Catherine A. Stewart: Looking Backward: On Memory and the Challenges of Oral History

My mother and her only sibling, my aunt, are losing their memories. Though their short-term memory has all but disappeared, their shared memories of childhood still remain vivid. One of their neurologists described the brain’s storage of memory and the onset of dementia as a file cabinet, with the most recently filed folders disappearing first, and the ones stored long ago as the last to go.

Interview: John W. Troutman on Kīkā Kila

Gina Mahalek: What is Kīkā Kila? What does it sound like?

John W. Troutman: Kīkā Kila is a Hawaiian expression for describing both a type of guitar and a technique for playing it. The instrument, also known as a “steel guitar,” a “lap steel,” a “dobro,” or a “Hawaiian guitar,” among other names and associations, developed in the Islands in the 1880s and 1890s. Players would physically modify a “standard” guitar, add steel strings to it, and fabricate finger picks and a steel bar, about 3” in length (the instrument is named after this bar). After creating new, open tunings for the guitar, players would place the guitar in their laps, pluck the strings with finger picks on one hand, and then, with their other hand, slide the steel bar along the strings, located high above the fretboard. The technique created an entirely new sound for the guitar, one that better mimicked both the gentle rising and falling of a somber human voice as well as the melodic acrobatics that Hawaiian falsetto singers were becoming known for at the time. Hawaiians soon began creating all sorts of other sound effects on the steel guitar, and very quickly, it became the most important accompanying (as well as lead melodic) instrument in Hawaiian music.

Benjamin René Jordan: “Are you a Boy Scout?” The Youth Historian’s Dilemma

“Are you a Boy Scout?” I am frequently asked this question at history conferences or during social conversations after stating that I study early American Boy Scouting. Perhaps it’s my short haircut, or my normative white guy appearance. The question may also stem from an (accurate) perception that many current and former Boy Scouts and adult leaders are enthusiastic readers and amateur producers of histories of the organization and their local councils, troops, and summer camps. Scout history associations, newsletters, websites, networks, and historical memorabilia swap meets facilitate the exchange and consumption of such histories and memories. Thus, conference audiences and other people I meet are often confused when I report that I was not a Boy Scout. They seem surprised that somebody would study a youth organization like Scouting if that person had not been a member. I suspect other historians who study youth organizations and summer camps get similar queries.

Jeff Porter: The Many Lives of Orson Welles

If he were still alive, Orson Welles (1915-1985) would be 101 years old today. Welles is remembered as one of America’s most important filmmakers, but before he became famous for his movies, Welles ruled the airwaves.

Benjamin René Jordan: “Free-Range Kids” and the Problem of Children’s Citizenship

Fisher warned that allowing young men to “stumble into citizenship,” assuming it only begins at age twenty-one, leads them to believe that civic responsibility is primarily limited to voting or paying taxes: “A boy cannot live his boy life entirely separate from any sense of responsibility to society and then be expected as a man to live a full-orbed citizenship.” Fisher’s statement suggests that our current social and educational structure in which adolescents are isolated from broader community interactions, mature responsibilities, and opportunities for personal growth endangers the very foundation of America’s democratic society by restricting young people’s awareness of the broader community and experience of citizenship.

Catherine A. Stewart: Having an Honest Conversation about Slavery—Now and Then

But this current conversation is not the first time Americans and political leaders have attempted to talk honestly about slavery. In the 1930s, the federal government began an unprecedented and revolutionary discussion of slavery and its legacy by hiring unemployed writers to interview the last living generation of African Americans to have experienced slavery. The Federal Writers’ Ex-Slave Project sparked conversations between direct descendants of Confederate slaveholders and former slaves. This project, with its radical objective of recovering and reclaiming African Americans’ experiences with slavery and freedom, along with its failings and limitations, has much to tell us about why conversations about the past of slavery remain so difficult for Americans today.

Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez: Muslims in the Classroom

Donald Trump’s suggested ban on Muslims entering the United States and the creation of a Muslim “registry” has been widely (and wisely) condemned. But from my perspective in the classroom, I see how the ideas are already affecting young people. Amid the rows of Catholics, Jews, agnostics, and evangelicals in my religion courses sit dozens of students hailing from the Middle East and South Asia. Their presence is a very good thing. Like most of my students, they are open, curious, and eager to learn. And they are baffled and intimidated by Trump’s rhetoric.

Excerpt: The Trials of Laura Fair: Sex, Murder, and Insanity in the Victorian West, by Carole Haber

In arguing that the jury had to find Laura “not guilty by reason of insanity,” Quint and Cook hoped to focus their attention around four central issues. At the heart of their case, they argued, was the notion that Laura was unconscious and irrational at the time of the murder. In contrast to the prosecution, which had relied on gossip and rumor to condemn Laura’s character, they would base their case on the latest scientific findings and medical expertise. By calling to the stand doctors with advanced knowledge and training, they would prove that Laura—much like Mary Harris before her—was a victim herself, captive to the effects of severe organic disease. Especially when her menstrual cycle approached, she experienced recurring bouts of hysterical mania that left her without control of her actions or awareness of events. Thus, no matter how heinous the act appeared, she was not responsible for its commission.

Excerpt: Ku-Klux, by Elaine Frantz Parsons

The Ku-Klux began as a name. It was chosen by a group of young former Confederates in Pulaski, Tennessee, in May or June 1866. Pulaski, the seat of Giles County, is seventy-four miles south of Nashville, connected to the city by the Nashville and Decatur Railroad. The war’s shadow fell heavily on the nation, but Pulaski bore a disproportionate share of suffering. While it was never itself a battlefield, Federal troops had occupied it, and it was in close proximity to some of the war’s most deadly fighting. Union troops camped in Pulaski in the days before the bloody Battle of Nashville, and were a frequent presence throughout the war. These strains may have contributed to the area’s fraught postwar atmosphere.

Margaret Bendroth: Disorganized Religion

Protestant aversion to organized religion is everywhere, even on the sign on the front lawns of churches. Smart congregations are dropping the Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian label and replacing it with soft generic names like Willow Grove or Saddleback. They are becoming nonspecific “communities” and “fellowships” associating themselves with some broad spiritual aspiration, like “resurrection” or “hope” or “reconciliation.”

Excerpt: Jack London, by Cecelia Tichi

The audience eagerly anticipated a larger-than-life figure, a novelist, journalist, sailor, war correspondent, exponent of modern marriage, sportswriter, and, most recently, a gentleman farmer-rancher. His audience reached from the workers with “hard hands and strong arms” to the affluent bourgeoisie of “placid . . . sedentary existence.” Awaiting his appearance in the hall, many in the audience opened purses or dug into trouser pockets to snap up the ten-cent “‘genuine’ blood red flags, the ‘Jack London souvenirs of a great and momentous occasion.’” The fiery female union organizer from the coalfields, Mother Jones, was in the hall, and her shout-out later in the evening was to be memorable for its typical “crisp” and “clipped speech.” The atmosphere was amiable, though the speaker was overdue because his train was late. When London finally took the stage at 9:15 P.M., no one in the audience (not even the New York Times reporter) guessed that the celebrated Jack London was half-sick from lingering effects of the flulike grippe. This was America’s epicenter of capitalism, and Gotham could flatten a man who didn’t show himself fit in body and mind. Such a man wouldn’t last one round.

Interview: Patricia Appelbaum on St. Francis of America

I started out thinking that the garden statue was kind of a cliché. Imagine just going out and buying a mass-produced plastic image and thinking there is something special about it! Commercial statuary seemed to trivialize Francis’s meaning, to make him less challenging. Instead of a figure who calls for drastic change, radical poverty, and absolute devotion—a saint who was active in the wider world—our vision is limited to a pretty statue and birdbath on our private property. But I came to change my views. There’s a real spiritual side to this, and also a cultural critique.

J. Samaine Lockwood: Nineteenth-Century New England’s Queer Thanksgivings

As we travel home this Thanksgiving, it is worth taking time to reflect on the various meanings of this holiday—personal, collective, regional, and national. A product of nineteenth-century sectional, socio-sexual, and imperialist imperatives, Thanksgiving is far from a physically satisfying celebration involving a return to an uncomplicated home.

Interview: Tanisha C. Ford on Black Women, Style, and Politics in the 1960s and ’70s

Gina Mahalek: Very briefly, what is Liberated Threads about?

Tanisha C. Ford: Liberated Threads is about how everyday women turned getting dressed into a powerful political act that transformed the cultural and political landscape of the 1960s and 70s around the world. Often, when we study the social movements of the mid-twentieth century, we focus on policy issues, the fight to integrate public spaces, and big events, such as marches and protests. But, in Liberated Threads, I argue that we need to focus on everyday acts such as getting dressed in order to understand how everyday people engaged in movement politics. Most people were not involved in formal political organizing. They were not members of Black Freedom movement organizations. But, they were engaged in the fashion culture of the time. I wanted to explore the various ways that fashion and style connected people to the global movement for black freedom.

Tiya Miles: Ghosts ‘R Us

Judging by the sheer number of supernatural walking tours, bus tours, hearse tours, and reality TV shows proliferating across the country, America is host to manifold hauntings: at prisons, insane asylums, old hotels, historic sites and, of course, exceedingly Gothic haunted houses. It is perhaps not surprising that many of these hauntings are rooted in the South, the site of the American tragedy of slavery and the seat of the Civil War. In today’s Dixieland, enslaved ghosts join a cast of spectral characters: Confederate soldiers carrying muskets, young plantation belles in mourning, lovelorn barmaids done wrong, and profiteering pirates. But it is the ghosts of the enslaved who stand out.

Holly M. Karibo: Race and Violence on the Northern Borderline: The Case of the Windsor “Jazz Riot”

If the Windsor Jazz Riot has long been lost from our collective historical memory, it provides an important moment to think about current national debates over riots, race relations, and national boundaries. Borders—be they national, geographical, social, or cultural—provide us the opportunity to blame outsiders for social ills, and for expressing collective fears. We tend to associate this most often with the U.S.–Mexico border, where inflammatory language about anchor babies, Mexican rapists, and drug smugglers dominates public debates. But there is a deep history of racial division along the U.S.–Canada divide, one that needs to be acknowledged as we debate the “American” race problem in the twenty-first century.

John Weber: Immigration Reform, Guest Workers, and Poorly Understood History

This enthusiasm for guest workers—temporary laborers stripped of the right to choose employers, bargain for higher wages, or remain within the United States past the expiration date of their labor contract—ignores a few basic problems. McGurn’s oversimplified history of the Bracero Program bears no resemblance to the growing scholarship on the binational contract labor scheme and its many problems.

Patricia Appelbaum: Protestant Blessings and Cultural Change

It’s the season of blessings again. In many places there are blessings of backpacks for the new school year. Here and there, bicycles that were not blessed in spring will have another chance. In October, religious groups all over the country and around the world will hold “blessings of the animals” in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. What I find remarkable is how many of these ceremonies take place in Protestant churches. It wasn’t always like this.

Excerpt: Modern Food, Moral Food, by Helen Zoe Veit

A variety of factors contributed to the explosion of weight loss culture during and after the Great War, and one especially potent factor was the creep of metrics into daily life. The application of calories to food in the late nineteenth century and the emerging discipline of statistics resulted in well-publicized comparisons of food consumption and body weights between individuals and across populations. At the same time, life insurance statistics were revealing new correlations between excess weight and chronic disease. More and more Americans, meanwhile, were purchasing newly affordable home scales and buying their clothing ready-made, and thus increasingly thinking of their bodies in terms of numbers and sizes instead of, say, just making clothes to fit their individual bodies. Moreover, metrics grew more prevalent in daily life just as the motion picture industry was taking off and as a visually oriented print media continued to expand. Handed the tools to make physical comparisons, Americans eagerly made them. The growing ease of numerical and visual comparisons contributed directly to the valorization of thinness. But what accounts for the moral stigma that leeched onto the idea of being overweight? The answer lies at the heart of the Progressive ideology of self-control, a value that transcended the Progressive Era itself, both supporting and thriving within the enduring associations between thinness, willpower, and beauty.

Angela Pulley Hudson: On Racial Passing, Posing, and Posturing

Dolezal’s purported blackness (and Indianness) was not a temporary costume, but was more like the racial shifting that anthropologist Circe Sturm and a number of other writers have outlined and it is not uncommon in the history of the United States. In Real Native Genius, I examine this phenomenon through the lives of Okah Tubbee and Laah Ceil, two apparently non-Native people who remade themselves as Indians during the mid-19th century. Like Dolezal, Laah Ceil was raised as a white woman, and the two cases raise similar questions. Why would a white woman abandon the abundant privileges of whiteness to pass as a racial minority, particularly given the long and brutal histories of white supremacy and settler colonialism that did and do endanger people of color? What combination of fantasy and necessity enabled their transformation? What benefit(s) did/do they derive from their imposture?