I’ve exported my post archive to substack and if I write more stuff in the future that’s where you’ll find it.
Sweet’s Apology Shuts Down the Conversation Rather Than Continuing It
I read James Sweet’s AHA President’s column before I knew about the firestorm it created. He has since appended an apology to the essay. I believe this is a mistake.
In the privacy of my own thoughts, I believed he was making an important point about the dangers of allowing contemporary agendas to overtake the nuts and bolts of historical work: complexity, change over time, the value of studying the obscure and “irrelevant,” the surprising insights that come from being willing to really listen and learn from the “foreign country” of the past.
Sweet’s concerns about presentism in the historical profession resurface a perennial debate that is vital to the discipline. If we ever stop seeing the tension between our agendas and a messy past that does not yield to our projects, we’ll have lost something important indeed. We should be glad for the curmudgeons who remind us of this fact.
Yet there are a couple basic points that should have given Sweet pause before he sent his think piece off for publication.
Our profession is under enormous pressure to justify its existence. History departments are being consolidated or even shuttered outright. Competition for enrollments is intense. I would love to teach a proudly “irrelevant” course. But if I can’t get undergraduates to enroll in it, it’s not going to happen. Under these circumstances, the profession’s drift toward what is deemed “relevant” is probably much more than an ideological disposition. It’s a survival strategy. Sweet may well be right that it’s a strategy that risks undercutting our very reason for being, but he would have done well to consider the systemic pressures the profession faces. Putting the whole trend down to ideology seems like sloppy thinking.
The second and more vital point that Sweet was strangely silent about strikes at the heart of his essay. Presentism was a feature of the professionalization of the historical discipline! The emergence of our field was bound up in national and racial mythmaking. It was routine for historians to shape the past and distort it to fit their nation-building projects and racial myths. Presentism isn’t a new problem. It’s the discipline’s original sin.
Presentism’s temptations vary with the times, but the basic allure is always there. After all, historical thinking is an unnatural act. We must talk about presentism now not because it is novel but because it is always a threat to the integrity of the discipline.
The problem with Sweet’s essay is not that it’s immoral or “caused harm.” The problem is that its ideas are muddled. It’s an essay about presentism that lacks historical context! Its critique of a discipline drifting toward obsession with the recent past is awkwardly grafted onto a commentary on the 1619 Project. Worse, Sweet paints in broad strokes here and lacks the analytical specificity of other historians who have already criticized the 1619 Project far more cogently.
Ironically, Sweet’s apology illustrates the dangers to the profession more clearly than his original essay. The apology slips the whole controversy into the frameworks of contemporary intra-left discourse rather than intellectual exchange. Sweet’s abject apology is full of morally loaded words, but does not actually concede any intellectual ground. He does not invite more debate and offer substantive response to critics. Instead, by moralizing the conversation, he shuts it down. Sweet shouldn’t apologize. He should explain which arguments are causing him to reconsider his ideas. When he is ready, he should clarify how his thinking is changing.
I’m about to start a new semester with undergraduates. I tell them I’m committed to an open classroom where every voice matters and dialogue can occur across deep disagreement. I tell them we can say to each other, “I think you’re wrong, and here’s why,” while honoring the personhood of the individual with whom we disagree. Dialogue is messy. We will say things we would phrase differently upon reflection. We will offend each other. But students need to know that all this can occur under the rubric of sharpening each other’s thinking. It doesn’t have to be a morally loaded high-stakes game of guilt and harm.
One does expect the President of the American Historical Association to have more thoughtful arguments than are featured in an undergraduate classroom discussion. But the answer to sloppy thinking is not the language of harm and apology. I tell my students that interpretation and disagreement are at the center of the historical enterprise. But after this sorry spectacle among professional historians, my students would be right to wonder if I’m telling them the truth.
What Can We Learn from Pauli Murray?
In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in Pauli Murray, the black civil rights and women’s rights activist. Patricia Bell-Scott’s portrait of Murray’s friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt was published in 2016. Rosalind Rosenberg’s exquisitely detailed biography came out in 2017. A new edition of her memoir was republished in 2018. Last year yet another scholarly biography came out. A major documentary of Murray’s life premiered this year.
Murray appeals to us now for many of the same reasons she faced marginalization during her life. A black woman who recognized early on how race and sex were interlocking forms of oppression–Jane Crow, she called it–Murray was an unsung influence in both the civil rights and women’s movements. Not only that, her long struggle with her own gender identity and sexuality strikes a chord with us now.
“I will resist every attempt to categorize me,” she wrote in 1945. Readers must have thought she was just talking about race. Her private struggle to come to terms with her sense of herself as a man in a female body make her words more poignant than readers could have known at the time. Had she been born a century later, perhaps Murray would have identified as a transgender man. (What pronouns we ought to use when referring to Murray is a matter of some controversy). In her own time, such categories didn’t exist. Even if they had, perhaps Murray would still have said, “I will resist every attempt to categorize me.”
If the reactions of the students in my Black Politics and Black Power course are any indication, Murray’s ethos speaks powerfully to young people today. We read her 1945 piece, “An American Credo” in class.
Many of the students were enthralled. What can activists today learn from Murray’s “American Credo”? It’s one snapshot in time and doesn’t do justice to the totality of Murray’s thought and the way she changed over time, but here are three takeaways.
Claim America for yourself
It is fashionable today to point out America’s hypocrisy and injustice. Drawing on the black nationalist tradition and other radical movements, some activists describe the United States as a place that never has been and probably never will be a home for black people. These activists draw on a venerable tradition stretching back to Martin Delaney, Marcus Garvey, and many others. Activists in this tradition have often been prophets in the wilderness speaking the hard truths the powerful do not want to hear.
But for those who want to change this country rather than make a new one, there are costs to ceding home field advantage to the racists. (In some cases, this cession has been shamefully explicit: witness Marcus Garvey’s attempted rapprochement with the Ku Klux Klan). Most Americans consider themselves patriotic and have deeply felt attachments to the land of their birth. This patriotism might be even more deeply felt among many black Americans, who have long had a love-hate relationship with the country they have done so much to build. Not for nothing have black writers often described themselves as scorned lovers.
Those bonds of attachment ought to be leveraged for racial justice, not surrendered to the meanness of narrow nationalism. It is telling that a speech like Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” (1852) is a touchstone in our moment while other Douglass speeches like “Our Composite Nationality” (1869) are little remembered. Historical context compels us to admit that the political economy of 1869–with slavery abolished and citizenship enshrined in the constitution–has more in common with our time than the slave society Douglass scorned in 1852. Yet Douglass’s audacious patriotism of 1869 is not in vogue today.
In “Our Composite Nationality” Douglass refused to cede America’s founding and its future to the forces of racism and reaction. Instead, he demanded and prophesied that America’s destiny was to be a home for all the peoples of the world where people of all races and creeds could live together in complete equality. Which Douglass was more radical? The outsider of 1844 exposing the nation’s empty promises and shallow pretensions? Or the insider of 1869 with the audacity to claim ownership of the nation’s meaning and bend its trajectory to his will?
Murray operated more in the mold of Douglass circa 1869 than 1852. “As an American I inherit the magnificent tradition of an endless march toward freedom and toward the dignity of all mankind,” Murray wrote. “And though my country has not always loved me, yet in the words of the poet, Claude McKay, ‘I love this cultured hell which tests my strength.'”
Murray was not naive. She was not blind to the country’s failures. Instead, what we see here is a dogged insistence that America belongs to me. Its symbols and legends, its emotional resonance and power to inspire–they all are mine. I insist on defining America’s trajectory. “And so,” Murray declared, “with my feet rooted firmly in the moral precepts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States and all the preachments of humanitarian tradition through the history of man, I take my stand against the institution of segregation and all of its incidents.”
Hold the moral high ground
The pull to get even, to give to your enemy what they deserve, is a basic human impulse. We all know it. In the humdrum of our daily lives, we’ve probably acted on this impulse more times than we’d care to remember. And in the history of societies and nations, this drive for revenge, the thirst to meet violence with violence, is part of the sad story of many cycles of war and hatred.
People who transcended this impulse are remembered as some of the great saints and sages of human history. And, in the 20th century, we remember political figures who combined this spiritual insight with a practical program of action that delivered tangible results for their people–Gandhi, King, Mandela. We can add Pauli Murray to their number.
Murray wrote that her struggle against segregation required “an individual revolution” in her thinking. “I cannot be rent asunder by harboring personal prejudices or racial resentments. I want to spend my time finding the common denominator of mankind, and prejudice or hatred is an emotional waste.” Murray understood that systems of oppression are always working to bring us down to their level. If I give free reign to my hatred and desire for revenge, if I look around me for scapegoats on which to vent my rage, I become spiritually and psychologically lost. Murray tried to remember that her oppressors were people, like her. “I seek to destroy an institution,” she wrote, “a disease–not a people.”
Oppression seeks to break human spirits. Resistance to it must always be spiritual (though, of course, not only spiritual). Murray took this spiritual imperative so far that it included “inviting the violence [of segregation] upon my own body. For what is life itself,” she asked, “without the freedom to walk proudly before God and man and to glorify creation through the genius of self-expression?”
Make your methods as noble as your goals
A common conceit of ideologues is that peace and justice will reign once they have gained power, but in the meantime some harsher methods are required. This isn’t how human beings or human societies work. We can’t turn off the hatreds we’ve unleashed like turning off water from the faucet. Those who desire a future of peace and justice must act in alignment with that vision now. The methods we use now are the methods we will continue to use if we gain power.
I’m reminded of one of Murray’s contemporaries, the civil rights activist Ella Baker. She was one of the best recruiters the NAACP ever had, but she resigned her post rather than submit to the top-down leadership style of the organization. She insisted that an organization struggling for a democratic society must itself be democratic. In a similar way, Murray did not agree with radicals who sought to overthrow segregation by any means necessary. For Murray, means and ends were organically connected.
“I do not intend to destroy segregation by physical force,” Murray wrote. Not only would that be wasteful of human life, it wouldn’t work. Instead, “I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods. When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind.”
In our era it sometimes seems that we’re drawing ever smaller circles. Murray shows us a better way.
A meditation from the Psalms
The Lord watches over black people,
his ears listen to their cries for help.
But it doesn’t feel like it! How long, oh Lord?
How long must my neighbors, students, and friends have sorrow in their hearts every day?
Look at them! Answer them!
The Lord’s face is set against white supremacy,
to eliminate even the memory of it from the earth.
When black people cry out, the Lord listens;
he delivers them from all their troubles.
My heart is broken in 1,000 pieces, a black mother said.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted;
he saves those whose spirits are crushed.
I just need everyone to know that he is much more than this, a black mother said.
The righteous know this, but the wicked do not understand.
Only a little while longer, and the wicked will be cut off!
White people plot against the righteous,
But my Lord just laughs at them
because he knows that their day is coming.
Black people will inherit the land,
not one of their bones will be broken.
For Those Who Have Ears to Hear: Anthea Butler’s White Evangelical Racism
Anthea Butler, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).
My dear white evangelical reader, this isn’t the winsome, Billy Graham-style evangelicalism you’ve heard so much about. This is Graham the nationalist, the fear-mongerer, the coward who cared more for respectability than justice.
Graham’s status in the white evangelical firmament is such that if you take him down, you’ve pretty much put out the lights entirely. Anthea Butler writes that Graham popularized a religion based on “fear of the other.” Sound unfair to you? Watch as Graham browbeats his audiences with the specter of nuclear holocaust, which would inevitably come within 5 years unless Jesus intervened. Watch as Graham harshly criticizes civil rights activists while ludicrously proclaiming, “you will never find a true born-again Christian who is a communist…” Read an article from a Black communist about the Jim Crow South and then do tell me who the Christians were.
It might seem fanciful to imagine Graham going down to Mississippi during Freedom Summer and getting his hands dirty, putting himself at Bob Moses’ direction, registering black voters, inviting his followers to help. Ok, yes, it definitely does seem fanciful, but take a moment to ponder that. Imagining a really productive white evangelical anti-racism is not a matter of slight reinterpretation. It’s like spinning the most wildly speculative fan fiction.
It is time, Butler suggests, for white evangelicals and the scholars who study them to stop making excuses for a movement that is obviously racist. Not incidentally or peripherally so, but at its core.
Butler, an Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, has a personal history with white evangelicalism that gives this book a welcome edge. Nearly thirty years ago she thought she was an integral member of a major white evangelical church. Then one day the pastor’s own mother turned to her and welcomed her as if she hadn’t seen her before. Hi Generic Black Person, in our spaces you will always be an Evangelical In Name Only.
Butler has an ability to deliver insights in plain language that cuts through the excuses and obfuscations of scholars and laypeople alike. “On the one hand, evangelicals wanted souls to be saved,” she writes. “On the other hand, they wanted everyone to stay in their places.”
Is it pedantic to quibble with such flaying prose? I’ll risk it. Butler would be even closer to the mark if she put these two propositions in direct symbiosis rather than in tension. Souls being saved was the means by which people would be kept in their places. Later, in a scorching and necessary conclusion, Butler does suggest precisely this kind of dark synergy.
Butler is especially strong in her analysis of how people of color became key validators of white evangelicalism’s supposedly colorblind credentials in the decades after the civil rights movement. At the same time, they often faced an inexorable pull toward the whitewashing of their identities. Bend the knee to white evangelicalism’s racial and cultural codes, or else.
But wait a minute! It can’t be all bad, right? What about all the good stuff? Butler is up front about her decision to ignore the abolitionist evangelical tradition (which, as she notes, was not guiltless anyway) and focus on its more racist and southern-dominated version. This is any historian’s prerogative. After all, deliberately including some stories while excluding others is one definition of writing a book. But in this case there’s even more justification for her decision.
I think Butler understands that evangelicals may wield the abolitionist evangelical tradition as a shield (“look at the good our ancestors did!”) or forlornly appeal to it (here we find a few iconoclasts like Michael Gerson and Randall Balmer), but it is an inheritance that doesn’t actually belong to the vast majority of today’s evangelicals. Today’s evangelicalism descends from darker currents of the evangelical past. Why focus on a more progressive tradition that evangelicals cut themselves off from a long, long time ago?
Wait another minute. Are we getting caught up in the moment, telling one-note stories about how all evangelical roads lead to Trump? Is it so simple? Whether the Trump era was an unveiling of what was there all along or a story of the decline and fall of white evangelicalism is, to me, a difficult question. The headlines in White Evangelical Racism declare that this was an unveiling, but the fine print tells a more complex story. In the final chapter Butler does trace the causes and symptoms of a declension. Things may have always been bad, but then they got even worse.
Butler has given us a polemical synthesis. I suppose that for every page there is a specialist somewhere grinding her teeth. I had a few such moments myself. But the value of the book is in its clear-eyed call to stop making excuses for this destructive political religion we call evangelicalism. In a searing conclusion that you really must read, Butler speaks to any evangelical who still has ears to hear. It’s time to do something that evangelicals used to talk a lot about, but seem to have forgotten. It’s time to repent.
Why calling racism a sin is a cop-out
In pursuit of a project that may or may not bear any fruit, I’ve just been watching some sermons about racism from evangelical megachurch pastors. I want to briefly highlight two.
The first comes from Craig Groeschel, pastor of the humongous Life.Church based in Oklahoma. In a sermon series on “How to Neighbor” delivered in May, 2016, Groeschel taught his congregation how to love your neighbor of a different race. There are three steps:
1. “Recognize our prejudices.”
2. “Seek to understand others.”
3. “Love those different from you.”
“Racism,” Groeschel informed the congregation, “is not a skin issue; it’s a sin issue.” When Christians have prejudice toward someone of another skin color they are sinning against God. Groeschel hammered this point repeatedly with a great deal of passion and bluntness. After all, he said, “There is one race; that is the human race!”
The second message comes from Robert Jeffress, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, one of the largest churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. In June 2020, at the height of the protests after George Floyd’s death, Jeffress gave his congregation three simple propositions:
1. “God hates racism.”
He says it’s completely impermissible to hate someone because of their “skin color” and that he has to admit that First Baptist was “on the wrong side of history” and the “wrong side of God” in the civil rights era. Wow! It was shocking to me that he said this.
2. “God hates lawlessness.”
He says that calls to defund police are directly disobedient to the word of God (citing Romans 13, of course). He would do well to read Esau McCaulley on Romans 13 and policing.
3. “Racism is not the root problem in America today. Lawlessness is not the root problem in America today. Racism and lawlessness are symptoms of the root problem. The root problem in America today is sin…”
He says that if anyone asks what First Baptist is doing to deal with racism, you can tell them they’re preaching the Gospel. Only by changing hearts can the symptoms of racism and lawlessness be resolved.
Now my job is to be a party pooper. These forceful denunciations of racism do mark change over time, for sure. White conservative Protestants a century ago did not tend to speak in these terms. But these statements should not be mistaken for robustly Christian anti-racism.
For one thing, neither man appears to understand what race is. They naturalize the association of skin color and race (which is contingent and arbitrary). The only hint of society here is in the thinnest, most interpersonal terms. So Groeschel thinks racism comes from ignorance or from bad teaching or hurtful interpersonal experiences. The possibility that material inequalities on a wide scale might reproduce race has very evidently never occurred to him.
Both Groeschel and Jeffress rely on tropes that white evangelicals used 60 years ago to oppose the civil rights movement. The idea that racism is a sin problem rather than a skin problem is a pithy (and perhaps even unconscious) way of saying that race-conscious activism to change structures is missing the point. One has to get at the heart. That’s how white evangelicals in the 1960s used the term to oppose racial change, and Groeschel is so accustomed to this water he doesn’t know he’s wet.
Tropes like “There’s only one race, the human race!” might have been prophetic in Oklahoma a century ago, but race and racial claims are nothing without context. The context has changed a lot, and it’s been a long time since these tired cliches carried any hint of challenge to them. Instead, white evangelical audiences readily eat them up: “Why are those liberals always talking about race? Like Pastor Groeschel said, there’s only one race. Why are those black Christians trying to reform police? Like Pastor Jeffress said, the only solution is changed hearts.”
Groeschel’s emotional condemnation of racism and Jeffress’s frank admission that his own church had been “on the wrong side of God” on racial matters in the past is a measure of how much has changed. Yet at a deeper level, that both men are using old and reactionary tropes without even realizing they’re doing so is a sign of how shallow white evangelical learning has been.
It’s like Jeffress is saying, “We were wrong in the past, but I have no idea why.”
If you say racism is a sin, your white evangelical audience will nod along with you. After all, they’re not the one’s always drawing attention to people’s skin color and making judgments of whole groups of people. Pastor Groeschel warned that making judgments based on skin color is sinful, but look around you: it’s the liberals who do that all the time, not we good ol’ conservative Christians.
A prophetic word in a white evangelical church would not be so quick to confine racism in the comfortable box of sin. It would do the hard work of taking an ancient text that didn’t even have the category of racism and translating it to the particular material context of our own moment, where an ideology of difference has been created to deploy power and structure social relations. It would try to explain how Christians must endeavor to live in a system of domination that is unnatural and contrary to God’s purposes.
Paul wrote an entire treatise trying to work out how the Gospel could be brought to bear on Gentile and Jewish relations in a world of Roman domination. We must wrestle with how to live against white supremacy. Anything less is a cop-out.
Christianity Teaches That Whiteness Loses
I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord In the land of the living.
We’re caught in a pandemic that is disproportionally killing black people. The violent and racist American policing system continues its rampage. New videos emerge, exclamation points on the sentences most of us haven’t bothered to read.
In our age of existential and eschatological confusion, where anything might be true, it is a challenge to cling to a hope rigorous enough to sustain action.
White Christianity can’t help us here. Indeed, if I thought for a minute that white Christianity represented God’s goodness I would not be a Christian. If I thought the passivity and silence of white Christians embodied Christian teaching I would know for certain that the invention of Christianity was a historic calamity.
But if the Christian story isn’t true, there are other bleak possibilities ahead. After all, whose to say so-called white people won’t win in the end? If the nation is all we have, whose to say the end of the story won’t be: we tried to establish an interracial democracy and failed. If humanity is all we have, whose to say the end of the story isn’t: we bounced around for a while, killing each other here and healing each other there, before finally destroying ourselves.
One reason I cling to Christian hope is because Christianity promises that whiteness will be overthrown. And that’s where James Baldwin comes in. Yes, Baldwin. Even though he eventually discarded the Christianity of his youth, he understood the subversive possibilities of Christianity far better than most Christians.
Baldwin’s first novel is a haunting coming of age story and a vivid picture of black Pentecostalism in 1930s Harlem. The main character is John Grimes, a black teenager wrestling with his sexuality and spirituality. In one astonishing passage describing John’s grandmother, a woman born into slavery, Baldwin shows his deep understanding of the black theological tradition. Against the theological heresies and social dehumanization practiced by most white Americans, John’s grandmother steadied herself with the truths of the Christian scriptures.
Take a moment to read this slowly. Let it wash over you:
I choose to believe this is true, and I could not possibly be more bored with the “god” of all the white Christians who tell us to calm down and stop talking about white supremacy. Sometimes people are most reluctant to talk about precisely those things that are most precious and holy to them. Think about that.
Baldwin was doing here what every good white evangelical claims to do with the scripture: applying it. There is a big gap in context and experience between the first century and twenty-first, and white Christians tend to be terrified of making that leap. So they keep the scriptures safely in an irrelevant time and place.
In recent weeks we’ve seen white people using guns to threaten legislators and pressure elected officials to end lockdowns. In large swaths of white America, it makes more intuitive sense to protest life-saving public health measures than to protest the death of a black person. This kind of moral illness is always a feature of the top of a social hierarchy. The struggle to dominate comes with costs to one’s own soul.
I have come to believe that the dark heart of socialization into whiteness is learning to devalue human life. You might think this would be a difficult lesson to learn, but learn it we do. It shows up in our materialism, our frenetic pursuit of accomplishment, our passivity in the face of injustice, our trust in racist institutions, and on and on. It shows up, too, in the way we enforce ignorance and callousness through social stigma. Go against the grain, defend black people without equivocation, and watch how quickly white Christians try to slap you down and make you bow to their god.
But folks, the people who here and now are white are on the edge of a steep place, with sightless eyes and stumbling feet. Whiteness loses, in the end.
A Scathing Review of Birth of A Nation from an Unlikely Source
D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation, a historical epic of the reconstructed then redeemed South, debuted in the Spring of 1915. You may have heard of President Wilson’s probably-apocryphal remark that the film was like writing history with lightning.
The emotional core of the film, the part that grabbed audience’s hearts and left them stumbling out of the theater in ecstasies of white solidarity, was the lynching of a black man. In the climax of the film, a grim band of terrorists ride to the rescue of their absurd civilization, ready to do what they must to save themselves and their womenfolk from the horrors of freedom and democracy.
I’ve watched it so you don’t have to. While the NAACP boycotted and protested and successfully lobbied to ban the film in some cities, most people who saw it (and a lot of people saw it) seem to have thought the movie succeeded both as entertainment and as history.
The Chicago Tribune called Birth of A Nation “the greatest piece of work” ever done by an American filmmaker, and “in all essential episodes grounded on historical fact.” In London, the Observer enthused, “from first to last the story captivates with thrilling exploit,” and “remarkable realism.” Life magazine declared, “No one who cares for the history of our country should miss seeing this stirring exhibition.”
A 1921 retrospective in Life said that “movie history may be said to date from the day when The Birth of a Nation was first disclosed before the startled eyes of the multitude. It was so immeasurably finer than anything that had been done before that there was no possible standard by which to gauge its quality.”
As a technical filmmaking achievement, this judgment may not be far from the truth. But Life did not stop to ask what sort of country censored sex and profanity in movies while making an ode to terrorism its highest-grossing film to date.
But how did white conservative Protestants react to the film? My expectation would be that most objected to the theater in general, but not the film in particular. So I was surprised to discover yesterday a member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church who saw clearly what most mainstream reviewers did not.
Writing in The Christian Nation, the denomination’s news magazine, W.J. McKnight noted that “The colored population of Boston is greatly agitated” about the movie. I expected him to condescendingly explain why their agitation was unjustified. Instead, he pointed out that the film was based on Thomas Dixon’s popular novel, The Clansman, and that Dixon, “as everybody knows, hates the negro with all his heart, and soul, and strength, and mind, and would like to get all his neighbors, except, perhaps, the negroes, to do the same.” In other words, the black people of Boston had every right and reason to be agitated.
Well now, this was fascinating! Why did McKnight come to have these views, and how common were they in his circles? Certainly it has something to do with him being part of the slightly quirky Reformed Presbyterian Church. But why did he say “everybody knows” Dixon hated black people, when it was obvious most people did not know that (least of all Dixon himself)?
In contrast to mainstream reviews, McKnight called the film “a caricature of history.” How did he come to know this? How common was this knowledge among conservative Protestants? I’d really like to know!
While D.W. Griffith basked in the success of his film and declared that he “loved Negroes” (you know, some of my best friends are black) McKnight called the director “venomous.” McKnight had attended an interracial “indignation meeting” at an African Methodist Church where he learned that the film’s real message was “BACK TO SLAVERY.”
McKnight had apparently already been working among the black residents of Boston, though in what fashion I’m not sure. He mentioned that he had already given some lectures to crowds of hundreds and had more lectures scheduled. It is easy to assume that this ministry was carried on in a paternalistic fashion typical of the day. But that’s the thing about paternalistic ministry: it can’t control its effects in the way it purports to do. Sometimes the paternalist finds himself changing. McKight’s contact with African Americans may have given him insight to see the truth that most white Americans refused to see.
Notes from the Classroom: First Day
Well, that’s a wrap for day one of The Historian’s Craft at Temple University.
I’ve tried more ambitious first day’s in the past and perhaps will again in the future, but today I had just two main goals: get students talking to each other and get them oriented to the class.
I admit it: for an ice-breaker I had them travel to the spring of 1889, to a certain town on the Austrian-German border, to a certain house in which resided a couple by the names of Klara and Alois. This couple trustingly asked them to babysit their infant son Adolphus.
What would you do with baby Hitler? (This thought experiment was an unnecessary risk for opening day, potentially offensive on a number of levels, and I don’t recommend it!)
Some students indeed wanted to kill baby Hitler. Some wanted to kidnap him and take him as far from Germany as possible. Some decided to babysit him like any other baby and dutifully return him to his parents. Some wanted to surround him with good art and art instruction.
Seriously, though, some students framed their answers from the get-go in terms of real historical questions of contingency and causation. Some believed killing Hitler wouldn’t make a difference, which suggests a certain perspective on the relationship between the individual and larger forces. Those who wanted to expose Hitler to a lot of art seem to have confidence in the pliability of human personality. And so on.
Really, it was just a chance for them to talk to each other. But we could claim some historical thinking took place as well.
The more substantive exercise concerned how they have learned history. What has influenced their view of the past? Here are their responses (lots of these were cited by more than one person):
Magic Tree House
Music (Billy Joel – we didn’t start the fire)
Video games (Call of duty)
Family (history phd in the family!)
Listening to others
Pop culture (comics)
Word of mouth
Talking with family; family stories
Dad [interesting to note that some people nearly always say Dad but rarely say Mom]
High school teacher
American girl doll
Museums and monuments
Historic sites (one room school house)
Quaker meeting houses
Traveling and seeing other country’s point of view
I asked them what we might infer from this list. They said things like:
–History is all around us.
–We learn it in popular forms.
–It’s hard to know where the information is coming from or whether it’s reliable.
Most academic historians are likely to immediately note that nearly all the items on this list are “public history” or not even a direct form of history at all. Not surprisingly, not a single student said that academic monographs were important to how they have learned history. This need not be depressing to us, but it’s definitely important!
My example of how I learned history was church attendance as a child. There I received very powerful (though often implicit) lessons about what history was and what it meant.
My takeaway was that we are all engaging with the past constantly, and often unconsciously. Part of the point of this semester is to become conscious. If we are fated to remember, why not endeavor to do so consciously, and do it well?
A 9-Year-Old’s Poem
This is a poem my 9-year-old son wrote this afternoon. Seriously, he wrote it really fast:
The fire burned
They were too late
We never knew it would
cross the river
but one stood up
Raised everybody’s spirits
as we rose
we scratched the sky
But two stood out
You could barely tell the
difference of height
The great city of Chicago