Category Archives: Social History

John R. Neill

Since there is a rather important even happening today that may be distracting me, I decided I would do a lighter post about a children’s illustrator that was a HUGE part of my childhood. I just accidentally stumbled across him when I was researching images of Topsy (from the Harriet Beecher Stowe book Uncle Tom’s Cabin) for another piece I want to do.  Not sure if that post is going to ever come to fruition or not: it involves Yoo-hoo, Mountain Dew, and the unlikely success of reality television’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

Neill’s 1908 illustration of Eva and Topsy is pretty typical of the time. Eva = angelic, Topsy = wild & savage-like.

Anyway, in that process, I found this 1908 image and it’s pretty much the racist, caricatured image of Topsy common at the time. A whole book could be written on Topsy alone and her interesting Jim Crow evolution. Yet the illustration style overall (more Eva than Topsy) struck a nostalgic chord with me instantly. Then I put my finger on why! The illustrator is the creator of my childhood memories of the Oz books: John R. Neill! Of course he did other work besides the Oz books but I guess I just hadn’t realized it extended to older classics like Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Honestly I don’t think I’d ever seen a bit of his work outside Baum’s books.

To me Oz will always be L. Frank Baum + John R. Neill (apologies to MGM, Judy Garland, and W.W. Denslow). So, just for the hell of it here are some illustrations—

Ozma and Dorothy seem quite close in this illustration from 1909

This picture (above) is from Tik-Tok of Oz (1914).  Can any science fiction historians confirm or deny if L. Frank Baum’s Tik-Tok is fiction’s first robot or not? I’ve heard he is, since he was 100% human-created and mechanical as opposed to Baum’s Tin Woodman from the first book (1900) who was a regular flesh and blood man who had become tin via magic and supernatural methods.

Another Neill picture of Ozma. Ozma’s age was always kind of ambiguous to me. She seems 16-17ish here?

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The Confederacy Vote is not “the White Vote”

Lately there has been so much hand-wringing and pearl-clutching over Obama and “the white vote” you’d think there was something new, wide-spread, or unprecedented going on. There isn’t. If you look at the data state-by-state it is obvious that the President is polling in alignment with most Democratic candidates over the last few years. Or better. Clinton lost the white vote in both 1992 and 1996. Remember, Obama was the first Democratic candidate to win with over 50% of the white vote since Carter in 1976.

“The white vote” (like I argued this spring for “the Catholic vote”) is a voting-block concept that, frankly, needs to be retired for lack of meaning.  I know it makes for flashy alarmist headlines on CNN and FOX but let’s be clear: caucasian generational and geographic diversity–as well as partisan identification–trumps race ultimately.

Take a look at these numbers.

Washington, Oregon, and Vermont are three mainly caucasian states: Obama is comfortably getting 59%, 60% and 68% (!) of the white people’s’ vote here.  Obviously, these are Blue States so voters were naturally predisposed to the “D” after the name and race played less of a factor.  But, that’s kind of my point…

However, look at the states of the former Confederacy (Table 2).  Alabama white vote? 10%. Mississippi white vote? 11%. Georgia, even with progressive Atlanta, Capitol of the New South?  Still only 23% of the white vote went to Obama in 2008.  It can’t be emphasized enough: the Southern white vote drastically skews the national “white vote” average and muddies the whole picture to appear different than a typical Red/Blue or Dem/GOP divide.  Keep in mind the former Confederate states are extreme even compared to other lily-white Republican states.  North Dakota, Idaho and Alaska are so consistently Red most candidates in either party don’t bother to campaign or focus campaign funds there. They also have majority-caucasian, Republican-dominated populations. However they are not even close to the drastically out-of-whack Confederate numbers: North Dakota: 42% white support for Obama in 2008, Montana: 45%, Alaska 33%.  In swing states (like Ohio) it’s razor-thin and 50/50.  So yes, the votes of some working-class over-55 white people could make that crucial difference thanks to our Electoral College system.  Yet, this shouldn’t bring about alarmist headlines about Obama (or any Democrat) losing the white vote as a whole. 

Map of states in existence in 1861: Red States are the Confederacy, Blue States Union, yellow states had legalized slavery at some level but did not join the Confederacy.

From Nixon’s Southern Strategy to today the GOP has slowly but steadily painted itself into a corner as a Southern-dominated party, much the way the Democrats did 100 years ago. This is not news for post-Nixon Democrats: for about thirty years it was obsessively (and in my opinion often foolishly) focused on plunking any white Southerner onto the Democrat ticket (John Edwards, really?) in hopes of peeling off a Southern state or two.  As the parties re-aligned 1968-1992 (roughly) this proved a less and less effective path to victory: culminating in the razor-thin election of 2000 where Gore (at the top of the ticket!) couldn’t even bring his home state of Tennessee over to the Democratic column.  Think about it this way: for all of Bill Clinton’s newly rejuvenated popularity every talking head would agree he’d need to fight tooth and nail to win his home state of Arkansas (and in my opinion would probably still lose it) in 2012.

However, Clinton wouldn’t have to lift a finger for California: home state of Reagan and Nixon and the biggest electoral prize of all.   Neither does Obama.  Obama’s numbers reflect the changing demographics of the nation as a whole, a 40-year realignment of the parties’ base, and geographic changes.  Rather than yet another repetitive article (or book) fixated on a 2% or 3% drop among rural working-class white voters in the Midwest, how about a piece on the freakishly skewed numbers among white voters in the Deep South?

Robert Brown Elliott: Original Birther?

This month I finished reading two books about African-American Congressmen in the US Senate and House during the Reconstruction period. One, The Glorious Failure, was unexpected as I’d never heard of it and I only was barely aware of South Carolina Representative Robert Brown Elliott.  However, in the more recent Capitol Men Dray mentions author Peggy Lamson having done the most thorough research on Elliott’s mysterious past and childhood and I was intrigued.  Lamson’s book was long out of print but luckily for me, Seattle Public Library was able to get me a loaner that was at Evergreen State College in Olympia!

—Picture of the first African-Americans serving in the US Congress: 1869-1872. Robert Brown Elliott is on the far right.

Elliott claimed to be born in Boston, MA but no record of proof can be found of that.  He also claimed to have been educated primarily in the UK, including his law degree from Eaton.  Yet, no record can be found of that either although there is quite a bit of evidence of his time spent in Liverpool just prior to emigrating (or “returning”) to the US.  Lawson speculates that he may very well have been Liverpool-born (Liverpool had been the center of the UK slave trade and had a not insubstantial African descended population from that period) and hadn’t had his citizenship the required eight years to be a US member of the House of Representatives.  Thus, an invented a Boston birth, followed by years of education in the UK.  When campaigning and visiting Boston Elliott strangely never made reference to his childhood or places of significance there, he only spoke of his Boston childhood when in South Carolina. Some speculate that Elliott may have actually been South Carolina born and raised, but that seems less likely.  Yet, references to a British accent are curiously absent from contemporary reports as well. What’s interesting is that at the time of his service in Congress he was often referred to as the first “African” US congressman, as most of the other African-Americans serving were of mixed-race. What a strange postscript to history if the first “African” United State Congressman was actually a British subject.

Lincoln, the Civil War & a 1956 “Human Wormhole”

An amazing short clip has surfaced on YouTube of a 1956 episode of CBS’s I’ve Got a Secret game show where they brought on the last surviving witness to Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 assassination by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater.  Watch it Here! This kind of historical human wormhole (during the Age of Television there was someone alive who saw Lincoln!?!) is always fascinating! There were at least two or three women who were drawing state Confederate Widow’s pensions as of a couple years ago. Teenaged girls who married ninety-something men during the Great Depression precisely for that reason: to collect that pension. During the Depression before any safety net for the elderly or Social Security this was a win-win for the girl and the dying veteran. He got someone to care for him in his final days, she was guaranteed a check for life. Back to this game show. What struck me (aside from all the cigarette shilling) is at the 2:30 mark where the program host says the secret-to-guess (Lincoln’s murder) “had not to do with the Civil War”. He then sort of awkwardly backtracks and adds “well, uh, let’s say indirectly“. The idea that you’d even need to hesitate over that question is remarkable to me! Yet, this is a very typical response concerning the Lincoln assassination both in the 1950s and today.  Keeping Lincoln’s assassination in a neat little box of national tragedy: completely removed from the bloodiest 4 years in American history.

Photograph of Lincoln’s body as he was embalmed.

Its unfortunate that the Civil War in popular memory has been so separated off into this bizarre, isolated, collective place of battlefields, generals, flags, and cannons.  Slavery? Oh that’s a separate box.  Voting rights for African-Americans? Different box. Lincoln’s assassination? Work of a deranged madman like John Hinkley. The adjectives used to describe the Civil War are invariably “tragic”, “sad”, or “heroic”.

Imagine switching on the television tonight and discovering that President Obama was just shot in the head, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been hacked with a knife while sleeping in her bed, and a person-of-interest has been taken into custody confessing he was under instructions to kill Joe Biden. Would we hesitate to call that Domestic Terrorism? Would we separate it from the world events happening around us? John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices were pro-Confederacy conspirators who hatched this plot in order to create terrorism in the truest sense of the word. The idea was that the Top 3 in line of succession to the US Presidency being slaughtered on the same night would plunge the federal government, Union Army, and general populace into such chaos that it would create an opening for some or all of the Southern states to re-establish home control. What was the tipping point for Booth to justify this plot? In John Wilkes Booth’s own words following Lincoln’s 2nd inaugural speech: “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” Lincoln’s assassination was a last-ditch act of war. The Civil War. The Civil War was about slavery. Lincoln’s assassination was in response to citizenship for African-Americans. There is no “indirectly” here.

Spectators watch the hanging of Mary Surratt & Lewis Powell. July 7th, 1865. Both were convicted of being part of John Wilkes Booth’s terrorism plot to kill the President, VP, and Secretary of State on April 14th.

Earle Wilton Richardson & the WPA

Earle Wilton Richardson: The Employment of Negroes in Agriculture 1934

This has hung in 5 different homes of mine over the years, including my current apartment.  I’ve long been fascinated with public art created for FDR’s Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. You can view WPA artwork in public places all over the country including Diego Rivera’s murals in San Francisco’s Coit Tower.  A common theme in WPA is a glorification of the dignity of the working man, as in this case.

The artist, Earle Wilton Richardson, would have been 100 years old this year.  He was only 22 when commissioned by the WPAOriginally he and fellow African-American artist Malvin Gray Johnson (who has a much more extensive catalogue of WPA art) were to do a larger, Diego Rivera-style mural at New York Public Library’s 135th street branch.  However, Johnson died unexpectedly of illness in late 1934. They were a couple and severe depression over his partner’s death led Richardson to suicide in early 1935.

Charlotte & Unabashed Patriotism

I didn’t manage to catch as many speeches as I would have liked at the 2012 Democratic Convention in Charlotte (other than the Big Four: Barack, Michelle, Bill and Biden).  However I am now convinced that the era–of my lifetime–of Democrats being vaguely apologetic for overt patriotism and flag-waving? Over.  It’s done.  In fact, comparing it to the GOP’s party in Tampa a week earlier, not only have the Democrats gotten out of their defensive crouch, they have succeeded at being the stronger party at conveying American optimism and unabashed patriotism.

The first Republican convention I can (sketchily) remember watching on television was George HW Bush’s nomination in 1988.  I remember the surprising Quayle VP pick and the brouhaha over it.  I remember the ridiculing of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis and his campaign blunders.  I also remember a speech (if anyone can tell me who it was or where I can find a clip–MUCH OBLIGED!) in which a Republican orator gave a dripping-with-mockery speech about how the other team (Dems) requested flags and bunting that were less solid colors, in order to come across better on camera at their convention. The speaker then went into a tirade about how of COURSE the Republicans would never do that! The RED standing for the blood of our soldiers who died in battle! The BLUE of the great American sky….well, maybe not that…I’m sketchy on the details.  Looking back I wonder if the “let’s use toned-down flags” really happened or it was just rhetorical flourish from the Republicans.  What I do remember is the takeaway message: Democrats are namby-pamby and weak; Republicans are patriotic and strong.

We all know it wasn’t always like this. Nixon’s use of flag label pins to indicate the “Silent Majority” who supported US action in Vietnam, Baby Boomers and flag-burning as protests to it, and other more subtle cultural side-taking nuances spawned in the 1960s and 1970s.  I grew up in the aftermath of that period but the narrative had been set: Republicans are the party of God, Guns, & Guts (I think I saw that on a bumper sticker).  The reaction to that extreme rhetoric is that suddenly the US flag (in some quarters, not all) became shorthand for a certain type of politics: uncomplicated and blindly nationalistic.  Some would demure from flying an American flag too often (or at all) because they didn’t want others to think they were either of those things.  It’s a vicious circle: they (right-wingers) believe they are the patriotic ones because they are in-your-face about it, they (left-wingers) are not overly in-your-face about it because they don’t want to come across as jingoistic.  By the 1990s a sort of snide elitism had set in on the Left: we don’t need that excessive flag-waving because we know love-of-country means so much more than that.  Or worse, it was perceived as somewhat declasse or tacky: like a rusting car on cinder locks right in the front yard.

I felt I was immunized against falling for either partisan stereotype until I had a conversation with some Canadians while vacationing in Puerto Vallarta.  Go to any gay beach where there are a lot of Canadian travellers (and that’s most) and you’ll be bound to see a few muscled arms or torso imprinted with that instantly recognizable Maple Leaf.  Since I assumed that most gay guys would veer at least center-left in their politics, I thought there must be an element of post-modern irony contained in a flag tattoo.  Or a military connection.  Nope.  At least to those I talked with, it was fairly straight-forward: “I’m Canadian. I’m proud of it” (and presumably also favor tattoos).  No political messaging was going on there.  Also, no Seattle/Portland irony-of-the-ink which flows thicker than coffee where I live.  I got it wrong.

This past Memorial Day a reader wrote to Andrew Sullivan with this:

Here’s my story about liberals and the flag; or: “What my father taught me about patriotism.” We are Jewish, from Brooklyn, and very liberal.  My parents were New Deal Democrats, and worshipped FDR, JFK, and the Great Society.  In 1968 and beyond, we opposed the war in Vietnam and supported anti-war candidates.  During the Moratoriums and other anti-war protests in 1969, Nixon (whom we all despised – rightly, as it turned out) called upon the “Silent Majority” of Americans who supported him and the War to fly the flag on the upcoming holiday (I think it was Memorial Day, actually).  Come Memorial Day, my liberal father hung out his American flag.

“But Dad,” my then-teenaged sister, brother and I protested, “How can you do that?  You’re showing support for Nixon and the War!”  “Let me tell you something,” my father – who immigrated from Poland in 1929 at the age of 11, and had fought for the U.S. in North Africa, Italy and France – replied: “That’s MY flag, too;  and that bastard isn’t going to take it away from me!”

I blame conservatives for politicizing the flag.  I blame liberals for letting them.  And I credit the lesson of my father, unabashed liberal, critic – and patriot.

In Charlotte the Democrats clearly have taken a page from this man’s father’s book.  The chanting of U-S-A, the flag-waving, the thanking of the troops, never seemed like a pale imitation of when Republicans do it.  I think the tide has turned over the last few years and progressives–like those of the FDR generation–are comfortable with a little loud and traditional patriotism again.

Delegate ticket to the 1936 Democratic Convention to re-nominate President Franklin D. Roosevelt to a second term. It was a landslide, FDR won every state except Maine and Vermont.

The Grass Is Blue

I’m rereading the novel Gone with the Wind to analyze it’s portrayal of the Reconstruction period of government and multi-racial enfranchisement.  Like most Americans GWTW was my first exposure to that period of US history.  For now I’ll just say the book is better than I remembered, but the historical viewpoint for the Reconstruction era is far worse than I remembered.  More on that later.  But, as a random, weird sidebar I thought I’d post some links to a Southern folk song that was mentioned in passing that I did some digging on.

The passage on page 178 of GWTW mentions “rollicking strain of Johnny Booker, he’p dis Nigger” performed at the Atlanta charity ball.  This is the event in the book (and film) where newly widowed Scarlett is allowed to attend in order to sell items for charity behind a booth–under ordinary peacetime circumstances a widow this recent wouldn’t have attended a ball whatsoever.  Anyway, the only sound clip I could find of this song mentioned was this one from the Missouri State University archives from 1970 of an elderly man singing the song a capella.  Apparently the university conducted a wide scale project in the 1960s to preserve local folk music.

Yet this song–as sung here–hardly seems so upbeat and rollicking that “Scarlett thought she would scream” (178) and dance her feet behind the booth.  However, I did find another version recorded in the 1940s–only referred to as “Johnny Booker” which is much more lively.  It’s sung by an early 20th Century folk singer who went by the performance name Cousin Emmy.  Although this version is accompanied by a banjo only, I can imagine the spirited dancing to this when accompanied by a full band. This one is catchy. Interestingly, the lyrics are entirely different: altered far beyond just excising the obvious offensive word.

Any regional/folk music experts out there know more about the lyrical evolution of this song?

While only tangentially related, here is an awesome segment on NPR about the recently published Dictionary of American Regional English, much of the research having occurred taping elderly speakers in the 1960s and 1970s like the Missouri State University project.  Listen to the samples of a Brooklyn, Wisconsin, and South Georgia accents–so much more distinct than I suspect we would hear today (for the most part).  The Georgia one is much more lilting and almost Scotch-Irish at times than current portrayals of Southern accents usually are.  I’ve heard this disparagingly referred to as the “Texasification” of modern Southern accents.  The Wisconsin one sounds extreme–but recognizable–for one who has been accused of sounding more like a Wisconsinite in direct correlation to how many beers I’ve consumed!