P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, Joan Bryant, Derrick Spires, and Psyche Williams-Forson The Colored Conventions Movement Friday, April 16, 2021 | 2:00pm Syracuse University Humanities Center – virtual event!
Earlier this month, Wilber Shirley, a true legend in North Carolina’s barbecue world, passed. In honor of his legacy, we have chosen to post his interview from John Shelton Reed, Dale Volberg Reed and William McKinney’s co-authored Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.
“That grease hitting those coals makes the smoked flavor. You can’t spray it on there, paint it on there, put it on there—that’s the natural way to cook it to get the smoke taste.”
Wilber Shirley opened his restaurant (it’s too nice to be called a joint) on Highway 70 in Goldsboro in 1962. Since then it has become a regular stop for flyers from nearby Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, and so much a part of many people’s beach trips that you wouldn’t be surprised to see patrons in bathing suits. Mr. Shirley cooks split halves of whole hogs over oak coals in closed pits, and serves his barbecue with a simple Eastern-style sauce.
The first thing I remember about barbecue was my dad used to cook for family reunions, and we’d dig a hole out under a shelter and take a piece of wire and put across it and cook the pig down in the hole. That’s just an old tradition that we’ve had as long back as time, I reckon since they first started cooking a pig. You know, there wasn’t a lot of commercial barbecue places around.
Later I came to Goldsboro. I went to work at a place called Griffin’s Barbecue. They had a pit, of course, a cooking house, and they had rods [they put across the pit]. That’s how I first learned to cook it and that’s just the only way I know to cook it, really. It’s the most expensive way you can cook it.
[Our pigs weigh] between 90 and 100 pounds. We used to raise pigs in the country and they’d be two years old before you got them to weigh 100 pounds dressed. Now they’re grown so fast, a pig that will dress out at 100 pounds is probably not as half as old as when they grew so slow. These pigs here, they’re grown just like you would raise a baby in a nursery at Chapel Hill. They get dietary food; they’ve got medication. These mills have formulas where they feed them, and it cuts down the fat content. If you’ve got one that’s grown fast and it’s a younger pig, he’ll cook better than one that’s real old. If you’re talking about a pig eight months old or less, he’ll cook faster than one that’s a year and a half old, like back when we first started. And the skin looks different and the meat texture looks different.
This time of the year [summer] we’re running probably 100 to 125 pigs a week. Wood-wise, it’s supposed to be a cord and a half or something, anywhere from twelve to fourteen loads a week. We try to keep it not piled up. If you get too much ahead and it dries out, when you burn it to make the coals you got ashes, so you got to have it kind of green.
I’ve got a man that’s been cutting wood for me for thirty years and I don’t know what I’ll do when he retires or dies. I don’t know a thing about cutting wood. We use oak. That’s predominantly what you find around here. You can use any kind of hardwood, but predominantly in this area it’s oak. You’ll find a little hickory, but I could burn all the hickory in this county in a year’s time. Some years ago [my wood buyer] got to buying behind the timber buyers. You know how these timber buyers go in and they cut the pine and all that, and we go behind them and cut the hardwood. So there’s been a supply of wood. That’s not a real problem.
I think it’s a better product [with wood]. See, you cook it with gas and electricity, your cooking process starts out different. In most cases you have the flame at the top, so you put [the pig] with the skin down and the ribs and meat up. As a result that skin holds the grease and it sits there and boils. If you cook them like we do, with the skin up and the meat down and you fire coals underneath, it drips. And when it does that it’s doing two things. One, it’s getting the grease out and it’s not sitting there boiling in the meat. The second thing, is that grease hitting those coals makes the smoked flavor that you won’t get any other way. You can’t spray it on there, paint it on there, put it on there—that’s the natural way to cook it to get the smoke taste. And it’s what people in this area grew up accustomed to. [Our sauce] is just a recipe we had down there that we use—just vinegar and pepper and hot water and boil it
[Changing to gas] goes through my mind sometimes because of the cost and the labor. They can take a thermostat and they can put their pigs on there, and if it takes seven or eight hours they can go home and go to bed. Ours, you stay there with them from the time you put them on until the time you get done. [Putting more coals on is] not a clock thing. You really kind of go by when it goes to dying down, but you kind of gauge that—it’s about every thirty minutes. It gets cooked, but there’s a tremendous cost of the wood, the labor, and all. As I get older and I look at what may happen to the place—I don’t know. I don’t plan to [switch] as long as I’m able but I don’t know what will happen in the future. I don’t know whether anybody [else] would be willing to put into it what it takes.
We do most of our cooking at night. We put them on and try to get them started by 9:30 or 10:00 and they’re through the next morning about 9:30 or 10:00. We’ve got three different guys: one of them works four nights and one of them works two and one works one—seven days a week. And then we have other people come in the morning, take them over.
Start out every morning, we open the door at 6:00. There’s a crowd here that’s got to go to work, but they come at 6:00 and they get out probably about 7:00. And then there’s another crowd that starts drifting in of those that are retired or whatever, and they sit here and shoot the breeze from then until 9:00 or 9:30. Then it clears out, and then starts over again about 11:00. It’s a gathering place, I guess.
Of course over the years we’ve added on some stuff. When I was at Griffin’s literally all we sold down there was barbecued chicken and barbecued pork. We have a lot of people that eat here several times a week, so we have a daily special, and we have seafood and hamburger steak and fried chicken and things like that. We have a barbecued chicken we cook one day a week on the pit, but the rest of the time it’s the barbecued chicken that I brought the recipe [for] from Griffin’s. It’s cooked in the oven.
We cook beef on Wednesday night for Thursday. Cook briskets. A fellow came here and opened a barbecue beef thing down on the highway and I decided I’d try [to cook] some of it, too. And everybody asks, “Is that Texas beef?” and I say, “I have no idea.” I’ve never been to Texas, so I don’t know what it’s supposed to taste like. We chop ours; you’re probably used to slicing. It didn’t take long [to learn to cook beef]. I gave it away the first three or four times I cooked it. I tried it because it was entirely different than what people normally around here would think of. We’ve had good success with it. We’ll cook about—raw beef – 700 or 800 pounds.
When you get started in something, I think there’s a certain amount of challenge to it. But I can take the deed to this place and go down to the mall and I could ask 100 people to take it if I give it to them, with the stipulation that they had to put the number of hours that I did, and I doubt if I would get one taker. [I work] seven days a week. [Laughs] Some weeks I come in eight days a week. It’s not hard if you’ve been doing it for forty years.
The hardest part is the help, employees. With ninety employees I’ve got ninety different opinions. [Laughs] I’ve got one waitress who has been here over thirty years, waitressing. I’ve got a cook in the kitchen that was here when I bought this place. (See, this place was built and another fellow bought it and he got out after six months. He was used to making fast money. This is slow.) I’ve got one son-in-law that works [here]. He’s not as committed as I am. [Laughs] Nobody is committed as I am. The boy behind the counter has been here almost twenty-five years, and there’s another one that has been here like twenty years. He came in high school. As a matter of fact, my son-in-law came here in high school. He came to work here and then, you know, married my daughter. We still work high school students, but usually they come and go. That’s been one of the biggest accomplishments I’ve had personally is just having high school students come and work, and we help them while they’re in school, and they go on and lead successful lives.
We don’t do a lot of advertising. It’s mostly word of mouth, and we have become more involved in helping churches and schools and the [Air Force] base—a couple times they’ve come home and we’ll have a pig-picking. I sponsored a softball team for twenty years. We played in New York; we played in Florida and Tennessee and South Carolina and various places, Detroit. It was Wilber’s Barbecue Softball Team. So people would see the name. And then I’ve been involved in state politics and I got known pretty much statewide. And I was involved in the [North Carolina State University] Wolfpack Club for 25 or 26 years, and that gave more exposure. So it’s just been one thing or another. People see you here and there, at tournaments and ballgames and stuff, and when they come by they stop and eat.
A woman in here the other day said her grandson went to Disney World and more people at Disney World saw that Wilber’s shirt and stopped him—she said he was amazed. He’d be walking around in Disney World and people were coming up to him. I had a similar thing happen several years ago. I went to Disney World and my wife wanted to check in her coat and all, so I walked up to the boy and I had on a Wilber’s Barbecue cap and he said, “You know Wilber’s Barbecue?” I said, “Well, I am Wilber.” He said, “I used to eat there all the time.” He was in the service and was stationed here, and he got out of the service and he’d gone to work at Disney World.
We’ve been written up in right many magazines over the years—Southern Living and what have you. This past weekend there was a couple here from New Jersey, and they had seen it on the Food Network. There was a girl who interviewed me from a radio station from England. I said, “Who in England do you think is going to listen to you?” What she was going to do was take it back and use it on her radio show, you know—that she had been to the States and all. A girl from New York on ABC Talk Radio called up and asked [an employee] to talk and he said, “You don’t need to talk to me; you need to talk to the man that’s got forty-one years in his head and see if you can get it out of his head.” And I guess that’s the bad part about me because so much of this mess is in my head and nobody don’t know where it is or what it is.
Depending on how my health holds out, I’ve got no plans to retire.
John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed live in Chapel Hill, NC. Both are members of the Southern Foodways Alliance. John Shelton Reed is author of Barbecue: A Savor the South Cookbook, and he is co-founder of The Campaign for Real Barbecue and one of the moving spirits of the Carolina Barbecue Society.
William McKinney founded the Carolina BBQ Society while a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He now lives in Virginia.
Black historian and activist Lawrence Reddick (1910-1995), the subject of my new UNC book, died over a quarter century ago, but his legacy lives on in innumerable ways. The latest involves helping the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) reckon with the past and present racism of the American historical profession.
In the February edition of its newsmagazine, Perspectives on History, the AHA announced the launch of a new initiative to investigate its past racism. In that same edition, it made an article of mine—“Diversity Demands Struggle: Lessons from Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History”—the cover story. The pairing was effective in underlining why the initiative is so important: Reddick critiqued institutional racism in the profession in powerful and compelling ways, but because his critiques were often marginalized, the profession failed to make the progress it needed to. Now a systematic effort is underway to rectify that, and perspectives like Reddick’s will be indispensable.
Meanwhile, the OAH’s magazine, The American Historian, published another article of mine, “Those We Honor, and Those We Don’t: The Case for Renaming an OAH Book Award,” which advocated removing a Lost Cause scholar, Avery O. Craven, as the namesake of its book award in Civil War and Reconstruction history and replacing him with Reddick. Reddick had been Craven’s PhD student at the University of Chicago in the 1930s, and he experienced Craven’s racism firsthand. I have since learned that the OAH has indeed removed Craven’s name from the award, and has appointed a committee that has now rewritten the guidelines for establishing and naming prizes, all to ensure that the person is up to the organization’s present standards. Reddick’s direct testimony about Craven’s classroom behavior, in addition to Craven’s racist scholarship, was central to pushing the OAH to make the changes.
All of this is a reminder that we historians are also products of the deeply unequal society in which we live, and that we must be scrupulous in interrogating our own profession. We do this not to tear down our discipline nor to erode the public’s confidence in us. It’s precisely the opposite. We will only enhance our credibility by owning up to our own mistakes, and by using them to create a better, more equitable discipline that is up to the task of writing the complex, painful, but also empowering histories that our country so desperately needs.
The OAH and AHA exist to bolster the work of history, to celebrate the best contributions, and to support historians themselves, especially through this polarized and divided time. For these reasons, I hope that Craven’s name is not replaced with another traditional scholar, nor by someone wealthy enough to endow the award. The renaming of this prize has the potential to aid in prompting a larger reckoning. We need to deal with the fact that it is only the most privileged academics, ensconced at research universities, who are fully supported in generating a significant corpus of scholarship and having their work widely read, reviewed, and assigned. The majority of us now labor away as contingent faculty members with dismal pay, few benefits, dim career prospects, and little time to do the writing we were trained to do.
In these prizes, therefore, let us seek to acknowledge scholarly excellence while also accounting for the myriad obstacles confronting less-advantaged historians, with an eye toward the non-traditional contributions they often make.
This is why Reddick would make such a powerful symbol as the new namesake of the OAH award. Not only was he denied the privileges that bolstered the careers of white scholars like Craven, but he also—even more impressively—at times conscientiously set aside scholarship to be a productive citizen and activist. He used his historical knowledge to communicate to Black and white publics, to develop archives for future generations to write Black people back into history, to directly mentor activists like Martin Luther King Jr., and to steer activist organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And he still managed to write a dissertation about the runup to the Civil War that was far superior to Craven’s scholarship, as well as a young adult’s book about the Civil War and Reconstruction that captured more about this history—namely, about the essential role of African Americans—than Craven was ever able or willing to comprehend.
How better to inaugurate a new era of naming prizes than to honor Lawrence Reddick, a figure more than worthy and too long ignored?
David A. Varel is an affiliate faculty member at Metropolitan State University–Denver, and author of The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought.
Aari McDonald stares out of her WNBA draft photo, arms folded, biceps sculpted, looking ahead. On April 15, when the draft kicks off the WNBA’s silver anniversary season, McDonald will go high. She has just come off a stellar NCAA tournament, where she led third-seeded Arizona to the championship game – a heartstopping contest with Stanford that was watched by more than 4 million viewers and decided by a single point.
Women’s basketball has come a long way from the days when players donned long skirts and long-sleeved blouses, when men were barred from watching, and when observers waxed enthusiastic over the thrills of a “snappy” game that ended with a score of 2 to 1.
As the sport pauses for a moment between the drama of the Final Four and the opening tosses of the WNBA, we suggest taking time to explore the lives of the women who built the game to where it is today – women such as Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, longtime Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, Tennessee phenomenon Pat Summitt, and star-players-turned-star-coaches Anne Donovan and Dawn Staley and. Their many stories offer inspiring portraits of human determination. They also sketch out a roadmap for creating social change – the kind of transformation our nation needs so much today.
On the eve of the 2021 Final Four, Vivian Stringer sent a brief note to coaches Dawn Staley and Adia Barnes. It was the first time that two Black head coaches had reached this pinnacle of their sport. Springer was overjoyed.
“Congratulations,” she wrote. “I am so proud of you both for representing Black Women! I dreamed of this day. I am filled with great pride & happiness. I salute you! Continue to inspire all young women!”
In 1966, when Stringer was a teenager, her high school had no basketball for girls. She was a stellar athlete, a sought-after teammate in the neighborhood boys’ pickup games. But the closest she could get to high school play was as a cheerleader. As a Black woman she faced hurdles even there – she was the first Black cheerleader at the predominantly white school, and it took action by the local NAACP to get her on the squad. Once there, she took advantage of her position on the sidelines to scrutinize the games, whispering advice to her male friends as they moved on and off the court.
Half a Shoestring
In 1971, when Stringer got her first coaching job at historically black Cheney State University, she ran her program on less than half a shoestring. She spent her own money on recruiting and drove her players to their games in an old prison bus. When she approached an intersection, she later explained, she would “slow down but not enough to stop because we weren’t sure we were going to start again, so my assistant would crane her neck out the window and yell, ‘Vivian, keep going, no one’s coming.’”
She drove on. Others did as well. This year’s NCAA tournament showcased how far the sport has come – nationally televised games packed with talent, drama and great play, heightened by the resolve to speak out against injustice.
Men as well as women have contributed to this growth, including Harley Redin, who coached the legendary Flying Queens from Wayland Baptist College; Leon Barmore, who
led his Louisiana Tech teams to 20 straight NCAA tournaments; and Geno Auriemma, who built a still-thriving dynasty at UConn. But the women stand out as pioneers.
Building a sport
They faced multiple barriers to participating in the sport they loved. They competed in dilapidated gyms, wore faded uniforms, and often endured criticism from neighbors and family members who thought sports were for boys. When Title IX forced colleges to start women’s teams, they built programs from scratch, often fighting each step of the way. They negotiated with administrators. They filed lawsuits. They dealt with an NCAA takeover of their once-independent programs. Over time, they helped change an American sporting culture that lionized male athletes and viewed women — especially those playing high-energy contact sports — with suspicion.
In the mid-1990s, many people thought the women’s game was on the verge of a breakthrough. With strong backing from USA Basketball, Tara VanDerveer coached an all-star U.S. women’s team to a resounding, high-profile Olympic training run and a gold medal in the 1996 Games. Out of that accomplishment came the WNBA and the American Basketball League, two newly organized professional leagues competing for players and attention.
Progress came slower than many had hoped. A decade later, when we were writing Shattering the Glass, plenty of questions remained. The ABL had faded quickly. The WNBA was finding it hard to expand its audience beyond a loyal group of hardcore supporters. The sport had yet to come to terms with its lesbian players, coaches and fans. As the women’s sport grew in prestige, men had begun to apply for and receive many of the scarce head college coaching positions. African American women made up a growing share of the game’s stars, but few were tapped for head coaching or top administrative jobs.
But the game kept moving forward – pushed by the fortitude that comes with struggle. Since Shattering the Glass was published, issues of sexuality have largely fallen by the wayside, with teams and leagues actively marketing to the LGBTQ+ community. Players and coaches are out of the closet in significant numbers, among them such superstars as Sheryl Swoopes, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. Audiences
have grown dramatically. The game has found ways to embrace working motherhood – Adia Barnes coached her team to the NCAA championship game while pumping breast milk at halftime for her 6-month-old daughter.
Advancement has also gone well beyond the court. When the Black Lives Matter movement took off this past summer, WNBA players stood at the forefront of professional athletes’ response – to the point where members of the Atlanta Dream endorsed Black minister Raphael Warnock in his Georgia Senate race against Kelly Loeffler, who was a part owner of the Dream and who had criticized Dream players for their Black Lives Matter activism (in part as a result of that player discontent, the Dream was sold in February to an investment group that includes former Dream player Renee Montgomery, the first retired player to own part of a team). When players and coaches discovered the dramatic differences between conditions at the men’s and women’s Final Four, they took to social media to spotlight the inequalities. National media took notice and called out the NCAA.
Passing the torch
Time moves on. Many of the game’s early stalwarts have passed the torch to others. Longtime LSU coach Sue Gunter died from lung disease in August 2005, and N.C. State coach Kay Yow succumbed to breast cancer in early 2009. Legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt died in mid-2016, after a heartbreaking battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Anne Donovan, an early superstar who became the first female coach to win a WNBA title passed away in 2018, at the young age of 56.
But the rising generation has been well prepared to keep building the sport, setting lofty goals and helping each other reach them. In 1999, Purdue coach Carolyn Peck became the first Black head coach to win the NCAA women’s title. In 2015, she passed a piece of her championship net to Dawn Staley, who had coached the University of South Carolina to the first Final Four of her head coaching career. Staley’s Gamecocks took the crown in 2017, and she now plans to keep building the tradition by passing part of her 2017 net to Adia Barnes.
It has been a job well done. Back in December, Tara VanDerveer — who began her head coaching career at Idaho in 1978 — won her 1,099th game, passing Pat Summitt to reach the top of the all-time win list in Division I college women’s basketball. Vivian Stringer posted a congratulatory tweet:
“Congrats, Tara,” she wrote. “You are class, dignity and grace personified. I know Pat is smiling down looking over all of us. Enjoy this moment, you’ve earned it.”
So have they all.
Pamela Grundy is an independent scholar and author of the award-winning Learning to Win: Sports, Education, and Social Change in Twentieth-Century North Carolina (from the University of North Carolina Press).
Susan Shackelford has written about sports for the Miami Herald and the Charlotte Observer and now runs a freelance writing and editing business. Both authors live in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In response to recent events in Brooklyn Center MN, the following curated reading list provides information regarding ongoing injustices and discriminatory practices perpetuated by a lack of criminal justice reform that’s historically targeted Black Americans. In the aftermath of the police killing of Daunte Wright, here are resources for donating and healing.
The Punitive Turn in American Life offers a political and cultural history of the ways in which punishment and surveillance have moved to the center of American life and become imbued with militarized language and policies. Michael S. Sherry argues that, by the 1990s, the “war on crime” had been successfully broadcast to millions of Americans at an enormous cost—to those arrested, imprisoned, or killed and to the social fabric of the nation—and that the currents of vengeance that ran through the punitive turn, underwriting torture at home and abroad, found a new voice with the election of Donald J. Trump.
In the heat of June in 1943, a wave of destructive and deadly civil unrest took place in the streets of Detroit. The city was under the pressures of both wartime industrial production and the nascent civil rights movement, setting the stage for massive turmoil and racial violence. Thirty-four people were killed, most of whom were Black, and over half of these were killed by police. Two thousand people were arrested, and over seven hundred sustained injuries requiring treatment at local hospitals. With Run Home If You Don’t Want to Be Killed, Rachel Marie-Crane Williams delivers a graphic retelling of the racism and tension leading up to the violence of those summer days.
Available for the first time in English, The Color of the Third Degree uncovers the still-hidden history of police torture in the Jim Crow South. Based on a wide array of previously neglected archival sources, Silvan Niedermeier argues that as public lynching decreased, less visible practices of racial subjugation and repression became central to southern white supremacy. In an effort to deter unruly white mobs, as well as oppress black communities, white southern law officers violently extorted confessions and testimony from black suspects and defendants in jail cells and police stations to secure speedy convictions. In response, black citizens and the NAACP fought to expose these brutal practices through individual action, local organizing, and litigation. In spite of these efforts, police torture remained a widespread, powerful form of racial control and suppression well into the late twentieth century.
Drawing on oral interviews and a rich array of written sources, Gail Williams O’Brien tells the dramatic story of the Columbia “race riot,” the national attention it drew, and its surprising legal aftermath. In the process, she illuminates the effects of World War II on race relations and the criminal justice system in the United States. O’Brien argues that the Columbia events are emblematic of a nationwide shift during the 1940s from mob violence against African Americans to increased confrontations between blacks and the police and courts. As such, they reveal the history behind such contemporary conflicts as the Rodney King and O. J. Simpson cases.
Lance Hill offers the first detailed history of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, who grew to several hundred members and twenty-one chapters in the Deep South and led some of the most successful local campaigns in the civil rights movement. In his analysis of this important yet long-overlooked organization, Hill challenges what he calls “the myth of nonviolence”—the idea that a united civil rights movement achieved its goals through nonviolent direct action led by middle-class and religious leaders.
In this comprehensive history of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party (ILBPP), Chicago native Jakobi Williams demonstrates that the city’s Black Power movement was both a response to and an extension of the city’s civil rights movement. Williams focuses on the life and violent death of Fred Hampton, a charismatic leader who served as president of the NAACP Youth Council and continued to pursue a civil rights agenda when he became chairman of the revolutionary Chicago-based Black Panther Party.
United States Senator Simon Guggenheim and his wife established the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1925 as a memorial to a son who died April 26, 1922. The Foundation offers Fellowships to further the development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts, under the freest possible conditions and irrespective of race, color, or creed. The Foundation receives approximately 3,000 applications each year. Although no one who applies is guaranteed success in the competition, there is no prescreening: all applications are reviewed. Approximately 175 Fellowships are awarded each year.
Guggenheim Fellowships are intended for individuals who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.
Advertisements urging civilians to buy guns captured how the punitive turn had played out by the 2010s. “As Close as You Can Get [to war] without Enlisting” ran one rifle ad, while another promoted a semi-automatic shotgun with the slogan, “Iraq, Afghanistan, Your Livingroom,” and a handgun ad pictured an infantryman above the words, “Built For Them… Built For You.” The message: Americans at home could carry the same weapons of war that soldiers carried in battle. Many Americans believed, or at least were asked to imagine, that the line between war-fighting and crime-fighting had almost disappeared. The Punitive Turn in American Life: How the United States Learned to Fight Crime Like a War is about how that happened.
The book uncovers the sweeping process starting in the 1960s that moved punishment and surveillance to the center of American life and imbued them with militarized language and practices. Its obvious forms were mass incarceration, as the United States became the world’s foremost jailer, and “the militarization of policing,” as critics called it. But the punitive turn also encompassed other practices–public schools entered through metal detectors and patrolled by police, gated communities shooing away the unwanted, cameras peering to catch red-light offenders, armies of private police, familiar rituals of airport screening, and fads like the child-spanking movement. Scholars often refer to “the carceral state.” The “punitive turn in American life” signals a broader historical process that included but went beyond what the state did.
The punitive turn faced countercurrents–it did not move forward inexorably and uniformly. But while those countercurrents churned the waters, they did not halt the onrushing tide, at least until the 2010s. The punitive turn made America a meaner, punishment-obsessed nation, with vengeance at home and abroad its ruling impulse. And it made the U.S. a more distinctive nation, as it departed from norms in comparable nations by practicing racialized policing and incarceration on a huge scale, by sanctioning torture at home and abroad, by pouring military weapons and training into police forces, and above all by calling the whole effort a “war on crime.” This book traces why that language, and all that went with it, came to the fore, moving from the presidency of Lyndon Johnson through Donald Trump’s administration. More and more in that half-century, the war on crime cannibalized the state and came to assume its responsibilities as other instruments of the state floundered and retreated.
Insofar as Americans saw war-fighting as a model for crime-fighting, not just as a breezy metaphor, their adoption of that model implied a shrugging acceptance of the risks that war entails: collateral damage to bystanders; danger to warriors as well as their targets; erosion of civil liberties and constitutional procedures; secrecy and deception; wasteful expenditures; abuse of enemies; distrust of those who resist the cause. Americans entered their war on crime having experienced such risks in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and in the threat of nuclear war. They were accustomed to such risks, in part because they fell heaviest on others beyond their shores. They were so woven into the fabric of their historical experience that few questioned their reappearance in a war on crime, especially since those risks were less obvious than in real war, creeping into consciousness and practice without the terrifying suddenness of Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attacks. It was easy to analogize crime-fighting to war-fighting.
Michael S. Sherry is the Richard W. Leopold Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern University.
The terms “plantation” and “plantation landscape” commonly conjure up the image of the Big House of the great planters of the Americas. The Big House is how the plantation was meant to be presented to the world; its impressive façade and the elegant interior intended to display the wealth, power and prestige of the owner of the home. The Big House symbolized authority, gentility, tradition—a paternal and hierarchical agrarian civilization that stands in opposition to the mundane, plebeian, commercial order of the industrial city. This image symbolized a way of life, part real and part imagined, that evokes tradition, nostalgia, and romanticism. Such a fixed and closed representation coexists uneasily with the history of slavery. The inclusion of the slave quarters alongside the Big House and the inclusion of the history of the enslaved alongside the imagined history of the planter elite complicates the idyllic and harmonious vision of the plantation by introducing massive inequalities that juxtapose wealth and poverty; black and white; power and marginality; violence and resistance. Throughout the Americas the best historians, anthropologists, sociologists and historians of art and architecture have sought to reconcile these oppositions within the multifaceted and unequal reality of plantation slavery.
Reconstructing the Landscapes of Slavery reframes these efforts to reconcile the tensions and conflicts within the history of slavery by shifting the focus to the as a productive space. Our interest is in the forces that produced the space of the plantation and how the space of the plantation produced. The sites that we selected – the American cotton zone, the Cuban sugar zone, and the Brazilian coffee zone—demonstrate how slave production restructured as part of the industrializing world-economy of the nineteenth century. Global forces of industry, commerce, finance, and transportation mobilized land and slave labor in order to transform nature in each of these zones in accordance with the demands of plantation monoculture in order produce on an unprecedented scale the key commodities of modern mass consumption.
Plantation landscapes reveal how the physical organization of space integrated slave production into emerging industrial world division of labor. Each of these extensive and expanding new commodity frontiers was relatively unpopulated and each had favorable environmental conditions for its particular commodity. In each, the material processes entailed in the production of the crop shaped the restructuring of the natural environment and the organization of slave labor. More land was brought under cultivation, and the size of holdings and the area cultivated were increased. Internal and trans-Atlantic slave trade increased dramatically the number of slaves engaged in the cultivation of each crop. The division of labor on the plantation was reorganized in relation to the crop. New technologies were adopted, and new conceptions of plantation management planter control over the labor of the enslaved and maximized the production each crop. Increasingly precise calculation of the quantity of material, time and distance regulated the activities of the laboring population and shaped the landscape. Sophisticated systems of transportation, including steamships and railroads, integrated the production of the new slave frontiers in the world market. The industrialized landscapes of Cuba, US South, and Brazil were the platforms of modern mass production and mass consumption.
The expansion of the world-economy and creation of an industrial division of labor produced distinct local landscapes, which, in turn produced, ordered, and regulated distinct conditions of slave life and labor. Thus, the plantation landscape and built environment do not merely provide the background or context for Atlantic slavery; rather, they express and reproduce the entire ensemble of relations and processes that created the slave regimes of the US South, Cuba, and Brazil. The slave plantation was, above all, a productive space and slavery was a means of organizing work. Slavery did not exist in the physical and material space of the plantation, but developed through them. To be able to place masters and slaves in time and space, that is, struggling in their different ways with one another and with nature to wrest the crop from nature transforms our understanding of the history of slavery as a system and of the relation between masters and slaves. For this reason, the physical landscape and material processes of production provide a privileged vantage point from which to reinterpret the history of slavery in its entirety.
The slave commodity frontiers of the US South, Cuba, and Brazil have left a rich and varied legacy of maps, drawings, paintings, photographs and lithographs that enable us to reconstruct the making of the plantation landscapes in each zone. These images are not simply illustrations. Rather they played an active role in constructing, ordering, and controlling the landscape and activities that took place in it as well in presenting them to the wider world. In Reconstructing the Landscapes of Slavery, we have used these materials to create a visual history of the landscape. We do not treat the images as self-contained representations, but as historical documents of a reality beyond the image. However, we do not impose on them histories that are not depicted in the image. Our emphasis is on the documentary character of the image. Our purpose is to disclose to social, intellectual, and cultural history of the plantation landscape, not to write the social economic or cultural historical of slavery. We read the images as evidence, direct or indirect, of the reality they depict and have arranged them to give a visual account of the production of plantation space. The book is organized as a visual narrative; the images tell the story and the text supports the images. It is a book that is intended to be seen more than to be read. Each image and the series of images builds up and documents a multilayered and comparative visual reconstruction of the spatial relations forming plantation slavery in the Atlantic world. In each, series of images we have emphasized certain aspects of the landscape: slave labor in the US South, technology in Cuba and environment in Brazil. Once these themes become clear to the reader, it is possible to go back and see how each aspect is also present in the other series. It is therefore possible for the reader to at least mentally rearrange the images and create new narratives.
Dale W. Tomich is professor emeritus of sociology at Binghamton University.
Recently another film about Brazilian soccer legend Pelé was released. The word “another” is necessary because, not surprisingly considering the worldwide popularity of the subject, there have been a number of documentaries and at least one biopic released just in the last couple of decades featuring Pelé, let alone earlier films that he starred in during and after his career as a player in the twentieth century. Directed by Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn, the succinctly named Pelé (2021, Netflix) nevertheless manages to tell a unique, subtle and captivating tale about the heyday of this soccer great.
Yet in one feature length film it is difficult to capture in detail the entirety of Pelé’s biography and soccer career, let alone the pre-history of Afro-Brazilian struggles to participate in the sport that paved the way for Pelé in the decades before he was born and during his childhood. After viewing this film, I hope that viewers less familiar with the player or the history of the sport in Brazil are inspired to seek out the answers to questions left unanswered. In particular, how did previous generations set the stage for Pelé? And how was Pelé seen in comparison with earlier Brazilian soccer legends? The fascinating answers to these questions are in large part to be found in Mario Filho’s The Black Man in BrazilianSoccer, to be published for the first time in English this April by UNC Press.
By the time Pelé won the World Cup for the third time with Brazil in 1970, indeed even before that, he had been crowned the king of soccer in Brazil and was considered its greatest player, and certainly the greatest in the world at that time, if not in all of soccer history. Nevertheless, since his goal is to tell a larger history of the contributions and struggles of Black Brazilians in the sport, Mario Filho takes the long historical view in his portrait of Pelé. He notes that every 20 years since Brazil first became competitive internationally, a singularly talented soccer star had become famous on the field, culminating with Pelé in 1958 and beyond. Each generation since the 1910s had had its ultimate soccer idol, and it just so happened to be that they were all Brazilians of African descent. The different experiences of these players on the field and how they were received by Brazilian society in their times, which Filho recounts in detail, reveal a lot about the history of soccer in the country, in particular the desegregation of the sport and the struggles that Black players had to go through to gain recognition and success, even as they contributed enormously to the quality and style of the game.
Here I’d like to paint some brief portraits of these key figures highlighted by Filho, those precursors to Pelé forty and twenty years before his incredible world debut at the 1958 World Cup. Namely, those famous forebears were Arthur Friedenreich (1892-1969) and Leônidas da Silva (1913-2004).
Arthur Friedenreich is described by Filho and recognized historically as the best player of the 1910s and 1920s in Brazil, an era in which he was a key player on Brazil’s first major international championship team, the 1919 South American Championship winners. However, his experience and behavior on the field as a player of mixed African and European descent in that time, as detailed in The Black Man in Brazilian Soccer, reveal the racism of the society and the related ostracism and psychological turmoil experienced by its victims, the first generation of Black players to break the color line and begin to play for the major clubs in Rio de Janeiro and other cities. Reading Filho’s book, one can see how this amateur era of Brazilian soccer prior to professionalization in the 1930s was also an era of elitism and unequal access to fields and clubs for many Afro-Brazilian players and fans alike (let alone coaches–the first prominent Black coach, Gentil Cardoso, would not debut at a club until the 1930s, and he would remain a solitary figure in that role for decades).
Despite being a star player by the late 1910s, Friedenreich was no exception. Filho details how he and other players made efforts to “pass” as white or at least to disguise their African descent. Friedenreich sought to straighten and flatten his hair before every match, while another player named Carlos Alberto on the Fluminense team went so far as to whiten his face with rice powder, resulting in the derogatory nickname “rice powder” which opposing fans shouted at Fluminense. Clearly the atmosphere was one of white supremacy, in which fans and other players might react negatively to the presence of a Black man on the team, and even more so when the first majority Black and mixed-race teams began to appear in the 1920s. Thus Friedenreich very much rose to stardom and greatness despite this atmosphere of anti-Black discrimination and segregation, paving the way for future generations.
By the 1930s, enabled by the victories of Black players in previous decades and the professionalization of soccer (which provided a more equal playing field for players of all social classes by providing them with salaries to live on), a new generation of Afro-Brazilian star players was ready to take prominent roles in the biggest clubs, including Leônidas da Silva, the lead scorer (having knocked in 7 goals) of the 1938 World Cup. Although Brazil placed third that year, it was their best result at the World Cup up to that point, and when Leônidas came home from playing in France, he was celebrated by the nation as the first superstar of Brazilian soccer. In 1942 he received a record transfer fee when he left Flamengo for São Paulo, and was greeted by 10,000 fans at the train station in São Paulo when he arrived–according to Filho, ”something never seen before.” Leônidas was also the first soccer star to pursue lucrative sponsorship deals, associating his famous name with everything from guava jam to cigarettes.
There were also certainly other great contemporaries of some of these players whose stories are told by Filho, such as the center back Domingos da Guia (1912-2000), who also played in the 1938 World Cup. But the true greatness of Pelé, in the end, was to be able to combine the skills and talent of all his forebears; to unite, incredibly, the stylistic flair and creativity of forwards Leônidas and Friedenreich with the technical excellence and calm reserve in defense of Domingos da Guia. The complete player.
Thus Mario Filho can confidently write in his final chapter, “The Black Man’s Turn,” still years before the 1970 World Cup, that “Pelé was the greatest player of all time. He played in back and in front, from goalkeeper to left winger. And wherever he played, he was the best […] How many times, when the opposing team was attacking, did the fan who had known Domingos da Guia see him come out of the penalty area, doing dribbles of half a millimeter? Until the eyes corrected the illusion. It was not Domingos da Guia, it was Pelé.”
Jack A. Draper III is associate professor of Portuguese at the University of Missouri.
The shadows were just starting to slide across New York’s Washington Square Park on the evening of May 5, 1912, when a company of fifty women on horseback trotted smartly around the east side of the park’s triumphal arch. Their arrival was the signal that the great suffrage procession, the largest in the nation’s history, had begun. They led the parade of 17,000 women up Fifth Avenue. On their heads they wore tricornered hats reminiscent of the American Revolution topped with knots of purple, green, and white ribbons, the colors of Harriet Stanton Blatch’s Women’s Political Union. The women in the cavalcade represented the finest of New York society as well as prominent suffrage activists.
Among them was Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, the Chinese suffragist whose presence had been much anticipated in the papers for weeks beforehand. Lee’s appearance at the front of the parade was not an accident. Organizers had invited her to be there to remind viewers of the recent revolution in China and the enfranchisement of women that they believed it had inaugurated. Lee herself was pleased with the opportunity to draw the United States’ attention to events in China, as she hoped to challenge Americans’ stereotypes about the backwardness of her nation.
In the United States, 1912 became the year of the Chinese suffragist. Americans closely watched the unfolding of the Chinese Revolution, focusing on the participation of Chinese women and the women’s rights being championed by the republican revolutionaries under Dr. Sun Yat-sen. White suffragists seized upon these news stories to support their cause by using them to shame American men. They looked for Chinese women living in the United States who could tell them more about events in China. Those women, some American-born but most of them immigrants barred from naturalized citizenship, drew on transpacific conversations to educate their white sisters about the women’s movement in China. Having captured their attention, Chinese women used the opportunity to raise their concerns about the United States’ policies toward China. As a result, Chinese and Chinese American women were unexpectedly visible in American suffrage debates and events.
During the fall of 1911 and into 1912, Sun Yat-sen’s Tongmenghui, or Revolutionary Alliance, battled the Quing Empire, overthrew that 268-year-old dynasty, and established the Chinese republic. Chinese women, especially students, had been early supporters of the Revolutionary Alliance. They worked in underground revolutionary networks, recruiting other students, writing powerful articles and manifestos, carrying secret messages, and serving as spies. Many of them were attracted by Sun and the Alliance’s emphasis on women’s rights. When open conflict broke out, they raised money and provided medical assistance for the troops, and one woman, Tang Qunying, even formed a military organization called the Women’s Northern Attack Brigade with two of her friends. During the Wuchang Uprising, Tang led the famous “women’s army” into battle, helping capture Nanking (Nanjing). Americans were astonished to see pictures of these “Chinese amazons” under resounding headlines like “The Chinaman’s Better Half? Wideawake Woman Is Encouraging the Rebellion against the Manchus.”
These Chinese women were elated when Sun Yat-sen became provisional president of the new nation at the beginning of 1912. He had long supported women’s rights and had promised them suffrage as soon as the revolution succeeded. In February, Chinese suffragists, including Tang Qunying, had two meetings with Sun in Nanking. They presented him with funds they had raised for the new nation and inquired about his promises. They reminded him of their service to the nation as soldiers, mothers, and citizens. He graciously accepted the money but avoided making a strong statement in favor of immediate suffrage. It was an important matter, he agreed, but out of his hands. He urged the women to qualify themselves for the vote by educating themselves as to the government and laws. When women were ready, he had no doubt that they would be given the vote. His acknowledgment of the importance of woman suffrage and his assurances that it would be granted went out across the world. The Salt Lake Tribune, for example, reported “Chinese President Plans Reforms: Women Want Electoral Franchise.” Chinese women were optimistic.
White suffragists in the United States closely followed the news from China. Rumors that Chinese women had been enfranchised reached New York on a blustery March day in 1912. A number of the city’s women were gathered at the Women’s Industrial Exhibition at the Beaux Arts–inspired New Grand Central Palace, which for the next half a century would serve as the city’s main exhibition hall. In the expansive showrooms on the second and third floors, attendees were marveling at the latest products for the modern woman. Electric vacuums and other labor-saving devices for housewives sat next to displays announcing fashionable hairstyles, fancy perfumes, and luscious looking cosmetics, which only recently had been deemed acceptable for respectable women. Local suffragists had set up shop in the hall, insisting that the vote was also an essential feature of modern womanhood. They outfitted their booth with bold posters designed to attract the passing crowds to the table, where women pressed pamphlets into their hands and urged them to buy suffrage buttons.
In the midst of the expo, rumors that Chinese women had won the right to vote flashed over the wires. Florence Ivins, a suffrage booth volunteer whose husband would soon become a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and who thus may have known a thing or two about displays, seized the moment. She quickly made up a poster declaring “The People of China Have Enfranchised Their Women” and hung it to be seen by all. Crowds surged to the table, and the suffragists did a brisk business in buttons—even, they claimed, to some anti-suffragists. They attributed the crowds’ run on their booth to the “indignation felt by American women” who felt poorly treated in comparison. Indeed, the white suffragists themselves were “glad, but irritated, too,” by the news.
Cathleen D. Cahill is associate professor of history at Penn State University and the author of Federal Fathers and Mothers: A Social History of the United States Indian Service, 1869–1933, winner of the 2011 Labriola Center American Indian National Book Award and finalist for the 2012 David J. Weber-Clements Prize, Western History Association.
I’m excited to listen to the new Serial podcast from Zoe Chance! The shock-waves from the 2018 election scandal in Bladen County are still being felt in our nation’s politics today. This new podcast caps a big 7 days in the “election fraud” world.
Let’s start with Georgia, where the governor signed a sweeping new election reform bill that Republicans say is necessary to maintain election integrity and Democrats say is aimed at stifling minority voters. On the same day that bill was signed, the US Department of Justice announced it finally ended a years-long investigation into what was thought to be a wide-scale network of illegal voters in North Carolina (it wasn’t). Good recap on that from Travis Fain and Tyler Dukes. The years-long DOJ investigation into the election- fraud-that-wasn’t is what distracted the US Attorney’s office in Raleigh from investigating the actual election fraud playing out in Bladen County they’d been warned about by folks like Josh Lawson. Coincidentally, the election fraud in Bladen County can be traced back 100+ years and to a history of white people trying to keep Black people from voting and Black voters doing whatever necessary to have their voices heard.
That history starts mid-1800’s & runs through the Wilmington riot, the Jim Crow era & up to present day. I’ve traced how all that mixed to explode into the 2018 election scandal in a new book with Michael N. Graff.
I can’t wait for y’all to read the book and listen to the @serial podcast. I’m positive your takeaway from both will be that what happened in 2018 wasn’t in a vacuum and involves a long, complex history of race and politics.
Nick Ochsner is chief investigative reporter at WBTV in Charlotte, NC.
America is at war with itself over the right to vote, or, more precisely, over the question of who gets to exercise that right and under what circumstances. Conservatives speak in ominous tones of “America the vulnerable,” warning that voter fraud has become so widespread that it threatens public trust in elected government. They insist that lawmakers act at once to reverse the damage by policing voter registration more vigorously and implementing new security measures such as photo ID requirements for access to the ballot box. Progressives counter that electoral fraud is exceedingly rare and that when voting irregularities do occur, they usually involve mistakes made by election officials rather than individual voters’ wrongdoing. From this perspective, efforts to change the ways we govern elections are, at best, “a solution in search of a problem.” At worst, they constitute a thinly veiled campaign to shrink the electorate and restrict some citizens’ right to cast a free and fair ballot.
Over the last decade, North Carolina has been a battleground for this debate. In 2010, riding a tide of voter discontent, Republicans gained control of both houses of North Carolina’s General Assembly. The completion of the decennial census in the same year gave them the opportunity to redraw legislative districts in ways that produced a Republican supermajority in the next election. Then, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in the landmark Shelby County v. Holder case, struck down section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That section required federal approval of changes to election law in jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination. It was critical to protecting the voting rights of minority citizens; in its absence, states had an opening to reintroduce discriminatory policies like those that the Voting Rights Act had been meant to abolish. Within a month of the Shelby decision, Republican lawmakers in North Carolina took advantage of that opportunity. They passed House Bill (HB) 589, the nation’s most comprehensive revision of election law. The legislation required that voters provide photo ID at the polls, shortened the period for early voting, and ended same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting—all of which had a disproportionate impact on minority, low-income, and elderly electors.
Opposition to these changes was vocal and well organized. It found voice through what came to be known as the Moral Monday movement, named for the weekly gatherings of protestors at the legislative building in Raleigh. Reverend William J. Barber II, a charismatic Pentecostal minister from Goldsboro and president of the North Carolina Conference of the NAACP, spearheaded the movement. For nearly a decade, he had led the North Carolina People’s Assembly, an ecumenical and multiracial coalition of organizations that pressured lawmakers—Democrats as well as Republicans—to act on a variety of social welfare issues, from affordable housing and a living wage to criminal justice reform and improvements in health care and education. The Moral Monday movement brought tens of thousands of new participants to this campaign. They marched in Raleigh and in cities across the state to express their opposition to HB 589 and the Republican legislature’s policy agenda, which included budget cuts for public education, stricter limits on unemployment benefits, elimination of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers, refusal of federal funds for Medicaid expansion, and reversal of death penalty reform.
While protestors gathered in the streets and filled the halls of the legislature, attorneys representing the state conference of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters, and the U.S. Department of Justice challenged HB 589 in court. They argued that if left to stand, the law would “cause the denial, dilution, and abridgement of African-Americans’ fundamental right to vote”—an effect that would, in turn, discount the voices of other citizens who allied themselves with black voters on issues of public policy. Progressives maintained that democracy itself was at stake in the battle over HB 589.
As historians and as participants in these events, we share another observer’s sense “that the politics of today is continuous with the past that made it, marked by struggles that have never really ended, only ebbed, shifted, and returned.” To understand the issues at stake in today’s battle over the ballot box, we must look back to 1865 and the end of the Civil War. The Union had been preserved and the Confederacy was in ashes, but the sacrifice of nearly three-quarters of a million lives had not decided the republic’s future. Would there be a “new birth of freedom,” as Republican president Abraham Lincoln had imagined in his Gettysburg Address, or would the nation be reconstituted as a “white man’s government,” the outcome championed by his successor, Democrat Andrew Johnson? Between 1865 and 1870, Lincoln’s party answered that question with three constitutional amendments that historian Eric Foner has described as America’s “Second Founding.”
The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) abolished slavery and guaranteed the liberty of four million black men, women, and children who had been enslaved in the South. The Fourteenth (1868) granted them citizenship by birthright and established the principle of “equal protection of the laws.” And the Fifteenth (1870) forbade the states from denying or abridging male citizens’ right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
These constitutional guarantees tied the fate of American democracy to the citizenship rights of a newly emancipated black minority and their descendants. For 150 years, the exercise of those rights and the connection between racial justice and democratic governance have been defining issues in American politics. This has been particularly true of the right to vote.
In North Carolina and the nation, battles over the franchise have played out through cycles of emancipatory politics and conservative retrenchment. In a pattern repeated multiple times, blacks and their allies have formed political movements to end racial discrimination and claim their rights as equal citizens. They have done so not only to advance their own interests but also to promote participatory democracy more generally and to make government responsive to the needs of all its people. Invariably, conservative white lawmakers have countered such efforts by erecting barriers around the ballot box. They have been remarkably creative in that work. When one restriction was struck down in the courts or through protest and political mobilization, they quickly invented another. Sometimes they justified their actions in overtly racial terms and implemented reforms through violent means. At other times they spoke euphemistically of fraud and corruption. Always, they presented strict regulation of the right to vote as a means of ensuring “good order” and “good government.”
James L. Leloudis is professor of history, Peter T. Grauer Associate Dean for Honors Carolina, and director of the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also co-chair of the UNC Commission on History, Race, and a Way Forward.
Robert R. Korstad is professor emeritus of public policy and history at Duke University’s Terry Sanford School of Public Policy.
The University of North Carolina Press stands in solidarity with workers fighting for dignity and workplace democracy in the book industry—especially the more than 5,000 Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, who are in the midst of the historic first attempt to unionize one of the e-commerce giant’s warehouses. This is of particular interest to us both as publishing workers and because we have a lasting commitment to publishing scholarship on the southern organizing tradition in works such as Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-twentieth-century South by Robert Korstad and Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression by Robin D. G. Kelley.
In this spirit, we are making Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Editionfreely available. It details how Black laborers and sharecroppers in the 1930s joined forces with white industrial workers, housewives, youths, and renegade liberals to take on Alabama’s repressive, racist police state and fight for economic justice, civil and political rights, and racial equality. As Jamelle Bouie wrote in his recent New York Times op-ed about the Amazon unionization effort, citing the work of both Kelley and Korstad, “We should remember that the political character of the South is more than its shading on an Electoral College map; that the entire region is home to a rich history of resistance against the twin forces of race hierarchy and class exploitation; and that a more just and equitable future may well depend on how much we take those histories to heart and build on them from there.”
We join others across the book industry today as part of a Book Workers Day of Solidarity with the Amazon warehouse workers because our values of equity and justice require it. Different though our jobs may seem on the surface, publishing workers, bookstore workers, librarians, and warehouse workers are all part of the same struggle. Over the past year, while many of us worked from home during the pandemic, those working in warehouses and at printers faced greater risks in their workspaces under unrelenting pressure to continue business as usual during an unprecedented time. Without their labor, there would be no books at all. It is incumbent on all of us in the book industry to lend our support and solidarity to these workers, particularly now, particularly in Bessemer.
“The future of the labor movement is in the hands of the Amazon workers in Bessemer. The corporate powers know that if a Black, mostly female working-class can win in the militantly anti-union South, they could win anywhere. Over eighty years ago, workers in Alabama’s mines, steel and textile mills, fields, and kitchens tried to chart a different future for the working class across the country. They fought for strong unions and Black freedom; they fought for fair and equal pay and human and civil rights. But corporate power, Cold War-era anti-labor laws, and the durability of racist and anti-labor rhetoric prevailed. Not this time! Bessemer’s workers need our support and solidarity, beyond the results of the election. Indeed, once the union wins the elections, Amazon and its allies will only ramp up its war on workers. As the old slogan goes, Solidarity Now, Solidarity Forever!”—Robin D. G. Kelley
Follow the UNC Press Blog for a celebration of women’s histories and women historians throughout March.
This year we are celebrating the significant contributions of notable women, renown and lesser known, throughout history, as well as women historians past and present that have been published by UNC Press.
When I started my research many years ago, I thought I might write a book about Carson’s intimate ties to American Indian and Spanish Mexican women and about what those ties meant to a colonized West. It was the character and content of those relationships that I planned to study when I mapped out a project called “Marrying Power: The Intimate World of Kit Carson.” Of concern to me were Carson’s bonds with women whose ties to western places and peoples were different from and deeper than his own: Singing Grass, who was Northern Arapaho; Making Out Road, who was Southern Cheyenne; and Josefa Jaramillo, who descended from two hispano families of northern New Mexico, the Jaramillos and the Vigils. Each of these women was married to Carson according to the varied customs of the country—Singing Grass for several years in the 1830s; Making Out Road for several months in the 1840s; and Josefa Jaramillo for a quarter century after Carson renounced Protestantism and was baptized a Catholic in 1843. And these were just three intimacies among many similar connections that crossed cultures in Carson’s world, relationships in which newcomers in the West cast their lot with companions whose own peoples still held sway over their geographies of residence. Most who have written about Carson have acknowledged these kinds of bonds, even if they have neither perceived the habit as a matter of “marrying power” nor seen power as residing historically among Indian and hispano peoples.
When I conceived of my project, as far as I knew, no one had given these ties their narrative or analytical due, preferring instead to keep the historical spotlight on Carson himself—as hero, as villain, or as man of his times. By focusing on these ties but also by situating them in the context of Carson’s manifold relationships with fellow trappers and opponents in battle, hispano neighbors and Indigenous hunters, his mixed-race children and his “adopted” Indian servants, I aimed quite literally to put Carson in his place. I aimed to diffuse the light so that it fell instead on a broader social and cultural milieu that gave birth to the world that persists in the spaces Singing Grass, Making Out Road, and Josefa Jaramillo called home, a borderlands world that bleeds out across North America to touch many more peoples and places in our own time.
Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that four decades earlier, at a time when there was little interest in Carson’s intimate life, Quantrille McClung and Bernice Blackwelder had wrestled with these very same relationships—and sometimes with each other over how best to present them. After uncovering evidence of a sexual bond in the Carson family circle that was forged without benefit of clergy, for instance, biographer Blackwelder wrote to genealogist McClung that she worried about “broadcasting anything” that would “smirch” the reputations of the couple involved. Blackwelder went on, “It is different for you to put all information you wish in a family history but not for me. Don’t you agree?” I saw similar evidence myself, and while I did not worry much about matters of reputation (having come of age at a time when protecting sexual reputations, for white people, anyway, seemed old-fashioned), I did worry about matters of representation. What did it mean, I wondered, to write even one more word about a figure like Carson, even if my focus and purpose differed from those of enthusiasts who had celebrated or vilified or rehabilitated him in the past? The longer I wondered, the less I could separate my own project from those of earlier Carson specialists—and especially from the projects of Blackwelder and McClung. Separation could come only through pride of profession, the arrogance of relative youth (my youth was long gone, anyway), and the condescension of historical hindsight. As I thought through all of this and as I also reckoned with my own relationship to Carson and his intimate life, I realized that I had in my hands a very complicated story indeed.
This book tells that tale. It interweaves the lives of two minor historians, embracing and exploring their minor status, and it braids those lives together with the life of a so-called pioneer. Like a simple braid, the book starts by plaiting three strands: Quantrille McClung, Bernice Blackwelder, and Kit Carson. But Carson is not just a historical figure; he is also a character endlessly recreated in collective memory and popular culture. What is more, activists and historians fought over his legacy in the 1970s and they argue about him still. In other words, Carson has not only a life but a half-life, and that half-life is as much at issue here as the days he walked the earth. So, like a complex braid, the book ultimately interlaces more than three strands. As a text about the everyday conditions in which people produce knowledge about the past, it centers the stories of McClung and Blackwelder. It explains how their daily lives across the twentieth century brought them to love nineteenth-century history and what kind of history those lives made them love. Yet how I see those lives and the historical knowledge those lives produced is a product of my own life path, which makes me a strand in this braided story, too, not an absent, omniscient observer. I am present in the text for a purpose: to insist that when we interrogate the lives of others, we also ought to examine our own. Just so do we learn how we know what we know about the past and how that knowing is shaped by the conditions of our knowing.
Susan Lee Johnson is the Harry Reid Endowed Chair for the History of the Intermountain West at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
Follow the UNC Press Blog for a celebration of women’s histories and women historians throughout March.
This year we are celebrating the significant contributions of notable women, renown and lesser known, throughout history, as well as women historians past and present that have been published by UNC Press.
“Sippial’s biography, based on hundreds of interviews, suggests that in the end, [Celia Sánchez Manduley’s] reticence might have been her greatest achievement, the performance that made everything else she accomplished possible.”—Guernica
“Sippial’s ‘feminist biography’ of Celia Sánchez Manduley, Fidel Castro’s right-hand woman, seeks its famously private subject in official memorials, museums, press reports, family interviews, popular culture and a cache of personal papers – only to conclude that ‘the ‘real’ Sánchez . . . is largely unknowable to us all’.”—Times Literary Supplement
“In this unprecedented critical biography, Sippial opens a window onto the consciousness of Celia Sánchez Manduley, possibly the Cuban Revolution’s staunchest loyalist and one of Fidel Castro’s primary confidantes. Sánchez emerges as a savvy architect of the post-1959 revolutionary regime who attempted to limit its authoritarian contradictions. That Sippial is one of very few to ever gain access to the state’s official historical archive since Sánchez inaugurated it in 1964 alone makes this book mandatory reading for anyone interested in learning how revolutionary Cuba became Communist Cuba in less than two decades.”–Lillian Guerra, author of Visions of Power
“While previous studies lionized or sentimentalized Beatriz, Harmer roots the subject in the context of the time period and brings to bear her own expertise in Cold War Latin America. A definitive biography of a female revolutionary.”—Library Journal
“An engaging, beautifully written biography. . . . The text is rich in stories as the author masterfully moves between Beatriz’s personal life and the broader political history of Latin America. . . . Highly recommended.”—CHOICE Reviews
“Demolishing the myth that women were at best secondary actors in the Chilean and Latin American Left, Harmer gives readers a close-up view of what it meant to be a revolutionary confronting the United States at the height of the Cold War. Beatriz Allende movingly illustrates the unrecognized contributions Beatriz made to the Chilean and Latin American Left and the enormous price she paid for her work. This book is a convincing demonstration of how much we can learn about the inner workings of politics, governments, and parties through the study of one individual’s life. It is simultaneously a clear, moving history of Beatriz herself, her multiple relationships, both personal and political, and a history of Chile, Latin America, and the Cold War.”—Margaret Power, author of Right-Wing Women in Chile
Tiffany A. Sippial, associate professor of history at Auburn University, is the author of Prostitution, Modernity, and the Making of the Cuban Republic, 1840–1920.
Tanya Harmer, associate professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, is the author of Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War.
Grace Lee Boggs was both product and producer of an improbable history. “I grew up in New York as a first generation Chinese American in an all- Caucasian community with no role models,” she once told an audience. “So I realized early on that I had to blaze my own trail.” It was this back- ground, she continued, that likely “predisposed me to make so many unconventional decisions when I became an adult, for example, to become an activist in the African American community and to marry an African American worker.” On other occasions, she attributed the origins of her “revolutionary activism to a combination of my mother’s rebelliousness and my father’s commitment to country and community.” By mapping what can be known of her childhood, early intellectual development, and formal education, we can identify central experiences and influences during the first quarter century of her life that called forth and shaped her subsequent political commitments and intellectual work.
If Grace’s background was the source of qualities that would later provide a foundation for her activism—independence, resolve, and commitment to change—it also generated a contradictory set of experiences around her ethnic identity. As a Chinese American growing up in a largely white world during the 1920s and 1930s, a sense of social marginalization marked her formative years. “Asian Americans were so few and far between,” she recalled, “that from an early age we were raised to make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible, in part because so many of us had relatives or knew people who were illegal immigrants.” Indeed, she came of age during the era of exclusion, as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (extended in 1904) remained in force well into her adulthood. It was repealed during World War II as she approached the age of thirty, marking her as a member of the last generation whose childhood and young adulthood unfolded before the Chinese in America saw significant opportunities “to move out from the shadows of exclusion and become fuller participants in American life.” She did not have available during her formative years the concept of “Asian Americans” or of a pan-Asian ethnic identity, which did not emerge until the 1960s. Furthermore, her parents transmitted conflicting attitudes toward Chinese identity. While her father proudly embraced his Chinese heritage and sought to instill an appreciation of it in his children, her mother increasingly identified with the United States and derived fulfillment from seeing herself as more American than Chinese.
As a teenager and young adult during the 1930s, Grace grappled with these conflicts surrounding identity in the midst of the Depression. Initially, she responded by turning inward, pondering questions about the meaning of life and her place in the world. This led her to the study of philosophy in college and graduate school, and it was there that she discovered Hegel and the dialectic method. Dialectics gave her a way to connect her inward struggles around social identity and her place in the world with outward struggles revolving around social conflicts and political contestation. More broadly, dialectics offered her a framework—one that was intellectual but also profoundly personal—with which to understand and resolve the contradictory realities she observed around her. Rather than avoid contra- dictions, she learned to accept them as productive and necessary. This set an enduring foundation: she would make the practice of embracing contra- dictions and dialectical thinking hallmarks of her intellectual and political activities for the rest of her life.
Born with Two Names
Grace Chin Lee was born on June 27, 1915, to Yin Lan and Chin Dong Goon, immigrants to the United States from China four years earlier. The year of her birth marked profound developments in two distinct patterns of American racialization. That year saw the release of the film The Birth of a Nation, based on the 1905 novel The Clansman, and the formation of the second Ku Klux Klan. The widely hailed film—which romanticized the old South, lambasted black political empowerment, reinscribed racial stereotypes such as the black rapist and the faithful servant, and celebrated the Klan— reinvigorated and gave cultural authority to national articulations of black inferiority. The film also sparked protest, most notably the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s national campaign against the film that would help to build the young organization, then in its sixth year, and establish the parameters of twentieth-century black protest. The year 1915 also saw the emergence of what one scholar describes as “a distinctive Chinese American identity.” The formation, for example, of the China Mail Steamship Company as a purely Chinese American venture (as opposed to a joint venture with the Chinese government) and the founding of the Chinese American Citizen Alliance, both in 1915, reflected this emergent consciousness of Chinese in America as a cohesive ethnic minority.
For Grace, however, this consciousness and identity as a Chinese American would not be straightforward. She was the fifth of seven children. Her parents gave each of their children a Chinese and an American first name, foretelling Grace’s somewhat bifurcated and conflicted relationship to these two facets of her identity. Her father chose to name Grace after the American missionary who taught him English when he first arrived in the United States. Grace’s Chinese name was Yuk Ping (Jade Peace). She was called Ping at home and at her father’s restaurant, where all of the workers were Chinese. She was called Grace everywhere else, in an overwhelmingly white world. These two names thus corresponded with the two racially and culturally distinct worlds of her childhood. Even Grace’s last name evolved. Her father’s last name was Chin, but after he took a new first name, Lee, he became known as Mr. Chin Lee or Mr. Lee. Eventually, Chin Lee and then Lee became the family’s surname.
Stephen M. Ward is associate professor of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan.
The 1882 act excluding Chinese laborers from the United States for ten years did more than displace the egalitarian spirit of the Burlingame and Angell Treaties; it placed an increasingly anti-Chinese Congress in the driver’s seat to set immigration policy. The result was a series of acts, each building onto the exclusion of Chinese laborers an increasingly discriminatory system of restriction, regulation, and surveillance. In 1884 Congress broadened the definition of excluded laborers by denying entry to them on the basis of race, even if they were not citizens of China, and making more burdensome the registration system required of all Chinese immigrants in America under the 1882 act. In response, Qing officials negotiated a new U.S.-China treaty in which China agreed to self-imposed immigration restrictions. Self-restriction was seen as a way to establish a treaty basis for exclusion that would limit Congress’s freedom to further tighten the screws.
Negotiations of the Bayard-Zhang Treaty in 1888 revealed a newly assertive Chinese diplomatic corps, which, after establishing a legation in Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco consulate, became actively engaged in immigration politics. This was welcomed by the merchants of the Six Companies, who until then had shouldered the burden of defending overseas Chinese. While the merchants embraced the principle of self-restriction, they objected to the proposed treaty’s length of exclusion (twenty years), causing an uproar against it from egalitarians in the United States and southern China that led the Qing government to back away from ratification. The treaty’s failure pushed Congress, with President Grover Cleveland’s blessing, to deny Chinese laborers already in the United States reentry into the country after traveling abroad to visit family in China. Four years later Congress renewed the 1882 act as well as all supplements to it for another ten years. The renewal act, known by its California sponsor, Thomas Geary, also included the dreaded “dog tag law” requiring all Chinese immigrants to carry a certificate testifying to their legal right of residence, without which they risked being thrown in jail and subsequently deported.
These were gloomy days for egalitarians within and outside of Chinatown. During the 1880s Chinese immigrants in the Pacific Northwest faced racist pogroms in nearly two hundred towns. In 1885 mobs of angry whites killed forty Chinese and caused half a million dollars in property damage in separate attacks in Seattle and in Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory. A year and a half later Congress agreed to pay $148,000 to the relatives of Rock Springs victims in lieu of an official apology or punishment of the murderers. The Six Companies, now backed by the Chinese legation and consulate, continued to rely on paid white American employees such as Colonel Frederick Bee, now consul general of San Francisco, to sway public opinion. But as lobbyists they found few allies on Capitol Hill as the once-dominant Burlingame constituency had all but evaporated. While Senator George Hoar continued to stand against exclusionists until he died in 1904, the New England congressional delegation no longer put up much of a fight as it shrank in size and became increasingly Democratic.
Ironically, it was a Democratic president who offered a silver lining for the downtrodden egalitarians. After Chinese immigrants boycotted the Geary Act’s “dog tag” regulations, President Cleveland calmed U.S.-China tensions by halting the implementation of this type of surveillance. His action prevented the arrest and deportation of tens of thousands who were encouraged by China’s foreign ministry and the Six Companies to violate the registration law. Cleveland also earned praise from egalitarians (and the wrath of exclusionists) by being party to the rejuvenation of the failed Bayard-Zhang Treaty. The new treaty, approved in 1894 by Secretary of State Walter Gresham and China’s foreign minister Yang-ju, established the principle of China’s self-restriction while finally placing exclusion on a treaty basis. In a party-line vote, Democrats in the Senate approved the Gresham-Yang Treaty, while the Republican minority opposed it along with all but one western senator.
The branch of government that gave egalitarians the most hope was the judicial branch because exclusion laws did not restrict the right to a fair trial. Those barred from entering the United States received legal consul from some of the best white attorneys in San Francisco, such as Thomas Riordan, who was retained by the San Francisco consulate. As one historian notes, “By far, Chinese immigrants’ most valuable resource during the exclusion era was an organized network of immigration lawyers who facilitated Chinese entry and reentry by keeping track of necessary paperwork and lobbying on behalf of clients, tasks that would have been extremely difficult for Chinese to accomplish on their own.”
Such attorneys also launched test cases challenging the constitutionality of anti-Chinese laws and ordinances, including Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886), in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a San Francisco measure imposed against Chinese laundries that violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. In another precedent-setting decision, the Court in 1898 granted an American-born Chinese the right to reenter the United States. Exclusionists had argued that the children of Chinese immigrants were not automatically granted U.S. citizenship because their parents themselves lacked the right of naturalization. Yet the Wong Kim Ark decision rejected this claim in favor of a broad interpretation of birthright citizenship (jus soli).
As the exclusionist campaign picked up steam after 1882, it also broadened to target European immigrants. Congress led the way in 1884 when it excluded contract laborers from Europe in legislation sponsored by Martin Foran, the first congressman to openly identify with organized labor. Samuel Gompers’s testimony against German imported labor—addressed at the start of this chapter—was in support of Foran’s bill. But the main focus of the legislation was southern and eastern Europeans, as well as French Canadians. As with the Chinese, exclusionists saw these newcomers as tools of big business who lowered the standard of living for union workers. These new immigrants were considered nonwhite because they were not Protestant and lacked prized Anglo-Saxon racial traits. Congressman Foran decried the character of Italian and Hungarian immigrants: “They know nothing of our institutions, our customs, or of the habits and characteristics of our people.… They are brought here precisely in the same manner as the Chinese were brought here.… Very many of them have no conception of freedom.… They seldom sleep in beds.… They do not know to purchase any of the luxuries which tend to elevate and enlighten people.… Being low in the scale of intelligence, they are willing slaves.”
Lon Kurashige is professor of history at the University of Southern California.
Speaking very broadly, people who have emotional investments in the blues — people who like, play, think about, talk about, and identify themselves with the blues — have two diametrically opposed ways of configuring the blues in ideological terms. An ideology is simply an idea-set: an intellectual orientation that governs the way one sees the world and thinks through the problems it presents. One way of ideologizing the blues is to say, “The blues are black music.” They’re a black thing. When you look at the history and cultural origins of the blues, when you look at who has a right to claim the social pain expressed through the blues — what you might call the “I’ve got the blues” element of the blues — and when you look at who the most powerful performers and great stylistic innovators have been, it’s black people who have a profound, undeniable, and inalienable claim on blues in a way that whites just don’t. The history, the feelings, the music: They’re a black thing. And when whites get involved, as they always do, black people suffer.
This ideological position, a form of black cultural nationalism that I term “black bluesism,” is expressed with great clarity and power by Roland L. Freeman, an African American photographer and cultural documentarian, in a poem titled “Don’t Forget the Blues.” Freeman composed his poem in 1997 to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival — the oldest black-run blues festival in the country — and he read it out loud to the crowd. “Do you see ’em,” the poem begins, “here they come”:
Easing into our communities In their big fancy cars, Looking like alien carpetbaggers Straight from Mars. They slide in from the East, North, South and West, And when they leave, You can bet they’ve taken the best. Listen to me, I’ve been drunk a long time And I’m still drinking. I take a bath every Saturday night, But I’m still stinking. This world’s been whipping me upside my head, But it hasn’t stopped me from thinking. I know they’ve been doing anything they choose, I just want ’em to keep their darn hands off ’a my blues.
That aggrieved “I,” demanding our attention, is an avatar of the blues, his blackness unmarked but evident, who refuses to say die: Drunk and stinking, beaten down by the world, he is still “thinking,” still conscious and resistant. The poem’s omnipresent “they” is white people — more specifically, white blues tourists, fans, producers, musicians, anybody who seeks pleasure and profit from the music. “They” is the oppressive white world, an all-points barrage (“from the East / North, South and West”) that surrounds, exploits, and unmakes black people (“us”) and their (“our”) world, body and soul. Playwright August Wilson evokes both worlds in his “Preface to Three Plays” (1991) when he talks about how the blues gave him “a world that contained my image, a world at once rich and varied, marked and marking, brutal and beautiful, and at crucial odds with the larger world that contained it and preyed and pressed it from every conceivable angle.”
Like Wilson, Freeman sees the blues as an art form that contains an image of his humanity, but, unlike Wilson, he sees the blues themselves as something that the white world has purloined and profited from, an expropriation anticipated by the earlier refashioning of rhythm ’n’ blues into rock ’n’ roll. “How can we stop ’em,” he cries as the poem rolls on, “or will it ever end?”:
Mama’s in the kitchen Humming her mournful song. Sister’s moaning in the bedroom, Crying some man has done her wrong. Papa’s in the backyard sipping on his corn-n-n-n . . . liquor, He’s just screaming, hollering and yelling. And the old folks on the front porch keep saying, “There just ain’t no telling How long it’ll take ’em to leave us alone.” They have taken our blues and gone.
“Don’t Forget the Blues” speaks to the blues from a beleaguered black nationalist perspective. At the heart of the poem is a contemporary black folk community in crisis. There’s mama, there’s sister, there’s papa and the old folks, and there’s the poet himself; the family is a microcosm for Black America, and everybody is hurting. Freeman’s black family has the blues at the very moment when the surrounding white world is consuming and capitalizing on the blues. That white world, these days, is populated by self-styled blues aficionados who claim to love the music and who shout things like, “Keep the blues alive! Let’s drive on down to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and listen to the real blues at Red’s Lounge! Let’s pay five thousand dollars and take a blues cruise to the Bahamas! Let’s fly our Dutch blues band to Memphis and compete in the International Blues Challenge.” Freeman’s poem articulates the pain created by the juxtaposition of, and the power differential between, two radically different blues worlds: an immiserated but tightly knit black community on the one hand and, on the other, a widely dispersed mainstream blues scene that takes pleasure and profit from the music. When Freeman cries, “There they go, with our gold,” he is, at least implicitly and with prophetic foresight, taking aim at my viewers, my customers, and me — millions of blues harmonica players from 192 countries and territories around the world who enjoy the hundreds of free instructional videos I’ve uploaded to YouTube since 2007, a modest percentage of whom visit my website every year and sometimes buy my stuff.
Adam Gussow is professor of English and southern studies at the University of Mississippi and author of four previous books on the blues, including Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition. He appears in Satan & Adam, an award-winning Netflix documentary about his thirty-five-year partnership with Mississippi-born bluesman Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee.
Follow the UNC Press Blog for a celebration of women’s histories and women historians throughout March.
This year we are celebrating the significant contributions of notable women, renown and lesser known, throughout history, as well as women historians past and present that have been published by UNC Press.
American Gold Digger: Marriage, Money, and the Law from the Ziegfeld Follies to Anna Nicole Smith by Brian Donovan
The gold digger can be seen in silent films, vaudeville jokes, hip hop lyrics, and reality television. Whether feared, admired, or desired, the figure of the gold digger appears almost everywhere gender, sexuality, class, and race collide. This fascinating interdisciplinary work reveals the assumptions and disputes around women’s sexual agency in American life, shedding new light on the cultural and legal forces underpinning romantic, sexual, and marital relationships.
Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community by Jodi Eichler-Levine
Jodi Eichler-Levine takes readers inside a flourishing American Jewish crafting movement. As she traveled across the country to homes, craft conventions, synagogue knitting circles, and craftivist actions, she joined in the making, asked questions, and contemplated her own family stories. Jewish Americans, many of them women, are creating ritual challah covers and prayer shawls, ink, clay, or wood pieces, and other articles for family, friends, or Jewish charities. But they are doing much more: armed with perhaps only a needle and thread, they are reckoning with Jewish identity in a fragile and dangerous world.
Against Sex: Identities of Sexual Restraint in Early America by Kara M. French
In this richly textured history, Kara French investigates ideas about, and practices of, sexual restraint to better understand the sexual dimensions of American identity in the antebellum United States. French considers three groups of Americans—Shakers, Catholic priests and nuns, and followers of sexual reformer Sylvester Graham—whose sexual abstinence provoked almost as much social, moral, and political concern as the idea of sexual excess. Examining private diaries and letters, visual culture and material artifacts, and a range of published works, French reveals how people practicing sexual restraint became objects of fascination, ridicule, and even violence in nineteenth-century American culture.
The Injustices of Rape: How Activists Responded to Sexual Violence, 1950–1980 by Catherine O. Jacquet
From 1950 to 1980, activists in the black freedom and women’s liberation movements mounted significant campaigns in response to the injustices of rape. These activists challenged the dominant legal and social discourses of the day and redefined the political agenda on sexual violence for over three decades. How activists framed sexual violence–as either racial injustice, gender injustice, or both–was based in their respective frameworks of oppression. The dominant discourse of the black freedom movement constructed rape primarily as the product of racism and white supremacy, whereas the dominant discourse of women’s liberation constructed rape as the result of sexism and male supremacy. In The Injustices of Rape, Catherine O. Jacquet is the first to examine these two movement responses together, explaining when and why they were in conflict, when and why they converged, and how activists both upheld and challenged them.
Mothers and Strangers: Essays on Motherhood from the New South edited by Samia Serageldin & Lee Smith
In this anthology of creative nonfiction, twenty-eight writers set out to discover what they know, and don’t know, about the person they call Mother. Celebrated writers Samia Serageldin and Lee Smith have curated a diverse and insightful collection that challenges stereotypes about mothers and expands our notions of motherhood in the South. The mothers in these essays were shaped, for good and bad, by the economic and political crosswinds of their time. Whether their formative experience was the Great Depression or the upheavals of the 1970s, their lives reflected their era and influenced how they raised their children
In the opening chapter of Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s unpublished autobiography, “A Human Life,” written while she was in her eighties, the poet describes visiting her childhood home as a forty-year-old woman. At the time of Oakes Smith’s return, a young mother and her three children live there, and the mother informs Oakes Smith that “this house has an interest of itself, a Poet was born here in this very room.” “I was pleased by this,” recalls Oakes Smith, who then hands the woman her card. When she learned that the very Poet was standing before her, the mother, according to Oakes Smith, “grasped” her hand and exclaimed, “I must know exactly how you look.” The mother then “studied [Oakes Smith’s] face with pleasant scrutiny.” At first glance, it is tempting to read this event as a testament to Oakes Smith’s lasting name as a literary figure. But the contents of “A Human Life” speak more to the anxieties Oakes Smith sought to resolve than to the life she wanted to celebrate. We can see this opening as a defensive move on her part, meant to put off what she saw as a disconcerting fate: the inevitable erasure of women writers from the public record by virtue of women’s illiberal status.
The mention of this incident is also notable for its placement in Oakes Smith’s autobiography, and not only because it appears in its first chapter. Just a page earlier, Oakes Smith had discussed the fragmentary, forgettable nature of a woman’s existence: “We live in fragments—daughter, wife, mother, friend—no woman’s life is rounded unless she fills these relations.” After “child-bearing,” she writes with some rancor, “the books are closed and [a woman] sinks into nothingness.” In sum, Oakes Smith recognized in her autobiography that self-possessed autonomy was impossible for women. Even the likelihood of living a “rounded” or full life is prohibited, since women’s lives were broken into prescribed “relations.” And such a splintered existence, she laments, is not likely to make it on “the books,” much less be celebrated. Women’s lives are therefore forgotten because they lack the self-sovereignty to socially or politically establish themselves as anything beyond “daughter, wife, mother, friend.” As a way to counter such expectations, Oakes Smith encouraged writing: “Women ought to write out their experiences, as by doing so the sex will be better understood.” This very autobiography serves as an opportunity for Oakes Smith to assert her autonomy. Indeed, she proclaims, “I have not lived in fragments. I am sure my identity has been built up fit for the ^resurrection.^ … I see how piece by piece has been linked together to make an entire whole.” No passive endeavor, the declaration of such self-possession required effort; she would have to hold herself together in order to be remembered: “Such as I am I must take hold of eternal life, and not be scattered by the elements.”
Coming on the heels of these musings, Oakes Smith’s use of capital-P “Poet” in the subsequent anecdote about her old home is no accident. Despite her work as a lecturer, journalist, novelist, and pioneering advocate for American women’s rights in the nineteenth century, the young mother knows of Oakes Smith as a “Poet.” Nor had the mother heard that a “Poetess” or “authoress” was born in her home. The story serves to prove Oakes Smith’s status as a celebrity “Poet,” or a woman who has not been forgotten. Poets, unlike women, do not sink “into nothingness”; their lives fit together to form an “entire whole.” For Oakes Smith, her status as Poet signifies her possession of autonomous personhood; her autobiography, which prominently features her poetic achievements, demonstrates the sovereignty that a Poet exerts over her life and works. Oakes Smith therefore wants readers to know that she was born in this little cottage in 1806, that she returned nearly forty years later as a famous author, and that another forty years after that she “linked together” all the parts “to make an entire whole.” In other words, “A Human Life” is the proof for Oakes Smith that her life was hers to control.
If “A Human Life” was meant to parry concerns about her legacy, it is unfortunate that it was never published. As Leigh Kirkland argues, “Much of the poignancy of this text lies in her implicit struggle against the possibility that she will be forgotten. If she does not write, no memory of her or of the times she both was shaped by and helped shape will last.” Indeed, as her opening page declares, “I will now write a book in which I will figure as the principal personage. I will speak soundly of myself. I belong now to a past period, the memory of which it may be well to retain.” To “speak soundly” and place herself in the autobiographical spotlight situated Oakes Smith as a public female figure, and in order to be this “principal personage,” she must assert her self-possession, not fragmentation. These individual concerns in fact register the problems attending the reception of women writers in the literary public sphere, a reception that had roots in the larger political conditions for women in the nineteenth-century United States. As I discussed in the introduction and chapter 1, the laws and legacy of coverture prevented women from possessing full legal rights in this era. Considered the property of their husbands, women were confined to the domestic sphere and thought to lack the ability to function as autonomous individuals in public. Women poets “write without a name,” as Eliza Richards argues, because the laws of coverture “disable” the “legal force” of her signature. With no control over the conditions of their reception, most women poets were effectively erased from public memory; their names were consumed and forgotten. Oakes Smith was constantly confronted with the possibility that she could be entirely dissolved into an indistinct generic figure in the public imagination. For that reason, it is perhaps unsurprising that Oakes Smith sought to establish herself as a name in a number of ways. To distinguish herself from her husband, the popular author and humorist Seba Smith, she changed her published name from “Mrs. Seba Smith” to “Oakes Smith.” She even named her children after herself; her son Appleton signified that the “apple” does not fall far from the tree. Oakes Smith might attempt to establish herself as a “principal personage” with these names, but publication would nevertheless threaten to dissolve her individuality.
The problem of the female poet’s fleeting fame likewise concerned Oakes Smith’s audiences. For example, included among the press clippings that Oakes Smith selected for her scrapbook is Susan E. Dickinson’s 1855 article “Women Writers: A Chapter on Their Ephemeral Reputations.” The subtitle, “Hopes and Ambitions That Have Faded in Sad Disappointments,” reinforces the ephemerality of women writers’ literary legacies. Dickinson muses, “I wonder to how many of my readers the name even, of Mrs. Elizabeth Oakes Smith is familiar, although she was one of America’s most popular writers for a generation.” Perhaps this article was included in her scrapbook because it pleased Oakes Smith—or perhaps it filled her with anxiety about her literary legacy. Indeed, Dickinson’s concluding words, “let us hope that her setting sun, and those of the few others of that illustrious coterie who are still among us, may linger in its going down and be beautiful and radiant to the last,” could be interpreted by Oakes Smith as appropriate praise or a death sentence. According to Dickinson, Oakes Smith cannot escape a reception that would make her a “setting sun.” Oakes Smith may be a name among “American women writers” and a member of their “illustrious coterie,” yet this is not enough to secure lasting fame for her. She may have enjoyed recognition, but comments like Dickinson’s tell her that this recognition will not last.
Elissa Zellinger is assistant professor of English at Texas Tech University.