Archive for the 'In the News' Category


Separate Pasts, Shared Future?

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.


The Mouthpiece Meets His Maker

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.”


A Query

I was happy to see that in its May 7 issue, Time devoted significant attention to Jamestown and “America at 400.” I was even happier to see that, rather than whitewashing the issue of slavery, they included an article (albeit brief) by Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson, who some years ago authored a very enlightening book, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study.

While reading, a question posed by one of my college professors came back to me. The question sounds sort of pointed, but it’s really intended more as a jumping off point for critical thinking, and as a student, I found it an interesting way to start a discussion. I’ll probably use it when I begin teaching.

Were enslaved people enslaved because they were black? Or were they black because they were enslaved?

The first option is obviously widely accepted in today’s society, and there’s certainly some truth to it, but it’s the second part of the question that really made me think. Africans have been implicated in the slave trade, which complicates the issue, but what I find more interesting is the evolution of racialized thinking in the colonies.

Early on, there was little distinction made between African (black) slaves and English (white) indentured servants. Of course, the greatest difference would be that indentured servants held on to the hope of achieving their freedom after several years (provided they didn’t succumb to exhaustion, disease, or malnourishment), whereas slaves were bound in perpetuity.

But the Patterson article raises several issues that took me back to that question. He writes, “The colony’s elite remained committed to indentured white servitude as the backbone of the labor force until at least the middle of the 17th century because indentures were cheaper than African slaves.” This (aside from providing a comment on capitalism and the American way) would seem to indicate that race was not a primary factor.

Patterson continues by saying that “As the black population grew and increasingly became the labor force of elite whites, both attitudes and laws changed.” He cites the 1662 declaring children of slaves to be bound for life, the abolition of Christianity as an obstacle to enslavement, and the right of a master to kill a slave.

More importantly, Patterson argues that the views on race formed at Jamestown eventually shaped the nation, with “fateful consequences for black Americans.” Jamestown, he concludes, laid the cornerstone for the fundamental contradiction in American society, “that African Americans, even though they were among the earliest arrivals, did not belong to the body politic and were to be permanently excluded from all basic rights of citizenship.”

In his view, the civil rights movement “dismantled” the foundations laid at Jamestown. He points to Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama as evidence that “Whatever the persisting problems of black Americans—many of which, like a fragile family life and the lack of inheritance, also originated in slavery—it is now incontestable that they belong to America as America belongs to them.” His hopeful gloss on the present and future is unsatisfying, but his sentiment is probably correct.

The article is excellent and thought-provoking, and I encourage everyone to read it. I still don’t have a definitive answer to the question first posed to me in college, and I doubt seriously that I ever will. But it makes me think, and that is a start.


Southern Stories

Today in the New York Times, a great article about race and southern history that is right up my research interest alley. It begins, “The gripping black-and-white photographs of civil rights protesters in the South reflect the black-and-white morality tale that generally accompanies them.” Several historians are quoted: Jason Sokol, Matthew Lassiter, Kevin Kruse, and Joseph Crespino. With the exception of Crespino, I’ve read–or at least skimmed–all of their books, and they’re all excellent.

In other news, I’m also reading a recently published collection, The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory (eds. Renee C. Romano and Leigh Raiford, University of Georgia Press), which speaks to a lot of these same issues. I’m only through a couple of chapters, but so far, it’s terrific.

Getting back to the article, it asserts that “A new generation of historians is exploring some of the untold stories of the civil rights movement and its legacies: the experiences not of heroes or murderous villains, but of ordinary Southern whites.” My own research is very similar in some ways, and as the earliest draft of that endeavor will be handed in later this week, I thought this very appropriate.

I also find it interesting that both Lassiter and Crespino find their inspiration in their own “southern roots.” It seems that many (though certainly not all) southern historians have roots in the South. I wonder if this is the same for other fields of history.

Until I found this article, I had originally planned to write a little bit about Orlando Patterson’s recent piece in Time, which discusses the roots of slavery at Jamestown. It brought to mind an interesting and thought-provoking question once posed by own of my college professors. Stay tuned.


Private Proms

A couple of days ago, CNN reported on Turner County, Georgia’s first integrated prom. It’s a great article, and there are several very interesting things to point out here.

First, it’s important to note that the “white prom” continued as usual. I would have appreciated some numbers about attendance at the “white prom” versus the “integrated prom,” particularly to see if there were white students who attended both. But one student was quoted as saying that although blacks could have attended the “white prom,” none did: “I guess they feel like they’re not welcome.” Probably not. I wonder why. This reminds me of my research, in which a former headmaster of the school I’m studying said that although the admissions process was “equal opportunity,” no blacks ever applied. My take? It might have had something to do with the fact that the school was formed in order to avoid integration, but I can’t be sure.

Getting back to Turner County, there also seems to be a severe gender gap, and this is what gives me hope for the future. Apparently, the push for an integrated prom was entirely student-led. Not all parents approved, however.

Nichols said while her parents were in support of the integrated prom, some of her friends weren’t allowed to go.

“If they’re not coming tonight it’s because either they had to work and they couldn’t get out of it or because their parents are still having an issue because they grew up in south Georgia,” she said.

“I’ve asked, ‘Why can’t you come?’ and they’re like, ‘My mommy and daddy — they don’t agree with being with the colored people,’ which I think is crazy,” she said.

The use of the phrase “colored people” is bizarre–the quote almost reads like the ones I’m finding in forty year-old newspapers, but the saddest thing I read might be the quote from one mother who was watching black and white students pose together for photographs: “That is so fake. There is nothing real about that.” As if black and white students couldn’t possibly be interested in genuine social interactions with each other.

The principal said that he had no plans to stop the private proms–which makes sense. As principal of a public school, he probably has no legal standing to stop them. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be stopped. Regrettably, he had to throw in this cop-out line appealing to the more “conservative” parents in the community: “That’s going to be up to the parents. That’s part of being in America. If they want to do that for the kids, then that’s fine.”

Sure, having a choice is part of being in America. And unfortunately, segregating your kids in school is too. But we shouldn’t condone it so glibly.


“A Tragedy of Monumental Proportions”

As a Virginia alum and a dyed-in-the-wool Wahoo, it is not often that I express sympathy for Virginia Tech, but today is obviously not like any other day. I am stunned by the news from Blacksburg, and I have been glued to my television for much of the afternoon.

Upon hearing the horrible news this morning, I scrambled to contact as many friends and former classmates as possible. Thankfully, everyone I know is safe. Unfortunately, however, there are many people who were not, and my heart goes out to all of their friends and family. I’m still in a state of shock, and I am deeply saddened by what happened this morning.

As one Virginia fan posted on a message board: The rivalry is on hold until further notice.


Worthless Apologies

Don Imus. What can I say that hasn’t already been said? Believe it or not, I actually didn’t plan to write about him, but after I titled this post, I realized I couldn’t help but mention his name. I won’t weigh in on the Imus fiasco except to say that I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during his meeting with C. Vivian Stringer and her Rutgers players last night.

Speaking of worthless apologies, noted historian James Cobb recently published an op-ed in the The New Republic (also available on his blog without registration) arguing that all of these recent apologies for slavery are actually bad for blacks, and he makes a compelling argument.

I’ll admit that I was impressed by the first apologies, and generally think that any public acknowledgment that slavery was wrong is a step in the right direction. However, I did find it curious that they began to snowball, and after reading Cobb’s take, I’m considerably more skeptical now.

Currently Reading

Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain