MyAmericanFuture

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Saturday, April 29, 2017

April 29-30, 2017: April 2017 Recap



[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
April 3: NeMLA Recaps: Forum on Immigration Executive Orders and Actions: A series recapping the recent NeMLA conference starts with two takeaways from a vital new initiative.
April 4: NeMLA Recaps: The Book Award: The series continues with AmericanStudies takeaways from our two great Book Award co-winners.
April 5: NeMLA Recaps: Re-reading Roundtable: Pedagogical and public scholarly sides to what seem to be a private pleasure, as the series rolls on.
April 6: NeMLA Recaps: Creative Reading and Keynote Address: The complementary, crucial messages of the conference’s two featured speakers.
April 7: NeMLA Recaps: The Reginald F. Lewis Museum: The series concludes with three exemplary aspects of Baltimore’s wonderful African American history museum.
April 8-9: My Five Years on the NeMLA Board: Five reflections on five inspiring years on the NeMLA Executive Board!
April 10: Aviation Histories: Earhart and Roosevelt: An aviation series starts with one of our most famous flights and one that should be.
April 11: Aviation Histories: The Tuskegee Airmen: The series continues with a recent film that can help us keep working to better remember an inspiring group of aviators.
April 12: Aviation Histories: Charles Lindbergh: How history can overshadow history and why we should resist that trend, as the series flies on.
April 13: Aviation Histories: Howard Hughes: How two films portray the iconoclastic aviator, and how to complement both images.
April 14: Aviation Histories: Sully: The series concludes with the quiet lessons of an averted disaster and the film that largely missed them.
April 15-16: Aviation Histories: The Wright Brothers: For Wilbur’s birthday, a special post on three lesser-known histories of the aviation innovators.
April 17: Animating History: Dr. Seuss and Propaganda: An animation series starts with an icon’s surprising starting points.
April 18: Animating History: Peter Pan and Racism: The series continues with datedness, racism, and teachable moments.
April 19: Animating History: The Princess and the Frog and Representation: Race, representation, and seeing ourselves on screen, as the series rolls on.
April 20: Animating History: Frozen and Expectations: Less and more successful challenges to our expectations in the recent animated smash.
April 21: Animating History: The Lego Movie and Consumerism: The series concludes with consumerism, childhood, and contradiction.
April 22-23: Animating History: Earth Day Animations: For Earth Day, three 1990s environmental animations.
April 24: Civil Disobedience: Larry Rosenwald: A series inspired by Muhammad Ali starts with where civil disobedience and public scholarship intersect.
April 25: Civil Disobedience: Moral Mondays: The series continues with two contexts for an influential current protest movement.
April 26: Civil Disobedience: Rosa Parks: The okay, better, and best ways to remember an iconic figure, as the series rolls on.
April 27: Civil Disobedience: Henry David Thoreau: Three lesser-known facts about Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience.”
April 28: Civil Disobedience: Muhammad Ali: The series concludes with reflections on the 50th anniversary of Ali’s influential moment of civil disobedience.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, April 28, 2017

April 28, 2017: Civil Disobedience: Muhammad Ali



[On April 28th, 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. army and was stripped of his heavyweight title. So this week, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for moments and acts of civil disobedience, leading up to Friday’s post on Ali’s activism.]
On what led up to that 1967 moment, what it changed, and why it still matters.
From the first moments of his professional boxing career in 1960 (when he was only 18 years old), Cassius Clay was known as much for his brash and bold attitude and statements as for his dominating performances in the ring. Apparently inspired in part by a fortuitous conversation with professional wrestler “Gorgeous George” Wagner, Clay consistently used press conferences and interviews to belittle his opponents and boast of his own prowess. While his 1964 name change to Muhammad Ali was driven by his personal spiritual conversion to Islam and evolving relationship with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, Ali nonetheless used that occasion to make similarly striking statements about American history and society, calling Cassius Clay “my slave name” and arguing that “I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.” Given these statements, Ali’s announcement two years later, when notified that he was now eligible for the draft (after having previously failed the army’s qualifying test), that he would pursue conscientious objector status and refuse to be drafted, and his remark that “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong,” represented one more step in this outspoken life and career.
Yet while that 1966 announcement, and Ali’s subsequent April 1967 draft resistance and arrest in Houston, were thus not at all unprecedented, they nonetheless produced significant, lasting shifts in his career and image. On the one hand, Ali’s courageous stance cost him four years in the prime of his career and athletic prowess—his boxing licenses were stripped by every state after the arrest, and Ali was unable to obtain a license or box professionally again until the 1971 Supreme Court decision in Clay v. United States upheld his conscientitous objector status and overturned his conviction. Given the relatively short window in which a professional boxer can generally stay viable in the sport, it’s difficult to overstate the value (financial and otherwise) of this lost time in Ali’s career. At the same time, Ali shifted much more overtly and fully into the status of an activist and public intellectual over those years, giving speeches across the country along the lines of his 1967 “Black is Best” speech at Howard University (a speech given in support of the university’s Black Power movement, an alliance that Ali not coincidentally formed during this same period of his career). I don’t mean to suggest that such speeches or events in any direct way compensated Ali for his lost time or success as a boxer; instead, it’s more accurate to say that Ali’s public image and role shifted over these years, and that shift would endure long after both his 1971 reinstatement and 1981 retirement from the sport.
Ali’s enduring role as a late 20th and early 21st century public activist thus provides one important reason to remember the moment when he began to make that shift in earnest. But I would also argue that Ali’s 1967 civil disobedience offered a profoundly distinct model of athlete activism than any that had come before. There had of course been athletes whose very identity and public image represented a challenge to national and white supremacist narratives, such as Ali’s boxing predecessor Jack Johnson. And there had been those like Jackie Robinson whose groundbreaking sports careers themselves became a form of activism against the racist status quo. But to my knowledge, Ali’s draft resistance and his statements in support of that position took athlete activism in America to a new, much more publicly engaged level, one far beyond any sports-specific context. A more public form of athlete activism that quite possibly influenced the following year’s Olympic Black Power salute in Mexico City, and that certainly is worth linking to a contemporary example such as Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing protests and public activisms (and the shocking level of vitriol Kaepernick has received in response, from within the NFL just as much as outside of it). In all those ways, Muhammad Ali’s 1967 act of civil disobedience was a watershed moment in American society as well as its sports culture.
April Recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other contexts for civil disobedience you’d highlight?

Thursday, April 27, 2017

April 27, 2017: Civil Disobedience: Henry David Thoreau



[On April 28th, 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. army and was stripped of his heavyweight title. So this week, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for moments and acts of civil disobedience, leading up to Friday’s post on Ali’s activism.]
Three lesser-known facts about Thoreau’s seminal essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849).
1)      Origins in Oratory: Thoreau’s friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson tends to be more closely associated with lectures and oratory than the more iconoclastic and antisocial Henry. But Thoreau was of course part of the same Transcendental community and circles, and in February 1848 delivered a lecture at the Concord Lyceum entitled “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government.” As far as I can tell we don’t have a transcript or written version of that lecture, so it’s impossible to know how much Thoreau altered or added before publishing his essay the following year. But just as Emerson’s published lectures (such as “The American Scholar”) utilize a different structure and style than do his solely written texts (such as “Nature”), so too would we have to think in any case about how Thoreau’s oratorical origins for “Civil Disobedience” informed those kinds of formal elements, as well as the essay’s engagement with audience. To cite one small example of that latter aspect, Thoreau’s first-paragraph instruction to “Witness the present Mexican war” as an illustration of the abuse of government reads far differently if we think about him making such a controversial request of a live audience.
2)      The Original Title: Even when Thoreau published the print version of the essay in 1849 (as part of the collected Aesthetic Papers), it was distinct in a key way from the version that many future audiences have read. The essay’s 1849 title was “Resistance to Civil Government”; when it was reprinted in a posthumous 1866 collection, it was retitled “Civil Disobedience” (and in some subsequent reprintings has been called “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”). It’s my understanding that the text of the essay has remained unchanged in each case, but of course a title provides a significant first frame for any piece, and I would argue that both the distinction between “resistance” and “disobedience” and the different uses of “civil” (as modifying the government in the initial version and the disobedience in the latter ones) are titular changes that could guide readers in divergent ways as they begin Thoreau’s essay. (The resistance-disobedience distinction would be especially interesting to parse further in 2017, when resistance has become a focal concept of social and political protests.) And at the very least, I think we should refer to a text by the author’s intended title if and when we have a clear sense of that choice, as we certainly do with this text. So “Resistance to Civil Government” it is!
3)      An International Inspiration: Much has been made, and rightly so, of the emphasis that both Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. placed on Thoreau’s essay and philosophy as inspirations for their own acts of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance. But prior to either of those responses, the Russian novelist and peace activist Leo Tolstoy highlighted Thoreau as one of his own chief inspirations. In a turn of the 20th century “Letter to the American People” that frames this anthology of Tolstoy’s writings on civil disobedience, the author notes that “thinking over at night, it came to me that, if I had to address the American people, I would like to thank them for writers who flourished about the [1850s].” Among other things, this less well-known international connection helps us recognize the role that Thoreau’s ideas have played in the anti-war and peace movements, somewhat different causes of course from the independence and civil rights struggles of Gandhi and King but certainly another longstanding legacy of Thoreau’s influential essay.
Last civil disobedience post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other contexts for civil disobedience you’d highlight?