As of late, I’ve been thinking about posting here again. Although I expect my primary focus to remain on the South and southern history, I will probably also write about education and American history more generally. More to come.
I stopped posting on this blog more than a year ago, but in the last couple of days, I’ve had a strong urge to reopen it. I don’t know if anyone else will even read this, but as I reflect on the election of our first African-American president, I am been inspired to write something for public consumption. Given what it used to be, I thought this an appropriate forum.
Yes, we can.
Obama’s signature line, which clearly resonated with so many Americans, sums up what his campaign was all about. With his promise of “change,” he managed to turn out millions of new voters, most of whom seem to view him as the last great hope for a much-needed national revitalization project. Political buzzwords aside, many Americans–especially the ones that did support Senator Obama–expect a change not only in policy, but in the relationship between the American people and their government. “I’m asking you to believe,” reads the quotation from the top of Obama’s campaign website. “Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington… I’m asking you to believe in yours.”
Yes, we can.
To many in the African-American community, it seems that “we can” represents the logical culmination of “we shall”–as in “We Shall Overcome.” To see John Lewis and Jesse Jackson choking up and shedding tears on national television makes this link obvious. With that said, I was actually rather surprised by the media’s extraordinary focus on race in the immediate aftermath of the election. Of course, it’s to be expected given that we have elected the first African-American president in our nation’s history. The magnitude of that fact simply cannot go unrecognized. It is an extraordinary event, and as such, it deserves extraordinary coverage.
But at 11:00 pm on Tuesday night, just after they called the crucial West Coast states for Obama, the media (MSNBC, at least) chose to portray the victory celebration in a curious way. Immediately, they cut to Atlanta, flashing scenes of all-black crowds at Spelman College and Ebenezer Baptist Church across the screen. In doing so, they seemed to portray African-Americans as a group still somehow “apart” from American society. Perhaps it’s naive–especially for a historian of the South–but to me this seemed somewhat amiss.
I certainly don’t mean to imply that race was not a factor in this election. To anyone who understands “the arc of history” (in Obama’s words) in even the crudest of terms, it is undeniable. If you doubt it, take a look at the maps below.
The first map (courtesy of the University of Virginia’s Historical Census Browser) is of slave population by county in 1860. The counties in the darkest shade of green all had more than 5000 slaves just prior to the Civil War. The second map (courtesy of the New York Times) is of counties in the Deep South where Obama won a majority of votes on Tuesday. The connections should be apparent, and we know from exit polls that Obama received upwards of 95% of the “African-American vote” nationwide. Of course, Obama won none of these Deep South states, and perhaps that says something about American society in the 21st century, but I’ll leave that for another day.
Nevertheless, Obama ran not as an “African-American candidate,” but as an American candidate who happened to be of African descent. (I could make a tenuous claim about the political necessity of such a strategy and what that might say about American society, but I’ll leave that for another day as well.) Instead, at the risk of sounding more controversial than I really intend to, what I will say is this: those shots of Spelman and Ebenezer are not indicative of the “change” that Obama really represents.
I certainly understand the symbolism of Obama’s victory to African-Americans, and they have every right to celebrate this victory as their own. They have overcome, and so in a sense, we have all overcome. For that reason, November 4th, 2008 will go down as an important day in American history.
But the true genius of Obama’s campaign–and the reason for its tremendous success–could be seen not in Atlanta, but in Chicago’s Grant Park, where nearly a quarter of a million people celebrated victory. The crowd in Chicago included many prominent African-Americans, but it also represented a true cross-section of the American electorate. Citizens of every race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and age showed up to show their support.
Unreconstructed rebels may take issue with this next claim, but it’s only fitting that in a park named for a man whose military efforts helped end the Civil War and made it possible to put our great nation back together, Obama promised the American people–in terms that sounded not unlike Martin Luther King, Jr.–that “we will get there.”
In an interesting op-ed from earlier this week, John McWhorter suggests that of all the issues facing the United States today, racism is relatively low on the list in terms of urgency. “America has problems,” he writes, “and our new president knows it. However, is America’s main problem still ‘the color line’ as W.E.B. DuBois put it 105 years ago? The very fact that the president is now black is a clear sign that it is no longer our main problem, and that we can, even as morally informed and socially concerned citizens, admit it.”
McWhorter’s intent is not to deny the existence of racism in the U.S. Instead, he argues that American attitudes toward race have changed such that racism has become socially unacceptable, that out-and-out racists, while still around, have been pushed to the fringes of society. “[Y]esterday,” he writes, “we saw that this ‘out there’ brand of racism cannot keep a black man out of the White House. . . . Sure, there are racists. There are also rust and mosquitoes, and there always will be. Life goes on.”
He points out that when asked for his immediate reaction to Obama’s victory, John Lewis described it as “amazing–almost unreal.” McWhorter, however, concludes that “There is nothing at all ‘unreal’ about this. It is, after all, what we were supposed to be working toward. We must embrace it.”
Should we acknowledge that, even with the election of our first African-American president, racism still exists in our nation? Of course we should. But can we also say that the election of Barack Obama is proof that we, as Americans, have the capacity to set race aside and come together in the best interest of our shared future? Can we say that racial differences no longer define our nation?
Yes, we can.
I couldn’t resist passing on this little gem.
Tea as a substitute for wine in the South? I had never heard that. And rather than sweet tea, my mother made what was essentially simple syrup with a few drops of tea for flavor.
I left town on May 14 and spent a little over a week with my family in Virginia. On the way home, I made two stops—one in Chapel Hill and the other in Atlanta. I spent a day each at the UNC’s famed Southern Historical Collection and Emory University’s Manuscripts and Rare Books Library.
Both were relatively productive. Of course, there were the usual ups and downs—unorganized collections, mislabeled material, and dusty papers that makes me sneeze a lot. But overall, I think it was well worth the effort.
At the SHC, I was looking primarily at the records of the Southern Justice Institute, a North Carolina-based legal aid firm that assisted with voting rights litigation throughout the South. The collection was mostly legal procedural filings: motions, orders and the like. Not exactly the most exciting sources, but worthwhile. Unfortunately, I had not done my homework thoroughly enough before making the trip, and I didn’t really understand a lot of the context for the stuff I was looking at. Eventually, though, as I read the newspapers and start to put the pieces together, I think it will prove to have been a useful stop.
I also looked at several nineteenth century sources. I noticed that they had a fair amount of material on the county I’m researching. I just looked at a few of these, and didn’t really find what I was hoping for (I was hoping to get some sources that spanned the Civil War and Reconstruction into the late-nineteenth century), but there are several others that I didn’t have time to look through. I’ll need to go back at some point, I suppose, but mainly, I just wanted to be able to say I’d done research at the Southern Historical Collection. And now I can.
Emory was much more productive. The staff there was extremely helpful, and already had my materials pulled when I arrived. I spent most of the day Thursday looking through the Newsweek Atlanta Bureau collection, which holds a ton of material relating to the South from the 1950s through the 1980s, I suppose. I only looked at a very small portion of it, but I found some great stuff. There were a lot of filed reports and such, but also materials that reporters collected for their stories. I was pleasantly surprised.
I had originally planned to spend two days at Emory, but the other collection I was looking at proved to be virtually useless. It was the personal papers of one of the Newsweek reporters who spent considerable time in the community, and I was hoping I would find his notes from interviews and such, but alas. No such luck. The boxes did have a slip of paper with his address and phone number on them, however, so I think he might be getting a phone call this summer.
(As a side note, both archives also allow the use of digital cameras in lieu of photocopying, and this allowed me to bring home readable digital copies of hundreds of documents that would have probably otherwise cost me a not inconsiderable sum. I just used my very basic Sony camera and transferred the images to my computer when I got home, but another researcher I saw had a very elaborate looking tripod and had the camera plugged directly into the computer, so she transferred the files immediately and could edit them as needed. I will have to look into this technology.)
I’ve noticed that a somewhat befuddling number of people have reached the site by searching for “black like me,” which I included on my “Required Reading” list of memoirs. I can only assume that somewhere out there is a teacher who has assigned an essay on John Howard Griffin’s book, one that is due very soon.
So, to all you students out there, allow me to apologize for not having something more substantial to offer about the book (like, say, a summary, a list of central characters and themes, and a discussion of the relevant symbolism). I’ll also take this opportunity to again recommend that you actually read it. Believe it or not, it’s an enjoyable read.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should state plainly that I have never been a Jerry Falwell fan. And that is probably an understatement.
Oh, but if I could be a fly on the wall in his meeting with the Lord. That, I expect, would be an interesting encounter. I wonder how the Lord felt all these years about Falwell’s ham-handed fatwas. I also wonder, for someone who put forth the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, how closely Falwell read it.
“For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment.” (Genesis 18:19)
“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24)
Falwell and his ilk have certainly doled out their fair share of judgment, and when he was in the pulpit, (self?) righteousness flowed like a swollen river during flood season. But how often did Falwell “do justice” in equal measure?
The second quotation is particularly relevant, because of its use by another well-known preacher who had a radically different world-view. Let us not forget the Jerry Falwell who once decried the “civil wrongs movement” and claimed that the separation of church and state was invented by the Devil “to keep Christians from running their own country.” Only a few years before, he had asserted that preachers had no place in politics. “Preachers are not called to be politicians,” he said, “but to be soul winners.” If only he had listened to himself.
Certainly, Jerry Falwell will be remembered for his tremendous impact on the history of our nation, and on the South in particular. For many, he became a hero and a role model, and in some ways that legacy is justified. But while I’ll leave it to others to debate the relative worth of his “rights,” let us never forget his “wrongs.”
In my (limited) experience, sitting down with perfect strangers and asking them questions about their past is one of the most intimidating things in all of researchdom—and given my line of historical inquiry, I’ve also anxiously awaited the day when someone not-so-subtly hinted that I should give it up. Thankfully that has not happened yet. But despite the downsides, oral history has also proven to be one of the most interesting and rewarding elements of my research. It sounds cliché, but hearing people tell their stories about the past, flawed as they may be, makes what I study seem relevant, and it reminds me that history is not merely an abstraction. Even those long dead were once living, making history in their own place and time.
I’ve conducted several interviews over the past few months. All have been informative, and while I can feel myself getting better with practice, none have been altogether satisfying. Maybe they never will be; there will probably always be that one question I think of after the fact and wish that I had asked. But I just bought myself a new recorder that can transfer the audio files to the computer for long-term preservation, and I plan to conduct several more interviews over the summer, so I’m hoping to learn more about the intricacies of the process. How to make the interviewee feel comfortable, how to ask questions and guide the conversation in a way that yields the desired information, how to handle sensitive subjects like race, politics, and religion, and, of course, how to make sure that you can actually use the material in a publication. Also, I’m hoping to find out how to know when your subject is lying to your face. I’m pretty sure I’ve been lied to, even if I can’t say for certain whodunit.
This is where you come in.
I’m going to be shameless in my quest for knowledge. If you have any experience at all with oral history, or even if you know where I can find some good information, I would be much obliged if you would pass it along. You can either leave a comment on this post, or you can use the contact form. Anything at all—books, articles, links, personal observations, whatever. It’s all useful. Many thanks in advance.