Archive for February, 2008

February 20th 2008
Family funeral blogging

Posted under Uncategorized


Light posting for the next week–Historiann is off to her ancestral homeland for a family funeral.  (Not tragic:  Grampa was 97, and was very ready to go.)  In the meantime, keep your families all happy and healthy, and I’ll see you soon. 

If you’re of a morbid turn of mind these days, here’s some quality late eighteenth-century gravestone blogging and photography from the St. James Reformed Cemetery in Lovettsville, Virginia, courtesy of By Neddie Jingo!


February 19th 2008
Black Herstory Month

Posted under American history & captivity & women's history

margaret-garner-marker.jpgDiary of an Anxious Black Woman is doing a great Black Herstory Month series–be sure to check it out.  She’s doing a spectacular job of telling stories of women far beyond the usual suspects, including nineteenth- and twentieth-century women in the arts like Katherine Dunham, Edmonia Lewis, and Octavia Butler.  In an post on Margaret Garner, she brings us word of an epoynymous opera with a libretto by Toni Morrison, whose Beloved was a fictionalized version of Garner’s life.  (The photo on the right is of the historical marker that stands in a central square in Covington, Kentucky to commemorate Garner’s escape and tragic choices.)  Anxious Black Woman believes that Margaret Garner the opera is far superior to the film version of Beloved:  “Unlike the film adaptation, which reduced the pain and the trauma of the story to histrionics and horror-film grotesqueries, the opera magnifies the despair and the sadness that her story is supposed to represent.”  Also, see Clio Bluestocking Tales for some brilliant posts about the woman known as Harriet Bailey Adams or Ruth Cox Adams, whom Frederick Douglass called his “sister.”  (Clio B. is contemplating a biography of Douglass through the lives of the women he was closest to.)    

I’ve been doing some African American history in the service of my current project, a book on the life and times of Esther Wheelwright (1696-1780), a child from Maine who was taken captive by the Abenaki in 1704 during Queen Anne’s War.  She lived with (and was almost certainly adopted by) the Abenaki until the age of 12, when she went to Quebec and entered the Ursuline convent there, living the rest of her long life as a nun.  Esther Wheelwright came from a slaveowning family, which it turns out was not as unusual as I would have expected in Wells, Maine at the turn of the eighteenth century.  Her paternal grandfather, father, and mother all wrote wills (in 1700, 1739, and 1750, respectively) that deeded enslaved people to other family members upon their deaths, so it’s very likely that Esther grew up in a household that included enslaved Africans or African Americans.

Imagine the isolation of the lives of enslaved people living on the frontiers of New England, living and working in isolation from a black community of any size.  Northern slavery in colonial Anglo-America may have offered relatively better food, clothing, and working conditions than slavery in the Caribbean or the southern mainland colonies, but it was just as arbitrary and cruel.  The only evidence I’ve found that speaks directly to the experiences of enslaved African American women in southern Maine around 1700 so far is the case of women identified only as Rachel, who was beaten regularly and then finally murdered by her master, Nathaniel Keene, in 1694.  Keene (or Caine) was initially accused in court of “Murdering a Negro Woman,” but in the end the jury found him guilty only of “cruelty to his Negro woman by Cruell Beating and hard usage.”  The penalty exacted of him was a five-pound fine-which was suspended-and  five pounds, ten shillings in court costs.  In order to put this punishment into perspective, people convicted of fornication or of bearing a child out of wedlock in 1694 and 1695 were regularly fined between twenty shillings and five pounds, substantial but not crippling sums.  This is how Rachel’s hard life and wretched death were commemorated by her community.

Sorry to end on such a down note–it’s times like this that I’m envious of modern historians.  They get to tell stories of liberation and triumph over oppression.  Me, I’m left with stories that, more often than not, don’t have endings that satisfy the reader’s need for retribution against evildoers and redress for the victims. 


February 18th 2008
What is the sound of N=1 hand clapping?

Posted under American history

nast-donkey.jpgFrank Rich’s column in yesterday’s New York Times was rich–really Rich.  Aside from the obligatory and gratuitous Hillary Clinton smears, natch, it’s a model of a self-interested historical myopia that I’m afraid too many Democrats will talk themselves into on the way to Election Day.  Rich’s premise is that this year’s election dynamic is The Grand Old White Party Confronts Obama.  Now, no one can dispute Rich’s tag of the GOP as the GOWP–not anyone looking at the lily-white, all-guy lineup that suited up for each presidential debate in 2007 and 2008.  Not African American voters who are the smartest voters in this country in recognizing that a vote for the GOWP candidate is not a vote in their self-interest.  (If only white women would brain up and vote in their self-interest too!  Maybe this year?)

But, if the GOWP is really so old-fashioned in their white manitood and “all the fretful debate about whether voters would turn out for a candidate who is a black or a woman seems a century ago,” as Rich argues, then the Democratic Party’s record will be rock-solid in its consistent grooming and support for African American candidates, right?  Let’s take a stroll over to American history to look at the Democratic party’s record of African American candidates in the top elective jobs in Washington, the Senate and the presidency, and the top job in state government, the Governor’s office.  Since the GOWP’s Black Friend, Congressman J.C. Watts (R-OK), declined to run for re-election in 2002 after serving four terms, Rich is right to point out that “there are no black Republicans in the House or Senate to stand with the party’s nominee in 2008.”  But the Democratic Party’s numbers are similarly pathetic.  Currently, there is one black Senator–you know and love him!–it’s Barack Obama (D-IL), who represents the same state that also sent the first black woman Senator to Washington in 1992, Carol Mosley Braun.  Perhaps because she didn’t have the foresight to change her name to Carol Mosley Daley, Braun was’t re-elected.  Braun and Obama were respectively only the fourth and fifth African American senators in U.S. history.  More interestingly, they are also the only African American Democrats ever elected to the Senate–the two men elected during Reconstruction were Republicans, and more recently Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, who served from 1967-79, was a Republican too.  Ooops! 

OK, let’s go to the Governors:  Total number of sitting black Republican governors:  zero.  Total number of sitting black Democratic governors:  one, Deval Patrick (D-MA).  Total number of African American elected governors in U.S. history:  two, Patrick and one-term Governor L. Douglas Wilder (D-VA).  (Let’s note here too that the African American politicians listed here have a preternaturally high rate of serving one-term.  Brooke of Massachusetts is the longest serving black Senator in U.S. history, winning re-election once and completing two full terms.)  Now, on to the presidential campaigns:  Total number of black Republicans to run for president:  one–Alan Keyes (1996 and 2000).  Total number of black Democrats to run for president:  five–Shirley Chisholm (1972), Jesse Jackson (1984 and 1988), Carol Mosley Braun (2004), Al Sharpton (2004) and Obama (2008).  Total number of black Democrats to win their party’s nomination (so far):  Zero.

The Democratic Party has quite a history of racial violence and exclusion to reckon with, from Indian Removal, to the defense of chattel slavery, to post-Reconstruction violence and the Ku Klux Klan, to Jim Crow and the Dixiecrat Party.  (Please note:  it was the Dixiecrats, not the Dixiepublicans!)  Democrats got right with God and history in 1964, but their record so far in promoting African Americans to leadership only looks good when compared to the GOWP.  If Democrats get a chance to pull the lever this fall for Obama, they shouldn’t break their arms trying to pat themselves on the back for being the party of N=1 instead of N=0.  One man’s political fortunes aren’t transformational–only rank-and-file organizing and support for candidates of all ethnic backgrounds will truly change the face of the Democratic party.

But, just in case, let’s all say this prayer in the voting booth in November:  close your eyes, click your heels three times, and repeat after me:  Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Lani Guenier! 


February 16th 2008
Who do you love?

Posted under fluff

It’s a little late for Valentine’s Day, but here’s kind of an interesting exercise in testing your emotional preferences for the top four presidential candidates.  Via Pandagon, here’s the Implicit Association Test.  It asks you at the start of the test what your candidate preferences are, and then puts you through a rapid-response drill involving photographs of the candidates and associative words.

Leaving aside questions about a methodology that seems to correlate hand-eye coordination with emotional preferences somehow, and an observation that some of the photos of Obama and Clinton in the test were rather unflattering, Historiann is more than a little disturbed to report her results:  While Hillary Clinton came out as my top candidate emotionally (natch), Huckabee and McCain were dead even with each other not very far behind her.  (I kind of get that with McCain, whose photos as a young Navy officer strongly resemble a close member of my family when he was a young man, but Huck?)  Obama came out at the bottom, much to my surprise–perhaps I’ve been overly influenced by some of his supporters on the internets, who seem to be hatin’ on Hillary more than they love their man.  All of the candidates in my preference profile were fairly closely grouped together, within 2-3 points of each other, so perhaps these relative rankings aren’t important.  It might be fun to revisit this test later in the campaign.

How do your intellectual preferences square with your emotions?  (The test is pretty painless and takes only 10 minutes or less, depending on how speedy you are.)  Any big surprises for you?


February 15th 2008
Heartbreaking. Now where is our outrage?

Posted under American history & Gender & unhappy endings

Well, another campus has been visited with death and destructionSix Five innocent students dead (so far) and fifteen sixteen wounded, including the graduate student instructor.  When I wrote the post Where can I get a high-fashion kevlar vest? last Friday morning, I was a bit prankish in tone at the end.  I should probably clarify my position:  I don’t actually think faculty and students should arm themselves for combat when going to class.  I’m outraged at the crazy right-wing gun nuts whose response to the Virginia Tech murders was “well, those wimpy students should have armed themselves so that they could take the shooter down.”  I think there’s nothing more destructive of creating a mutually respectful culture of learning than these murders and the chorus of gun nuts who believe that more guns in classrooms is the answer.  My suggestion that people should “start packing heat, if that’s your style,” was more an expression of frustration at our political culture’s inability to ensure our safety in schools and universities than a clarion call for faculty to “lock’n’load.”

One of my hooks for that post was that I saw little if any discussion about gender in the mainstream media analyses of these mass shootings–which is strange, because they are overwhelmingly committed by boys and men, and you know if they were mostly committed by women, that would be considered a very notable fact.  In the comments to that post, Nick corrected me gently and pointed out that sociologist Michael Kimmel has written about masculinity and gender issues in these mass shootings.  His article, “Adolescent Masculinity, Homophobia, and Violence (2003) analyzes junior high and high-school shootings from 1982-2001, and makes a persuasive case that gender is clearly an issue in the 1990s school shootings, as he found that “nearly all had stories of being constantly bullied, beaten up, and, most significantly for this analysis, ‘gay-baited,’” (p. 1445), not because they were gay, but because they didn’t conform to a particular performance of masculinity.  I’m not sure that his analysis is entirely useful for understanding the more recent mass-shootings of the 2000s, which appear to involve older perpetrators (men in their late teens and early 20s, instead of school-age boys) engaged in more random attacks (in Salt Lake City, Virginia TechOmaha, Denver/Colorado Springs, and now Northern Illinois University.  Mind you–that’s just the random mass shootings that have occured in the last year, from February 12, 2007 to February 14, 2008!)  Still, it’s a solid and accessible academic article that attempts to grapple with the overwhelming fact that troubled boys and men are much more prone to pick up guns than girls and women are.

What the hell kind of country is this?  Is there really no way to 1) divest ourselves of gun worship and home arsenals, 2) strictly limit firearms access to stable, mentally healthy people, and 3) screen for and identify potentially troubled students who might be prone to violence?  (Knitting Clio asks, relative to point #3, “Why do the responses to such shootings never include increasing funding for mental health services to students?”  She is right–mental health services should not be restricted just to identifying and eliminating potentially violent students.  They should get treatment, too.)  Why isn’t this a bigger priority in our politics?  Is the big, bad gun lobby really more terrifying than seeing another episode of mass carnage in the newspaper?  Really?  Think of the hundreds–hundreds–of parents who are grieving and bereft now because their children went to school or college, like their parents hoped they would, and went to class like they were supposed to.

If you’re interested, here is some information on women’s Kevlar vests.  They range in price from $380-$549, so it’s not a trivial investment, but I’m not ruling it out.  I’m starting to think that faculty should organize to demand them in their benefits packages–a one-time purchase that’s surely less expensive than running a search to replace a dead colleague. 


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