Paris is only a five hour drive from my home in the Netherlands. I have strolled its streets many times, undoubtedly also those covered in blood after the November 2015 attacks. I have also passed through San Bernardino, California, and have stood regularly at the former World Trade Center site. Yet as I commemorate those victims of religious terrorism, I cannot but remember my meetings with black civil rights activist Bob Moses and his colleagues of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Their haunting tales of life in Mississippi in the 1960s wryly challenge some politicians’ and media pundits’ current claim to exclusivity for the term “terrorism” only in relation to Islam, reminding us that the most bloody and consistent trajectory of terrorism in the United States occurred under the banner of white supremacy.
After the 2015 riots in Baltimore and elsewhere, I was struck—though not surprised—by many of the media’s depictions of its black inhabitants, as if they were irrational, self-defeating hoodlums, rather than emphasizing stories like that of Wayne, one of several hundred students in Baltimore’s public schools who participate in the Algebra Project (AP). Wayne had been kicked out of several schools until his AP involvement made him realize “what I can do inside of school and how I can help other people.”
In the movie In the Heart of the Sea, based upon Nathaniel Philbrick’s best-selling book of the same title, an enraged sperm whale twice rams the whale ship Essex. In a matter of minutes, the Essex starts sinking and capsizes on its port side, leaving its crew stranded on the vast Pacific in three small and under-provisioned whale boats.
But about ten years before the sinking of the Essex in 1820, an even more cunning and fearsome whale received widespread notoriety throughout the whaling community and even among the general public.
“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.
Last July, when wreckage from Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 washed ashore on Réunion, a typical response was something like “where?” The New York Times described the Indian Ocean island as “a French department about 4,000 miles from Europe,” adding that “if people had heard about it before, it was most likely because of bad publicity surrounding shark attacks or an epidemic of chikungunya.” So much for the world getting ever smaller. Over two centuries earlier, in the seaport town of Salem, Massachusetts, the island was well-known. Many was the Salem vessel that set sail for this isolated speck round the Cape of Good Hope.
In January 1973, an African American EHS student and her mother asked for a permanent injunction against the school’s images. They did not file a new lawsuit; instead, they appealed under the Augustus v. Escambia School Board integration order on the basis that the symbols represented “symbolic resistance” to a court-ordered unitary school system. Winston Arnow, a federal district court judge, agreed. In a fourteen-page opinion, he called the Confederate icons “racially irritating,” declared they “generated a feeling of inequality and inferiority among black students,” and proclaimed them “a source of racial violence” at EHS. Because the county school board failed to resolve the conflict, Arnow reasoned, it violated earlier school desegregation mandates and he issued a permanent injunction against the “Rebels” nickname and all related imagery. His decision was not without precedent.
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.
Some writers have noted the presence of the “southern gothic” or the “southern porch” in Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s visceral visual album Lemonade. But the landscapes are unambiguously part of the geography of Louisiana; the visual album is haunting because of its specificity to place. Barely visible, in the discussion thus far, is the history of slavery—and its remnants—all over the landscape of the album.
It was a cold, rainy December afternoon when my wife finally asked the question: “Who was Virgil Lusk?” It was a fair question. After all, I had dragged her around Asheville’s historic Riverside Cemetery for well over an hour trying to locate his grave. With each grave adorned with a miniature Confederate battle flag, my frustration mounted. Lusk was a Confederate soldier. So why was my strategy of driving toward those flags not producing any results? Was his flag missing? Who was Virgil Lusk?
Sixty years after the battle, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a triumphant hymn to the “embattled farmers” of Concord, Massachusetts who gathered at the “rude bridge that arched the flood” underneath “their flag to April’s breeze unfurled” and “fired the shot heard round the world.” Emerson solemnized the “spirit that made those heroes dare / to die, or leave their children free.” Emerson’s imagery added to the already thick layers of mythology surrounding the events of April 19, 1775, fusing together nature and nation to craft an American pastoral patriotism. Ever since, when Americans think about the start of the Revolution, it is Emerson’s chorus—of heroic white colonists fighting to preserve their liberty—that plays in the background of this nationalist legend.
But that wasn’t how some people thought about the events of that night. In fact, race played a role in how people reacted to the Lexington Alarm.
As I researched and studied the myriad organisms that swim in and fly over the California Current for my book on this unique ecosystem, none caught my attention more than Pacific sea turtles—living dinosaurs of the ocean. Theirs is an old story—one of long journeys and nesting rituals performed over the eons. The tale below chronicles the journey and trials of a determined sea turtle.
April 15: yet another occasion to provide your social security number. It’s just one of many numbers we use to identify ourselves, along with those found on our driver’s licenses, passports, and military ID’s. Being a number instead of a name has become a cliché, but the use of such numbers goes beyond reducing personal identity to a set of numerals. It’s part of a larger world of numbering systems that order people and things alike.
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.
It’s true that cooking with gas or electricity is cheaper and easier, and the product is more consistent (if not great). But when we ask gassers why they don’t cook with wood, they seldom mention those considerations. Instead, what we almost always hear is stuff like “The city won’t let us,” or “The inspector made us stop,” or “It’s against the Clean Air regulations.” In short, the government made them do it.
But this never comes with specifics.
We North Carolinians love our vinegar-based barbecue sauces. In fact, we love them so much we don’t just splash them on barbecue: East of Raleigh we boil potatoes in sauce-spiked water; west of Raleigh sauce goes in slaw. So why not a cocktail with sauce in it?
From Jacob Oson’s “A Search for Truth; or, An Inquiry for the Origin of the African Nation” to Ann Plato’s Essays to William Still’s The Underground Railroad, nineteenth-century book writers connected their scholarly endeavors to unearthing a communal past. Oson accentuated Africa’s role as central to human history. Plato used the quiet dignity of her essays to highlight the role of black women in the immediate and larger communities of the period. Still presented the Underground Railroad as the living embodiment of a race’s communal struggle for dignity and recognition. He did so in a postbellum moment fraught with the politics of sectional reconciliation, which sought to eradicate the memory of a contested past.
Recently, a blogosphere debate erupted on headscarves/hijab among various Muslim women. The debate was preceded by physical harassment against visibly Muslim women. The worsened climate of Islamophobia was greeted with shock and disgust by a number of Americans. A number of non-Muslim women—Dr. Larycia Hawkins of Wheaton College, for instance—put on the headscarf as a gesture of solidarity with Muslims. While some Muslims critiqued hijab solidarity as a form of appropriation, many welcomed it as a well-intentioned and courageous gesture in difficult times.
This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the passage of the Narcotic Control Act of 1956, a law that dramatically reshaped American drug policies. While the precedent for mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses had been established four years earlier, the Narcotic Control Act greatly expanded the scope of these sentences. Among its many clauses, the act raised the minimum sentence on some drug offenses to five years and allowed the imposition of the death penalty on anyone over the age of eighteen convicted of trafficking heroin to minors. This made the Narcotics Control Act the strictest drug law in the nation’s history—one that treated addiction as a plague that needed to be addressed through punitive measures.
Last year Mexico became the first nation in the world to impose a surtax on sweetened soft drinks. Policymakers justified the move by pointing out that people in Mexico consume more soda per capita than anywhere else in the world, a trend they argue fosters the nation’s high rates of obesity and diet-related disease. While governments around the world have also used economic incentives–or, in this case, disincentives–as a means of bolstering public health, Mexico’s soda tax does so on a much grander scale. A year later, in July 2015, public health researchers reported that consumption of soft drinks in Mexico fell by more than five percent. Many people hope for similar measures in the United States. California and New York are considering similar policies. New York City tried something similar a few years ago, before a judge overturned it, and the Navajo Nation just passed a junk food tax.
But the great Mexican soda tax debate can be viewed in a wider context than public health policy. It is, after all, also about the politics of capitalism and global trade.
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.