Oral histories from the Rappahannock River

Rappahannock River, as seen from Hunter’s Island, Spring 2017

As a colonial historian, I never thought I’d be working on an oral history project, but a couple of years ago a student from my environmental history class, Woodie Walker, who is also a conservationist at Friends of the Rappahannock (FOR) approached me with an idea generated by his contacts at work: to collect and preserve oral histories related to the river. Following several dam removals in the early 2000s, the Rappahannock became Virginia’s longest free-flowing river, and a major destination for recreational paddlers and fishers, plus an important fishery for watermen. It’s an important cultural and natural resource for many of Virginia’s communities, and I’m delighted to finally share the first five oral histories we’ve collected in this collaboration between FOR and UMW students and faculty, and with the enthusiastic support of community partners.

On the site, you can watch videos of the interviews (time-stamped index coming soon for better navigation) or read transcripts (several are available now, and the rest will be soon).

If you want to know more, join us in Monroe Hall for Talking History on Feb. 12, or stop by the table at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival on March 31 at UMW’s Dodd Auditorium.

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Some thoughts on football and the NFL

I suspect there’s a part of me that still loves football, but I’m also pretty sure it’s the part of me that is memories and nostalgia, not the part of me that lives in the here and now. In what’s becoming increasingly incongruous, I read lots of football coverage, and I hear the hand-wringing about declining ratings and interest in the NFL. I’m one of those people abandoning the league, and the sport, and as I think about why, I think the more compelling question is why I hung on so long.

A few years ago, the NFL moved Monday Night Football to a cable network, ESPN; I’ve never paid for a cable tier that gives me ESPN access, and I’m not willing to do that, or to support a sports network that increasingly monopolizes live sports programming and sensationalizes nothing-stories, and that more recently has withdrawn its support for quality writing and reporting like what I could find on Grantland. It then added a Thursday night game, which is rarely compelling, and only infrequently accessible. Just over three years ago my partner and I bought a house and moved in together, along with our two young girls, and my reality became that I couldn’t watch “the game,” or even “a game,” every Sunday like I used to. A year or so after that, I decided that even when a game I wanted to watch actually was televised in my DC-area market, I wasn’t going to center my Sunday around it.

Even as I prioritized other things in my life, I watched football when I could. It’s a great sport–the power and doggedness of Marshawn Lynch carrying would-be-tacklers for another 3 yards, the touch on an Aaron Rodgers back-shoulder fade to Jordy Nelson, the closing speed of Richard Sherman. And it’s a hard one to escape. NFL football, to me, is sitting in the shop with my dad watching Montana and Rice and Taylor and Sherrard and Craig and Lott and Jones and Cofer and Young and Owens; it’s Monday Night Football over burgers and tater tots, and Sunday afternoons at The Grad; it’s watching my contemporaries at Cal go pro and show up in the starting lineups; it’s begrudgingly embracing the Packers because Aaron Rodgers is from my hometown, and my community college, and my college alma mater, and doing so even as I spent a year in Minnesota; it’s phone calls across 2000 or 3000 miles to talk to my dad or my brother or my college roommate about the game or a free agent deal; it’s what I fleetingly dreamed of during the two years I played high school football, and especially during the two weeks in which I was good. I still thrill when I recall stretching my fingertips to grasp that leather, or driving a shoulder into a ball carrier’s ribs and feeling his feet leave the ground.

But here I am. My 49ers are terrible, but even when they’re interesting, they aren’t broadcast where I live, and I get stuck with eastern teams I couldn’t care less about. The Packers had a good start to the season before Rodgers went down, and they showed up on TV occasionally, but I’m pretty sure they haven’t lately (for good reason). When there has been a matchup I’ve wanted to see this season, I haven’t been able to find it on TV, and I’m not going to buy some cable package just to watch the NFL. The league is everywhere, all the time, and I can’t see what I want to anyway. I realize it’s a business, and there may be no market for what I want (San Francisco, or really any West Coast teams) where I now live (Virginia), but I’m not totally convinced that location does matter, given the league’s blackout policies, and its enabling franchises to relocate for taxpayer-funded stadiums billionaire owners don’t have to pay for.

That saturation, the proposals to increase the number of games, the criticisms of players sitting out–they’re all ways of increasing the amount of product to generate additional profits, but done at the expense of the laborers, the players. Sure, a few make millions, but most don’t, and the guys who’ve spent 10 or 15 years chasing NFL dreams–even those who make it–are going to bear physical costs. CTE and other health problems have been evident for years, even as the NFL denies or dismisses them, or institutes protocols ostensibly to protect players even though fans watching on TV can see they don’t actually achieve that. Some of what we–I–love about the sport is the excitement and violence, how physical it is. But I have a conscience, too, and one that struggles to reconcile my love of the sport with the cost for its players.

We can add the league’s bumbling around issues like domestic violence and protests, where it’s clearly more concerned with its public image and trying to eliminate any contentious social or political discussions and keep stars on the field than with the rights or well-being of its players, or their families. The NFL acts when its bottom line is threatened, not at any other time or in response to any other pressure. Again, I’m disinclined to watch and generate revenue for a sport in which owners are trying to compel players to act one way (not protest), but oppose disciplinary actions for domestic abuse and other poor behaviors because discipline might cost a team victories.

Even through those issues, I remained uneasily invested, unwilling to withdraw completely. But this year one of my daughters has wanted to watch games with me, and I’ve been stuck in an even more awkward position. If we could watch the Vikings–she’s from Minnesota–I might be willing to dismiss my reservations in the interests of sharing some quality time with her. Instead, the team most consistently broadcast where we live is Washington. I am, among other things, a Native American historian, conscious of what that team’s nickname means historically, and to American Indians today. I cannot and will not in any way support that team until the name changes. Washington games were the first I refused to watch. To top it all off, this year the NFL decided to schedule the team to play on Thanksgiving Day, which is already a somewhat problematic holiday as many Americans celebrate it. And that games was against the Dallas Cowboys, just in case there was any remaining question that the NFL has absolutely no regard for the people it purports to “honor.” I realize the Supreme Court ruling earlier this year protected the right to use nicknames like this, but Dan Snyder and Roger Goodell emphasize the ruling, not that the court identified racial epithets as protected speech. Guys, those are bad. I can’t in good conscience cultivate any interest in that team, and given the television market in which I live, that league.

And so I’ve pretty much stopped watching this season, and I can’t honestly say that I miss it. I’ve used my Sunday afternoons to hang curtains in our library, build Lego sets with my daughter, nap, read the Washington Post, carve a pumpkin, work a couple of puzzles, repair the deck and the shed door, decorate a Christmas tree with my wife, take pictures of my girls during their riding lessons, cook some delicious meals, and do the housework I haven’t gotten to during the rest of the weekend, which I’ve spent shopping with kids and catching up on work and reading. Hell, it’s Sunday afternoon as I’m writing this.

I won’t pretend that I never liked football or the NFL, and I won’t pretend that I’m never going to watch it again. I also admit that I read about it–less today than a year ago, since now I haven’t seen what writers are discussing, but also hopefully more now than a year or two from now, when I will know fewer of and less about the players being written about. But for me, football has grown bigger and bigger in ways that make its flaws impossible to ignore or reconcile with my other priorities, and so that growth has made it a smaller and smaller part of my life.

Now, when do pitchers and catchers report?

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Native media responds to Trump

“Navajo Indian communication men with the Marines on Saipan landed with the first assault waves to his the beach,” 1944; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I sometimes think I should just stop being surprised and/or appalled by anything Donald Trump says or does, but more often I hope I never stop being shocked and horrified by how awful he is. Yesterday I managed to ignore the internet all afternoon only to arrive home and be asked if I’d seen his antics at a ceremony ostensibly meant to honor the Navajo Code Talkers. Some of his remarks were fairly typical of Trump, but they took place in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson, and included his use of the name Pocahontas as a slur.

There were plenty of reactions from the media and politicians, and I have plenty I could say (both as a historian, and as a decent human being), but there are better voices for this moment. Indian Country Today reported on the event. The National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel issued a statement in which he rightfully redirected attention to the people who should have been at the center of this conversation: “Today was about recognizing the remarkable courage and invaluable contributions of our Native code talkers. That’s who we honor today and everyday – the three code talkers present at the White House representing the 10 other elderly living code talkers who were unable to join them, and the hundreds of other code talkers from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche, Lakota, Meskwaki, Mohawk, Navajo, Tlingit, and other tribes who served during World Wars I and II. We also honor the service and bravery of all of our veterans and those currently serving from Indian Country.” Later in the day Native News Online’s Mark Charles (Navajo) wrote, “PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP COULD NOT HOLD HIS TONGUE. HE COULD NOT FIND THE COURTESY TO CONDUCT THE CEREMONY IN A DIFFERENT LOCATION BEYOND THE GENOCIDAL GAZE OF THE SEVENTH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. AND HE COULD NOT CONTROL HIS INCESSANT NEED TO KEEP THE SPOTLIGHT ON HIMSELF, NO MATTER WHAT THE CONTEXT, OR WHO HIS AUDIENCE.” 

Think what you will about Trump–if you’re among the 38% of Americans who still approve of him, clearly decency and logic have nothing to do with your support and you won’t be swayed–but don’t ignore that in a ceremony meant to celebrate the contributions of Navajo servicemen from a wider Native community that has historically been marginalized, and continues to be today, Trump marginalized American Indians yet again. Remember this moment, yes, but remember the histories of the Native men and women this ceremony was intended to honor, too.

“Navajo Code Talkers [Bill Toledo, Robert Walley, and Alfred Newman] in 2013”; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Election day, one year later…

On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, I awoke to the realization that my syllabus tasked me with addressing Andrew Jackson and his appeals to populism on a day on which Donald Trump could confirm victory in the presidential election. That Trump’s win signaled something about the American electorate was a scary prospect for some of my students, and for myself, not because it meant the advance of traditional conservative ideals like limited government, but because it also seemed to advance the racism, bigotry, and misogyny Trump displayed throughout his campaign. At the very least, voters motivated primarily by other political considerations accepted those attitudes; at worst, those attitudes were a driving force in his victory.

A year later, I’m addressing Jacksonian democracy the day after an off-year election in which energized Virginians turned out in the highest numbers in 20 years to vote on candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and state delegates (school boards and county supervisors, too). Political newcomers contested Republican-held seats in the state assembly, though more Democrats went uncontested; Democrats won the statewide offices, and made significant gains in the legislature. But more significant than party affiliation is who some of those candidates are, and what they may represent. Justin Fairfax, the new lieutenant-governor elect, is the first African American to win statewide office in Virginia since 1989. Danica Roem, a transgender woman, defeated the incumbent Bob Marshall (ironically, the author of an anti-LGBTQ bathroom bill). Historic electoral victories–by women, people of color, homosexual, and transgender candidates–dotted the country. The progress and acceptance those elections signal, to me, is every bit as significant as the political ideologies of the candidates themselves. Combined with turnout, races like these may tell us more about an energized American electorate than 2016’s elections did.

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Confederate monuments and white landscapes

It has been less than a week since white nationalists and white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville to protest plans to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee, just one of the many Confederate monuments throughout the state. With a mounting push to remove them amid ongoing conversations about race in the United States, and with an upcoming gubernatorial election in which one Republican primary election candidate made preserving Confederate monuments a centerpiece of his campaign, the issue is unlikely to fade away in Virginia. The state may be at the center of today’s conversations, just like it was at the center of the Civil War, but it’s hardly the only area grappling with the legacy of the Civil War and its memorialization. New Orleans removed the last of its Confederate monuments last spring. This week, Baltimore city officials removed four Confederate monuments while citizens in Durham, NC took matters into their own hands, pulling down the city’s Confederate Soldiers Monument statue. Donald Trump of course weighed in, Tweeting, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” and I want to spend some time examining the defenses he’s parroting.

As supporters of the continued public display of Confederate monuments argue, they do commemorate history and culture. But that is exactly why we should be removing them: they commemorate a history and culture that rested on the oppression and abuse of non-whites. I agree that we can’t–and shouldn’t–erase or ignore that history, but we also don’t need to maintain highly visible stages for its celebration. What such monuments represent constitutes a very narrow view of American history that excises the experiences of a wide range of historical actors, particularly African Americans. Perpetuating that narrow view in which the Confederacy stands in for a more inclusive Southern history denies black Americans a proportional role in the shared narrative of US history that links diverse Americans together–it effectively excludes the African American community from the American body politic by pretending they either have no history of their own in America, or that their experience is subordinate to a (Confederate) history worthy of commemoration. Historical narratives enable people to make claims to the land and resources and social institutions around which that history developed, that play a role in a given narrative. Confederate monuments imply that only those who share a commitment to and role in the history and culture they represent can access those resources.

But to my eye, the significance of this debate is even more explicit when these monuments include statues of human figures–Confederate military personnel, politicians, and slaveholders, whether specific individuals or generalized representations. Ties between bodies and the landscapes they inhabit have long been cited to support claims to land and its resources. Eighteenth-century European colonists frequently portrayed Native bodies as naked and mobile, assessments that reinforced the notion that Indians did not belong on lands that Europeans saw as cultivated (clothed) and settled, and should therefore be removed in favor of more compatible, civilized, European bodies. English colonists in particular argued that only successful permanent inhabitation upheld claims to land in America, and that Indians as well as competing European colonists had failed to establish ownership as English colonists had. Installing statues of individual Confederates exercises a similar logic, establishing white bodies as representations of an American history that gives one group of US citizens a preeminent claim to the lands a more diverse community actually occupies. By this standard, bodies defined as “non-white” don’t belong because they’re associated with distinct histories that aren’t attached to the physical space of the U.S.

Both of these processes inherent in Confederate commemoration–entrenching a particular historical narrative, and representing it with bodies of Confederate heroes–literally mark the American landscape as the exclusive possession of white Americans. In other words, Confederate monuments encode white supremacy on an American landscape in place of the segregated landscape that has been gradually eroded over the course of more than a century, from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. 

[Added 8/19/17] To communicate to people of color that they’re excluded from American life and institutions, monuments are placed in spaces that are centers of public and civic life in the United States: A statue of Roger Taney, who authored the majority opinion in Dred Scott, at Maryland’s State House; Robert E. Lee on the University of Virginia campus; the entirety of Monument Avenue in Richmond; a Confederate soldier at the Loudon County (Va.) Courthouse. Collectively, these signal white supremacy in political, educational, civic, and legal settings, respectively.

Somehow, aesthetics also enter into this argument, Trump Tweeting, “Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!” The notion that you can’t or shouldn’t change a designed landscape because it is aesthetically pleasing or itself has a long history stems from a conservative impulse to preserve that landscape as it is. It aims to permanently entrench the history and culture that landscape with its monuments represents. The ugliness in Trump’s words is the implication that there is no greater beauty to be had than what already exists. I have to believe most Americans don’t want these monuments “comparably replaced”–they want something better.

*Sorry about the lack of pictures. All I could think to include were pictures of Confederate monuments, and no…

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Teaching US Environmental History during Trump’s first 100 days

This semester I found myself teaching U.S. Environmental History in what I’ll just call a disturbing political climate (har) for those of us concerned with our environment. In the past four months, Scott Pruitt, a “climate change denialist” and the former Attorney General of Oklahoma with a history of suing the agency he’s now charged with leading, was confirmed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency; the president’s transition team asked the Department of Energy to identify employees who have worked on Obama’s energy and climate policies; White House officials and the president have discussed withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords; the Dakota Access Pipeline was completed with Trump’s support despite protests, and within weeks sprung several of the leaks its critics charged were likely; the administration shared a federal budget proposal that would slash EPA funding and ax all support for the Chesapeake Bay Program‘s restoration efforts. That’s a sampling, but the clear trend is that none of these moves signals an administration particularly receptive to scientific or historical evidence, or committed to prioritizing environmental protections.

Atlantic Sturgeon, photo from Chesapeake Bay Program, http://www.chesapeakebay.net/blog/post/five_endangered_species_that_live_in_the_chesapeake_bay_region

Most of that was easy enough to anticipate as I planned my classes for the semester, and I wanted to make sure we addressed some of those developments as they occurred. But my goal was to try to use environmental history to encourage political consciousness, rather than insist on a political ideology. To that end, I asked students to watch the news for current events related to the environment, and consider how deeper understandings of environmental history might shape actions, policies, arguments/debates, news coverage, etc.

I am sometimes a bit wary of asking students to draw connections between the past and the present, though not because those connections don’t exist or are unimportant. Sure, part of the value of studying history can be to make just those comparisons, but because many students’ historical knowledge remains fairly limited (we’re working on it!) their conclusions often tend towards the teleological. It often seems like many just aren’t (yet!) able to fully explain that arc, or recognize the complexity lying between a then and a now, and so instead resort to cliche–essay conclusions that assert a historical event is important “because it’s how we got where we are today.” Not necessarily wrong, but not wholly productive, either. I’ve been trying to find a way around this, in part because many students seem inclined to look for parallels, and in part because I want others to acknowledge and explore what environmental historians have termed a “usable past.”

One strategy I’ve landed on is to use historical examples or historical thinking to shape inquiries. That is, rather than encouraging students to find and fully explain parallels and direct connections, I want them to take a more complete understanding of either their present or historical example, and use that to develop questions and methods of learning about the other piece of that comparison. This means we can use gaps in our knowledge in productive ways, and whichever approach students adopt, they’re developing historical thinking. If they explore a historical episode and then consider its significance for the present–what current social or political tensions it reminds them of, for instance, or what ongoing environmental concerns appear similar to a change from history–they’re beginning to construct a usable past. If they explore a more contemporary issue and then speculate about what knowledge and information they need to better understand it, and how they might pursue that, they’re thinking methodologically about how to do environmental history–about the types of inquiries that drive it, and the sources available for resolving those questions.

This does mean the written product always reflects an inchoate process, but my hope is that privileging inquiry over assertion/argument allows students greater latitude to explore a variety of environmental issues and to take some intellectual risks. I also hope that by approaching such issues through a set of queries students will more comfortably critique the version of events they’ve been presented with by whatever news source they’re drawing from, whether it be the Washington Post, Fox News, The Economist, or the Billings Gazette.

Construction on Dakota Access Pipeline, photo from Billings Gazette, http://billingsgazette.com/business/dakota-access-pipeline-now-complete-in-north-dakota/article_46d20365-c9da-5c65-98e2-0c4c8a8c2427.html

Initially I wanted this assignment to reflect a historiography in which scholars the scholars we read throughout the semester consistently reminded us that environmental history is not simply a story of declension in which people arrive and destroy pristine environments, and I did receive papers that addressed species recovery, environmental education programs, and green business practices. But the majority focused on actions taken by and in response to the Trump administration, a reminder that it’s perhaps difficult to see our current moment as a story other than declension.

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The Jamestown Colony, Donald Trump, and the Problem of Patriarchal Leadership

*Edward Maria Wingfield’s 1607-08 presidency of the Jamestown Colony might lend insight to PEOTUS Donald Trump’s refusal to divest from his business holdings

Last semester’s Colonial America class inevitably spent some time thinking about the Jamestown Colony, especially the struggles of its early years. While we addressed the Virginia Company’s plans, settler demographics, economic development, environmental factors, and Native relations, each of those areas ultimately tied back to the supply and leadership problems that generated two of the colony’s more notorious episodes–the (alleged?) cannibalism of the Starving Time, and the power struggle between John Smith and other councilors.

One of the articles my students found for us to read was Michael LaCombe’s “‘A continuall and dayly Table for Gentlemen of fashion’: Humanism, Food, and Authority at Jamestown, 1607-1609,” which considers the ways in which Jamestown leaders used food to symbolize their status and authority. Edward Maria Wingfield, George Percy, John Smith, and even Powhatan all used public displays of material wealth to legitimize their power because those occasions encouraged peers and subordinates to acknowledge leaders’ personal power, an acknowledgement that conferred authority.

(Left: Edward Maria Wingfield. Right: John Smith.)

In other words, English colonial leaders at Jamestown felt compelled to present “a self which confirmed the authority of their office” (672), even if Wingfield and Smith, in particular, based their claims to authority on different models of leadership. The challenge for elite English colonists was that many of the material reflections of status traditionally used to convey that authority were lacking in Jamestown; houses and clothes, in particular, were either rudimentary or in limited supply. Food, on the other hand, came from three sources: company-supplied rations distributed by the colony’s leaders, the private stores of wealthier colonists, and trade with Powhatan neighbors. Because the colony’s councilors were also generally its wealthiest settlers, the line between their private stores and company rations was at times unclear, sometimes deliberately so since leaders were expected to fairly distribute company rations while also using their private stores to support struggling individuals. John Smith’s criticisms of Wingfield and other elite councilors thus emphasized the degree to which they maintained their dietary habits–eating fine foods in highly visible meals–while the men around them went hungry. His concern was not those men’s private stores, but their monopolization of the choicest foods from the common store to eat as a marker of their status. According to Smith’s critique, then, men like Wingfield attempted to reprise a feudal model of “patriarchal leadership” in which their political authority rested on their social status, but failed to legitimize that authority through their regard for the welfare of ordinary people.

Reminiscent of Wingfield’s apparent inability to alter his consumption patterns, Donald Trump’s unique personal authority seems to be based on his distinctive wealth and its trappings. Despite ethics concerns, he cannot divest because that would undermine his ability to display markings of the social status underlying the authority on which he campaigned–that is, it’s his wealth that lends him the appearance of expertise on which he based his appeal to voters. Those public displays are apparent when he appears at his golf courses and resorts, chooses to fly in his own plane rather than Air Force One, prefers Trump Tower to the White House, and sits for photographs in his lavish penthouse. LaCombe explains that in Jamestown, “what ultimately mattered was a man’s ability to convince [the Virginia Company’s] members that he understood what had gone wrong and how to fix it, that his personal qualities and experiences had given him more general knowledge, a claim to what Eric Ash has called ‘the authority conferred by the perception of expertise’” (673). It’s Trump’s wealth that bolsters his claims to unique personal expertise–how many times have we heard the phrase “Believe me” lately?–and his claims that only he has the solutions to whatever (mostly, it seems, economic) problems voters face.

Moreover, relinquishing his business holdings would distance him from the things that cement his position in a social hierarchy based on wealth. Patriarchalism assumes that social inequality derives from a divine ordering of the cosmos, while patriarchal models of leadership assert that “society’s proper functioning depend[s] at bottom on leaders” while “the political role of ordinary settlers…[is] to witness and affirm the claims of their leaders” (679). In other words, Trump’s commitment to this form of authority argues that his wealth is a result of his natural superiority that qualifies him as a leader. Divesting would distance him from the businesses that generate that wealth and support his habits that display it, thus flattening a social hierarchy and making him relatable, which in turn would undermine his claims to authority.

Other models of leadership, however, rest their authority claims on sympathy and relatability. In critiquing Wingfield, Smith presented himself as adhering to an alternative form of authority. Embracing the image of a humanist leader, he based his claim to political authority on his willingness to share in the rations, living conditions, and labor of ordinary settlers, subordinating his own needs to the common good. The model of leadership Trump has embraced, though, rests on acknowledgement, functioning only if a community chooses to confer authority on the individual claiming it. Unlike Wingfield, who did defend himself by pointing to elements of leadership that fit a humanist model, there’s nothing about Trump that suggests a willingness to share in the hardships of ordinary Americans–and in fact his claims to authority rest entirely on his distance from those hardships. His need to continually confirm and even bolster those claims may explain his inability to stop campaigning, since he demonstrates none of the qualifications–a history of public service or ability to subordinate his own private ends to the common good–of a humanist leader.

For those seeking solace, it may be reassuring that Smith’s arguments won the day, at least in much of popular memory. In Virginia, Wingfield was ultimately charged with abusing his station–mostly by using common stores to maintain his own status claims–removed from office, and heavily fined.

Michael A. LaCombe, “‘A continuall and dayly Table for Gentlemen of fashion’: Humanism, Food, and Authority at Jamestown, 1607-1609,” The American Historical Review 115, no. 3 (June 2010): 669-87.

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About that “great, great wall”

Following the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump is officially the party’s nominee for president. Talk of a wall on the US-Mexico border has been less apparent in the headlines lately than plagiarism, Ted Cruz’s smirk, and various politicians and talk-radio hosts going off the deep end, but it’s still been on my mind as I research the 17th-century Hudson Valley, where fences and walls were a major point of contention. (Trump’s wall is still featured prominently on his website, but I’m not linking to that–sorry, you can find it yourself. And he talked about immigration plenty in his acceptance speech, sparking chants of “Build that wall!” from the crowd.)

Announcing he was running last October, Trump asserted, “I will build a great wall–and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me–and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”

Turns out Trump isn’t the first white New Yorker to come up with the idea of trying to make people of color pay for a structure to physically divide a regional population based on race. On September 15, 1639 Willem Kieft, fifth director of the colony of New Netherland (renamed New York after the English assumed control of it in 1664), declared:

Whereas the Company has to bear heavy expenses both for the erection of fortification and the maintenance of soldiers and sailors, Therefore we have resolved to levy some contributions either in peltries, maize or wampum from the Indians residing hereabout, whom we have hitherto protected against their enemies and if there be any tribe, who will not willingly consent to contribute, we shall endeavor to induce them to do so by the most suitable means. [1]

So let’s break this down a little bit. The autocratic Kieft was appointed to run the colony because of his supposed business acumen (no governing experience), and one of his first acts was to demand payments from the indigenous population to maintain his invading population. He justified the levy by arguing the invading force was actually protecting the Natives who would pay the tax against attacks by other Indians. And he promised that if the Indians didn’t make the payments willingly, he would find a way to force them.

While there were undoubtedly some conflicts among Native communities, Kieft’s main concern seems to have been to try to supply a colonial population of only a few hundred people who were reliant on Indians to trade them provisions, since the colony was chronically undersupplied and farming had yet to really take off. More to the point, the fort was to protect the few colonists and whatever foodstuffs they managed to procure from Native neighbors who were more than capable of taking what they wanted from the beleaguered Dutch. Needless to say, the move didn’t endear him to the area’s Native inhabitants, and probably not surprisingly, continued friction led to a conflict named Kieft’s War by his political rivals–you can guess who they blamed. Cultural conflict is certainly a theme throughout the colonial era, but earlier years in New Netherland had been markedly friendly as Dutch merchants and a small number of colonists catered to Native trade partners, so this was a significant turning point in those relations.
Kieft did resign after an 8-year administration and departed for the Netherlands, but his ship wrecked in Wales, and the deposed director perished in 1647. He had managed to further develop New Netherland’s fortifications–albeit without significant direct contributions from the Natives. He’d also managed to make those defenses more necessary.

[1] Berthold Fernow, ed., Documents relating to the history and settlements of the towns along the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers (with the exception of Albany) from 1630 to 1684 (Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1881), 6.

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Muhammad Ali’s patriotism (and poetry)

I’ve had the somewhat odd experience the last two Junes of being on location when something historic happened. In 2015 I was at the Library of Congress, in a seminar room with windows looking out at the Supreme Court, when the Court handed down its ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. In 2016, I was in Louisville’s Galt House, in an 8th-floor room with a view of the Muhammad Ali Center, which I visited May 31 for the first time, and which four days later–in spite of the rain (read that as a metaphor, perhaps)–became a memorial for The Greatest, who passed away at the age of 74. (Note: I’m not trying to equate the two, or their significance–just noting that in both cases, I’ve been in an interesting setting to reflect on history.)

From the 8th floor at the Galt House.

From the 8th floor at the Galt House.

Already by the time I walked over to the memorial on Saturday morning, national and international media were on-site, most of them hunkered down under pop-up tents and with cameras trained on either the memorial, or the stairs up which visitors were making their way.


Visitors in the rain, Saturday morning (before 8am).

The eulogies quickly appeared in print, on the web, and on TV, but the comments on social media were equally interesting. A number of my friends and acquaintances posted quotes, commented on Ali’s significance–and in some cases criticized both Ali and those mourning his passing. A few were dismissive of his status as “just a sports star,” while others resented his refusal to “serve his country.” And it’s those criticisms I want to focus on, because I think they miss the point of Ali: that his rejection of the draft and refusal to fight in Vietnam, and his unapologetically confrontational comments on race in the U.S., served his country in a way that made him more than a sports star. (If you’re unfamiliar with all this, check out “The Importance of Muhammad Ali,” a brief essay from the Gilder Lehrman Institute.)


Tuesday afternoon outside the Ali Center.

We aren’t always accustomed to cultural icons making political statements. Remember the controversy about the Oscars earlier this year, and the speeches in which several actors called for greater environmental consciousness, action on climate change, and attention to race and diversity? Entertainers and celebrities risk their earning power when they use their fame as a platform to express political ideals. When the Dixie Chicks, a country band, blasted George W. Bush and the Iraq war in 2003, their sales plummeted and they lost endorsement deals, among other consequences. With marketing teams and agents managing the public images and careers of athletes, musicians, and actors, it’s more notable when those figures are outspoken and opinionated than when they’re not. Michael Jordan may be the archetype, in some ways–a brand unto himself, but bland (“inoffensive,” if you’d prefer) to an extreme.

Ali’s boxing, and then his decisions involving the draft and his statements on civil rights, made him a cultural icon and a political figure, one of the United States’s most visible black citizens. His fame as an athlete provided him the platform–the audience, the media access, and the economic resources to remain independent and maintain his stance when he was unable to box–to not only express his opinion, but demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice a great deal of good will and money. This was citizen action not through the act of voting to express an individual political position, but through advocacy and persuasion and modeling.

In my class on American Wilderness last semester, we naturally read Thoreau and Emerson (bear with me a moment here). One piece of our discussion of their work was their effort to construct a national literature to help define a distinct American identity, rooting both American letters and nationalism in the United States’ unique relationship with the natural world. They embraced their Americanness, and Americans claim them.

But Thoreau also famously refused to pay taxes to a state government that was complicit in racial slavery and the Mexican-American War, spent time in jail as a consequence, and wrote Civil Disobedience to explain his rationale. In that essay, he pointed to a tension between individual conscience and legislation and argued that men can “serve the state with their consciences also.” That contribution was no less a contribution to his project of encoding American identity in American letters than his celebration of nature.

And I think it’s also a key to understanding Ali. Both sought to articulate what it means to be an American. Both engaged in a similar project, and at times in similar ways. Where Thoreau sought economic independence by simplifying his needs during his experiment at Walden Pond, Ali could lean on his existing wealth for economic support as he endangered his earning power with political action. Where Thoreau sought to contribute to a national canon that would perpetuate American ideals, Ali used his existing fame to highlight the uneven application of those professed American ideals. Both identified racism and imperialism as American practices at odds with the nation’s professed ideals, and both worked to hold it accountable to those ideals. In short, neither rejected his nation. Instead, each seized on the more admirable characteristics of his country–the ability to act and speak in accord with one’s conscience–to combat its least admirable practices, acting alike to serve a nation not as it was, but as they believed it should be.

I will admit one major difference.

Ali was the better poet.


“I’ve wrestled with alligators,/I’ve tussled with a whale./I done handcuffed lightning/And throw thunder in jail./You know I’m bad./Just last week, I murdered a rock,/Injured a stone, hospitalized a brick./I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”–Muhammad Ali

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On authority and objectivity

I’m continually struck by how many students seemingly prize the ideal of “objectivity” and neutrality, but more than that, how many of them are convinced those ideals are actually–or should be–manifested in scholarship and the media. I suppose we could argue they just haven’t (yet) become cynical, and that that is a good thing, but I’m more concerned they sometimes don’t realize they need to be critical–and what that might mean in realms beyond our classrooms–which is where this musing is ultimately headed.

This attitude particularly struck me in my introductory US survey, where students consistently mentioned newspapers as sources they believed to be objective, as opposed to “biased” sources such as personal journals. They seemed confused that 19th-century newspapers attacked politicians, editorialized on the morality of slavery and Indian Removal, and faced suppression by several different presidential administrations between 1790 and 1865. Very few seemed able to reconcile this belief that newspapers are neutral/objective/independent with the content and history of those newspapers that would suggest otherwise. They remained convinced that somewhere they would be able to find “historical fact.”

This attitude carried over to my historiography course, where students were admittedly more skeptical of primary source materials–including legal documents and newspapers–but initially very confused by the notion that historical scholarship is contested rather than authoritative. Our common topic in that course was the French and Indian War/Seven Years’ War, and we started by reading excerpts from Francis Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe, followed by excerpts of Francis Jennings’s Empire of Fortune. One nice thing about this combination is Jennings calls Parkman “a liar,” so there’s little doubt we’re seeing a historiographical debate–well, probably an argument in this case. But again, many students were taken aback by the disagreements, and one summarized that confusion by asking, “Parkman says one thing, and Jennings says exactly the opposite, so who’s right?”

Most of these students have had upper-level courses in the major by this point, so they have seen scholars working with primary sources, and are willing and able to approach primaries critically. But many have a harder time with the idea that scholars disagree, and I wonder if that’s partly because in our courses we are generally assigning scholarship we think is exemplary–we perhaps don’t critique the weaker elements of a book or essay, and students rarely see examples of poor scholarship and learn to critique it. As instructors, we also perhaps don’t feature enough the major debates in our fields (probably because we tend to align with one side or the other) that would effectively illustrate the contested nature of historical interpretation.

By neglecting to do so, we perhaps feed the notion that historical scholarship is about consensus-building and finding out “what really happened,” a central theme in Peter Charles Hoffer’s Past Imperfect (which we also read in this methods class). Hoffer covers the development of the historical profession, and points out that one of its early objectives was to settle historical fact/truth; once established, that piece of history was no longer contested. Hoffer points out that this fed American scholarship’s construction of consensus history, which celebrated American exceptionalism and coalesced around familiar metanarratives.

That, of course, got blown up across the 1960s and 1970s, a fragmentation/growing complexity that continues today, but which introduces its own problems. One of the aspects of this new history is its honesty about the limits of its methods and understandings, the introspection about our motives as authors and scholars. But that’s something that again troubles many of the students in this class, who sometimes then perceive the honesty among practitioners as a lack of objectivity and therefore bias, leading them to worry that what they are reading is either bad history, or that any historical scholarship is equally valid because it’s informed by personal perspective.

Encountering these attitudes in both classes at the same time prompts me to wonder why it is that students so value that ideal of objectivity and neutrality, and want so much to believe it exists. Part of the answer, I think, goes back to the professionalization of both fields (journalism and historical scholarship), which involved both a credentialing program and the establishment of professional standards that would allow the professions–and the ideas and information they generated and/or conveyed–to serve a civic purpose. They could establish certainty in shared truths, rather than simply reproducing the diverse and possibly irreconcilable opinions/perspectives/arguments of a large number of self-interested people. (One manifestation of this in our students, I think, is their resistance to using the first person. I know that’s partly been trained into them by teachers hoping to help them distinguish between opinion and argument, but the result to such strictures is that many just contort themselves to avoid first-person pronouns without actually recognizing what those rules are trying to accomplish.)

Now of course, part of the point here is that these are students–they are learning to be skeptical, critical receivers and producers of information and ideas, and those in the historiography class had clearly advanced beyond those students in the intro class. But in teaching them (hopefully, anyway) to approach scholarship skeptically, are we effectively conveying the message that other areas of expertise should be equally open to critique, or does that message remain insular? Does the inability or refusal to self-examine–or the lack of visibility of such introspection–in other institutions and professions lend them a greater degree of perceived authority because they don’t question themselves?

Here I’m thinking in particular about news again, which seems to retain that kind of authority even through scandals involving funding, corporatization, the narrow lens of American media, the confirmation bias built into different outlets, etc. Again, if so many of my students feel like it doesn’t matter where one obtains news because it’s the duty of the media to be objective and informative, not to shape public opinion and manipulate citizens, and then they contrast the bombastic certainty expressed in the information outlets like Fox News and MSNBC convey with the qualified and cautious arguments propagated by scholars/academics, is it any wonder so many people accept dubious claims about climate change, immigration, Islam, free markets, health care, guns, and other politically fraught issues? Clear positions seem to derive from a certainty that scholarship has often actively distanced itself from, and claim an authority that scholarship is cautious to assert.

Posted in In the news, Pondering, Teaching/classroom | 2 Comments