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Friday, May 29, 2015

May 29, 2015: Decoration Day Histories: So What?

[Following up Monday’s Memorial Day special, a series on some of the complex American histories connected to the holiday’s original identity as Decoration Day.]
On three ways to argue for remembering Decoration Day as well as Memorial Day.
If someone (like, I dunno, an imaginary voice in my head to prompt this post…) were to ask me why we should better remember the histories I’ve traced in this week’s posts—were, that is, to respond with the “So what?” of today’s title—my first answer would be simple: because they happened. There are many things about history of which we can’t be sure, nuances or details that will always remain uncertain or in dispute. But there are many others that are in fact quite clear, and we just don’t remember them clearly: and the origins and initial meanings of Decoration Day are just such clear historical facts. Indeed, so clear were those Decoration Day starting points that most Southern states chose not to recognize the holiday at all in its early years. I can’t quite imagine a good-faith argument for not better remembering clear historical facts (especially when they’re as relevant as the origins of a holiday are on that holiday!), and I certainly don’t have any interest in engaging with such an argument.
But there are also other, broader arguments for better remembering these histories. For one thing, the changes in the meanings and commemorations of Decoration Day, and then the gradual shift to Memorial Day, offer a potent illustration of the longstanding role and power of white supremacist perspectives (not necessarily in the most discriminatory or violent senses of the concept, but rather as captured by that Nation editorial’s point about the negro “disappearing from the field of national politics”) in shaping our national narratives, histories, and collective memories. In my adult learning class this past semester I argued for what I called a more inclusive vs. a more exclusive version of American history, one that overtly pushes back on those kinds of narrow, exclusionary, white supremacist historical narratives in favor of a broader and (to my mind) far more accurate sense of all the American communities that have contributed to and been part of our identity and story. Remembering Decoration Day as well as Memorial Day would represent precisely such an inclusive rather than more exclusive version of American history.
There’s also another way to think about and frame that argument. Throughout this past year, conservatives have argued that the new Common Core and AP US History standards portray and teach a “negative” vision of American history, rather than the celebratory one for which these commentators argue instead. As those hyperlinked articles suggest, these arguments are at best oversimplified, at worst blatantly inaccurate. But it is fair to say that better remembering painful histories such as those of slavery, segregation, and lynching can be a difficult process, especially if we seek to make them more central to our collective national memories. So the more we can find inspiring moments and histories, voices and perspectives, that connect both to those painful histories and to more ideal visions of American identity and community, the more likely it is (I believe) that we will remember them. And I know of few American histories more inspiring than that of Decoration Day: its origins and purposes, its advocates like Frederick Douglass, and its strongest enduring meaning for the African American community—and, I would argue, for all of us.
May Recap this weekend,
Ben

PS. What do you think?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

May 28, 2015: Decoration Day Histories: African Americans and Decoration Day

[Following up Monday’s Memorial Day special, a series on some of the complex American histories connected to the holiday’s original identity as Decoration Day.]
On the text that helps us remember a community for whom Decoration Day’s meanings didn’t shift.
In Monday’s post, I highlighted a brief but important scene in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s short story “Rodman the Keeper” (1880). John Rodman, Woolson’s protagonist, is a (Union) Civil War veteran who has taken a job overseeing a Union cemetery in the South; and in this brief but important scene, he observes a group of African Americans (likely former slaves) commemorate Decoration Day by leaving tributes to those fallen Union soldiers. Woolson’s narrator describes the event in evocative but somewhat patronizing terms: “They knew dimly that the men who lay beneath those mounds had done something wonderful for them and for their children; and so they came bringing their blossoms, with little intelligence but with much love.” But she gives the last word in this striking scene to one of the celebrants himself: “we’s kep’ de day now two years, sah, befo’ you came, sah, an we’s teachin’ de chil’en to keep it, sah.”
“Rodman” is set sometime during Reconstruction—perhaps in 1870 specifically, since the first Decoration Day was celebrated in 1868 and the community has been keeping the day for two years—and, as I noted in yesterday’s post, by the 1876 end of that historical period the meaning of Decoration Day on the national level had begun to shift dramatically. But as historian David Blight has frequently noted, such as in the piece hyperlinked in my intro section above and as quoted in this article on Blight’s magisterial book Race and Reunion (2002), the holiday always had a different meaning for African Americans than for other American communities, and that meaning continued to resonate for that community through those broader national shifts. Indeed, it’s possible to argue that as the national meaning shifted away from the kinds of remembrance for which Frederick Douglass argued in his 1871 speech, it became that much more necessary and vital for African Americans to practice that form of critical commemoration (one, to correct Woolson’s well-intended but patronizing description, that included just as much intelligence as love).
In an April 1877 editorial reflecting on the end of Reconstruction, the Nation magazine predicted happily that one effect of that shift would be that “the negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him.” Besides representing one of the lowest points in that periodical’s long history, the editorial quite clearly illustrates why the post-Reconstruction national meaning of Decoration Day seems to have won out over the African American one (a shift that culminated, it could be argued, in the change of name to Memorial Day, which began being used as an alternative as early as 1882): because prominent, often white supremacist national voices wanted it to be so. Which is to say, it wasn’t inevitable that the shift would occur or the new meaning would win out—and while we can’t change what happened in our history, we nonetheless can (as I’ll argue at greater length tomorrow) push back and remember the original and, for the African American community, ongoing meaning of Decoration Day.
Last Decoration Day history tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

May 27, 2015: Decoration Day Histories: Roger Pryor

[Following up Monday’s Memorial Day special, a series on some of the complex American histories connected to the holiday’s original identity as Decoration Day.]
On the invitation and speech that mark two shifts in American attitudes.
In May 1876, New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music invited Confederate veteran, lawyer, and Democratic politician Roger A. Pryor to deliver its annual Decoration Day address. As Pryor noted in his remarks, the invitation was most definitely an “overture of reconciliation,” one that I would pair with the choice (earlier that same month) of Confederate veteran and poet Sidney Lanier to write and deliver the opening Cantata at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Indeed, reunion and reconciliation were very much the themes of 1876, threads that culminated in the contested presidential election and the end of Federal Reconstruction that immediately followed it (and perhaps, although historians have different perspectives on this point, stemmed from that election’s controversial results). In any case, this was a year in which the overtures of reconciliation were consistently heard, and we could locate Pryor’s address among the rest.
Yet the remarks that Pryor delivered in his Decoration Day speech could not be accurately described as reconciliatory—unless we shift the meaning to “trying to reconcile his Northern audiences with his Confederate perspective on the war, its causes and effects, and both regions.” Pryor was still waiting, he argued, for “an impartial history” to be told, one that more accurately depicted both “the cause of secession” and Civil War and the subsequent, “dismal period” of Reconstruction. While he could not by any measure be categorized as impartial, he nonetheless attempted to offer his own version of those histories and issues throughout the speech—one designed explicitly, I would argue, to convert his Northern audience to that version of both past and present. Indeed, as I argue at length in my first book, narratives of reunion and reconciliation were quickly supplanted in this period by ones of conversion, attempts—much of the time, as Reconstruction lawyer and novelist Albion Tourgée noted in an 1888 article, very successful attempts at that—to convert the North and the nation as a whole to this pro-Southern standpoint.
In my book’s analysis I argued for a chronological shift: that reunion/reconciliation was a first national stage in this period, and conversion a second. But Pryor’s Decoration Day speech reflects how the two attitudes could go hand-in-hand: the Northern invitation to Pryor could reflect, as he noted, that attitude of reunion on the part of Northern leaders; and Pryor’s remarks and their effects (which we cannot know for certain in this individual case, but which were, as Tourgée noted, quite clear in the nation as a whole) could both comprise and contribute to the attitudes of conversion to the Southern perspective. And in any case, it’s important to add that both reconciliation and conversion differ dramatically from the original purpose of Decoration Day, as delineated so bluntly and powerfully by Frederick Douglass in his 1871 speech: remembrance, of the Northern soldiers who died in the war and of the cause for which they did so. By 1876, it seems clear, that purpose was shifting, toward a combination of amnesia and propaganda, of forgetting the war’s realities and remembering a propagandistic version of them created by voices like Pryor’s.
Next Decoration Day history tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

May 26, 2015: Decoration Day Histories: Frederick Douglass

[Following up Monday’s Memorial Day special, a series on some of the complex American histories connected to the holiday’s original identity as Decoration Day.]
On one of the great American speeches, and why it’d be so important to add to our collective memories.
In a long-ago guest post on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic blog, Civil War historian Andy Hall highlighted Frederick Douglass’s amazing 1871 Decoration Day speech (full text available at that first link). Delivered at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery, then as now the single largest resting place of U.S. soldiers, Douglass’s short but incredibly (if not surprisingly) eloquent and pointed speech has to be ranked as one of the most impressive in American history. I’m going to end this first paragraph here so you can read the speech in full (again, it’s at the first link above), and I’ll see you in a few.
Welcome back! If I were to close-read Douglass’s speech, I could find choices worth extended attention in every paragraph and every line. But I agree with Hall’s final point, that the start of Douglass’s concluding paragraph—“But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic”—is particularly noteworthy and striking. Granted, this was not yet the era that would come to be dominated by narratives of reunion and reconciliation between the regions, and then by ones of conversation to the Southern perspective (on all of which, see tomorrow’s post); an era in which Douglass’s ideas would be no less true, nor in which (I believe) he would have hesitated to share them, but in which a Decoration Day organizing committee might well have chosen not to invite a speaker who would articulate such a clear and convincing take on the causes and meanings of the Civil War. Yet even in 1871, to put that position so bluntly and powerfully at such an occasion would have been impressive for even a white speaker, much less an African American one.
If we were to better remember Douglass’s Decoration Day speech, that would be one overt and important effect: to push back on so many of the narratives of the Civil War that have developed in the subsequent century and a half. One of the most frequent such narratives is that there was bravery and sacrifice on both sides, as if to produce a leveling effect on our perspective on the war—but as Douglass notes in the paragraph before that conclusion, recognizing individual bravery in combat is not at all the same as remembering a war: “The essence and significance of our devotions here today are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle.” I believe Douglass here can be connected to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and its own concluding notion of honoring the dead through completing “the unfinished work”: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.” That work and task remained unfinished and great long after the Civil War’s end, after all—and indeed remain so to this day in many ways. Just another reason to better remember Frederick Douglass’s Decoration Day speech.
Next Decoration Day history tomorrow,
BenI

PS. What do you think?

Monday, May 25, 2015

May 25, 2015: Remembering Memorial Day

[This special post is the first of a series inspired by the history behind Memorial Day. Check out my similar 2012 and 2014 series for more!]

On what we don’t remember about Memorial Day, and why we should.

In a long-ago post on the Statue of Liberty, I made a case for remembering, and engaging much more fully, with what the Statue was originally intended, by its French abolitionist creator, to symbolize: the legacy of slavery and abolitionism in both America and France, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the memories of what he had done to advance that cause, and so on. I tried there, hopefully with some success, to leave ample room for what the Statue has come to mean, both for America as a whole and, more significantly still, for generation upon generation of immigrant arrivals to the nation: I think those meanings, especially when tied to Emma Lazarus’ poem and its radically democratic and inclusive vision of our national identity, are beautiful and important in their own right. But how much more profound and meaningful, if certainly more complicated, would they be if they were linked to our nation’s own troubled but also inspiring histories of slavery and abolitionism, of sectional strife and Civil War, of racial divisions and those who have worked for centuries to transcend and bridge them?

I would say almost exactly the same thing when it comes to the history of Memorial Day. For the last century or so, at least since the end of World War I, the holiday has meant something broadly national and communal, an opportunity to remember and celebrate those Americans who have given their lives as members of our armed forces. While I certainly feel that some of the narratives associated with that idea are as simplifying and mythologizing and meaningless as many others I’ve analyzed here—“they died for our freedom” chief among them; the world would be a vastly different, and almost certainly less free, place had the Axis powers won World War II (for example), but I have yet to hear any convincing case that the world would be even the slightest bit worse off were it not for the quarter of a million American troops who lives were wasted in the Vietnam War (for another)—those narratives are much more about politics and propaganda, and don’t change at all the absolutely real and tragic and profound meaning of service and loss for those who have done so and all those who know and love them. One of the most pitch-perfect statements of my position on such losses can be found in a song by (surprisingly) Bruce Springsteen; his “Gypsy Biker,” from Magic (2007), certainly includes a strident critique of the Bush Administration and Iraq War, as seen in lines like “To those who threw you away / You ain’t nothing but gone,” but mostly reflects a brother’s and family’s range of emotions and responses to the death of a young soldier in that war.

Yet as with the Statue, Memorial Day’s original meanings and narratives are significantly different from, and would add a great deal of complexity and power to, these contemporary images. The holiday was first known as Decoration Day, and was (at least per the thorough histories of it by scholarslike David Blight) originated in 1865 by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina; the slaves visited a cemetery for Union soldiers on May 1st of that year and decorated their graves, a quiet but very sincere tribute to what those soldiers have given and what it had meant to the lives of these freedmen and –women. The holiday quickly spread to many other communities, and just as quickly came to focus more on the less potentially divisive, or at least less complex as reminders of slavery and division and the ongoing controversies of Reconstruction and so on, perspectives of former soldiers—first fellow Union ones, but by the 1870s veterans from both sides. Yet former slaves continued to honor the holiday in their own way, as evidenced by a powerful scene from Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “Rodman the Keeper” (1880), in which the protagonist observes a group of ex-slaves leaving their decorations on the graves of the Union dead at the cemetery where he works. On the one hand, these ex-slave memorials are parallel to the family memories that now dominate Memorial Day, and serve as a beautiful reminder that the American family extends to blood relations of very different and perhaps even more genuine kinds. But on the other hand, the ex-slave memorials represent far more complex and in many ways (I believe) significant American stories and perspectives than a simple familial memory; these acts were a continuing acknowledgment both of some of our darkest moments and of the ways in which we had, at great but necessary cost, defeated them.
Again, I’m not trying to suggest that any current aspects or celebrations of Memorial Day are anything other than genuine and powerful; having heard some eloquent words about what my Granddad’s experiences with his fellow soldiers had meant to him (he even commandeered an abandoned bunker and hand-wrote a history of the Company after the war!), I share those perspectives. But as with the Statue and with so many of our national histories, what we’ve forgotten is just as genuine and powerful, and a lot more telling about who we’ve been and thus who and where we are. The more we can remember those histories too, the more complex and meaningful our holidays, our celebrations, our memories, and our futures will be.
Series continues tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think?

Saturday, May 23, 2015

May 23-24, 2015: Crowd-sourced BlockbusterStudying



[A couple years ago, I spent a fun week AmericanStudying summer blockbusters—this year, it was time for the sequel! This crowd-sourced smash is drawn from the responses of fellow BlockbusterStudiers—add your thoughts in comments, please!]
On Facebook, a good conversation followed up my Jurassic Park post. Michelle Proctor writes, “Love any and all Crichton—I think the movie missed too much of Malcolm’s ‘People will not destroy the world, but the world will wipe out people that trash it’ message.” And Tim McCaffrey adds, “I enjoyed the book and was initially disappointed in the movie for all the reasons you mention (also, the switching of the sibling genders, if I remember correctly). But over time I have come to enjoy the movie as a separate entity. Agree with you on Jaws. Very rare case of movie > book.”
Chance Lee also follows up that post, commenting, “I rewatched Jurassic Park recently! You mention how ‘the film turns Hammond from a dark, pointed commentary on capitalism and the modern corporate world into more of a naïve but good-hearted teddy bear, played with silly charm by Richard Attenborough.’ What I realized on my recent viewing was that Hammond is /still/ a commentary on capitalism and the modern corporate world. Even though he's *played* as a goofy harmless old man, the disaster of the park is still mostly the result of his hubris. By *not* punishing him in the end, as Crichton does, Spielberg shows that evil corporations can kill people, get away with it, and still be viewed as likable.”
For other blockbusters, Paige Swarbrick highlights The Shining (1980), noting the important “Lesson learned: don’t lock your family away in a remote hotel in the snowy mountains because you just might lose it.”
Jason Flinkstrom goes with ID4 (1996), for which Jeff Renye adds this video that is an analysis of the film in its own right.
Jeff also highlights “the complicated production and cultural history of The Goonies (1985).”
Andrew DaSilva writes about Jaws (1975), noting, “Being that I live on the Cape, would have to say Jaws being that it takes place right off the coast … Plus the music keeps ya at the edge of your seat the whole movie without seeing any shark. Goes to show ya don’t need any special effects to wet yourself with fright.”
Nancy Caronia focuses on Die Hard (1988), for which she’d analyze “images of white American masculinity through Bruce Willis' character, the changing American domestic landscape through the relationship between John McClane and his wife, images of globalization through both Hans Gruber and the Nakotomi building itself—those are just starters.”
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other summer blockbusters you’d analyze?

Friday, May 22, 2015

May 22, 2015: BlockbusterStudying II: E.T. and Aliens

[A couple years ago, I spent a fun week AmericanStudying summer blockbusters—this year, it’s time for the sequel! Add your thoughts, on these or other blockbusters, for a weekend post that’s sure to set box office records!]
On friendly and hostile extraterrestrials, and the real bad guys in any case.
In the shape of his head, E.T. (star of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film of the same name) looks a tiny bit like a distant cousin of the mother alien (the “bitch,” that is) from James Cameron’s Aliens (1986). But that slight comparison is about the only possible way in which these two summer blockbusters aren’t wholly distinct from one another. E.T. is perhaps Spielberg’s most kid-centered film, from its youthful protagonists to its product placements for Reese’s Pieces and the good ol’ Speak and Spell, its drunken slapstick to its underlying theme of growing up in a single-parent household. While Aliens has to be one of the most adult, hard-R-rated summer blockbusters ever, featuring one nightmare-inducing, graphically violent and horrifying sequence and image after the next (to say nothing of the Space Marines’ extremely salty repartee).
E.T. and Aliens aren’t just at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to their ratings and intended audiences, however. They also embody two entirely different perspectives on the question not of whether there is life other than our own in the universe (both films agree that there is), but of what attitude toward Earth and humanity those extraterrestials might hold. The summer blockbuster Independence Day (1994), about which I blogged here, explicitly engages with these contrasting perspectives, featuring a number of characters who believe the aliens might come in peace before their true, hostile intentions are revealed. Because of its status as a sequel to a film in which the alien creature could not be more hostile and destructive to humans, Aliens can dispense with the debate and move immediately into the story of how its human characters will combat the extraterrestrial threats. And by tying his extraterrestrial’s first entrance into the film to the creature’s love of Reese’s Pieces, Spielberg similarly signals from the start that his alien will be friendly to—indeed, overtly parallel to—his young protagonist Elliot.
E.T. isn’t without antagonists, though—but they’re of the human variety, the community of threatening scientists and government officials who seek to capture and (if necessary) kill E.T. to learn his secrets (and who in the original film carry guns, not walkie talkies, in that pursuit). And in that sense, E.T. and Aliens aren’t quite as far apart as they might seem—because in the latter film’s major reveal (SPOILER alert), it turns out that Paul Reiser’s corporate scientist Carter Burke is far more overt of a villain than the aliens, who are after all only fighting for their own survival (rather than driven by greed and manipulation, and a willingness to sacrifice anyone who gets in their way, as Burke and the Weyland-Yutani Corporation for which he works are revealed to be). If there’s one thing on which such disparate summer blockbusters can apparently agree, it’s that the powers that be—whether corporate or governmental—represent a far greater threat, to humans and extraterrestrials alike, than any alien invaders.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben

PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other summer blockbusters you’d analyze?