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.

Angela Pulley Hudson: The Myth of Historical Intimacy

It was quite a shock to see how easily I had betrayed my subjects. I’ve always been a bit sanctimonious about respecting the people we study. I encourage graduate students not to refer to people in the past as “actors” or “players.” They’re people, I insist, and they were no less complicated than people are today. Wary of presentism, I shudder to read the work of scholars who apply modern standards of behavior or decorum to past actions. Trained in ethnohistorical methods, I work hard not to transpose the values of one culture or society onto another. And yet, there it was. I had plainly judged Laah Ceil, imposing not only modern notions of maternal affection, but my own personal values as a parent.

Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez: Catholics and Protestants in Philadelphia: From Conflict to Collaboration

As I walk around Philadelphia this week, I marvel at the signs, merchandise, and promotions welcoming Pope Francis. It’s hard to believe that just over a century and a half ago, Catholics were the target of violence in this city.

April Merleaux: The Subtlety of the Sugar Babies

Last summer, to celebrate finishing the manuscript of my book, Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness, I went to New York to see artist Kara Walker’s installation A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby in an old Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn. Walker is known for making bold art that calls on viewers to consider histories of racial violence in the United States, and A Subtlety did just that. Sugar, Walker points out, is historically tied to race in many and multiple ways.

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.

Bob H. Reinhardt: Having the Vaccination Conversation

Parents sometimes hear about “routine childhood vaccinations,” but the current discussion about vaccines is anything but routine. In addition to pediatrician offices, the vaccination conversation is happening in unexpected places: the legislative halls of Oregon, California, and other states trying to stiffen childhood vaccination requirements; Twitter, where author Sherman Alexie invoked Native Americans’ historic experiences with deadly contagious diseases and railed against “superstitious, selfish anti-vaccination ***holes”; and late-night TV, where Jimmy Kimmel joked that parents in Los Angeles are “more scared of gluten than they are of smallpox.” Alexie’s vitriol and Kimmel’s barb invoke the history of smallpox and its eradication, a remarkable story that holds unexpected insights for today.

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?

Excerpt: Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900, by Catherine W. Bishir

For most black artisans in the antebellum South, being born into slavery placed clear limits on their future. No matter how skilled they might be, seldom could enslaved artisans expect to trace the customary path from apprentice to master that white artisans pursued. For Montford, as for a remarkable number of his fellows in New Bern, however, the timing and circumstances of his birth together with his skills, industry, ambition, and relationships enabled him to realize such hopes as he moved from slavery to freedom and became a master of apprentices and slaves, a property owner, and a voting citizen. Only as Montford’s life drew to its close in the 1830s did he and his fellow artisans of color witness the onset of oppressive racial laws that chilled the hopes of New Bern’s black craftsmen for themselves and for their children.

Victoria E. Bynum: A New Glimpse of the Cinematic Free State of Jones

The movie The Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey as Newt Knight and Gugu MBatha-Raw as Rachel Knight, is scheduled for release on March 11, 2016. Almost a year previous to that day of projected release, the following photos were taken on the movie’s set in Covington, Louisiana. You’ll likely recognize the director, Gary Ross, of Hunger Games and Seabiscuit fame. Perhaps you’ll recognize the Confederate officer and nurse too!

Excerpt: Radical Relations, by Daniel Winunwe Rivers

As the children of lesbian mothers and gay fathers had in previous eras, the children of lesbian feminist families often acted as mediators between their families and a larger society that saw their homes as deviant. Unlike in previous eras, however, the children of lesbian feminist families in the 1970s negotiated the distance between radically open lesbian families and a dominant heterosexual society. Whereas in earlier decades, children of lesbian mothers had moved between their families and mainstream heterosexual society tacitly, the children of lesbian households in the 1970s were much more visible because their families demanded the right to openly exist. These children were bicultural in that they belonged to a vocal oppositional minority culture but also had to operate within the dominant culture that questioned the viability of their families. These children grew up in lesbian households that were more assertive than those of earlier decades, but compared to children of the later lesbian and gay baby boom, they still found their home and family lives to be very separate from mainstream society.

Excerpt: Southern Water, Southern Power, by Christopher J. Manganiello

James B. Duke did not wait for markets to emerge to justify massive capital investments in hydropower; he cultivated industrial consumers. Duke’s company, and other companies that followed, had never envisioned providing service to rural or residential customers.

Daniel J. Tortora: The Grant-Middleton Duel and the Aftermath of the Anglo-Cherokee War

Tensions flared between British troops and provincial and ranger soldiers. Grant and his supporters charged that the provincials and rangers were poorly trained, undisciplined buffoons. Middleton and his supporters begged to differ. They countered that provincial troops had saved the day in the decisive 1761 showdown with the Cherokee.

Cartoon: Jesse and Frank James Discover the Risks of Railroad Robbery, by M.W. Summers

Political cartoon and commentary by historian Mark Wahlgren Summers: meet two men who eclipsed Jesse and Frank James in their exploitative conquests.

Video: Country Soul Playlist by Charles L. Hughes

Videos from Charles Hughes’s YouTube playlist to accompany his book Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.

Cartoon: John B. Gordon Takes Umbrage and Crisp Twenties, by Mark Wahlgren Summers

Today’s cartoon and commentary by historian and illustrator Summers features the hypocrisy of some politician-businessman relations in the Reconstruction South

Excerpt: Born to Be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist, by Randy D. McBee

Stories such as this one about middle-class riders making motorcycling respectable were common in the early 1960s. Their arrival both coincided with and was the product of the introduction of the Japanese Honda into the American marketplace. Yet despite the enthusiasm that greeted the middle-class rider, ambivalence and frustration also surrounded him. These were serious riders, or so they claimed, yet their critics found it all too easy to dismiss them as “casual” motorcyclists. If anything, their struggle to overcome this claim made their impact on motorcycling more conspicuous than it might have been otherwise, and it brought the issue of class to the fore.

Helen Zoe Veit: The Great War and Modern Food

One thing World War I doesn’t bring to mind is food. But it should, because during World War I the rise of industrial food processing, nutrition science, and America’s first food aid program revolutionized American food on almost every level. World War I made food modern, and understanding how that happened is key to understanding food today.

Cartoon: Wade Hampton’s Whiskers, by Mark Wahlgren Summers

Political cartoon and commentary by historian Mark Wahlgren Summers: How the Lost Cause lost its way with Wade Hampton

Video: The Legacy and Lessons of Working-Class Feminism: Brooklyn’s NCNW

Tamar W. Carroll, author of Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism, helped produce a video featuring women from the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, chapter of the National Congress of Neighborhood Women in the 1970s. The NCNW is the subject of two chapters of Mobilizing New York.

Excerpt: The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy, by Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow

Roman toilets, sewers, and drains are important archaeological features that embody ideas relevant to Roman society about cleanliness, physical health, concepts of beauty, and even notions of privacy. If toilets are excavated properly, they can provide valuable data even about the diet and socioeconomic status of users, divisions between households where they are found, construction methods, and maintenance.