Fiona Ritchie: Living Is Collecting

We welcome a guest post today from Fiona Ritchie, coauthor, with Doug Orr, of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a steady stream of Scots migrated to Ulster and eventually onward across the Atlantic to resettle in the United States. Many of these Scots-Irish immigrants made their way into the mountains of the southern Appalachian region. They brought with them a wealth of traditional ballads and tunes from the British Isles and Ireland, a carrying stream that merged with sounds and songs of English, German, Welsh, African American, French, and Cherokee origin. Their enduring legacy of music flows today from Appalachia back to Ireland and Scotland and around the globe. Fiona and Doug guide readers on a musical voyage across oceans, linking people and songs through centuries of adaptation and change.

Fiona and Doug will have two North Carolina tours this fall, the first kicking off this Wednesday, October 1, in Durham. For information about upcoming author events and appearances, all featuring live music, check out their author page on the UNC Press website.

In the following post, Fiona shares some of her travels over the years that contributed to the inspiring collection of stories in Wayfaring Strangers.


Living Is Collecting[1]

A collection of neat boxes and peculiarly shaped jigsaw pieces, each state is clearly delineated on the political map of the United States. Yet the names and dimensions of these fifty territories cannot begin to describe, let alone contain, their countless fluid communities. Dynamic neighborhoods spill across borders, ignoring state boundaries, wayfaring in every direction. Along with a miscellany of ethnic flavors, music is often their travel companion, and curious ears can easily detect the free-flowing currents. These are the song and tune streams that standard maps will never reveal. And with music as the key, fascinating stories of historical communities and their migrations are all there for us to discover.

When NPR first partnered with me in presenting The Thistle & Shamrock®, we talked about using my radio show to open a doorway into a world of evolving Celtic music traditions for public radio listeners. I could never have imagined how far that door would swing open my way, too, helping inspire my search for the depth of connection that underpins our migration story in Wayfaring Strangers.

A public radio conference in New Orleans in 1991 gave me the chance to follow in the footsteps of Professor Longhair, Dr. John, and The Neville Brothers to cohost an NPR event at the legendary Tipitina’s, formerly a gambling den and house of ill repute. After the conference, I headed to Baton Rouge to host a fundraising event for WRKF. This was held in another Louisiana music heritage hot spot, the renowned Cajun restaurant and dance hall, Mulate’s. I cohosted breaks live on air from the dance floor and twirled a Cajun two-step with almost every supporter of the station. Just when I’d collapsed in a chair to catch my breath, the Cajun band took a break and a Celtic four-piece struck up with sets of reels and jigs. From the Canadian Barn Dance to the Cajun Jitterbug, the intense fusion on the dance floor spoke volumes for the potency of musical traditions in Louisiana.

The kilted piper who met me from the plane in the Tanana Valley at 11 p.m. was a brave man indeed. It was January 1994 in Alaska’s interior. My most adventurous public radio station visit saw me fly from Scotland to Fairbanks at the invitation of KUAC and the Fairbanks Red Hackle Pipe Band. I filled a few days with broadcasts, supporter events, dogsledding, and dancing with native Alaskans. I met remarkable people whose Gwich’in Athabascan fiddle traditions were acquired from nineteenth-century Scottish, Irish, and French Canadian fur traders. The people I met displayed tremendous pride in their musical heritage and recounted many details of this dramatic music migration, passed down through a vibrant native Alaskan oral tradition. I returned home revitalized, rededicated, and amazed that a weekly radio hour could be exchanged for such riches at the far horizons of the United States.

Some years earlier, in 1990, I’d hit the road for my second public radio concert tour. We’d flown coast-to-coast the year before. This time our faded Nashville tour bus meandered along the eastern seaboard and no further west than Memphis. In 1954, a young Elvis Presley played his first public concert there at the legendary Overton Park Shell (now the Levitt Shell). Juxtapose the two scenes as, thirty six years later, a half dozen travel weary Celtic musicians landed on that same stage, with a live version of The Thistle & Shamrock®, for a concert sponsored by WKNO. An ancestor in the Presley family had left Scotland for the Carolinas in 1745. Just imagine: he may have known some of the traditional songs and tunes we performed that night, before the same footlights that witnessed the debut of “That’s All Right (Mama).”

The most formative experience from this collection of memories was my encounter with a Scots-Irish man in the mountains of North Carolina. On a battered old tape recorder, he was quietly determined to capture the sound of bagpipes as it drifted up the hillside from the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. His ache for a living connection was almost palpable and, as I describe in the book, the memory of our meeting burned brightly for me as Doug Orr and I collaborated on Wayfaring Strangers. We trace the epic tale of this man’s ancestors and their musical migration from Scotland, through Ulster, and on down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road into the Southern Appalachians.

Wayfaring Strangers is a story of musical diaspora, reaching back into antiquity and through centuries of turmoil and transportation. Even today it is a musical force that surges back and forth on the Atlantic tide. Now our book is written and the tapestry of Appalachian music is spread before us. The Scots-Irish hues and textures are as vivid and true in the pattern as ever they were. Yet a flicker of temptation may be all that we need to reach out for that tapestry, tease its fibers apart a little, trace a different strand and wonder: where to next? There is always something more to collect along the way.

Fiona Ritchie is the founder, producer, and host of National Public Radio’s The Thistle & Shamrock®. Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia is now available. Connect with Ritchie and Orr on the Wayfaring Strangers Facebook page.

  1. [1] “Living is collecting” is a philosophy shared by Appalachian ballad singer, dulcimer player, and songwriter Jean Ritchie, as quoted in Wayfaring Strangers.

What Ken Burns’s ‘The Roosevelts’ doesn’t tell us (but viewers should know) about Josephus Daniels

Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times, by Lee A. CraigLee A. Craig, author of Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times, talks to Publicity Director Gina Mahalek about his reaction to the portrayal of Josephus Daniels (who was, at the time, one of the most influential men in the world) in the latest Ken Burns PBS documentary series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

Daniels enters the story in Episode 3, around the 44:00 mark. You can view the whole series at

[ed. update 9/29/14: Episode 3 is no longer available for streaming, so we've replaced it with the series trailer. Watch for future rebroadcasts.]

Gina Mahalek: Were you surprised that Ken Burns chose to focus on Josephus Daniels (and his relationship with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt) as a major figure in the Roosevelts’ story?

Lee A. Craig: No, I was not surprised. Daniels played a very important role in FDR’s life. First, it was Daniels who brought FDR to Washington and gave him his initial opportunity on the national stage. Daniels may have done this for narrow, and somewhat cynical, political reasons (he thought it was a public relations coup to have a Roosevelt in a Democratic administration), and FDR may have been destined for great things regardless of what Daniels did, but the fact is it was Daniels who offered him the chance.

Second, as FDR admitted later in life, Daniels proved to be a valuable political mentor, teaching FDR how to deal with cabinet colleagues and work the halls of congress to obtain his objectives at the Navy Department. This was mentioned only briefly in the film.

GM: In your opinion, is Burns’s depiction of Daniels accurate and balanced?

LAC: No, it is not balanced. Burns treated FDR’s opinions of Daniels, as revealed in FDR’s private correspondence, as unassailable facts. Furthermore, Burns chose to emphasize the tension in their relationship, focusing on their disputes concerning the Great War, rather than their mentor-apprentice relationship.

GM: What if anything, might you have added to Burns’s portrayal of Daniels?

LAC: The most important thing I would have added is a brief discussion of why there was so much tension between FDR and Daniels over the war. First, both Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt unambiguously saw the British as the victims of German aggression. Daniels saw the belligerents as equals, and until the United States joined the war, Daniels remained neutral in thought and deed.

Second, Daniels’s position was based on violations of international law by both the British and the Germans. Burns, like FDR and TR, focused on Germany’s U-boat campaign, while ignoring the U.K.’s illegal blockade of Germany. But Daniels recognized both countries were in violation of the laws of war at sea. (FDR’s proposal to mine international waters between Scotland and Norway, which Burns treated favorably, was also a violation of international law.)

Finally, Daniels was constitutionally less bellicose then either FDR or TR. He truly wanted to avoid war if at all possible. Burns noted that when Daniels finally voted for war in a cabinet meeting, he wept. Given the war’s consumption of lives and treasure, they all should have wept!

Graham T. Dozier on a Civil War Soldier Who Became a Civil War Tourist

Civil War buffs and historians are not the only people interested in visiting historical battlefields. On our Civil War blog, Graham T. Dozier, editor of A Gunner in Lee’s Army: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter observes how Civil War battle sites have long fascinated visitors of all kinds. Dozier writes:


Of all the ways that Americans demonstrate ongoing interest 150 years after the Civil War, visiting battlefields is perhaps the most popular expression of that attraction. People travel to preserved sites across the country to try not only to learn what happened there but also to imagine what it was like for the men who fought on those fields so long ago. That desire to make sense of those dramatic events is nothing new. In fact, it began for one man only two months after the first major battle of the war had taken place.

Capt. Thomas Henry Carter, the 30-year-old commander of the recently formed King William Artillery, came to the war in 1861 with a genuine curiosity about people and events. He arrived in northern Virginia that September, and one of the first things he wrote to his wife Susan about was the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas), which had taken place on 21 July. Specifically, Carter told her what soldiers in the Confederate army thought about the way the battle had ended. “The opinion of the army,” he reported, “is that a tremendous mistake was made in not advancing on to Alexandria immediately after the Bull Run fight.” Clearly this notion troubled Tom Carter deeply. When he considered who was responsible, Carter pointed his finger in one direction. He explained to Susan that “[a]ll admit it now & the blame is put on Davis’ shoulders here. Politicians will ruin us forever.”

Check out Dozier’s full post, “A Civil War Tourist in 1861,” at

Excerpt: The Red Atlantic, by Jace Weaver

The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making the Modern World, 1000-1927 by Jace WeaverFrom the earliest moments of European contact, Native Americans have played a pivotal role in the Atlantic experience, yet they often have been relegated to the margins of the region’s historical record. The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000-1927, Jace Weaver’s sweeping and highly readable survey of history and literature, synthesizes scholarship to place indigenous people of the Americas at the center of our understanding of the Atlantic world. Weaver illuminates their willing and unwilling travels through the region, revealing how they changed the course of world history.

In the following excerpt (pp. 36-38), Weaver tells the story of Leif Erikson and the Vikings’ 11th-century arrival on the North American continent. In this history, Weaver explains how the kidnapping of two Amerindian boys from what is now Newfoundland set the precedent for non-native and indigenous relations in the Atlantic for centuries.


Two Beothuk Boys

Leif Erikson sighted the northern coast of North America in approximately 1000 C.E., calling it Vinland. Shortly thereafter, around 1003, the Vikings founded a settlement in present-day L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. They encountered “Red Indians” (as distinguished from the Inuit), whom they called skrælings, an archaic word of uncertain meaning but commonly assumed to mean something like “wretches.” These meetings are recorded in the Icelandic sagas.

According to the Grænlendinga Saga, encounters with the Natives were initially friendly. Despite the language barrier, trade was opened, but the relationship soon turned hostile.[1] In Eirik’s Saga, we learn that Leif’s brother Thorvald was struck in the groin by an arrow in one skirmish with skrælings. As he pulls the arrow out, he poetically and tragically says, “This is a rich country we have found; there is plenty of fat around my entrails.” Then he expires—nobly.[2]

Controversial historian Jayme Sokolow summarizes: “The Vikings treated the Skraelings as they would any other outsiders. When the opportunity arose, they killed the adults and enslaved their children. On other occasions, they traded bolts of red cloth for furs.”[3] After Thorvald Erikson’s death, the Vikings fled. They spotted five Natives, “a bearded man, two women, and two children.”[4] Though the adults manage to escape, Thorfinn Karlsefni and his men captured the boys, whom they took with them. The boys were taught Norse and baptized.[5] Thus in 1009, Indian captives were taken to Norway (and perhaps Iceland).[6] Continue reading ‘Excerpt: The Red Atlantic, by Jace Weaver’ »

  1. [1] Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson, trans., The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America (London: Penguin, 1965), 65–67.
  2. [2] Ibid., 102.
  3. [3] Jayme Sokolow, The Great Encounter: Native Peoples and European Settlers in the Americas (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2002), 49. I say controversial simply because he was accused of plagiarism.
  4. [4] Magnusson and Pálsson, 102.
  5. [5] Ibid.
  6. [6] Sokolow, 49; Jack D. Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals (New York: Autonomedia, 1992), 37.

Season Two of ‘Finding Your Roots’ Premieres Tonight

Thirty million people tuned in to the first season of the PBS series Finding Your Roots. Viewers will encounter a few surprises as the new season of Finding Your Roots airs tonight at 8p.m. ET on PBS. The documentary series investigates questions such as, Who are we, and where do we come from?


The fundamental drive to answer these questions is at the heart of Finding Your Roots, the companion book to the PBS documentary series. As Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. shows us, the tools of cutting-edge genomics and deep genealogical research now allow us to learn more about our roots, looking further back in time than ever before.

Gates’s investigations take on the personal and genealogical histories of more than twenty luminaries, including United States Congressman John Lewis, actor Robert Downey Jr., CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, President of the “Becoming American Institute” Linda Chavez, and comedian Margaret Cho. Interwoven with their moving stories of immigration, assimilation, strife, and success, Gates provides practical information for amateur genealogists just beginning archival research on their own families’ roots, and he details the advances in genetic research now available to the public. The result is an illuminating exploration of who we are, how we lost track of our roots, and how we can find them again.

Don’t miss new Finding Your Roots episodes every Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET, September 23 — November 25. Season Two’s special guests include Nas, Ben Affleck, Billie Jean King, and Anderson Cooper, among others. Tune in tonight to view featured guests Stephen King, Gloria Reuben, and Courtney B. Vance as they discuss the mysteries surrounding their fathers in an episode titled, “In Search of Our Fathers.”

Interview: Steph Jeffries and Tom Wentworth on Hiking Appalachian Forests

Stephanie B. Jeffries and Thomas R. Wentworth, authors of Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests: An Ecological Guide to 30 Great Hikes in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia, talk with Carson Rogers about how to get the most out of your hiking experience.

Carson Rogers: You take a holistic approach to the forest, showing readers how to look at the bigger picture of the environment rather than just the hiking path. What made you choose this approach, and why is it important?

Steph Jeffries and Tom Wentworth (photo by David Blevins)Steph Jeffries: When we teach our two-week field course, we jump right in and during that first week, we are relentless—traveling to many stops each day and constantly asking the students what they see and what they think about what they see. Quite honestly, we nearly break them. But in the second week, a funny thing happens. The students gradually assume the lead—making observations, asking questions, probing current hypotheses, speculating. In short, they are thinking like ecologists and it is dawning on them that science is really not about what we already know, but instead about discovery. The transformation in such a short time is incredible. We think that anyone can learn to do this, to see the forest and the trees, so to speak. In doing so, your connection with nature broadens immeasurably, because you have a holistic understanding of why the forest you’re standing in looks the way it does. So many connections are formed that you’ll never look at a forest in the same way, ever again.

CR: What do hikers and outdoorspeople miss when they do not use this approach?

Tom Wentworth: Imagine strolling into one of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe with no understanding of the building’s rich history, no idea about what went into its construction, no concept of its purpose, and no sense of how this cathedral differs from others. You would doubtless be awed by the sensation of standing in that magnificent space, but think how much richer your experience would be if you appreciated its history, construction, purpose, and uniqueness. It’s much the same with forests and other natural communities. You may have a very pleasant experience walking through a forest, but you will have a much deeper connection with and appreciation of the place if you understand how it came to be, what its components are and how they interact, and how it functions. Our approach to natural ecosystems provides that gateway.

SJ: I recently started re-reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, a hilarious account of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Bryson begins nearly every chapter with his observation that he’s walking among endless trees along an endless trail that all looks the same. I love his story, his perspective in rediscovering America, and his colorful characters, but it’s hard not to think of how much richer his experience would have been if he could see the forest for the endless trees. Our four hikes on the Appalachian Trail are, in fact, very different from one another.

In addition, I think most of us are “destination-oriented”—focused on the trail’s end, the scenic vista, the waterfall. Many of our hikes have points of interest such as these, because we love them too. By using our book, you can become a “journey” person as well, someone who sees something new and exciting around each bend in the trail. We want you to start seeing the forest intimately, instead of a background of green noise.

CR: What makes your “ecological guide” different from other hiking books?

TW: Many other hiking books are focused on the details of a trail as a way to get from point A to point B. This is not a bad thing—we all need to know trail conditions, elevation gain and loss, points of interest, directions that keep us on track (and not lost), and so forth. Indeed, we love and use such trail guides ourselves. However, we offer our readers something entirely different. While some guides will comment briefly on historical events, forest types, or points of particular interest, none offer the holistic, ecological view that we provide. We teach hikers how to read the landscape and to appreciate the ecological components and processes that make these forests what they are today. We feel that this is a unique contribution to the hiking literature.

SJ: To add to what Tom said, what excites me about ecology is its accessibility. Ecological concepts are often intuitive and fun to share. What makes the science challenging is that it requires you to pull together everything you know to solve a puzzle. When you walk into a forest and want to understand what you see, you’d better bring along everything you know about biology, geology, chemistry, physics, geography, and history. The complexity of nature is what makes it so hard to decipher, and at the same time, so fascinating. You really feel like a Renaissance scientist!

Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests:  An Ecological Guide to 30 Great Hikes in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia, by Stephanie B. Jeffries and Thomas R. WentworthCR: How do you envision readers using this guide out on the trail?

TW: First, I believe that readers should consult our book before hitting the trail! The hiker who has previously read the hike’s narrative, its sidebar, and some related sidebars and relevant community descriptions is then prepared for a most rewarding experience. Once on the trail, I would envision the reader pausing occasionally to pull our book from its home in the backpack and then consulting it as a reference. In this way the hiker would be prepared for and could quickly find answers to questions like: What did Steph and Tom say about this waterfall? Why did they say all the trees are small and of similar sizes? Which way did they say to turn at this trail junction? Which natural community is this? Which maple am I seeing? I also imagine and hope that readers might reach the destination summit or overlook, find a comfortable place to sit, and read again the hike’s narrative and sidebar, letting their immediate experience and the book’s content mingle in their minds. Perhaps this last step might even happen later that evening, in front of a campfire or in a cozy chair back home.

CR: How many walks are featured from each included state? Continue reading ‘Interview: Steph Jeffries and Tom Wentworth on Hiking Appalachian Forests’ »

Excerpt: Ain’t Got No Home, by Erin Royston Battat

Ain't Got No Home: America's Great Migrations and the Making of an Interracial Left by Erin BattatMost scholarship on the mass migrations of African Americans and southern whites during and after the Great Depression treats those migrations as separate phenomena, strictly divided along racial lines. In Ain’t Got No Home: America’s Great Migrations and the Making of an Interracial Left, Erin Royston Battat argues instead that we should understand these Depression-era migrations as interconnected responses to the capitalist collapse and political upheavals of the early twentieth century. During the 1930s and 1940s, she shows, writers and artists of both races created migration stories specifically to bolster the black-white Left alliance. In a vibrant rereading and recovering of the period’s literary and visual culture, Battat expands our understanding of the migration narrative by uniting the political and aesthetic goals of the black and white literary Left and illuminating the striking interrelationship between American populism and civil rights.

In the following excerpt (pp. 15-17), Battat introduces one of the challenges to interracial coalition building by the Communist Party in the wake of the Scottsboro Trials, and argues that a literary trope became a powerful tool for addressing that challenge.


On 25 March 1931, a group of black boys got into a fight with some white boys on a Memphis-bound freight train. When the police rounded up the black youths near Scottsboro, Alabama, they found a couple of white girls hiding on the train and coerced them into filing rape charges. Although Alabama’s Governor Benjamin Meek Miller and the National Guard prevented a mass lynching, the outcome was just about the same: A white jury quickly convicted the boys, sentencing all but the youngest to death. The Communist-led ILD [International Labor Defense] quickly took charge of the boys’ appeals. The speed with which the ILD responded to the case, the intensity and reach of its mass protests and publicity campaigns, its top-notch defense team, and the vocal support of the mothers and families of the Scottsboro boys convinced many African Americans that the CP [Communist Party] was a trustworthy ally dedicated to their particular needs as black people. As Ada Wright, mother of two of the boys, attested, “We know our friends when we see them and we’re a goin’ to stick to the League of Struggle for Negro Rights and the International Labor Defense Committee.”[1] Black schoolchildren carried pickets; African American Girl Scouts attended rallies; college students raised money; and ordinary people took to the streets.[2] By 1935 the ranks of African Americans in the CP swelled from a few hundred to 2,500. The black membership of the ILD in Birmingham alone was 3,000, making it the largest Civil Rights organization in the city.[3]

Yet a closer inspection of the Scottsboro case reveals how complicated was the relationship between African Americans and the Communist Party in the 1930s. The CP championed the working-class and unemployed masses, but these were precisely the people who had terrorized the black boys on the train, falsely accused them of rape, and would have lynched them without the governor’s intervention. Continue reading ‘Excerpt: Ain’t Got No Home, by Erin Royston Battat’ »

  1. [1] Wright, “My Two Sons Face the Electric Chair,” 182. For more on the role of the Scottsboro mothers, see Miller, Pennybacker, and Rosenhaft, “Mother Ada Wright.”
  2. [2] Solomon, Cry Was Unity, 197, 205.
  3. [3] Ibid., 300; Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 90.

Chantal Norrgard: Wisconsin Mining Legislation and the Fallacy of Jobs vs. Treaty Rights

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.

Norrgard previously blogged about tribal sovereignty and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. In today’s post, she looks at how treaty rights in Wisconsin have long shaped the economies of both indigenous and settler communities.


The Bad River Watershed is a vast and intricate network of waterways flowing into Lake Superior that has been the economic and ceremonial lifeblood of the Bad River people for hundreds of years and has been recognized as a Wetland of International Importance. Bad River tribal chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. recently said that these waterways “represent everything our Tribal People hold dear and sacred on many different levels. Spiritually, the ‘place’ and everything it has, the clean water, the winged, the seasons, the rice and fish, connects us with our ancestors and the Creator. The Sloughs sustain the physical well-being of our community with foods such as wild rice, fish, cranberries, waterfowl, venison, and medicines.”

Unfortunately, the Watershed is currently threatened by Wisconsin mining legislation.

In 2013, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker signed a bill that would allow the construction of a $1.5 billion open-pit iron mine, the largest of its kind. The mine would be located in the Penokee Hills at the headwaters of the Bad River Watershed. The law would allow the mine to empty its waste into nearby waterways, threatening ecosystems downstream.

Since the legislation was first introduced in 2011, local community members, environmental activists, and Ojibwe Bands from throughout the region have fiercely opposed it.  Continue reading ‘Chantal Norrgard: Wisconsin Mining Legislation and the Fallacy of Jobs vs. Treaty Rights’ »

Excerpt: Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women, by Blain Roberts

Pageants, Parlors, & Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century SouthFrom the South’s pageant queens to the importance of beauty parlors to African American communities, it is easy to see the ways beauty is enmeshed in southern culture. But as Blain Roberts shows in Pageants, Parlors, & Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South, the pursuit of beauty in the South was linked to the tumultuous racial divides of the region, where the Jim Crow-era cosmetics industry found its footing selling the idea of makeup that emphasized whiteness, and where, in the 1950s and 1960s, black-owned beauty shops served as crucial sites of resistance for civil rights activists. By showing how battles over beauty came to a head during the civil rights movement, Roberts sheds new light on the tactics southerners used to resist and achieve desegregation.

In the following excerpt (pp. 57-59), Roberts explores the importance of the customs and the conversations in black beauty shops in the Depression-era South.


During the Depression, black workers at the American Tobacco Company and Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company frequented a barbershop/beauty salon in the black business district of Durham, North Carolina. Years later, Julia Lucas, who ran the beauty salon part of the operation, recalled why the establishment was so popular. The grooming services were important, of course, but that was not all. “We didn’t have that many private places, other than churches, that we could discuss . . . anything that concerned black people’s advancement,” Lucas observed. Factory workers spoke their minds in the shop, she said, because “they felt secure.”[1] They discussed unionization and criticized the city’s black leadership, which tended to oppose decisive action on controversial projects. After NAACP headquarters decided to fight for a salary raise for black teachers in North Carolina, for example, Durham NAACP officials proceeded slowly.[2] Most of Lucas’s customers, however, wanted action: “They’d come in . . . and say ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s do it.’” Lucas understood well the function the beauty salon and the barbershop played in the lives of Durham’s working-class blacks. “A place,” she concluded, “does make a difference in how you express and when you feel free to express something that you know is controversial.”[3]

Lucas captures the civic significance of the work that went on inside beauty shops, which beauticians and patrons alike termed “beauty culture,” or the grooming of hair. Rooted in assumptions and structural realities unique to black communities, this work, and the spaces where it occurred, occupied a conspicuous place in southern black neighborhoods and economies. As did white southern women’s encounter with beauty products, black women’s participation in the modern world of beauty afforded tools for constructing visions of self and community. For the first half of the twentieth century, white women turned to cosmetics to fashion an exclusionary, racialized femininity. Sometimes, black women found their own consumer choices conditioned by this same ideal. The conviction that “whiter” features were more attractive than “black” ones gave rise, for example, to commercially prepared hair straighteners and skin bleaches. The availability of these controversial products, as well as of cosmetics that elicited anxieties about female morality, meant that the pursuit of beauty was fraught with contention in the black community. The historical record reveals these tensions, exposing the emotional and especially physical cost black women bore as they pursued beauty with the aid of modern beauty products. But as Lucas’s memory indicates, black women also found themselves heirs to a beauty tradition with different ideological underpinnings and, at times, quite different uses. Black beauticians who plied their trade in the early- to mid-twentieth-century South helped their clients construct a femininity that blunted the harsher edges of Jim Crow. What was at stake for many black women was the respectability that well-groomed hair conferred, a status that was particularly significant for poorer black women, whose financial and occupational position made fighting negative stereotypes difficult. Through the expanding market of consumer goods and services, southern black women wrested a small degree of power from an antagonistic audience by presenting themselves in ways intended to demand respect. The beautifying process itself was also significant, providing overworked black women opportunities for relaxation and pampering.
Continue reading ‘Excerpt: Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women, by Blain Roberts’ »

  1. [1] Julia Lucas, interview by Leslie Brown, transcript, 21 September 1995, Behind the Veil: Documenting African-American Life in the Jim Crow South Records, Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina (BTV).
  2. [2] On class, the NAACP, and the teachers’ salary controversy in Durham, see Brown, Upbuilding Black Durham, 312–22.
  3. [3] Julia Lucas, interview by Leslie Brown, transcript, 21 September 1995, BTV.

Interview: Sahar Amer on ‘What Is Veiling?’

In the following interview, Sahar Amer, author of What is Veiling?, talks with Caroline Rudolph about one of Islam’s most misunderstood and controversial practices.

Caroline Rudolph: What is Veiling? is the first in a series of books from UNC Press that will explain key aspects of Islam. Why might the topic of veiling be an appropriate starting point for such a series?

Sahar Amer author photo by Elisha WalkerSahar Amer: Veiling is one of the most visible signs of Islam as a religion and likely its most controversial and least understood tradition among non-Muslims, and perhaps surprisingly, among Muslims as well. Many non-Muslim and Muslim readers are often unfamiliar with the religious interpretations and debates over the Islamic prescription to wear the veil, the historical and political background to current anxieties surrounding the veil, or the range of meanings the veil continues to have for Muslim women around the world. In many ways, understanding the complex and often contradictory meanings of veiling is also understanding how Islam has come to mean so many different things to different peoples.

CR: You were a professor in the Asian Studies department at UNC-Chapel Hill for many years before moving to your current position as Chair of Arabic and Islamic Studies at The University of Sydney. What differences, if any, have you noticed about veiling practices between each of these campuses specifically and in these different countries generally?

SA: There are some fascinating differences between veiling in North Carolina (U.S.) and veiling in Sydney (Australia) that I have noticed in the six months I have been living in the Pacific. One of the most interesting things I noticed is the much wider range of ethnicities in the women who veil in Australia compared to the United States. In the United States, most women that we see veiled are from either an Arab or an African American background. In Australia, on the other hand, because of its proximity to Asia, most veiled women I see on campus are from Asia: Indonesia, Malaysia, and even China. Of course, there are many Arab students who veil as well (mostly from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, but across the Arab world, too), but they are not the majority. In addition, one of the most striking things for me is the fact that Muslims in general seem to be better integrated in Australia than in the United States. On UNC’s campus, we tended to see veiled Muslim students hanging out with other veiled students. In Sydney, veiled Muslim women are always in groups with non-veiled ones. This is forcing me to rethink the relation between veiling and Islamophobia.

CR: You were born in Egypt and grew up in France, home to one of Europe’s largest Muslim populations. How did your early experiences shape your perceptions of veiling? Have you seen a change in attitudes in these countries since the time that you first lived in each?

SA: While I was growing up in Egypt (in the 1960s), very few women wore the veil. Since the early 1980s, a growing number of women started wearing the veil. Today, the majority of women in Egypt veil (I am often mistaken for a Copt because I do not veil). So this is a huge change.

When I lived in France throughout the 1970s, hardly any Muslim women wore the veil. This situation too changed in the late 1970s and 1980s as a result of legislative changes that increased the number of North African (largely Muslim women) immigrants. This is when we began to see in France a growing number of women who veiled. This change happened at the same time as a weakening economy took hold. The Far Right movement (led at the time by Jean-Marie Le Pen) started rising to prominence by pointing to the presence of veiled women and immigration policies as the main causes for France’s problems and unemployment. This is when we can date the beginning of a heated and politicized debate over veiling which led to a law banning headscarves from public schools in 2004 and another law banning the niqab (face veil) from all public spaces in 2010. Today, and as a result of these laws, one sees many fewer women who veil in France. They have not disappeared entirely, and some women continue to defy French laws (by wearing the face veil in public, for example), but generally, one can say that most Muslim women no longer wear the hijab in France.

The problem in France, however, is that veiling (the hijab, but especially the niqab) is always assumed to be imposed on Muslim women, and is hardly ever thought of as individually and personally chosen. This is perhaps one of the biggest misunderstandings surrounding this practice. In addition, veiling has become in France an easy platform for politicians to deflect attention from pressing social, economic, and political issues and to focus attention elsewhere to gain electoral advantages.

CR: Have you had any personal experience wearing a veil? If so, how did it impact you?
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