January Links Round-Up



“Ferry and river men.  Vicksburg, Mississippi,” Walker Evans, 1936, Courtesy the New York Public Library

Erstwhile blogger Caroline Grego compiles a short list of history-related news links from the past month. She admits that this month’s links round-up is even more grab-bag than usual, opening with dispatches from academia, and ending with two (hopefully useful) online resources.

Academics Get Real by Colleen Flaherty

During the last two weeks of January, academics, from graduate students to adjuncts to tenured faculty members, have been flocking to Twitter to post their own #realacademicbios. The originator was Dr. Eva Mroczek, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of California–Davis, who kicked off the hashtag with the tweet:

“Tradition of (mostly male) scholars who describe idyllic life w/ wife & kids in academic bio needs to be supplemented w #realacademicbios.”

We have all read the biographies to which Dr. Mroczek refers, either on the back flap of a hardcover text or within the lengthy acknowledgements:  well-earned thanks to the family members who provided some sort of support, whether emotional, editorial, or through some sort of labor. Mroczek sought an intervention in those rosy narratives of familial support and thus initiated this conversation.

The responses have been sobering, albeit injected with a rueful, dark sense of humor (Dr. Nyasha Junior, an assistant prof. at Temple: ‘”You’re out of time,” said her dissertation advisor & her gynecologist. #realacademicbios’). Tweets run the gamut from describing mental illness, rejection, the difficulties of balancing family responsibilities and academic work, racism and sexism within academia (and the intersections of the two) – all issues that grate against the emphasis on performativity within academia. Flaherty provides an excellent analysis of the hashtag’s rise, including an interview with Dr. Junior:

‘“There aren’t very many places where people can be honest and real about what they’re experiencing,” such as crushing student debt or struggling to secure health insurance, to name a few concerns, she said. “For a lot of academics, it’s all about posturing or presenting your best self to the world in order to get that job or have that grant proposal approved.… A lot of academic life is about faking it.”’

What would your #realacademicbio say? Tweet @Erstwhileblog with yours.

America’s Other Original Sin by Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion, Slate’s history writer and editor of The Vault, has put together an excellent survey of recent historical writing about the enslavement of Native Americans. She names America’s original sins as the dual “enslavement of stolen Africans” and “the displacement of American Indians,” and charts how historians have been tracing how the two entangled.

While historians are still counting the number of Native Americans forced into bondage by Euro-Americans, it is clear that the practice was widespread and frequent. Margaret Ellen Newell estimates that thousands were enslaved in New England. Onion points to the example in Newell’s book Brethren by Nature: after the Puritan massacre of a Pequot village in southern Connecticut in 1637, at least 400 Pequot were slaughtered and burned alive. Hundreds of Pequot captives taken after the massacre were shipped to the Caribbean as slaves. Allan Gallay (author of the excellent book The Indian Slave Trade) recounts that from 1670 to 1715, more Native Americans were exported through Charleston as slaves than Africans were imported.

Ultimately, Onion’s article paints a picture of a difficult history: enslavement of Native Americans was common; in some places, it helped enable the transition to African slavery; Euro-Americans pitted Native American tribes against each other in their hunt for Indian slaves; and sometimes Native Americans themselves owned African slaves. Click through for an engrossing survey and for Onion’s recommended reading list at the end.

When Anger Trumped Progress by Jon Grinspan

The next two articles are direct object lessons in why we should carefully study and learn from history. Opining that today we face a similar challenge in which mistrust of government could stymie structural attempts to remedy racial injustice, Grinspan examines the reasons for the downfall of Reconstruction. Grinspan argues that white, northern Republican Americans’ increasing disillusionment with politicians contributed to the demise of Reconstruction. Upset after a series of political scandals in the 1870s, these Americans allowed their frustration with government corruption to eclipse the political struggle to achieve and maintain African-American equality in the former Confederate states.

Grinspan’s theory provides an explanation for why northern Republicans lost their previous momentum in enforcing the reforms of Reconstruction—which pairs northern tepidity with the anger of white southerners, who, by the mid-1870s, began a large-scale series of terrorist attacks to disenfranchise and intimidate (and murder) black southerners. Today, Grinspan places the U.S. in a similar position and urges that Americans eschew cynicism: ‘Anger makes Americans dismiss government and politics altogether—and that dismissal makes it harder to tackle racial injustice.’ This editorial presents an imperfect metaphor, and one that relies on a certain measure of faith that the federal government today is capable of producing the kind of radical change that it was during Reconstruction.  Nonetheless, his historical argument reminds us of how white northerners failed African Americans, contemporaneous to white southerners readying an arsenal of political oppression and violence to overthrow Reconstruction.

People thought machine guns might prevent war: they were wrong by Adrienne LaFrance

Hiram Maxim, an American inventor, developed the machine gun in the 1880s: his first model, completed in 1884, could fire six hundred and sixty-six rounds in less than a minute. By the 1890s, he was manufacturing copious numbers of his invention for the purchase of militaries across Europe. In 1897, the New York Times naively hoped that the very existence of a weapon capable of such destruction might slow world leaders on a hasty path to war – rhetoric parallel to that employed during the Cold War, in which the nuclear bomb (though already detonated twice, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945) was post facto a deterrence.

The increasing efficiency of killing machines has never, we know, deterred their use. Nor have they decreased the length of wars, nor have they reduced casualties. In that, it is simple enough for us to roll our eyes at the New York Times for their idealism. The lesson of Hiram Maxim, however, is not so clear: what culpability do we place at his door? This was very explicitly a weapon, designed to kill large numbers of people very quickly and with no other conceivable purpose. Would someone else have invented a similar weapon?Should Maxim have chosen to continue with the wood-working that consumed his earlier career? Probably.

Maxim does not seem to have been overly tormented by the destructiveness of his creation (though LaFrance has a slightly different interpretation in the article). He died in 1916, in the midst of World War I, during which the machine gun was put to its deadly work. After having invented an improved inhaler, Maxim was shunned by fellow inventors within gun-manufacturing, who felt he was wasting his “talents.” He ruefully noted that: “From the foregoing it will be seen that it is a very creditable thing to invent a killing machine, and nothing less than a disgrace to invent an apparatus to prevent human suffering.” Maxim, though he did not engage in somber self-reflection, certainly seems to have understood the global context of imperialism, warfare, and violence that seized upon such weapons.

Race, Civil Rights, and Photography by Maurice Berger; and New York Public Library Makes 180,000 High-Res Images Available Online by Camila Domonoske

And finally, two online resources!

In the first, Berger, a professor at the University of Maryland–Baltimore County, has compiled a series of Civil Rights-era photography in honor of Martin Luther King Day, noting King’s belief in the power of photography “to persuade and to motivate.” It’s moving photography to educate, whether yourself or as a pedagogical tool.

And in the second, National Public Radio advertises that the New York Public Library has released 180,000 images to its digital archive. This dizzying array of free, high-resolution images includes ‘literary manuscripts, Farm Security Administration photographs, sheet music, papers from Founding Fathers, WPA-era art by African-American artists, the 16th-century Handscrolls of the Tales of Genji, illuminated manuscripts from the Medieval Ages and the Renaissance, maps and atlases, and stereoscopic views,’ and can be found here.


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