of adaptation was necessary if they were to successfully settle in the new United States. The hierarchy concurred. Bishop Rese of Detroit wrote to Rome in 1835, “Every religious order in America must unite the active life to the contemplative; otherwise the Americans would reject them, and we do not have means to support them in any other way.”[1] Without a tradition of Catholicism, monasteries, or nuns bringing dowries, the United States presented nuns and sisters with a unique set of challenges. The sisters would have to devise reliable methods of sustaining themselves. Begging was a temporary solution, but sisters found teaching and hospital work monetarily more reliable.

Other bishops agreed with Rese, arguing that flexibility was the key to the sisters’ survival. Bishop Rosati believed that the austerity that some orders observed, for instance, was not conducive to life in America. In the case of the Sisters of Loretto, their founder, Belgian priest Father Nerinckx, established severe rules that did not account for frontier conditions. Referring to the Sisters of Loretto in an 1823 letter to Bishop Dubourg, Bishop Rosati of St. Louis commented, “They go barefooted, have no other dresses but what they make themselves, of dyed linen in Summer and of wool in Winter, and they sleep upon a straw tick, spread on the bare floor. Their fare is no more delicate: no coffee, tea, or sugar. It is true pleasure to witness their fervor, which equals that of the strictest communities of Europe in the palmist days of their first establishment.”[2] While Rosati praised the band of hard-working Sisters of Loretto, other clerics became concerned, concluding that such extreme deprivation and arduous labor endangered the sisters’ lives. Eleven Lorettines perished during the first seven years of a mission in Bethania, North Carolina, due to the austerity and exposure.[3] Bishop Benedict Flaget of Louisville, Kentucky, lamented that “going barefoot, and sleeping with their clothes on and then praying in oratories open to the wind . . . made the sisters prone to contract tuberculosis.” Flaget wrote to Bishop Rosati, “In the space of eleven years we have lost twenty-four religious, and not one of them had yet reached the age of thirty years. Besides, of the eighty religious of the same family, that we have in Kentucky, there are at present thirty-eight who have bad health and who are perhaps not yet four years in vows. I learned that in your convent you have five or six whose health is almost ruined. All these deaths and other illnesses so multiplied, do not prove . . . that the rules are too austere?”[4] Flaget, with Rome’s endorsement, saw to it that the rule of the Sisters of Loretto changed. Thereafter the rule required behaviors less destructive to the sisters’ health.[5]
Continue reading ‘Excerpt: Common Threads, by Sally Dwyer-McNulty’ »

  1. [1] Robert Trisco, The Holy See and the Nascent Church in the Middle Western States (Rome: Gregorian University, 1962), 308, quoted in Ewen, Role of the Nun, 135.
  2. [2] Maes, Life of Rev. Charles Nerinckx, 508, consulted and quoted in Ewen, Role of the Nun, 51.
  3. [3] Ewen, Role of the Nun, 53.
  4. [4] Flaget to Rosati, 11 September 1824, St. Louis Archdiocesan Archive, quoted in ibid., 54.
  5. [5] Ibid.

Luther Adams: Claiming the South as Home: African Americans and Southern Identity

Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970, by Luther Adams We welcome a guest post today from Luther Adams, author of Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970. In the wake of World War II, when roughly half the black population left the South seeking greater opportunity and freedom in the North and West, the same desire often anchored African Americans to the South. Adams offers a powerful reinterpretation of the modern civil rights movement and of the transformations in black urban life within the contexts of migration, work, and urban renewal. While acknowledging the destructive downside of emerging post-industrialism for African Americans in the Jim Crow South, Adams concludes that persistent patterns of economic and racial inequality did not rob black people of their capacity to act in their own interests.

In the following post, Adams considers how African Americans have claimed the South as Home—on their own terms.

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As I sat down to write about Louisville, Kentucky, I thought of Tennessee. Not the place, but the song. In 1992 Arrested Development recorded “Tennessee,” a prayer to the Lord for guidance. God said, “go back from whence you came.” Tennessee. Home.

Arrested Development’s song meditates on the power of returning to the place from “whence you came.” As home the South is a site of oppression and the place where African American people and culture was born. Through repetition “Tennessee” insists the South is home and that being rooted in history and the earth where your ancestors lived, worked, and died can heal black people suffering from life in urban ghettos. For African Americans, defining the South as home demands an acknowledgement of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing racial violence. It demands the value of black lives and families be recognized. Go home, the MC Speech implores, to “walk the roads my forefathers walked/ climb the trees where my forefathers hung from.” Home, the place of “my family tree, my family name.”

In “Tennessee,” Arrested Development left us a jam that added to a rich body of black political thought conceptualizing and acknowledging the South as Home. More than a hundred years before, in 1864, a black church leader from Port Royal, South Carolina, crystallized African Americans’ connection to the South, saying, “[T]his very land is rich with the sweat of we face and the blood of we back. We born here, we parents’ grave here; this here our home.” The phrasing “we face,” “we back,” “we born,” and “our home,” expresses a collective basis of identification among African Americans in Port Royal. Well aware of the wealth generated by their labor and blood, African Americans looked to the past, their shared experiences in slavery, and understanding of themselves as a people to shape their sense of the Home.

Similarly, in her incisive Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Davis points to the role of collective memory in African Americans’ view of the South as Home. The South was not only a place of oppression but for Davis, “Home is evocatively and metaphorically represented as the South, conceptualized as the territorial location of historical sites of resistance to white supremacy.”

Home is not just about the past but also the present and future. Continue reading ‘Luther Adams: Claiming the South as Home: African Americans and Southern Identity’ »

Excerpt: Talkin’ Tar Heel, by Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser

Talkin' Tar Heel: How Our Voices Tell the Story of North CarolinaDrawing on over two decades of research and 3,000 recorded interviews from every corner of the state, Talkin’ Tar Heel: How Our Voices Tell the Story of North Carolina introduces readers to the unique regional, social, and ethnic dialects of North Carolina, as well as its major languages, including American Indian languages and Spanish. Considering how we speak as a reflection of our past and present, Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser show how languages and dialects are a fascinating way to understand our state’s rich and diverse cultural heritage. The book is enhanced by maps and illustrations and augmented by more than 100 audio and video recordings, which can be found online at talkintarheel.com.

In the following excerpt from the book (pp. 74-76), Wolfram and Reaser explore how urbanization affects dialect and cultural identity among North Carolinians. (Note: The print edition of the book contains QR codes that link to related media at talkintarheel.com. We’ve embedded hyperlinks in the body of the text below.)

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Some of the regional differences in North Carolina can be quite striking, but we don’t have to travel very far to hear distinctive dialects. Lots of differences can be explained by appealing to a couple of distinctions: rural and urban and young and old. To hear the contrast, residents of metropolitan centers like Charlotte, Raleigh, or Greensboro only need to go to a farmers market where an older farmer is selling fresh produce from his family farm, putting your snaps, taters, and butter beans in a poke for you to carry home. Or go to a local country barbecue pit and learn about the intricacies of eastern and western style ‘cue. Rural folks are known for maintaining more traditional ways of southern speaking to complement a range of other lifestyle differences, and city folks may shift their ways of speaking and acting to sound more cosmopolitan.

A worker in the Bank of America Corporate Center in Charlotte who asks you to “mash the button” for the elevator or to “he’p him tote the computer right yonder” would get a quizzical look or a patronizing chuckle for “talking country” in the towering edifice representing the second-largest financial center in the United States. But those who react in condescension may not realize that this way of speaking was the dialect norm in the city just a couple of generations ago—and probably in the residential home that once stood on this site. As one elderly Charlotte resident, born in 1919, recalled: “I remember when Discovery Place was just a little neighborhood store.”[1] Discovery Place, of course, is the modern science and technology museum built in the uptown area of Charlotte in the 1980s.

The label country in “they speak country” is more than a synonym for rural. It embeds a set of personal and social traits that index assumptions about a lack of cultural sophistication, a limited education, and a rustic lifestyle. A recent study of students from the North Carolina mountains attending a southern urban university found that they had diverse reactions to “country speech” ranging from mild amusement to anger about the linguistic profile of an imagined country persona and nonstandard southern speech.[2] When combined with the noun bumpkin, as in “We don’t want to sound like country bumpkins,” it takes on a highly pejorative connotation.
Continue reading ‘Excerpt: Talkin’ Tar Heel, by Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser’ »

  1. [1] Quote from Neal Hutcheson, producer, Voices of North Carolina (Raleigh: North Carolina Language and Life Project, 2005).
  2. [2] See Stephany B. Dunstan, “The Influence of Speaking a Dialect of Appalachian English on the College Experience” (Ph.D. diss., North Carolina State University, 2013). Also see Lauren Hall-Lew and Nola Stephens, “County Talk,” Journal of English Linguistics 40, no. 1 (2012): 1–25.

Sarah S. Elkind: Air Pollution and Prosperity

Elkind, How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy cover imageWe welcome a guest post today from Sarah S. Elkind, author of How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, and the Environment in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. In the book, Elkind focuses on five Los Angeles environmental policy debates between 1920 and 1950, investigating how practices in American municipal government gave business groups political legitimacy at the local level as well as unanticipated influence over federal politics. In this guest post, Elkind considers air pollution in mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles and twenty-first-century China.

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I was recently interviewed for a series of radio essays called “We Used to Be China,” on China’s air pollution, by Sarah Gardner at American Public Radio’s Marketplace. These stories got me thinking about China’s air pollution problem, and about Marketplace‘s premise. Did we, the United States, used to be China? In what ways?

China’s appalling air pollution has been in heavy rotation in American news this spring and summer as an adjunct to stories of China’s economic growth, and because air pollution in Beijing and other Chinese cities has become so unimaginably bad. China, of course, is not the only country struggling with smog. The World Health Organization reported in May 2014 that air quality in most cities has declined since 2011. WHO attributes the deterioration of air quality in “middle income countries” like China and India to increased use of motor vehicles and electricity from coal-fired power plants.[1] Prosperity in these countries breeds pollution.

In Los Angeles, air pollution was also caused by industrial production, automobiles, and affluence. After the Clean Air Act of 1970, air quality in Los Angeles steadily improved, until the boom of the 1990s; so many Angelenos purchased low-mileage sport utility vehicles in that prosperous era that air quality declined. In the 1940s, Los Angeles’s first smog crisis was caused by a wartime surge in industrial production, oil refining, and automobile use. Perhaps more significantly, the connection between pollution and prosperity has been linked in Americans’ minds for a hundred years. The Right uses this connection to weaken all sorts of regulations, including those which would improve public health and environmental quality by reducing emissions from coal-fired power plant and cars.

Does that make the mid-twentieth-century United States like today’s China? In some ways, absolutely. Continue reading ‘Sarah S. Elkind: Air Pollution and Prosperity’ »

  1. [1] See World Health Organization, “Air Quality Deteriorating in Many of the World’s Cities,” news release, 7 May 2014,  http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2014/air-quality/en/.

Excerpt: The Indicted South, by Angie Maxwell

The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of WhitenessBy the 1920s, the sectional reconciliation that had seemed achievable after Reconstruction was foundering, and the South was increasingly perceived and portrayed as impoverished, uneducated, and backward. In The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness Angie Maxwell examines and connects three key twentieth-century moments in which the South was exposed to intense public criticism, identifying in white southerners’ responses a pattern of defensiveness that shaped the region’s political and cultural conservatism. Maxwell exposes the way the perception of regional inferiority confronted all types of southerners, focusing on the 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, and the birth of the anti-evolution movement; the publication of I’ll Take My Stand and the turn to New Criticism by the Southern Agrarians; and Virginia’s campaign of Massive Resistance and Interposition in response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Tracing the effects of media scrutiny and the ridicule that characterized national discourse in each of these cases, Maxwell reveals the reactionary responses that linked modern southern whiteness with anti-elitism, states’ rights, fundamentalism, and majoritarianism

In the following excerpt (pp. 54–58), Maxwell discusses the origin of the Scopes Trial in the Butler Act, which prevented the teaching of evolution in public schools.

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The War between the States . . . Again

In the years preceding the Scopes Trial, the anti-evolution message was proclaimed incessantly throughout Tennessee, which appeared prominently on the speaking schedule for Dr. William Bell Riley, president of the World Christian Fundamentals Association, in 1923. Summoned by several prominent Tennessee attorneys, William Jennings Bryan also delivered a historic address in Nashville, “Is the Bible True?” The sermon proved so stirring that it inspired the sponsors to disseminate thousands of printed copies throughout the state; an additional 500 pamphlets were provided to members of the Tennessee statehouse upon its 1925 opening session. The result was the Butler Bill, House Bill 185, sponsored by John Washington Butler and introduced on January 21, 1925. Initially, the bill was recommended for rejection by the house committee to which it was assigned. But local evangelical ministers held powerful sway in the state of Tennessee.[1] Despite vocal opposition, from university academics to editorials in the Nashville Banner, warning about the threat the bill posed to free speech, one particular line of argument proved effective. Rev. A. B. Barrett of the Fayetteville Church of Christ “charged that many college students were returning home atheists and agnostics because of the teachings of Darwinism.”[2] The Tennessee preacher, whether knowingly or not, touched on one of the greatest anxieties of God-fearing parents of the 1920s.

The very foundations of the anti-evolutionist argument had long been focused on the fear that children would lose their religious faith if they were exposed to Darwin’s theories, and the movement proudly proclaimed that its primary intention was to save American youth from self-destruction. Many of Bryan’s early speeches heralding the literalist interpretation of the Bible and denouncing Darwinism were offered as reactions to books such as The Belief in God and Immortality: A Psychological and Anthropological and Statistical Study by James Henry Leuba, published in 1916. Leuba’s research concluded that during their experience with higher education, particularly throughout the four years of college, many students lost interest in their religious faith.[3] The Butler Act was, in fact, sponsored by a father whose children began questioning the church of their upbringing after their high school science classes presented the theory of evolution. Anti-evolutionists played on this fear of southern Christian parents—the fear that examining the origins of man would lead to a more far-reaching rejection of the Bible and a subsequent embrace of modernity. And, of course, embracing modernity could affect not only one’s religious commitment but also the racial contract upon which the Jim Crow system relied.
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  1. [1] Israel, Before Scopes, 145–46.
  2. [2] Bailey, “Enactment of Tennessee’s Anti-Evolution Law,” 477.
  3. [3] Coletta, Political Puritan, 200.