History

Refugees and the Test of Morality

Gustav Schroeder, Cptt. of the St. Louis.  Photo Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Gustav Schroeder, Cptt. of the St. Louis. Photo Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. this past weekend, and one part of the permanent exhibit stood out to me. It was the story of the German transatlantic liner, the St. Louis. In May 1939, it sailed from Germany to Cuba with 937 passengers, most of them Jewish refugees fleeing the escalating violence in Nazi Germany. The passengers had been granted visas to Cuba; however, when the ship arrived, only 28 people were let off. The remainder were told to go home.

The ship then sailed northwards, hoping that the United States would provide refuge. But, the President, State Department, and Congress all denied aid to the passengers of the St. Louis. They were close enough to Florida to see the city lights of Miami, but were not allowed to dock. The “Land of the Free” was dedicated to “staying out of world affairs” and many Congressional leaders worried that letting in a flood of refugees would hurt the U.S. economy.

Voyage of the St. Louis - USHMM

The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe. Several European countries agreed to take in the refugees, but within a short time, Hitler’s Blitzkrieg engulfed Europe in war and brought much of the continent under Nazi control.

Of the St. Louis’ 937 passengers, 284 were ultimately killed in the Holocaust.

As I stood and read the story of the St. Louis, I couldn’t help but think about the masses of Syrian refugees fleeing civil war and almost certain death in their home country. They have left everything they know and love behind and are asking someone to help them.

Whether or not we are doing ALL that we can to help these people is not an economic or political question, it is a MORAL question; it is a test of ethics. As the case of the St. Louis shows, it’s a test that we have failed before…Are we going to learn from our mistakes, or is someone 70 years from now going to sit and judge us for not doing more?

Remember that these refugees aren’t just numbers; they’re all human beings with worries, fears, hopes, and joys.  The majority aren’t just “seeking a better life;” they’re simply looking for a way to survive, to make sure that their children don’t die in a bomb explosion.  

Migrants stand in a field as they wait for buses, after crossing the border from Serbia, near Tovarnik, Croatia September 24, 2015. Hungary may consider opening a "corridor" for migrants to pass through from Croatia by train or bus if Austria and Germany want one and take full responsibility, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff said on Thursday. The route of migrants journeying northwards through the Balkans from Greece shifted to Croatia and Slovenia after Hungary sealed off its border with Serbia earlier this month.  REUTERS/Marko Djurica - RTX1SBFP

Migrants stand in a field as they wait for buses, after crossing the border from Serbia, near Tovarnik, Croatia September 24, 2015. Photo: REUTERS/Marko Djurica.

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If you’re wondering how you can help the 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt you can donate to any of these charities:

The UN Refugee Agency: Provides cash for medicine and food, stoves and fuel for heating, insulation for tents, thermal blankets and winter clothing.

Save the Children: Supplies food for Syrian kids and supports education in Syrian refugee camps.

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders: MSF is operating three rescue ships in the Mediterranean Sea that can carry hundreds of people to land.

Unicef: Delivers vaccines, winter clothes and food for children in Syria and neighboring countries. The agency is working to immunize more than 22 million children in the region following a polio outbreak.

International Rescue Committee: The group’s emergency team is in Greece, where nearly 1,000 people are arriving per day.  Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein.

World Food Programme: The agency says it is struggling to meet the urgent food needs of millions of displaced Syrians.

Mercy Corps: Refugees are most in need of clean water, sanitation services, temporary shelter and food, the agency says.

Aylan Kurdi & Syria’s Child Victims of War: A new fund named after Aylan himself. Money goes to “Hand In Hand For Syria,” a U.K. based organization that works with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

CARE: Reaches Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Yemen and those displaced inside Syria with food, hygiene items and emergency cash. It’s also helping refugees crossing into Serbia.

Categories: History, Politics/Current Events | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Book Recommendations

It seems like all I do is read…Sometimes I think my eyes are going to fall out of their sockets as I just go insane.  But, then again, I guess all that reading makes sense since I’m a historian (or maybe being insane make sense since I’m a historian?)  Either way – sane or not – I am fortunate that I do get to read so much.  Reading is a way to travel (even time travel!) to different epochs or far away worlds without ever leaving your doorstep.  Sometimes the places you go to aren’t so pretty (my dissertation explores different Holocaust memories), but other times, the words of others are just inspiring.

Most of my day is spent frantically reading through old newspaper articles, diary entries, other snippets from the archives, and stacks of history books.  But I try to keep a good balance of things I read:  In the morning, I read non-fiction.  During the day, it’s history research.  And at night, I read from a novel before going to sleep.  So, on any given day, I’m reading three different books, but as odd as it sounds, it’s a good way to keep myself sane!  I’ve shared many of my reviews of academic books, but this morning I wanted to share a few titles of the books I’ve recently read that have nothing to do with my research.

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Every morning, after I catch up on the daily news and water our garden and flowers, I enjoy my last cup of coffee with a good, non-fiction book.  It’s my way of preparing myself for the day and trying to learn something new that doesn’t have anything to do with my research.

For the past year, I slowly made my way through Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.  It’s a mammoth of a book that begins literally at the beginning of the time by exploring theories about the beginning of the universe and ends with the emergence of Homo sapiens.  In between, Bryson deftly leads readers through some (most? all?) of the major scientific developments in human history.

Bill BrysonThe amount of research required to write such a book is simply staggering, but Bryson’s major achievement, in my opinion, is the way that he weaves it all together into a narrative that is simultaneously educational and incredibly entertaining.  More than once I found myself laughing out loud as he let you in on some of the more obscure – and often absurd – secrets about the quirky personalities of the explorers, scientists, and curious amateurs who made significant (or not so significant) achievements in various fields.  But, of course, beyond entertaining you, Bryson teaches you something, as well.  After completing the book, I certainly feel more prepared on trivia nights!

Reading the book felt more like sitting next to Bryson and having a friendly chat; his writing style is simply that engaging.  Each chapter is only 10-15 pages, and they’re self-encompassing topics.  So, you can read one chapter at a time, and not pick the book back up for a week and not have to worry about remembering where you left off. (Between our wedding, our move, and working on my dissertation, it took me over 12 months to finally finish the book – but I think a partial reason it took so long is because I didn’t want it to end!)

The long, overarching narrative that Bryson weaves is fantastic.  You certainly are amazed by some of humanity’s achievements (even if they were accidents), but you also are left with a feeling that our present-day situation isn’t preordained.  There were so many instances when evolution, politics – human history in general – could have gone any number of different ways.   In other words, you’re left with a feeling of humility and appreciation for our world today.

After finishing Bryson’s book, I quickly devoured a short work called The Lena Baker Story, by Lela Bond Phillips.  It is an incredibly depressing account about the first and only woman to be executed by the electric chair in the state of Georgia.  The book was put out by a local researcher and published by a small company, so it’s not the fanciest history book out there.  And perhaps it’s just the historian in me being nit-picky, but I found some of the style choices of the book to be perplexing.  For example, when giving direct quotes (from courtroom testimony, for example), Phillips puts them in italics instead of just using quotation marks.Lena Baker

But, such technicalities aside, this is a commendable work of local history that documents the life of Lena Baker, who grew up in a small, rural town in southwest Georgia.  Lena had a hard life, from beginning to its early end.  She and her family were destitute, she suffered from alcohol addiction, and on top of all that, she was black in the Jim Crow South.  When she shoots and kills a white man in self defense, there is no hope for her in the justice system.  The jury assigned to her case is made up of white males who were friends of the man killed; Lena’s defense attorney gave a half-hearted attempt to put up a defense, and Phillips suggests that there was even some tampering with the evidence.  And readers know from page one that there is no happy ending.  Lena Baker was killed by electrocution in Georgia State Prison in the spring of 1945.

I read this book because I grew up in the same town as Lena, so for me, the book was almost personal.  I knew the buildings that Phillips described; I can picture the landscapes not from imagination, but from my memories.  That’s why the book was so upsetting to me.  This wasn’t a general story of systematic racism in a far away Southern town; these were people who walked the same streets as I did.  By the story’s end, I’m not sure if I was more angered or saddened.  I commend Phillips for attempting to be objective and for not passing judgment.  But, I know that if I had written this story, I would have lambasted those involved, from those who were supposed to be enforcing the law to those who masqueraded as defenders of justice: the lawyers and judge who couldn’t even be bothered to put up a good mock trial.

Just as I sat down to begin this post, I Googled “the Lena Baker Story” and found that the book was actually turned into a movie in 2008!  After watching a trailer for it, it looks like some of the names of people and places may have been changed, but it seems like it stays pretty true to the book.  Now I can’t wait to find it on Netflix or rent it from Amazon. Here’s the preview for the movie…But I also recommend purchasing the short book.

 

I’ve now started President Jimmy Carter’s memoir about his boyhood:  An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood.  I picked it to read after The Lena Baker Story because I needed something a little less depressing to read in the morning.  I really love “Mista Jimmuh,” and not necessarily because of his politics or his presidency.  In all honesty, I haven’t really studied his time in the White House that much, but it seems like he may be a better ex-Hour Before Daylightpresident than he did a sitting president.  Either way, I love what President Carter stands for: peace, compassion, understanding, and education.  And while he’s a devout Christian, he’s not one of the judgmental Bible thumpers that I grew up around.  He’s intelligent and can grapple with “big picture” issues, but he grew up a poor farmer, so he certainly can understand the everyday man, too.  He’s usually calm and level-headed, but not afraid to speak his mind, even when his opinions aren’t popular.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Pres. Carter when he was back home in Plains, Georgia for a weekend.  His home is only about 20 minutes away from our farm, and my family and I even went to church with him.  We listened as he taught Sunday School, and his whole message was about compassion. I loved it.  So, now I’m excited to read this book and see what helped shape Jimmy Carter into the man he is today.

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As I said before, I crack open a novel as I lay in bed at night and let the fantastical worlds take my mind away from the research on the Holocaust.  These books, I just read for fun.  To be entertained.

I recently read Stephen King’s The Shining.  I had never even seen the movie, but I loved the only other King novel I’d read (The Stand), so I thought I’d give The Shining a try. My god, it was truly horrifying!  It was probably not a good idea to read that right before trying to go to sleep each night.  Nope.

The Shining

I’m an unabashed fan of the fantasy genre: the more magic, dragons, and imagined worlds there are in the book, the better.  Before I read The Shining, I read the first book in Patrick Rothfuss’Kingkiller Chronicle” series, The Name of the Wind.  It was pretty good, and I especially liked that it’s in the first person.  But, honestly, the book didn’t yank my chain, and I don’t think I’ll be finishing the series.  It’s no fault of Rothfuss,’ because he’s an excellent writer.  I just wasn’t in to the story.

The Name of the Wind

I’m currently reading Of Bone and Thunder by Chris Evans.  It is, of course, a fantasy novel, but it’s slightly different than others I’ve read, because Evans was an editor of military historian for decades.  So, this story line follows soldiers in an army that is attempting to put down rebellions by some of the subjects in a far away, hot, jungle.  Of course, at first the enemy is understood as something sub-human (well, actually, they’re NOT human), but as time goes on, the soldiers enlisted to fight the war realize that they share an awful lot in common with the native “slyts.”   Even though they are “the enemy,” they have families, farms, joys.  So, it’s an interesting foray into the mindset that warfare cultivates – – – and it’s also awesome that there are fire-breathing dragons and academy-trained wizards.

Of Thunder and Bone

And, of course I have to give another shout out to my favorite book series of all time (besides Harry Potter, obviously):  The Crossroads Trilogy by Kate Elliot.  My god, these are three fantastic books.  The amount of detail she gives in describing the world that she has created is impressive.  You can read my review of the series here.

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Okay, that’s all, folks.  If any of the brief reviews and recommendations sound interesting, give the books a try!  Also, if you’ve got any excellent books that you think I’d enjoy reading, let me know in the comment section below :)

Categories: Book Review, Entertainment, Nerdgasm | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Building the First Slavery Museum in America

Below is an article that I found on the New York Times’ website today.  It’s written by David Amsden, and the link to the original article can be found here.  As a historian studying the process of memorialization and memory-making, I find this Whitney slavery museum to be incredibly fascinating.  I’d love to take a field trip down to New Orleans to check it out.  

 

Building the First Slavery Museum in America

By: David Amsden, for the New York Times 

John Cummings (right), the Whitney Plantation's owner and Ibrahima Seck, its director of research, in the Baptist church on the grounds.  Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times.

John Cummings (right), the Whitney Plantation’s owner and Ibrahima Seck, its director of research, in the Baptist church on the grounds. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times.

Louisiana’s River Road runs northwest from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, its two lanes snaking some 100 miles along the Mississippi and through a contradictory stretch of America.  Flat and fertile, with oaks webbed in Spanish moss, the landscape stands in defiance of the numerous oil refineries and petrochemichal plants that threaten its natural splendor.  In the rust-scabbed towns of clapboard homes, you are reminded that Louisiana is the eighth-poorest state in the nation.  Yet in the lush sugar plantations that crop up every couple of miles, you can glimpse the excess that defined the region before the Civil War. Some are still active, with expansive fields yielding 13 million tons of sugar cane a year. Others stand in states of elegant rot. But most conspicuous are those that have been restored for tourists, transporting them into a world of bygone Southern grandeur — one in which mint juleps, manicured gardens and hoop skirts are emphasized over the fact that such grandeur was made possible by the enslavement of black human beings.

On Dec. 7, the Whitney Plantation, in the town of Wallace, 35 miles west of New Orleans, celebrated its opening, and it was clear, based on the crowd entering the freshly painted gates, that the plantation intended to provide a different experience from those of its neighbors. Roughly half of the visitors were black, for starters, an anomaly on plantation tours in the Deep South. And while there were plenty of genteel New Orleanians eager for a peek at the antiques inside the property’s Creole mansion, they were outnumbered by professors, historians, preservationists, artists, graduate students, gospel singers and men and women from Senegal dressed in traditional West African garb: flowing boubous of intricate embroidery and bright, saturated colors. If opinions on the restoration varied, visitors were in agreement that they had never seen anything quite like it. Built largely in secret and under decidedly unorthodox circumstances, the Whitney had been turned into a museum dedicated to telling the story of slavery — the first of its kind in the United States.

The Whitney Plantation's "Big House" in January 2015. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

The Whitney Plantation’s “Big House” in January 2015. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

Located on land where slaves worked for more than a century, in a state where the sight of the Confederate flag is not uncommon, the results are both educational and visceral. An exhibit on the North American slave trade inside the visitors’ center, for instance, is lent particular resonance by its proximity, just a few steps away outside its door, to seven cabins that once housed slaves. From their weathered cypress frames, a dusty path, lined with hulking iron kettles that were used by slaves to boil sugar cane, leads to a grassy clearing dominated by a slave jail — an approach designed so that a visitor’s most memorable glimpse of the white shutters and stately columns of the property’s 220-year-old “Big House” will come through the rusted bars of the squat, rectangular cell. A number of memorials also dot the grounds, including a series of angled granite walls engraved with the names of the 107,000 slaves who spent their lives in Louisiana before 1820. Inspired by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the memorial lists the names nonalphabetically to mirror the confusion and chaos that defined a slave’s life.

Ibrahima Seck, the Whitney's director of research, at a memorial on the plantation. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

Ibrahima Seck, the Whitney’s director of research, at a memorial on the plantation. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, was among those to address the crowd on opening day. He first visited the Whitney as the state’s lieutenant governor in 2008, when the project was in its infancy, and at the time he compared its significance to that of Auschwitz. Now he was speaking four days after a grand jury in New York City declined to indict a police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, a black man who was stopped for selling untaxed cigarettes; 13 days after another grand jury in Missouri cleared an officer in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager; and two weeks after Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park, was killed by a police officer. Evoking the riots and protests then gripping the nation, Landrieu said, “It is fortuitous that we come here today to stand on the very soil that gives lie to the protestations that we have made, and forces us as Americans to check where we’ve been and where we are going.”

The mayor concluded his speech by extending his hand to an older man standing just offstage to his left. Stocky and bespectacled, with a thick head of unkempt white hair, John Cummings was as much a topic of conversation among those gathered as the Whitney itself. For reasons almost everyone was at a loss to explain, he had spent the last 15 years and more than $8 million of his personal fortune on a museum that he had no obvious qualifications to assemble.

The Whitney Plantation's "Big House" in 1926. Credit: Robert Tebbs/The Collections of the Louisiana State Museum

The Whitney Plantation’s “Big House” in 1926. Credit: Robert Tebbs/The Collections of the Louisiana State Museum

“Like everyone else,” John Cummings said a few days earlier, “you’re probably wondering what the rich white boy has been up to out here.”

He was driving around the Whitney in his Ford S.U.V., making sure the museum would be ready for the public. Born and raised in New Orleans, Cummings is as rife with contrasts as the land that surrounds his plantation. He is 77 but projects the unrelenting angst of a teenager. His disposition is exceedingly proper — the portly carriage, the trimmed white beard, the florid drawl — but he dresses in a rumpled manner that suggests a morning habit of mistaking the laundry hamper for the dresser. As someone who had to hitchhike to high school and remains bitter about not being able to afford his class ring, he embodies the scrappiness of the Irish Catholics who flooded New Orleans in the 19th century. But as a trial lawyer who has helped win more than $5 billion in class-action settlements and a real estate magnate whose holdings have multiplied his wealth many times over, Cummings personifies the affluence and power held by an elite and mostly white sliver of a city with a majority black population.

“I suppose it is a suspicious thing, what I’ve gone and done with the joint,” he continued, acknowledging that his decision to “spend millions I have no interest in getting back” on the museum has long been a source of local confusion. More than a few of the 670 residents of Wallace — 90 percent of whom are black, many the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers who worked the region’s land — have voiced their bewilderment over the years. So, too, have the owners of other tourist-oriented plantations, all of whom are white. Members of Cummings’s close-knit family (he has eight children by two wives) also struggle to clarify their patriarch’s motivations, resorting to the shoulder-shrugging logic of “John being John,” as if explaining a stubborn refusal to throw away old newspapers rather than a consuming, heterodox and very expensive attempt to confront the darkest period of American history. “Challenge me, fight me on it,” he said. “I’ve been asked all the questions. About white guilt this and that. About the honky trying to profit off of slavery. But here’s the thing: Don’t you think the story of slavery is important?” With that, Cummings went silent, something he does with unsettling frequency in conversation.

“Well, I checked into it, and I heard you weren’t telling it,” he finally resumed, “so I figured I might as well get started.”

This was a practiced line, but also an earnest form of self-indictment: Cummings’s way of admitting his own ignorance on the subject of slavery and its legacy, and by extension encouraging visitors to confront their own. As with the rest of his real estate portfolio, which includes miles of raw countryside and swampland, a 12-story luxury hotel near the French Quarter, a cattle farm in rural Mississippi and a 1,200-acre ranch in West Texas that he has never set foot on, he initially gravitated toward the Whitney simply because it was for sale. (“Whatever Uncle Sam and the bartender let me keep,” he likes to note, “I bought real estate with it.”) Originally built by the Haydel family, a prosperous clan of German immigrants who ran the property from 1752 to 1867, the grounds had been uninhabited for a quarter century. “I knew I wasn’t going to live here,” Cummings said as he drove past the blacksmith’s shop that he spent $300,000 rebuilding, where a plaque noted that a slave named Robin worked on the plantation for 40 years and where the actor Jamie Foxx, playing a slave in “Django Unchained,” was filmed being branded. “But aside from that, I didn’t know what I would do with the place.”

It takes just a few minutes of conversation with Cummings, however, to understand that he would never have been keen on restoring the Whitney in the mold of neighboring plantations, which rely on weddings and sorority reunions to supplement the income brought in by picnicking tourists. Pet projects he has taken up in recent years include outlining for the Vatican a list of wrongs the Catholic Church should formally apologize for and — to the chagrin of, in his words, “my friends who have all had political sex changes in the past 15 years” — exploring ways to curb the influence of conservative “super PACs.” Decades ago, his interest in abuses of power led to his involvement in the civil rights movement; in 1968, he worked alongside African-American activists to get the Audubon Park swimming pool in New Orleans opened to blacks. “If someone is going to deny someone rights simply because they have the power to do it — well, I’m interested,” he explained. “I’m coming, and I’m going to bring the cannons.”

Still, his plans for the Whitney might have gone in an entirely different direction, if not for the existence of an unlikely document. The property’s previous owner was Formosa, a plastics and petrochemical giant, which in 1991 planned to build a $700 million plant for manufacturing rayon on its nearly 2,000 acres. Preservationists and environmentalists balked. Looking for avenues of appeasement, Formosa commissioned an exhaustive survey of the grounds, with the idea that the most historic sections would be turned into a token museum of Creole culture while a majority of the rest would be razed to make way for the factory. In the end, it was wasted money and effort: The opposition remained vigilant, rayon was going out of fashion, the Whitney went back on the market and Cummings inherited the eight-volume study with the purchase. “Thanks to Formosa, I knew more about my plantation than anyone else around here — maybe more than any plantation in America outside of Monticello,” said Cummings, a litigator accustomed to teasing secrets from dense paperwork. “A lot of what was in there was about the architecture and artifacts, but you started to see the story of slavery. You saw it in terms of who built what.”

After digesting the study, Cummings began readying “any book I could find” about slavery.  Particularly influential was Africans in Colonial Louisiana, by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a professor at Rutgers.  Certain details startled Cummings, like the fact that 38 percent of slaves shipped from Africa ended up in Brazil.  No wonder, he thought, that the women he watched on television celebrating Carnival in Rio de Janeiro so closely resembled those he saw dancing in the Mardi Gras parades that surrounded him as a youth.  “I started to see slavery and the hangover from slavery everywhere I looked,” he said.  As a descendant of Irish laborers, he has no direct ties to slaveholders; still, in a departure from the views held by many Southern whites, Cummings considered the issue a personal one.  “If ‘guilt’ is the best word to sue, then yes, I feel guilt,” he said.  “I mean, you start understanding that the wealth of this part of the world – wealth that has benefited me – was created by some half a million black people who just passed us by.  How is it that we don’t acknowledge this?”

Cummings steered the vehicle past the yellow fronds of banana trees and pulled to a stop in front of a sculpture, a black angel embracing a dead infant, the centerpiece of a memorial honoring the 2,200 enslaved children who died in the parish in the 40 years leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. At traditional museums, such memorials come to fruition only after a lengthy process — proposals by artists, debates among the board members, the securing of funds. This statue, though, like everything on the property, began as a vision in Cummings’s mind and became a reality shortly after he pulled out his checkbook. Perhaps most remarkable is that this unconventional model has yielded conventionally effective results: at once chastening and challenging, beautiful and haunting. “Everything about the way the place came together says that it shouldn’t work,” says Laura Rosanne Adderley, a Tulane history professor specializing in slavery who has visited the Whitney twice since it opened. “And yet for the most part it does, superbly and even radically. Like Maya Lin’s memorial, the Whitney has figured out a way to mourn those we as a society are often reluctant to mourn.”

Before leaving the grounds, Cummings stopped at the edge of the property’s small lagoon. It was here that the Whitney’s most provocative memorial would soon be completed, one dedicated to the victims of the German Coast Uprising, an event rarely mentioned in American history books. In January 1811, at least 125 slaves walked off their plantations and, dressed in makeshift military garb, began marching in revolt along River Road toward New Orleans. (The area was then called the German Coast for the high number of German immigrants, like the Haydels.) The slaves were suppressed by militias after two days, with about 95 killed, some during fighting and some after the show trials that followed. As a warning to other slaves, dozens were decapitated, their heads placed on spikes along River Road and in what is now Jackson Square in the French Quarter.

“It’ll be optional, O.K.? Not for the kids,” said Cummings, who commissioned Woodrow Nash, an African-­American sculptor he met at Jazz Fest, to make 60 heads out of ceramic, which will be set atop stainless-steel rods on the lagoon’s small island. “But just in case you’re worried about people getting distracted by the pretty house over there, the last thing you’ll see before leaving here will be 60 beheaded slaves.”

The memorial had lately become a source of controversy among locals, who were concerned that it would be too disturbing.

“It is disturbing,” Cummings said as he pulled out past Whitney’s gate. “But you know what else? It happened. It happened right here on this road.”

John Cummings brought these cabins from another plantation to replace the ones at the Whitney, which were destroyed in the 1970s. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

John Cummings brought these cabins from another plantation to replace the ones at the Whitney, which were destroyed in the 1970s. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

A nation builds museums to understand its own history and to have its history understood by others, to create a common space and language to address collectively what is too difficult to process individually. Forty-eight years after World War II, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington. A museum dedicated to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks opened its doors in Lower Manhattan less than 13 years after they occurred. One hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, however, no federally funded museum dedicated to slavery exists, no monument honoring America’s slaves. “It’s something I bring up all the time in my lectures,” says Eric Foner, a Columbia University historian and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” “If the Germans built a museum dedicated to American slavery before one about their own Holocaust, you’d think they were trying to hide something. As Americans, we haven’t yet figured out how to come to terms with slavery. To some, it’s ancient history. To others, it’s history that isn’t quite history.”

These competing perceptions converge with baroque vividness in the South. The State of Mississippi did not acknowledge the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery until 1995 and formally ratified it only in 2013, when a resident was moved to galvanize lawmakers after watching Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” While some Southern states have passed resolutions apologizing for slavery in the last decade, a majority, Louisiana among them, have not. In 1996, when Representative Steve Scalise, now the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House, was serving in the Louisiana State Legislature, he voted against such a bill. “Why are you asking me to apologize for something I didn’t do and had no part of?” he remarked at the time. This episode recently came to light amid the revelation that in 2002 he addressed a gathering of white supremacists at a conference organized by David Duke, formerly the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization founded the year the Civil War ended.

Slavery is by no means unmemorialized in American museums, though the subject tends to be lumped in more broadly with African-American history. In 2004, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in Cincinnati with the mission of showcasing “freedom’s heroes.” Since 2007, the Old Slave Mart in Charleston, S.C., has operated as a small museum focusing on the early slave trade, on a site where slaves were sold at public auctions until 1863. The National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in Memphis in 1991 and was built around the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, offers a brief section devoted to slavery. Next year, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is scheduled to be dedicated in Washington as part of the Smithsonian Institution, a project supported by $250 million in federal funding; exhibits on slavery will stand alongside those containing a trumpet played by Louis Armstrong and boxing gloves worn by Muhammad Ali. “It has to be said that the end note in most of these museums is that civil rights triumphs and America is wonderful,” says Paul Finkelman, a historian who focuses on slavery and the law. “We are a nation that has always readily embraced the good of the past and discarded the bad. This does not always lead to the most productive of dialogues on matters that deserve and require them.”

What makes slavery so difficult to think about, from the vantage point of history, is that it was both at odds with America’s founding values — freedom, liberty, democracy — and critical to how they flourished. The Declaration of Independence proclaiming that “all men are created equal” was drafted by men who were afforded the time to debate its language because the land that enriched many of them was tended to by slaves. The White House and the Capitol were built, in part, by slaves. The economy of early America, responsible for the nation’s swift rise and sustained power, would not have been possible without slavery. But the country’s longstanding culture of racism and racial tensions — from the lynchings of the Jim Crow-era South to the discriminatory housing policies of the North to the treatment of blacks by the police today — is deeply rooted in slavery as well. “Slavery gets understood as a kind of prehistory to freedom rather than what it really is: the foundation for a country where white supremacy was predicated upon African-American exploitation,” says Walter Johnson, a Harvard professor. “This is still, in many respects, the America of 2015.”

In 2001, Douglas Wilder, a former governor of Virginia and the first elected black governor in the nation, announced his intention to build a museum that would be the first to give slavery its proper due — not as a piece of Southern or African-American history but as essential to understanding American history in general. Christened the United States National Slavery Museum, it was to be built on 38 acres along the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Va. Wilder, the grandson of slaves, commissioned C. C. Pei, a son of I. M. Pei, to design the main building, which would be complemented by a full-scale replica of a slave ship. A number of prominent African-Americans, including Bill Cosby, pledged millions of dollars in support at black-tie fund-raisers. The ambition that surrounded the project’s inception, however, was soon eclipsed by years of pitfalls. By 2008, there were not enough donations to pay property taxes, let alone begin construction; in 2011, the nonprofit organization in charge of the project filed for bankruptcy protection. As it happens, it was during the same period Wilder’s project unraveled that John Cummings, unburdened by any bureaucracies, was well on his way to completing a slavery museum of his own.

Cummings and Seck at one of many memorials to slaves on the plantation.
Credit: Mark Peckmezian for The New York Times

For much of the last 13 years, Cummings has been joined on the Whitney’s grounds by a Sen­egal­ese scholar named Ibrahima Seck. A 54-year-old of imposing height, Seck first met Cummings in 2000, when Seck, who has made regular trips to the South since winning a Fulbright in 1995, attended a talk at Tulane with Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, the Rutgers professor. Cummings put up Seck at the International House, the hotel he owns in downtown New Orleans, and invited him to see the Whitney. Though at that point it was little more than a series of decrepit buildings entangled in feral vegetation, Seck was impressed that Cummings was thinking about it exclusively within the context of slavery. As someone from the region of Africa that provided more than 60 percent of Louisiana’s slaves, he was disturbed by the way other plantations romanticized the lives of the white owners, with scant mention of the enslaved blacks who harvested the land and built the grand homes fawned over by tourists. After walking the property with Seck for a few hours, Cummings invited him to return to New Orleans the next year to help crystallize the Whitney’s mission. Seck took him up on the offer, and for the next decade, Cummings flew Seck in from Africa each year during the scholar’s summer vacation.

Since 2012, Seck has lived full time in New Orleans to serve as the director of research for the Whitney. “As historians, we do the research and we write dissertations and we go to conferences, but very little of the knowledge gets out,” Seck said one afternoon in his French-inflected baritone while seated on the antique upholstered sofa in the parlor of the property’s Big House. “That’s why a place like this is so important. Not everyone is willing to read nowadays, but this is an open book.” He took a moment to glance around the lavish room, its hand-painted ceiling now meticulously restored. “Every day I think about how remarkable this is,” Seck said. “One hundred and fifty years ago, I would not be able to do what I’m doing here now. I would have been a slave.”

The alliance between the two men has been an auspicious one, with Seck’s patience and expertise serving as a counterbalance to the instinctual eccentricity of Cummings. While Seck researched the Whitney’s history, Cummings became something of a hoarder, buying anything he thought might one day be relevant to the project. When he learned about a dilapidated Baptist church in a neighboring parish that was founded by freed slaves in 1867, for example, he brought it across the Mississippi and had it restored on the grounds at a cost of $300,000. When recordings of interviews with former slaves that were made in the 1930s as part of the W.P.A.’s Federal Writers’ Project were acquired, Cummings hired a son-in-law who works as a sound engineer in Hollywood to clean them up; he plans to install a speaker system near the slave cabins, where the recordings will play on a loop, allowing visitors to hear the voices of former slaves while staring into the type of homes in which they once lived. After Seck unearthed in old court documents the names of 354 slaves who worked on the land before emancipation, Cummings bought an engraving machine so they could be etched in Italian granite in a memorial he christened the “Wall of Honor.”

“By 2005, it was clear to me that we were building a museum, but I’m not sure John was thinking about it in those terms,” Seck said. “If John feels something, he just goes ahead and does it. His stubbornness can be frustrating, but who in the world is willing to put so many millions of dollars into a project like this? If you find one, you have to support it.”

In his years of working on the Whitney, Seck has come to see the museum as both a memorializing of history and a slyly radical gesture: Cummings’s desire to shift the consciousness of others as his own has been altered, and in the process try to make amends of a kind that have been a source of debate since emancipation.

“If one word comes to mind to summarize what is in John’s head in doing this,” Seck said, “that word would be ‘reparations.’ Real reparations. He feels there is something to be done in this country to make changes.”

In 1835, a biracial child named Victor was born on the grounds of the Whitney, the son of a slave named Anna and Antoine Haydel, the brother of Marie Azelie Haydel, the slaveholder who ran the plantation at the time. One hundred and seventy-nine years later, a group of both the black and white descendants of the Haydels made their way to the Whitney’s opening in December. Many were meeting for the first time, and the sight of them embracing and marveling at the similarities in their appearances was as powerful as any memorial on the plantation. Among the black Haydels in attendance was one of Victor’s great-grandchildren, Sybil Haydel Morial, a well-known local activist who is the widow of Ernest Morial, the first black mayor of New Orleans, and the mother of Marc Morial, a subsequent mayor. “I was with John when he helped get the pool in Audubon Park opened to blacks,” she said in a later conversation. “Now, with the Whitney, he has given us a place where we can come and clear the air. If my slave great-grandfather had lived eight more years, I would have known him. Yet growing up, whenever my elders talked about slavery, they’d always get quiet when we kids were near.” Morial added that she hoped “some people around here may find their views changing” after visiting the Whitney, which seemed to be the case with some of her white relatives at the opening.

“I have to say, I was a little offended when I heard that slavery, of all the stories, was going to be the focus,” Glynne Couvillion, a white Haydel, said while standing inside the Baptist church, surrounded by dozens of ghostly sculptures of child slaves that Cummings commissioned to represent those interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project as they would have looked when enslaved. “But after today, I’m just in awe and proud to be connected to this place.”

For all the time and money Cummings has dedicated to the Whitney — and he is by no means finished, with plans to build an adjacent institute for the study of slavery — the museum was built on a shoestring budget compared with traditionally financed institutions. (The Holocaust Memorial Museum cost about $168 million.) Besides Seck, there were only two full-time staff members, an energetic young woman named Ashley Rogers, who serves as the director, and her deputy, Monique Johnson, a descendant of sharecroppers from the area, and it was evident that they were still finding their footing. Like the other plantations along River Road, the Whitney can be seen only through a guided tour — the cost is $22 — and a number of the docents struggled to find the proper tone. (“Time to depress you a little more,” one could be heard saying at various points.) Others struggled to answer questions about how, exactly, sugar cane was harvested by slaves, responding instead with generalities intended to incite emotion rather than educate: “It was the hardest, most grueling slave work imaginable.”

Yet this awkwardness might well serve as one of the Whitney’s strengths. Talking about slavery and race is awkward, and the museum stands a chance of becoming the rare place where this discomfort can be embraced, and where the dynamic among the mainly mixed-race tours can offer an ancillary form of education. A man who grew up in a “maroon community,” as bayou enclaves founded by runaway slaves are known, was so moved during his tour that he volunteered to work as a guide. A young black woman mentioned that she avoided tours at another nearby plantation because an ancestor was lynched on the grounds. Among the Whitney’s first visitors was a black man named Paul Brown, whose father was a field hand and who arrived dressed in a sharp blazer and a fedora on opening day “to shake the man’s hand who made this place possible.” During his tour, he offered personal anecdotes that served to buttress the white guide’s skittishness — bringing the past into the present, for instance, by pointing out how the images of slaves etched in one memorial were reminiscent of portraits of his ancestors. “I wish some of my white co-workers would come to this place,” he said afterward. “They’d understand me in ways they’ve failed for 30 years.”

Jonathan Holloway, a dean at Yale College and a professor of African-American studies, arrived for a tour in late January. He was in the area to give a talk at Louisiana State University about the ways the horrors of slavery are confronted and avoided in heritage tourism, and he found the Whitney to be a “genius step” in a long-overdue direction. “People have tried to do a museum like this for years, and I’m still stunned that this guy made it happen,” he said afterward. “There I was, coming down to talk about how in trying to tell the story, it’s often one step forward and two steps back, and boom, here’s the Whitney.” Holloway was particularly taken by the museum’s subversive approach. “Having been on a number of tours where the entire focus is on the Big House, the way they’ve turned the script inside out is a brilliant slipping of the skirt,” he said. “The mad genius of the whole thing is really resonant. Is it an art gallery? A plantation tour? A museum? It’s almost this astonishing piece of performance art, and as great art does, it makes you stop and wonder.”

Cummings, for his part, has been on the grounds every day since the Whitney opened, where he is in the habit of approaching visitors as they enter and telling them how they should feel afterward: “You’re not going to be the same person when you leave here” — a line that some found more grating than endearing. Inwardly, though, he was constantly making notes on what could be done to improve the experience.

“Look, we’re not perfect, and we’ve made a lot of mistakes, and we’ll make more,” he said one afternoon as the sun set across the sugar-cane fields that surround the plantation in much the form they did when slaves worked them 200 years ago. “We need all the help we can get — not financial, but we need brains.” With this in mind, he recently started reaching out to prominent African-American academics, hoping to create a board of directors — typically the first step for a museum, not one taken six weeks after opening day. “I’m firing before I’m aiming, O.K.?” he said. “I’m smart enough to know I don’t have the answers, but so far it looks like it’s the right thing.”

Cummings in the Cabin

Cummings and Seck in one of the cabins. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times.

Correction: February 26, 2015
An earlier version of this article misidentified the source of the phrase “all men are created equal.” It is from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.
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The Construction of Queer Memory: Media Coverage of Stonewall 25

Stonewall 25

Avila-Saavedra, Guillermo.  “The Construction of Queer Memory:  Media Coverage of Stonewall 25.”  Unpublished paper delivered at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference, San Francisco, August 2006.  Accessible here.

 

Subject:  An examination of the role of media in the shaping of the role of the Stonewall riots in the gay collective memory.

Main Points:  The author studies the media attention given to “Stonewall 25,” the 1994 celebration of the 25th anniversary of the NYC Stonewall riots.  It’s an interesting paper that deals with collective memory, collective identity, and heritage building.  So, he spends some time spelling out his theoretical approach/understanding of the concepts of memory and identity formation.  He then specifically focuses on the media’s role in shaping a specific Stonewall narrative.  He argues that “the media are complicit in shaping a memory of Stonewall that reflects the political goals of the American queer movement in the 1990s.”

This narrative portrayed by Stonewall 25 organizers and the media was one that portrayed the gay community as a diverse, but ultimately singular or united community.  In this sense, the “unity through diversity” discourse was forced back onto the 1969 riots themselves.  In none of the New York Times articles or Stonewall documentaries that appeared for the 25th anniversary was it mentioned that the Stonewall Inn was primarily a hangout for drag queens, transvestites, and gays and lesbians of color; in other words, it was a place for individuals who did not fit into the white, middle class, male gay culture that was dominant at the time.  But as Avila-Saavedra demonstrates, all of the media for the 1994 anniversary rewrote history and portrayed the Stonewall Riots as a coming together of diverse peoples, gays and lesbians of all walks of life united in their ‘gayness.’

Even the reporting of the Stonewall 25 events themselves were portrayed in a particular way.  Reporters focused on the celebration of diversity and unity of queer America, overlooking the fact that a large fissure had emerged during the planning of the parade and events.  The Stonewall Veterans Association, members of NY ACT UP, and other more radical activists protested that the radical and revolutionary origins of the gay liberation movement (and the Riots themselves) were being purposefully ignored, in place of a “Eurocentric,” assimilationist, middle class definition of “gay.”  One newspaper did report that the radical groups had been left out of Stonewall 25, and that “the spirit of the riots had been lost on a celebration of middle-class assimilation dream with its patriarchal and racial components intact” (7).  Few media outlets reported that these protesters decided to have their own parade, or when it was reported, the media focused instead on the fact that, at the end, the two parades merged together in a display of harmony.  Therefore, Avila-Saavedra claims that the media reports of Stonewall 25 not only commemorated the Stonewall riots, but helped turn them into a myth as well, a myth that was useful for the LGBT politics of the 1990s (coming out, lobbying for rights like marriage, etc.).

To back up such claims, Avila-Saavedra looks at several media outlets.  The New York Times, he shows, ran completely uncritical accounts of the Stonewall riots, displaying them in a Whiggish, progressive account of triumph, leaving out all of the people who did not fit into this coherent story.  The Village Voice, an alternative newsweekly published from NYC’s Greenwich Village, on the other hand, gave more attention to the radicals’ protests of the Stonewall 25 celebrations.  Moreover, the Village Voice published interviews with witnesses of the Stonewall riot that challenged the neat and tidy narrative being told by gay rights leaders.  Therefore, “the coverage in the Village Voice is less concerned with consensus.”  The Advocate focused not on the significance of Stonewall riots, the meaning of which was taken for granted, but instead focused on the forms of celebration by questioning whether parades and concerts can adequately commemorate such momentous events.  The Advocate article “fails to voice dissenting memories and interpretations of the riots and implicitly endorses their mythical significance” (8).  He then analyzes how Stonewall was portrayed on TV through the PBS special “Out Rage 69,” the official Stonewall 25 documentary “Stonewall 25: The Future is Ours,” and ends with a description of the Stonewall movie, produced by Nigel Finch.  All of these, Avila-Saavedra shows, present an uncritical reproduction of the Stonewall Myth that has been circulated and then commemorated by the celebrations of 1994.

My Comments:  This is a really fascinating paper, and it deals with a lot of the same themes that my own research will.  I like its focus on the media in forming collective memories.  In particular, the paper reveals the legitimizing nature of the American media. “This obsession with media attention is exemplary of the queer movement’s search for legitimization through one of the most ubiquitous institutions in American culture. It did not happen if it was not on TV.”  So, these types of events are a part of what David Lowenthal would call heritage formation – fashioning a past that is useful for the present.  But, like this paper shows, such endeavors – especially ones that focus on unity and singular narratives – often leave people out.

For more books on the history of gay rights, sexuality, and gender, see my full list of book reviews

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Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities

D'Emilio

D’Emilio, John.  Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: the Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.  

Subject: An examination of the early homophile movement of the 1940s, 50s, & 60s, and the subsequent emergence of a gay liberation movement in 1969 and the 1970s.

Main Points:  I know realize how fundamental this book has been to other scholars.  Many of the authors’ books I’ve read, including David Johnson’s, Margot Canaday’s, and Marc Stein’s, all build on D’Emilio’s work.  With that said, the story in Sexual Politics is now familiar to me, but it’s always nice to read the original work!

D’Emilio explains that World War II was a defining historical moment for the creation of a homosexual identity in the USA.  The mass mobilization of young people for the war effort (either as soldiers, laborers, or clerical workers for the expanding bureaucracy) took individuals far from the watchful eye of family, friends, and the church and placed them in new places (anonymity) that were often sex-segregated (like the military).  As a result, individuals who desired members of the same sex were able to realize that they weren’t alone and that there were others like themselves.  After the war itself was over, most of these same-sex desiring men and women (who were now thinking of themselves as a distinct group, defined by their same-sex interests) stayed in major ports of call like San Francisco and New York City, thus creating emerging gay sub-cultures.

As McCarthyism hunted out homosexuals in the government, the individuals who were forced out became politicized and joined (or formed) ‘homophile’ movements like the Mattachine Society (1951) or the Daughters of Bilitis (1955).  According to D’Emilio, this period from 1930-1950 was pivotal in the transformation of homosexual acts into definitive homosexuality – from a series of acts to an identity.

By the late 1960s, the sexual revolution and civil rights movement inspired some members of the homophile movement to radicalize their demands and goals.  The 1969 Stonewall Riots acted as a sparking point to ignite decades’ worth of movement and activism.  Out of this arose the gay liberation movement, which partnered (initially) with feminism and other groups calling for radical social revolution.

My Comments:  I think the greatest contribution of this work is that it historicizes Stonewall and shows that it was the culmination of decades of work that had been carried out by groups; it was not the start of the gay movement.  Later authors have built on D’Emilio’s work, providing more detail and nuance, but D’Emilio’s argument for the importance of the WWII era still holds true and this book was really groundbreaking in 1983.  Good stuff.

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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Movements & Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth

Photo courtesy of www.cbsnews.com

Photo courtesy of http://www.cbsnews.com

Armstrong, Elizabeth A. & Suzanna M. Crage.  “Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth” in American Sociological Review, Vol. 71, No. 5 (Oct., 2006):  724-751

Subject:  The authors seek to explain why the Stonewall riots secured such a dominant place in the collective memory of gay rights activism while other similar events prior to Stonewall did not.

Main Points:  The authors lay out a sociological approach to the study of creating and maintaining collective memories through public commemoration.  Because the authors are sociologists, this article reads more like a lab report than it does the typical narrative of historical articles.  But they do provide some helpful ways of thinking about how collective memory works.  The main point of this article is to help explain why the 1969 events at the Stonewall Inn acquired such significance while previous similar events did not.

Even though their argument is more nuanced, it can be summed up as follows:  Stonewall is remembered because it is marked by an international commemorative ritual: an annual gay pride parade.  Moreover, the commemoration of Stonewall riots was able to be successful because of a confluence of historically specific conditions:  It was the first commemorable event to occur at a time and place in which homosexuals had enough capacity to produce a commemorative vehicle like an annual parade event.  While other events may have been seen as worthy of being commemorated, activists did not have the exposure or capability to produce a lasting commemorative event (or “vehicle” as the authors call it).  In this sense, context (time and place) was the decisive factor.

In an introductory section, the authors explain the concepts they feel are necessary for successful collective memory formation:  1) Commemorabilty (something worth being commemorated); 2) Mnemonic capacity (skills, network, and resources needed to create commemorative vehicles such as annual parades); 3) Resonance (this includes a receptive audience as well as the institutionalization of the commemoration event so that it has duration over space and time).

The authors study five different events that had the potential to be the spark that ignited a national movement, but because they lacked some of the necessary factors listed above, were not commemorated, and as such, were eclipsed by the myth of the Stonewall Riots.  The first was the police raid on a gay New Year’s party in San Francisco, January 1965 (commemorable, but lacking mnemonic capacity).  Second was the San Francisco Compton’s Cafeteria Disturbance of August 1966 (mnemonic capacity, but lack of commemorability). Third:  Black Cat bar raid, LA in January 1967 (mnemonic capacity, but lack of commemorability).  Fourth was the Stonewall Riots in NYC, June 1969 (commemorable and activists had mnemonic capacity, able to create resonance).  Lastly, the Snake Pit bar raid in NYC in March 1970 (not commemorable because it was not “the first” – even though there was mnemonic capacity).

Why was Stonewall so commemorable?  Because those at the Stonewall Inn broke the “script” of normal police/homosexual interaction.  This time, Stonewall patrons fought back, spilling the incident onto the street where it gathered momentum and lasted for days.  A gay liberation mindset led activists to see the political possibilities of the developing situation (737).  The riots happened late in the 1960s, after homophile movements and, later, radical activists had pushed for the rights and visibility of homosexuals for years.  So, by 1969, radical gay liberation activists (especially in New York) had the necessary “capital” (exposure and connections) to turn this riot into a symbol for their cause.  “Without a radical political approach, activists would not have responded by escalating the conflict.  They would not have created or circulated grand narratives of its importance, nor would they have planned commemorative rituals” (744).  The authors show that while there were riots in other cities, many of the liberal (or, according to gay liberationists, ‘conservative’) activists who sought to fight for rights within the socio-political system did not see a violent riot as something worth commemorating, and did not want to be tied to the radicals of the New Left (733).  The authors argue that this also helps explain why San Francisco (a ‘headquarters’ for homophile movements) did not participate in gay pride/Stonewall commemoration for two years.

The authors contribute the success of the “Stonewall Myth” in LGBT history’s collective memory to the fact that, while Stonewall was not the first riot, Stonewall activists were the first to claim to be first (725).  Prior riots were intentionally glossed over while later riots weren’t as important because they weren’t first.  Already in July 1970 pamphlets passed out as a summary of the first commemoration of Stonewall, stated that the 1969 Stonewall Riots “marked the first time that large numbers of gay people stood up against repression” (743).  This ‘unique’ place in history granted the Stonewall riots with the most commemorability, and has thus built the “wildfire narrative” in which Stonewall/NYC was the “spark” that “ignited” the gay rights movement all across the nation.

Despite scholarship demonstrating that Stonewall was not the first instance of gay resistance, the myth has continued to hold its ground because simpler narratives (collective memories) are more useful and easier to transfer than messier, more complicated ones.

Armstrong & Crage’s article also demonstrates the complexity of myths – their formation and longevity.  It clearly shows us that myths are more than fairy-tales, and that they shouldn’t be simply dismissed for containing factual inaccuracies.  Myths, anecdotes, and histories combine to inform our collective memories of the past, and thus, myths are as important to understanding our views of the past as scholarship is.

 

For more books on LGBT history and the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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Behind the Mask of Respectability

An article about Henry Hay, one of the founders of the Mattachine Society  Image courtesy of: http://bentley.umich.edu/exhibits/queer/1950s.php

An article about Henry Hay, one of the founders of the Mattachine Society
Image courtesy of: http://bentley.umich.edu/exhibits/queer/1950s.php

Meeker, Martin.  “Behind the Mask of Respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and the Male Homophile Practice, 1950s and 1960s.”  Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol 10, No. 1 (Jan., 2011):  78-116. 

Subject: A reevaluation of the Mattachine Society’s place in the gay rights movement that specifically addresses just how “radical” or “conservative” the Society actually was.

Meeker’s main argument is that the history of the Mattachine Society has become so standardized in the last twenty years that scholars have stopped looking at primary documents for their judgments and instead have simply repeated what other scholars have said before them.  Meeker singles out John D’Emilio for forming our current understanding of the Society as initially radical, but eventually ousting its radical leaders and then taking on a passive role in which it urged homosexuals to adopt an image of respectability and assimilate into mainstream society.  By the end of the 1960s, the Society was almost useless and was left by the wayside by other, more radical and activist groups.

But Meeker urges us to take a closer look at the Mattachine Society by not only looking at the documents it prepared for a wider, mainly heterosexual and homophobic public.  Instead, we should look “behind the mask of respectability” and observe the inner workings of the Society.  This, Meeker argues, reveals a Society that was much more radical than they are given credit for today.

Meeker asserts that scholars have been right in pointing out that the original leadership of the Mattachine Society was vocally more radical than later leaders.  He calls this period between 1950-1953 the “Mattachine Foundation” (80).  Its successor, the Mattachine Society (1953-1967) was vocally more conservative.  Meeker’s essay “demonstrates that the Society was much more complex and far-thinking in its philosophy than earlier accounts suggest” (80).  In trying to demonstrate that the Society was more radical than previously thought he says that “a closer look reveals that rather than being a cowardly retreat, the Mattachine Society’s presentation of a respectable public face was a deliberate and ultimately successful strategy to deflect the antagonisms of its many detractors…This practice of dissimulation disarmed some of the antigay sentiment in American society while it also enabled the homophiles to defend and nurture the gay world” (81).

The body of the essay presents five major reevaluations about the organization of the Mattachine Foundation/Society.  First, he demonstrates that the ideology and practice of sexual politics of the Foundation was not so definitively radical when compared to the later Society.  “The Mattachine Foundation, accessible only through a post office box, its leaders surrounded in secrecy, and publicly represented on its letterhead by three married women, did not directly challenge the social requirement that homosexuals remain invisible.”  Moreover, Meeker asserts that while the organization sought publicity for its cause, its actual leaders chose to remain hidden.  Even the more “radical” Foundation urged its members to “try to observe the generally accepted social rules of dignity and propriety at all times…in conduct, attire, and speech” (90). This leads Meeker to the conclusion that, “the Foundation was not yet ready to confront unswervingly the demon of public invisibility” (89).

The second reevaluation Meeker demonstrates is that there is much more to the Mattachine Society than its public image.  Through its publications, it established social needs and help lines for homosexuals throughout the nation who felt alone or isolated. “In responding to the needs of troubled homosexuals, the Mattachine Society took many risks.”  Even in an era when “the homosexual youth” wasn’t believed to exist (the medical and psychiatric establishment believed one could still be cured), the Society “transgressed the greatest taboo of all: it quietly guided underage homosexuals out of their isolation into self-acceptance.” “At the same time that it was presented to the public as a group of staid professionals in suits and ties who remained within the law and the realm of good taste, the Society quietly expanded the boundaries of acceptable social behavior and political activism” (98-99).

A third reevaluation shows how the Society built a productive and innovative alliance with sexologists as well as other sex radicals in the 1950s and 1960s in order to change Americans’ attitudes towards homosexuals (instead of just sheepishly accepting whatever the sexologists told them about homosexuality).

The fourth reevaluation has to do with the Society’s relationship with the gay bar scene.  Meeker shows that the Society demanded that all homosexuals receive the same civil rights as everyone else.  This included the right to congregate, assemble, and socialize.  The Society was “vehemently opposed to any laws prohibiting homosexuals from enjoying the right o seek partners in public, yet it was publicly in favor of laws that punished sexual acts that occurred in public places” (106).  Meeker reveals the Society’s middle class propriety and its beliefs that no one – homo or heterosexual – should have sex in public places.

The final reevaluation traces the contributions made by the Society’s leadership even as the Society’s membership and budget dwindled as it went on into the 1960s.  Meeker argues that the Society died not because it had become inherently unimportant, but because it’s success in reaching out to more gay people meant they overspent on trying to provide more services to them.  Additionally, more specialized gay groups appeared on the scene in San Francisco, drawing membership away from the Society (112).

Meeker’s ultimate conclusion is that the Mattachine Society donned the mask of respectability not to bend to hetero-normative demands, but instead as a political maneuver that would allow them to operate under the radar. “In the 1950s, to agitate for fair and nonsensationalized representation, to ask that homosexuals be shown to the mainstream public as being just like everyone else, was not a conservative demand.  For the homophiles to insist that they were just like other Americans and were therefore deserving of the same rights was to demand what they did not yet possess:” equal rights (116). This made them more radical than they are given credit for.

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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Perspectives on the West German Historikerstreit

"The Past that Doesn't Want to Pass Away."

“The Past that Doesn’t Want to Pass Away.”

Evans, Richard J. “The New Nationalism and the Old History: Perspectives on the West German Historikerstreit,” in The Journal of Modern History. Vol. 59, No. 4 (Dec. 1987): 761:797.

In this article, Richard Evans weighs in on the debate among historians in West Germany over the path of modern German history. Evans begins by showing that this isn’t the first time that historians have quarreled over interpretations of the past, but he reveals that the Historikerstreit (“historians’ quarrel”) of the mid-to-late 1980s spilled over from academia into the public realm as well. The controversy was sparked by historian Ernst Nolte’s article “The Past That Will Not Pass Away” that appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemine Zeitung in June 1986. In his article, Nolte argued that it was time to quit viewing Germany’s history in absolute, black-and-white terms, and start painting in shades of grey. By this, Nolte specifically meant that people should not view the Holocaust as a unique atrocity in history, instead arguing that the Soviets had actually done this all before in their Gulags (even if they didn’t use the same method of gas chambers). Similarly, in an earlier book, Nolte argued that Auschwitz could be seen as an attempt to solve problems connected with industrialization (underemployment, racial tensions, etc.) by means of disposing of large numbers of people (767). Evans dismisses both of these arguments (Soviet Gulag as model for the Nazi Final Solution, and Auschwitz as outcome of the problems of industrialization) as a “generalization so extreme as to be virtually meaningless” (768).

Nolte is not the only target of Evans’ critique, though. He then turns to a recent book written by historian Andreas Hillgruber, in which Hillgruber argues that the German catastrophe (the complete and utter destruction of Germany in 1945) belongs alongside the Jewish catastrophe of the Holocaust. Both of these together constitute a “European catastrophe” and an example of a larger resettlement of European populations. “Thus the destruction of Prussian and the German Reich really does appear in Hillgruber’s book as comparable to the destruction of the European Jews” (777). Evans points out that comparing Germany’s military loss at the hands of the Allies with the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis is again a gross oversimplification that does not take motivation into account. Moreover, Evans and others (including Jürgen Habermas) even criticized Hillgruber’s language in his book; Hillgruber speaks of the destruction of Germany, “a violent process enforced against active opposition,” but only of the end of European Jewry, “a term that suggested an almost spontaneous process neither actively willed nor actively resisted” (774).

The last part of Evans’ article deals with why the Historikerstreit of the 1980s resounded so powerfully in German society. He reminds us that history is often not only about the past, but is about the present and future, as well. After German politics and the German historical profession took a conservative turn in the 1980s (CDU Helmut Kohl elected Chancellor in 1982), it’s no wonder that we see historians trying to write a more agreeable national history for Germany, Evans posits. If these conservative historians can downplay the unique nature of the Holocaust by comparing it to other atrocities performed by other nations, West Germany could potentially step out from Hitler’s long shadow (783). Evans then spends pages showing how the Kohl administration, through media campaigns and tours, sought to craft a national history that Germans could be proud of, one in which the role of the Third Reich was not forgotten, certainly, but downplayed (786-792).

Concluding, Evans states, “Unproductive though the Historikerstreit may be in terms of its contribution to historical knowledge, it does provide a stimulus toward reflection on the nature of German historical scholarship, the historian’s role in society, and Germany’s place in the world” (792). Nearly thirty decades after Evans is writing, today we can see the Historikerstreit as an important development in the West German Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

For more works on the history of modern Germany, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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Rethinking the Gay & Lesbian Movement

Marc Stein

Stein, Marc.  Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement.  New York: Routledge, 2012. 

 

Subject:  A compact synthesis of the American gay and lesbian movement from 1950 to the early 1990s.

Main Points:  This is a slim book, but one packed full of information.  In a great introduction, Stein highlights the development of gay and lesbian scholarship, as well as the newer fields of queer theory and the history of sexuality.  He points out that there have been many great monographs dealing with a vast variety of topics, but asserts that it has been decades since someone has produced a synthesis account of the gay and lesbian movement in all of the United States.  This book is meant to fill that gap.  Scholars of gay & lesbian studies/queer theory/history of sexuality won’t really learn much new information from the book, but he does succeed in bringing together the latest research into one place and presenting it in a clear, understandable way.  It’s an insightful and academically serious book while also avoiding scholarly jargon and prose so that it’s open to readers who are just stepping into the field.  In that respect, this is meant to be more than just a textbook that tells what happened.

In the intro, Stein introduces readers to the idea of the socially constructed nature of gender, biological sex, and sexuality, though he never uses the term ‘socially constructed.’  He explains that when talking about different periods, one has to use different labels, since it’s inaccurate to speak about “queer activists” in the 1920s or “LGBT individuals” in the 1940s, for example.  Instead, he speaks about the homophile movement of the 1940s-1960s.  He then shows the development of gay liberation and lesbian feminism from 1969-1973, and the subsequent gay and lesbian activism that extended to 1990.  After that, he explains, it’s more appropriate to speak of LGBT and queer activism.

Early on Stein makes it clear that this book is not meant to be a history of all people who have sex with people of the same sex.  Instead, it is meant to chronicle the important developments of those men and women who identified as gays and lesbians (he pays less attention to bi and trans individuals) and who were politically and social active during this time period.  “As defined in this book, the gay and lesbian movement has been a small but influential component of a much larger gay and lesbian world, which in turn has been a small but influential component of a much larger universe of people who engage in same-sex sex.  Most people who engage in same-sex sex do not think of themselves as gay or lesbian and most gay and lesbian people are not activists” (9).  He then defines a “movement” as having four components:  a movement is an (1) organized, (2) collective, and (3) sustained (4) effort to produce, prevent, or reverse social changes.  Based on this definition, the gay and lesbian movement did not start in American until the 1950s.

In the first chapter, he provides a very brief overview of same-sex sex in North America between 1500 and 1940.  The content is oversimplified, but his point (which he makes clearly) is that understandings of sexuality have changed over time.  He provides many examples of how the history of gender variance is intertwined with the history of sexual variance, but these are not necessarily the same histories.  The second chapter deals with homophile activism (1940-1969) and shows how thousands of people who engaged in same-sex sex did not think of themselves as gay or lesbian – and did not become political activists, but who pushed for homosexual rights nonetheless.  He reveals that, in the years between 1950-1953, these groups had leftist political leanings, while between 1953-1961, homosexual rights advocates were predominantly liberal.  The years between 1961 and 1969 saw a diversification and radicalization of homophile organizations.  The main contribution of this chapter is to historicize the Stonewall riots and show that while these homophile organizations remained small in comparison to later movements and did not achieve the mass mobilization that occurred with post-Stonewall activists, they did have achievements and laid the foundation for the movement’s future successes and failures (41).  In this respect, this chapter reminded me of The Lavender Scare (D. Johnson, 2004) and The Straight State (Canaday, 2009) in that it points out that “the politicization of people who engaged in same-sex sex occurred in part because of the unjust policies and practices they experienced and witnessed in the context and aftermath of the [second world] war” (42).

In the third chapter (1969-1973), our attention is turned away from groups like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis.  He shows that the Stonewall riots of 1969 (set in a larger socio-political context of revolution and reform) acted as a rallying point for men and women who came to identify themselves as gay and lesbians.  Radical gay liberation and radical lesbian feminism dominated the beginning of this period and called for a complete sexual revolution and overthrow of social norms.  By the end of this period, more liberal gay and lesbian reformist controlled the movement.  These reformers called for gay and lesbians to come out and fight for rights, but did not call for a complete overhaul of US society; they sought to reform the system through political lobbying.

Chapter four deals with the era of conservative backlash between 1973 and 1981.  While gay and lesbian reformers won a victory in 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a mental disorder, soon the New Right and new Christian Right began mobilizing to fight the “gay agenda.”  This forced the gay and lesbian activists to become more politicized, reforming their self-image into a minority group that deserved political protection (as opposed to the expression of a sexual way of being that potentially all could express).  While the gay liberationists had rebuked politics, the media, and the medical establishment, the gay liberals were forced to rely on these establishments for aid against the New Right.

The fifth chapter deals with the age of AIDS (1981-1990) and Stein meticulously charts out how the AIDS epidemic helped to mobilize more gay and lesbian individuals while also bolstering the Christian Right’s attacks against the immorality of homosexuality.  He shows how hundreds of new gay and AIDS organizations sprang up across the nation, and how the failure of the Republican-led government to efficiently react to the epidemic led to the radicalization of these new gay/AIDS groups (like ACT UP).

In the last chapter (beyond 1990), Stein looks at the emergence of the LGBT and queer movements.  He sees this development as coming out of the identity crisis that AIDS forced on the gay and lesbian communities.  AIDS activists had re-radicalized the movement, claiming that the gay and lesbian movement since the mid 1970s had grown complacent and assimilationist.  Many threw off the identities of “gay” and “lesbian” because they were seen as embodying the white, middle class bias of the movement.  Instead, the acronym LGBT was adopted, purposefully putting the movement’s diversity front-and-center.  Still other political and cultural activists chose to fight identity politics altogether and thought of themselves as ‘queer’ – or simply non-conformist.  Therefore, queer could include people who had opposite-sex sex (non conformist straight folks) while also rejecting those who had same-sex sex (gays and lesbians) who were part of the monogamous, marriage regime.  However, Stein questions whether queer is really a non-identity or if it has simply become a new identity in itself.

My Comments:  This is a dense book.  It’s full of useful information and would be perfect as a textbook for an intro-level class (grad or undergrad).  I think I’m going to have to purchase a copy so that I can keep some of the chronology straight;  he highlights essentially all of the important groups, actors, events, and legislation.

One of the book’s greatest strengths, besides all of the factual information, is that he takes great pains to show that not everyone who had/has same-sex sex identified as gay or lesbian, and thus did not feel the need to be a part of this movement.  Moreover, he shows that this was not a single, united movement; there was tons of strife, especially since people of color pointed out that they were being left out of both the lesbian and gay organizations.  Therefore, Stein does a great job of showing “the movement’s” successes and failures (as defined by their own self-professed goals).

As a last note, the book has a great, extensive list suggested further reading.  The list is 15 pages long and is broken down thematically, with everything from “general studies” to “Native Americans and Native Alaskans” to “studies of pre-Stonewall trans activism.”  This is a really great resource.

 

For more books on the gay rights movement and the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews. 

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Ordinary Men

Browning Ordinary Men

Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.

With this book, Christopher Browning has written a remarkable and chilling chapter of Holocaust history. In this microhistory, he seeks to understand how ordinary men from Hamburg, most of whom were not even ardent Nazi Party supporters, became mass murderers within months of being shipped to Poland. Browning uses interviews and archival material to recreate, in vivid and bloody detail, daily life for these five hundred men, and ends his book by trying to tease out the psychological reasons that many of these men became increasingly efficient killers.

Browning uses footage from about 250 interviews that were performed as interrogations during the 1960s. In these interrogations, Reserve Police Battalion 101 members provided detailed accounts of what happened during the two years following their arrival in German-occupied Poland in June 1942. Browning is forthright about his research methods, highlighting the troubles of relying on oral histories, especially ones that were performed twenty-five years after the events in question. But, Ordinary Men also reveals the importance of oral history interviews in reconstructing stories that were (often purposefully) not written down. Browning uses the interview tapes judiciously, checking them against the available archival material to help construct a well-written narrative.

Using this evidence, Browning is able to show how the five hundred men of RPB 101 ultimately shot to death at least 38,000 Jews, including women, children, and the elderly. In addition to those individuals who were round up and shot, the RPB 101 ended up sending over 45,000 Jews to the Treblinka death camp (142). Browning constantly reminds readers that these five hundred men were not members of the SS, who were preened from an early age to carry out the so-called Final Solution to the Jewish Problem. Instead, these men were middle-aged, working class men who were either too old to enlist in the Germany army, or who volunteered in the RPB to avoid being conscripted into the army. Moreover, Browning demonstrates that the majority of the men did not join the Nazi Party until it became essentially compulsory after the Nazis had already taken power (48). This partly backs up his argument that propaganda or indoctrination can’t fully explain why these men turned into mass murderers. The violent story begins in July 1942 when Major Wilhelm Trapp informed his men that they were to shoot all inhabitants of a neighboring village. Surprisingly, Trapp gave his men the option to walk away without any punishment; only ten to fifteen percent took Trapp’s offer. The rest began a killing spree that would last eighteen months and become central to the Nazis’ final solution.

Interesting is Browning’s discussion of why more of Trapp’s men did not walk away that July morning. Browning dismisses the “bureaucratization of violence” explanation, because these men were not desk murders located in a distant office (36). Additionally, evidence shows that men were not punished by superiors for refusing to murder unarmed civilians, so the “chain of command” argument is also inadequate (170). Instead, a combination of peer pressure (not wanting to appear weak, unpatriotic, or unmanly) and, to a lesser extent, Nazi ideological bombardment led about forty percent of RPB 101’s men to continue killing unarmed Jews until the bitter end (189), while the rest either left the battalion or disappeared when it came time to go on more “Jew hunts.” Browning concludes that brutalization was not the cause but the effect of these men’s behavior” as murder became routine (161). The book leaves us with a chilling question:  “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?” (189)

For more books on modern German history and the history of the Holocaust, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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