Posts Tagged With: american history

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.
Advertisements
Categories: History, Politics/Current Events | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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. 

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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. 

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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. 

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

A Desired Past

A Desired Past

Rupp, Leila J. A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

 

Subject:  A brief survey of same-sex relations in North America from the colonial period to the late twentieth century, with attention to the changing understandings of relations between individuals who loved or desired members of the same sex.

Main Points:  Rupp’s book is a survey, so it covers roughly four hundred years in about two hundred pages.  So, as with any book of this nature, there’s not as much depth as some readers may like.  But, with that said, Rupp’s argument and analysis are thorough.  Moreover, she does everyone a service (scholars and non-academics alike) by synthesizing a vast quantity of secondary literature on the topic and presenting it in a well-written, easily approachable book.

Rupp’s main point with this book is to demonstrate the socially constructed nature of sexuality and gender.  In other words, she has purposefully chosen “same-sex” as the subtitle of her book, as opposed to “gay” or even “homosexual.”  And, that’s because she warns against looking for “gay men and women” back in the past since gay and lesbian identities are modern creations.  But, she does realize that there is “certain common patterns in same-sex sexual desires and acts, romantic liaisons, and gender transgressions across time and place” (10).  She offers three categories to help conceptualize the complexity inherent in the history of “same-sex sexuality”: 1) those who “experience love or sexual desire, or both, for someone of the same sex; 2) “others engaged in same-sex sexual acts;” and 3) those who “crossed the lines of gender completely and sometimes partially” (196-97).   By exploring these themes, Rupp exposes readers to the social constructionist approach, even without using that term.

The story that Rupp tells is now familiar to scholars of sexuality, but was innovative when she published her book 15 years ago.  In the colonial era, sodomy and same-sex sexual acts were seen as sinful behavior and were policed via religious laws.  Acts such as sodomy were understood as especially dangerous because they were temptations that anyone could give in to.  The early decades of the US Republic saw a shift, after which romantic friendships were accepted for both men and women.  By the late nineteenth century, the medicalization of sex and sexuality began to dominate the discourse, stigmatizing same-sex sex and love as inversions and pathologies.  The twentieth century witnessed a whirlwind of change, especially for women.  Economic change allowed middle class women more independence through jobs and women-only institutions (like women’s colleges).  In the latter half of the twentieth century, after the gay and sexual liberation movements, we start to see the rise of identity politics.  While Rupp spends a lot of space dealing with the dominant powers of sexual politics (those defining what was appropriate or not), she also provides enough individual agency to those people who felt different for loving someone of the same sex.   She even dedicates several pages to discussing Native American and African sexualities in the early colonial era.

My Comments:  I really like the way that Rupp literally puts her own voice into the book.  Each chapter starts with an anecdote from her own life.  Many stories involve her aunt, an unmarried woman that spent most of her life living with a partner, another woman.  I think the point of these anecdotes is to show that while Rupp may feel a connection to her aunt as a fellow lesbian, her aunt would never identify herself as a lesbian.  This proves Rupp’s argument that gender and sexuality (or sexual identity) “is not a fixed essence.”  We, in the present cannot project our own understandings onto the past, even if it is just one generation ago.

This is a superb survey and would be great to use in an undergraduate intro to the history of sexuality.

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

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Intimate Matters

Intimate Matters

D’Emilio, John and Estelle B. Freedman.  Intimate Matters:  A History of Sexuality in America.  Third Edition.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Subject: An overview of the history of sexuality in North America from 1600 to the present.

Main Points: The authors have put together this well-written synthesis of the history of American sexuality from the colonial period to the present (two more chapters have been added in this third edition to bring the story up to the early twenty-first century).  The book is full of information, based on both original research and secondary literature, and as such, it can be used as a great textbook for a history of sexuality class.  Beyond providing excellent information, the authors set up an interpretive framework that primarily challenges the notion of a Whiggish trajectory of continual sexual liberation and progress.  In fact, freedom and repression actually play small roles in the authors’ story.

The main argument is that “over the last three and a half centuries, the meaning and place of sexuality in American life have changed: from a family-centered, reproductive sexual system in the colonial era; to a romantic, intimate, yet conflicted sexuality in the nineteenth-century marriage; to a commercialized sexuality in the modern period, when sexual relations were expected to provide personal identity and individual happiness, apart from reproduction” (x-xi).

Throughout the book, the authors are dealing with three main questions or topics.  First, they wish to show that notions of gender and sexuality are socially constructed, and thus historically specific. The changing nature of the economy, the family, and politics has shaped sexuality throughout American history. They also go further to show that sexual relations are a significant source of inequality between men and women.  They also focus on how sexual discourses also helped shape understandings of class and race.  Blacks were portrayed as sexually depraved beings, while the working class was understood as immoral and weak.

The second concern of the book is to show how systems of sexual regulations have changed.  “By sexual regulation, we mean the way a society channels sexuality into acceptable social institutions” (xv).  Here, they study authority: who has the power to determine what is normal or deviant (doctors, legislators, clergy)?  How are these mores enforced? In early America, “a unitary system of sexual regulation that involved family, church and state rested upon a consensus about the primacy of familial, reproductive sexuality” (xvi).  Deviants could be punished through the law or even publically humiliated until they repented.  By the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, the role of the state and church in sexual regulation diminished as commercialization and industrialization created more emphasis on individuals.  Women (as keepers of homes and morality) were meant to create self-regulating sexual beings.  Reproduction became less important as a legitimizing factor as sex became seen as a source of romance and intimacy for married couples.  The focus on individuals led to the greater acceptance of deviant forms of sexuality (like same-sex intimacy), though they always remained marginalized.  The media were saturated with “sexual images that promise free choice, but in fact, channel individuals toward particular visions of sexual happiness, often closely linked to the purchase of consumer products” (xvi).  So, by the 1880s, the beginning of a more liberal sexuality was starting to emerge, though sexuality became more and more commercialized.

But by the end of the nineteenth century, moral and purity reform groups attacked these new expressions of sexuality, passing anti-abortion, anti-pornography, and anti-prostitution legislation.  In other words, the state was expected to take a greater role in regulating sexuality. Between the 1920s and 1960s, the liberal model of sexuality became more dominant until the 1970s witnessed a radical challenge to the norm by the radical Left, calling for more sexual freedom and the end to hetero-normative marriage (more personal freedom, less state control).  Beginning in the 1980s, there was a conservative backlash that gained momentum as AIDS was portrayed as symptomatic of America’s moral breakdown.

The third concern of the book, sexual politics, is related to sexual regulation.  Rather than looking at the structures of power, the notion of sexual politics focuses more closely on the struggle among different groups over a given sexual order (i.e., the competition to reshape the dominant sexual meaning or impose standards of morality).  The authors identity three critical patterns that recur in the history of sexual politics in America:  1) “political movements that attempt to change sexual ideas  and practices seem to flourish when an older system is in disarray and a new one forming; 2) there is a consistent relationship to inequalities of gender and sexual politics.  “Even more than its relationship to class and race, sexual politics arise from efforts of male authorities to define female sexuality and of women either to resist such definitions or to counter through efforts to reshape sexual values and practices; 3) the politics of sexuality responds to both real and symbolic issues, meaning that while “real” things such as abortion, disease prevention, and marriage are affected by sexual politics, these debates are often symbolic for larger issues like impurity and disorder.

My Comments:  I’ll definitely be using this as a textbook when I end up teaching my own class.  I’m looking forward to being able to go back and read it more thoroughly, but the framework for the synthesis is convincing and enlightening.  They take care to (in the Intro and throughout) explain their arguments carefully without academic jargon. The third edition also ends with a really helpful historiographical essay that summarizes the state of the field.

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

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

History Lolz

 

 

IF THE PILGRIMS WERE BEING HONEST WITH THEMSELVES: 

X Back on the Boat

THE EVOLUTION OF TECHNOLOGY: 

X first sms

X mapquest1.0

 POTUS & BAMF

X I got 99 problems but a king aint one
X Monroe Doctrine

HISTORY IS ALWAYS MORE FUN WHEN YOU TAKE A LITTLE LIBERTY WITH THE DETAILS: 

X historical-accuracy

X American Revolution

Categories: History, Humor | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gay New York

Gay New York

 

Chauncey, George.  Gay New York:  Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940.  New York:  Basic Books, 1994.

 

Subject:  The existence of a myriad of complex homosexual identities and “gay spaces” that existed in New York City well before the gay liberation movement began in 1969.

Author’s Arguments: Chauncey challenges three central myths of gay life before the rise of the gay rights movements of the late 20th century: 1) the myth of isolation, that stated that before 1969, anti-gay hostility prevented the development of any extensive gay subculture(s) and forced men to lead solitary lives.  However, Chauncey shows that gay men had to be cautious, but like other marginalized peoples, they were able to construct spheres of relative cultural autonomy.  2) the myth of invisibility, which stated that even if a gay world existed, it was below the radar and hard for straight society (and even other gay men) to find it.  However, Chauncey does an excellent job of showing that gay men were highly visible figures in early twentieth century New York, and that before the world wars gay men mingled in the same places as everyone else.  3) the myth of internalization, which held that gay men uncritically internalized the dominant culture’s view of them as sick, perverted, and immoral, and that their self-hatred led them to accept the policing of their lives rather than resist it.  BUT, many gay men celebrated their difference from the norm, and organized to resist anti-gay policing.

Another main argument of the book is that the idiom of “the closet” that the gay community came out of in the 1970s is somewhat faulty, in that the “closet” is not as old as we once thought.  In fact, Chauncey argues that the closet (a system of repression in which gay men had to hide) wasn’t created by the dominant society until the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.  The words left behind by early 20th century homosexuals show that while some of them adopted a total identity based on their preference for men, other (like the self-identifying “queers”) went back and forth between double lives (thus showing that they did not feel constricted by any “closet”).  In the prewar years, “coming out” was more of a “coming into” a homosexual society or gay world; in other words, it was more of an initiation into the gay world (and importantly:  it was originally something that gay men helped other gay men do, whereas now “coming out (of the closet)” is now something that a gay person primarily does to straight family members). 

So, this strikingly recent construction of the closet goes against any teleological or “Whig history” of homosexual emancipation (at least in NYC).  It shows that from 1890-1930, a homosexual/gay world thrived until it was driven underground (where it continued to flourish, albeit in a less-public manner).

Chauncey also charts the words that homosexuals used to define themselves, while also looking at the words that “normal” society used to describe homosexuals.  Pre-war homosexual identities were dependent on gender roles of masculinity/femininity.  “Fairies” were flamboyant and feminine homosexual men, while “queers” were often (middle class?) men who engaged in homosexual acts, but did not identify with the flamboyant fairies, and who could often pass as “normal” men.  “Trade” referred to men who had sex with feminine men, but who were otherwise “straight.”  They were not homosexual in the sense that they did not necessarily seek out sex with other men, yet when solicited by a fairy for instance, they did not turn down the sex.  At the same time, the “normalcy” of trade men was not questioned as long as their masculinity wasn’t endangered and they maintained a dominant role in the sexual encounter.

However, by the middle of the 20th century, the word “gay” had begun to gain dominance.  Whereas the term had been used early on as a code word that other homosexual men could use to communicate (to ask for “a place to have a gay old time” for instance, was code asking for a homosexual bar), it eventually became a word that more broadly referred to all homosexual men together.  “Gay” tended to group all of the previous types (fairies, queers, trade) together, to deemphasize their differences by emphasizing the similarity in character they had presumably demonstrated by their choice of male sexual partners. 

The result was the construction of a binary:  gay vs. straight, homosexual vs. heterosexual.  Trade virtually disappeared as a sexual identity within the gay world as men began to regard ANYONE who participated in a homosexual encounter as “gay” and conversely, to insist that men could be defined as “straight” only on the basis of a total absence of homosexual interest and behavior.  Now, more masculine men could identity openly as gay (because they enjoyed homosexual acts) but no longer had to “give up” their masculinity.  By 1960s, “trade” had disappeared because both gay and straight men had redefined the roles so that there was no middle ground.  One was either gay or straight.  (However, Chauncey does acknowledge that the new “gay” identity did not simply replace the others; for a time, all identities coexisted, until the new “gay” identity eventually became dominant.)This book challenges the assumption, for instance, that the 19th century medical discourse was solely responsible for constructing the “homosexual” as a personality type, and that the appearance of “the homosexual” in medical discourse should be taken as indicative of or synonymous with the homosexual’s appearance in the culture as a whole. The book argues that “the invert” and “the normal man” were not inventions of the elite, but were popular discursive categories before they became elite discursive categories.

My Comments:   I really enjoyed Gay New York, and I want to reread it again. Chauncey showed beautifully how this subculture was continuously defining and redefining itself.  I like that he showed how “gay spaces” weren’t just separated or “quarantined” from the rest of society, but instead were spread among “normal” life.  I also respect how he used even “traditional” sources such as police records, and simply read them in a new light to show how the new regulations of the 1930s and later did not eradicate the gay world, because the gay subculture provided men with resources that they needed to get around the new regulations.  This was also the first work that I’ve read that dealt directly with the words that homosexuals used to refer to themselves and a shift in terminology reveals a fundamental shift in they way gays thought about themselves, and in the way the straight community thought about the gay community.

His tracing of the evolution of the homosexual/heterosexual binary makes more sense to me (than the “power-based, medicalization and classification model”), and maybe that’s because Chauncey returns a powerful sense of agency to gays in (helping to) form their own identity

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

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Coming Out Under Fire

Berube - Coming out under Fire

 

Berube, Allan.  Coming Out Under Fire:  The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II.  New York: Free Press, 1990.

Subject:  An examination of World War II’s repercussions on the development of a gay identity and subculture in the United States.

Main Arguments:  Berube focuses primarily on military life for gay men and women during the Second World War, and spends less time on the post-war period.  One may expect that a history of gays in the military would be one dominated by oppression, but Berube shows that, while there was plenty of oppression to go around, this period was actually a vital stage in the development of a gay identity and subculture.  The history Berube tells is one in which the gay women and men acknowledge institutional oppression, but then go on to navigate the system and carve out a niche for themselves.

As other scholars have shown (John D’Emilio in particular), the WWII era was one of mass movement; individuals were shipped off to distant places and forced to interact with people who were different from themselves.  But, this movement also allowed for people who may have felt different to meet others who were also “different.”  More specifically, Berube argues that the mass mobilization of WWII allowed gay men and women (who had either volunteered or who were drafted into the service) to achieve a level of anonymity by leaving the watchful eye of family and friends.  This granted them the courage to act on feelings that usually had to be suppressed, allowing them to experiment with their desires.  Moreover, it’s not insignificant that the armed forces were single-sex communities; worlds were created in which men only interacted with men, and women only with women.

Before the WWII period, individual homosexual acts were persecuted by the military.  But, Berube argues that reformers and humanitarian psychiatrists were successful in WWII in convincing the military leaders that homosexuality was not a criminal act, but instead a medical disorder.  Psychiatrists pushed for this reform because they felt it would lead to more humane punishment, or an honorable discharge from the military instead of prison time or a dishonorable discharge.  Instead, what happened was social isolation, dishonorable discharges, times in hospital wings, or even confinement to “Queer Stockades,” where they were forced to eat together under armed guard, sleep with the lights on, and other such conditions.  But as mentioned before, this is not a history solely of oppression.

Berube shows that the need for manpower during the war had drastic effects for the military’s treatment of gays and lesbians.  First and foremost, the military simply needed soldiers to fight, so leaders were more willing to overlook even cases of blatant homosexuality.  In fact, Berube shows that sometimes intimate bonds between the soldiers were seen as helpful to the war effort by forging camaraderie among the men.

But the military’s views towards gays also created a set of unintended consequences.  First, because homosexuality was now officially defined as a personality disorder (and therefore potentially affecting a specific set of the population), the military needed a regimented, formal, anti-homosexual policy.  But this then helped to create homosexuals as a specific group, helping to form “gay” as a set identity, rather than just a set of acts.  Being labeled as member of a group also allowed gay men and women to think of themselves as belonging to a community whose underlying connection was their gayness.  Gay men in particular began using “camp” and lingo to develop a semi-secret identity within the military culture.  Berube depicts that “drag shows” in the military allowed gay men to openly expand their secret subculture.  In a world of only men, female characters had to be played by men as well, and Berube says that, “The joke was on the unaware members of the audience – a subplot about homosexuality was being created right before their eyes and they didn’t even know it” (72).

In the final chapters, Berube shows that changes of discourse during WWII, along with a growing awareness of gay people as a group, set the stage for the heightened scrutiny of homosexuality after the war.  But these changes were not all liberating or repressive, but simply changes in policy, language, and social spaces, ultimately leading to the “redefinition of homosexuality as a political issue” (253).  Different groups then used this new discourse for either gay witch-hunts or the starts of gay activism.

Gay women soldiers actually get ample attention in his book, though it is less than gay men receive.  Berube explains that this stems from differential treatment of male and female homosexuality.  For one thing, the stereotype of the masculine dyke often lent itself to the belief that gay women would make good soldiers (unlike the stereotypical effeminate male homosexual).  Moreover, the military leadership wanted to keep any discoveries of gay women in its rank as secret as possible, because they were simultaneously campaigning that if women joined the military, they would “remain” womanly, feminine, and thus able to return to being good wives and mothers when the war was over.  Berube also notes that female sexuality was also easier to mask because of the greater social acceptance of women expressing physical affection to each other.

My comments: First of all, Berube does an excellent job of showing how World War II was a watershed moment in gay history, essentially acting as a “coming out” moment for countless individuals across America.  But more specifically, I like that he shows the power of discourse, the power of words, even to create unintended consequences.  While the military sought to repress homosexuality, it first had to define it (and thus create an character type that hadn’t existed as such before).  This discourse of “homosexuals” allowed men and women to identify themselves as a homosexual, a specific type of person.  Also, in a slightly different context, the psychiatric evaluation of homosexuals that resulted from the shift in identification led to conclusions that 1) not all gay men were effeminate, and that most of them were actually good soldiers; 2) most men identifying as gay liked their own behavior and didn’t want to be “cured”.  And lastly, I like that Berube didn’t get stuck in using binary definitions of “gay/straight,” but instead showed that individuals created a myriad of identities in between the two.

This is one of the best history books that I’ve ever read! I simply love it.

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

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Blog at WordPress.com.