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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

September 30, 2014: American Collectors: P.T. Barnum

[There are few practices more AmericanStudies, but also more complex, than that of collecting historical, cultural, and artistic treasures and memorabilia. This week I’ll highlight and analyze five such collections and the collectors who assembled them. Please share collections and museums of interest to you for a collected weekend post!]
On the two sides to an American legend, and how we might reconcile them.
P.T. Barnum apparently didn’t actually say “There’s a sucker born every minute” (ah, the perils of quote attribution, especially in this internet age as Abraham Lincoln famously noted), but I think it’s fair to say that much of his showmanship proceeded according to that principle nonetheless. This is the man who exhibited (and exploited) “the Feejee mermaid” and “Tom Thumb,” whose traveling “freak show” included (and exploited) such figures as “the man-monkey” and “Commodore Nutt,” and who, perhaps most saliently, liked to feature a sign in his tests that beckoned customers “This way to the egress.” Even when he wasn’t activitely trying to fool and cheat his customers, Barnum famously admitted that his principal ambition was “to put money in my own coffers” by whatever means proved effective.
That’s the side of Barnum that we collectively remember today (well, that and the three-ring circus that partly bears his name), and again it’s certainly not inaccurate. But on the other hand, Barnum was a lifelong reformer, on multiple levels: working to discredit false spiritualists and other frauds, such as through his book The Humbugs of the World (1865); serving his native Connecticut politically in many capactities, including as a four-term state legislator and subsequently as a reformist mayor of Bridgeport; helping to found Bridgeport Hospital and serving as its first president; and, most impressively and significantly, leaving the Democratic Party in 1854 to join the newly formed Republican Party, whose anti-slavery and reform efforts he would champion in one form or another for the remainder of his life (including an impassioned 1865 speech in the legislature in support of ratifying the 13th Amendment).
Those last efforts are not just the most impressive, however, but also the most complex and even contradictory. Again, Barnum made much of his fortune through exploiting his performers, many of whom (like the “man-monkey”) were ethnic minorities; he also produced and promoted multiple minstrel shows, including multiple ones featuring Joice Heth, a elderly female slave Barnum probably owned (and definitely exploited). Since the Heth shows were in the 1830s and most of the other minstrel shows in the 1840s and early 1850s, it would be possible to argue that Barnum evolved throughout his life and career, and I’m sure to a degree he (like everyone) did.  But to my mind such contradictions not only likely persisted in Barnum, but represent the most telling and American element to his identity and work. A reformer and a con artist, working both to improve and to exploit the lives of his fellow citizens, even coining a philosophy known as “profitable philanthropy”—sounds pretty American to me.
Next collector tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Collections you'd highlight?

Monday, September 29, 2014

September 29, 2014: American Collectors: Isabella Stewart Gardner

[There are few practices more AmericanStudies, but also more complex, than that of collecting historical, cultural, and artistic treasures and memorabilia. This week I’ll highlight and analyze five such collections and the collectors who assembled them. Please share collections and museums of interest to you for a collected weekend post!]
On the inspiring life and the legacy inside my favorite American museum.
On the surface, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s life would seem to exemplify an upper class experience of Gilded Age America. Born into a wealthy New York family, she married into an even wealthier one—her husband John “Jack” Gardner was the descendent of generations of Boston Brahmins on both sides of his family—and benefitted from those connections immensely: traveling extensively throughout Europe and Asia, befriending numerous painters and artists, serving as a patron to many of them as well as to organizations such as the Boston Symphony, commandeering the Boston social scene for many decades, and so on. It was not a life without significant losses—her only child, a son, died at the age of two; she outlived her beloved husband by more than a quarter-century—but certainly it was a life of great privilege and all that comes with it; as Bruce Springsteen put it, “a life of leisure and a pirate’s treasure / Don’t make much for tragedy.”
Indeed they don’t—but the key question to ask of Isabella Stewart Gardner is what she did make of her life, and the answer is on multiple levels very inspiring. In her private life, Gardner followed her passions and loves without (it seems) the slightest worry about what was considered proper or how she might be perceived—some of those loves were stereotypically highbrow (Venice, the opera, priceless art and antiques), but others were anything but (Red Sox baseball and Harvard football, boxing and horse racing, entertainments and adventures wherever and however she could find them). In response to the rumors and gossip that often sprang up around her, Gardner simply noted, “Don’t spoil a good story by telling the truth” and continued to live her life. Even more inspiringly, her relationships with the artists and authors she befriended were far from simply financial or one-way streets—John Singer Sargent, the painter to whom she was particularly close (and on whom more tomorrow), considered her a lifelong friend, and his painting of her from two years before her death is one of the most sensitive and powerful portraits ever produced in America.
Gardner’s legacy, as embodied in and exemplified by the Museum, is more inspring still. Literally every aspect of the Museum—known at its 1903 opening as Fenway Court—represents Gardner’s own design and inspiration, from its Fenway location to its use of a transported three-story Venetian palace, the arrangements and specifics of each room to the courtyard’s precise details of colors, flowers, and more. Gardner’s will bequeathed a substantial amount to the upkeep and expansion of the Museum, with the requirement that it maintain her vision and choices. And most importantly, that vision was anything but a Gilded Age stereotype: she hoped that the Museum could serve “for the education and enrichment of the public forever,” and openly and passionately hoped that all Americans could have the chance to visit the Museum and experience its artistic, cultural, historical, and educational environment and effects. Such goals are perhaps not unlike other Gilded Age figures’ Gospel of Wealth, of philanthropic giving coupled to vast fortunes—but in Gardner’s case, she offered not just her wealth but every inch of her identity and perspective, of what she cared about and what she most valued. You can feel that gift in every inch of the Museum.
Next collector tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Collections you'd highlight?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

September 27-28, 2014: September 2014 Recap

[A recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
September 1: Fall Forward: 2014 NEASA Conference: A series on plans for the fall starts with the (still) upcoming New England American Studies Association conference in Bristol, RI!
September 2: Fall Forward: Scholars Strategy Network: The series continues with the public scholarly community I’m very excited to be joining this fall.
September 3: Fall Forward: Toronto Talks: A pair of complementary, challenging (still) upcoming book talks, as the series rolls on.
September 4:  Fall Forward: FSU Strategic Planning: A couple of important takeaways and topics from an institutional service project I’m helping with.
September 5: Fall Forward: A New Teaching Challenge: The series concludes with a new course that has me back on my toes, in the best sense.
September 6-7: Crowd-sourced Fall Plans: The autumn plans and goals of fellow AmericanStudiers—share yours in comments!
September 8: More Cville Stories: Mr. Jefferson’s University: Another series on Charlottesville histories begins with the surprising, telling details of UVa’s early days.
September 9: More Cville Stories: The Black Knights: The series continues with race, segregation, and the building in which I attended high school.
September 10: More Cville Stories: Barracks Road: On the subtle ways we’re surrounded by history, if we only know where to look, as the series rolls on.
September 11: More Cville Stories: Fry’s Spring: Four exemplary stages of one of Charlottesville’s oldest sites and spaces.
September 12: More Cville Stories: Hazings: The series concludes with two Cville connections to a complex and important social issue.
September 13-14: Robert Greene II’s Guest Post: My latest Guest Post, as History PhD candidate Rob Greene analyses 21st century college athletics.
September 15: Country Music and Society: Gender and Identity: A series on country connections begins with Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and images of gender.
September 16: Country Music and Society: Patriotism and Images of America: The series continues with the deeply frustrating definitions of America contained in some country songs.
September 17: Country Music and Society: The Dixie Chicks and Strong Women: The kinds of strong, independent female artists we support, and those we don’t, as the series rolls on.
September 18: Country Music and Society: Johnny Cash and Prison: The lessons about a forgotten and stereotyped American community we can still learn from the Man in Black.
September 19: Country Music and Society: 21st Century Country: The series concludes with five songs that capture the range and depth of 21st century American country music.
September 20-21: Crowd-sourcing Country Music: My next crowd-sourced post, as fellow AmericanStudiers share their country connections—add yours, please!
September 22: Woman and War: The Armory Fire: A series on women in wartime begins with the Civil War tragedy that complicates a historical division.
September 23: Woman and War: Rosie the Riveter: The series continues with two ways to challenge and deepen our narratives of an iconic figure.
September 24: Woman and War: Molly Pitcher: The historical figure who may or may not have existed, and why she matters in any case, as the series rolls on.
September 25: Woman and War: Suffragist Pacifists: On how we think about and treat protesters and activists, oand what history has to tell us about those practices.
September 26: Woman and War: Jane Fonda: The series concludes with a problematic anti-war protest and the real problem with propaganda.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to write? Lemme know!

Friday, September 26, 2014

September 26, 2014: Women and War: Jane Fonda

[Some of the more complex American histories and stories revolve around women and war. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight and AmericanStudy five such stories—but this is just the tip of the iceberg, for these stories and overall, and so as always I’d love to hear your responses and thoughts!]
On war, activism, and the real problem with propaganda.
Between yesterday’s post on suffragist pacifists and last week’s on the Dixie Chicks, I’ve written a lot recently about famous, controversial anti-war voices and activists. As those posts, and many others like this one on Slaughterhouse Five, no doubt illustrate, my deep-seated opposition to and perspective on the worst elements and effects of war makes me naturally sympathetic to such anti-war voices, and concurrently unsympathetic to the critiques of those voices as unpatriotic or traitorous or the like. Dissent, as Howard Zinn (not Thomas Jefferson) famously put it, is indeed the highest form of patriotism, and I can’t imagine a more important time for such patriotic dissents than in the periods before and during a war.
On the other hand, it’d be just as simplistic to treat all such anti-war activism as equally serious or successful as to critique it all as unpatriotic. I’ll admit to having had my issues with Sean Penn’s December 2002 visit to Iraq—the U.S. wasn’t at war with Iraq at the time (although the Bush administration was already arguing for that war to be sure), but the trip nonetheless felt unnecessarily provocative; Penn could have made the same arguments without visiting Iraq, meeting with Saddam Hussein’s Deputy Prime Minister, and so on. The same could be said for Jane Fonda’s famous—or infamous—visit to North Vietnam in July 1972, but with a very important distinction: the U.S. was at war with North Vietnam at the time, and so Fonda’s meetings with North Vietnamese leaders, her radio broadcasts in support of NVA, her apparently accidental but hugely controversial photo while seated on an NVA anti-aircraft gun, were all amplified by that wartime situation.
The real issue with Fonda’s visit, it seems to me, is this: it constituted a propaganda effort for the North Vietnamese government. I would place the emphasis there not on “North Vietnamese,” but on “propaganda”—concurrent with Zinn’s definition of patriotism would be an ability to critique American propaganda just as much as (if not more than) that of other nations, after all; but it becomes more, not less, difficult to advance such critiques if we participate in the propaganda efforts of America’s adversaries. Which is to say, Fonda had just as much of a point about America’s war in Vietnam as did Maines about the Iraq War (and perhaps even more of one, given that by 1972 America had been fighting that war for a decade), but her participation in propaganda efforts made it far less likely that her point would ever be heard or engaged with by most Americans.
Next war story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. One more time: what do you think? Other war stories you'd highlight?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

September 25, 2014: Women and War: Suffragist Pacifists

[Some of the more complex American histories and stories revolve around women and war. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight and AmericanStudy five such stories—but this is just the tip of the iceberg, for these stories and overall, and so as always I’d love to hear your responses and thoughts!]
On communities of protest and activism, and how we treat them.
Last week’s series on country music and society included a post on the extreme reaction to the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines and her March 2003 anti-Iraq War/George W. Bush comments. I made the case there that the reaction had at least something to do with gender, and with a sense of what kind of feisty independence is and is not appropriate for female artists. But another important context would have to be the way in which the entire anti-war movement was treated by a sizeable percentage of American media and society in and around March 2003: as, to put it bluntly, a bunch of crazy drug-addled kooks and hippies to whom the appropriate response would be (and much too frequently was) simply a combination of mockery, ridicule, and scorn. (The concurrent protests around the world were, it seems to me, taken much more seriously, whatever their nation’s stance on the Iraq War.)
Such dismissals of anti-war protesters were nothing new in American society, of course. Whereas the Vietnam War became so broadly unpopular that its anti-war movement garnered as much support as it did critique (although the aforementioned stereotyping of the protesters still occurred to be sure), the World War II and World War I anti-war movements were far more nationally unpopular and subject to the same kind of attacks. During both wars, many of the most prominent pacificists, both in America and around the world, were also women’s rights activists; a trend exemplified by Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, who opposed both world wars and who represented the sole Congressional “no” vote against declaring war on Japan on December 8th, 1941. Rankin’s political career survived her World War I pacifism, but her opposition to World War II proved not only politically costly but personally destructive, both in media coverage and in threats on her life. (She did not run for reelection, but did live to lead an anti-Vietnam War campaign in 1968!)
The virulent opposition to Rankin and her pacifist colleagues could be attributed solely to pro-war agitation and fever, and certainly that’s been a consistent part of such wartime historical moments and narratives. But I think it would also need to be analyzed in conjunction with the equally virulent and too-often forgotten opposition faced by suffragists and other women’s rights leaders. In that linked post I highlighted the shockingly nasty children’s book Ten Little Suffergets (c.1910), which offers a particularly vivid but far from isolated illustration (literally and figuratively) of such anti-women’s rights attitudes. If we have largely forgotten this kind of widespread anti-suffragist vitriol, one clear reason would be our collective recognition of just how fully those women’s rights activists were on the right side of history—a lesson that we perhaps have yet to learn when it comes to our anti-war movements, contemporary and historical.
Last war story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other war stories you'd highlight?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

September 24, 2014: Women and War: Molly Pitcher

[Some of the more complex American histories and stories revolve around women and war. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight and AmericanStudy five such stories—but this is just the tip of the iceberg, for these stories and overall, and so as always I’d love to hear your responses and thoughts!]
On the iconic war hero who might or might not have existed, and why she matters in any case.
I can think of few more AmericanStudies ways to analyze popular memory and prominence than through the eleven rest stops on the New Jersey turnpike—and by that measure, Molly Pitcher and Clara Barton are the two most famous women in New Jersey history and culture (if that last phrase isn’t an oxymoron—I kid, Jerseyites, I kid). Pitcher’s is also the only one of the eleven rest stop referents that wasn’t an actual name, and that might not even link to an individual figure—some historians believe that the name does refer to one woman, Mary Ludwig Hays, who followed her husband and the Continental Army to the Battle of Monmouth and found herself not only serving water to the soldiers but even taking over her wounded husband’s artillery job; but others have linked the name to a number of other Revolutionary-era women who performed one or another of those roles (camp followers, water carriers, and so on), including Margaret Corbin.
So Molly Pitcher is as much a folkloric as a historical figure, one not unlike Paul Bunyan, John Henry, or, perhaps more accurately, Johnny Appleseed. Because like Appleseed’s inspiration John Chapman (about whom see that linked, wonderful Guest Post by William Kerrigan), women like Hays and Corbin most definitely existed; the details of their lives and experiences are as partial and uncertain as most any 18th century histories, even those of the Revolution’s most prominent leaders, but there’s plenty of information out there, such as at the various stories linked in my first paragraph’s closing sentences, and the Molly Pitcher legend provides an excellent starting point for researching and learning about these historical figures. Even absent such research, any collective memory of “Molly Pitcher” itself adds women to our narratives of these Revolutionary war battles and histories, producing a more full and accurate picture of those histories as a result.
I’d take that argument one step further, however. I’ve written on multiple occasions, including in this post on Judith Sargent Murray and this one on John and Abigail Adams, about the striking cultural, social, and political voices and roles of Revolutionary-era American women (including not only Murray and Adams but also Phillis Wheatley, Annis Boudinot Stockton, and others). Indeed, it’s fair to say that such women help us to see the era’s possibilities for gender and society as likewise revolutionary, and as foreshadowing and influencing the 19th century women’s movement. That some of these women, including Adams and Stockton, achieved such success in relationship to their husbands’ lives and work—just as, that is, Hays and Corbin did in relationship to their husband’s wartime efforts—reflects some of the era’s limitations and obstacles; limitations and obstacles that all these women, like Molly Pitcher, pushed well beyond.
Next war story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other war stories you'd highlight?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

September 23, 2014: Women and War: Rosie the Riveter

[Some of the more complex American histories and stories revolve around women and war. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight and AmericanStudy five such stories—but this is just the tip of the iceberg, for these stories and overall, and so as always I’d love to hear your responses and thoughts!]
On two ways to complicate and deepen one of our more famous images.
I would argue that there are few 20th century images or icons that have achieved and sustained more prominence in our collective consciousness than Rosie the Riveter. Initially created as part of a propaganda effort, the War Advertising Council’s Women in War Jobs Campain, Rosie has transcended that specific origin and starting point to become a multi-layered icon: a Greatest Generation complement to celebratory images of World War II soldiers; a rejection of social associations of women with anti-war perspectives and efforts (on which more later this week); and a feminist argument for women’s capabilities, in the workforce and in general. However we analyze her, Rosie is an inescapable part of both her era and 20th century American history.
Yet as is so often the case, our perspective on Rosie is at best a simplified and at worst a troublingly inaccurate one. For one thing, as this article details at length, Rosie was not created through the WAC’s ad campaign (the name Rosie was not associated with that famous picture until the 1980s) but rather through a series of distinct cultural texts and moments, including a 1942 song that (it seems) first used the character’s name. Moreover, she was brought to national prominence through an image that differs in striking ways from the “We Can Do It” ad: Norman Rockwell’s 1943 Saturday Evening Post cover, which depicts a far more overtly working-class Rosie, one situated amongst the implements and grime of her labor just as much as she is the propagandistic details (the American flag backdrop, the copy of Mein Kampf under her foot). There are certainly parallels between Rockwell’s image and the WAC ad, including a central emphasis on strength as depicted in Rosie’s visible and impressive arms; but at the very least the Rockwell image should be as prominent a part of our collective memories as the ad.
Yet Rockwell’s Rosie and the ad’s figure share another feature, one easily overlooked but well worth noting: they are both white. It’s in response to that feature that Betty Reid Soskin, the oldest working National Park Ranger and a guide at Richmond, California’s Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park, discusses her own World War II work experiences as outside of the Rosie narrative: “Rosie the Riveter is a white woman’s story,” as she puts it in that first linked article. Of course I take Soskin’s point, and agree with her that remembering the triumphs of Rosie has made it easier for us to forget concurrent, complicating histories such as the 1944 Port Chicago mutiny. Yet just as the image of Rosie has been created and disseminated in particular ways, there’s no reason why we can’t create and remember a new version—one, for example, based on Soskin herself and the thousands of African American workers and women like her.
Next war story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other war stories you'd highlight?

Monday, September 22, 2014

September 22, 2014: Women and War: The Armory Fire

[Some of the more complex American histories and stories revolve around women and war. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight and AmericanStudy five such stories—but this is just the tip of the iceberg, for these stories and overall, and so as always I’d love to hear your responses and thoughts!]
On the tragedy that sheds new light on one of our more complex histories.
In this post on Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York (2002), I gave the filmmaker a good bit of grief for the way in which his film builds toward a chaotic but sympathetic depiction of the city’s Irish American community during the 1863 draft riots. As I noted there, the riots were of course part of a complex set of historical and social contexts and factors, but likewise, and even more saliently for Scorcese’s sympathies, was the period’s Irish American community. It’s always challenging for those of us striving for a progressive perspective on history when one oppressed community opposes another, and that’s undoubtedly part of the story of the riots: a recent, heavily discriminated-against American community (Irish immigrants) reacting to yet another perceived discrimination (the Civil War draft) by enacting violence against an even more discriminated-against community (African Americans).
If we’re going to remember the draft riots more fully and accurately, as I believe we certainly should, it’d be important at the same time to remember the ways in which Irish Americans contributed much more constructively to the Union cause during the war. That would definitely include the nearly 150,000 Federal troops who had been born in Ireland, nearly a third of whom were apparently New Yorkers and all of whom were instrumental to the war’s successful outcome. But it would also include the many Irish American women who worked in the era’s mills, factories, and especially arsenals—the latter especially not only because of their overt contributions to the war effort, but also because of the striking number of tragic arsenal explosions and accidents that claimed many workers’ lives (in the South as well as the North) over the course of the war.
Exemplifying such tragedies, and particularly overtly linked (in its own era and in our collective memories of the event) to the Irish American community, was the June 1864 Washington Arsenal fire. 1,500 men, women, and girls worked in that arsenal, and while it’s impossible to ascertain an exact tally of how many were killed and wounded in the fire, historians estimate that at least twenty women died (the particular area where the fire began was worked almost exclusively by women), and many of the rest were likely injured either in the blaze or during their escape. It’s certainly fair to say that these workers were casualties of war, just as all such workers contributed mightily to the war effort; fair and important to remember them right alongside those Irish American soldiers. And, to reiterate, right alongside the New York draft rioters as well. History’s not reducible to any one moment, and the more we put them in conversation, with each other and all their contexts, the stronger and more valuable those collective memories will be.
Next war story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other war stories you'd highlight?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

September 20-21, 2014: Crowd-sourcing Country Music

[As with any longstanding, popular cultural genre, country music has a complex, evolving relationship to American society. In this week’s series, I’ve highlighted five ways we can AmericanStudy the genre and those social connections and meanings. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the responses and connections of fellow CountryStudiers—add yours in comments, please!]
Rob Greene follows up Monday’s post, noting, “I think this shows once again how complicated a genre country music is—far too often associated only with conservative ideology, but your interpretation of Parton's work makes a lot of sense.”
Paul Beaudoin also responds to Monday’s post, writing, “Interesting to talk about country artists, gender and identity. Parton's Jolene is a great song to think of in this respect. Rare is a tune where an unidentified woman pleads with Jolene to leave her man alone because she KNOWS she can't compete with her beauty. Our singer knows the man dreams of the ‘other’ but for her owself (selfishness?) hopes that her love will keep faithful to her. The main character's (who again, is never named) vulnerability is heard as quintessential American femininity - esp. through the voice of the songs composer and lyricist Parton. The soft yet resonate twang, the simple music accompaniment set the scene well for putting the singer's circumstances in our ear's mind. The listener becomes the unidentified lover who is pleading. Yet, when we slow down Parton's recording of Jolene, a wondrous transformation takes place - Jolene because transgender. With Parton's voice now sounding ‘masculine’ the pleading to Jolene now takes on new meaning. With this gender change new layers of meaning (understanding) come in to play. Parton's heteronormative lyric becomes homoerotic and suggests an even more complicated relationship than the original.” More broadly, Paul adds “Male relationships in much country music are about as macho as they come - drinking buddies, gamblers or gunslingers - men - American Country men - adhere strictly to the heteronormative code that is familiar to many (for example see Billy Currington's ‘People are Crazy’ with nearly 24 million hits ). Straight up ‘Gay’ country music (pun intended) is also a bit of a rarity. However, there has been huge breakthrough this pat summer with Steve Grand's ‘All American Boy’ (*curiously released just a few days before the July 4th in 2013). The video for the song appears quite hetero normative but the sensitive listener will hear a twist in the music just as the introduction ends. This foreshadowing suggests that not all is what appears to be. What happens when ideas of Steve Grand's ‘All American Boy’ become a part of the mainstream. With only about 3.4 million hits - it's unlikely to be more than just a blip on the country music scene.”
DeMisty Bellinger-Delfeld follows up that post to add “A Boy Named Sue” “is not Silverstein’s only country song,” sharing both the original and this PG version.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Any other country connections you'd highlight or artists/songs you'd recommend?

Friday, September 19, 2014

September 19, 2014: Country Music and Society: 21st Century Country

[As with any longstanding, popular cultural genre, country music has a complex, evolving relationship to American society. In this series, I’ll highlight five ways we can AmericanStudy the genre and those social connections and meanings. I’d love to hear your country connections and analyses for a twangtastic crowd-sourced weekend post!]
Five recent songs that capture the genre’s evolving American story—and about which I won’t say too much, because you should let them say it to you directly:
1)      Jamey Johnson, “In Color” (2008): Johnson’s beautiful dialogue between a grandfather and his son manages to sum up much of the 20th century alongside its moving depiction of life, family, and love.
2)      Brad Paisley, “Welcome to the Future” (2009): Paisley’s ode to progress is a more direct and somewhat on-the-nose engagement with 20th and 21st century changes, but any country shoutout to Martin Luther King, Jr. is fine by me.
3)      Neko Case, “People Got a Lotta Nerve” (2009): The warnings of a self-avowed “maneater” aren’t exactly revolutionary—“These Boots Are Made for Walking,” anyone?—but Case’s imagery is as distinctive as her voice and sound, and it adds up to another side to those strong country women about whom I blogged on Wednesday.
4)      Eric Church, “Springsteen” (2011): You didn’t think I could resist including a song called “Springsteen” in this list, did you? Again, Church’s ode to a long-lost young love isn’t exactly the first of its kind; but in its self-referential use of pop culture to express those feelings, it represents another element to 21st century country for sure.
5)      Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow” (2013): I mentioned Musgraves and linked to this song in that same Wednesday post—but any country song that makes the case for both lesbian relationships and smoking pot has to be included in an analysis of new trends in the genre, ones that reflect but also continue to push forward their society, and ours.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Responses to any of the week's posts, or other country connections you'd highlight for the weekend post?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

September 18, 2014: Country Music and Society: Johnny Cash and Prison

[As with any longstanding, popular cultural genre, country music has a complex, evolving relationship to American society. In this series, I’ll highlight five ways we can AmericanStudy the genre and those social connections and meanings. I’d love to hear your country connections and analyses for a twangtastic crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the message the Man in Black still has for us—if we can ever start to hear it.
In this very early post on my colleague and friend Ian Williams’ work with prison inmates, I made the case that the incarcerated might well represent the most forgotten or elided American community (and that they’re in that bleak conversation in any case). I wish I could say that anything has changed in the nearly four years since I made that case, but I don’t believe it has; perhaps Orange is the New Black will help produce a seachange in our awareness of and attitudes toward those millions of incarcerated Americans, and perhaps the proposed federal changes in drug-related sentencing will begin to make a dent in those shocking numbers, but as of right now it seems to me that the prison industrial complex is only growing in size and strength.
More than fifty years ago, one of the most iconic 20th century American artists and voices began a career’s worth of efforts to force us to think about the world and life of our prisons. I had some critical things to say about Johnny Cash in Monday’s post, so it’s more than fair that I pay respect here to one of his most impressive and interesting attributes: his consistent attention to that setting and its experiences and communities, from the 1955 song “Folsom Prison Blues” through his many prison performances, culminating (but by no means concluding) in the groundbreaking live albums At Folsom Prison (1968) and At San Quentin (1969). My fellow AmericanStudier Jonathan Silverman identifies Cash’s trip to Folsom as one of the Nine Choices through which Cash most reflected and influenced American culture, and I would go further: it was one of the most unique and significant moments in any American artistic career.
Or it should been that significant, at least. Forty-five years later, with our collective awareness, understanding, and attitudes toward prisoners seemingly more negative than ever (although studies like this 2002 one give some reason for hope in that regard), I don’t know that Cash’s clear recognition of the shared humanity between himself and those prisoners—and, implicitly but clearly, between those prisoners and every other audience to whom Cash performed—has reached his fellow Americans in any consistent way. That might seem like a given, recognizing prisoners’ humanity—but when I read and hear frequent critiques of prisoner access to exercise and health facilities, to media, to decent food, to liveable conditions, to any of the things that seem to define American life as we generally argue for it, I’m not at all sure that such recognition is widespread. Perhaps we must first, to quote another prison song (sung by a man who did his own time for drug-related offenses), Steve Earle’s “The Truth” (2002), “Admit that what scares you is the me in you.”
Last country connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post, or other country connections you'd highlight?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

September 17, 2014: Country Music and Society: The Dixie Chicks and Strong Women

[As with any longstanding, popular cultural genre, country music has a complex, evolving relationship to American society. In this series, I’ll highlight five ways we can AmericanStudy the genre and those social connections and meanings. I’d love to hear your country connections and analyses for a twangtastic crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the strength and independence we seem to value, and those we don’t.
One of the central narratives of the country music scene over the last few years has been the rise of strong female voices and artists. Of course there have been examples of such artists for decades, including Monday’s subject Dolly Parton and many others, but the sheer number of breakout young female stars on the current country scene is undeniable: from established talents like Gretchen Wilson, Miranda Lambert, and Carrie Underwood to on-the-verge artists like Kacey Musgraves, the Pistol Annies, and the Band Perry (among many many others in each category). Moreover, many of these artists have risen to prominence with hit songs of female empowerment, strength, and independence, whether sassy and proud (Wilson’s “Redneck Woman”), angry and defiant (Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”), or simply self-confident and wise (Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow”).
Among the most prominent, popular turn of the 21st century predecessors to these recent female stars would have to be the Dixie Chicks, a group that from their name to their early hit “Goodbye Earl” (2000), the single for which was paired with a tongue-in-cheek B-side of “Stand By Your Man” for added effect, embodied these concepts of strong, independent country women. And then came March 2003, when lead singer Natalie Maines expressed her strong, independent perspective on the imminent Iraq War, telling a British audience that “We don't want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." While it’s fair to say that the overall American reactions to Maines’ comments were mixed, with plenty of agreement and support from anti-war voices (including country legend Merle Haggard), it’d also be accurate to call the reaction of the country music scene and country fans overwhelmingly negative: from public record destructions and boycotts to private death threats, and just about everything in between.
Of course I understand that the specific historical moment of Maines’ comments—and the related, broader context of the “love it or leave it” version of patriotism which surrounded both the Iraq War and the Bush presidency—played into that particular response. But on the other hand, I would argue that gender did too—that the far more extreme and hysterical response to the Dixie Chicks (compared for example to the response to Haggard’s anti-Iraq War statements and song) had at least something to do with the fact that a trio of women were leveling this critique on the powers that be. Which is to say, 21st century country music and America in general might well support strong, independent female voices and artists, might even embrace such figures more fully than at any prior point in our culture—but it seems clear to me that there remains a glass ceiling on such support, one connected to images of what kind of independence is permissible from our artists and cultural figures and what isn’t.
Next country connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post, or other country connections you'd highlight?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

September 16, 2014: Country Music and Society: Patriotism and Images of America

[As with any longstanding, popular cultural genre, country music has a complex, evolving relationship to American society. In this series, I’ll highlight five ways we can AmericanStudy the genre and those social connections and meanings. I’d love to hear your country connections and analyses for a twangtastic crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the genre’s frustrating embrace of lazy and even divisive national narratives.
As an AmericanStudier, and one who tries consistently to help us understand the complexity of our national past, identity, and community, few cultural genres frustrate me more consistently and thoroughly than the uber-patriotic country song. I’m thinking in particular about Lee Greenwood’s ubiquitous “God Bless the USA” (1984), which from its titular evocation of that trite phrase through its facile uses of parallel phrases like “proud to be an American” and “at least I know I’m free” embodies what I’ve elsewhere called the easy, unthinking version of patriotism. But even worse is Toby Keith’s post-9/11 anthem “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (the Angry American)” (2002)—I’m not sure I know of a more troubling or more false line about America than that song’s “We’ll put a boot in your ass/It’s the American way.”
It’d be a mistake to simply lump Garth Brooks’ “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association” (1993) in with songs like Greenwood’s and Keith’s. Besides taking itself a lot less seriously (no small distinction to be sure), Brooks’ song seems to envision a more broadly inclusive definition of the national community: as “one big family/Throughout the cities and the towns,” a family that “reach[es] for those who are down” and whose “heart is in the music/And they love to play it loud.” But then there’s the second verse, which I need to quote in full: “When Uncle Sam dips in your pocket/For most things you don’t mind/But when your dollar goes to all of those/Standing in a welfare line/Well rejoice you have a voice/If you’re concerned about the destination/Of this great nation/It’s called the American Honky-Tonk Bar Association.” So that titular family has a particular agenda, and that agenda is to express concerns about the future as represented by another part of the national community, a part that seems comprised quite specifically by those fellow citizens “who are down.”
It’d be important to contextualize that part of Brooks’ song in its historical and social moment, as part of the early 1990s move toward “welfare reform” that culminated in President Clinton and the Congressional GOP’s famous and deeply problematic 1996 law. But the song also connects to a much more longstanding and divisive national narrative, one that pits “working Americans” (Brooks opens his song by addressing those whose “paycheck depends on/The weather and the clock”) against the shiftless and dependent poor, divides “makers” from “takers,” argues that social programs like welfare represent a (even the most) significant American concern. Given the percentage of the beneficiaries of such social programs who are precisely the rural working-class Americans about whom Brooks is singing, his version of this longstanding narrative is as inaccurate as any. But it’s also just unnecessarily divisive, a definition of the national family that depends on exclusion as well as inclusion—and for an artist as popular as Brooks, such divisiveness can have a potent and destructive effect.
Next country connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post, or other country connections you'd highlight?

Monday, September 15, 2014

September 15, 2014: Country Music and Society: Gender and Identity

[As with any longstanding, popular cultural genre, country music has a complex, evolving relationship to American society. In this series, I’ll highlight five ways we can AmericanStudy the genre and those social connections and meanings. I’d love to hear your country connections and analyses for a twangtastic crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On stereotypes, progress, and how the genre represents gender.
Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” (1969) was written by none other than poet and humorist Shel Silverstein, and it shows. “Sue” is one of the funnier mainstream hits I know, and it saves the funniest lines for the twist ending: “And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him/Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!” But underneath the humor, and indeed constituting much of it, runs a series of gendered stereotypes: that the worst thing a boy can have is a girl’s name; that at the same time the toughness that fighting to defend such a name requires is the most important lesson a man can learn; and even that fathers are largely absent figures whose principal role for their sons is to pass along such toughness (even in unconventional ways). As I’ll argue later in the week, Johnny Cash could be one of country’s most interestingly progressive voices; but his engagements with gender were not always so liberated, as illustrated by the stereotypical “Sue.”
Given the physical attributes that represent a significant part of Dolly Parton’s claim to fame, as well as the deeply traditional romantic ballad “I Will Always Love You” (1974) that is probably her most famous song, it might be surprising to argue that she exemplifies a far more progressive approach to gender and identity in country music. But I would make that argument nonetheless: that in songs like “9 to 5” (1980), with its portrayal of a working woman thriving on her “cup of ambition”; in her choices of acting roles that at first embody but then complicate stereotypes, including her debut as a secretary in 9 to 5 (1980) but also the madam in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) or the beauty salon owner in Steel Magnolias (1989); and even in her entrepreneurial career, such as her creation of the Tennessee theme park Dollywood, she has consistently depicted women as strong and independent, perhaps viewed but in no way limited by their physical attributes and identities. And in one of her recent hits, 2005’s “Travelin’ Thru,” Parton pushes even further beyond stereotypical boundaries and images.
Parton wrote “Travelin’ Thru” for the soundtrack of the groundbreaking film Transamerica (2005), which starred Felicity Huffman as a pre-op transgendered woman on a cross-country road trip with her estranged son. The song is striking in many ways, but most especially in its deeply spiritual imagery, linking the song’s transgendered speaker to Jesus himself: “We’ve all been crucified and they nailed Jesus to the tree/And when I’m born again, you’re gonna see a change in me.” But unlike Cash’s speaker, whose unconventional identity has been a source of constant pain and strife (one he rejects right up through that humorous final line), Parton’s speaker has come to a far more accepting perspective on her identity, both in its promise and its pains: “God made me for a reason and nothing is in vain/Redemption comes in many shapes with many kinds of pain.” For a country icon to write and perform such a song represents another meaningful step forward in the genre and our society—a step in keeping with Parton’s consistently progressive voice and career.
Next country connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post, or other country connections you'd highlight?

PPS. After finishing this piece, I saw this recent New York Times story on Dollywood and Parton as a gay icon. And I should also note here that my initial inspiration for this post came from fellow AmericanStudier AnneMarie Donahue.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

September 13-14, 2014: Robert Greene II’s Guest Post on Sports and Society

[Robert Greene II is a PhD student in history at the University of South Carolina, where he’s studying 20th century American and Southern history, African American intellectual history, and a lot more. He’s a frequent contributor to the U.S. Intellectual History blog, and one of the more prolific and engaging Tweeters I know. And I’m very excited to share this Guest Post on another of his lifelong interests, the social and historical meanings and impacts of sports.]

On College Sports Rivalries

Growing up in the Deep South, and attending two institutions there (Georgia Southern University and the University of South Carolina), it occurs to me that a major part of the college experience is, well, hating another college. There are times when I think about such rivalries as being trivial—what has someone from Furman University or Appalachian State ever done to me (as a GSU fan)? No one from Clemson or the University of Georgia has caused me any harm; why should I get red in the face when I see their colors (as a graduate student attending South Carolina)? Yet, I cannot think of the college experience without that element of irrational hatred.

I think the scholarly examination of sports, which has grown by leaps and bounds (and now includes a fantastic blog on U.S. Sport History) can gain much by interacting with American Studies, and vice versa. Considering sports rivalries, in part, can be helpful in looking at the broader implications for sports on society. I’ve also found myself thinking about different types of rivalries, as I hesitate to say that all college and professional sports feuds are created equal.

There’s something to be said for a greater examination of college sports overall among academics. Already, much has been written about race, gender, and college sports, but I think an examination of just a handful of college rivalries would offer a great deal to chew on. Some of these rivalries—South Carolina versus Clemson, for example, are reminders of deep, long-festering intra-state divisions that go beyond the gridiron or basketball court. For scholars, such rivalries can be used to examine deeper fissures in society.

The difference in passions involved in college and professional sports—with some exceptions, of course—is also worth noting. I find myself talking to plenty of people who prefer college football or basketball over the professional versions because of ideas of “purity” or, simply, because the college versions seem to have far more at stake for the average fan. I’d go so far as to say that, in the South especially (but this can also apply to some of the old feuds in the Midwest and on the West Coast) college sports and the rivalries that go with them offer something missing in most of the professional variants nearby. I think my father, as big of an Atlanta Falcons fan as he is, probably cares just a bit more about Georgia-Florida than he does about Falcons-Saints.

With that said, let’s not make the mistake that rivalries stay the same over time—or even that the fanbases do. The intersection of sports and the media matters here. How did the growth of television broadcasting of games affect fan support for teams in the second half of the 20th century? I’d venture a guess and argue that some of the big rivalry games—think Michigan-Ohio State, Auburn-Alabama, and so on—acquired a lot of casual fans on the Saturdays when they played. Of course, that’s not scientific, but the broadcasting of games on television, and before that radio, at least offered the chance for groups of people across the country to start caring about games not in their region. And think of Americans today adopting English Premier League teams, or fans in China adopting NBA squads—the imagined communities of fandom are something scholars can begin to consider more as part of understanding the relationship between society and sports.
Not to push the imagined communities aspect too much, but there is one last idea surrounding sports rivalries I’d like to consider—race and rivalry. Specifically, thinking about the inclusion of black athletes in the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference in the 1960s and 1970s—how did black fans gradually become part of Southern fanbases? What were the thoughts of black sports fans towards such college programs before their integration? There’s a lot that can be done with fandom, rivalries, and American Studies. I usually do intellectual history—but a part of me does, someday, hope to explore such questions.
[Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? If you’d like to contribute a Guest Post, let me know!

Friday, September 12, 2014

September 12, 2014: More Cville Stories: Hazings

[Back in March, I featured a week’s worth of Charlottesville stories in anticipation of a book talk there. Well, Cville is just an AmericanStudier’s kind of town, because during my August visit with the boys I found myself thinking about another handful of local histories and stories from this Central Virginia city. So here they are!]
On two of the factors that make hazing such a complex and challenging issue.
One of the more prominent stories of the 2013 NFL season was former Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin’s charges of harassment and abuse against fellow players Richie Incognito, Mike Pouncey, and others. In much of the coverage of and responses to Martin’s story, it was framed in relation to the social issue of bullying, an issue that unquestionably affects numerous young Americans (especially those in the LBGT community, among others) and to which the Martin story likely helped draw further attention. But I would argue that Martin’s situation could be better described through the lens of hazing, an issue that relates to bullying but that comes with its own distinct factors and challenges—and that for this AmericanStudier has a couple Charlottesville connections.
For one thing, while bullying depends on narratives of othering, of treating the victims as outsiders in one way or another, hazing is connected instead to the concept of belonging—and, concurrently, is to a degree voluntarily pursued by its victims, in an effort to belong to whatever group or organization is doing the hazing. Earlier this year, two University of Virginia fraternities lost their charters due to charges that they were hazing new recruits, just the latest in a long history of fraternity hazing incidents around the nation (many of which have resulted in fatalities). I have no problem with such punishments, and indeed hope that they can help eliminate the hazing process at all fraternities and sororities (as well as other collegiate organizations)—but again, part of what makes it so difficult to identify and police hazing is that its victims are likely aware of the specifics of what will happen to them, and certainly aware of the broad concept of hazing within the organization, and yet enter into the recruitment process nonetheless. I don’t believe it will be easy to eliminate such a communal process, although I support the goal.
Both my support for ending hazing and my understanding of its complexities come from a more personal Cville story as well. As a freshman at Charlottesville High School, I experienced two hazing processes—a brief but violent hazing performed on all first-year students in the marching band; and a much more individual, intimate, and extended hazing at the hands of upperclassmen on the cross-country team. (Both the band director and the cross-country coach were well aware of, and at least tacitly supported, these hazings, adding another complication to ending them.) Immediately after the cross-country hazing, I also experienced another complicating factor in the process: the way it easily turns into a multi-year cycle. The upperclassmen who had been chiefly responsible for my hazing asked me to imagine how good it would feel to enact a similar hazing on the subsequent year’s freshmen, who were at the time 8th grade members of the team; I believe I’m a good person, but I will admit that this ugly version of paying it forward offered a tempting way to ameliorate some of the pain (physical and psychological) I was feeling. Yet I’m proud to say that I resisted that temptation, helping instead to put what to my knowledge has been a permanent end to such hazings at CHS. It can happen, but it’s not and won’t be easy, as these Cville stories illustrate.
My next Guest Post this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think about this complex issue? Other stories from your town(s) you'd share?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

September 11, 2014: More Cville Stories: Fry’s Spring

[Back in March, I featured a week’s worth of Charlottesville stories in anticipation of a book talk there. Well, Cville is just an AmericanStudier’s kind of town, because during my August visit with the boys I found myself thinking about another handful of local histories and stories from this Central Virginia city. So here they are!]
On four exemplary stages of one of Charlottesville’s most enduring sites.
Fry’s Spring earned its name through one of the area’s early 19th century blue-bloods. James Francis Fry, grandson of Joshua Fry (one of the two men who patented Albemarle County in the mid-18th century), received 300 acres of land in the area from his father-in-law, the equally prominent local Nelson Barksdale, in 1839. Fry built the estate Azalea Hall on the site but also discovered a nearby spring, which he christened Fry’s Spring and which by mid-century had become well-known throughout the region. This was the era in which President Buchanan maintained a “Summer White House” at Pennsylvania’s Bedford Springs, and Fry’s Spring offered those further south their own such escape.
By the end of the century, the spring had changed hands and become part of a far more elaborate resort community, one connected to the nearby Jefferson Park Hotel. This was the height of the Gilded Age, an era defined both by conspicuous consumption and by the rise of marketing and advertising to appeal to those wealthiest Americans, and the Hotel offered it all: access to waters advertised as “the third most powerful of their kind in the world”; an on-site menagerie known as Wonderland; and two different train lines (a small “dummy-line” and a larger steam locomotive) to bring visitors to the site. Resorts and spas were no longer simply for first families and presidents—they were part of a network of sites linked to the upper stratum of Gilded Age America, such as Newport’s mansions, Lenox’s Ventfort Hall, and many others.
The Hotel burned down in 1910 (with salvaged wood being used to construct nearby homes, including one in which a certain AmericanStudier grew up!), and the land was sold to a trolley company that focused on adding to the Wonderland amusements. Among other ways in which Wonderland was developed in this era, the company added the city’s first moving picture shows. This was the period in which this new form of entertainment was sweeping the nation, but to my mind the movies signaled more than just a new technology—they represented, along with the rise of professional sports and the popularity of places like Coney Island, Revere Beach, and other so-called “trolley parks,” a democratization of leisure, a broadening of sites like Fry’s Spring to include more than Virginia blue bloods or the nation’s upper classes.
The next stage of that democratization of leisure and of Fry’s Spring began soon thereafter, and has continued into this AmericanStudier’s life and the 21st century. Local businessman J. Russell Dettor bought the site in 1920 and built a swimming pool, which he opened in 1921 as Fry’s Spring Beach Club. The century since has seen plenty more history and evolution, including those related to segregation that I detailed in this post, but they’ve all been connected to the Beach Club. The Beach Club where I kept the beach ball up and swam laps and played tennis throughout my youth, and where I just took my boys for the next stage of their own Charlottesville histories and stories. Their lips got a lot bluer than their blood, and the only water they tried was heavily chlorinated, but the story of Fry’s Spring continues into the 21st century nonetheless.
Last Cville story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Stories from your town(s) you'd share?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

September 10, 2014: More Cville Stories: Barracks Road

[Back in March, I featured a week’s worth of Charlottesville stories in anticipation of a book talk there. Well, Cville is just an AmericanStudier’s kind of town, because during my August visit with the boys I found myself thinking about another handful of local histories and stories from this Central Virginia city. So here they are!]
On the elided but still evocative histories all around us.
In this post AmericanStudying cities to which I’ve had the chance to travel, I mentioned how impressed I was by the presence and intimacy of Rome’s histories, the way in which you could turn any corner and find yourself confronted by the Colosseum, the Forum, or any number of less famous but equally historic sites. To my mind, that element contrasts noticeably with our tendency in America to separate the historic sites from the present cities around them, to demarcate their existence as an area to be visited (or, saliently, to which to take tourists and other visitors to our city, but probably not venture ourselves) but not a part of the place’s ongoing life and identity. Such separations and demarcations are far better than not remembering or maintaining the histories at all, of course—and that has been an option in America far too often, so I’m always happier to see the maintained sites in whatever form—but it nonetheless makes it easier to treat the past as a foreign country, rather than as integral to and interconnected with ours.
Moreover, there are reminders of those histories all around us, if we know where and how to look for them. Throughout my life I have frequented the area of Charlottesville known as Barracks Road: the shopping center was home to the Shoney’s (aka Bob’s Big Boy) that was a favorite childhood restaurant, the Baskin Robbins that was a favorite dessert site, and the toy store that was, well, just a favorite spot, as well as to the Barnes & Noble where I worked for eight months between college and grad school; Barracks Road itself was close enough to my high school that my bus and car routes often included it, and a longtime high school girlfriend lived just off the road; and so on. Yet I had virtually no sense of the history comprised by that name: that a group of more than 3000 British and German prisoners of war were housed at a site along the road for nearly two years during the Revolutionary War (after the Continental Army’s 1777 victory at the Battle of Saratoga), in what came to be known as the Albemarle Barracks (the site itself is just outside of the city limits, in Albemarle County). Like the name, the shopping center’s sign obliquely gestures at that history, featuring a Revolutionary-era horseman.
So the reminders, like the “Indian Names” on the landscape about which Lydia Sigourney wrote so beautifully, remain. On the one hand, those slight echoes might make the overall elision of the past more frustrating: Barracks Road was for a time one of the South’s most significant Revolutionary War sites, and now I would wager that most Charlottesville residents know it solely (as I did for all those years) for the shopping center. But on the other hand, the echoes represent a continued presence, indeed an illustration of the influence the past has in creating the present—and as such as they also offer an opportunity to begin to connect with and learn about those histories, as long as we recognize and follow their clues. Which is to say, Sigourney was wrong to mourn the vanishing past in her poem, not only because Native Americans didn’t vanish (although that too to be sure), but also because the past never goes anywhere. It’s always there, quietly but crucially constituting our world, waiting to be discovered and better understood.
Next Cville story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Stories from your town(s) you'd share?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

September 9, 2014: More Cville Stories: The Black Knights

[Back in March, I featured a week’s worth of Charlottesville stories in anticipation of a book talk there. Well, Cville is just an AmericanStudier’s kind of town, because during my August visit with the boys I found myself thinking about another handful of local histories and stories from this Central Virginia city. So here they are!]
On how the past can imprison us, and how it doesn’t.
I’ve written a good deal about Charlottesville’s histories of racism and segregation, especially in this post on race and the city’s segregated swimming pools. I don’t mean to suggest that the city or its history can be defined or understood solely through the lens of such issues, certainly not any more than most Southern locales (although Charlottesville’s status as one of the school systems that resisted desegregation most vocally and aggressively makes it a telling such locale to be sure). But the truth is that if we don’t remember those histories, it’s easy to miss how present they are, even in places and ways where it’s easy to overlook them. That’s true of yesterday’s subject, the University of Virginia, which for nearly two centuries made virtually no public reference to how much of its construction and maintenance were performed by slave labor. And it’s true of the building in which I attended high school.
For more than a decade after that slow and forced desegregation, Charlottesville’s secondary students attended Lane High School, which had been in operation since 1940. But Lane proved too small to accommodate this greatly increased number of students, and in 1974 the city opened a new public high school, Charlottesville High. CHS inherited both Lane’s colors and its mascot, the Black Knight, the latter an ironically evocative icon that long predated desegregation. But the new building came with some unique features all of its own, ones that I couldn’t help but notice during my years there in the early 1990s: three distinct wings that were connected only by small hallways and that could be entirely isolated by the lowering of cage-like partitions that were housed in the ceiling; and two large ground-level courtyards that were overlooked by second-floor windowed structures that resembled guard towers. In short, it felt and still feels to me—and this is simply my own analysis, but I would argue for it—like Charlottesville High School’s physical structure was modeled in some key ways on a prison.
It’s hard to imagine a more potent metaphor for what the past, and particularly its darkest attitudes and histories, can do to the present and future than a school modeled after a prison (which may be, I’ll admit, one reason why this analysis appeals to me, although I’d be hard-pressed to analyze those elements of CHS in other ways). But while my high school experiences were as full of conflict and challenge as most people’s, I can’t say that racism or bigotry was part of the CHS that I knew: we had administrators and teachers of multiple races, I had friends from across those communities as (I believe) did most of my peers, I dated an African American classmate with no pushback or issues of any kind, and so on. Indeed, I would say that my mixed-race Charlottesville high school and its communities were probably identical to many schools and communities around the country and world—which is, perhaps, an even more potent symbol for how youth does not have to be defined or limited by the imprisoning attitudes of the past.
Next Cville story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Stories from your town(s) you'd share?