Tuesday, July 31, 2012
[A recap of the month that was in American Studying.]
July 2: Newton’s Histories, Part 1: First in a series inspired by the Jackson Homestead and Museum, on the life and legacies of William Jackson.
July 3: Newton’s Histories, Part 2: Next in the series, on the room dedicated to Newton’s Norumbega Park.
July 4: Newton’s Histories, Part 3: On two compelling recreations in the Museum’s “Confronting Our Legacy” exhibition on slavery.
July 5: Newton’s Histories, Part 4: First of two posts on forgotten figures and histories highlighted in the Museum, this one on Henry “Box” Brown.
July 6: Newton’s Histories, Part 5: Last in the Museum series, on the second forgotten figure and history, Captain Jonathan Walker.
July 7-8: Two American Studies Requests: Asking for your contributions to two still ongoing efforts: on behalf of Tougaloo College’s endowed Civil Rights Chair; and in the conversations at NEASA’s Pre-Conference blog.
July 9: American Studies Beach Reads, Part One: The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, the week’s first recommendation for an American Studies beach read.
July 10: American Studies Beach Reads, Part Two: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, my next beach read rec.
July 11: American Studies Beach Reads, Part Three: Two funny (really) historical and human Holocaust novels you can read at the beach.
July 12: American Studies Beach Reads, Part Four: The multi-volume sci fi epic that’s both American Studies-related and a great beach read.
July 13: American Studies Beach Reads, Part Five: Five more nominees for great American Studies beach reads.
July 14-15: Crowd-Sourcing Beach Reads: A crowd-sourced post with some great reader suggestions for other American Studies beach reads.
July 16-20: Talk Amongst Yourselves: A vacation-week post highlighting some other great American Studies sites and conversations online.
July 21-22: Rediscovering Francis Jennings: On the amazing scholarly work and voice I rediscovered in my late grandfather’s library.
July 23: Jennings on America’s Origins: First in a series on ideas and inspirations taken from Jennings’ book and connected to my own American Studies perpectives.
July 24: Jennings on Why It Matters: On what Jennings’ youthful job and experiences helped him understand about public scholarship.
July 25: Jennings on What to Read: On why we should read less mainstream and prominent works of American history and scholarship.
July 26: Jennings on Heroes and Humans: Jennings on less and more complex and productive kinds of sympathy with our historical subjects.
July 27: Jennings on the Long Haul: Finally, two hugely inspiring lessons we can take away from Jennings’ life and career.
July 28-29: Matthew Goguen’s Guest Post: Fitchburg State University graduate and budding American Studier Matt Goguen on memory and Joe Paterno.
July 30: Funny Families: First in a series on interesting American siblings, on the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.
The sibling series resumes tomorrow,
PS. Things you’d like to see featured in this space? Guest posts you’d like to write?
Monday, July 30, 2012
[This American Studier’s sister turns 30 this week—which makes this American Studier feel really old, but that’s another story—and in honor of that occasion I’m featuring a series on interesting American siblings. Please share your own ideas and suggestions for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
On the two groups of siblings at the heart of mid-20th century American comedy and popular culture.
From the Booths to the Barrymores, the Douglas’s to the Bridges, on down to Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and their increasingly visible young ‘uns, multi-generational families have long been a staple in American popular culture. Whether you read the trend as one of many signs that American society is not nearly as class-less as we like to believe, as a symbol of our hankering for an equivalent to the British royal family, or as simply a reflection that it’s easier to get ahead if you know the right people, there’s no doubt that our cultural icons have often come as part of family units. Yet I’m not sure that any other cultural medium or any other historical moment have been dominated by competing families of entertainers as were the 1930s and 40s by the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.
The two families (which is a slightly inaccurate word for the Stooges, since Moe, Shemp, and Curly were brothers but Larry was unrelated to them) have interestingly parallel biographies: each group of brothers was born to Jewish American immigrant families in late 19th century New York; members of each began to perform in Vaudeville-type acts for the first time in 1912, and achieved their first real breakthrough successes about a decade later; and the similarly-titled films that truly launched each group both appeared within a year of each other, the Marx’s The Cocoanuts (1929) and the Stooges’ Soup to Nuts (1930). The families even feature individual brothers who helped originate the act but left the group at a relatively early point, Zeppo Marx and Shemp Howard. Yet despite these parallels, in my experience it’s very rare to find passionate fans of both the Marx Brothers and the Stooges—they seem today, as perhaps they did in their own era, to have found pretty distinct fan bases.
It’d be easy to attribute that divide to the highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy, and certainly there’s no doubt that the two groups tended to employ very different kinds of comedy: the Marx’s using their scripts and wordplay first and foremost, the Stooges their physical comedy and violence (although certainly Harpo Marx was entirely a physical comic, and in other ways too this division would break down upon close examination). Yet I would say that the two groups also exemplify two very distinct directions for American comedy and popular culture after Vaudeville, both employing developing technologies but in quite different ways: Cocoanuts was one of the first sound films, and throughout their career the Marx Brothers used this new medium of sound film to great effect; whereas most of the Stooges’ classic works were shorts, and while such pieces were often featured before or with other films they were also tailor-made for the new medium of television as it developed in the decades to come. Both films and television remain central media for American comedy, of course, but they work and connect to audiences in fundamentally different ways, and the Marx’s and Stooges can help us analyze those trends at their earlier moments.
July recap tomorrow, but the sibling series continues on Wednesday,
PS. What do you think? Preferences between the Marx’s and the Stooges? Thoughts on other American siblings for the crowd-sourced post?
Saturday, July 28, 2012
[Matt Goguen is a recent Fitchburg State University graduate and an up-and-coming young scholar of American history, culture, and Studies. I expect big things, and am excited to highlight his voice here!]
Damnatio Memoriae and Joe Paterno by Matthew Goguen
The following post is written by the most casual of spectators in the recent Jerry Sandusky/Joe Paterno/Penn State sexual abuse scandal. This post does not condone Jerry Sandusky's behavior, Joe Paterno's behavior or Penn State's response to sexual abuse allegations. The purpose of this post is to briefly examine the act of removing a person's name from history using Joe Paterno as a very recent example. Notorious and infamous persons have often had their names stricken from history books for a multitude of reasons. In the past twenty years, this act is very evident in sports. This post is more concerned with the alteration of history than the persons who found themselves altered.
In 31 AD, Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard in Rome was arrested and executed. The reasons for his arrest and execution are still somewhat shrouded in mystery. It is believed that Sejanus was conspiring to overthrow the emperor Tiberius. After being executed by strangling, the body of Sejanus was thrown down the stairs of the Senate where it was torn apart by angry mobs. Anyone believed to be a follower and supporter of Sejanus was hunted and murdered. The Roman Senate issued an order of damnatio memoriae (condemnation of memory) which resulted in the destruction of every statue of Sejanus and his name being officially removed from all public records. In this way, Sejanus only exists as a story, a legend and a name.
In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal riveting State College, Pennsylvania and arguably the country, a beloved figure is facing similar persecution. Joe Paterno, the longtime Penn State head football coach whose sports accomplishments need no further introduction, is currently having his name and likeness edited or removed from murals, buildings, athletic awards and even an iconic statue.
If you place the removal of a person's name from history at one end of the memory spectrum, you must place the elevation of someone's name and memory at the other end. We are more accustomed to a person dying and seeing their name reach superstar status and solemnity, rather than being stricken from the human record. The deaths of Kurt Cobain and Heath Ledger are two recent examples of death causing a revival in a person's work. Though Cobain and Ledger were very popular figures in their lifetime, they were exponentially championed more after they died. But why do we choose to punish our more nefarious public figures by expunging them from the record? Why should we "forget" Joe Paterno? Does anyone actually succeed in forgetting after "forgetting"?
Joe Paterno / Joe Paterno (Halo) / Joe Paterno (Ribbon)
Twelve years ago, Michael Pilato painted a 100 foot mural at State College, Pennsylvania depicting notable Penn State figures including Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky. Because of the allegations and recent conviction of Sandusky, his likeness has been completely removed and replaced by a blue ribbon. The ribbon is a symbol of child abuse awareness, much akin to pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness. The likeness of Joe Paterno has undergone two transformations this year. Following Paterno's death, an angelic halo was added over his head. That halo has since been erased, and a blue ribbon has taken its place on his jacket.
It is the opinion of this author that these three transformations of Joe Paterno represent his public image in three distinct eras. The era of Joe Paterno is 1966 - November 8th, 2011. The era of Joe Paterno (Halo) is January 22nd, 2012 - July 11th, 2012. The era of Joe Paterno (Ribbon) is July 12th, 2012 - ?.
The era of Joe Paterno (1966-2011) is rooted in two national championships and over 400 victories as a head coach: the pride of State College, the head of the Nittany Lions, the coach's coach, and the cream of the crop. This era begins with Joe Paterno being named head coach of the Nittany Lions and ends with the indictment of Jerry Sandusky. The era of Joe Paterno (Halo) is a legendary coach caught in unfortunate circumstances. A man who should've made a better decision, should've done things differently, could’ve done more, etc. This era begins on the date of Paterno’s death and ends with the publication of the Freeh Report. The era of Joe Paterno (Ribbon) is a legendary coach who may have been involved in a large cover up with unknown explicit motives. Saving Penn State face, maintaining the visage of being the rock of a community, all of these are hearsay because of Paterno's physical absence from this earth. This era begins with the publication of the Freeh Report and may last for all time.
How does a community reconcile from this? Does a community reconcile from this? It’s easy as a spectator to comment and discuss the probabilities and nature of "going back to normal" because the spectator does not have to engage in those unfortunate actions. In an example of Pilato's public art mural, Joe Paterno is remembered in three different and simultaneous ways. There will be ardent supporters who will never look to Paterno as anything less than greatness personified, there are those who will think he simply made the wrong decision and there are those who will believe he was a lying criminal with no regard for the well-being of abused children. He is all at once, a saint, a sinner, and the devil, depending on who you ask.
When asked about the changes made to his mural, artist Michael Pilato commented, "As a public artist, you've got to listen to the public and I started to hear the public, and I wish I hadn't put [the halo] up there, to tell you the truth." Michael Pilato has the power to edit and paint new images on his art as he wants to, but what of other bearers of the Paterno name?
Joe Paterno Child Development Center / Child Development Center
Hours after the Freeh Report claimed that Joe Paterno and various higher-ups within the Penn State fold concealed critical information about Sandusky's victims that placed past and future victims in critical jeopardy, Nike made an announcement that they would be renaming the Joe Paterno Child Development Center in the near future. The new name has not been unveiled yet, but it is rather disgustingly ironic that it is a child development center that will be renamed. Nike, which of course is a corporate entity will understandably do what it can to remain in positive light. It is not surprising that they are choosing to rename the center to distance their relationship with Joe Paterno, but will there be anything more? Will Nike remove their sponsorship of Penn State athletics?
Joe Paterno Outstanding Male Freshman Athlete of the Year / Outstanding Male Freshman Athlete of the Year
At Paterno's alma mater, Brown University, the Joe Paterno Outstanding Male Freshman Athlete of the Year is also undergoing a facelift. This year, the award was given to an athlete with Joe Paterno's name stricken from it.
Howard D. Williams '17 / Joseph V. Paterno '50 Football Coaching Chair
Also this year at Brown, the head coach position formerly known as the Howard D. Williams '17 / Joseph V. Paterno '50 Football Coaching Chair has been eliminated. However, according to the university, the reasons are due to issues that predate the Penn State scandal.
Brown University Hall of Fame
Not altered as of yet, but Brown University is also looking into revising Joe Paterno's Hall of Fame status at their school. A decision may be made in September during the Board of Trustees next meeting. His induction in the hall took place in 1977, long before Sandusky's actions are believed to have taken place. This is an instance where Joe Paterno's athletic accomplishments are in jeopardy of being erased due to actions that have nothing to do with his time in a Brown University uniform.
Paternoville / Nittanyville
On Monday, July 16th, it was announced by a Penn State student group that Paternoville, the congregation of students who camp outside of Penn State's football stadium before games, will now be referred to as Nittanyville.
The Paterno Statue / Statua Paterno
In a final threat to the legacy of Joe Paterno, Penn State is being encouraged to tear down a statue of Joe Paterno that stands outside of the Penn State football stadium. Rumor has it that an airplane flying over the college was pulling a banner that read, "Take the statue down or we will." If the statue does indeed come down, it would be akin to burning every photograph of Paterno wearing Penn State colors. Will this make things better? Is it better to remember our failures along with our triumphs? A senior at Penn State named Jeff Taylor offered great words of wisdom in regards to the renaming of Paternoville, "You can't remove Joe completely from history; that's something that doesn't even make sense...we want, at least to...return to normalcy." In addition to Taylor’s comments, the overwhelming sense in State College is to prevent “distractions” from overtaking Penn State’s educational mission. Joe Paterno is currently Public Distraction #1 thanks to the swift justice of Jerry Sandusky. What more of a glaring distraction than the absence of the symbolic Praetorian Guard leading his men to battle. His reputation and visage are now all but cast down the stairs of public opinion, to be devoured and torn asunder.
If Joe Paterno cannot be removed from history, why do we feel it necessary to remove his likeness and his name? The common answer is to distance oneself from the scandal, the bad press, and the hurt feelings. But do these tactics work? It is truly unfortunate that a man as revered as Joe Paterno has now been reduced to mere mortality; a harsh fall from grace as a football titan. But we as a society have been disappointed before, what makes this different?
Can we forget Joe Paterno? The answer is an emphatic no. We cannot forget Joe Paterno no matter how much we try. His image is synonymous with Penn State and football greatness. Rather than destroying the image of Joe Paterno, we should always look at it through the eyes of Michael Pilato's painting: Joe Paterno as saint, as sinner, and as the devil. Joe Paterno, like all of us, does not conform to one set of standards. Joe Paterno was a human being, who was not black or white, but various shades of grey. Sometimes the most vicious of wolves dress in sheep's clothing. The legacy of Joe Paterno will forever be tarnished, but it is not worth being destroyed. If we condemn Paterno, we cannot learn from Paterno. If he is reduced to rubble, he will remain as rubble. There are lessons that we still need to learn. If we act hastily, we will not be able to put the pieces back together. In this way, Joe Paterno will only be a story, a legend and a name.
[Next series next week,
PS. What do you think?
7/28 Memory Day nominee: Lucy Burns, whose international and American efforts on behalf of women’s suffrage, women’s rights, and pacifism exemplified the ideals of the progressive era and movement at home and abroad, then and now.
Friday, July 27, 2012
[Following up the weekend’s post, this week’s series will feature quotes and ideas from Francis Jennings’ The Creation of America, along with some American Studies perspectives to which I would connect them. This is the fifth and final entry in the series, and as always, your thoughts are very welcome!]
On two distinct and equally inspiring ways Francis Jennings modeled a career and life in American Studying.
The Creation of America was published by Cambridge University Press in July 2000; in November of that same year, Francis Jennings passed away. While of course academic press books take some time to reach the publication stage, it’s still entirely accurate to say that Jennings was working on this book in the final stage of his life, as illustrated by the opening sentences of his Acknowledgments:
“In first rank of essential debts, I owe deep gratitude to the staffs of the James C. King Home, which is my own home. They literally saved my life with surgery and watchful care during recuperation, and they made possible the rest periods during which this book could be completed.”
It’s difficult to overstate how inspiring I find those sentences. I suppose they could be read a sign of someone who couldn’t let his work go, who wasn’t able to adequately relax or the like; but I would read them entirely differently and much more positively: as evidence of the deep significance of the work Jennings was doing, and of his profound commitment to do that work for as long as he possibly could and not a moment less. That he obviously took great and continuing pleasure from the work as well (a pleasure reflected in every ornery and impassioned sentence of the book) only adds one more inspiring level still, one more career and lifelong goal to which all of us American Studiers can and should aspire.
But Jennings did more than just continue to do and take pleasure in his scholarly work until the end of his life; he also allowed that work to go in directions he didn’t expect, as evidenced by his book’s brief but crucial final three paragraphs:
“Perhaps it may seem to some critics that I have written to sensationalize the subject. If so, I respectfully disagree. This book is not at all what I intended except in its effort to include all the people involved in the Revolution. That was what sensationalized the book, rather to my discomfort.
Given the options of reporting my sources straightforwardly or producing what John Mack Faragher has called (in another connection) ‘an exclusionist reading of the past,’ I had no real choice.
My book undoubtedly contains error; it is certainly not definitive. Yet I hope this inclusionist reading will inspire new understandings and initiate new explorations by readings as it did for me.”
“Rather to my discomfort”; “as it did for me.” In his early 80s, after a lifetime of American historical investigations and scholarship, Jennings remained open enough in his ideas and his perspective to allow the sources and the evidence to take him in different directions, to amplify and reshape and shift and strengthen his understandings and analyses. In my own research and in my teaching I consistently argue for inductive reasoning, for examining the evidence and then trying to induce our arguments and ideas from it (rather than the deductive, argument-first approach that I believe many scholars employ and many teachers teach). And here is one of our most senior and established scholars practicing that approach in his final book, literally from his deathbed, in one more effort to inspire other scholars and American Studiers. Mission accomplished, Dr. Jennings.
Next guest post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Scholars and/or books that have inspired you?7/27 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two unique artists whose creations helped define late 20th century American culture and society, Norman Lear and Gary Gygax.
Thursday, July 26, 2012
[Following up the weekend’s post, this week’s series will feature quotes and ideas from Francis Jennings’ The Creation of America, along with some American Studies perspectives to which I would connect them. This is the fourth in the series, and as always, your thoughts are very welcome!]
On Jennings’ recognition of the less and more productive kinds of sympathy with our historical subjects.
We scholars like to pretend otherwise sometimes, but we’re no more capable of being entirely objective about our subjects than anyone else would be; we have our subjectivities, our passions, our personal connections, and they enter into our analyses whether we will it or no. As I wrote in this post on my youthful fondness for Robert E. Lee, the key is first to recognize those passions and then to push beyond them, to allow the complexities and challenges of history and culture and literature and all our topics to deepen and strengthen our ideas and work. That doesn’t mean that we end up vilifying historical figures—such simplified critiques are no more complex or meaningful than hero-worship—but instead that we seek to analyze and understand them in all their details and contexts, and see where that works takes us.
In his concluding chapter, “In Sum,” Jennings engages directly with and poignantly responds to a critique of his work on these terms:
“A good friend chides me for giving too little notice to historical persons who really did struggle and sacrifice for liberty for all. I an uncomfortable with that criticism, especially because of my own youthful experience as one of the strugglers. Yet I have written no more than what the evidence seemed to indicate, and I will not cover up; there has been much too much of that. Human animals are capable of behavior demonic as well as angelic, and sometimes both from the same creature.”
After a paragraph highlighting once more a few of his book’s examples of such seeming contradictions, Jennings pushes his ideas one crucial step further:
“It seems to me that the best service to be performed in behalf of strugglers for liberty is to talk straight—to show the complexity and ambiguities of their struggle, and to recognize humanity even where the strugglers did not. All men are brothers, and all women are sisters.”
As he does in so many places, Jennings here articules succinctly and powerfully one of the ideas for which I hope to work throughout my career. We can indeed, he argues, sympathize with our historical subjects, and more exactly with their ideals and goals, with the best of what they were and represented and connected to. Moreover, recognizing their limitations and failures as well as their strengths and triumphs allows us not only to do full justice to American histories and identities, but also to move toward a more perfect union, toward a future that carries forward and builds upon but also is not circumscribed by these histories.
What Jennings argues for here, then, is another seeming contradiction that is in fact a vital idea, and one I would locate at the heart of public American Studies scholarship: that doing our best to be objective and complete in our historical analyses can at the same time produce a genuinely progressive and practical vision for America’s present and future. By neither eliding the worst of our histories in an effort to create mythologized heroes nor cynically vilifying our figures in an effort to revise such mythologies, we can both better and more fully understand our past and find the most genuine and vital kinds of inspirations for our future.
Final Jennings-inspired post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
[Following up the weekend’s post, this week’s series will feature quotes and ideas from Francis Jennings’ The Creation of America, along with some American Studies perspectives to which I would connect them. This is the third in the series, and as always, your thoughts are very welcome!]
On the against-the-grain and very valuable types of sources at the heart of Jennings’ book.
In the first of my Beach Read posts, when I recommended Alfred Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, I noted that some of the most famous and best-selling works of public American historical scholarship focus on the Revolutionary era: that would especially include David McCullough’s works, but also a similarly successful book like Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. As I wrote in that post, such works tend to be more narrative than analytical, telling compelling American stories but not necessarily engaging with the complex questions and contexts to which they connect. And these most prominent Revolutionary histories also share another limitation, not only with each other but also with some more analytical and almost equally famous books like Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution: they focus almost entirely on the Revolutionary activities and ideas of the Framers and of the founding documents they produced.
So central have those people and ideas been to our narratives of the Revolution that it can be difficult to imagine what a history of the period would look like that didn’t focus on them. But that was Jennings’ goal, and he illustrates how he tried to do it in an Introduction paragraph describing his preferred sources for the book:
“In a sense, this book is not so much revisionist as a choice of existing but neglected intepretations. It rejects what currently dominant writers like to call ‘mainstream’ history—that is, theirs—and opts instead for studies done by specialists drudging through sources neglected by the mainstreamers. Such specialists have produced a large body of work generally omitted from standard preachments because of its irrefutable contradictions of orthodoxy. I have not indulged myself by simply dreaming up an eccentric fantasy. Rather, I have given attention to the implications of some of these alternative researches.”
Despite the pararaph’s somewhat ornery tone (present throughout Jennings’ book; but when eighty-two years old you reach, write as jovially you will not), this is actually a profoundly open and generous perspective. It’s easy to imagine that a very senior and established historian and scholar would either rely on his own existing ideas or put himself in conversation with other particularly prominent voices; but instead Jennings is quite directly advocating seeking out other voices, often those of younger scholars but in any case those who have for whatever reason not received as much attention. In fact, he’s arguing something more—that the lack of attention might be a sign that these voices and ideas offer us something new and important, without which our narratives and analyses will remain too static and one-sided.
As a public American scholar (at least in aim!), I spend a lot of time thinking about audiences, and how best to reach them. But as Jennings reminds us here, we public scholars should likewise think about our own community and conversations, about with which of our peers we want to especially engage. After all, in doing so we’re not only modeling certain kinds of analyses and approaches; we’re also helping highlight the ideas and works by those other scholars. Certainly some of the most already prominent voices can and must be echoed; but there’s even more value, Jennings and I would argue, in conversing with those who have a lot more to offer than our conversations yet include.
Next inspiring quote tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any not-yet prominent enough scholars or voices you’d highlight?7/25 Memory Day nominee: Thomas Eakins, whose realistic and humanistic paintings helped change American art, culture, and society as much as any single 19th century artist or figure.
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
[Following up the weekend’s post, this week’s series will feature quotes and ideas from Francis Jennings’ The Creation of America, along with some American Studies perspectives to which I would connect them. This is the second in the series, and as always, your thoughts are very welcome!]
On the impressive and important starting points for Jennings’ career and book.
Tucked inside my grandfather’s copy of The Creation of America was Francis Jennings’ obituary, in which I discovered a couple specific facts (among many inspiring details of his life, from his World War II service to his leadership of a teacher’s union in opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee) that definitely contributed to my renewed interest in Jennings’ scholarship and perspective. For one thing, Jennings was precisely the kind of exemplary Temple University undergraduate I met during my time at that institution: born and raised in a small Pennsylvania mining town, the first member of his family to attend college, and so on. And even more impressively, he spent the decade after receiving that degree (and before returning to graduate school to obtain his PhD) teaching history in the Philadelphia public schools.
While he left that secondary school environment to enter the academic and public scholarly ones, however, he clearly didn’t leave it behind, as the opening paragraphs of his final book’s Introduction make clear:
“A long time ago when I tried to teach American history in a rough high school for slum boys, I thought to brighten the usual routine with an ‘educational’ film on the Revolution. Astonishingly, my students groaned. I had to wonder why.
There was no need to wonder long. As the ‘educational’ film’s actors strutted pompously about, they looked more like Martians than honest-to-goodness human beings. And as they declaimed about refusing to be slaves, my students’ eyes glazed over. My students were black.
I began dimly to see the error of conceiving the American Revolution as an unqualified struggle for liberty. Undeniably something of that sort had been involved, but liberty for whom and for what?”
Rarely have I found in the work of any academic scholar a clearer sense of two hugely significant stakes to the work that we American Studiers do. First, Jennings recognizes here that every historical interpretation entails not only our ideas about the past, but also a particular connection to audience—or, far too often, a disconnection from many American audiences. In this case, for example, the “Great Men” narratives of the Founding Fathers, whatever their accuracy (and Jennings agrees with me that those narratives are too simplistic by far), certainly would seem entirely disconnected from the heritages, experiences, and identities of young African American men in 20th century Philadelphia. That wouldn’t mean that a teacher shouldn’t engage with those narratives; but he or she would at least have to acknowledge these gaps forthrightly, and to likewise engage with other American histories and identities alongside them.
Second, and even more crucially, Jennings here grounds his American Studies public scholarship in an attempt to find and argue for a more genuinely communal American history—a vision of our national past and identity that can in fact include and thus speak to multiple audiences. While that vision has of course been part of a multicultural curriculum for many decades now, too often it is presented simply as a given—there have long been multiple communities in America, this argument goes, so of course we should engage with all of them. But the truth is that such engagement is much more active than that, represents a conscious choice to envision historical moments not only through the experiences of different communities, but also and even more overarchingly through the interconnections and relationships between those communities. Such a vision, after all, as Jennings acknowledges at the outset of his book, is the only one that has the potential to speak to all 21st century Americans.
Next Jennings-inpsired post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any experiences that have helped you see the stakes of your work?7/24 Memory Day nominee: Amelia Earhart, whose pioneering and inspirational life is rivaled by her mysterious and legendary final flight in our national narratives and stories.