The Ku-Klux began as a name. It was chosen by a group of young former Confederates in Pulaski, Tennessee, in May or June 1866. Pulaski, the seat of Giles County, is seventy-four miles south of Nashville, connected to the city by the Nashville and Decatur Railroad. The war’s shadow fell heavily on the nation, but Pulaski bore a disproportionate share of suffering. While it was never itself a battlefield, Federal troops had occupied it, and it was in close proximity to some of the war’s most deadly fighting. Union troops camped in Pulaski in the days before the bloody Battle of Nashville, and were a frequent presence throughout the war. These strains may have contributed to the area’s fraught postwar atmosphere. Continue Reading Excerpt: Ku-Klux, by Elaine Frantz Parsons
Protestant aversion to organized religion is everywhere, even on the sign on the front lawns of churches. Smart congregations are dropping the Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian label and replacing it with soft generic names like Willow Grove or Saddleback. They are becoming nonspecific “communities” and “fellowships” associating themselves with some broad spiritual aspiration, like “resurrection” or “hope” or “reconciliation.” Continue Reading Margaret Bendroth: Disorganized Religion
The audience eagerly anticipated a larger-than-life figure, a novelist, journalist, sailor, war correspondent, exponent of modern marriage, sportswriter, and, most recently, a gentleman farmer-rancher. His audience reached from the workers with “hard hands and strong arms” to the affluent bourgeoisie of “placid . . . sedentary existence.” Awaiting his appearance in the hall, many in the audience opened purses or dug into trouser pockets to snap up the ten-cent “‘genuine’ blood red flags, the ‘Jack London souvenirs of a great and momentous occasion.’” The fiery female union organizer from the coalfields, Mother Jones, was in the hall, and her shout-out later in the evening was to be memorable for its typical “crisp” and “clipped speech.” The atmosphere was amiable, though the speaker was overdue because his train was late. When London finally took the stage at 9:15 P.M., no one in the audience (not even the New York Times reporter) guessed that the celebrated Jack London was half-sick from lingering effects of the flulike grippe. This was America’s epicenter of capitalism, and Gotham could flatten a man who didn’t show himself fit in body and mind. Such a man wouldn’t last one round. Continue Reading Excerpt: Jack London, by Cecelia Tichi
I started out thinking that the garden statue was kind of a cliché. Imagine just going out and buying a mass-produced plastic image and thinking there is something special about it! Commercial statuary seemed to trivialize Francis’s meaning, to make him less challenging. Instead of a figure who calls for drastic change, radical poverty, and absolute devotion—a saint who was active in the wider world—our vision is limited to a pretty statue and birdbath on our private property. But I came to change my views. There’s a real spiritual side to this, and also a cultural critique. Continue Reading Interview: Patricia Appelbaum on St. Francis of America
As we travel home this Thanksgiving, it is worth taking time to reflect on the various meanings of this holiday—personal, collective, regional, and national. A product of nineteenth-century sectional, socio-sexual, and imperialist imperatives, Thanksgiving is far from a physically satisfying celebration involving a return to an uncomplicated home. Continue Reading J. Samaine Lockwood: Nineteenth-Century New England’s Queer Thanksgivings
Gina Mahalek: Very briefly, what is Liberated Threads about?
Tanisha C. Ford: Liberated Threads is about how everyday women turned getting dressed into a powerful political act that transformed the cultural and political landscape of the 1960s and 70s around the world. Often, when we study the social movements of the mid-twentieth century, we focus on policy issues, the fight to integrate public spaces, and big events, such as marches and protests. But, in Liberated Threads, I argue that we need to focus on everyday acts such as getting dressed in order to understand how everyday people engaged in movement politics. Most people were not involved in formal political organizing. They were not members of Black Freedom movement organizations. But, they were engaged in the fashion culture of the time. I wanted to explore the various ways that fashion and style connected people to the global movement for black freedom. Continue Reading Interview: Tanisha C. Ford on Black Women, Style, and Politics in the 1960s and ’70s
Judging by the sheer number of supernatural walking tours, bus tours, hearse tours, and reality TV shows proliferating across the country, America is host to manifold hauntings: at prisons, insane asylums, old hotels, historic sites and, of course, exceedingly Gothic haunted houses. It is perhaps not surprising that many of these hauntings are rooted in the South, the site of the American tragedy of slavery and the seat of the Civil War. In today’s Dixieland, enslaved ghosts join a cast of spectral characters: Confederate soldiers carrying muskets, young plantation belles in mourning, lovelorn barmaids done wrong, and profiteering pirates. But it is the ghosts of the enslaved who stand out. Continue Reading Tiya Miles: Ghosts ‘R Us
If the Windsor Jazz Riot has long been lost from our collective historical memory, it provides an important moment to think about current national debates over riots, race relations, and national boundaries. Borders—be they national, geographical, social, or cultural—provide us the opportunity to blame outsiders for social ills, and for expressing collective fears. We tend to associate this most often with the U.S.–Mexico border, where inflammatory language about anchor babies, Mexican rapists, and drug smugglers dominates public debates. But there is a deep history of racial division along the U.S.–Canada divide, one that needs to be acknowledged as we debate the “American” race problem in the twenty-first century. Continue Reading Holly M. Karibo: Race and Violence on the Northern Borderline: The Case of the Windsor “Jazz Riot”
This enthusiasm for guest workers—temporary laborers stripped of the right to choose employers, bargain for higher wages, or remain within the United States past the expiration date of their labor contract—ignores a few basic problems. McGurn’s oversimplified history of the Bracero Program bears no resemblance to the growing scholarship on the binational contract labor scheme and its many problems. Continue Reading John Weber: Immigration Reform, Guest Workers, and Poorly Understood History
It’s the season of blessings again. In many places there are blessings of backpacks for the new school year. Here and there, bicycles that were not blessed in spring will have another chance. In October, religious groups all over the country and around the world will hold “blessings of the animals” in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. What I find remarkable is how many of these ceremonies take place in Protestant churches. It wasn’t always like this. Continue Reading Patricia Appelbaum: Protestant Blessings and Cultural Change
A variety of factors contributed to the explosion of weight loss culture during and after the Great War, and one especially potent factor was the creep of metrics into daily life. The application of calories to food in the late nineteenth century and the emerging discipline of statistics resulted in well-publicized comparisons of food consumption and body weights between individuals and across populations. At the same time, life insurance statistics were revealing new correlations between excess weight and chronic disease. More and more Americans, meanwhile, were purchasing newly affordable home scales and buying their clothing ready-made, and thus increasingly thinking of their bodies in terms of numbers and sizes instead of, say, just making clothes to fit their individual bodies. Moreover, metrics grew more prevalent in daily life just as the motion picture industry was taking off and as a visually oriented print media continued to expand. Handed the tools to make physical comparisons, Americans eagerly made them. The growing ease of numerical and visual comparisons contributed directly to the valorization of thinness. But what accounts for the moral stigma that leeched onto the idea of being overweight? The answer lies at the heart of the Progressive ideology of self-control, a value that transcended the Progressive Era itself, both supporting and thriving within the enduring associations between thinness, willpower, and beauty. Continue Reading Excerpt: Modern Food, Moral Food, by Helen Zoe Veit
Dolezal’s purported blackness (and Indianness) was not a temporary costume, but was more like the racial shifting that anthropologist Circe Sturm and a number of other writers have outlined and it is not uncommon in the history of the United States. In Real Native Genius, I examine this phenomenon through the lives of Okah Tubbee and Laah Ceil, two apparently non-Native people who remade themselves as Indians during the mid-19th century. Like Dolezal, Laah Ceil was raised as a white woman, and the two cases raise similar questions. Why would a white woman abandon the abundant privileges of whiteness to pass as a racial minority, particularly given the long and brutal histories of white supremacy and settler colonialism that did and do endanger people of color? What combination of fantasy and necessity enabled their transformation? What benefit(s) did/do they derive from their imposture? Continue Reading Angela Pulley Hudson: On Racial Passing, Posing, and Posturing
Gina Mahalek: Jack London is well known for his adventure novels, like The Call of the Wild. But apart from tales such as the one about a dog in the Yukon, who was he? And why does he matter today?
Cecelia Tichi: Jack London (1876-1916) was the most popular U.S. writer of the early 20th century, the first to earn $1 million. In a career spanning twenty years, he published fifty books, hundreds of short stories, and numerous essays. His books sold well internationally and have been translated into several languages. He continues to be one of the most famous and esteemed writers in the world—arguably better known and respected abroad than here in the United States. Continue Reading Interview: Cecelia Tichi on Jack London’s Fight for a Better America
The hotel’s ability to foster trust and nurture people who are otherwise temporarily homeless and dependent has been a long-standing feature of the modern landscape, and this functionality makes the hotel an irresistible magnet for those across the entire socioeconomic spectrum. Kay Thompson famously captured the hotel’s imaginative allure for the vulnerable wealthy in her 1955 fabulously popular Eloise stories, and the resulting marketing of these stories as a distinguishing feature of the hotel she—and her creator—called home attests to the hotel’s ability to incubate new kinds of identity and self-making even for those guests who seem to have it all. A ward of New York City’s Plaza Hotel, the six-year-old Eloise roams the hallways of one of the world’s finest hotels, her mother perennially absent. Without the protecting spaces provided by the hotel’s public and private venues, Eloise would be alone in a dangerous and unprotecting world, but in the generative habitus of the hotel she invents a world rich with play at self-making. Continue Reading Excerpt: Hotel Life, by Caroline Field Levander and Matthew Pratt Guterl
Stories such as this one about middle-class riders making motorcycling respectable were common in the early 1960s. Their arrival both coincided with and was the product of the introduction of the Japanese Honda into the American marketplace. Yet despite the enthusiasm that greeted the middle-class rider, ambivalence and frustration also surrounded him. These were serious riders, or so they claimed, yet their critics found it all too easy to dismiss them as “casual” motorcyclists. If anything, their struggle to overcome this claim made their impact on motorcycling more conspicuous than it might have been otherwise, and it brought the issue of class to the fore. Continue Reading Excerpt: Born to Be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist, by Randy D. McBee
One thing World War I doesn’t bring to mind is food. But it should, because during World War I the rise of industrial food processing, nutrition science, and America’s first food aid program revolutionized American food on almost every level. World War I made food modern, and understanding how that happened is key to understanding food today. Continue Reading Helen Zoe Veit: The Great War and Modern Food
The Siamese twins had long been used ironically as symbols of American nationalism. The earliest pamphlet about the twins published in the United States in the early 1830s featured a title page image of a flying eagle carrying a banner that read “E Pluribus Unum,” and beneath that was the phrase, “United We Stand.” This appeared opposite a frontispiece that pictured the twins as dark-skinned boys wearing queues and loose Oriental garments. The 1836 pamphlet published under the twins’ direction similarly featured a bald eagle clutching the national shield, beneath which were the words “Union and Liberty, one and inseparable, now and forever.” Analyzing the Siamese twins and American identity, scholar Allison Pingree argued that these exhibition booklets, which juxtaposed the parlance of the day describing conjoinedness—“united brothers” or “united twins”—with the symbolism of the American eagle holding an “E Pluribus Unum” banner in its beak, were playing to political concerns of the period. Even as nationalists appropriated the bond to symbolize union, proponents of states’ rights could claim that “connecting the states too closely was ‘monstrous’ and excessive.” Continue Reading Excerpt: The Lives of Chang and Eng, by Joseph Andrew Orser
Gina Mahalek: What was the Manhattan Musical Marketplace that you discuss in your book?
David Gilbert: This is a term that I coined to explain the historical formation of New York City as the center of American popular culture at the turn of the twentieth century. I think that many music fans, musicians, and scholars kind of take for granted that NYC has always been America’s capital of popular entertainment, and I wanted to tell the story about how this came to be. Rather than assume Broadway Theater and Tin Pan Alley song publishing just naturally developed into leading culture industries, I want to call attention to the moment in which these spaces—and their connotations—developed. And I want to emphasize African Americans’ roles in creating both New York’s unique culture markets and important facets of American popular culture. Continue Reading Interview: David Gilbert on the birth of the Manhattan musical marketplace
The reason social critics and entertainers still point out white appropriation when they see it is because the American public, and its leaders, have not matured the way black music and culture have. Even though millions of whites may profess to love and respect black music, their daily decisions—and those of their elected and institutional leaders—indicate that they do not love black people. Continue Reading David Gilbert: Who Owns Black Culture?: Racial Appropriation and the Marketplace
Our decision to focus on the inner life of hotels might seem rather whimsical, but it wasn’t. The truth is, we were looking for the right instrument, for an angle on contemporary life that we could use to materially anchor our ongoing conversations about modernity, power, and release, about race, class, gender, and globalization, about a whole lot of things. Getting to the hotel—and getting to that moment of realization at the ZaZa—took us a year or two of back-and-forth in the off hours. Sitting down that day, ticking off on our fingers those points of shared concern, we finally got it; we simply looked around and recognized that we were surrounded by a weird, fascinating material object, with its own culture and politics, an object that could capture all of these dynamic points. A waitress brought us coffee with a flourish, and a small clutch of brown sugar nuggets appeared on the table, with a small silver spoon. Why not, we thought, try to write about all of that? Continue Reading Caroline Field Levander and Matthew Pratt Guterl: A Third Way