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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

May 17, 2022: Aviation Histories: Charles Lindbergh

[On May 20-21, 1932, Amelia Earhart became the second person, and the first woman, to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic feat, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of aviation histories, leading up to a special weekend post on the myths and realities of Earhart!]

On how history can overshadow history, and why we should partly resist that trend.

I think it’s fair to say that Charles Lindbergh, one of the true aviation pioneers in American history, is remembered in our collective narratives at least as well (if not, indeed, much more fully) for two stories that had nothing whatsoever to do with his flying abilities and achievements. First, there was the horrifying March 1932 abduction and murder of Lindbergh (and wife Anne Spencer Morrow)’s 20-month old son Charles Augustus, a true crime story that gripped the nation both for the 10 weeks that Charles was missing and again after the 1934 arrest and trial of Bruno Hauptmann (a prosecution that led to a new law deeming kidnapping across state lines a federal offense). And then, less than a decade later, there was Lindbergh’s 1938 acceptance of a German medal of honor from Nazi leader Hermann Goering, and his subsequent opposition to U.S. entrance into World War II through his leadership of the American First Committee, an openly isolationist, xenophobic, and anti-semitic organization. Although Lindbergh would go on to fly numerous missions once the U.S. had entered the war, after these dual 1930s histories he would always at the very least remain connected to such broader cultural, social, and political issues alongside his aviation advances and successes.

That’s not particularly fair when it comes to the true crime story—not only because it tells us nothing about Lindbergh as a historical figure or a man, but also because placing that story too much at the center of our collective memories seems to replicate the grisly fascination with a missing and then dead child (one of far too many such true crime fascinations in our cultural history). But the America First history is a far different story. Lindbergh’s association with—really his leading, spokesperson status in—that movement reflects deeply his attitudes and beliefs, his close connection to the Nazi regime in Germany, his actions and activism on behalf of an exclusionary vision of American identity and community. While of course those beliefs of his may have evolved over time, and we can and should consider that question (and thus his World War II service, among other factors) as part of this conversation, the late 1930s and early 1940s were a pivotal moment in American and world history, and Lindbergh aligned himself very fully and vocally with some of the darkest and most destructive forces in that moment. We can’t possibly remember his life and public career without putting that alignment front and center, not only for the sake of an accurate assessment of the man’s role in and influence on America but also because “America First” has, like anti-semitism, returned with a vengeance in our present moment.

Yet at the same time, there’s another way of looking at Lindbergh’s America First alignment in relationship to his aviation achievements. Lindbergh was far from the only isolationist and anti-semitic voice in early 1940s America; the St. Louis and its Jewish refugee passengers were turned away by forces far bigger and more widespread than Charles Lindbergh, after all. On the other hand, Lindbergh was quite literally the first person to make a solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean (on May 20-21, 1927, ironically in a plane named The Spirt of St. Louis), a pioneering and courageous aviation achievement that distinguished him from all of his peers and contemporaries and changed the course of transportation history. History isn’t a competition or a zero-sum game; the courageous moment doesn’t cancel out the horrific one, and we can and should work to remember both as part of Lindbergh’s story. But it’s also important that we remember America First and its bigoted and exclusionary attitudes as a far too widespread phenomenon, one certainly exemplified by but by no means limited to Charles Lindbergh. Whereas when Lindbergh boarded that plane in May 1927 and set off across the Atlantic, he was both literally and figuratively alone, and that’s worth remembering as well.

Next history tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other aviation histories or stories you’d share?

Monday, May 16, 2022

May 16, 2022: Aviation Histories: The Wright Brothers

[On May 20-21, 1932, Amelia Earhart became the second person, and the first woman, to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic feat, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of aviation histories, leading up to a special weekend post on the myths and realities of Earhart!]

Three lesser-known stories of the brothers who helped change transportation and the world.

1)      A Printing Press: In 1888, fifteen years before their pioneering flight and when Orville was still just a junior in high school, the brothers developed their first technological innovation, a printing press that they built themselves. They used it not only to publish their own newspapers in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio (first a weekly [West Side News] and then briefly a daily [The Evening Item]), but also produced publications for other friends and locals. One of them was a high school classmate of Orville’s and a blossoming young writer and poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar; the brothers’ printed his newspaper the Dayton Tattler for a time. Such personal and historical details not only remind us that the Wright Brothers moved through many stages of invention and profession before their aviation pinnacles, but also help situate them in their settings, both of place and time.

2)      A Bicycle Shop: Like many talented inventors, the Wright Brothers were never satisfied to stay in one stage or field for long; just four years after they opened their press, they had moved on, opening their bicycle repair and sales shop the Wright Cycle Exchange in 1892. As detailed at wonderful length in Kate Milford’s historical YA novel The Boneshaker (which features a Wright Brothers bicycle in a prominent role), bicycles had become something of a craze in this period, and the brothers quickly realized that they could turn their technological prowess to designing new and improved bikes. By 1896, the Wright Cycle Company was producing its own brand of bikes, machines which would of course also feature prominently in their later aeronautical efforts. But while this business and pursuit offer a direct throughline toward the machine that would propel the brothers into the air at Kitty Hawk, it also links them to a transportation trend and history that were far more widespread and influential throughout the 1890s and well into the early 1900s.

3)      A Museum Feud: The interesting and complex histories didn’t stop with that 1903 flight in Kitty Hawk, of course. One of the most compelling was the brothers’ multi-decade feud with the Smithsonian Institution, thanks to a rivalry with the institution’s secretary Samuel Langley over whose manned flying machine should be considered the first successful model. The museum chose to display Langley’s Aerodrome (which he had never gotten off the ground) much more prominently than the Wright Brothers’ model, and the brothers (especially Orville, as Wilbur died far too young in 1912) retaliated by lending their invention to the London Science Museum in 1928. There it remained until Orville’s death in 1948, when a long-negotiated truce allowed the Smithsonian to purchase the flyer and return it to the United States for the first time in decades. Among the many salient lessons from this controversial history is a reminder that museums are living and evolving spaces, reflecting the conflicts and struggles of their societies as much as their ideals and innovations. It’s hard to imagine an American Air & Space Museum without the Wright Brothers—but for a long time, thanks to the tangled history of aviation, that was precisely the case.

Next history tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other aviation histories or stories you’d share?

Saturday, May 14, 2022

May 14-15, 2022: Spring Semester Reflections: Adult Ed and Two Sandlots

[The Spring 2022 semester was in some ways more “normal” than the last few have been, but in many other ways just as difficult, if not indeed more so. But y’all know me well enough to know that I’m not going to focus on the challenges in this week’s series, but rather on individual discussions in each of my classes that reminded me of why we do what we do!]

As I highlighted in this semester preview post, I decided to focus my two adult learning courses this semester on my book project in progress, Two Sandlots: Baseball, Bigotry, and the Battle for America. Partly I wanted to circle back here to note how incredibly helpful that turned out to be, and to make the case to all my fellow educators not only for teaching in such adult learning programs (as I’ve done many times and always will), but also for sharing our scholarly and writing works in progress with these kinds of classes and communities. Their responses and questions, takeaways and connections, could not have been more meaningful nor more crucial as I continued to work (with my agent Suzy Evans) on the proposal and sample chapters for this project. But I also wanted to highlight one particular part of the book about which I learned a great deal more in order to teach it in these courses: the Massachusetts and New England origins of baseball! I then had the chance to share those histories as part of an Opening Day Saturday Evening Post Considering History column, yet another inspiring effect of my continued connection to adult learning communities.

Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Spring semester reflections (in all tones) you’d share, or upcoming projects you’d highlight?

Friday, May 13, 2022

May 13, 2022: Spring Semester Reflections: The Short Story Online

[The Spring 2022 semester was in some ways more “normal” than the last few have been, but in many other ways just as difficult, if not indeed more so. But y’all know me well enough to know that I’m not going to focus on the challenges in this week’s series, but rather on individual discussions in each of my classes that reminded me of why we do what we do!]

Anyone who’s read this blog over the last few years knows how much I stan two particular 21st century American short stories: Danielle Evans’ “Boys Go to Jupiter” and Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s “Control Negro.” So it will come as no surprise that the student responses to and conversations about those two stories in my online Short Story section this semester were highlights. But this time I was equally struck by the consistently thoughtful and nuanced takes on another phenomenal 21st century story, Cristina Henriquez’s “Everything is Far from Here.” I don’t know of any piece of writing—in any genre—that both allows and forces us to grapple with the unfolding histories and realities of our immigration policies than does Henriquez’s, and the students did that grappling in their posts (as well, in many cases, as in their close reading Short Papers), while paying close attention to the writing choices and elements through which Henriquez creates that stunning story. The chance to share such a text and create space for such responses and conversations is, quite simply, a huge part of why I do what I do.

Special weekend post tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Spring semester reflections (in all tones) you’d share?

Thursday, May 12, 2022

May 12, 2022: Spring Semester Reflections: 19C Women Writers Grad Class

[The Spring 2022 semester was in some ways more “normal” than the last few have been, but in many other ways just as difficult, if not indeed more so. But y’all know me well enough to know that I’m not going to focus on the challenges in this week’s series, but rather on individual discussions in each of my classes that reminded me of why we do what we do!]

Every class I’ve ever gotten the chance to teach in our English Studies MA program (which I now have the honor of directing) has been not only excellent but rejuvenating, a reminder of why we teach (which is not at all unrelated to the fact that most of our MA students are fellow educators, and very thoughtful and talented ones at that). That held true for this semester’s 19th Century American Women Writers course, and every discussion was as excellent as the last. But only one was also surprising, and rewarded a choice I don’t usually make: because the class started a week into the semester (it met on Monday evenings and the first week was MLK Day), I decided to share and have us briefly discuss a couple 18th century texts, Annis Stockton’s “Impromptu Answer” (1756) and Hannah Griffitts’ “The Female Patriots” (1768). Those are two of my favorite American poems, but it was the first time we had met as a class, and we were meeting virtually at that, so I didn’t set my expectations too high—but in any case and as ever our grad students far exceeded those expectations, and we had a multi-layered and provocative discussion that was just as good as if they’d had a week to read and respond to these texts.

Last reflection tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Spring semester reflections (in all tones) you’d share?

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

May 11, 2022: Spring Semester Reflections: American Lit II

[The Spring 2022 semester was in some ways more “normal” than the last few have been, but in many other ways just as difficult, if not indeed more so. But y’all know me well enough to know that I’m not going to focus on the challenges in this week’s series, but rather on individual discussions in each of my classes that reminded me of why we do what we do!]

In one of my Saturday Evening Post Considering History columns that was published during this past semester, I wrote about my frustration with the old and overwhelmingly white authors/texts my sons have been reading in their high school English classes; at the end I mentioned The Great Gatsby as one of those ubiquitous works, and made the case for replacing it with a book like Nella Larsen’s Passing. While I stand by that idea, especially given the reality that syllabi have limited space and it’s time to shake things up, my ultimate goal would always be additive, putting multiple works in conversation (including far more diverse ones than remains too often the case). And in my American Literature II survey I saw the inspiring effects of that kind of addition—we started our early 20th century unit with Gatsby, had some good discussions about it for sure, but then as we turned to Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing next we kept Fitzgerald’s novel in front of us as well. Our discussion of how Passing can also apply to what James Gatz is doing, while also recognizing some clear and vital differences between those identities and stories, was definitely my favorite for this class, and a great model for that additive curricular work I’d say.

Next reflection tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Spring semester reflections (in all tones) you’d share?

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

May 10, 2022: Spring Semester Reflections: First Year Writing II

[The Spring 2022 semester was in some ways more “normal” than the last few have been, but in many other ways just as difficult, if not indeed more so. But y’all know me well enough to know that I’m not going to focus on the challenges in this week’s series, but rather on individual discussions in each of my classes that reminded me of why we do what we do!]

No group of students seemed to be struggling more with this challenging semester than the first-year students in my two sections of Writing II, and that’s sure understandable: these were the students whose last two years of high school were so thoroughly disrupted, and whose first year of college have been pretty damn strange as well. FYW classes are extremely individual in the best circumstances, and in these far less great ones much of my work was do what I could to help each student navigate not only my class, but every part of this moment. But we had great discussions along the way as well, and probably my favorite (in both sections) was the day we finished watching Fruitvale Station—I gave us all a chance to decompress (ie, at least in my case, dry our tears) for a few, and then we talked at length about choices and themes, formal elements and content, contexts and effects. A number of students told me later they were so glad to have had the chance to watch this film, and I was just as glad to have shared it with them and (especially) gotten their responses.

Next reflection tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Spring semester reflections (in all tones) you’d share?

Monday, May 9, 2022

May 9, 2022: Spring Semester Reflections: Du Bois Seminar

[The Spring 2022 semester was in some ways more “normal” than the last few have been, but in many other ways just as difficult, if not indeed more so. But y’all know me well enough to know that I’m not going to focus on the challenges in this week’s series, but rather on individual discussions in each of my classes that reminded me of why we do what we do!]

Not that I remember the Fall 2013 semester very well in any case, but it was nonetheless quite stunning how different I felt teaching my Major Author: W.E.B. Du Bois seminar this semester than I had that first time 9 years ago. Partly that’s because I’m a lot better of a teacher than I was then, to be sure. But mostly it’s because this last decade of American conversations and conflicts has made Du Bois so, so much more relevant than even I previously would have argued. My favorite discussions this time around were precisely those which connected to our current moment while still dwelling deeply in the specifics of Du Bois’ works, and by far the best was a class-long conversation about his magisterial column, from the first issue of The Crisis, “Agitation.” We talked Du Bois’ metaphors, we talked #BlackLivesMatter, we talked the roles of journalism and writing—we modeled the best of a classroom community. I think Du Bois himself would have been proud to be among us.

Next reflection tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Spring semester reflections (in all tones) you’d share?

Saturday, May 7, 2022

May 7-8, 2022: Scholarship on Internment

[May 3rd marks the 80th anniversary of the infamous broadside through which the Roosevelt administration ordered Japanese Americans to surrender themselves to the internment policy (or incarceration—I’m convinced of the need for that term change, but most folks still know it as internment so I’m using that in my series title). So this week I’ve AmericanStudied images of that horrific history, leading up to this special weekend post on scholars helping us remember it.]

A handful of the many amazing scholars doing the work.

1)      Heidi Kim: Among the many important subjects that my friend Heidi Kim has covered in her impressive and evolving career is internment, most especially through her editing of Taken from the Paradise Isle: The Hoshida Family Story (2015).

2)      Stephanie Hinnershitz: If you want a definitive scholarly history and analysis of internment/incarceration, start with Hinnershitz’s recent book Japanese American Incarceration: The Camps and Coerced Labor During World War II (2021).

3)      Karen Inouye: The best work I’ve encountered on the aftermaths of incarceration, including the kinds of Japanese American activism I traced in many of this week’s posts, is Inouye’s excellent book The Long Afterlife of Nikkei Wartime Incarceration (2016).

4)      Cherstin Lyon: A crucial starting point for my own thoughts (in Of Thee I Sing) on Japanese Americans and debates over patriotism was Lyon’s phenomenal book Prisons and Patriots: Japanese American Wartime Citizenship, Civil Disobedience, and Historical Memory (2012).

5)      Densho Encyclopedia: I didn’t keep track of how many of the hyperlinks in this week’s series sent y’all to Densho, but I know it was a ton. This isn’t just the best scholarly and online resource about internment/incarceration—it’s one of the best scholarly web projects out there, period.

Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Scholarly voices—or other stories or histories—you’d add?

Friday, May 6, 2022

May 6, 2022: Images of Internment: Korematsu (and Endo)

[May 3rd marks the 80th anniversary of the infamous broadside through which the Roosevelt administration ordered Japanese Americans to surrender themselves to the internment policy (or incarceration—I’m convinced of the need for that term change, but most folks still know it as internment so I’m using that in my series title). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy images of that horrific history, leading up to a special weekend post on scholars helping us remember it.]

Sharing a few paragraphs from my book We the People on Fred Korematsu’s multi-layered legacies:

Yet while Korematsu did not win his legal battle nor escape from internment, his resistance was an inspiring and influential one on multiple significant levels. Most immediately, it seems to have had a direct impact on another December 1944 Supreme Court decision that went the other way and helped limit and eventually end internment. Collins likewise represented that plaintiff, Mitsuye Endo, a twenty-two-year old clerical worker who had filed a writ of habeas corpus to oppose her indefinite internment at the Tule Lake (California) camp. In Justice Hugo Black’s majority opinion in Korematsu he overtly cites Ex parte Mitsuye Endo, arguing that “the Endo case graphically illustrates the difference between the validity of an order to exclude and the validity of a detention order after exclusion has been effected.” Not at all coincidentally, the Court released its unanimous decision in support of Endo’s writ on the same day (December 18, 1944) it did Korematsu. Writing for the Court in Endo, Justice William Douglas notes that “We are of the view that Mitsuye Endo should be given her liberty,” adding, “whatever power the War Relocation Authority may have to detail other classes of citizens, it has no authority to subject citizens who are concededly loyal to its leave procedure.” The Court’s duality in response to Korematsu and Endo is frustrating, but nonetheless the Endo decision, represented a significant step in opposing internment, and Korematsu’s case clearly factored into it.

For a few decades after his release from the Topaz camp, Korematsu disappeared into the private life he had long desired; he continued to face anti-Japanese prejudice, but also moved to Detroit, married Kathryn Pearson in October 1946, moved back to Oakland with her when his mother became ill in 1949, and had two children over the next few years. But when he reentered public and legal conversations in the early 1980s, it comprised another layer to his case’s influential legacy and effects. Peter Irons, a lawyer and professor at the University of California, San Diego, was researching a book on internment and discovered evidence that the U.S. solicitor general who argued Korematsu before the Supreme Court had withheld FBI and military reports, which concluded that Japanese Americans posed no security risk. Irons brought a writ of error before San Francisco federal court judge Marilyn Hall Patel, and persuaded Korematsu to testify in the proceeding that could vacate his original conviction. Korematsu did so eloquently, arguing that “I would like to see the government admit that they were wrong and do something about it so this will never happen again to any American citizen of any race, creed, or color,” and adding, “If anyone should do any pardoning, I should be the one pardoning the government for what they did to the Japanese- American people.” On April 19, 1984, Patel formally vacated Korematsu’s conviction, an important legal step that helped pave the way for future victories including (especially) the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided financial reparations for each surviving detainee.

Those individual and collective results would have been more than enough to cement Korematsu’s legacy and impact, but in the last years of his life he took his public activism one significant step further still. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Korematsu became an outspoken advocate for civil liberties and critic of many of the War on Terror’s infringements of such rights. In particular, he filed two amicus curiae briefs to accompany Supreme Court cases involving detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison: an October 2003 brief for the cases of Shafiq Rasul and Khaled Al Odah, in which Korematsu cites numerous historical examples (including but not limited to Japanese internment) to argue that the restriction of civil liberties is never justified; and an April 2004 brief for Jose Padilla’s case, in which Korematsu parallels his own internment situation to that of Padilla and argues, “full vindication for the Japanese-Americans will arrive only when we learn that, even in times of crisis, we must guard against prejudice and keep uppermost our commitment to law and justice.” Through these impressive twenty-first-century briefs and activist efforts, the second drafted less than a year before his March 2005 death, Korematsu ensured that his own history, story, and legal battle would continue to echo into a new era of exclusionary restrictions and inclusive alternatives.”

Special post this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Stories or histories you’d highlight?

Thursday, May 5, 2022

May 5, 2022: Images of Internment: Allegiance and No No Boy

[May 3rd marks the 80th anniversary of the infamous broadside through which the Roosevelt administration ordered Japanese Americans to surrender themselves to the internment policy (or incarceration—I’m convinced of the need for that term change, but most folks still know it as internment so I’m using that in my series title). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy images of that horrific history, leading up to a special weekend post on scholars helping us remember it.]

On two cultural works that together help us remember a particularly complex side of the story.

As with any collective histories, those of Japanese internment and incarceration are multi-layered, featuring distinct experiences and issues that can at times seem contradictory but that ultimately reflect how the stories played out for the hundreds of thousands of individuals, families, and communities affected by them. Some of the most complex such experiences were those around the question of “loyalty,” and specifically the “loyalty questionnaire” that the War Relocation Authority (WRA) administered in 1943 to all Japanese American adults held in the camps. The questions therein were confusing, poorly worded, ambiguous, and frankly insulting, all of which led to a variety of answers that tell us far more about the questionnaire, the WRA, and white supremacist attitudes towards Japanese Americans than about that community. But they nonetheless created a hierarchy within the community and camps, one based at least in part on differing notions of whether and how Japanese Americans were “loyal” to the United States.

On this blog, in We the People, and elsewhere I’ve tended to focus on a community who more than demonstrated their loyalty, and really revealed these prejudices for the un-American garbage they are: the Japanese American soldiers who served in the U.S. armed forces during WWII. But those who were deemed “disloyal” (whether due to their answers or non-answers to the questionnaire or for other equally discriminatory reasons) experienced something far different: the Tule Lake Segregation Center, the most aggressively prison-like of the internment camps. That was the case, for example, with George Takei’s parents, and so Takei and his family ended up at Tule Lake, an experience on which much of the musical Allegiance (2012) was directly based. As I wrote in that hyperlinked post, I find the somewhat stereotypically musical-theater-like songs and tone of Allegiance a complicated fit for the musical’s themes and contexts, but it certainly offers audiences a glimpse into this particular and under-remembered layer of internment settings and experiences (as, in its own way, does Takei’s co-authored and -illustrated graphic novel memoir They Called Us Enemy [2019]).

Bringing audiences into such complex histories through accessible pop culture texts is a good goal, but at some point it’s also important for us to engage more fully with the most fraught and painful layers to those histories. I don’t know of any cultural work that does so for these histories more powerfully than John Okada’s dense, demanding, and stunning 1957 novel No-No Boy (for a lot more on that book and all these questions, check out my friend Matthew Teutsch’s post on it in conversation with Takei’s memoir). The “No-No” in Okada’s title refers to those who answered “no” to the questionnaire’s two most fraught and significant questions: whether one was willing to serve in the armed forces; and whether one would swear unqualified allegiance to the U.S. and “forswear any form of allegiance or obedience” to Japan. The novel is in no way autobiographical, as Okada himself served in the U.S. military during the war; which makes his careful, thoughtful, powerful examination of his no-no boy protagonist Ichiro Yamada that much more impressive and important. There’s far more to these histories and stories than this brief post can include, so I’ll just say that while all of these works are worth our time and attention, I believe No-No Boy in particular is on the short list of books that every American should read.

Last internment image tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Stories or histories you’d highlight?

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

May 4, 2022: Images of Internment: Yuri Kochiyama

[May 3rd marks the 80th anniversary of the infamous broadside through which the Roosevelt administration ordered Japanese Americans to surrender themselves to the internment policy (or incarceration—I’m convinced of the need for that term change, but most folks still know it as internment so I’m using that in my series title). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy images of that horrific history, leading up to a special weekend post on scholars helping us remember it.]

On a few of the many reasons why we should better remember the influential activist.

I’ve written multiple times previously in this space about Yuri Kochiyama, and wanted to keep this first paragraph short so you can check those posts out if you would.

Welcome back! Since I wrote those posts I researched Kochiyama more deeply in order to include her in the Japanese Internment chapter of We the People, and would now argue that she can help us better remember at least two important sides to the internment era. For one thing, she exemplifies multiple complex realities of the internment camps: not just their unconstitutional and horrific imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Americans (a majority of them American citizens like the California-born Kochiyama), but also the stories of Japanese American soldiers who volunteered to serve while interned with their families (a roster that includes both Kochiyama’s twin brother Peter and her future husband Bill) and the complementary activism that took place within the camps. Kochiyama, for example, built on her college English degree to edit a newspaper at her Jerome, Arkansas camp, and within that newspaper published letters from and testimonials about Japanese American soldiers for her “Nisei in Khaki” column. Every interned individual deserves a place in our collective memories, but Kochiyama in particular illustrates those multi-layered histories quite strikingly.

Her lifelong activism after the war, about which I did write more fully in those prior posts (and which was often undertaken in partnership Bill, particularly their shared advocacy for collective memory of and reparations for internment), likewise helps us better remember the lives and legacies of interned Japanese Americans. But Kochiyama’s activism extended far beyond Japanese American causes, and included extensive experience with the Civil Rights Movement (including a friendship with Malcolm X that culminated in her presence in a famous photograph [CW for graphic imagery] of the aftermath of his assassination) and her participation in the October 1977 takeover of the Statue of Liberty by Puerto Rican nationalists. Better remembering that lifelong activism thus helps us engage both with the interconnected nature of many 20th century social movements and with the complex but crucial concept of intersectionality, of how different identities and communities can pull together toward the common causes of equality and social justice. That’s a lesson we sorely still need.

Next internment image tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Stories or histories you’d highlight?

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

May 3, 2022: Images of Internment: The Civil Liberties Act

[May 3rd marks the 80th anniversary of the infamous broadside through which the Roosevelt administration ordered Japanese Americans to surrender themselves to the internment policy (or incarceration—I’m convinced of the need for that term change, but most folks still know it as internment so I’m using that in my series title). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy images of that horrific history, leading up to a special weekend post on scholars helping us remember it.]

Two things that the 1988 Civil Liberties Act got very right, and one way it came up short.

1)      Education for the future: The 1988 law, entitled “Restitution for World War II internment of Japanese-Americans and Aleuts,” included a number of initiatives dedicated not only to redressing that past but also to influencing the future. For one thing, the law appropriated monies “to provide for a public education fund to finance efforts to inform the public about the internment of such individuals so as to prevent the recurrence of any similar event.” More broadly, it included among its purposes the goals of “discouraging the occurrence of similar injustices and violations of civil liberties in the future” and “making more credible and sincere any declaration of concern by the United States over violations of human rights committed by other nations.” Apologies for the past have to include a sense of relevance and meaning in the present and future as well, and the CLA did so pitch-perfectly.

2)      Reparations for the past: They can’t only address those present and future concerns, though—not without becoming too purely symbolic. I greatly (and obviously) value symbolism and collective memories and national narratives, but there’s something—really a great deal—to be said for accompanying them with meaningful action as well. In the CLA, that meaningful action took the form of substantive financial reparations for every living survivor of the internment camps, a community numbering more than 82,000 individuals. It’s easy, and not inaccurate, to argue that money paid in 1990 (when the payments began) can’t possibly ameliorate wrongs done half a century earlier, much less the cumulative effects and aftermaths of those wrongs. But without a time machine, action could only be taken in the present—and the financial reparations both gave the symbolic apology teeth and undoubtedly aided these Japanese Americans and their families.

3)      A messy and partial aftermath: Support and opposition for the CLA largely fell along partisan political lines, and such political debates continued to impact the establishment and work of the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, created to fulfill the purposes discussed above. The bill had authorized $50 million for the fund, but years of budget battles both held the monies up in committee and reduced the sum to $5 million as of 1994. The CLPEF was finally able to begin distributing the funds in 1997, but only did so for one year before (as the archived website at that above hyperlink notes) closing its offices permanently in November 1998. A great deal of good was done in that year to be sure, but these ugly realities nonetheless remind us that apologies and laws require continued work and diligence, and that the battle to remember our history more fully and accurately is not one that will have ever definitive or conclusive victories. Yet the CLA was a victory all the same, and one worth its own collective memory and emulation.

Next internment image tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Stories or histories you’d highlight?

Monday, May 2, 2022

May 2, 2022: Images of Internment: Three Representations

[May 3rd marks the 80th anniversary of the infamous broadside through which the Roosevelt administration ordered Japanese Americans to surrender themselves to the internment policy (or incarceration—I’m convinced of the need for that term change, but most folks still know it as internment so I’m using that in my series title). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy images of that horrific history, leading up to a special weekend post on scholars helping us remember it.]

How works from three different genres can help us remember this shameful period in our history.

Compared to other horrific histories I’ve highlighted in this space, it might seem like we’ve done decently as a nation by the World War II history of anti-Japanese discrimination and internment. After all, at the urging of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), the federal government agreed in the late 1980s to pay out $20,000 in reparations to each survivor of the internment, an explicit and striking attempt to right an acknowledged wrong. Yet reparations don’t necessarily equate with remembrance, and I believe we still have a long way to go in remembering, engaging with, and including in our national narratives the experiences of those interned Japanese Americans. The most direct way to do so, of course, is to hear their voices and perspectives, such as by reading Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s memoir (co-authored with her husband James D. Houston) Farewell to Manzanar (1973). In direct and unsparing prose, Houston documents just what the internment experience meant for a nine year old girl and her family; such personal perspectives are vital if we’re to get inside the internment experience, I would argue.

Houston published her memoir thirty years after the internment, however, and so the text, important and compelling as it is, can’t be accurately described as immediate; as with any autobiographical work, it’s a constructed reflection on the experiences it portrays. Fortunately, it can be complemented very directly by another set of works connected to Manzanar—pioneering photographer Ansel Adams’s more than 200 photographs taken at the camp in 1943. As that Library of Congress exhibition powerfully illustrates, Adams’s photographs covered a huge range of internment details: from the identities of individuals and families to work, leisure, and other activities, and with (unsurprisingly for Adams, best known for his nature photographs) plenty of representations of the place, setting, and community itself in the mix as well. Photographs, especially ones taken by a talented artist like Adams, are not direct reflections of reality either, of course—but these 1943 shots certainly provide a window into that moment and place, the setting for Houston’s memories and a representative internment space to be sure.

If the photographs are in at least some key ways pretty close to the internment moment, at the other end of the spectrum we’d find David Guterson’s 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars. Written by a European American born more than a decade after the end of World War II, narrated by another (fictional) European American man (and a veteran of the war’s Pacific battles at that), and focusing at least as much on a murder mystery, a courtroom drama, and a love triangle as on flashbacks to two pivotal characters’ internment experiences, Snow can certainly not be placed on the short list of vital internment documents. Yet I would argue (somewhat vaguely, so as not to spoil the novel’s resolutions) that Guterson locates those internment experiences, and their immediate and lingering, individual and communal effects and meanings, at the heart of each of his novel’s plotlines, making his book a historical novel in the truest sense of the phrase: a fiction about history’s power and presence, about the worst of what it can include and (again, trying not to spoil!) some of the best ways we can remember and respond to those memories.

Next internment image tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Stories or histories you’d highlight?

Saturday, April 30, 2022

April 30-May 1, 2022: April 2022 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]

April 4: Tree Tales: The Giving Tree: A series for Arbor Day’s 150th anniversary starts with two ways to teach “one of the most divisive books in children’s literature.”

April 5: Tree Tales: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: The series continues with historical, cultural, and literary contexts for a beloved novel’s central symbol.

April 6: Tree Tales: The Learning Tree: Gordon Parks’ moving and important autobiographical novel and film, as the series grows on.

April 7: Tree Tales: Into the Woods: On the deep dark heart of fairy tales—and musicals?!

April 8: Tree Tales: The Overstory: The series concludes with the long legacy of cli fi, and a stunning recent novel that reveals the genre’s true potential.

April 9-10: Arbor Day Activists: A special weekend post on three historical figures who helped create the holiday we still celebrate.

April 11: Presidential Scandals: The Corrupt Bargain: For the 100th anniversary of Teapot Dome, a scandal-tastic series kicks off with a 19th century electoral controversy.

April 12: Presidential Scandals: Iran-Contra: The series continues with three foreign policy contexts for the 1980s scandal, and one crucial lingering question.

April 13: Presidential Scandals: Clinton and Lewinsky: How my perspective on the key questions about a 1990s scandal has evolved over time, as the series roils on.

April 14: Presidential Scandals: Teapot Dome: On Teapot Dome’s 100th, three figures at the heart of (at the time) the biggest presidential scandal in American history.

April 15: Presidential Scandals: Watergate: The series concludes with three pop culture representations of a generation-defining scandal.

April 18: Boston Marathon Studying: The First Marathon: A series for the Marathon’s 125th anniversary kicks off with three interesting layers to that 1897 first race.

April 19: Boston Marathon Studying: Katherine Switzer: The series continues with the vital voice of groundbreaking racer Katherine Switzer.

April 20: Boston Marathon Studying: Rosie Ruiz: Three layers to an infamous sports story beyond the headlines, as the series races on.

April 21: Boston Marathon Studying: The Bombing: Re-upping this 2013 year in review post on the worst history related to the Marathon.

April 22: Boston Marathon Studying: Team Hoyt: But wanted to conclude the series with one of the Marathon’s and sports’ most inspiring stories.

April 23-24: Tiffany Chenault’s Guest Post: Boston Marathon RECAP: My newest Guest Post, the awesome Tiffany Chenault on her Boston Marathon experience and her overarching project on race and running in America!

April 25: Ulysses Grant Studying: His Presidency: A series for Grant’s bicentennial kicks off with what’s undeniable and what’s misunderstood about his presidency.

April 26: Ulysses Grant Studying: His Book: The series continues with three figures in Grant’s life we can better remember through his excellent memoir.

April 27: Ulysses Grant Studying: His Heritage: On Grant’s 200th birthday, three interesting and important facts about his heritage and birth.

April 28: Ulysses Grant Studying: His Friends: Three representative relationships across Grant’s iconic life, as the series rolls on.

April 29: Ulysses Grant Studying: His Legacies: The series concludes with one of my more controversial claims, and why it’s worth engaging even if you disagree.

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 29, 2022

April 29, 2022: Ulysses Grant Studying: His Legacies

[April 27th will mark the 200th birthday of Ulysses S. Grant, one of the more influential but also more misunderstood 19th century Americans. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for our 18th president who was also so much more!]

On a very controversial claim, and a couple arguments for it that are worth engaging even if you disagree.

I won’t make you wait for the controversial claim: I might well argue that Ulysses Grant’s presidency was both more important and more inspiring than Abraham Lincoln’s. Let me hasten to add, lest you start a petition to strip me of my AmericanStudies Card (and you have no idea how difficult it is to get one of those in the first place, so I’ll be damned if I let it slip away), that I’m being at least a bit hyperbolic for effect. I don’t believe any American president faced more dire nor more significant circumstances than did Lincoln, and I don’t know that any other could have handled it any better. Whatever his flaws and mistakes—and it’s certainly important to remember and engage them, even more so because of the hero worship that has accompanied our collective memories of Lincoln far too often (and which began in his own era, especially after his assassination)—Lincoln was without any question a top-five American president, and a case can certainly be made for the greatest of all.

But I said what I said—and while ranking presidents against each other is ultimately silly, I would nonetheless make the case that in some key ways Grant’s presidency was both more important and more inspiring than Lincoln’s. When it comes to importance, I’m thinking specifically about how vital it was that Grant followed Andrew Johnson—for my money the worst president in American history (at least until, I dunno, 2016 or thereabouts), and of course one for whose proximity to the presidency Lincoln himself bears a frustrating responsibility. While the die was unfortunately already cast for many of the awful things Johnson did between 1865 and 1869 to challenge Reconstruction, African American rights, and all the possibilities of America’s second founding, there’s no doubt that a great deal worse could have been done over the next eight years—and at the very least, that a different next president might have done precious little to push things in the right direction when it came to those unfolding histories. Which is to say, following a historically horrific presidency has to be one of the most important things a president could do, and I would argue Grant it did amazingly well.

That in and of itself makes Grant’s presidency deeply inspiring as well, but I mean something a bit different by my use of that term. I’ve long argued, in this space and many other spaces, that over the quarter-century following the Civil War the U.S. became thoroughly neo-Confederate and white supremacist, profoundly exclusionary on some of the most defining and national levels. No individuals, not even those as powerful as a president, could likely have stopped those trends, and to be sure no individuals were able to do so. But that makes it all the more important to highlight those individuals (as well as communities) who challenged those unfolding histories, who modeled a more inclusive and ideal America in the face of those worst sides of us (then, now, and always). I believe Ulysses S. Grant was one of those individuals, and that his presidency, whatever its scandals and shortcomings, offered an 8-year glimpse into what it would mean to have such inclusive allies at the highest levels of American government. That’s a model and a legacy that can and should inspire all of us as we fight to challenge the worst and extend the best of Reconstruction and America here in 2022.

April Recap this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Grant histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Thursday, April 28, 2022

April 28, 2022: Ulysses Grant Studying: His Friends

[April 27th will mark the 200th birthday of Ulysses S. Grant, one of the more influential but also more misunderstood 19th century Americans. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for our 18th president who was also so much more!]

Three representative relationships across Grant’s iconic life (besides his friendship with Mark Twain, about which I wrote on Tuesday).

1)      James Longstreet: As that hyperlinked article indicates, certain famous details of the friendship between Grant and Longstreet are a bit difficult to pin down for a certainty; but there’s no doubt that the two became close during their time at West Point, that they remained connected through Grant’s wife Julia (a distant relation of Longstreet’s), and that they served together in the Mexican American War, all early experiences that were no doubt formative for their friendship. That’s one of many such examples of how U.S. and Confederate soldiers and generals were as intimately interconnected as were the regions themselves. But it also adds an interesting layer to Longstreet’s post-Civil War evolutions, about which I wrote at length in this Saturday Evening Post Considering History column and many of which took place during Grant’s presidency.

2)      Ely Parker: I’ve written about Ely Parker, one of my favorite 19th century Americans, many times before in this space. He and Grant first became friends during Parker’s time supervising government engineering projects in Galena, Illinois, where Ulysses and Julia lived with family for a time just before the Civil War. During the war Parker became both adjutant and secretary to Grant, writing much of Grant’s correspondence and (most famously) drafting the Appomattox surrender documents. When Grant became president, he appointed Parker his Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to serve in the role; as the first hyperlinked article above notes, he and Grant worked hard to extend rights and protections to Native Americans during his brief time in the position. Every part of that story is more complicated than these few lines permit, but the bottom line is that Grant’s multiracial alliances and solidarities extended not just to African Americans but very much to Native Americans, as inspired by his longtime friendship with Ely Parker.

3)      John McDonald: Parker was an example of how Grant brought his friends into his administration in significant and inspiring ways; but as I discussed in Monday’s post, the scandals that became so much of the story of the Grant presidency were also deeply tied to his friends in far more problematic ways. That was particularly the case with John McDonald, a friend and fellow Civil War general whom President Grant appointed as Revenue Collector of the Missouri District in 1869. McDonald would become the corrupt center of the scandal known as the Whiskey Ring, a scandal exposed and investigated by Grant’s own Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin Bristow. That latter fact is to Grant’s credit, and seems to reflect his genuine lack of awareness of (and frustration with) what supposed friends such as McDonald were up to. But at the same time, those frustrating friends fundamentally shaped narratives of Grant’s presidency, in its own era and throughout the 150 years since, in the process far overshadowing more inspiring friendships like those with Longstreet and Parker.

Last GrantStudying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Grant histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

April 27, 2022: Ulysses Grant Studying: His Heritage

[April 27th will mark the 200th birthday of Ulysses S. Grant, one of the more influential but also more misunderstood 19th century Americans. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for our 18th president who was also so much more!]

To celebrate Grant’s bicentennial, three interesting and important facts about his heritage and birth:

1)      A Legacy of Service: Grant wasn’t quite one of those folks able (and often all too proud) to trace his American origins back to the Mayflower, but he wasn’t far off either: his ancestors Matthew and Priscilla Grant arrived at the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. But that’s not the part of Grant’s multi-century American heritage (about which he wrote at length in his memoir) that interests me; I’d highlight instead the multi-generational story of civic and military service, which includes his great-grandfather (Noah) serving in the French and Indian War (as did Grant’s great-granduncle Solomon) and his grandfather (also Noah) seeing extensive action during the American Revolution. Grant’s choice to attend West Point at the age of 17 was of course his own (as well as his father’s, who wrote to his Congressman Thomas Hamer requesting that his son be nominated for the academy), but it was also very much in the steps of his ancestors, and would profoundly shape every subsequent stage of his life.

2)      An Abolitionist Dad: That father, Jesse Root Grant, didn’t serve in that particular way (he was only 18 at the time of the War of 1812, so wouldn’t have had a lot of opportunity in any case), but offered Ulysses another powerful model for civic engagement nonetheless. Jesse was a committed member of the Whig Party who would later serve as mayor of two Ohio towns close to Ulysses’ birthplace of Point Pleasant, Georgetown and Bethel. But he was also, and most impressively for the era, an even more committed abolitionist, one who broke from the Jacksonian Democrats over the issue of slavery and contributed a number of editorials on the subject to local and state papers. Moreover, Jesse lived in John Brown’s house when the two were both young and remained close to Brown, linking him even more potently to radical abolition. As I wrote Monday, Grant’s presidency was as progressive on issues of race as any in American history, and that seems clearly related to his father’s influence and legacy.

3)      A S-ymbolic Name: My final detail here is both more well-known and less significant than those other two, but I think it’s telling nonetheless. Jesse and his wife Hannah named their first child Hiram Ulysses, with Hiram a family name from Hannah’s Simpson clan and Ulysses drawn from a hatful of prospective names. Ulysses would be known throughout his childhood by his middle name, however, and when Congressman Hamer put forward the Grant family’s application to West Point, he called the young man Ulysses—and then, for whatever erroneous reason, listed his middle initial as “S.” The initial thus literally referred to nothing, but as a result Grant’s West Point peers began calling him Sam, as “U.S.” was a common abbreviation for “Uncle Sam” (a character first developed around the War of 1812). Partly this detail reminds us that the public persona of presidents is always distinct from the private realities; but partly it’s one further proof that U.S. Grant was descended from and destined for civic service and critical patriotism.

Next GrantStudying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Grant histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

April 26, 2022: Ulysses Grant Studying: His Book

[April 27th will mark the 200th birthday of Ulysses S. Grant, one of the more influential but also more misunderstood 19th century Americans. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for our 18th president who was also so much more!]

On three figures in Grant’s life we can better remember through his acclaimed autobiography The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885-1886).

1)      Mark Twain: Twain of course needs no help garnering a prominent place in our collective memories; but as that hyperlinked article indicates, his friendship with Grant is its own complex and compelling story, and one that contributed significantly to the writing, publication, and success of Grant’s memoir. Ever the marketing genius, Twain also devised a particularly innovative and impressive plan for publicizing and selling the book. But as I’ve learned while researching my current book project, the influences of Grant and Twain’s friendship went far beyond that final stage in Grant’s life (the book was published posthumously), and included their mutual connection to and role in advocating for the Hartford Chinese Educational Mission. One of many reasons to better remember these unlikely friends!

2)      Adam Badeau: As that article traces at length (through the eyes of Henry Adams, no less), Grant’s longtime junior officer and friend had a far more fraught and controversial relationship to The Personal Memoirs. It seems likely, as the article notes, that Badeau served only as a researcher and fact-checker for the memoir, not (as he later litigiously claimed) its true author; but on the other hand, he had written multiple books about Grant’s military career, among many other works of nonfiction and fiction, so he might well have offered additional content and/or writing suggestions to Grant along the way. In any case, he reminds us that Grant’s Civil War service wasn’t just a central subject of the book—it remained, two decades later, the organizing principle around which most of Grant’s relationships and legacies were organized.

3)      Julia Grant: But not the only nor the most important such organizing principle, of course. Julia and Ulysses were engaged as early as 1844 (although his Mexican American War service put the wedding off for a time), married in 1848, and remained married through Ulysses’ 1885 death. But she was more than a life partner; she was also very much the motivation for his race to finish the book before his death, as he had lost everything in a Ponzi scheme a year earlier and was desperate to provide for Julia and the family (hence Twain’s elaborate publicity and sales scheme, and hence Julia’s resistance to Badeau’s lawsuit for royalties). In the book Grant focuses almost entirely on his public persona and affairs, as was the norm for memoirs by public figures in the period; but it’s fair to say that the whole book was about his marriage in the most fundamental and inspiring ways.

Next GrantStudying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Grant histories or contexts you’d highlight?