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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

February 20, 2018: Anti-Favorites: Jefferson’s Paragraph



[On Valentine’s Day, I gave a Fitchburg State University Harrod Lecture on my book in progress: Exclusion & Inclusion: The Battle to Define America. These histories and stories couldn’t be more important to me these days, so I wanted to spend the next couple weeks highlighting some of them. Starting with this year’s version of my annual non-favorites series, focused on exclusionary moments from across American history. Add some of your least favorite histories, stories, or figures for a crowd-sourced weekend airing of grievances!]
On important historical contexts for a frustrating founding text, and why the frustrations remain nonetheless.
In this July 4th, 2015 piece for Talking Points Memo, my second-most viewed piece in my year and a bit of contributing bi-monthly columns to TPM, I highlighted and analyzed the cut paragraph on slavery and King George from Thomas Jefferson’s draft version of the Declaration of Independence. Rather than repeat what I said there, I’d ask you to take a look at that piece (or at least the opening half of it, as the second half focuses on other histories and figures) and then come back here for a couple important follow-ups.
Welcome back! As a couple commenters on that post noted (and as I tried to discuss further in my responses to their good comments), I didn’t engage in the piece with a definitely relevant historical context: that the English Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, had in November 1775 issued (from on board a warship anchored just off the Virginia coast) a prominent Proclamation both condemning Virginian and American revolutionaries, declaring martial law in the colony, and offering the prospect of freedom to any African American slaves who left their owners and joined the English forces opposing them. A number of slaves apparently took Dunmore up on the offer, and so when Jefferson writes that “he [King George] is now exciting these very people to rise in arms among us,” he might have been attributing the idea to the wrong Englishman but was generally accurate about those English efforts. Yet of course Jefferson’s misattribution is no small error, as it turns a wartime decision by one English leader (and a somewhat unofficial one at that, as it’s not at all clear to me that Dunmore had the authority to make such an offer nor that the Crown would necessarily or consistently have upheld it) into a defining feature of the relationship between England and the colonies.
There are significantly bigger problems with Jefferson’s paragraph than that misattribution, however. And to my mind, by far the biggest is his definition of African American slaves as a foreign, “distant people,” not simply in their African origins (and of course many late 18th century slaves had been born in the colonies) but in their continued identity here in America. Moreover, Jefferson describes this distant people as having been “obtruded” upon the colonists, an obscure word that means “to impose or force on someone in an intrusive way.” And moreover moreover, Jefferson then directly contrasts the slaves’ desire for liberty with the colonists’ Revolutionary efforts (and thus their desire for liberty), a philosophical opposition that excludes these Americans from the moment and its histories just as fully as his definitions and descriptions exclude them from the developing American community. As I’ll highlight in one of next week’s posts, a number of prominent slaves—from Crispus Attucks and Phillis Wheatley to Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker—had already proved and would continue to prove Jefferson quite wrong. But for as smart and thoughtful a person as TJ, it shouldn’t have required such individuals to help him see how much African American slaves were an integral, inclusive part of Revolutionary Virginia and America.
Next anti-favorite tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other anti-favorites you’d highlight?

Monday, February 19, 2018

February 19, 2018: Anti-Favorites: Columbus’s Letter



[On Valentine’s Day, I gave a Fitchburg State University Harrod Lecture on my book in progress: Exclusion & Inclusion: The Battle to Define America. These histories and stories couldn’t be more important to me these days, so I wanted to spend the next couple weeks highlighting some of them. Starting with this year’s version of my annual non-favorites series, focused on exclusionary moments from across American history. Add some of your least favorite histories, stories, or figures for a crowd-sourced weekend airing of grievances!]
On an easily overlooked exclusion in a letter that helped originate far too many of them.
Given that in this January 2017 post I compared Christopher Columbus’s perspective and voice in his famous February 1493 letter from the Americas back to his Spanish ally and backer Luis de Santangel to those of none other than Donald Trump, it’s fair to say that I’ve already made my opinion on Columbus and his letter pretty clear. Moreover, for this past fall’s Columbus Day I had the chance to contribute to Bryan Brown’s really interesting Junior Scholastic magazine article on “Challenging Columbus,” and made the case there that in this letter specifically, and in many of his initial choices and actions overall, Columbus helped the stage for (if he did not indeed directly originate) such horrific atrocities as genocide and slavery. For example, Columbus begins one paragraph in the letter “I understood sufficiently from other Indians, whom I had already taken, that this land was nothing but an island” a clear reflection of his willingness to kidnap and use native peoples for his purposes of exploration and conquest.
So it’s fair to say that Columbus’s letter is exclusionary in some central and sweeping ways. But it’s just as exclusionary in seemingly smaller aspects of its language and perspectives, ones that I would argue also helped originate particular ways of thinking about the Americas and our cultures and identity that have likewise echoed down across the subsequent centuries. I would focus especially on a crucial turn of phrase in the letter’s opening paragraph, where Columbus is describing his voyage and initial encounter with “the Indies” to Santangel. He writes, “And there I found very many islands filled with people innumerable, and of them all I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me.” In the sentence’s first clause Columbus directly acknowledges the existing native peoples (and indeed just how many of them there are), but in its second clause he literally elides their identity as separate cultures; the fact that it’s not clear whether he means the islands or the people or both with the phrase “of them all I have taken possession” is, to my mind, precisely the point. These innumerable people are just part of the landscape, at most an inoffensive obstacle to be overcome in the taking of that setting for Spain.
That attitude of course made the horrific histories of genocide and slavery that much easier to both perpetrate and justify. But I would argue that it also contributed to less aggressive but also destructive effects such as the development of the Vanishing American narrative. As I have written in posts such as this one, the concept of the Vanishing American was even adopted by reformers who imagined themselves to be “Friends of the Indian,” as a way to mourn the destruction of Native American cultures but see it as both inevitable and (by the 19th century, at least) largely completed and past. Adopting that narrative depended in significant measure on linking Native Americans to a broader American past, seeing them as a part of the continent and hemisphere’s origin points rather than its ongoing and evolving present and future identity. That perspective overtly excludes Native Americans from contemporary definitions of America, and makes it far more difficult to consider their stories and voices, communities and identities, in our own moment. And like so many other destructive attitudes, we see that form of exclusion in Christopher Columbus’s initial response to the Americas and their cultures.
Next anti-favorite tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other anti-favorites you’d highlight?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

February 17-18, 2018: Learning to Love Mariah Carey



[For this year’s Valentine’s Day series, I wanted to share and briefly discuss a handful of my favorite songs, leading up to this special weekend post on a legendary singer/songwriter on whom my perspective has significantly and happily evolved. I’d love to hear about your favorite songs or artists in comments!]
On respecting, but not remaining too stagnantly settled on, personal tastes.
To say I don’t speak much Latin would be to significantly understate the case, but nonetheless one of the most recurring phrases in my conversations with my sons for many years now has been the Latin phrase “de gustibus, non est disputandum (there’s no arguing taste).” For one thing, it’s fun to say, and/or to refer to as the “windy bus” phrase. But for another, it’s a very effective shorthand for stopping many potential sibling or family arguments before they start. You like this particular food but your brother really doesn’t? Windy bus. You two think this song is incredibly annoying but your Dad kinda digs it? Windy bus. Of course we all can and do still argue for our own tastes and preferences and why they’re correct, but it’s also important to take a step back sometimes and remember that others’ tastes are no less (and no more, but that’s less immediately relevant to our own internal perspective I’d say) valid than our own.
Yet we can recognize the personal and indisputable nature of tastes without seeing them as either absolute or unchangeable, and I’ve recently encountered a striking illustration of the need to remain open about our own such preferences. Up until pretty recently, I would have said that I was quite sure that I wasn’t a Mariah Carey fan; it’s not that I had any particular problem with her music, but I didn’t believe it was of much interest to or did much of anything for me. Moreover, my perspective on Carey as both an artist and an individual was more or less in line with many of the popular narratives, which have for many years portrayed her as a diva, as self-centered to the extreme, as an unquestionably talented singer but one whose lifestyle and luxuries (and public failures at marriage, and so on) have overtaken those talents as the focus of the story.
Well those prominent narratives are wrong, and so was I. Over the last few months I’ve come to learn a great deal about Carey that I didn’t know (and had never before sought to learn), and much of what I’ve learned has both countered my misconceptions and added important layers to my sense of her life, career, and art. For one thing, I’ve learned a lot about Carey’s heritage and childhood, including her mixed-race identity and some of the many significant challenges that she and her family faced; while noen of those factors mean we can’t be critical of choices she makes in her life in 2018, they provide key contexts for understanding where she’s come from and who she is. And for another, I’ve had the chance to hear many more Carey songs, most of them album tracks that are not only not the most prominent pop singles, but that also reveal very different sides to both her content and style, the uses to which she puts her impressive voice and songwriting talents. For example there’s “Languishing” (2009), a moving and sad reflection on her relationship to her estranged sister. Or for another there’s “Close My Eyes” (1997; check out this powerhouse performance of it on Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show), a powerful set of images that link Carey’s childhood memories to her evolving sense of self in the present. Written and produced by Carey herself, as all her music has been, these songs embody an artist whose voice, art, career, and life go way beyond what I thought I knew just a short time ago. Maybe we can’t dispute tastes, but neither can we be too confident in them!
The annual anti-favorites series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Favorite songs or artists you’d share?