Category Archives: history lasts a long time

Fascism and Jim Crow

HPhoto of James Bernard Ruckerere is James Bernard “Bunny” Rucker (1912-1992), born in Roanoke, Virginia, raised in Columbus, Ohio, veteran of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Spanish Civil War (as a volunteer with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade), and World War II (three bronze stars and a purple heart), one-time Communist Party member, later an organizer with the Progressive Party, a graduate of Columbia University thanks to the GI Bill, and then, for 20 years, the chief librarian of the East Orange Public Library in East Orange, New Jersey. Rucker made an appearance in the final pages of my college thesis, which was about African-Americans and antifascism in the 1930s. During a snowy week in January of my senior year, as the Iraq War raged on, I remember taking the train to Manhattan and making my way to the Village so that I could read Rucker’s World War II letters to his wife in NYU’s Tamiment Library, along with other materials from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade — the 2,800 or so American volunteers who traveled to Spain to fight Franco.

I suddenly remembered Rucker today because, during the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, amidst tweets displaying photographs of men at the event waving Confederate and Nazi flags, I kept seeing tweets in response about how “the United States defeated Nazis in 1945 and would do it again” and so forth. Rucker played a part in that victory but his letters offered poignant reflections on the fact that the United States that defeated Nazi Germany remained itself in the thrall of its own brand of white supremacy.

I conducted my thesis research back in 2004-05 when it was not quite as easy as it is now to google people and find obscure news articles about them. All I knew about Rucker then was what I had read in his files at the archive. Perhaps other researchers know more or could find out more about him now. Certainly I cannot really vouch, at this belated date, for whatever research methods 22-year-old me was using, so maybe I missed part of the story. Nevertheless, in case his words are of any interest today, I thought I would reproduce the following paragraphs from my senior thesis in which he appeared:  Continue reading Fascism and Jim Crow

Historiann Challenge

History prof and blogger Historiann issued a challenge for historians to self-interview about books they’ve recently read, in response to a recent New York Times Book Review interview with Civil War historian James McPherson. I suspect my reaction to the McPherson interview itself was a little different than Historiann’s, but since I am mysteriously still waiting for Vanity Fair to select me for the Proust Questionnaire, I could not resist the invitation to interview myself.

What books are currently on your night stand?

Well, the “night stand” is metaphorical but some of the books I’m currently reading include Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent novel, The LowlandPankaj Mishra’s collective intellectual biography of Asian thinkers responding to Western imperialism, From the Ruins of Empire; and for more academic purposes, the late Michael Katz’s revised edition of his very important book The Undeserving Poor. Of course, I am also always reading a bunch of stuff here and there for research.  Continue reading Historiann Challenge

Some Quick Thoughts on History, Media, and the War on Poverty

Note: I wrote this quickly so please think of it more as an extended tweet than a polished foray 

Whether and how academics should engage with that vague entity known as “the public” has been a topic of much conversation this winter/spring, from Nick Kristof’s ham-handed call for a renewal of the “public intellectual” to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s plea for historians to be more involved in debates about poverty and race. Coates stirred up a lot of back-and-forth in that reality-TV-for-office-workers entertainment known as “the blogosphere” by basically synthesizing some fairly mainstream consensus views of academic historians about white supremacy’s imbrication in American history and political structures, views which apparently (we have now learned) sound scary, radical, and “fatalistic” when translated into the pundit realm but which I can assure you I have encountered from many very far-from-radical, in fact fairly conventional bourgeois university-employed academics, because such views represent the most fitting interpretation of the historical evidence that we currently have uncovered and as we currently understand it (sorry to be a conventional bourgeois empiricist or whatever).

When I read Coates’s plea for historians to be involved in these debates, I had the following reaction: I certainly agree that historians have useful insight to offer (having found historians so insightful that I decided to try and become one), but I also think, as I noted somewhere on Twitter that I can’t find now, that the problem is not that historians are not participating in debates. Historians’ work is out there as much as any academic work is out there (open-access type questions being a separate issue but not one along which I think history meaningfully differs from other disciplines; and if anything, since historians have professional incentives to publish books rather than articles, their work is usually available for purchase or at the library, not locked in secret Elsevier gardens), and moreover, academic history, certainly the literature on twentieth-century American history, tends to be much less jargon- and model-laden than the social sciences, thus should be more accessible. So, I think the problem is not so much access or a lack of participation on historians’  part but more that journalists sometimes have a real resistance to seeing history as a separate domain of expertise, akin to economics or poli sci, rather than just a more esoteric and backwards-looking version of what they do.

Anyway, so I was thinking about all this as I was doing some reading on the War on Poverty the other day, and I want to quickly note how I saw this this journalist-historian divide playing out in that context. Continue reading Some Quick Thoughts on History, Media, and the War on Poverty

Home of the Braves

Two memories from second or third grade: the fall of ’91, when the Braves swelled our little hearts with their miraculous “worst-to-first” season, and the morning the year before that we’d gathered in the school auditorium before a television rolled in on a cart, to watch the International Olympic Committee make its fateful announcement of the site of the ’96 games: “It’s Atlanta!” Thereafter the Braves and the Olympics hovered over my Atlanta childhood like helicopters, these buzzing presences that were always up there, flying awkwardly but flying nonetheless. They gave me the illusion that I lived in a big-deal city, which is precisely the illusion that Atlanta’s city fathers have been striving to generate in residents and observers alike for over a century, whether through Henry Grady’s paeans to the New South or Mayor Hartsfield’s encomiums to “The City Too Busy to Hate.”

Well, it’s no longer Atlanta for the Atlanta Braves, or so it seems.  Continue reading Home of the Braves

When Illegal Immigration Was European

I don’t usually follow politics closely, but I do have a great fondness for weekly elimination reality TV shows like “American Idol,” “Top Chef,” and “The Voice.” Since the GOP primary has basically turned into one of those shows, whatwith its regularly scheduled on-stage performances and someone voted off by the viewers each week, I’ve started watching.

And I’ve noticed some confusion, among the candidates, about the history of immigration law.

At tonight’s debate, Rick Santorum presented the following account of his family to explain why he opposes “a pathway to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants:  Continue reading When Illegal Immigration Was European

The Right to Risk Your Life

In the 1870s and 1880s, Americans kept dying, or losing limbs, because they were getting hit by trains. Now, you might say, who cares? It’s people’s own fault if they are stupid enough to walk onto a train track. That’s not, it turns out, how Americans and their governments reacted at the time. As the casualties mounted, the state railroad commissions — relatively new agencies set up to monitor and regulate railroad safety — “conclud[ed] that enough was enough; no man had a right to willfully risk his life.”

So writes Barbara Young Welke in her fascinating work of legal and cultural history, Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law, and the Railroad Revolution, 1865-1920. When I heard about the other night’s GOP primary debate, in which Dr. Ron Paul emphasized the need for “personal responsibility” and audience members cheered the notion that a man who decides not to purchase health insurance should be allowed to die, I immediately thought of Recasting American Liberty. Continue reading The Right to Risk Your Life

“The Help,” Housewives, and HOPE

Valerie Boyd dismisses “The Help” as “a feel-good movie for a cowardly nation,” which portrays its most openly racist character as a “cartoonish” “walking stereotype” whom viewers will find it all too easy “to distance themselves from.” By the same token, Anne Helen Petersen — while finding some redeeming qualities in the film — has criticized the novel it’s based on for presenting a fairy-tale heroine who’s unbelievably “altruistic and likable,” as though racism were “something that you just decide you’re not going to acquire, even though all of your friends, family, and townspeople espouse it,” or “something that goes away just because you love your maid.” (More critiques of the film are rounded up here.)

Not every thoughtful viewer who’s seen the film has reacted so negatively. Via Twitter, I came across this blog post from Detroit writer Desiree Cooper, who found the film more nuanced than Boyd suggests, and writes:

Continue reading “The Help,” Housewives, and HOPE

Don’t Call It -gate

Here’s Bruce Schulman, in his book The Seventies, decrying the proliferation of “-gate”s in American political culture (p. 43):

Watergate would leave a tangled legacy. Most obviously, it triggered the “gating” of American life. Every subsequent scandal—no matter how petty—has received the suffix “-gate.” … From this misleading practice, millions drew the unfortunate conclusion that these scandals somehow resembled each other—that they all revealed the same corrupt, sleazy political underworld.

But the “-gate” suffix confused old-fashioned graft with true constitutional crises. Worst of all, the practice led Americans to conflate Watergate with all the other “-gates” it seemed to generate. Watergate was unique; it forever altered the way Americans understood politics and the presidency, the way they reported and discussed national politics, the way they conceived, investigated, and understood wrongdoing by government officials.

Watergate was much more than a bungled attempt to break into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate apartment and office complex … Nixon’s abuse of power preceded the burglary and extended far beyond it. In the course of unraveling the Watergate story, investigators uncovered a wide range of sordid and illegal activities—a rogue government.


Along with the able help of his legion of Civil War buff commenters, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes down Walter Williams:

Williams is not debating with James McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom. He does not confront historian Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation. He is not interested in Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning. Instead Williams offers up—unchallenged, uncorroborated and wholly accepted—primary testimony from 150 years ago, along with two works of history both more than seventy-five years old.

In this instance, it must be said that Williams is practicing history in the manner of a phrenologist practicing brain surgery—with similarly ghastly results. In raising primary sources to the level of indisputable fact, Williams employs a methodology which does not merely argue for the existence of black Confederate legions, but for UFOs, orcs, the Dover Demon, elves and magic.

Here we have a perfect encapsulation of reasons for pessimism and reasons for optimism about the future of the historical profession. On the one hand, Walter Williams is an economics professor (granted that he’s essentially on the payroll of the John M. Olin Foundation), but apparently can’t be bothered to read a work or two of history before expatiating on the subject. On the other hand, plenty of people outside the academy apparently do read scholarly history — check out TNC’s comments section. I’m tempted, here, to link to David Frum’s silly review of a new history of the 1970s and ’80s, in which Frum essentially asked, “Who needs books like this anymore now that we’ve got the Internet?” Somehow it seems relevant.