Category Archives: Social History

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!

The World’s Most Powerful Photographs

This compilation with narration is pretty powerful and is worth a look.  It included a surprising memory blast from my childhood.  The photo below of the Parisian man beginning to weep as he witnessed Nazi tanks roll through occupied Paris was featured in our old set of World Book Encyclopedias (if I was to guess I’d say we had a set circa 1982 or 1983?).  As a kid I would often grab a random volume, open it randomly, and read something new.  This photo was in there and it always had a strong–and evidently lasting–effect on me.  Perhaps because it was rare then (for me) to see a photo of a grown man crying.

Reconstruction reality and mythology, part II

Political Cartoon from the 1860’s entitled “Franchise” about the dilemma faced: amnesty and restored voting rights for former confederate leaders on the left, or the voting franchise for African-American Union soldiers on the right.

 

If anyone is interested Ta-Nehsi Coates at The Atlantic online is moderating an awesome online book discussion of Eric Foner’s book “Reconstruction” which really is the absolute best thing out there on this period.  It’s happening on July 25th, and then Fridays Aug 3, 10, & 17… (each day is 3 chapters but the discusion is free-flowing and often goes into modern politics too!).  I’ll be participating!  In a sense the ongoing discussions over at The Atlantic this year have usurped my original plan to do a longer series on Reconstruction and the interpretations (and myth-making) of it that followed. The discussion there is excellent. I still am working on piece about the Reconstruction sections of Gone with the Wind, but the actual Reconstruction debates have defintely moved over there for me.

While I’m at it, let me also pimp Eric Foner’s newer book about Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery and African-Americans. It’s superb.

Forget the current “Great Recession”: the US Middle Class never left the “Carter Recession”

This Diane Rehm interview deals directly with a historical thesis I’ve been ruminating on for some time (and at least four abortive blog posts!). The jist of my theory is that the American Middle Class has actually never gotten out of the late 70s/early 80s Recession.  That they’ve merely employed various coping mechanisms to create the appearance of on-going growth and prosperity (the “each generation does better than its parents” mantra) but that in the reality of working wages and upward mobility the American Middle Class hit their glass ceiling about 1979.

Since this blog post has been delayed and procrastinated for so long what I am going to do is break it into pieces. Here is what I believe are the various successful (and often creative) bandages, delusions, and coping mechanisms American Middle Class households have used–since 1978/1979-ish–to fool themselves that they’ve been still climbing the American post-war wealth ladder.  Then, through the rest of the summer, I’m going to devote a blog post to each:

  • US Middle Class women solidifying their place in the workforce in large numbers. We associate this move of Middle Class women into the paid workforce with the 1960s and 1970s but the full effect really didn’t take hold until the Reagan years.  This made household incomes rise, even as individual living wages stagnated and certain professions saw their pay grades lower as it became associated more with women (bank tellers, for instance).
  • Reaganite and Clintonian misguided deregulation of Wall Street and the rise of (1920s style) Middle Americans feeling “rich on paper”.
  • Easy credit.  In the 1980s and 1990s Middle Class Americans suddenly had access to credit at levels that hadn’t been seen since–you guessed it: the 1920s.
  • The post-1995 Real Estate Bubble.  People are often shocked that from 1890 to 1990 years the idea that “housing values always go up” would have been considering very Pollyanna-ish. Getting rich on real estate meant owning warehouses and property to rent out: not feeling a sense of wealth based on your own home’s equity.
  • The Reagan Revolution and its impact on the psyche of the American Middle Class: both good and bad.
  • The passing of the GI Generation (and older) and the loss from living, day-to-day memory of those who could remember when government WAS the solution and the vehicle–not the barrier–to assisting Middle Class expansion.

These books have really influenced my thinking as of late, and Charles Murray’s hypothesis has been one of the most influential ones I’ve read this year. I went into it a bit skeptical, too.

Charles Murray: Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010

Jeff Faux: The Servant Economy: Where America’s Elite is Sending the Middle Class

Frederick Lewis Allen: Only Yesterday

Paul Krugman: End This Depression Now

Robert D. Putman: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Will Bunch: Tear Down This Myth: The Right Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy

Madonna & Child with St. Anne

I’m not sure exactly why, but I’ve always enjoyed this Carvaggio painting dating from 1605. It really demonstrates how so many of those great Renaissance paintings with religious themes are more products of their time than any realistic attempts at historically accurate depictions.  The Virgin Mary’s saucy dress is something straight from an episode of The Tudors, hardly ancient Biblical Middle Eastern attire but certainly a fetching push-up, low-cut bustline from the era it was painted.  I’m not quite sure how old Jesus is supposed to be here, about 3 or 4 I would guess?  There’s a little extra something, though, that a Jewish boy really wouldn’t have.  Foreskin quirks aside, I think the bit of this painting I first noticed was how Mary and Jesus’ bare feet crush the serpent together, as Saint Anne looks on approvingly.  Poor Anne, though, getting the shaft and depicted as such an old crone! Surely she would only be a mature woman of 50ish (at most) when Christ was a toddler?

Madonna & Child with St. Anne (Dei Palafrenieri)
1605

June 13th

Today marks the 146th anniversary of the passing of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.  This is the amendment that clarified the citizenship and protection of the civil liberties of freed people: no state can deny or abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, deprive anyone of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, or deny to anyone within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.  As many of you know, Reconstruction is one of the eras in US History I find the most fascinating and this amendment was a product of that unequalled period in attempting true nonracial democracy.

This amendment will the be crucial one within the next year or two when it comes to marriage equality cases going before the Supreme Court.  Personally, I want to see the DOMA case come to the SCOTUS first—it can be struck down on the narrower basis that in 1996 Congress overstepped by needlessly meddling into state marriage law.  I could see Justice Thomas getting behind that (from a states’ rights perspective alone) as well as Kennedy and Roberts.  However, the broader Prop 8 challenge would evoke the 14th Amendment’s equal protection argument and I believe that would be a closer ruling since it could potentially nullify state same-sex marriage bans across the nation.  I believe this ruling could very well come down to a 5/4 split hinging on Justice Kennedy’s opinion alone.  Perhaps I’m too leery, but I’d ideally prefer to have DOMA-free, almost-full-gay-marriage nation for a couple of years (and perhaps a new Obama-appointed justice or two on the bench) before risking a civil rights set-back of this magnitude.

By July 9, 1868, three-fourths of the states (28 of 37) ratified the amendment and it became enshrined in the Constitution. In this political cartoon an African-American casts a ballot under the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed voting rights to the new citizens created under the 14th. The flies pestering him represent the states opposed to the passage of the 15th…

An apology to Elizabeth Cady Stanton

“…but now, as the celestial gate to civil rights is slowly moving on its hinges, it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see “Sambo” walk into the kingdom first. . . .

“Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence . . . making laws for Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble.”

I can’t remember exactly when I first read these quotes from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but I think it was my last year at college.  I knew there are many far worse racial quotes from 19th Century American feminists (actually, they got nastier in the early 20th Century), so I didn’t exactly fixate on them, nor was I shocked by them.  However, I never really felt drawn to the US Women’s Suffrage Movement as a topic of close or in-depth study.  These quotes, as well as hazy ideas of figures like Ma Ferguson, Lurlene Wallace, et. al. always made me view American 19th Century Feminism as well….American.  Politics once again tainted with race.  I dismissed Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who I knew very little about, really) as another prejudiced product of her time.  I also own up to possessing a weird American Exceptionalism bias when it comes to American racial history (those little only-in-America moments like Robert Byrd endorsing Obama in 2008, etc).  The woman’s struggle for the vote? Interesting and important to be sure, but how different to the same struggle in the UK? Or Australia? Or Canada? If anything the US state-to-state battles were more uniquely American to me, as the Western states adopted suffrage before the “civilized” east.

Four or five months ago I had the chance to read Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s quotes Elizabeth-Cady-Stantonverbatim.  They stuck with me.  Why? I had long known their racial jist, why were they making me ponder so much now.  Then I realized: I owe Elizabeth Cady Stanton an apology. Her statements–misguided for sure–were not crude race-baiting.  What she was engaging in is not praise-worthy, but it’s a debate technique I’ve used myself.  She’s trying to make a point about the ridiculousness of a position (allowing no woman to vote as the nation debates the suffrage of freed male slaves) by evoking imagery she assumes will play to the other side’s own prejudices on other issues. Those who know me know that I am a bit of a political message board junky. One time circa 2005 (not long after President Bush called for a Constitutional Amendment to deny marriage or marriage-like benefits to gays) I was debating same-sex marriage with someone online.  This person was not a rabid fundamentalist but seemed conservative and a bit jingoistic if I recall right, he had problems with (of all things!) the immigration implications of gay marriage.  To me this argument made absolutely NO sense and so I shared my own situation to make a point.  I can’t recall exactly how I worded it, but it was something along the lines of “my partner is a British citizen, here on a work visa, and pays thousands of dollars to this country in taxes! We have been in a committed relationship for years. How is it fair a college student who gets wasted drunk in Mexico and marries a local girl he’s known for all of 3 days has more legal standing for spouse immigration than us?”

Let’s face it, I was getting in a cheap shot about “good immigrants” (professional, English-speaking) vs. “bad immigrants” (Mexican) as a tool to make a point about the absurdity of being against gay spousal rights for US immigration policy.   While I certainly don’t actually possess any animosity toward Mexican immigrants (or alcohol as a mating lubricator whilst on vacation!) part of me assumed that someone who was anti-gay marriage probably would.  So, I strategically made an argument tailored to their (assumed) prejudices.

Back to Elizabeth Cady Stanton: when I re-read her quotes this year I saw she was obviously using the same technique.  She knew the post-Civil War population–North and South–was uncertain and apprehensive about the new amendments which would give full citizenship (14th) and voting rights (15th) to freed (male) slaves and African-Americans in those northern states that still didn’t have the vote (some didn’t yet).  Her quotes about “Sambo” not knowing the difference between a monarchy and republic were not to disparage African-Americans as a whole (she supported black suffrage 100%), but to shine a light on the absurdity of passing over this once-in-a-century opportunity to define citizenship to include women.  She was tailoring her argument to wider assumed prejudices….just like I did.

One might be tempted to say “oh but Jason, you didn’t say “dirty spics from Mexico” Elizabeth Cady Stanton actually called blacks SAMBO!”.  “Sambo” is an offensive racial slur, make no bones about it.  However, linguistically it would not have carried the same offensive punch in 1870 as it does now.  Little Black Sambo was not published until 1899, and the American restaurant chain was not around until the 1950s and 1960s.  In 1870 “Sambo” was not the outright derogatory slur as we understand it, but it certainly was a lazy racial short-hand for “black”.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) has a minor character named Sambo and that probably contributed to its ubiquity. The equivalent today would be something like “So Shaniqua from Detroit gets a scholarship….”.  Is there anything intrinsically wrong with the name Shaniqua? Or Detroit? No. However the source and context is everything.  If Rush Limbaugh were to make a crack about “Shaniqua from Detroit” or “Jose from El Paso” benefitting from Affirmative Action we’d all know what snide racial implication he is making.  From the second quote above it’s also clear that Stanton used this dubious technique with other

Frederick Douglass with his second wife Helen Pitts and daughter Eva.

Frederick Douglass with his second wife Helen Pitts and daughter Eva.

ethnicities too: Hans (German), Patrick (Irish) and Yung Tung (Chinese).  She was writing about extending the vote in a period when many Americans were concerned about immigrants who didn’t speak English–or were illiterate–voting en masse.  Stanton is playing to that too: calling out the irony of the men of the USA debating the implications of illiterate Irishmen and freed slaves voting when there were already millions of educated, American-born adults waiting to cast that ballot: women. Was that an admirable debate technique? Probably not. However it also isn’t the potent racism I read it as 10-odd years ago.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton not only supported votes for African-American men and women, she approved of interracial marriage.  In 1884 she wrote a congratulatory letter to Frederick Douglass upon his marriage to Helen Pitts, a white woman.  Again, this is in 1884. Other feminists at the time pleaded with her not to publicly admit to endorsing interracial marriage, as they felt it would taint their cause with radicalism and sexual deviancy.

We can read the arguments, discussions and speculations about suffrage between Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass and other intellectuals during Reconstruction.  I can only imagine the debates among the ordinary thinkers (people like me) during the 1870s. The US was attempting a true non-racial democracy while simultaneously back-burnering women’s’ suffrage as a national issue for another 50 years. In the future I suspect the historians will view the timeline when the debate on same-sex marriage was the most dynamic as February 25th, 2004 through May 9th, 2012.  On the first date a sitting American president called on Congress to amend a 200 year old document to deny something to a group of Americans, and on the latter date a sitting American president said he believed said group of Americans deserve equality.  The issue certainly hasn’t been settled completely (and there was some debate pre-2004) but it’s my belief that this period will be viewed as America’s era of national dialogue on this issue: politicians using it as a wedge-issue, coworkers hashing out arguments over the water cooler, families arguing at the dinner table….and a gay guy in Seattle having an online debate on a message board.  In the midst of national debates people make sweeping overstatements, desperate slippery-slope arguments, and misguided juxtapositions aimed at others’ prejudices.

So, Elizabeth Cady Stanton–142 years after you wrote your comment, 110 years after your death, and 17 years after I arrogantly and flippantly dismissed you–I apologize!

Arizona “show me your papers” immigration law & the SCOTUS

I obviously had a pretty strong case of insomnia last night because I was pondering how the arguments over Arizona’s draconian immigration law were going before the Supreme Court.  I suspect it will probably be upheld, at least in part. My issues with the law are many but my 3:00am epiphany wasn’t about that.  It occurred to me, that there is not a single WASP on the current Supreme Court.  The irony of Gov. Jan Brewer appearing before a 100% non-WASP Supreme Court is one of those little “only in America” moments I love.  Pretty much every surname on the current bench would have at least raised an eyebrow of curiosity in the days of the Know-Nothing Party.  In its heyday there was serious concern that the USA was losing its identity as an Anglo-Saxon Protestant country. Kennedy? Breyer? Ginsburg? Kagan? These surnames would have all had a vaguely alien-sounding tone circa 1845 when the Germans and Irish were only just beginning to come en masse (too much “Native US” consternation).  No Roman Catholic was appointed to the Supreme Court until Taney in 1836, to say nothing of Jews who currently number three on the highest bench.  Scalia? Alito? An Italian surname in American government would have seemed very exotic and foreign and, again, the Catholic thing would have been suspect.  Roberts? Okay, his name would not have been odd or noteworthy to Millard Fillmore, but he is a Roman Catholic so still not truly within the WASP fold.  Sotomayor? Hehe. Which leaves us with Justice Clarence Thomas, and that one goes without saying!  Although I’m sure Fillmore would have found comfort in finding a perfectly respectable English name there amongst all those exotic “foreigners”.

Yup, the UDC can reach as far north as Seattle!

Most of Seattle founding families are buried on Capitol Hill’s Lake View Cemetary, as well as martial arts film stars Bruce Lee and his son Brandon Lee. However, I was there to see this little oddity compliments of the United Daugters of the Confederacy.  Tellingly, it was erected in 1926: this would have been the height of Lost Cause monument building even in places as far removed from the Confederacy as Seattle, WA.  A handful of confederate veterans who–later in life–moved to Seattle are buried here and the UDC erected the monument with the image of Robert E. Lee.

The Lake View Cemetary Confederate Monument is pretty tame by UDC standards, and is absent of any of the Lost Cause rhetorical flourishes and historical slights-of-hand many of their markers are infamous for (this is the group that–in all seriousness–lobbied for a monument to the “faithful slave mammies of the South” on the National Mall in DC in the 1920s).  Here’s a monument’s plaque near the state capitol of Texas in Austin that employs the slanted verbiage the UDC enjoys:

“animated by the spirit of 1776 ” (!)

Redenção do Can : 1895 painting from Brazil

I have always been really interested in this painting. It depicts a Brazilian family circa 1895 in the state of Piauí in Northeastern Brazil.  The racial angle is interesting, as it shows each generation getting lighter and more European in appearance.  Brazil was the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery (1888) however it had been on the decline in most of the country for the last couple of decades as increased immigration to the nation brought immigrant laborers (Germans, Spanish, Italian, Lebanese and other) and African slavery was more isolated in the north where the Caribbean-style plantations were.

What’s an interesting juxtaposition with the Southern USA at the same time period is that the end of Brazilian slavery didn’t bring on a rush of miscegenation laws and social restrictions toward Afro-Brazilians.  While personal prejudice and socio-economic conditions certainly existed and created its own castes, there were not laws created to keep former slaves in a separate category racially.  The mixed-race population was already the largest in northern Brazil due to slavery’s exploitation of women, and the fact the earlier waves of Portuguese immigrants rarely brought across wives and families.  The grandmother appears African, the daughter mixed-race, her husband European, and the baby very light-skinned.