Category Archives: Social History

Vintage Side Eye!

Three women from Guadeloupe, Ellis Island circa 1900 (Photo via the NYPL)

Three women from Guadeloupe, Ellis Island circa 1900
(Photo via the NYPL)

When Affirmative Action Was White*

Ah, the comments section for online news stories. Should it be avoided at all costs? Or is it a useful way to get insight into the pulse of the people? If the news announcing Pres. Obama’s executive order to institute mild student loan reform is any indication it’s even worse than it looks. Yet, on other sites the commentary and reaction following Ta-Nehisi Coates tour de force on reparations has been, on the whole, one of the most engaging and thoughtful online discussions I’ve ever been a part of. If you haven’t read it yet, do it! I think it may prove to be the most important thing published this year.

slavery-reparations

Contempory politcal cartoon on reparations.

I’ll be making a bit of a Reconstruction-politics pilgrimage this fall, so there will likely be a lot of political cartoons from that era coming up later this year. However, the online discussions over the last month or so immediately made me think of this political cartoon (below) from just after the Civil War. It represents complete outrage over appropriating money to establish a Freedman’s Bureau to assist and educate newly emancipated slaves. Free (primary) education and job placement assistance for African-Americans provokes the image of lazy takers then as it does today.

Yet on the left hard-working white Americans toil honestly splitting rails. Could that have been a homestead? You know, free land granted by the US government to those wiling to cultivate and occupy it? The method by which countless pioneers settled the hinterlands and tamed the wild? Funny how no one says “government handouts won the West”.  From where I stand free land definitely counts as a government handout.

Going forward I think Coates’ piece might go down as when we started rethinking the framing device for the reparations discussion. Unlike the contemporary cartoon above it’s not about “paying for what your ancestors did”. Nor is it about getting blood money for something horrible that happened to one’s ancestors.  It’s not about personal racism or Ancestry.com forays. It’s about studying institutional programs over the years: from slavery to redlining in 1970s Chicago. It’s about a public admission and reckoning that much of the success and earned wealth of the United States of America came through successful federal and state “Big Government” programs: the Homestead Act, the GI Bill, the National Industrial Recovery Act. “Big Government” affirmative action programs when Affirmative Action was white.

FreedmansBureaucartoon

1866 anti-Freedmans’ Bureau political cartoon from Pennsylvania.

 

* thanks to author Ira Katznelson for the inspiration and phenomenal research.

 

The Other Pill

truvadaWith last week’s announcement from the CDC there has been a huge uptick in opinion pieces and mixed reactions relating to the prophylactic drug Truvada (or PrEP). In my own life it has become quite the robust conversation topic over social media, dinner parties and happy hour with friends. My broader feelings have been oddly ambiguous, so until now I’ve only commented on smaller, side-issues because I’ve felt so strangely conflicted and underwhelmed by what is surely scientific good news.

As much as I like to think of myself as someone who can just read the medical literature and data (10 years of working for Public Health researchers and epidemiologists has rubbed off on me a little, at least I hope!) I have to confess there are personal, illogical gut-reactions involved too. Either way, this year is establishing itself as the tipping point for the gay community to grapple with several, interlocked issues around this little blue pill.

Way back in distant history–when Bill Clinton was president and web-surfing was something squeezed in at the office–I worked as an administrative temp in downtown Seattle. There was an office manager named Maureen who in so many ways was the prototypical one of that era. Close to retirement and a bit of mother hen to us “kids” (twentysomethings slumming it until we found the proverbial “real job”), she told me a fascinating story that I really hadn’t revisited until lately. She said when she was attending University of Washington, sometime in the early 1960s, she put herself though this peculiar rigmarole to obtain the birth control pill. A Seattle native, she didn’t go to her family doctor who’d treated her since childhood, nor the student health clinic on UW campus. Rather, she made an appointment with yet another, new physician located in Seattle’s Rainier Valley. Not only that, she borrowed a ring from a girlfriend so that she could claim she was engaged at her visit. Fifty years later, Maureen–part of the final slice of the Silent Generation–was laughing with us at birth-control-pills-from-case-eduhow elaborate her performance was. Pretending to be married would have been a more assured way to obtain The Pill with less hassle, but somehow she STILL feared this might get back to her parents via some secret slut-shaming physicians’ network. So Maureen created a back-up plan in case she needed to do later damage control–she could quickly claim she and her boyfriend were secretly engaged (they weren’t and the relationship ended before graduation). Fear of judgement plus some good old-fashioned embarrassment were putting up extra burdens to wise medical prevention. Fear her (male) family doctor would tell her parents she was having sex. Shame that she was having sex and not *really* engaged, much less married. She wasn’t Catholic or against birth control, and probably neither was her family physician, but there was this sense of caution and fear that while The Pill might be a modern science godsend to the *right* sort of girl (married ones who want to responsibly space their children) we must not allow it to be an easy option for the *wrong* sort of girl (unmarried promiscuous ones).

Today Truvada seems to be having some of the same reactions. Some physicians and social commentators are quick to praise it for the *right* sort of gay (HIV discordant monogamous couples) but are very leery of widespread use for the *wrong* sort of gay (unmarried promiscuous ones). In an effective patient/doctor relationship all facts should be on the table, but this is always so much easier said than done. Who doesn’t round-down when even just self-reporting their alcohol consumption, for instance? Talking about Truvada requires being upfront about having condomless sex and taking whatever judgement or awkwardness comes along with that. Because this drug is so new, and is for a narrow niche of the market, it may take a little time–and patients switching physicians–for the awkward cloud to lift. Yet it’s not just the “talking about sex can be uncomfortable” factor that I think is keeping a lot of gay men from embracing this new prevention tool. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to sort out my own feelings. Had the CDC just approved and recommended a vaccine I have no doubt my feelings would have been overwhelmingly positive. Why was I conflicted about a little blue pill that–if taken daily–does the same? My brain has gone through as many justifications and half-truths and second-guesses as Maureen’s did circa 1962: It’s because it won’t protect against OTHER STI’s! Neither would a vaccine, neither does The Pill. It’s because this won’t be affordable for the masses of HIV positive men and women in sub-saharan Africa! Perhaps, but that’s a bigger issue about global health and wealth in general. Sorry, Straw Man. It’s because there could be side-effects we don’t know about yet! Again, that’s true with many drugs. Even if some small portion of people experience side-effects and need to halt usage, surely the greater good (fewer HIV infections, fewer AIDS-related deaths) outweighs that. Those reasons were thin attempts at justifying my lukewarm response to Truvada. I think the real reason the response was so muted in comparison to what a vaccine is something much less

Selfie @ UW's Hansee Hall. Today co-ed, in the 1930s-1970s it was the "girls' dormitory".
@ UW’s Hansee Hall. Today co-ed, during 1930s-1970s it was the “girls’ dormitory”.

admirable. I was underwhelmed by the idea of long-term adherence to a daily drug precisely because that is the reality of healthy, happy people who are HIV positive. A petulant little voice in the back of head was not pleased that the end result was the same: Daily pharmaceutical intake. Awkward conversations with physicians. Potential battles with insurance plans. “So what was the point of trying so hard to be good (caution & condoms) all these years if we are all ending up in the same boat anyway?“was the niggling voice. Somehow I felt because I played by the safer-rules 95% of the time (okay, 85% of the time) I should get some sort of cosmic credit over the cavalier barebacker. This mindset isn’t logical or pretty. But it was there and I’m over it now. Maureen probably went through irrational justifications of why she, an “almost engaged” college girl wasn’t in the same boat as a promiscuous, picking-up-men-in-bars type. People like to rank and categorize. They also like to engage in magical thinking about “what’s fair” on some imaginary cosmic scorecard (ask anyone who has experienced death or divorce about that one).

I still haven’t decided if PrEP is right for me, and I don’t want to shut down–or merely dismiss as alarmist prudes–those who have sincere concerns about what the future could look like for my community post-Truvada. However, I think it’s worth remembering that people take time to sort through their own phobias and embarrassments whenever the topic is sex. Maybe when I am near retirement, having a doughnut in the office, I’ll be able to have a chuckle with a bunch of 21 year olds about my silly justification-gymnastics around a medical breakthrough that ultimately changed the lives of countless people for the better.

F. W. de Klerk and respect for the office

Today’s Johannesburg Memorial for Nelson Mandela has been the culmination of the last few days of presidents, prime ministers, former world leaders and the inevitable celebrities providing commentary and reflections on the freedom fighter and former president of South Africa. One of the first commentators I heard from was former president of the nation (and Nobel Peace Prize winner–jointly with Mandela) F.W. de Klerk. His comments about that crucial period when the transition to democracy fell upon Mandela’s shoulders and its difficulties have been mostly what one would expect, but I was surprised to hear from him before Mandela’s immediate successor President Mbeki.

Obama and de Klerk greet Methodist Bishop Ivan Abrahams at Mandela's Memorial today.

Obama and de Klerk greet Methodist Bishop Ivan Abrahams at Mandela’s Memorial today.

However, one thing that really struck me is how virtually every news outlet: CNN, SABC, BBC made no hesitation to refer to him as “former president de Klerk”…occasionally even using the honorary title of “president” when asking him a question. This included interviews in the South African press. Think about it. Certain news outlets and commentators can barely stand to call Obama “President Obama” when he won with a clear, fair majority. Yet who is F. W. de Klerk? A leader duly elected in 1989 in a nation where less than 20% of the population–the white population plus a few others–were allowed the franchise. He didn’t even win that minority by a landslide, either, but with a healthy margin to be sure.  So, at best, around 12% of the adult population of South Africa had cast a ballot for de Klerk and his party. If ever there was a situation where the current media could justify ditching formalities it would be the case of an apartheid-era president of South Africa: a regime/era that has long been internationally discredited.

And yet, they haven’t. There have been the asides from commentators and presenters referring to him as “South Africa’s last white president” or even “South Africa’s last minority-rule president”, yet making a point to respectfully refer to the man as “president de Klerk” or “former president de Klerk”. I am not disagreeing with this, but rather whole-heartedly supporting it. It goes to show the wisdom of Mandela in not completely dismantling the old framework as has happened in other transitions.

Yet the last few years in the USA there have been sitting congressmen who see fit to shout out and interupt a State of the Union address mid-speech. The 2012 picture below of the president with Arizona governor Jan Brewer came to mind in sharp contrast with the respect I’ve seen shown de Klerk the last few days. Can anyone provide me a photo of another incident of an American governor doing the same with his/her president? No matter how much they disagree? I am not saying it hasn’t happened before, I just have yet to see a photograph of Johnson, Nixon or Reagan being lectured this openly or crassly. If one exists I’d be much obliged to see it. ObamaBrewer

The American system has hit a level of crass and open disrespect for the office I would argue we haven’t seen since the middle of the 19th century.  Some of it did begin under President Clinton, and amplified under Bush. President Bush did not win a nation-wide majority vote in 2000. However, he was the rightful president in accordance with system and, as a whole, other politicians and journalists were deferential to the office (if not all folks at the grassroots level).

Another example I would bring up is President Gerald Ford. Remember, upon his swearing-in on August 9th, 1974 not a single American had ever voted for him as president OR vice-president. He was selected by Nixon during his second term as a replacement for VP Spiro Agnew in the light of financial controversies. Yet Ford was given the respect and deference by other political figures, governors, and the media that any majority-elected president would have received. Obama decisively won in 2008 with a larger majority–and a larger % of the white vote–than Clinton did. No sane observer can claim first-term Clinton was treated as an illegitimate usurper in some quarters the same way Obama was in his.

If black South Africans who grew up under the yoke of Apartheid can give former president de Klerk the respect traditionally accorded the office I should think the likes of Justice Alito or Rep. Joe Wilson could handle doing the same in this country.

New Kid on the Block

It’s always seems like when I get hooked on a new passion the universe seems to send me all sorts of information about that topic. Beginning in 2012 a bit of a Teddy Roosevelt obsession began for me when I finally got around to reading the final volume in Edmund Morris’ trilogy on the 26th President. Out of that grew a year fixation on the Spanish-American War and Philippine Occupation. Side note: Did you know we can thank the Phillipe Occupation for introducing the USA to waterboarding and mass circumcision of non-Jewish male babies? Yeah, me either!

Coincidentally Seattle Asian Art Museum (which is situated in Seattle’s Volunteer Park, named for the volunteers who signed up for that “splendid little war”) hosted an excellent talk about the Philippines under the Spanish, then US. Next came the recent publication of Silencing Race: Disentangling Blackness, Colonialism, and National Identities in Puerto Rico by UW History professor Ileana M. Rodriguez-Silva. I can’t recommend this one enough. To cap off about a two-year phase, I figured it was high time for me to visit Puerto Rico.  I’ll be leaving tomorrow for my first ever visit to the island!

I found two really clever political cartoons that relate to my current obsession. Both use offensive imagery, but take opposite views on the same topic of newly found imperial possessions. In this biting critique below Uncle Sam attempts to school his new, scared pupils acquired from Spain on democracy and self-determination (see the chalkboard). The Native American hunched in the Victorian version of a “time-out area” and the African-American child stuck washing the windows makes sly commentary on the USA’s hypocrisy of espousing self-determination. Many newspapers at the time harangued against the idea of the United States aping Europe who in the late 19th century was at its height of carving up Africa, the Middle East, and Asia into exploitive colonies.ColonialPicUncleSam

This 1899 political cartoon below takes the opposite view about the US and its new overseas possessions like Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and others (Ladrones refers to the Mariana Islands, also won from Spain in the war). Here Uncle Sam demonstrates that the USA has finally made it to the A-League of world powers! The audience of Germany, France, and other powers look on as Uncle Sam shows off his new talent of Imperial Rule. To the Americans’ credit there was an active, public debate about the ethics of colonial possessions (see above) not really seen in European nations where colonial possessions were mostly viewed as de rigueur. A decade or so later, in fact, the main reason many Danes publicly opposed selling the Danish West Indies (today the US Virgin Islands) to the United States wasn’t because of their profitability to Denmark but because of the feeling that to be respected as a “real power” colonies were essential.

The snide caption “Why only the other day I thought the man unable to support himself!” is making note that a mere generation ago the US was torn apart in Civil War and threatening to splinter into pieces. Much was made in the press during the conflict with Spain about how sons of Union veterans and Confederate veterans were fighting shoulder-to-shoulder, united. This “splendid, little war” (Secretary of State John Hay coined that one) could serve as the final healing balm between North and South according to the pro-war newspapers.

SanJuan

How I learned to stop worrying and love the aPODment

My neighborhood of nearly a dozen years has recently been subject to much hand-wringing and much national attention for several cities allowing the development of high density housing. While I think the outward appearance of these building could benefit from a little creativity I have to say how amusing I find it that even one of the densest residential areas has trouble embracing an idea that is as American as apple pie.

I have long been a fan of 1930s American popular literature, many of which are out of favor today and probably would get the label of “middlebrow” at best. I heavily mined that same period and genre for my historical thesis of limited scope back in 2002-2004.  A central feature to these novels has always been the boarding house and the urban flat: dwellings for singles, salesmen, kept women, new immigrants, divorcees, spinsters and “confirmed bachelors“, and other colorful characters creating a new dynamic in a busy urban setting. One consequence of the post-war cult of the automobile and flight to the suburbs is, I believe, this concept faded from popular consciousness. When I think of early 20th century US I think of families living in New York apartments with high density, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, a harried mother getting Mrs So-and-So Upstairs to watch the baby an hour while she runs to the store for something special. This was the era of strict demarcation between urban density and rural life–the American suburban standard that I feel a lot of us still carry with us as the “norm” (yard, garage, basement) hadn’t taken hold.

Seattle aPODments, 2012

Seattle aPODments, 2012

The aPODments may end up being the sort of transient housing the NIMBY activists fear.  Also, I really wish the developers would stop trying to defend themselves by claiming they are some sort of community activists set on creating affordable housing. If you compare a shared-full-kitchen 240ish square foot aPODment with a 490ish square foot studio the price comes out to less bang for your buck, not more. However, I think they have a valuable place in the urban core and Capitol Hill of all places–home of beautiful vintage early 20th century apartments–needs to accept them and fold them in as part of the local landscape. Many of the motel-style apartment homes built for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair (that event that brought us the Space Needle) seemed just as jarringly out of place mingled among the 1920s terra cotta apartment buildings and brick Tudor-style flats. Yet fifty years later there is an Americana nostalgia to these constructions as well. Part of what appeals to me with city living is observing several layers of time on a 20 minute walk. So long as some historic building of note isn’t being demolished, I have no problem with aPODments filling in the gaps and empty lots in an already dense and vibrant neighborhood.

Fannie Hurst and Edna Ferber are two authors whose heyday would have been from about the First World War to the late 1930s. Their novels of immigrants, working-class girls, fallen women, and confirmed bachelors strongly feature the boarding house:

Fannie Hurst in the late 1950s, after her peak in popularity
Fannie Hurst in the late 1950s, after her peak in popularity

hallways smelling of foods from different cultures. Washing hanging on iron radiators. Milk delivery doors and ice boxes.  All of these things exist at my current home. Granted, the immigrant neighbors down the hall are more likely to be Somalian or Vietnamese than Polish Jews or Italians, and we all use our 1922 ice boxes as cool built-in liquor cabinets now. The scents in the hallway might also be cannabis (it’s legal in Washington State) but the spirit and connectedness is the same.

I live in a 500 square foot studio apartment built when Warren G. Harding was president. It’s by far the smallest place I’ve ever lived, as a child I assumed the older you get and the more you pay the bigger your place will be! I think a lot of people still assume this. This weekend I am feeding the cats of two of my neighbors: a young couple with a toddler upstairs and a 30-yr old single professional down the hall. This week on two separate occasions I had friends over who live less than three blocks away to enjoy dinner and wine–cooking for one is never as fun as cooking for others. Today I helped another neighbor to hang a picture (and learn from my mistake RE: laff paster and making effective use of the oak picture rail). This is not the life I envisioned I would have at 40 (and yes, I made the early 2000s required detour to Real Estate Bubbleland of condos and granite countertops). Yet, part of the reason I think I am embracing it and loving it is because it is precisely the life a part of me always imagined for myself during my teen years. I just could never reconcile it with modernity. Fannie Hurst died in February of 1968, Ferber died less than two months later.  While neither would recognize many aspects of my modern life I am tickled that the urban lifestyle they so often chronicled–albeit with a modern twist–is more alive in Seattle today than when they died.

Relaxing in my 1922 vintage studio apartment, 2013

Relaxing in my apartment, 2013

Soaps & Silents

Last week I was surprised by the amount of mainstream entertainment press given to the death of actress Jeanne Cooper. She played the role of Katherine Chancellor on the CBS daytime drama The Young & the Restless for nearly all of the show’s 40 year (and counting) run. The coverage mainly was referring to the 84-year-old as the show’s matriarch. For some reason that moniker didn’t sit well with me: Grande Dame? Yes. Longtime veteran? Sure. Reigning Diva? Okay. Something about “matriarch” doesn’t seem like the right fit for the feisty, sometimes spiteful and petty, on-again/off-again alcoholic Kay Chancellor.  Then last night while watching my other favorite–Mad Men–I realized why. Unlike other older soap veterans that have passed away over the last decade or so Jeanne Cooper/Kay Chancellor wasn’t part of the older, homemaker, matriarchal figures my cohort remember as the grandmothers when we were watching soaps in the 1980s. Jeanne Cooper/Kay Chancellor was Silent Generation through and through: that oft-ignored generation squeezed in between the bigger, louder Greatest Generation (WWII) and the Baby Boomers.

Let me back up a minute and talk about my relationship with The Young & the Restless, a daytime program roughly the same Kayage as me: a “new soap” of the 1970s created by Bill Bell (as opposed to the earlier generation of soaps–General Hospital, Guiding Light–those that span as far back as the era of the fifteen-minute episode or even radio).  Like most soap opera fans, closeted or not, my introduction to the genre was watching episodes with my grandmother one summer in the late 1980s. This is an often-discussed element to this medium: it is usually passed on to someone in childhood or adolescence.  I’ve yet to meet someone who decides to just take up a new daytime soap opera at age 35. If you ever watch one it’s going to be that very one you remember being introduced to by your mother, grandmother, or babysitter one summer years and years ago. Home from work sick? If you are going to tune into a soap it’ll be the one passed onto you like a family heirloom.

Anyway, my tastes soon diverged but then a couple years later as a teenager working a summer job with a daycare center I realized all the African-American women I worked with watched Y&R! Jumping back in, I was able to share in the workplace gossip revolving around Cricket, Victor, Paul, Drucilla, Jill and (of course) Kay Chancellor! Throughout university I could pop in now and then depending on my class schedule, there was always a slew of newbies but there would always be the core families to check up on which could get you hooked back in for a time. The Chancellor mansion set (pictured at left circa 1975) was as much a familiar mainstay as the characters of Genoa City. Fittingly, Jeanne Cooper’s last scene as Katherine has her climbing the stairway on that set that has more constancy than any home I’ve lived in.

Soaps can serve as a “safe place” during a breakdown or transitional period in life.  That was definitely the case for me during 2010 and so that (to date my latest) brief dip back into Y&R occurred simultaneously with a new, freakish devotion to Mad Men–arguably the best written thing on television joan-holloway_lright now. Mad Men is living proof that the best elements of daytime soap writing have all migrated to cable and primetime. It’s strange to think only 25 years ago it was extremely rare to have multiple, continuing plots during primetime. Summer re-runs could scramble the order of a drama with little confusion. Hill Street Blues began that primetime evolution to arching, overlapping storylines in the early 1980s. There is so much great analysis of Mad Men out there I have no need to replicate it, but fundamentally I think there is an appeal (to me) because the core characters and conflicts are nearly all Silent Generation focused. Boomers like to claim the Sixties, but only that slice at the end is truly theirs. I really think Matthew Weiner’s creation is an acute exploration of this often sidelined cohort born roughly 1928-1945. The newer, younger characters coming onto the canvas now in Season 6 are just starting to represent the generational shift that was taking place as the decade wound down. Joan Holloway, Betty Draper Francis and, of course, Don epitomize the Silent Generation’s adjustment to the “Boomer-60s” (which I would say is roughly 1967 to 1973) with varying degrees of success.

Back to Kay Chancellor. When she was brought onto the show in its first year she was the ultimate desperate housewife. Wealthy, although not as wealthy as the show later made its core families when (foolishly in my opinion) daytime started aping glossy 1980s primetime soaps like Dynasty and Knot’s Landing, she wanders around her mansion in kaftans and jewels, usually with a drink in her hand. Here’s an early scene when her husband leaves her for Jill (and yes her husband Philip is none other than Battlestar Gallactica’s Doc Cottle, don’t you love when obsessions overlap?). By the 1990s Chancellor Industries had become a big corporation, with Katherine as CEO. In 1984 Cooper wanted to have a face lift so the writers wove it into the plot for Katherine, utilizing footage of the actual surgery. Other soap matriarchs like As the World Turns’ Nancy Hughes or Days of Our Lives’ Alice Brady often were given substantial plotlines in their older years but they mainly stayed in the mold of the kind, mentoring grandmother. Mrs. C, in fact, never had an actual blood grandchild on the show until post 2000 when some very creative retroactive continuity (“retcon”) gave her a couple! One of them the African-American illegitimate son of the illegitimate son she had during an alcohol-induced blackout. Deliciously soapy? Sure. Kindly matriarch? Not so much. 

Joan's license renewal cattily posted on Sterling-Cooper's bulletin board to expose that, yes, unmarried Joan is in her 30s.

Joan’s license renewal cattily posted on Sterling-Cooper’s bulletin board to expose that, yes, unmarried Joan is in her 30s.