Category Archives: history

Reading for Pleasure

Chilly gray winter coupled with angry voices have left me feeling blue and a bit angry myself. I have a list of possible blog entries but can’t seem to get past the feeling that they are frivolous in a time of great seriousness.

The New Yorker published a list of books that various writers are reading now, and Caleb Crain comments about his reading of Langdon Hammer’s biography of poet James Merrill:

In such parlous times, I felt a little guilty about indulging at length in reading for mere pleasure—the one lacuna in Merrill’s cosmopolitanism was politics, which he seems to have found boring—but only a formidable pleasure was capable of drawing me away from the news, and for the sake of my mental health I decided I had to license it.

I’m reading a lot this year, but my path does seem to have taken a serious turn that Crain might not count as reading for pleasure.  The year started with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee’s prose poem/ethnographic study about poor southerners who worked as cotton tenants during the Depression. It seemed a good place to start to understand division and anger in America, and in The New Yorker article, Judith Thurman references it in her review of the 1960 book Crowds and Power, a book she says is about the dangerous resentments of those who feel helpless:

It seems that we are seeing something parallel taking place in Trump’s America: the panicked reaction of a crowd that feels it has been devalued and is looking to project that sense onto a group that can then be driven from the fold. This process has happened before in American history, notably in the post-Civil War South, when defeated whites, many of them poor and dispossessed, projected their sense of depreciation onto the even poorer population of former slaves. (Read James Agee on THAT subject.)

I read Agee as a follow up to Hillbilly Elegy, the new book about these same people. If I had to do over, I would read Agee first as the historical understanding helps with Vance’s more abbreviated memoir.

For Martin Luther King Day, I read all three volumes of The March, John Lewis’s collaboration with Nate Powell. The graphic novel takes us to the heart of the Civil Rights movement. Hatred and violence pulse in the black and white images of murder and mayhem during a time when it seemed as though black lives really didn’t matter and the police and courts were the handmaidens of systemic evil. As he tells the story, Lewis is preparing to attend the inauguration of the first Black president. A moment of pride and success that now seems under attack by that same evil cloaked not in KKK robes but suits and ties and forked tongues.

Sabrina Stevens’ twitter thread was one of the first things I saw on February 1. She provided a list of the myths that were going to be told to kids during Black History Month to make slavery seem not so bad.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s story of a runaway slave who moves through a world where whites implement diverse evil ways of dealing with slaves, deals with all these issues. While I suspect it would not pass the censors in high schools, it would be historically realistic in a way that is, as Sabrina writes, is often not presented in public schools classrooms. Whitehead drew his characters from slave narratives and runaway slave advertisements, and in the book the runaways move along a real railroad, built deep in the ground, each station bringing them to new places where they had to discover the rules and underlying secrets in order to navigate dangerous paths. I think the most sinister of all places was South Carolina where the slaves seemed to be treated respectfully even as whites were experimenting in terrible ways. The novel was powerful, often mentally jarring, and I am still thinking about it. It would certainly overturn the myths of the happy slaves and paternal owners that are the usual fare of this month and black history in general.

My nonfiction reading–Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling–provides an ethnographic view of the racial divides that exist in seemingly integrated schools and shows the legacy of continuing prejudice. Even though they are in the same school, black and white students are not getting the same quality of education. Expectations for the students are different with many black students finding their way into special education classes while white students take advantage of advanced classes or after school programs. He describes an ugly 1985 redistricting battle that clearly hinged on race and sounded a lot like my local suburban school division lived through much more recently.

Next on the list is Hidden Figures, about the Black women of NASA. It may be a bit more uplifting except the segregated world where they did their work kept them from them from advancing. Even now, they would probably face discrimination–they might be able to use whichever bathroom they wished but the upper levels of engineering still seem to be off limits.

These are the books students should be reading rather than watered down textbooks that don’t want to make anyone feel bad about themselves or their ancestors. It is “reading for pleasure”? While it is not always pleasant, it is reading I have chosen as a way to understand the world around me which I think helps define reading for pleasure. But it doesn’t matter. It is reading for knowledge and understanding and that is more important right now.

Facts, Perspectives and Narratives

The story I want to tell may be offensive to some; even knowing that what I am going to describe still exists in our country can be upsetting. But I think we need to know how others think, how their facts blur into perspectives and then become narratives.

I wrote this in the short previous blog post about what keeps people from blogging. The question that was my challenge was “Should I Post This?” I decided to go ahead and tell the story.

I want to tell the story about alternative perspectives and where we find them. The story begins in a  bookstore in Virginia. The content in the store related to the American Civil War but from the perspective of the Southern confederacy, the Lost Cause. While many of the books have an historical perspective, celebrating Southern leaders and examining battles through a Confederate lens, others espouse political views around states’ rights and, more upsetting, segregationist racial attitudes. I went looking for the book store website, and it is connected to an unapologetic Confederate who quotes Benjamin Franklin on the homepage:

“Man will ultimately be governed by God or by tyrants.” – Ben Franklin

Even if they can’t agree what to call the war or specific battles, I believe these writers would agree with a set of facts about the American Civil War shared by historical and pro-Northern writers. There was a war from 1861 to 1865 fought by two groups of states of the confederation of states known as the United States of America. Some of the states interpreted the Constitution to say that they could leave; the other states interpreted it to say that they could not leave. That, along with ideas about states’ rights in general and slavery specifically led to a war.

From there, it starts to get blurry between facts and perspectives. Fact: As part of the war, General William Tecumseh Sherman invaded the South and wreaked destruction on the civilian population as part of his total war. Was he simply doing his job and practicing total war in order to help the North win? Or was he committing war crimes? Your answer to that question is going to determine your lens in examining other facts that might arise around the events of Sherman’s March to Atlanta and the Sea. They seem like facts because they confirm your world view.

I did buy a book in the store. It seemed to be a more unbiased story of one Virginia county before, during and after the war, focusing more on the lives of the civilian population, living in a county that saw four significant battles.

I feel like I took the coward’s way out. I should have purchased one of the more stridently Confederate books that condemned Lincoln as a tyrant and his troops as terrorists. It is, indeed, a point of view that is not taught in schools except perhaps when someone discusses the Southern perspectives. But I have a sense that these authors are not simply describing their point of view. They are using facts to create a narrative different from the one crafted by others. Facts and perspectives become one thing and trying to separate them with either logic or brute force is impossible.

Maybe I’m making too much of this experience but as I passed through the entryway of the book store and realized where I was, I had a sense of being part of a secret club. It was the same feeling I had when I visited the Jubal Early home place. A table there offered brochures for pro-Southern societies celebrating the Antebellum South and mourning the Lost Cause. Like Jubal Early, there are many who are unreconstructed Confederates, living in the modern world with a shared secret connection to the past.

It’s Complicated

I tweeted about this Smithsonian Magazine article about Buffalo Bill this week:

The headline for the article is pretty sensational: Murder, Marriage and the Pony Express: Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Buffalo Bill. But the subtitle undercuts that sensationalism: His adventures were sensationalized in print and the Wild West show, but reality was more complicated—and compelling.

Isn’t reality always more complicated than can be presented in even an extensive report? We mostly get short sound bites that provide little historical or social context. I thought about it when I listened to the Code Switch podcast talking about the Obama administration’s education legacy. The commentators mention Urban Prep, a charter school in Chicago often held up as an exemplar with 100% graduation rate. But that rate doesn’t take into account attrition. At about 7:46 in the podcast, they say, “It’s complicated.” Later in the program, one of the guests discusses the complicated web of home, school and poverty that makes educational problems so difficult to solve.

Real problems do not yield to easy solutions.

What Would You Add to the List?

The National Park Service has just announced 24 new national historic landmarks.  They include sites related to some more recent path including the Civil Rights movement (Medgar and Myrlie Evers House) and the Vietnam War protests (Kent State shootings site). One quirky addition is the Davis-Ferris Organ, which can be found in Round Lake, NY, where it was used as part of a Methodist camp meeting.  The organ was added as an example of mid-18th century organ technology.

The criteria for being named a National Landmark is described by the NPS on their website:

National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.

I poked around the National Park Service site but their database is down and the records that I can access are static pdfs. Thank goodness for Wikipedia! Here’s the list of national landmarks in Virginia. I think they meet the mission of “illustrating or interpreting” the heritage of Virginia. Historic homes range from Monticello to the Maggie Lena Walker house. There are Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields. There are slave quarters, seaside cottages and schools where the desegregation fight took hold.

The locations provide a guided tour of Virginia history and could spawn a lifetime of learning, finding interesting and odd connections. For instance, Richard Quiney, who bought Brandon Plantation in 1635 was brother-in-law to Judith, the daughter of Shakespeare. Wonder if he helped write the plays?

For younger students, identifying new national landmarks might make an interesting exercise. For older students, the discussion could go more in depth about the process of choosing the landmarks. Are there any groups or historical periods that might be underrepresented? What landmarks in their community help tell the story of their town or county?

Word of the Week: Biblioclasm

I’m reading about and exploring libraries for a talk I’m doing in a few weeks. I just finished Library: An Unquiet History and its author, Matthew Battles, describes the perilous history of libraries. Most cultures have had libraries and, too often, the cultures and peoples that conquered them made an effort to destroy those libraries, often by looting and burning. This destruction is so common place, in fact, that there’s a word for it: biblioclasm.

Wiktionary suggests that a biblioclasm focuses more specifically on the Bible or other holy books so perhaps libricide, another word I did not know, might be more general. Killing the library.  It’s so common that Wikipedia has a page devoted to it with the most recent event happening in 2015. There are some natural disasters, but most of the libricides are deliberately caused by man. They have not all been successful in completely destroying the libraries although it seems as though, more often than not, we lose everything.

In the natural disaster column, the Villa of the Papyri tells the story of the library at Herculaneum that was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and buried the town. Contemporary technology allows scientists and archivists to read the burned papyri.

The Library of the University at Louvain, located in a town east of Brussels, was destroyed by the Germans twice: once in WW I and then, after being rebuilt between the wars, during WW II. Of this biblioclasm, only one manuscript was saved during the first destruction, as it was checked out to a professor who took it with him when he fled. He buried it in a garden in Ghent, and no one has ever dug it up.

Now, the contemporary library in Louvain (or Leuven as the Dutch prefer) is working to save another library collection, this one from Timbuktu. It’s been gotten out of the country but is now deterioriating due to humidity and poor conditions.

The library hosted a conference last fall asking, “What do we lost when we lose a library?”Contemporary libraries are busy becoming community spaces that support all sorts of learning that go beyond checking out books and DVDs and that’s great. They bring computers, internet access, makerspaces and more to communities that may otherwise not have them.

But, ultimately, they are also the cataloguers and custodians of the culture, and we must not lose site of the work they do in that area and that, even in our “modern” world, these kinds of repositories are seen as dangerous and worth of destruction.