Erstwhile blogger Caroline Grego compiles a short list of history-related news links from the past month(-ish). This month, Erstwhile presents a special edition focusing on African American history.
Teaching Slavery to Reluctant Listeners by Ed Baptist
We historians are most familiar with Ed Baptist because of his book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014). For this New York Times editorial, Baptist touches on pedagogy: how do we teach slavery to our students? In trying to find the answer, he explores his own missteps as an educator and the important role that students can play in the classroom to redirect the conversation. While at the University of Pennsylvania, two of his white students argued that criticizing slave owners was unfairly applying modern values – that in fact, enslaved people may have been happy. Baptist turned to the one African American student in the class in the hopes that the student would speak up. Instead, the student resented being called upon to speak for his race and did not speak for the rest of the semester. In contrast, while at the University of Miami, a much more diverse school, a Jamaican student shut down two white students who were complaining about the amount of work and the class’s emphasis on slavery – a confrontation that led to more thoughtful discussions in the class from there on out.
As graduate students and professors (if we can get a job!), we will face a variety of classroom dynamics. At CU-Boulder, my classrooms of roughly twenty-five are usually a sea of white faces, often made up of students from Colorado or the West – and these students often do not quite see how these antebellum issues of race are relevant to their experiences. Like Baptist, I’ve read a course evaluation where a student grumbled, “She talks too much about slavery,” for my discussion section in American History before 1865. In the department’s American History after 1865 course, I have had students who reacted with surprise that over 5000 African-Americans were lynched from the 1880s to the 1950s. Students rarely react with indifference when these histories are brought to their attention. The deeper issue, I think, is helping students figure out how to contextualize these histories of racism and violence – how have they shaped the world we live in today? How do these histories make us re-evaluate easy and prevalent narratives of a progressive American history? These are the challenges that we educators and historians must face as we re-enter the classroom each semester.
Taking Another Look at the Reconstruction Era by Jennifer Schuessler
As commemorations of Civil War anniversaries have wound down and as Civil Rights Movement remembrances continue to gain attention, some historians, locals, and politicians have pointed out that this jump from one to the other ignores the important history in between – especially Reconstruction. Schuessler’s article focuses in particular on Beaufort, South Carolina, a coastal town that has become a site of interest to the National Park Service because of its history. During the Civil War and Reconstruction, Beaufort was a locus for reform. Union forces had control of Beaufort and its environs by November 1861, and the area subsequently became a testing ground for African American schools, churches, and governance.
The idea of a Reconstruction-focused park service site in Beaufort has been explored before. In 2003, a bill with preliminary financing for such a park passed the U.S. Senate but was defeated in the House after the Sons of Confederate Veterans voiced their opposition. New interest in a park in South Carolina is rising, however, thanks to local partnerships with the NPS and politicians like U.S. Representative James Clyburn, an African American Democrat who has long represented South Carolina’s 6th Congressional District, which includes part of Beaufort County. The proponents of such a park argue that conservative white southerners and 20th century historians have misconstrued Reconstruction as a devastating time when federal policy ran roughshod over the southern economy and autonomy. Instead, supporters see Reconstruction as a moment of profound possibility during which freed African-Americans began to fight successfully for equality in social, political, and economic spheres. A Reconstruction-focused park site would help present that narrative and would also demonstrate the value of public history in recasting prevalent narratives within both the academy and society.
What a Band of 20th-Century Alabama Communists Can Teach Black Lives Matter and the Offspring of Occupy, an interview with Robin D. G. Kelley by Sarah Jaffe
Kelley’s seminal book, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (1990), explores how black sharecroppers, factory workers, and domestic workers in Alabama combined communism with their church teachings and experiences in the Jim Crow South to combat racism and labor exploitation in the 1930s. On the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication, Jaffe interviews Kelley to ask what themes contemporary readers can draw from Hammer and Hoe. Kelley suggests that the book is more relevant than ever because of the rise of anti-capitalist sentiment since the financial crisis in 2008 and the development of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many Americans, Kelley argues, feel that we are in a “state of emergency” that necessitates action and a new paradigm – and this mirrors what African-Americans felt in Alabama during the Great Depression. He notes that often, “issues of race or issues of gender…are somehow [dismissed as] a distraction from the real issues. But history has proven that these things are inseparable, because creating hierarchies of difference is essentially an ideological and economic project.”
We are, Kelley remarks, in a time of transition as activists in a variety of movements suss out what sort of transformative changes they want and come to grips with the extent and nature of linked state and private violence. This interview is well worth reading in full: Kelley’s comments are incisive, historically informed, and broad-based in their critique of the U.S.’s political economy and history of racism.
A Meditation on Race, in Shades of White by Maurice Berger
In 1949, an African American man named Caleb Hill was lynched in Irwinton, Georgia. A German photographer who defected from her home country in 1935, Marion Palfi arrived in the town months later to photograph both the white southerners who participated in and the African-Americans affected by the racial violence. She compiled these photographs into an unpublished manuscript entitled “There Is No More Time: An American Tragedy,” which is kept at Tucson’s Center for Creative Photography. Here, The New York Times showcases her work. Palfi sought to provide context for the lynching: her writing explores, as Berger explains, pseudoscientific justifications for supposed white superiority, white resentment at federal and outside intervention, insular dedication to Christianity and family, and a fierce determination to cling to white legal authority. Her photographs show ordinary people, recognizable and everyday, rather than monstrous caricatures from which an audience could distance themselves. The two together demonstrate the commonality of racism, which Palfi hoped would force white Americans to realize the deep-rooted and malicious nature of racial hatred in themselves and in their neighbors, friends, and family.
The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Ta’Nehisi Coates
Would it be a links round-up without Coates? This article begins with the 1965 Moynihan report, which has become infamous for its argument that the high rate of black families headed by single mothers impeded African American strides for political and economic equality. That report ushered in a new era in which the assumption that black people were inherently criminal was normalized, paving the way for the so-called War on Drugs and a massive increase in incarceration of African-Americans. From there, Coates explores the lives of those released from prisons, which he refers to as the “Gray Wastes.” He ultimately argues that decarceration is a tricky, complex struggle that necessitates redefining what constitutes criminal behavior and undoing the “larger tapestry of racist American policy.” Articles like this are a call to historians to heed work by non-academics, and Coates’s writing presents a narrative of the second half of the 20th-century that could provide valuable perspective for any history survey course on the 20th century U.S.
Feature image: Thomas Nast. “The Union as it was / The Lost Cause, worse than slavery.”
Harper’s Weekly, v. 18, no. 930 (24 Oct 1874), p. 878.
The Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-128619.