Tuesday, September 2, 2014

September 2, 2014: Fall Forward: Scholars Strategy Network

[As I did a couple years back, I wanted to start the fall semester by highlighting a few of the things I’m working on and looking forward to this fall. I’d love to hear about what you’ve got going on for the final few months of 2014 as well!]
On the community that’s working to advance a vital goal.
I’ve written a great deal in this space—including this week-long series—on the ideals, challenges, and complex realities of public scholarship. Producing such scholarship, becoming a public scholar, has become a central, lifelong goal of mine, but I recognize full well the obstacles and pitfalls that come with such a goal. And I don’t mean only the frightening kinds of attacks and punishments that have come the way of public scholars such as William Cronin and Steven Salaita in recent years, although those are worst-case scenarios to be sure. But there are also more mundane frustrations inherent to public scholarship, starting (and maybe ending) with this one: it’s incredibly difficult to know what, if anything, an individual can do to move toward such a goal.
I’m not going to pretend like I have any definite answers to that frustration, but I do believe this: as with most anything, a supportive community working together toward that goal goes a long way toward helping any individual get there. And I’m very proud and excited to say that I have recently joined precisely such a community of public scholars: the Scholars Strategy Network. SSN comprises nearly 500 scholars, spread out across a huge range of universities and institutions, all working toward the shared goal of “Research to Improve Policy and Enhance Democracy.” We do so through a similarly wide range of mechanisms: two-page Briefs, such as my first on diversity in American history; op-eds, placed in newspapers and other media; and panel discussions, workshops, and many other forms of conversation hosted by SSN’s regional networks.
I’ve just begun to get involved with SSN, through the Boston regional network, and look forward to a number of fall events and opportunities that will help me further develop both that communal connection and my individual work and voice. And that’s the key to an effort like SSN, I would argue: that there’s no distinction between the communal and individual goals, that instead the advancement of the former entails and depends on successes in the latter (and vice versa). Too much of the time, in academia as in every other facet of 21st century American life, individual success is framed as a competition with other individuals, as a zero-sum game. Of course realities like the job market contribute to such narratives, and I don’t mean to dismiss such realities or their effects. But on a larger scale, SSN embodies the Bruce Springsteen philosophy to which I still hold: “Remember, in the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins.”
Next fall plan tomorrow,
PS. What's on your autumn agenda?

Monday, September 1, 2014

September 1, 2014: Fall Forward: 2014 NEASA Conference

[As I did a couple years back, I wanted to start the fall semester by highlighting a few of the things I’m working on and looking forward to this fall. I’d love to hear about what you’ve got going on for the final few months of 2014 as well!]
Anticipating the next gathering of New England AmericanStudiers.
I’ve been blogging about NEASA for about as long as I’ve been blogging, and for good reason: no organization or community has contributed as much to my sense of what AmericanStudies means, is, and can be at its best than the New England American Studies Assocation. My year as NEASA President, including the first annual Spring Colloquium and culminating in the 2011 conference at Plimoth Plantation, amplified immeasurably not only my sense of the field and scholarly community, but also my own goals for my work, career, and life. In short, NEASA is one of my very favorite things, and I look forward to any chance to highlight and advocate for it.
This fall offers the next such chance, in the upcoming (October 17-18) NEASA Conference at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island. NEASA President Jeffrey Meriwether, Vice President Gretchen Sinnett, and the entire conference committee and NEASA Council have come up with a wonderful conference theme and focus: Emancipations: Lineages, Legacies, and Limits. Inspired by an RWU exhibit on Abraham Lincoln and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the conference program has, as NEASA conferences always do, expanded to include numerous other histories, themes, disciplines, perspectives, and voices. While that program is finalized, you can and should still consider joining us in Bristol next month: we offer a discountedregistration rate for Attendees, and it promises to be a wonderful AmericanStudies weekend!
Moreover, if you’re an AmericanStudier living in the greater New England region (ie, not just the New England states, but the upper Mid-Atlantic as well; and for that matter, anyone anywhere in the country can stay connected and contribute to NEASA online and through email), I urge you to connect to NEASA—perhaps by running for the Council (we have an election every December to fill a number of seats), in any case by connecting with Gretchen (who will be next year’s President) and staying informed about the organization’s ongoing work and plans. Can I promise that your NEASA experiences will be as inspiring and career-changing as mine have been? Maybe not—but I do guarantee that you’ll experience a wonderful community of scholars that represents the best of what this discipline has to offer.
Next fall plan tomorrow,
PS. What’s on your autumn agenda?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

August 30-31, 2014: August 2014 Recap

[A recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
August 4: Virginia Voices: William Byrd II: A series anticipating my next trip back to my home state starts with a complex, contradictory, compelling early Virginia voice.
August 5: Virginia Voices: Thomas Nelson Page: The series continues with the once-popular author it’d be okay not to read, and why we perhaps still should.
August 6: Virginia Voices: William McGuffey: The 19th century minister and academic who profoundly impacted American education, as the series rolls on.
August 7: Virginia Voices: Tom Wolfe: The author who helped redefine what novels could be, and then interestingly turned to more conventional fiction in his later career.
August 8: Virginia Voices: V.C. Andrews: The series concludes with the popular author who has become, long after her death, something quite different.
August 9-10: Italian American Voices: Nancy Caronia’s Guest Post: In my latest Guest Post, my colleague and friend highlights significant literary, cultural, and scholarly Italian American voices.
August 11: Birthday Specials: Born This Day: A birthday-week series starts with four Americans who share August 11th bdays.
August 12: Birthday Specials: American Memory Days: The series continues with the post that inaugurated my American Memory Day Calendar.
August 13: Birthday Specials: 2011 Birthday Best: The post that highlighted 34 favorites from my blog’s first year, as the series rolls on.
August 14: Birthday Specials: 2012 Birthday Best: 35 favorites from my blog’s second year!
August 15: Birthday Specials: 2013 Birthday Best: And 36 favorites from my blog’s third year!
August 16-17: Birthday Specials: 37 for 37: The series concludes with this year bday’s post, highlighting 37 of my favorites from the blog’s fourth year!
August 18: Films for the Dog Days: Dog Day Afternoon: A series on films about and for the dog days of summer starts with the gritty crime drama that’s also sneakily subversive.
August 19: Films for the Dog Days: Jungle Fever and Mississippi Masala: The series continues with two steamy interracial romances that make for a great film marriage.
August 20: Films for the Dog Days: Body Heat: The classic film noir that captures the genre’s problems with heat, as the series rolls on.
August 21: Films for the Dog Days: In the Heat of the Night and Black Snake Moan: On two very different steamy Southern stories that together help us remember dark regional histories.
August 22: Films for the Dog Days: Men with Guns: The series concludes with a film that takes Americans, both characters and audiences, to our Southern neighbor.
August 23-24: Crowd-sourced Dog Days: My latest crowd-sourced post, as fellow AmericanStudiers share their responses and dog day film nominees!
August 25: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Bartolomé de Las Casas: A series on nominees for my in-progress Hall of American Inspiration starts with one of the earliest inspiring Americans.
August 26: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Ely Parker: The series continues with the nominee who embodied inspiring cultural and cross-cultural identities.
August 27: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Ida B. Wells: The inspiring voice and activist from one of our darkest moments, as the series rolls on.
August 28: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Jane Addams: On the inspiring historic figure and site that still have a great deal to teach us in our own era.
August 29: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Dororthy Day: The series concludes with the activist who exemplified the most inspiring possibilities of American Christianity.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Topics or themes you'd like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you'd like to contribute? Lemme know, please!

Friday, August 29, 2014

August 29, 2014: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Dorothy Day

[One of my main projects for this summer has been to start work on my joint book/web project, The Hall of American Inspiration. That work is very much ongoing—and could still use your input!—but I thought I’d end the summer by sharing posts on five individuals whose stories and identities will certainly be part of my Hall. Add your nominees for inspiring Americans, whether public or from your own experiences, please!]
On the inspiring activist who defines the best of what Christianity has meant in America.
At the height of the mid-19th century debates over slavery in the United States, some of the most vocal partisans on both sides (and just to be very clear, I’m not trying by any means to equate the two sides in a “fair and balanced” sort of way, simply to highlight a shared rhetorical device) appealed directly to Christianity, and even more directly to particular passages in the Bible, in order to make their case. William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, three of the most prominent and central voices in the abolitionist movement, all credited Presbyterian minister John Rankin and his Scriptural opposition to slavery with greatly influencing their views on and work for that cause. On the other side, Richard Furman, the President of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, argued that “the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example”; future President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis went even further, thundering that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God,” and “is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation.” There’s plenty that can be said about the issue of religion and slavery in America, but my point here is a more simple one: the Bible can be, and most definitely has been, used to justify any social or political position, even the most diametrically opposed ones.
On virtually every relevant issue, then, the question of What Would Jesus Do? is generally short-hand for What Would I Like Some Irrefutable Backing For In Order to Feel Better About Doing Myself (not an acronym that would work as well on bumper stickers, of course)? But if there’s one social issue for which the use of Jesus’s and Christian philosophies would seem, to my mind, most appropriate and as close to genuinely irrefutable as we’re likely to get, it’s poverty. As cited in the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke, Jesus answered a question from his disciples about how to achieve perfection by replying, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor [“give alms” is the King James translation, but same difference], and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Leaving aside whether such actions are truly possible—or the even more complex question of what would then happen to those who have sold all they have, given to the poor, and thus become impoverished themselves—the larger message of this advice, as of a great many of Christ’s pronouncements, is that an individual’s and a community’s spirituality and perfection are directly connected to, even dependent on, their willingness to take care of the least fortunate among them. And by that measure, no American life and legacy are more truly Christian than those of Dorothy Day (1897-1980).
Day was by her teens in the 1910s and remained for most of her life thereafter a self-proclaimed and proud socialist and Christian anarchist, and so by her final decades, with the Cold War having pushed socialism and Christianity into explicitly opposed boxes, she was a hugely controversial and divisive figure. Her own (Christ-like, one might say) willingness to admit her weaknesses and shortcomings and mistakes, as when she wrote of her common-law marriage and abortion in the autobiographical novel The Eleventh Virgin (1924) or her spiritual struggles and doubts in the more overtly autobiographical The Long Loneliness (1952), no doubt contributed as well to those mixed responses. But Day’s most significant work and legacy, her 1933 founding (along with fellow activist Peter Maurin) of and lifelong commitment to the Catholic Worker movement, represents one of our nation’s most impressive and influential (in her own life and down to the our present moment) efforts on behalf of the most impoverished and marginalized Americans, and as such we cannot allow it to be overshadowed by those mixed responses. “Our rule,” Day wrote of the movement, “is the works of mercy,” and no figure or movement have better emblematized Shakespeare’s evocative idea (from The Merchant of Venice) that “the quality of mercy is not strained.” It is no coincidence that the movement was founded at the height of the Depression and began its efforts with a no-questions-asked soup kitchen in New York City—like Day herself, the movement has always taken the fight on poverty and hunger and injustice of all kinds into the heart of our most embattled communities, leaving the debates over theology or politics to be hashed out by those less busy helping their fellow Americans.
Religious faith is a profoundly personal matter, making it one of the American Studies topics into which I tread most hesitantly. But as with any of the central elements of individual and communal identity, it has also been a hugely influential social factor throughout our history, making it impossible to analyze American lives and texts and culture without including it in our purview. And whatever we say about Day’s personal faith (and she had plenty to say herself about it, which would be the place to start), I feel very confident in saying that her social contributions to American life embody the best and most inspiring version of what Christianity can be and mean here.
August Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Someone you’d nominate for the Hall?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

August 28, 2014: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Jane Addams

[One of my main projects for this summer has been to start work on my joint book/web project, The Hall of American Inspiration. That work is very much ongoing—and could still use your input!—but I thought I’d end the summer by sharing posts on five individuals whose stories and identities will certainly be part of my Hall. Add your nominees for inspiring Americans, whether public or from your own experiences, please!]
On an inspiring historic figure and site that still have much to teach us.
Given that an especial emphasis of my Hall of American Inspiration will be to highlight folks who have been unjustly forgotten or elided from our national narratives, it might seem strange that my next nominee was the first American woman (and only the sixth American period) to win the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1931). But despite that prestigious international recognition, I believe that Jane Addams (1860-1935) is indeed greatly under-rembered in our collective memories and identity, and that her life and work remain as necessary and inspiring in our 21st century moment as they were in her turn of the 20th century one.
Like her contemporary John Dewey (who certainly will have his own plaque in the Hall), Addams emblematizes the turn-of-the-20th-century Progressive movement, in many ways but most overtly in the striking breadth and depth of her pursuits and passions and achievements. She won the Nobel first and foremost for her efforts on behalf of international peace, work she began during the early years of World War I (including stints as both the national chairperson of the Women’s Peace Party and the president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom), continued even after the United States had entered that war (which required no small measure of courage, since it was during World War I that the kinds of criticisms of and attacks on anti-war activists with which we are now very familiar truly began), and expanded throughout the subsequent decades. But Addams was just as active on the homefront, and for a wide variety of causes, from women’s suffrage and politics (she helped found the Progressive Party in 1912) to the needs of American children (including the dangers of child labor and the benefits of playgrounds and early education) and the development of the discipline of sociology (for which Addams did at least as much as any other American philosopher and teacher).
But what makes Addams truly inspirational is, to my mind, one unique and amazing American place: Hull House. Addams and her life partner Ellen Gates Starr co-founded Hull in Chicago in 1889 as the first “settlement house,” a space in which Americans of different levels of class, education, and opportunity could live together and come to know and understand (and hopefully influence) each other more fully. Within a few years, and for many decades thereafter, Hull’s identity and role had greatly expanded; it came to include, among many other things, adult education courses (some of the very first predecessors of modern night school), a kindergarten (in an era, as per the Dewey post, when they were not at all common), a public kitchen, a library, performance and exhibition spaces for art, drama, and music, and (at the height of Hull’s expansion and influence) a playground and summer camp. Despite, or rather alongside, this breadth of services, Hull and Addams likewise became centrally focused on its neighborhood’s and city’s large and growing immigrant communities; many of its courses and spaces were dedicated to the needs of these newest Americans, and, in an era defined by anti-immigrant sentiment both legal (such as the Chinese Exclusion Act) and otherwise (such as the pervasive hostilities toward the Jewish immigrants who comprised much of the waves of the 1880s), Hull and Addams were entirely and genuinely inclusive and welcoming.
Addams’ memoir of Hull, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910), is, like the era’s Progressive moment overall, not without its moments of condescension or paternalism toward some of these less well-educated and prosperous fellow Americans. What’s striking, however, is not the presence of such moments—they make Addams human—but rather how fully, and in how many ways, Addams was able to transcend any and all of the weaknesses that can divide and limit us, and in that transcending become and model the most truly inspiring kind of American life and identity.
Last nominee tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Someone you’d nominate for the Hall?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

August 27, 2014: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Ida B. Wells

[One of my main projects for this summer has been to start work on my joint book/web project, The Hall of American Inspiration. That work is very much ongoing—and could still use your input!—but I thought I’d end the summer by sharing posts on five individuals whose stories and identities will certainly be part of my Hall. Add your nominees for inspiring Americans, whether public or from your own experiences, please!]
On an inspiring voice from one of our darkest periods.
Since the phrase was first coined by historian Rayford Logan in the 1950s, historians have consistently described the period between the end of Reconstruction (around 1877) and the early 20th century (at least until the Great Migration and the 1920s, and sometimes well beyond) as “the nadir” of African American life and experience (at least since the abolition of slavery). There are all sorts of reasons for that designation, beginning with the rise of Jim Crow and its systems of legal and social segregation, but extending into virtually every aspect of African American existence in these decades. And of all those extensions, none is anywhere near as horrific—and perhaps none as unfortunately missing from our dominant national narratives and histories—as the lynching epidemic, the wave of brutal mob murders of (mostly) African American men that rose in the last few decades of the 19th century and continued (if with slightly less frequency) until the era of Civil Rights. Historian Leon Litwack has documented that at least 4700 African Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968, and the actual numbers (including those prior to 1882 and thus that were not reported) are thus likely well above 5000.
The numbers don’t begin to tell the real story about lynching, though. As the Without Sanctuary site documents—and this is one case where images are most definitely worth thousands of words, although I’ll certainly do what I can with the latter—most lynchings were a kind of communal carnival of graphic brutality and violence: they tended to happen with enough advance warning and preparation that large numbers of local (and sometimes distant) residents would come out, often bringing their children and families and turning the event into a party (including in many cases postcards that could be sent to those not fortunate enough to attend); and despite the association of “lynching” with hanging, the actual murders often also included castration, burning (usually while the victim was still alive), and assorted other mutilations. Even if the victim had indeed committed the crime of which he was accused—and most of the time, as the author to whom I’ll turn in a moment amply demonstrated, the accusations were entirely non-credible, blatant fronts for situations like consensual relationships between white women and black men, excuses to rid local businessmen of African American competitors, and the like—lynching as a practice went so far beyond capital punishment as to exist entirely outside of any justice system, even the most barbaric or cruel ones. These were orgies of collective fear and rage and racism, and I can’t sum them up any better than did Charles Chesnutt in The Marrow of Tradition: “our boasted civilization is but a thin veneer, which cracks and scales off at the first impact of primal passions.”
Just as Chesnutt’s extraordinary novel emerged out of the Wilmington Massacre, so too did the lynching epidemic draw out one of America’s most extraordinarily brave and impressive journalistic voices. Ida B. Wells (later Wells Barnett) was the daughter of slaves and had already by the 1880s (when she was just in her 20s) established herself as not only a teacher at Nashville’s Fisk University and a journalist in her home city of Memphis but also as a vocal and aggressive opponent of Jim Crow: in 1884 she refused to give up her seat on a Tennessee train car and brought her case all the way to the state’s Supreme Court. But it was her first truly personal experience with lynching that truly galvanized Wells—in 1891 three friends of hers who owned a successful African American grocery store in Memphis were lynched on extremely and overtly trumped-up charges, and Wells responded with the first of her many, many blunt and eloquent and powerful condemnations of lynching. Far from simply editorializing about the subject, Wells became a model researcher and journalist in response to it, producing books like Southern Horrors and A Red Record in which (for example) she used the words and statistics of local white newspapers to highlight all of the hypocrises and lies at the heart of the practice of lynching. Unwavering in the face of numerous threats and terrors of her own, she became a hugely vocal and successful advocate for the anti-lynching movement, traveling around the country and world to make her case, and made it impossible for the nation (and especially the North) to pretend that this issue was not one of significance or deep concern.
Slavery is, it seems to me, possible for us to include in our national narratives in ways that are benign enough or systemic enough that we don’t have to confront the real horrors, or can pretend that they were the exceptions or at least the minority of situations. Not so with lynching—to remember it at all is to come face to face with some of the very darkest stories in our national past, and the very worst of which humans are capable. And as inspiring as Wells’ life and career were, reading her not only doesn’t mitigate the horrors—it delineates them with particular clarity and eloquence. And sometimes, that’s the most important and inspiring thing a voice can do.
Next nominee tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Someone you’d nominate for the Hall?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

August 26, 2014: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Ely Parker

[One of my main projects for this summer has been to start work on my joint book/web project, The Hall of American Inspiration. That work is very much ongoing—and could still use your input!—but I thought I’d end the summer by sharing posts on five individuals whose stories and identities will certainly be part of my Hall. Add your nominees for inspiring Americans, whether public or from your own experiences, please!]
On the cross-cultural relationship and experiences of one of 19th century America’s most inspiring figures.
There are many reasons why I began this blog with a brief (now tragically lost) entry on W.E.B. Du Bois, but I guess what it boiled down to was that as I began to contemplate the concept of a Hall of American Inspriration, I knew that Du Bois would be one of my first, unanimous inductees. Not because he was perfect—he wasn’t, far from it—but because, I suppose, of a trifecta of core details: he spent his life trying to do things he felt were significant; he committed to each of those things with passion and seriousness and a desire to do them as well as he could and appropriate levels of (and balance between) ambition and humility; and he remained, even into his later years, very open to the voices and perspectives of the people both with and for whom he was doing them. Yup, those are pretty much the measuring sticks for induction into Ben’s Hall of American Inspiration.
I’ve known that I felt that way about Du Bois for a long time, at least since my sophomore year of college when I read a lot by and about him. Some of the other people who would be on the short list for inaugural induction I’ve known about for even longer, and would come as no surprise to anybody who knows me (Bruce, John Sayles, Val Kilmer) (just kidding about the last one, I love the dude but I’m afraid he falls short on that whole balance of ambition and humility item). But another one is a very recent discovery who has rocketed toward the top of the list: Ely Parker (1828-1897). I learned about Parker while working on a couple page portion of my second book—the opening couple pages of my chapter on the 19th century focus on Lewis Henry Morgan, the pioneering anthropologist who worked extensively on the Seneca Iroquois and was even adopted into the tribe; and Morgan, who is pretty impressive and inspiring in his own right, admired the heck out of Parker and helped him enter many of the worlds (engineering and work on the Erie Canal; law and politics and the fight for the tribe’s homeland and sovereignty; the military and service in the Union Army, through which he ended up drafting the Confederacy’s surrender terms at Appomattox Court House) to which he contributed his tireless work and passion from the late 1840s to the end of his life.
Any one of those worlds and efforts would be a good starting point for Hall of Inspiration consideration, and the cumulative effect of them is pretty overwhelming. But as with Du Bois, what I find particularly interesting and inspiring about Parker is something less explicitly heroic or impressive, but even more (to my mind) American—his complicated location amidst and between multiple communities and identities, and his determination not to simplify that position nor reject one or another of his identities and worlds. The name he was given when he was made a sachem of the tribe translates to “Open Door,” and I think that’s very apt (as was Morgan’s tribal name, which translates to “Bridging the Gap”—they were spot-on with those names, the Seneca), both in his own life and in his role as a mediating figure (anthropologically, politically, legally, militarily, ideologically, you name it) between the tribe and the American government on multiple levels. As was sometimes the case with Du Bois, Parker’s attempts at mediating and unwillingness to simplify either his own identity or his connections to both his ethnic and his national communities (such as in his post-Civil War marriage to a white socialite) were, at times, met with harsh criticism from more fully ethnically focused peers (and Parker himself apparently questioned, toward the end of his life, some of the work he did as the first Native Commissioner of Indian Affairs, a position he held in the scandal-filled administration of his old general, Ulysses Grant). But despite such specific critiques, I don’t think anyone familiar with Parker’s life and work could question for a second his thoroughgoing commitment to improving the lives of his fellow Americans, native and otherwise.
The last years of Parker’s life were defined at least in part by losses (financial, on Wall Street, and in other ways) and self-doubts (particularly about whether he had been able to maintain as well as he had hoped that balance between the different communities to which he dedicated his life). But they were also defined by another dialogic and mutually beneficial relationship, one very much parallel to his with Morgan—he was approached by a poet named Harriet Maxwell Converse who had an abiding interest in his tribe, and the two developed a friendship that helped Parker reexamine his life and identity and communicate them to an interested European American partner once more. If I can help him continue to do the same, even a century after his death, maybe I’ll have helped pass his inspiration along.
Next nominee tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Someone you’d nominate for the Hall?