Wednesday, August 28, 2013

In Which the Student Becomes the Teacher

Today was my first day as a college instructor. Now, I've taught two college courses on my own, but I did both as a graduate student. Today, I walked into my classrooms as an actual member of a university faculty. I've wanted to teach college for at least a decade. The goal was to get a Ph.D. and then teach. For multiple reasons, I am spending a few semesters teaching before moving on to a doctoral program. I don't want to teach nothing but survey classes forever, but for now, I'm thrilled to be where I am.

I'm not gonna lie. The last few weeks, I've been increasingly terrified of teaching nine hours-- THREE different courses-- two of which I've never taught. I wasn't too worried about US107 (US History II), because I've taught it once and TA'd for it twice. I've kinda got that one down. US105 (US History I) is one I've never taught, but it's history, and American history, at that. It'll take some work, but I knew I'd do okay. I was definitely nervous though-- it's amazing how much you realize you DON'T know when you start teaching something. I'd say I had a moderate amount of anxiety over that one. The class that really had me worried was UI100 (First Year Seminar). It's not history, and I was not at all sure of myself on that one. Not only that, but it is an ITV course, which means there's all sorts of techy "schtuff" I have to keep up with. I had no idea how I was going to pull off this course. I just kept reminding myself that I always feel that way about any significant academic projects ( 90 page thesis I wrote in *seven* weeks), and then I always end up doing surprisingly well in the end. It's a matter of just pushing on and moving forward, trusting that I'll end up on solid ground, and not walking off a cliff.

This morning I awakened at 5:30 (after having gone to bed after 1 in the morning, trying to finish all my prep), terrified that I'd crash and burn, and that I'd have to go find a secluded cave in a  third world country in which to live out the rest of my life. When I got to the Sikeston campus, I looked for my room assignment, and seriously, there has to be a better way of displaying those than writing them all on a series of white boards in no particular order, but this is how they were listed, and I triple-checked to make sure I was looking at the right room assignment. Then, when I got to the room, I triple-checked the room number. I spent the next 30 minutes terrified I'd "pull a Ted Mosby." For those of you who are not very familiar with How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby wound up getting halfway through a lecture on his first day as an instructor at Columbia before realizing he was in the wrong class. Thankfully, I managed to not make the same mistake (less legendary, for sure, but I'm good with that).

8:00 came, and I did the obligatory first day roll call, introductions, and syllabus. Then, I launched into my first lecture on industrialization. I really didn't think about it until the end of class, but when I looked at the clock when I reached the end of my lecture, and it had all taken exactly 74 of my allowed 75 minutes, I was pleasantly surprised. I walked out of class with my confidence renewed. I got in the car to drive to my next class in Cape, and thought, "Yes. This is what I want to do with my life." Industrialization is not my area of expertise, but I taught it, and I taught it well. It's amazing how encouraging it is to see how much better a class can be the second time around. When I gave this lecture a year and a half ago, it was a struggle to make it through 40 minutes of class, even WITH the standard first-day content. I added nothing to my lecture, and yet I was able to do more with that same content. And for the first time, I made it through an entire lecture with no notes. It was amazing.

After completing that class period, my anxiety regarding my next two classes dissipated. I was reminded that teaching is one thing I can do well. Were the next two classes as polished as the first? No. But neither were they even in the vicinity of "crash and burn." This is going to work.

I can't even begin to describe how excited I am about this school year. I get to teach, and not only that, I get to work on my own research projects without having to do them for a class.  I have at least one, possibly two articles I want to have published by spring. I hope to give a couple of presentations at history conferences again this year. I'm working as a historian outside of academia too. My public history training is actually being put to use (and I'm weeping, just a little, inside) with a project for a museum in Charleston, Missouri. While I'm currently not working on my final degree, I'm building my CV, establishing myself as a professional historian, and continuing my own contributions to the academic community. My undergrad advisor, Dr. Motl, told me years ago that I had all the tools I needed to be a professional historian and college instructor, but I couldn't really see it then. I am finally coming to see this on my own, and to have more confidence in my own abilities and potential.

Of course, this doesn't mean I don't think I need more training and more guidance. I don't think I've "arrived." I'm simply starting to see the forest through the trees. And the view is grand.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Butler

I wasn't going to write this now, but it really was a fantastic movie, and people keep circulating this article, and I feel the need to do more than continue repeating myself on the same issue. This isn't the review I had intended to write, but it seems it's the one that needs to be written.

Overall, I thought it was a fantastic movie, with one significant caveat: too many people won't realize how loosely based on a true story this movie is. The public will see "based on a true story," and put it in the same category as something like 42. While The Butler was indeed based on a true story, a lot of liberties were taken with the details regarding the butler himself and his family. As a historian, that does bother me a bit, because I believe it is important to keep the integrity of the story intact. However, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The article I linked to claims that there were 5 huge inaccuracies. I take issue with four of those.
1. The movie did not portray Ronald Reagan to be indifferent to the sufferings of African Americans. In fact, the movie showed the main character, Cecil, and his co-workers being promised by Nixon during the Eisenhower Administration that the African American White House staff would be given equal wages with the white staff at the White House, should Nixon become president. That never happened. The movie brought up this issue multiple times, and who was it (at least in the movie) who finally got the black staff equal pay? Reagan. How is this indifference? Reagan actually stepped into a realm in the White House where the President doesn't need to step. He went above and beyond to get all of his staff the pay they deserved. If he was truly being portrayed as indifferent, the director would have left that out. (Side note, this was the only time in the entire movie that the whole theater erupted in applause- it was that noticeable.) Not only that, but when Cecil tells Reagan he is resigning, Reagan says, "Cecil, I fear I am on the wrong side of the race issue," and is clearly troubled. If he was actually indifferent, I'm not sure he would have appeared so troubled. The movie DID portray Reagan accurately in regards to the Mandela/South Africa issue.

2. In reality, it was Johnson who got the Civil Rights Act passed. What the article (and voting records) doesn't tell you is that had Johnson not intimidated so many people into voting for it, Congress never would have passed it. Johnson took it upon himself to make sure Kennedy's Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Johnson was famous for something some historians refer to as "the Johnson treatment." Basically, he was a political bully. Now, whether he should have bullied people into voting for anything is another issue entirely, but had Johnson, a Democrat, not personally taken it upon himself to make certain Kennedy's bill (another Democrat) was passed, neither enough Democrats NOR Republicans would have voted to pass it. Not only that, but the Civil Rights Act could have its own movie. This one was about the president's butler, not Congress. In fact, the Civil Rights Act was so briefly mentioned in the movie I'm surprised it made a "top 5" list of anything.

3. Nixon, well, Nixon was an interesting person. In fact, there is significant speculation now that Nixon suffered from a mental illness or personality disorder. I say that to say, Nixon had three chief concerns during his administration: 1. Wrapping up Vietnam, 2. Opening relations with China, and 3. Making sure no one was plotting against him. You think I'm joking with that third one? I'm not. Nixon was absolutely paranoid, and that actually took a significant amount of his attention during his administration. Yes, he did a lot for school integration. But I attribute that less to his concern for African Americans and more to the time at which he became president. One could argue that Eisenhower did a lot for integration too, and yet it's fairly well known that he was not a fan of it at all. Eisenhower only did what he did because he was the president and he did his job. I have seen no evidence to suggest that it was any different for Nixon. And whether Allen (the REAL Cecil) spoke well of Nixon in his memoirs or not is rather irrelevant. Many individuals are much more palatable as, well, individuals, than as public leaders. Nixon was a rough personality, period. It's hard to say what his true feelings were about many things. I don't think this movie did him any real disservice.

4. Again, I didn't see that Cecil disliked the Reagans. I saw that decades of civil rights struggles had taken him to a place where he was more disenchanted with anyone he perceived to be less than fully dedicated to civil rights. Reagan DID in fact oppose Congress on the South Africa and Mandela issues. Additionally, during the state dinner, Cecil did say, "I only wish we had been there for real, and not for show." That's a legitimate feeling. Unless there was a lot left out of the movie, and the Reagans actually played cards and had drinks with Cecil and his wife regularly, it would be hard to make a solid case stating that he had actually been invited with absolutely no shred of motive for "show." Again, considering the era is a must. This does not reflect poorly on Reagan as a man. It portrays him as a human being with human faults. What I did see was that Cecil did not at all dislike Reagan, but rather, he was disappointed by Reagan's unwillingness to do more on the Mandela issue. In his shoes, I think I'd get weary of that too, by the 1980s.

As a historian who is unfamiliar with Allen's particular story, but who IS rather familiar with Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and the presidents in the movie, I really didn't have any problems with the portrayal of those things in the movie. Again, yes, I do have some issues with them taking a true story and changing it SO much, but had it been a fictional work, like The Help, it would be phenomenal. Therefore, my suggestion is definitely to go see it and learn from it. It does accurately portray the various presidents, the struggle of the students on the front lines of the civil rights movement, the horrors of Jim Crow America, and the struggles faced by many black families during the civil rights era. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

In Which the Woman Behind the Curtain Begins to Emerge

There is a lot here I want to say, but typing with one hand is a bit of a challenge.  Under normal circumstances, my thoughts flow faster than I can type- multiply this by about 10 for me right now, and that's about right. So we're going to see how well I can get this out.

This is going to be the first of many posts along these lines. I'm going to get very real. Some of you may find yourself saddened or angered by my words, and that's okay. Some will be shocked, some of you may resonate with what I have to say, and some may simply disagree. Some may decide I'm too far fallen to be helped. Whatever your response, you're entitled to it. I'm simply tired of living in fear. Fear that if I say what I really think, I'll lose someone I love. I've lived long enough to know that it's not worth living that way. It's simply not. I can't live my life hiding all of my opinions on important matters so no one will leave me. If I do that, I'm being dishonest-  both to myself, and to those in my life. I don't want to be like the wizard from The Wizard of Oz; just a lie behind a curtain, hiding the fact that the grand facade is just that: a facade. I'm no longer willing to do that. So here I am, beginning to step out from behind my carefully woven curtain, for better or for worse.

This morning, I read this post by Rachel Held Evans, regarding the reason Millenials are leaving the church in droves. Like her, I'm a mix of Gen X and Millenial. The oldest Millenials were born in 1982, and I was born in 1983, which places me among the very oldest of that generation, and honestly, I have more in common in terms of life experience with Baby Boomers than I do with kids born in the mid-90s, but I digress. I was also born into a family with two significantly older Gen X siblings, with no siblings close to my age, which means in many ways, I experienced a lot of the Gen X teen culture along with my siblings. Not only that, but in nearly every circumstance, my parents are the oldest represented in a group of my peers. In fact, get a bunch of people together that were born in 1985 or 1986, and my parents are often older than at least one, if not all, of their grandparents. My parents pre-date the Baby Boomers, having been born in 1940 and 1944. As a social historian, I will tell you, all of these things are highly significant, and help inform who I am and how I think, and how I perceive things.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I have a highly unusual denominational background. By the time I was 22, I had spent 13 years as a practicing Catholic, 14 years in a mainstream Evangelical church, and 9 as a patriarchal fundamentalist Christian. Yeah, I know that adds up to way more than 22. There was a lot of overlap there. My parents were Catholic. But by the time I was born, they had also established ties with a local Presbyterian church, which was very mainstream. So from the time of my birth until I was 13, my Sundays consisted of me getting up for 8:00 Mass with my parents and siblings, then after Mass, going to Sunday School at College Hill Presbyterian (CHPC), while my parents went to the service. I was baptized as a Catholic, and went to a Presbyterian preschool. I went to Catholic school and received my First Communion and experienced Reconciliation, while I went to VBS and summer camp at CHPC. I felt perfectly at home in both places.

When I was 12, some of our family traumas came to a head. For various reasons I won't go into here (except to say, I do not blame my parents for the next choices they made...they were in an impossible situation), the summer I turned 13, we officially left the Catholic Church and joined the Advanced Training Institute of America (ATI), which is a far right-wing Christian patriarchal, fundamentalist organization.  Their beliefs most closely align with those of many Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches. If you're interested, you can read more about ATI here, or to be fair, you can also read about them here.  By this time, CHPC had experienced a split, and we went with the splinter church, Evangelical Community Church (ECC). When I was 14, we left ECC and began attending an IFB church, which was an unofficial ATI church, as most of the members were in ATI. I didn't get out of that situation until I was 22, and perhaps I'll write more about the specifics in a later post, but I spent the ages of 22-27 in mainstream Southern Baptist churches. The last 3 years have been varied and complicated, so I'll leave that for another time.

I wrote the above two paragraphs simply to explain I have had significant exposure to three very different facets of Christianity: the Catholic/high church tradition, mainstream evangelicalism, and patriarchal fundamentalism. I'll also just add here that I have also experienced the Charismatic tradition- CHPC was surprisingly charismatic for a PCUSA church (it was very conservative PCUSA, more along the lines of EPC or PCA). The three different facets were in many ways distinct, but also, in many ways, very similar. All of them taught against abortion. All taught that Scripture is inspired and inerrant. All taught against homosexuality and fornication. All taught against divorce. All encouraged modest dress to varying degrees.  All believed in Christ's divinity, the three-in-one nature of the Trinity, and the existence of Heaven and  Hell. The similarities certainly don't stop there, but I will.

The experiences I have had my entire life have brought me to where I am in my spiritual journey today. I will say that all of what I like to call my "spiritual traumas" have come from my time in ATI and my IFB church. However, those traumas have forced me to take a hard look at and re-evaluate every aspect of my Christian beliefs and upbringing. And boy, do I see major problems.

Now, of course, any honest Christian in the church (and I use this term to encompass all sects within Christian orthodoxy- Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, fundamentalist, etc.) will admit there are- and always have been- massive problems and abuses within the church. Christian history is rife with horrible teachings and acts, all taught and performed in the name of Christianity. However, my personal experience caused me to step back and take an even bigger look at things, much like Rachel Held Evans has done in her blog. What I have seen has left me saddened, shocked, disgusted, and even angry, regarding a lot of things. But wait- don't write me off as backslidden and apostate just yet.

I do still identify as a born-again Christian. I can still recite the Apostle's Creed without being dishonest or saying anything I don't agree with. But I'm also really struggling with the church. I'm really struggling with my own spiritual experience and past spiritual abuse. It is rare that I can handle church without flipping out over something. I'll be the first to admit, many of my triggers are not rational, and I'm working on that. I'm going to be working with a pastor, starting in August, to work through my issues. I would love to be able to sit through a church service and not worry about being triggered, having a panic attack, or a string of horrible flashbacks I can't stop. I really wanted to go to church this morning, but I just couldn't. I can't begin to express how much I hate where I am. But until I can sort through and differentiate emotionally between my irrational issues and my rational ones, church is probably not going to  be a great place for me to be.

Now don't get me wrong. Logically, I know what my irrational issues are, and where my rational, legitimate disagreements lie with the church. I can argue my points well. I just can't emotionally separate the good from the bad when I'm sitting there listening to others talk. There's a huge difference, and I thank God for that. If I was as logically confused as I am emotionally, I'm not sure I'd still be able to deal even with my own faith.

I read Rachel Held Evans's CNN post this morning, and it resonated with me so very much. Over the next weeks and months, in addition to my movie, history, and other such posts, I'm going to be writing many posts regarding the problems I'm seeing in the church as a whole, and how they're affecting me, and how I see them affecting others, and even threatening the future of the church in America, and the world in general. This is going to be me, honest and open, taking responsibility for my own thoughts, opinions, actions, and future. I do not see myself as a poor, wronged victim. Please understand that.

For now, I encourage you to read Rachel's post, which I linked to at the beginning of my post. I'm going to go through and talk about many of those issues in my next posts. This is simply my introduction to the posts to come. I hope you can read them and understand I write my thoughts without blame or malice towards anyone. This is simply my journey, from the world of today's church, to the essence of the Gospel, and the true teachings and grace of Jesus Christ. I truly hope all who read can take my posts in the spirit in which they will be written; a spirit of grace.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Liberty, Patriotism, and America

I have recently developed a friendship with an amazing person, Chilan Ngo (pronounced shuh-LAWN No). Chilan is a first generation American, and her family is from Vietnam. Had it not been for the war, Chilan's family would still be in Vietnam, but now they all live in Southern California. History geek that I am, I've been having a ton of fun the last couple weeks, asking questions and learning more information about her family, the war, and their "new" lives here. Chilan is extremely American herself, but like many first-generation Americans, also has a soft spot in her heart for her parents' homeland, and is a great connoisseur of both American and Asian food.

Last week, Chilan sent me this photo and her thoughts on it and patriotism. I thought it was a fantastic perspective, and asked her if she'd allow me to post them here today, because it is definitely worth reading for all of us. I hope you enjoy it, and have a fantastic 4th of July!

"Paris - Gay Lussac Street - 3pm on April 27, 1975

From Lutèce Student Housing, South Vietnamese students from the Universities of Paris and Orsay-Antony silently marched to show their support to South Vietnam and express their gratitude to soldiers who had laid down their life for liberty and democracy...

Three days later, Saigon fell..."
A college friend of my dad’s found this picture. It’s of my mom, my dad, and their friends, participating in a student peace rally to support South Vietnam. The rally took place in Paris, 1975 — just three days before the South Vietnamese capitol fell to the Communists. It is profound and heartbreaking.
My mom tells me that the French authorities were nervous about any organized demonstrations, due to all of the fighting and confusion brought on by the war. Riot cops lined the streets, though it wasn’t necessary. The students were simply showing support for their country while in France—a country which would grant them asylum when the Communists overtook their homeland. The signs they are holding are written in French, and read, “Great Day of Mourning,” and “Honor to our Soldiers who Died for Liberty.”

Although my mom is hidden behind other people in the photo, she knows her location based on the friends around them. (She pointed each one out and told me where they are now, mostly working professionals still living in France.) My dad's head is just visible in all its long-haired glory; two years later, he would be forced to cut it should-length for his wedding. Everyone is wearing a white headband as a sign of mourning for the fallen soldiers—nothing to do with hippies. When my Ba Noi (paternal grandmother) died, we wore similar headbands for her funeral services.

So what does an old photo from Paris have to do with American patriotism? Well, along with many others, my parents gave up their Vietnamese citizenship after the country fell and established French citizenship. They were married in '77 and immigrated to the USA in '82—a year and a half before my older brother was born.  A decade later, they were granted American citizenship.

Us kids were beyond lucky. We grew up in Southern California as full-blooded Americans, and were raised in a upper middle class neighborhood with Caucasians. Our parents taught us English as a first language, ensuring that we didn't adopt their French-Vietnamese accents. I'm as Twinkie as you can get. It's easy to forget just how privileged I am to be here, sheltered from all the horrors and hardships that my elder generations went through. Although my parents had it relatively easy as exchange students, the rest of my extended family had to flee the country as refugees. That horrific experience alone would take a book to describe.

This photo reminds me that third world countries may be less rich, educated, and "cultured" than others, but their people can have just has much heart, humanity, and patriotism. Patriotism isn't about firing your constitutionally-mandated guns and having BBQs on the 4th of July. People everywhere have bled and suffered for freedom—not only our Founding Fathers, but also those in countries all over the world.
As a graduate student, I spend most of my time caught up in research and bemoaning my lack of better data. Amidst the madness, it's good to step back and be thankful that I am here, sitting at my own desk in a new, clean building, working at a top-notch university, self-supporting and having my own good credit, getting to do great things (for SCIENCE), and not even having to go into debt for it! Taking a bigger step back, I am here in a truly free country, enjoying my rights as a citizen, woman, and human being. I'm proud to be American, and Vietnamese, and even French! My parents may not throw a party for every US holiday, speak English without an accent, or watch the Superbowl, but they have a deep, unique appreciation of the liberty granted here. As my mom said, "It's a wonderful country!" Being American is an overwhelming privilege. We may hate whichever poor soul is president, rage about the government wasting our money (or the universities spending it on administration), and bicker about politics in general, but we must never forget what it means to be free.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Twenty Years

It was way past my bedtime, and I knew better, but I hopped out of bed and opened the door, to where my mom and sister were in the hallway on the phone. “Mom, I wanna talk to him!” Mom looked at me, surprised, and said, “Kathleen, it’s after nine. You have school tomorrow. Go back to bed.”
“But Mom! It’s been two weeks! I just wanna say hi!”
“Kathleen-“ Mom’s warning tone was quite clear. Normally, I would have obeyed, but for some reason, I just had to talk to my brother. So I pushed.
“Mom! I’m not tired! Let me talk to him!”
“Kathleen, you know the rules. Go to bed. NOW. You can talk to him the next time he calls.”
“But it’s been two weeks!”

I turned around, slammed my bedroom door, and stomped back to bed. I’d gone weeks without talking to my brother before, and hadn’t ever thrown a fit about it. I don’t know why this time was different. But what happened the next day has kept me wondering about that for the last twenty years. My fit was very out of character for me. All I am really sure of is that for some reason, I felt like I absolutely had to talk to my brother. The feeling bordered on desperation. I didn’t have anything specifically to tell him, I just really needed to talk to him.
The next morning was just like every other morning. I got up, ate breakfast, and put on my uniform. It was the second-to-last week of school, and I was looking forward to the summer. I was about to finish 3rd grade and turn ten. Double digits! My mom reminded me not to tell the kids in my class she was coming to school in the afternoon to help a couple other moms give ice cream to the other kids in my class. It was supposed to be a surprise. Mom dropped me off at school, and I headed to my classroom.
Mid-morning, I realized I had left my English book in my mom’s car, and went to the office to call her at work and ask if she could drop it off on her lunch break. The school secretary made the call, and when she hung up, she said simply, “Your mom went home sick, so you’re going to have to share someone else’s book.” A knot formed in the pit of my stomach, and I knew something was wrong. I started crying, and the school secretary said, “It’s not bad, she just didn’t feel well.” I kinda freaked out a little, standing there in the school office. I absolutely KNEW something was wrong. My mom really doesn’t get sick just like that. She never has. And she rarely stops when she’s not feeling well unless she just can’t function. And that never just suddenly happened. I remember sitting there in the office thinking that someone had died. My dad’s mom had been experiencing declining health, and I thought perhaps she had died. Something was very wrong, I just didn’t know what.
By the end of the day, I still felt something was off, but I was no longer overwhelmed by this awful feeling that something was horribly wrong. I just thought something weird was going on, and I’d find out later. I didn’t know who was coming to pick me up- usually my mom did- but the secretary had told me someone would come. I figured whoever it was would tell me.
School always ended at 3, but around 2:50, my mom’s secretary hurried into my room. She told Miss Cornelius she was taking me home, showed her my mom’s note, and then looked at me, and said, “Come on, let’s go!” Rose was always high energy, but she was really nervous about something. She was already at the top of the steps out in the hall before I could call after her, “I have to get my bag!”
The feeling of dread slowly came back as Rose chatted nervously all the way to my sister’s high school. Anna was waiting where she always did, but I had to jump out of the car so that she’d see me. She’d had no idea anything was going on. She got in the car, looked at me strange, and said, “Where’s Mom?” I told her what I’d been told, and she just sat still, looking at me with an expression that mirrored my feeling that something just wasn’t right.
Fewer than five minutes later, we pulled up in front of the house, and Anna and I both saw Mrs. Molloy’s car in the driveway. We both looked at each other and said, “Uh-oh.” We knew this wasn’t good. Mrs. Molloy was a good friend, but for her to be at our house in the middle of the day, supposedly when our mom wasn’t feeling well, we knew something BAD had happened. I don’t remember if Rose came in with us or not, but I know she wasn’t around long. All I really remember is that as soon as we walked through the door, Anna and I KNEW something awful had happened. We’d already been through an awful lot for our ages, but this was different.
Mrs. Molloy was sitting in a chair in the living room, and mom walked in from the kitchen. She’d obviously been crying. I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but Anna and I sat on the couch as we were informed that our older brother had been found dead outside his apartment in Dallas, Texas, earlier that morning.
My world had been turned completely upside down. My brother was dead.
Shortly before 4, a police chaplain showed up. He was going to meet my father when he came home from work, about 4:15. My dad was still completely unaware anything had happened. I remember him walking in the door, and as he always does when something is unusual and confusing, said, “What’s going on?”
The chaplain introduced himself and told my dad what had happened. Now, I’d seen my dad cry before (seriously, the guy weeps watching most movies), so that wasn’t the disturbing part. What was so disturbing was the way his face crumpled. It was immediate. I’ll never be able to describe the way he wept. I’ve never seen anything like it since- in movies or in real life. He just wept hard, making very little noise. He looked completely beaten.
The chaplain left, and our pastor came, then left. My mom’s brother and sister came, with food. My dad’s older sister Mary and her husband Bob came. I remember they met me at the doorway. I was smiling. I always look back on this moment when I think about how I process grief or something horrible that has happened. I usually react very badly and very dramatically for 5-10 minutes, then I’m good for hours, sometimes days. Then it hits again and I fall apart for another 5-10 minutes. I realize this isn’t normal, which is why Aunt Mary and Uncle Bob hugged me, and then Uncle Bob leaned over and said, “It’s okay to cry, you know.” I said, “I know, I already did.” This is bizarre, I realize, but I was genuinely happy to see everyone who came.
I’ll never forget Jon Detroy, one of my brother’s best friends, coming over and basically spending his entire night with me, in the midst of 50 or more people who were crowding our home, bringing love, food, and support. Jon told me story after story of my brother. He had me laughing almost all night. The stories were hilarious. He told a few of them at my brother’s funeral- including one about how my brother would set the Nintendo (we’re talking the original one here) to one player, then hand me the disabled controls, and he’d sit behind me with the active controls, beating every level, and making me think that was me! Jon- if you’re reading this, thank you. You were exactly who I needed then, you reminded me that my brother loved me, and for that, I will always love you!
The next few days were a blur. I opted to go to school, and I must say, I will NEVER forget how amazing my friends were there, particularly Amy and Kelly Schomaker, Laurie Hall, Sara Otero, and Amanda Hoffman. Looking back, the maturity with which they dealt with the situation is astonishing for a bunch of 8 and 9 year olds. Maybe it’s because we’d all lost a classmate to a brain aneurism the year before, or maybe it was something else, but they never left my side. At least one of them was with me at all times, and somehow, they managed to deal with my random crying with amazing grace and compassion. If you girls are reading this- thank you. I haven’t forgotten. I don’t know how I would have made it through those days- and the next year and a half- without you. Really, everyone in my grade at school was great.

It’s amazing to me that all happened twenty years ago. Twenty years today. It’s funny- grieving doesn’t happen in a straight, steady line. I struggled for about three years, and then I was good for about fifteen. I’d go four, five, maybe six years without crying, then maybe cry once, and then be good for another several years. It’s not that I no longer missed my brother, but I had learned to live without him. The wound was there, but it had healed. Not perfectly, but healed.
So imagine my surprise when one day in 2010- nearly 17 years after his death- I was sitting in one of my English classes discussing Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Tennyson wrote this poem over a series of many years, after the death of his best friend, and his sister’s fiancé. There were three Christmases featured in the poem, one being the second one after his friend’s death. Things were still more somber than usual, but unlike the year before, the family was back to playing some of their regular Christmas games, and singing their songs. On the one hand, Tennyson mused, it was a relief that the pain was no longer so raw. But on the other hand, he felt a little guilty that they were starting to find joy again, even though a beloved member of their family was dead. He specifically wondered what it would be like when his friend had been gone seventeen years.
Seventeen years. I got out of my seat and barely managed to close the classroom door before the tears started falling. I ran outside and doubled over- the pain was more than I could bear. It was even worse than when I had first been told Matt had died. I was 26, about to graduate from college, hadn’t cried over his death in I don’t even know how many years, and suddenly, I couldn’t breathe from the utter anguish. I called my parents, and my mom answered. I was sobbing so hard I couldn’t even talk. My poor mother just stayed on the phone, telling me it was going to be okay, whatever it was. When I could finally talk, I remember shouting into the phone, “But it’s not okay! Matt’s dead!” Mom teared up a little- I could hear it in her voice- and said, “Yes, honey, he is.” All I remember is standing outside, trying to get ahold of myself for the next forty minutes. I walked back in after class, determined to calmly explain to Dr. Curlin what had happened, but as soon as I started talking, I started crying again. I managed to explain, and, loving father of seven children that he is, he was nothing but understanding.
That incident was surprising and a little disturbing. Disturbing, because it’s a little disconcerting to think you’re over the worst of something and then suddenly have the emotions come back times ten. But in a way, it was also reassuring. I hadn’t forgotten my brother. I hadn’t forgotten what an important part of my life he was. He hadn’t stopped mattering to me.
The last three years have been harder than probably years four through sixteen combined. I’m in a new phase of my life, and while I grieved the loss of my brother as a child, I’m now in the process of doing that as an adult.
Matt was a really troubled individual. I remember standing outside with him in the snow as he smoked in our backyard, and he looked at me and said, “Promise me you’ll do something with your life. Promise me you won’t grow up to be a loser like me.” I promised him I would do something with my life.
And here I am, twenty years after his death. About to turn thirty, the only one of the three of us to have graduated from college, finishing my Master’s thesis and a mere two months away from being awarded my M.A. My health has often not cooperated, and as most people who know me well at all will agree, I’ve had a rockier road on multiple levels than most. But I’ve pushed on, I’ve made it through. I choose to be healthy- or to take the necessary steps to become healthy- personally and physically. In a couple years, I’ll go on to a Ph.D. program. It’s been hard not having him here to encourage me along the way, but I know he’d be so proud of me.
To those of you who are reading this who knew and loved my brother- even when he was hard to love- thank you. He desperately needed positive attention in his life. Aunt Mary, Uncle Bob, Scott, Jason, Danny, Aunt Marlene, Uncle Dave, Bob and Sue Wade, Jon, David, and so many more- thank you. You will all always have a special place in my heart, simply because you loved a boy- my brother- in so much pain.
So, Big Brother, you’ve been gone now longer than the 19 years you were here. You’ve been gone from my life more than twice as long as you were here for it. But I’m always grateful for you, your life, your love, and the things you taught me. I wish you were here still.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Reds Hall of Fame and Museum Review

Reds Hall of Fame and Museum. Cincinnati Reds Organization. Christ Eckes, Building, Operations Manager, and Chief Curator; Greg Rhodes, Team Historian.
The Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, located at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Ohio, is a two-story museum, filled with Reds memorabilia and history. Upon admittance to the museum, visitors receive a small brochure with a guide to the museum’s layout and exhibits. On the back of the guide, it says,
Celebrating Greatness, Preserving History, Providing Inspiration. A not-for-profit 501(c) (3) organization, and widely recognized as the premier team Hall of Fame in the country, the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum encompasses 15,000 sq. ft. of interactive and informative exhibits. The museum also boasts impactful, educational, and entertaining programming for baseball fans young and old.”
The Reds Hall of Fame and Museum is funded by the Reds organization and the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce as well as private donations. Its intended audience is Reds fans, members of the community, and fans of other teams who may be in the area.
On the whole, the museum does an excellent job with the above stated goals. There are a number of exhibits, two being temporary, and presented as the 2013 feature exhibits. The first of these exhibits is entitled, “Signature Reds: A Century of Reds Autographs,” and is sponsored by the Dinsmore legal firm. There are mounted and framed autographs hanging on the walls along the perimeter of the room, all divided by decade, dating from the pre-1920s era, through the 2000s. Each decade has its own sign underneath, giving visitors a synopsis of the Reds during that decade. In the middle of the room stand a number of display cases holding autographed baseballs, equipment, bobble heads, photographs, magazine and newspaper covers and articles, and similar items. My only criticism of this display regards the two display cases containing autographed items from television, music, and movie stars, as there is no explanation tying those autographs to the Reds in any way. Because the rest of the museum is exclusively about the Reds, or topics directly related to the Reds, these two cases stand out as not fitting in.
The staircase leading to the second story and other displays focused on the career of Pete Rose. The “Wall of Baseballs” contained 4,256 game- and practice-used baseballs, each ball representing one of Pete Rose’s career hits. While the museum utilized this space well, I do have one criticism: The photos in the hallway are exposed to a large amount of sunlight, causing significant sun damage to the photos. Though the photos are clearly not originals, I found the sun damage distracting. The concept of using a stairwell for displaying extra information is good, but I would suggest investing in fade-resistant prints or refraining from displaying them altogether.
The second temporary exhibit of 2013 is on former Reds second baseman, Joe Morgan. The wall is paneled with enlarged photos and headlines regarding Morgan’s career, and there is a flatscreen television with a video in which Morgan’s former teammates comment on his career. While most are nationally recognizable, one player on the video is mostly only recognizable by those from the Cincinnati area, Tracy Jones. While Jones played for the Reds for two years, and for a number of other organizations, he was a career utility player, and never did anything to gain himself any significant recognition. However, including him in the video was a wise move by the exhibit designer, as Jones is a regular talk show host on local radio station 700WLW, with a fairly large audience. Most locals know his name and feel more connected to Jones than they would to someone such as Johnny Bench or Sparky Anderson. A large display case exhibiting some of Morgan’s game-worn jerseys, two Golden Glove awards, as well as a Jackie Robinson  award, among other relevant items, concluded the Morgan exhibit.
The rest of the museum contained impressive collections of pre-1920s Reds memorabilia. One room highlighted the 2012 Reds season, from beginning, to post-season, leading into a long room with hands-on opportunities for visitors. These activities included a replica of the Center Field fence, and an activity for fielding balls, as well as chances to try calling strikes or balls behind home plate, pitching the ball over the plate, trying on catcher’s equipment, and even making calls from the radio booth. The same room contains two replicas of Crosley Field, lockers and seats from Riverfront Stadium, and sundry facts about both stadiums. A few stations had video monitors with signs telling visitors to press a button to watch catching tips from Johnny Bench, or batting tips from Sean Casey.
The final room of the museum is a tribute to the greatest teams in Reds history, especially the Big Red Machine of the 1970s, and the “Great Eight,” including such players as Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and Davey Concepcion. It highlighted the Reds pennant and World Series wins, team statistics, and included a few World Series team trophies in display cases. In the middle stands a large sculpture, entitled “The Great Eight,” with life-sized replicas of each player from the Great Eight. Like the Morgan exhibit, the walls were paneled with enlarged photos and headlines from the Big Red Machine era, and contained another flatscreen television, with a video detailing the successes of the Big Red Machine. This exhibit is very engaging for Reds fans- or even baseball fans in general who remember it. I have one criticism of this display, and it is perhaps the most significant of my three criticisms in this review. While the video showed footage of the 1976 World Series win, with voice-overs of Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman calling it, the background music on the video was the Kyrie Elision. Because the words, when translated into English, literally mean, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy,” it really stood out as not fitting the supposedly celebratory mood of the World Series win. I looked at it thinking I should be watching footage of the collapsed World Trade Center buildings or the destroyed Oklahoma City federal building, rather than that of a World Series win. The museum then gives way to the Reds Hall of Fame, which is a simple display of plaques for each player in the Hall, containing an engraving of the player’s face, and a synopsis of the player’s career, and their Reds Hall of Fame induction date.
Overall, the museum is excellent. While I was unable to visit the museum’s theater, which was closed to the public for a school field trip, the rest of the museum is impressive, not only from the standpoint of a Reds or baseball fan, but also from the historian’s standpoint. The presented history was very informative, accurate, and comprehensive. The museum’s curator and historian did an excellent job of creating a museum which would cater to its target audience. It maintained a good balance of entertainment with historical education. Throughout the museum, aside from the faded photos, there were no indications that funding could be a problem- there were many activities and displays which would too expensive for many museums not attached to a major sports organization. Though I have not been to museums for any other baseball teams, after my visit to the museum, I have no trouble believing the brochure’s claim, that the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum is “widely recognized as the premier team Hall of Fame in the country.” 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Week Last: Do You Wanna Go Straight to Hawaii?

This week's readings put me in mind of the abovementioned Beach Boys song. One of my well-hidden obsessions is the Beach Boys. You can listen to the song here. That has nothing to do with the readings. But it's in my head now, so I thought I'd share. Moving on.

This week's reading concerned a very real problem with public history: the evidence/truth vs. people's perception of it. In 2003, Robert R. Weyenth wrote a book on the history of Hawaii's "Central Park," otherwise known as Kapi'olani Park. As is almost always the case, actual historical documentation differs here from the local people's memories. According to the residents of the area, the park had been created around 1870 by King Kamehameha as a gift to the people of Oahu. It was, in public memory, a benevolent gift from the king. Weyenth's research suggested otherwise. According to the research, it was indeed established in the 1870s by the king, but instead of being a gift to the subjects of Hawaii, it was established more as an exclusive seaside suburb/resort for the Hawaiian aristocracy. And thus it remained for about twenty years; a luxurious getaway for the members of the royal court. As a result, Weyenth received a bit of hostility regarding his book, including legal action, as community members called his work "libelous."

Weyenth's point was that public historians have to always be ready to face such hostility from their communities. Native Hawaiians wanted to remember their former royalty as benevolent, rather than otherwise. This of course is understandable, especially since Hawaii has such a unique heritage from the other states. I suppose that for some, it'd be more or less like the reaction a lot of people had to the movie Lincoln, in which they discovered he wasn't the "friend of the black man" they had always imagined. In these cases, the public historian has to make sure that he or she is aware of the possible controversy, knowledgeable of the sources and possible other interpretations, and willing to know when to fight- legally, if necessary- and when not to. It is a hard call to make sometimes, but it is a challenge all public historians must be willing to accept, especially when dealing with something which has become legendary in the community.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Week Thirteen: Walking the Tightrope

Public historians have a unique set of difficulties to handle which many of us in academia don't have to deal with nearly as much. Public historians- whether site directors, historic preservationists, heritage educators, or others- have to figure out how to find the balance between the truth, education, and securing funds. This week, we read the article "Interpreting Uncomfortable History at the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri" by Timothy Baumann, Andrew Hurley, Valerie Alitzer, and Victoria Love.

As the title suggests, the article detailed the issues involved with purchasing, restoring, and presenting the Scott Joplin house in St. Louis to the public. The original presentation ignored some very important things, such as "the urban milieu that nourished his talents, the origins of African/African American music, or the lasting legacy of his music on contemporary composers" (p.45). They apparently also neglected to include locals in the original site planning. There was concern among the leadership about cost and potential controversy. Joplin's life was hard- wrought with the pains brought by racism, money problems, and sexually transmitted disease. Presenting this factually to the public certainly ran the risk of creating even more controversy in a city with a less-than-stellar racial history.

This article contained another example of a recurring problem we have been looking at all semester: how do we as public historians find a good balance between accuracy, education, and bringing in money? Obviously, no site can run without money, and few sites have the funding to be able to operate without worrying about specific donors or fees paid by visitors. To some degree, the site has to cater to the desires of non-historians, just to keep its doors open. This may require ignoring a certain aspect of the site's history, or glossing over it. And in some cases, this may not be unforgivable. But it does require an awareness of what is going on and the ability for site directors and heritage directors to have at least some idea of the point at which the history they're presenting ceases to maintain any standard of accuracy or integrity. This job seems to be akin to walking a tightrope: unless the site manages to balance things just right, it will fall off, whether it falls to one side because it commercialized its history too much, or to the other because it lost funding by refusing to listen to patrons and donors.

I'm not sure there's ever a perfect balance, and I'm not sure one a sustainable balance is found, it can be counted on to always work, even for the same site. But it is something of which public historians need to be aware, regardless of how hard that seems to be.  


I'm going soft. Until tonight, I always took pride in the fact that I'd cried at only three movies in my entire life. And only at one significant, poignant moment in each. But tonight, I went to see the movie 42, based on Jackie Robinson and his breaking of the color barrier in baseball. And I cried the whole. way. through. I cried tears of joy, anger, anguish, and laughter. All of them. All of those emotions wrapped up in the masterpiece that is 42.

History aside, the movie is fantastic. The baseball scenes were filmed and staged well, the writing was well done, and the music fitting. The acting was phenomenal. No one could have done a better job with the role of Dodger's general manager Branch Rickey better than Harrison Ford did. Chadwick Boseman was amazing as Jackie, and really, I don't think they could have cast any of the roles better than they did.

At this point, I will give the obligatory spoiler alert. I speak in detail about some of the scenes. If you don't want them spoiled, don't read this until you've seen it. Moving on.

As far as the history goes, I am aware of no distortions. I can't speak to every specific and every ballplayer and every conversation, but there was no "Hollywood corruption" of which I am aware. There was a Huffington Post article published yesterday, written by Eric Metaxas. You can read it here. Metaxas bemoans the missing faith of Robinson and Rickey in the movie. He says there's no trace of the devoted faith of both men; that Hollywood completely ignores it. Metaxas is incorrect, and significantly so. No one watching and paying any attention to the movie could walk out of it unaware that both men were strong believers and Methodists. Rickey even says, "Robinson's a Methodist. I'm a Methodist. God is a Methodist!" Rickey encourages Robinson multiple times, referring to "our Lord," and how He had to take hatred and persecution and turn the other cheek. Multiple times, Rickey referenced the Bible and doing what was right, even calling out Dodgers manager Leo Durocher for adultery, saying the Bible had some strong words on that subject. The Christian faith played significantly into the movie, and was in no way portrayed as anything other than positive.

I have been studying African American history for the last nearly seven years. As I said in a recent blog post, this subject is particularly difficult for me, because I have an over-developed sense of justice. I am not generally an emotional person, but when I see injustice, I become far more emotionally involved than I should. When I read about the horrors and the injustice that are so much a part of African American history, I become incensed by the people committing the crimes, and am heartbroken for those who had to experience those crimes. I still cannot imagine how anyone could hate people so much because of the color of their skin. The hatred I saw in this movie at once enraged, sickened, and saddened me. But the courage and faith I saw likewise inspired me.

Before I go on, I want to make something crystal clear for anyone who may be unaware. By breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball (MLB), Jackie Robinson was absolutely risking his life. Literally. He was also risking the life of his wife, his mother, and his son. He could have been brutally lynched, and it would not stand out from the rest of the lynchings in Jim Crow America as unusual. The fact that a lynch mob did not manage to track him down, dismember him while he was alive (yes, that happened- and not too uncommonly, either), and then hang and burn his body, is actually quite amazing. The fact that they didn't do that to his wife, is pretty amazing too. I mention all of this because I don't want anyone to miss just how significant this was on the part of Robinson and his family. Even Branch Rickey risked his personal safety. Less so than Robinson to be sure, but his personal well-being was absolutely still placed on the line.

I could easily write 10,000 words in this post, but I'll refrain. I'm only going to focus on a few things here. First, I do want to say the filmmakers did a fantastic job showing the resistance of most of the Dodgers players when Robinson first joined the franchise. They also did a masterful job showing the change that came over the team during the season. The racism directed towards Jackie became personal for a lot of them. Some of them started to fight back because Rickey had specifically told Robinson he wanted a black player "with the guts not to fight back." Robinson turned the other cheek over and over, and in many cases, his teammates stepped in to defend him.

One such instance occurred in Philadelphia. Alan Tudyk, who played Phillies manager Ben Chapman was extremely convincing in his role of an exceedingly racist individual. He shouted racial slurs at Robinson all game. Now, all racial slurs are hateful, but these particular ones were especially so. Robinson took it. It did eventually get to him, at which point Robinson walked off the field, took his bat, and hit it over and over against the brick wall, shouting anguished cries that clearly came from the core of his being. I absolutely wept. Rickey came down to talk to Robinson in that hallway, telling him he had to go back on the field. He had to take it. Robinson looked at him and shouted, "Do you have any idea what this is like!?" Rickey looked him square in the eye and said, "No. But our Lord does, and you have to go back up there. They have to live with themselves. You have to do the right thing." Of course, that's a paraphrase, but that is essentially what Rickey said to Robinson. Robinson took the field again, finishing the game. It was during this game that a lot of the Dodgers players started to see just what kinds of things Robinson was having to deal with. One player who had originally signed a petition to get Robinson off the team, stormed over to Chapman and chewed him out. He finally said, "You shut your mouth, or I'll shut it for you." Robinson thanked the teammate later, and the teammate said, "For what? You're my teammate." On the one hand, it wasn't the answer Robinson was looking for, but on the other, it showed a huge improvement in attitude. At least some members were starting to accept him as part of the team.

The season went on. Rickey received death threats against Robinson, his wife, and son. He alerted the FBI. But he never backed down. I would be remiss if I did not mention one of the ugliest receptions Robinson got that entire season, as much as I would like to ignore it and pretend it never happened, but it did. I don't remember when I first learned about this specific road series, but I have known about it for a very long time, because it was particularly vitriolic on the part of the people at the game. It was in Cincinnati. I usually love seeing the Reds in movies or on tv shows. I usually love any reference to my town. But this time I was dreading it, and when that part of the movie arrived, I was so very ashamed. There was a little boy in the crowd with his dad. The boy looked about six or seven- that's how old my dad was at the time. My dad's parents raised him not to see race, but this little boy, who was likely so much like my dad, was shouting out "Nigger!" right alongside his father. I wept again. This time tears of shame. Shame for the way my hometown treated Jackie Robinson. It's so odd. I'm writing my thesis on abolitionism in Cincinnati, because Cincinnati was one of the biggest centers of abolitionism and Underground Railroad activity in the west prior to the Civil War. By no means was racism absent or silent in the city, but what I saw on the screen tonight was such a startling contrast to what I've been working on.

The season drew to an end, and Robinson sealed the pennant win for the Dodgers with a home run. By this time, he had been mostly accepted by his teammates and Dodgers fans. The next season, he was joined by other black players. It would be a long time before the civil rights movement really got started, but Robinson played a significant role in pioneering that movement. Not only did he serve his country admirably during World War II, but he also served America admirably when he came home. He also helped improve the game of baseball, by allowing MLB to contain truly the best players. Without Robinson, such legends as Dave Parker, Joe Morgan, Ken Griffey, Jr., Albert Pujols, Barry Larkin, and Tony Gwynn never would have been allowed on the field. My current favorite player, Brandon Phillips, wouldn't be there either. The fact that Phillips is allowed to play and allowed to make antagonistic comments about the Cardinals is significant. In Robinson's time, that would have been asking to be beaten or lynched. Today, it's just over-enthusiastic idiocy, all in good fun (on his part, granted, the Cardinals fans don't quite see it that way!). As a die hard baseball fan myself, I can't help but be grateful to Robinson for helping to improve the sport.
Robinson wasn't just a civil rights pioneer and man of strong Christian faith. He was a top-notch baseball player as well, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in 1962.

I want to close with an observation. The more I study African American history, the more disturbed I become by the comments I hear from many conservatives about how far America has fallen morally, and how we should go back to the morality of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. I often want to shout out that if they truly want to go back to the morality of those decades, they have to accept Jim Crow and overt racism and racial hatred as well. As a historian, I am convinced that each new era only exchanges one set of evils for another. We take some huge steps forward, and also some huge steps back. It's life. But I cannot stand by and listen to people extol the morality of a time in our history in which people made death threats to a baseball player and his family, simply because he was black. That is so wrong. I cannot begin to express just how wrong that is. I do see moral problems in America today, yes. But I cannot in good conscience wish to return to any previous decades in American history, especially prior to about 1980. I am so grateful I was not alive during slavery, Jim Crow, or the civil rights era. We are all made in God's image, and to treat anyone the way Jackie Robinson and his fellow African Americans (as well as Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, etc.) were treated is to spit on that image, and I cannot wish back an era in which that was so prevalent.

All in all, I absolutely recommend this movie. Personally, it's the best movie I've ever seen, but take that with a grain of salt, because this is my area of expertise. I was so emotionally impacted by this movie only because I have studied the topic in such depth for the better part of a decade. Even so, it was a fantastic movie, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. The story of faith and courage is one we all can learn from, no matter what the era of history is in which we reside. I may write another post on the movie after I see it again, focusing on many of the things I left out here, but the best thing I can tell you is to simply go see it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Today, I Stood Where Slaves Were Sold

Today, I had a new experience. Today, I stood on the steps where slaves were sold. I recently discovered that slave auctions were frequently held on the steps of the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. I decided I wanted to go stand on those steps- to stand where the slaves stood when they were being sold as property. Sold as livestock. Today I did, and I felt ill.

My dad and I went up to St. Louis today to watch the Reds and Cardinals play. Part of the Old Courthouse is clearly visible from Busch Stadium, so it was an easy detour to make. I told my dad I wanted to go stand on the steps. I didn't tell him why. We first walked to the Arch, then up the street to the Old Courthouse. I felt a knot grow in the pit of my stomach, as I imagined slaves, wrists and ankles bound, being led from a boat on the Mississippi, up the hill to be sold on the courthouse steps.

We crossed the street to the building, and I looked up the marble steps. I ran up the steps, almost to the top, and turned around. My dad was looking at the building from the sidewalk. I told him to come up next to me. As he turned around to face the arch, I started pointing things out to him.

     "You can see the Arch, and right beyond that, is the river. You can see Illinois from here." Dad looked, "Oh, yeah. That's cool."
     "Missouri was a slave state, and Illinois was free."
     "They used to sell slaves here. Right on these steps. This is where they'd hold the auctions." Dad reacted as though I had just told him his steak was actually pig intestines. One moment admiring the view and the Arch, and the next, sickened.
     "Oh, yuck," he said, as he always does when he unexpectedly hears something unexpected and unpleasant. Then he was silent.
     "They used to sell them right here. Where they could see a free state. Right there. They're literally looking at freedom as they're being sold." More silence.

We both stood there for a few minutes, letting it sink in that we were actually standing in the very place where enslaved individuals were torn apart from their families. All the while, looking at freedom, in sight, but out of reach.

I grew up in Ohio. We didn't have slaves there. Slavery was outlawed by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, in the territory that would become Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and part of Wisconsin. The closest I came to slavery as a kid was the stories of the Underground Railroad that were so prevalent in my hometown of Cincinnati. But those stories were heroic and energizing. The first time I knowingly stood where slaves lived and worked was on my trip to Mount Vernon at the age of 15.

This was different.

As a scholar of African America, and even more specifically, as a scholar of American slavery, I often feel sickened by the reality of slavery in our nation's history. I read account after account of rape, beatings, separation from families, slave auctions, among other things, and I feel sick. I actually get angry when I read the pro-slavery arguments. I wonder how this kind of atrocity could possibly be justified. I know the stories, I've read the statistics, and I'm well aware of the long-lasting impact of slavery. But that's academic.

I know what slave auctions looked like. It was not uncommon for a prospective buyer to check over a potential slave just as he would a horse or steer he wanted to buy. Buyers would open the slave's mouth and check their teeth, remove or brush aside articles of clothing and touch the slave in indecent places to check for strength and health. In some cases, slaves would be made to sing and dance on the spot during an auction. Slave auctions were dehumanizing for the individuals enslaved in every possible way. And I stood in the exact spot where that happened. As I looked at the trees on the Illinois side of the river, I was overwhelmed with grief over what had occurred over and over again in that very spot.

This isn't something I can easily process and fully grasp. It's not likely something I'll be able to recall without emotion for a good while. Nor should it be. Those few minutes were by far the most important of my day. They were also by far the most unpleasant. It's days like today that I remember why I'm studying African American history, when there are less tragic and more fun areas of history I could specialize in. I do it because there's a need. Because a great injustice has been done; one that cannot be undone or fixed or recovered from in 150 years. Something has happened which continues to impact our society and lives today. Unless we understand it, discuss it, and deal with it, we can't move forward, we can't heal, and we can't even really learn to love each other.

Today, I was reminded that what I study is important, and more than that, it is relevant. It isn't fun. Interesting? Absolutely. And sure, there's some fun involved, especially when I get to study the music of African America. But in general, reading about slavery, segregation, lynchings, and rapings is not pleasant. But because it is relevant- and will continue to be so for a very long time- I keep doing it. I want to do some good and make a difference. So, to everyone who doesn't understand why I, as a white person, study African American history, that is why. Because in so doing, I can do a lot of necessary good. It takes people of all races, cultures, genders, etc., working together, to effect change. Working to make things better should not be a "white effort" or a "black effort." It should be an American effort. A human effort. I am an American, and a human, and I am taking part. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Week Twelve: Slavery and the Confederacy

I think in most cases, people would describe my sense of justice as "over-developed." This can make life hard for a social historian who specializes in the study of a people who have been traditionally and harshly oppressed for more or less the entire duration of American history, with the possible exception of the last few decades. And even then, it depends on who you talk to and where they live. This week, we were assigned a single article, "Presenting Slavery: The Perils of Telling America's Racial Story," by James Oliver Horton. Dr. Horton is a historian I have admired since first reading his book, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860.

Before I go on, I will state a warning. My intent is not to be offensive here, but given the strong emotions which still exist in relation to the Civil War, Confederacy, and slavery, I'm not sure I will be able to avoid that altogether. Those who have strong positive feelings towards the Old South and Confederacy, read at your own risk. In some places, I will be blunt.

This article deals with some of the tough issues involved in the less-than-savory parts of American history. How exactly does a public historian, or a school teacher, present the issue of slavery to the public? Horton discusses the utter dearth of knowledge the average American has about slavery, and how much of our knowledge, even today, comes from Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone With the Wind. This is highly problematic. The average American doesn't know that slavery in the US began in 1619. The average American doesn't know slavery was a bone of contention among our Founding Fathers. In fact, according to Horton, far too many school children think American slavery wasn't abolished until the 20th century.

Horton addresses this because he raises a question: How can we discuss slavery intelligently as a nation without being educated about the issue? And that is indeed, an excellent question. Many people know so little about slavery that they do not recognize we are only just now as a nation beginning to really be able to move beyond some of the problems left behind by the "peculiar institution." And I do mean, just beginning. But that's another post for another day.

Of course, how can we discuss slavery intelligently, and even present it accurately, when so many Americans are trying to forget it ever happened, marginalize it, or throw blame on others to take the focus off of the Old South? While I commend the state of Mississippi for finally doing the right thing and ratifying the 13th Amendment, why in heaven's name did it take so long? Slavery was abolished 148 years ago. Why did they just ratify the amendment in 2013? It would be easy to say that after a certain period of time, the amendment got pushed to the back burner. And maybe that is the case in the last two decades or so, though before the late 80s or early 90s, I'd have trouble believing that argument. Mississippi was the most volatile state during the civil rights era. It took them a long time to calm down. I'm not hating on Mississippi here. I have wonderful friends from that state. I am, however, pointing out that we live in a nation which has a state that just now ratified the amendment which bans slavery. But there's more.

Horton writes about a few Civil War reenactment groups which decided to acknowledge slavery. He says, "Larry Beane, past commander of the J.E.B. Stuart Camp #1506 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania attacked Gilmore's reference to slavery as 'a slap in the faces of the Confederate soldiers, their grandchildren, and the State of Virginia as a whole.' Other Internet correspondents expressed similar sentiments." My question is this: What about the slaves, the slaves' grandchildren, and African Americans as a whole? Is not the refusal to acknowledge slavery, apologize, or otherwise honestly address it not a slap in the face to them? Why are we concerned more for the legacy of Confederate soldiers, who chose to fight for a  slave-holding country than we are for those who had no basic decision-making rights at all? I'm actually asking that question. If someone has an answer that does NOT include a comment about how there were a few black Confederate soldiers, or about how the North didn't really like African Americans either, or about how the North treated immigrant workers like slaves, please, tell me what it is.

Regarding the same issue- including an acknowledgment or condemnation of slavery with a celebration of the Confederacy- Horton talks about another statement from a Southerner. Horton quoted Tommy J. Baer on the issue: "It's like Germany having a World War II- I would even call it Nazi- history month but [saying] We're going to include the suffering of the Jews. It doesn't pass the common-sense test." The point here is that Germany simply wouldn't have a Nazi history month. Most Germans want to forget that everything from about 1913-1945 in German history ever happened. They are quick to condemn what happened during that era, especially once Nazism came on the scene. Aside from the fact that Baer used a very bad metaphor (as I'll concede the Confederacy was not as bad as Nazi Germany, but only using a scale of degrees here), he is again forgetting the other side of this issue. I would argue that it doesn't pass the common sense test to have a month or any observance that celebrates the Confederacy and not include a recognition and condemnation of slavery. Again, think of all the descendants of  slavery we still have in this nation. The consequences we are still bearing from that institution in our country. How does it possibly make sense to not acknowledge it?

When lecturing in US105 about the slave issue, I told my students about how lawmakers in this country spent years at a time just completely ignoring slavery in the decades leading up to the war. I told them it was like sweeping the dirt under the rug: you do it long enough, and you're going to trip over it eventually. That's exactly what happened then. That's exactly what happened during the civil rights era after nearly another 100 years of Jim Crow segregation. Why in heaven's name would we then insist on continuing to ignore it? Things are not fixed. Slavery does not reside firmly in the past. It has relevance today. Why then can we not discuss it honestly? What has to happen next?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying as a historian that we should do away with any and all rememberance of the Confederacy. My personal opinions often differ from my historian opinions, but right now, I'm speaking as a historian. I understand the desire of people to talk about their heritage and remember it. To remember great-great grandfathers who died tragically in a failed revolution. I get that. But how is it okay to do so without being honest about what all that entailed? I'm not sitting here as a Northerner saying the North never did anything abominable. I'm also not saying the North didn't hold slaves or wasn't economically involved in slavery. I'm simply saying, when celebrating something many people (and I would argue most) associate with slavery, such as the Confederacy, why can we not also be honest, and acknowledge the bad along with the good?

I say this over and over. We should care about what happened in history, not about focusing only on the good, or finding evidence to prove what we want to have happened in history. If we are going to focus on a portion of history which holds a lot of bad "memories" for a certain group of people, it absolutely fails not only the "common sense" test, but also, if I can channel my inner Mr. Rogers, fails the "good neighbor" test. If we are going to talk about history at all, we absolutely must take the bad right along with the good. We can not cut-and-paste to appease our own delicate sensibilities.  Presenting history is challenging, to be sure, and each of us has to decide if we're willing to do what it takes to do it accurately and respectfully. As for me, in the words of Barney Stinson, "Challenge accepted!"