Tag Archives: historical memory

Can you see Russia from your American history class?


An Iñupiat seal drag made ca. 1900, one of the objects in the exhibit.  After killing a seal, the hunter slit the animal’s jaw and looped the leather thong through the hole, and then attached the loop to a longer line to haul the carcass across the ice.

Right now the McClung Museum has a special exhibit curated by Christine Dano Johnson, a UT grad and former intern.  It showcases items made by Yup’ik and Iñupiat people of Alaska in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and developed out of Johnson’s research into the museum’s collection of Native Alaskan and Pacific Northwest material.  She came back to the museum this week to discuss her research with an anthropology class.

When I sat in on her presentation, it occurred to me that I don’t recall discussing Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, or the inhabitants of these places at any length in any history class I’ve taken or taught, from grade school all the way to graduate seminars.  I’d wager the same is true of most history classes.

Do history courses need Alaska and its Native inhabitants?  My Ph.D. adviser asked my classmates and I a similar question during the first meeting of an early America seminar.  We were discussing the geographic and temporal boundaries historians use to define “colonial America.”  Alaska, after all, was a Russian colony in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  My adviser asked us to consider whether we need to incorporate this into our understanding of colonial America in order to make sense of it and to do the subject justice.  It’s an interesting—and provocative—question.  Most people associate colonial America with the eastern seaboard, while historians with a more expansive geographical vision have been careful to point out that the thirteen seaboard English provinces weren’t the only colonies out there.  The borders of colonial and early America have opened up in recent years.

But Alaska?  I think it’s a rare study indeed that considers its colonial experience to be part of either colonial or early American history.  Alan Taylor’s especially expansive and inclusive overview of colonial America is, of course, a notable exception.

Changes in geographical perspective can lead to interesting chronological reconceptualizations, too.  It’s no coincidence that Taylor’s continental studies of colonial America and the Revolution have later chronological end points than other, more geographically restrictive accounts.  Alaskan history forces us to reconsider when colonial America ends as well as where it ends.  It remained a European possession a century after those British colonies gave their king a pink slip.

A broader geographic perspective also has implications for teaching the second half of the American survey, and can help us correct demographic and cultural oversights that tend to characterize the post-1865 or 1877 history course.  Note that the Iñupiat seal drag in the photo dates from around the turn of the twentieth century.  How largely do indigenous people figure in most survey courses after the lectures move past, say, 1890?  Native Americans didn’t just vanish after Wounded Knee, as if they were figures in Marty McFly’s family photo.  Indeed, members of Native Alaskan communities continue their traditions of whaling and sealing today, mixing older practices with more modern technology.  (In fact, part of Johnson’s work in our collection involved consultation with these communities in an effort to better understand the cultural context of these objects.)

My point is not that every history course “needs” to cover Alaska and its inhabitants, but rather that greater attention to places we dismiss as marginal can prompt us to think and teach about the whole fabric of American history more creatively and intelligently.  If we want to shake up the ways we conceive of geographical, temporal, and demographic boundaries, Alaska could be a good place to get started.  The next time you’re putting together a syllabus, a little subarctic air might just prove invigorating.

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Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory, Teaching History

Historians weigh in on ‘The Birth of a Nation’

I’ve had The Birth of a Nation‘s release on my calendar for quite some time now.  I’m always eager to see major motion pictures based on historical events, and given BoaN‘s astounding reception at Sundance, I was looking forward to a landmark movie.  But a few informed reviews convinced me to skip opening night.  In fact, I’m starting to wonder if I should shell out money for a ticket at all.

The overall reviews are generally positive, but some historians of slavery and the black experience really, really dislike this movie.  Dr. Leslie Alexander of Ohio State says filmmaker Nate Parker “failed miserably” in his attempt to put the story of the revolt on the screen (some spoilers below):

Contrary to his promises of “historical fidelity,” Parker created a deeply flawed, historically inaccurate movie that exploits and distorts Nat Turner’s story and the history of slavery in America. Nearly everything in the movie—ranging from Turner’s relationship with his family, to his life as a slave, and even the rebellion itself—is a complete fabrication. Certainly the film contains sprinklings of historical fact, but the bulk of Parker’s story about the rebellion is fictitious: Nat Turner did not murder his owner, nor did he kill a slave patroller. Turner’s rebellion was not betrayed by a young boy, or by anyone else involved in the revolt. To the contrary, the rebels fought until the bitter end. The shootout depicted in Jerusalem, Virginia, never happened, because the rebels were stopped by the militia before they ever reached Jerusalem. The list of inaccuracies, distortions, and fabrications goes on and on.

The movie’s depiction of black women especially troubles Alexander:

A crucial turning point in the movie occurs when Turner’s wife, Cherry, is brutally gang raped by a group of slave patrollers—an attack the film portrays as the spark that ultimately drove Turner to launch his rebellion. But there is not a shred of historical evidence to suggest that Cherry was ever raped by slave patrollers, nor is there any evidence to indicate that an attack on his wife inspired Turner to rebel. By all accounts, Turner took up arms against slavery because he believed slavery was morally wrong and violated the law of God.

As Alexander notes, sexual violence was an important (and salty understudied) component of racial oppression, both before and after slavery.  But she argues that the gang rape plot device “is carefully constructed to redeem black masculinity at black women’s expense.”  The movie “perpetuates destructive lies about black women. Enslaved women fought for their dignity and freedom, and they exercised agency over their lives, in spite of unimaginable horrors.”

Dr. Vanessa Holden of Michigan State also takes Parker to task for the film’s treatment of black women:

The male slave rebels who joined him could not have succeeded without the help of longstanding support networks embedded in community life. Black women, free and enslaved, were not solely the victims of brutality that inspired men to resist, as portrayed in the film. They were also active participants in and witnesses to an event that proved catastrophic for their community just as they participated in the everyday resistance of their communities.

Holden also has a warning for those interested in using the movie as a teaching tool:

The Birth of a Nation is not an excerptable, classroom-ready movie. A screening of Parker’s film is not the place to learn about antebellum Southampton County or the lives of the enslaved and free African Americans who lived and labored there. It is also not the place to learn about the slave rebellion produced by this community in late August 1831.

The film’s setting, she writes, “is not a historically accurate recreation of 1800s Southampton County, Virginia. Instead, it is the imaginary ‘every South’ that often provides a backdrop for narratives set in the ‘slavery times’ of the public imagination.”

All this is disappointing to hear.  Between the plaudits from movie critics and the censures from historians, perhaps The Birth of a Nation is to antebellum slavery what The Patriot was to the American Revolution: a film that is entertaining and well-made, but not grounded in the history behind it.  Since The Birth of a Nation features real people and purports to tell the true story of a neglected event, its historical sins might be more serious than those of The Patriot, where the plot revolved around fictional characters.  Any filmmaker who claims that his motive is to bring a forgotten episode to public attention, I think, has a greater responsibility to the truth.

Regardless of whether The Birth of a Nation is the movie this story deserves, I think we’re living in a sort of golden age of black historical cinema.  In just a few years, we’ve had 12 Years a Slave, Selma (which had its own historical issues, of course), the depiction of a violent and troubled Reconstruction in Free State of Jones, and now a Nat Turner film.  In addition, the Black Lives Matter movement has prompted some interesting discussions about the historical context for current racial issues.  Americans might not be talking about the history of race and slavery with accuracy, but one thing’s for sure: we’re taking about it more than we used to.


Filed under History and Memory

When does it count as “American history”?

Here’s an excerpt from a post by Erin Bartram that really hit home for me:

To put it bluntly, I’ve observed the following patterns in how we casually talk and write about individuals in the past.

  • men tell us about “America,” women tell us about women
  • New Englanders tell us about “America,” Southerners and Westerners tell us about regional culture
  • Protestants tell us about “America,” Catholics tell us about Catholicism and maybe also the Irish
  • white Americans tell us about “America,” non-white people tell us about…a variety of things, but rarely America

It’s obviously not as simple as that, but I think when we’re confronted with a dominant versus a non-dominant group, our analytical brains go in different directions; for the dominant group, we go broad, and for the non-dominant group, we go narrow.

Bingo.  I think we all have a tendency to think of “American history” as having a sort of default setting, and that default setting is basically the history of white guys on the northeastern seaboard.  If you’re not white, not a guy, and not a resident of the northeastern seaboard, then we assume that your history is a part of American history, but it’s not really synonymous with “American history.”  Instead, we assume that it’s some particularized subset of history: women’s history, black history, regional history, gender history, Western history, etc.

In terms of race and sex, I’m a member of two dominant groups.  One of the few senses in which I’m historiographically non-dominant is in terms of geography.  I’m from southern Appalachia, so I tend to notice this sort of unconscious “default setting” for American history when it bears on region.  I think even people who are used to thinking about history in a sophisticated fashion tend to assume that Appalachian history is strictly regional history; it doesn’t really count as “American history.”  And yet when you see how extensive Appalachia really is…

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

…it’s hard to justify the assumption that the history of this region doesn’t speak to American history as a whole.  It’s a pretty good-sized chunk of the country.

Same thing goes for Western history.  Think about the last college survey text you looked at.  Was material on the West more or less limited to chapters on the trans-Mississippi frontier and Populism?  Did the more general chapters on large-scale developments and eras in “American history” take the West into account?  They certainly should have, because once you exclude what we dismissively call “the West”…

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

…”America” suddenly looks a whole lot smaller.

The issue isn’t that there are concerns that are rightly specific to or more pronounced in Appalachian history, Western history, women’s history, black history, Catholic history, and so on.  Any discipline will develop specializations, and historians who specialize will inevitably engage in scholarly conversations that will be of particular interest to others in the same sub-field.  The issue, rather, is our tendency to see certain sub-fields as nothing but sub-fields while turning others into stand-ins for the discipline as a whole.  “American history” isn’t synonymous with the history of white Protestant guys in the northeastern U.S.  And the best way to drive that point home, I think, is for everyone who works on the history of non-dominant groups to be as bold and daring as they can when it comes to thinking about how their projects speak to the entire discipline of American history.  Don’t think of yourself as a scholar of a marginalized subject; think of your subject as a vehicle to approach American history from a different perspective.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Historiography, History and Memory

A septet of early American links

This hasn’t been America’s finest week.

FWIW, I did run across some interesting items relating to early America over the past few days, some of which I’d planned on posting earlier.  Other than that, I’ve got nothing, other than to commend some wisdom from a long time ago:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.…So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Cor. 13:1-3, 13 (ESV)

Here are the links.

  • Archaeologists have identified the site of the 1779 Battle of Beaufort/Port Royal in South Carolina.  There’s some good news.
  • The National Park Service has acquired the site of Werowocomoco, where Powhatan held court in the seventeenth century.
  • Looks like the Continental soldier look is back in.
  • If you were going to pick seven sites every American history buff should visit, which would they be?  Here’s one list.
  • Historians of religion are weighing in on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  Metaxas claims that colonial America was a haven of religious freedom.  As John Fea explains, that was only true for certain colonies.  Proselytizing for the wrong church in Massachusetts or Virginia could’ve gotten you flogged…or worse.
  • Meanwhile, Robert Tracy McKenzie finds Metaxas guilty of misreading John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” remark.  Like a lot of people, Metaxas takes the quote as a statement of proto-Amrerican exceptionalism.  It was actually a warning, reminding the Puritans that if their “errand into the wilderness” failed, the whole world would see their downfall.  “Rather than puffing up the Puritans with claims of a divine mission,” McKenzie writes, “Winthrop intended his allusion to ‘a city upon a hill’ to send a chill down their spines.”
  • A Thomas Jefferson letter dating from the end of the War of 1812 turned up in an attic.  It can be yours for $325,000.

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Filed under American Revolution, Archaeology, Colonial America, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Reconstructing ‘Free State of Jones’

The reaction to Free State of Jones among movie critics has been pretty lackluster, but most of the historians I’ve heard from seem to have liked it.  (I liked it, too, for whatever that’s worth.)  I suspect this has to do with the fact that the film’s narrative structure doesn’t adopt many of the conventions of storytelling.

Critics have taken the film to task because the plot meanders, because it seems to lack focus, because it tries to do too much, and because the story just sort of tapers off—it “fizzles out long before it ends,” as one critic put it.  From a filmmaking standpoint, these criticisms make sense.  Narratives aren’t supposed to meander and then fizzle out.  Storytellers are supposed to keep things rolling along until events reach a dramatic crescendo and a full resolution.  In Jaws, when Chief Brody detonates that air tank and sends chunks of great white shark into the stratosphere, you know the movie’s over.

Some historical stories conform to these conventions of dramatic narrative.  Gettysburg establishes a few important characters at its outset, then adds in more and more narrative threads, intensifies, and finally reaches a grand climax of resolution.  That happens to be the way the battle played out, so in that case the filmmakers could follow dramatic convention and be faithful to the events they were portraying.

But that’s generally not the way history works.  One of the writers of the musical 1776 once quoted someone as saying, “God writes lousy drama.”

Free State of Jones hits its crescendo near the middle, as Newt Knight’s struggle against the Confederacy becomes an outright war.  After this comes a long, dispiriting declension, in which much of Knight’s work is undone by the retreat from Reconstruction and the return to power of the same people he fought against during the war.  The movie doesn’t end with an exclamation point or a period, but an ellipsis followed by a question mark.

Having read a lot of reviews of the film, I think critics would have reacted more positively if it had been a more straightforward Civil War film, a story of an insurgency culminating in the Confederate flag coming down in front of the Jones County Courthouse and the Stars and Stripes going up.  True, that narrative would’ve been less choppy and rushed, and it wouldn’t have “fizzled out.”  But Gary Ross made a deliberate decision to take a longer view of the Civil War era, one that includes the reversals of Reconstruction. Regardless of whatever liberties Free State of Jones takes with specific incidents or characters, that decision took guts.

And that, I think, is one reason why historians have reacted to the film more positively than movie critics and audiences.  When you’re dealing with history, you don’t always get a story that conforms to narrative convention.  With history, the story sometimes meanders.  It moves in fits and starts, it doubles back on itself, and it tapers off into uncertainty.  That’s exactly what happened in the case of Reconstruction.  If you consider Appomattox to be the end of the Civil War, then the story makes good narrative sense.  It all gets wrapped up in a neat package, with the various narrative threads resolved, the slaves freed, and the Union back together.  But when you take the long view of the Civil War era—as historians often do and as Free State of Jones does—it’s a story of reversals, marked by lulls in the action.  And it’s a story that does indeed fizzle out, just as the nation’s commitment to the war’s gains fizzled out in the 1870s.

Maybe that story isn’t as emotionally satisfying as the ones people are used to hearing about the Civil War.  But I’m glad we got a movie that told it, even if it hasn’t caught on with critics and audiences.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Tennessee history, dinner theater, the Bible, so forth and so on

A few days ago I heard a radio ad for Biblical Times Dinner Theater in Pigeon Forge, TN, plugging a show that combines gospel music, Bible stories, and…wait for it…Tennessee history.

Surprised by that last one?  So was I.  In fact, for a second I thought I’d misheard something.  But it’s true.  You can now eat a meal, enjoy live entertainment, get some religious edification, and learn about the history of the Volunteer State all at the same time:

This show was specially created for those of you who are fans of classic gospel music and who have an interest in the FAITH heritage of East Tennessee. You will meet great heroes of the Bible along with legends of Tennessee who took a stand for God’s Word, from Moses to Billy Graham, Noah to Davy Crockett, Joshua to Sgt. York and enjoy music legends like The Happy Goodmans, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Johnny and June Carter Cash, Elvis and more.

The website’s list of “Legends of Faith from the Bible and East Tennessee” also includes Samuel Doak and Andrew Johnson.  All you fellow Rev War and Tennessee frontier enthusiasts will recognize Doak as the Presbyterian minister who preached to the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals before the march that ended at King’s Mountain.  Andrew Johnson needs no introduction, although I confess that when I think of great defenders of the faith from Tennessee, he’s not exactly the first guy who comes to my mind.

I’m assuming all these characters somehow figure in the performance, but I’m not sure if cast members actually portray them on stage or if somebody just relates information about them in between the songs.  One historical figure who does put in an appearance is the Apostle Paul, because he’s the narrator.

Part of me would pay good money to see Davy Crockett, Sgt. York, and Samuel Doak singing and cutting a rug alongside Moses and Noah, especially if the M.C. is a guy who wrote part of the New Testament.  But at this point I think I’ll have to pass on making a reservation.  I love Tennessee history, I love the Bible, I love theater, and I love a hearty meal, but I’m not sure I’d like them all at the same time.


Filed under History and Memory, Tennessee History

UTK historians are making news

We’re wrapping up another semester at UTK, and our history faculty (both current and emeritus) has been making headlines.

With all the brouhaha over the $20 bill, Jacksonian scholar Dan Feller has been in the news quite a bit lately (like here, for example).  A few days ago he talked to NPR about the tumultuous presidential election of 1824 and how it helped make our modern party system.

Stephen Ash, author of a book about the bloody racial episode in Memphis in 1866, lent his expertise to another recent NPR story, this one about an effort to erect a state historical marker dedicated to the massacre and paid for by the local chapter of the NAACP.  The Tennessee Historical Commission, which oversees the state markers program, approved text for the signage that referred to the massacre as a “race riot.”  Historians and members of the community objected to the phrasing, so the NAACP decided to erect its own signage rather than go through the THC program.  Personally, I much prefer the language on the NAACP’s private marker.  In this case, I think the phrase “race riot” carries connotations that would obfuscate what happened in 1866, whereas “massacre” more accurately conveys the nature of the actual event.

Julie Reed, who taught one of my all-time favorite grad courses, has a new book out.  She examines the Cherokee Nation’s social welfare efforts during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and their influence on U.S. government policy.

Finally, Shannen Dee Williams, whose seminar I had the privilege of taking this past semester, has been appointed to the Organization of American Historians’ Distinguished Lectureship Program.

We’ve got fantastic professors.  I’m lucky to get to learn from these folks!

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Filed under History and Memory, Tennessee History