Black History Month Part V: “Race” and Its Kid Brother, “Whiteness”

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Every summer, ToM contributors revisit works that influenced them and meditate on how they've held up over the years as part of our Dog Days Classics series. These works have included everything from John Brooke's study on the roots of Mormon esoterica to Mike Royko's epic book  on Chicago mayor Richard Daley. But a quick look at our category cloud makes it clear that "race" stands out as a major theme at ToM, with "whiteness" not far behind.  While we've spent a good deal of time looking at Asian-American and Latino/a studies, African-American history has been a frequent subject for the site as well, so it's no surprise that Dog Days pieces have also touched on the idea of "race" and its … [Read more...]

Plains, Projects, and Alleyways: The Problem of Environmental Determinism in Architecture & History

Figure 2: An illustration from Defensible Space, explaining Newman’s ideas about surveillance, safety, and the physical arrangement of highrise housing projects.

Years ago, I saw a man at a Quaker meeting stand up and say, “Who you are begins with where you are.” To some this assertion may be self-evident, while for others it says entirely too much. One could say identity started any number of places other than place itself—in genetics, in culture, in social interaction. As such, the Friends’ meeting house provides a good point of departure for a discussion of the notion that people’s ideas and behavior are shaped by their physical surroundings. This “environmental determinism,” like so many determinisms, has been decried as too causally simplistic, for intruding too much on the ability of people to make their own world rather than being made by … [Read more...]

A New Look at Haiti’s Struggle for International Recognition

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The following is an excerpt from Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution (UNC Press, 2015), the wonderful new book from Georgia State historian Julia Gaffield. Gaffield looks at the tumultuous path charted by Haitians as they sought formal (as well as informal) recognition from other nations and empires in the wake of an unprecedented slave rebellion that sent shockwaves through the Atlantic World. The author also happens to be the discoverer of the only extant (and heretofore unknown) original copy of the Haitian Declaration of Independence (the subject of her forthcoming edited collection from University of Virginia Press).  No big deal. To study the … [Read more...]

Was the Constitution Racist? Sanders and Wilentz May Both Be Wrong

Sean Wilentz Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders thinks America was founded on racist principles. Sean Wilentz, the Pulitzer Prize nominated historian, disagrees. “The myth,” wrote Wilentz in an op-ed published in the New York Times, “that the United States was founded on racial slavery persists, notably among scholars and activists on the left who are rightly angry at America’s racist past.” So who’s right? Neither. Bernie Sanders’s statement about America’s racist Founding was not a proper argument, nor was it really meant to be. Sanders’s concern is justice today, and whether it is income equality or racial injustice he is targeting, the past is more of a convenient backdrop than a site of serious inquiry. Sean … [Read more...]

Jeff Davis’s Ghost: The Long Battle over the Memory of the Civil War

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History versus heritage? Memory versus history? Whose history and why? These questions are currently brewing a controversy at the University of Texas-Austin campus. The controversy swirls around a statue of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America. The turn-of-the-century statue is being hotly contested because of its association with a certain memory of the Civil War and for the heritage it represents. To opponents of the statue, Davis represents a racist past – one incongruous with a multicultural present. Those battling to preserve the statue, namely the Sons of Confederate Veterans, claim that the Davis statue represents a piece of heritage. Contestations over … [Read more...]

What Did the Three-Fifths Compromise Actually Do?

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Occasionally, a student asks a question so basic, about a presumption so fundamental to the teaching of history, that an instructor is caught completely unaware. A friend of mine found this out in his US history survey—in teaching about the colonization of the Americas, he made the commonplace assertion that indigenous peoples were highly susceptible to diseases brought from the Old World. Of course, we all know that smallpox, measles, and yellow fever ravaged the New World—at times literally decimating local populations—while the Americas only really sent back syphilis and lung cancer in return. But why, one student asked, were Native Americans so highly vulnerable to diseases from … [Read more...]

Mapping Community Narratives in El Monte and South El Monte

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Dear Internet: Those of us who have been working on East of East have had a long two weeks. With a whirlwind of events and interviews we have not always had enough time to step back and think about the work before us. In this concluding entry on the 2015 SEMAP I would like to offer a few thoughts on East of East and those that have made the project possible. History and activism go together. On our last day of SEMAP, we did a collaborative event with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). At this event we collected oral histories, including with Lilian Rey whose EM/SEM Emergency Recourses Association has provided relief for the poor for decades. Local … [Read more...]

ToM “Besties” of 2014

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Hello there. You are now witnesses to a kind of confrontation between me and these three men. And it ain’t so simple, treasonous crime. No it ain’t so simple and there’s reasons why When Detroit’s Protomartyr released their 2014 album Under Color of Official Right (itself eerily descriptive of public discourse from all sides this year), how could they have known their mix of Wire-like punk dirges would be emblematic of the last 12 months? The year seemed punctuated by rough arguments, sometimes violent confrontations, and the kind of disagreements that as Protomartyr sings, “Ain’t so simple and there’s reasons why.” Yet, our little blog dedicated to engaging these sorts of “conflicts” … [Read more...]

The Magic of Crabgrass: Thirty Years Later, An Appraisal of Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier (Best of UHA 2014, Part 2)

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"If I had added everything I'd still be writing it," eminent historian of U.S suburbanization and Columbia Professor Kenneth Jackson reflected during the UHA’s 2014 roundtable discussion honoring the upcoming 30th anniversary of his 1985 work, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. A packed house of historians dressed in their “urbanist best” greeted Jackson who admitted to being a bit “overwhelmed by the turnout but pleased for many reasons.” One can take for granted the enormity of Jackson’s most famous work Crabgrass Frontier (CF). Today, it seems common knowledge that federal policy in the form of redlining and racial bias in mortgage infrastructure … [Read more...]

What Does Woodward’s Origins of the New South Have to Say to the Twenty-First Century Reader?

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Less than a decade after C. Vann Woodward’s epic tome, Origins of the New South (1951), had been published, the author was already lamenting the passing of the geographic/political/economic unit he had dedicated his life to studying. In “The Search for Southern Identity,” an article originally published in 1958 in the Virginia Quarterly Review and reprinted in The Burden of Southern History, Woodward explained that every identifiable marker of southern distinctiveness—“the one-horse farmer, one-crop agriculture, one-party politics, the sharecropper, the poll tax, the white primary, the Jim Crow car, the lynching bee”—had been either destroyed or were “on their way towards vanishing.” A … [Read more...]

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