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?
Continue reading ‘Interview: Sahar Amer on ‘What Is Veiling?’’ »

Come Celebrate NCpedia September 13

Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories found in NCPediaDid you know that Craven County was once home to a self-kicking machine? That Tarboro had a refrigerated outdoor pool in the 1930s? Or that the state laid claim to the world’s longest beard?

North Carolina’s history and more unusual stories will be celebrated at “Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories Found in NCpedia,” a free event at the North Carolina Museum of History, 5 E. Edenton St., Raleigh, on Saturday, Sept. 13, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Come learn more about NCpedia and talk with content partners. There will be something for the entire family, including children’s activities and hands-on crafts.

History enthusiasts will not want to miss the 1:30 p.m. presentation in Daniels Auditorium. A panel of experts will share lesser known, entertaining stories from North Carolina’s history. Panelists include:

  • Kelly Agan, Digital Media Librarian, Government & Heritage Library, State Library of North Carolina;
  • Robert Anthony, Curator, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill;
  • B. J. Davis, Education Section Chief, North Carolina Museum of History;
  • Michael Hill, Head, Research Branch, North Carolina Office of Archives and History;
  • Dr. William S. Price Jr., Former Director of the N.C. Division of Archives and History and Former Kenan Professor of History, Meredith College; and
  • Mark Simpson-Vos, Editorial Director, University of North Carolina Press

NCpedia is North Carolina’s online encyclopedia and highlights the state’s unique resources, people, and culture to enrich, educate, and inform. It is coordinated and managed by the Government & Heritage Library at the State Library of North Carolina, a part of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources.

This event celebrates the expansion of NCpedia with publication of thousands of articles from the University of North Carolina Press’s Encyclopedia of North Carolina, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, and North Carolina Gazetteer; the Research Branch of the N.C. Office of Archives and History; the Tar Heel Junior Historian magazine; UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries; and more!

NCpedia’s expansion with content from UNC Press has been funded through a Library Services and Technology Act grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums.

For more information on the event please call (919) 807-7450 or email slnc.reference@ncdcr.gov — and visit NCpedia.org.

For information about the N.C. Museum of History, a Smithsonian-affiliated museum, call 919-807-7900 or visit www.ncmuseumofhistory.org.

SALE on new and recent books in Religious Studies

2014 religious studies sale

Our Religious Studies SALE is now underway! We especially want to highlight our new and recent books in religious studies, like those featured here. To see our full selection of books in religion, visit the sale page on the UNC Press website. Use discount code 01REL40 at checkout on the UNC Press website for savings, and if your book total is $75 or more, shipping costs are on us!

(Pssst! What’s more . . . you can use the 01REL40 code to save on ANY UNC Press book, in any subject!)

What Is Veiling?, by Sahar Amer  The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad, by Claude Andrew Clegg III  The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora, by Edward E. Curtis IV  The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo, by Cecile Fromont

Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice, by Brantley W. Gasaway  Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism  Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indiginous Principle  The Walking Qur'an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa, by Rudolph T. Ware III

Bringing God to Men: American Military Chaplains and the Vietnam War  Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity, by Shabana Mir  Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America by Paula M. Kane  The Formation of Candomble: Vodun History and Ritual in Brazil, by Luis Nicolau Pares

Excerpt: Island Queens and Mission Wives, by Jennifer Thigpen

Island Queens and Mission Wives: How Gender and Empire Remade Hawai‘i’s Pacific World by Jennifer ThigpenIn the late eighteenth century, Hawai’i’s ruling elite employed sophisticated methods for resisting foreign intrusion. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, American missionaries had gained a foothold in the islands. Jennifer Thigpen explains this important shift by focusing on two groups of women: missionary wives and high-ranking Hawaiian women. Examining the enduring and personal exchange between these groups, Island Queens and Mission Wives: How Gender and Empire Remade Hawai‘i’s Pacific World argues that women’s relationships became vital to building and maintaining the diplomatic and political alliances that ultimately shaped the islands’ political future.

In the following excerpt (pp. 46-48), Thigpen describes the voyage of New England missionaries to Hawai’i and the political shifts occurring on the island that signaled the powerful role women would play in the cultural interactions that lay ahead.


The little band of missionaries found ample time to reflect on their new situation on board the Thaddeus, their home and “abode” for the foreseeable future. The first days at sea were rough. In November, one mission wife remarked that the weather was “boisterous” and the wind “contrary.”[1] Weather conditions not only threatened to hamper the pace of the journey; it also made the missionaries and their wives seasick. Moreover, some of the company began to realize just how far from home they were. Sybil Moseley Bingham confessed that three months into the journey she felt “truly like a pilgrim and a stranger” with no “abiding place.” As she lamented: “[A]ll the objects of my heart” seemed “far, far away.”[2] Bingham and her new mission family, however, did not give in to despair; instead, the journey seemed to provide new opportunities for the group to recommit itself to its evangelical project. In January, as the Thaddeus rounded Cape Horn and the mission band “gaze[d] upon” the region’s “rude coasts,” Bingham reflected on the work to be done in Hawai‘i. “Here, as there,” she wrote, “‘No gospel’s joyful sound’ is heard.” She regretted that the “poor souls” the missionaries passed knew “no other scepter than that of the Prince of darkness.” Yet Bingham was hopeful that “the day is hastening when they shall.”[3]

Bingham carried this confidence with her into the spring, when the Thaddeus sailed near the coast of Hawai‘i. On March 30, 1820, Bingham reported that Thomas Hopu, one of the mission’s Hawaiian assistants, called out to the slumbering missionaries: “Land appears!” After a trying sea journey, the mission band came into “full view” of Hawai‘i, “that dark pagan land so long the object” of missionaries’ “most interested thoughts.” The excitement on board the Thaddeus must have been nearly palpable. As Bingham wryly observed: “[T]here was but little sleep.” In the morning, a small crew went ashore to “inquire into the state of things.” They returned with news that stunned all those still gathered on board. “Kamehameha is dead!” they reported. “The government is settled in the hands of his son, Liholiho . . . the taboo system is no more . . . the idol gods are burned!” It took some time for the missionaries and their wives to absorb the astonishing news. They could only interpret the changes as a sign of God’s will. “The Lord,” it seemed, had “gone before” the missionaries, clearing a space for their work in the islands.[4]
Continue reading ‘Excerpt: Island Queens and Mission Wives, by Jennifer Thigpen’ »

  1. [1] Samuel and Nancy Ruggles, journal, November 8, 1819, Journals Collection, Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society Library, Honolulu, Hawai’i (HMCS). See also Sybil Moseley Bingham, journal, November 9, 1819, Journals Collection, HMCS.
  2. [2] Sybil Moseley Bingham, journal, January 6, 1820, Journals Collection, HMCS.
  3. [3] Sybil Moseley Bingham, journal, January 26, 1820, Journals Collection, HMCS. See also Samuel and Nancy Ruggles, journal, January 26, 1820, Journals Collection, HMCS.
  4. [4] Sybil Moseley Bingham, journal, March 30, 1820, Journals Collection, HMCS. See also Bingham, A Residence, 69–70; Anderson, History of the Sandwich Islands Mission, 18, 19; and Tracy, et al. History of American Missions to the Heathen, 91–92.

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.


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.


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.


[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.