The Historical Stage Is Set for a Woman to Be Elected President

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Louise W. Knight is the author of Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy (2005) and Jane Addams: Spirit in Action (2010). Her biography of Sarah and Angelina Grimké will be published in 2018. She is a visiting scholar in the gender and sexuality program at Northwestern University.

As the Democratic Party becomes the first major U.S. political party to nominate a woman for president, it is worth noting that the idea has been around for a while. In 1837, almost 180 years ago, American abolitionist and feminist Angelina Grimké wrote, “A woman has just as much right as a man to occupy the Presidential Chair.”[1]

Today the truth of her assertion is accepted. But when she wrote that sentence, the idea of a female U.S. president was not just controversial; it was monstrous. Beginning in the 1820s (as Rosemarie Zagarri explains in her fine book, Revolutionary Backlash), the ideology of public and private spheres took root in American society, leading many men to see even minor public actions by a woman, such as giving reform speeches to audiences that included the opposite sex, as undermining the established gender order. In 1837, the same year that Angelina claimed women’s right to the presidency, a group of male Congregational clergy implicitly condemned her and her sister Sarah for lecturing on reform by noting “the dangers [which] threaten the female character [when she] assumes the place and tone of a man as a public reformer” and urged women to defer to men as their “superiors” and to wield influence only privately.[2]

Yet in 2016 we are not only able to imagine a woman president, which is a large step in itself, but we might soon elect one. How has this tremendous change in our public imagination and national desire come to pass?

The first step, no one can doubt, was when the Declaration of Independence trumpeted the radical idea that all men are created equal. This led, in the early years of the nineteenth century, to new state laws giving the vote to all white men, not just propertied white men. And there were other calls to change the nation’s social, economic, and political structures, each one embracing the Declaration’s assertion of human equality. The campaigns to free the enslaved, to end racial and ethnic prejudice, to liberate women from gendered oppression, and to fight for the rights of people with disabilities and the rights of gays, lesbians, and the transgendered were all launched by invoking the Declaration’s ringing phrase.

The idea of equality was like a fire that could not be controlled; people carried it from one cause to another. Angelina recalled later that she had “believed in woman’s subordination” until she encountered the abolition movement’s commitment to equality.[3] As she put it, “The investigation of the rights of the slave has led me to a better understanding of my own.”[4] The sisters’ advocacy for women’s rights, including Sarah’s book, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, grew out of the attacks they received as women working as abolition reformers.[5] Continue reading


Grounds for Dreaming

Lori Flores is Assistant Professor of History at Stony Brook University (SUNY), where she teaches courses on the histories of Latinos in the United States, labor and immigration, the American working class, the U.S. West, and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. She also helps to host the New Books in Latino Studies podcast for the New Books Network. You can find her at or on Twitter (@lori_flori).

Lori Flores is Assistant Professor of History at Stony Brook University (SUNY), where she teaches courses on the histories of Latinos in the United States, labor and immigration, the American working class, the U.S. West, and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. She also helps to host the New Books in Latino Studies podcast for the New Books Network. You can find her at or on Twitter (@lori_flori).

Can you briefly describe your book?

My book Grounds for Dreaming takes readers into the Salinas Valley of California—nicknamed “The Salad Bowl of the World” for being one of the richest farming regions on the planet—to show how this agricultural empire was continually a center of significant transitions and moments in U.S. labor, immigration, and Latino history. In public, tourist-driven narratives of the valley’s history, however, not much is said about the contributions of Latinos or Latino farmworkers. There might be a brief mention of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union, which organized there in the 1970s and 1980s, but there is still a reluctance to acknowledge the ways that this region’s wealth was built upon the backs of workers of color. Grounds for Dreaming is the first comprehensive history of how U.S.-born Mexicans, braceros (male Mexican agricultural guestworkers), and undocumented Mexican migrants navigated their relationships with other Californians and with themselves in this increasingly corporatizing world of agriculture that continually pitted groups of Latinos against each other economically, socially, and politically. While my book zooms in on a particular place, I think the arguments it makes about labor, immigration, and the complexity of the Latino demographic can be applied to many other communities in the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

What initially drew you to your topic?

I knew I wanted to research and write about some aspect of working class history in the Southwest, because my early scholarship had focused on women garment workers in Texas. When my graduate adviser Al Camarillo and I began to discuss my dissertation topic, he suggested that I take advantage of Stanford’s immense Mexican American archival collection and see what interesting things I could find. I had heard about “race riots” taking place between white and Mexican American youth in the Salinas Valley in the 1950s, and started digging there. What I ended up uncovering was this vast collection of newspaper clippings on Monterey County which revealed tons of fascinating, complicated stories—stories about Mexican-origin soldiers, braceros, and zoot suiters coming into contact with each other in the 1940s; the sexual panic associated with Mexican immigrant men in the 1950s; the victories of War on Poverty–funded organizations of the 1960s; and the United Farm Workers’ union activities of the 1970s and 1980s. After this preliminary research, I placed some newspaper advertisements asking to interview anyone who had lived in the Salinas Valley during the post-World War II period, and the phone calls started coming in. As I came to know the region better by driving back and forth, interviewing people, and living there for a while, I came to see that there was a dark history of transnational labor exploitation, racial discrimination, violence, and political conflict that needed to be chronicled.

Does your work speak to modern debates about immigration?

Absolutely. A huge part of the history I tackle in this book is that of the Bracero Program (1942–64), a guestworker agreement negotiated between the U.S. and Mexican governments that imported on average 200,000 Mexican men per year to work in the railroad and agricultural sectors. Though the U.S. government and employers promised braceros decent wages, housing, food, and transportation during their contract period, these promises were often minimally upheld or broken altogether. The H-2A temporary agricultural visa program we have today is strikingly similar to the Bracero Program. H-2A labor contracts are seasonal, and workers are bound to a single employer with very little monitoring by labor agencies. Those workers who experience abuse are reluctant to report it for fear of losing their jobs and being deported. In this election year, we need to choose leaders who offer practical and humane ideas about how to reform our immigration system and our treatment of various types of migrants. Walls, or militarized roundups and deportations, will not work and do not make sense in this present reality of global violence and immense economic disparity.
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How could studying community formation among Latinos in the Salinas Valley change the way we look at the Mexican American farm workers and immigrants? 

I think my book helps readers to see that the Latino demographic of this country has always been, and continues to be, very complex. Mexican Americans, for instance, had to confront Mexican guestworkers and undocumented immigrants as labor competition and as potential threats to their social mobility and integration. The personal and political tensions that developed between Mexican Americans and Mexicans certainly affected how both groups were able to fight for their rights in California agriculture. Today, in terms of our farmworker demographic, many new immigrants from South America, Central America, and indigenous, non-Spanish speaking communities in Mexico are now working and living alongside older waves of workers. The greater diversity and tensions we see in farmworker communities means that any organization seeking to mobilize these laborers will have to acknowledge that even though most farmworkers continue to be Latino, there is no one definition of Latino—there never has been, but particularly not now—and will have to strategize accordingly and be sensitive to a variety of cultural, political, and linguistic differences.

What I think my book also reveals is how much we are repeating the mistakes of the past when it comes to farmworkers’ physical safety. Back in the 1960s, the U.S. government classified farmworkers as “types of loads” for vehicles along with metal, wood, and hay. Though this language has changed in the books, we are still treating farmworkers like cargo rather than human beings. Farmworkers continue to suffer from pesticide poisoning, sexual assaults, and heatstroke, and continue to die in transportation-related accidents all the time. Not long ago, a refurbished school bus carrying Haitian migrant workers and their families crashed, killing and injuring several people. Migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the U.S. have an average life expectancy of only 49 years compared with the national average of 79 years. This is shameful. Employers need to stop cutting corners on basic safety measures, and the U.S. Department of Labor and other overseer agencies need to devote more resources to monitoring conditions and punishing violators.
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A professor emerita at Brooklyn College, Barbara Winslow is a historian of women’s activism as well as the founder and director emerita of the Shirley Chisholm Project. She is the author of Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change (2013), Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism (1996), and a coeditor of Clio in the Classroom: A Guide for Teaching U.S. Women’s History (2009). She is currently writing a book on the women’s liberation movement in Seattle Washington from 1965–1975. She is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

The movie Suffragette is the first feature film dramatically depicting the monumental struggle for women’s right to vote in pre-World War One England. (Please erase from your memory the horrible, and I mean horrible portrayal of suffragettes in the Disney monstrosity Mary Poppins.)

The only feature film that portrays the U.S. suffrage movement is Iron-Jawed Angels, made for HBO television, which told the story of the U.S. suffrage struggle led by the Congressional Union after 1913. Suffragette is a powerful and moving story of women’s struggle and sacrifice to win the right to vote, and in the process, to be considered citizens and treated with dignity.

Directed by Sarah Gavron with a screenplay by Abi Morgan, the project also had the support and star power of Meryl Streep with her brilliant-as-always portrayal of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the militant suffragette organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

In twentieth-century England there were two major suffrage organizations. The constitutionalist suffragist organization was the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The movie focuses on the activities of the WSPU, founded and led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters Christabel and Sylvia. The WSPU militants, as they were called, used unheard of for the time in-your-face tactics such as heckling politicians, mass nonviolent civil disobedience, window smashing, and blowing up mailboxes, buildings, even the Brighton Pavilion. They used acid to etch “Votes for Women” on men’s golf courses, and one suffragette debutante had the audacity to ask King George for the vote! The Liberal Government responded to suffragette militancy by jailing the suffragettes, who then retaliated by hunger striking. Desperate and unwilling to deal with the basic demand for the vote, the Government then began force-feeding (read: torturing) the women.

Not all women campaigning for the vote were middle or upper class. Some, like Emmeline’s daughter Sylvia, were socialists. Many trade union and labor militants supported the women’s suffrage struggle, albeit warily. Suffrage in Edwardian England was gender, class, and empire based. The majority of unskilled male workers in England and colonial subjects could not vote. The women’s suffrage campaign would therefore enfranchise mainly middle and upper–class women. It was not surprising that many trade union and socialist women’s suffrage supporters believed that the existing Votes for Women campaign would only strengthen the Conservative and Liberal parties. Continue reading


Hearing History through the Sounds of Sesame Street

Kathryn A. Ostrofsky received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Pennsylvania. Her book manuscript, entitled Sounding It Out: Crafting American Culture in Sound through Sesame Street, is under contract with the University of California Press. She is an Instructor of History at Angelo State University where she has taught U.S. history, film history, and global history of media & communications, and has lectured for rock ‘n’ roll history.

Could you briefly describe your project?

I use the sounds of Sesame Street, a children’s television program now in its 46th season, to examine broader themes in twentieth century U.S. cultural history. In its planning phases starting in 1967 through its early seasons beginning with its 1969 premier, Sesame Street’s creators conceptualized it as part of the Great Society, a mass-media version of Head Start that would experiment with how to address poverty and racism through universal preschool education. Its producers, performers, and researchers drew upon their previous experiences of using sound in advertising, social science, and political activism, and applied those techniques to a new audience. Throughout the 1970s, minority activists from Sesame Street’s audience and from its own staff contested the meanings audiences might take from the program’s use of music and spoken language to represent racial, ethnic, and linguistic communities. Sesame Street “sounded out” the 1970s, using sound to construct a fictional ideal neighborhood and serving as a site for debate and a vehicle for experimentation about what that ideal should be. The resulting evolutions in the structure and aesthetics of the program reveal changes in the cultural politics of race and class that forged a new media climate, shifted the nation’s underlying values about education and the arts, and altered Americans’ concepts of community identity and public service.

What led you to this topic?

Home sick from class one day, I did what I used to do as a child in the same circumstances: watch Sesame Street. I had a reaction that I think is familiar to many historians approaching their hobbies or entertainment. Suddenly, I could not help but analyze the program historically. It seemed to reflect so much change in music, cultural politics, and media representations of race, that I wanted to read about it. Nobody had written about the topics that interested me, so I began conducting primary research. Most scholars seem to do this later in their careers (like Jill Lepore on Wonder Woman, or Sean Wilentz on Bob Dylan), and many a skeptical professor suggested it might make a good second book, but did I really want to define myself professionally as a scholar of Sesame Street? Yes, I do, because themes fundamental to twentieth century U.S. history yet often studied separately—race, mass media, social science, commercialism, childhood—all intersect on Sesame Street.

One can imagine that there are a number of ways to approach Sesame Street as a historical artifact. What contributed to your decision to place the aural at the center of your analysis?

I was drawn to Sesame Street as one place in which old music remained well-known, reached new audiences, or became reinvented and imbued with new meanings. Much music history focuses on styles and songs at the time they were new or at the height of their popularity, but most of the music heard and known at any given time is old. Repetition breeds familiarity, which allows for participation. That is how a pop song becomes a hit, how an ad sells a product, how children learn, how social movements gain strength, and how public celebrations become community rituals. Sesame Street tied all that together, so I explored how its staff used and discussed familiarity and participation. This allowed me to think more broadly about how musical form and style can reveal the histories of culture, commerce, politics, and identity. Continue reading


There’s Nothing New about the “New Slavery”

ANDRÉS RESÉNDEZ is a professor and historian at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of A LAND SO STRANGE: THE EPIC JOURNEY OF CABEZA DE VACA, which Carolyn See called “impossible to put down” (Washington Post Book World). And most recently the author of THE OTHER SLAVERY: THE UNCOVERED STORY OF INDIAN ENSLAVEMENT IN AMERICA. He lives in Davis, California.

Andrés Reséndez is a professor and historian at the University of California, Davis. He is most recently the author of The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer. He lives in Davis, California.

About 45.8 million people in 167 countries live in some form of modern slavery according to the latest estimate of the Walk Free Foundation. Anything from children bricklayers, to men compelled to toil in fishing boats, to women forced into prostitution are included in this eye-popping number. Slavery is forbidden all over the world. Mauritania was the last country to abolish the practice (1981) and put teeth into the law (2007). Yet not a single region of our globe has been spared from this scourge. Slavery continues to thrive because its beneficiaries resort to debts or prison sentences or some other subterfuge to compel men, women, and children to work, under the threat of violence, and offering absurdly low or no compensation.

We are often told that this brand of slavery is new. That it traces its roots only to the end of World War II or even the economic liberalization of the 1980s and 1990s. Some commentators point to the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the origin of the sex trade involving Eastern European women or the liberal reforms of the last thirty years as the main driver for children in Third World countries toiling in sweatshops to make products for the developed world. It is true that all of these developments have accelerated this type of slavery. And it is also true that these forms of labor bondage are vastly different from the racially-based and government-sanctioned African slavery of the nineteenth century. Still, there is nothing new about this “new slavery.” Historians and other scholars are now actively excavating the deeper history of this type of enslavement meant to pose as legal work and render legal prohibitions against slavery meaningless.

In our own shores a case in point is that of Native Americans. Since the beginning of European colonization, the Spanish Crown—and later Mexico and the United States—forbade the taking of Indians as slaves. Yet Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans took hundreds of thousands of Indians from the time of Columbus until 1900 not as slaves but as “servants,” “indentures,” “peons,” “in deposit,” or as criminals serving out their sentences. The fact that this other slavery had to be carried out clandestinely made it especially insidious.Jacket Artwork - OTHER SLAVERY

Moreover, because this other slavery had no legal basis, ending it proved nearly impossible. The Spanish crown prohibited Native bondage under all circumstances in 1542. Yet the traffic continued. In the early nineteenth century Mexico proscribed all forms of bondage and extended citizenship to all Indians. Yet Indian slavery persisted. After the Civil War, the United States Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting both “slavery” and “involuntary servitude.” Although the inclusion of the latter term opened the possibility of liberation of all Indians held in bondage in various parts of the United States, in the end the Supreme Court opted for a narrow interpretation of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments that applied primarily to African Americans and generally excluded Native Americans. This other slavery continued to thrive in the United States through the end of the nineteenth century and in some remote areas well into the twentieth century and constitutes a direct antecedent of the type of slavery that exists today.

There is much that we can learn from the deeper history of this other slavery. For one thing, formal prohibitions are not enough. Since those who benefit from forced labor will always find ways to get around the law, it is necessary to deploy a flexible regulatory system that matches the adaptability of this other slavery. The Native American experience shows that former masters, in collusion with government officials, are prone to resort to slight changes in terminology or use loopholes in the law to retain control of their laborers. From the experience of Native Americans we also learn that traffickers have always been quite adept at shifting geographically and targeting new groups. Thus the efforts at liberating one Native group sometimes resulted in the enslaving of a neighboring people. Similarly, when combating human trafficking and slavery today, a successful reduction of slavery in one group or region may well result in a comparable expansion in another. At the very least we should be mindful that this so-called “new” slavery has been with us for centuries and has shown incredible adaptability and resilience, and thus fighting it requires deep commitment, vigilance, and flexibility. Awareness of its long history is a good place to begin.



Chad Williams is associate professor and chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Department at Brandeis University. He is the author of Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era which won the 2011 Liberty Legacy Foundation Award from the OAH. Twitter: @Dr_ChadWilliams Keisha N. Blain is assistant professor of history at the University of Iowa. Her work has been published in the Journal of Social History; Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society; and Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International. She received the 2014 Huggins Quarles Award and honorable mention for the 2015 Lerner-Scott Prize from the OAH. Twitter: @KeishaBlain Kidada E. Williams is associate professor of history at Wayne State University and the author of They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War One and “Regarding the Aftermaths of Lynching.” Her work has been published in the New York Times, Slate, and DAME. Twitter: @KidadaEWilliams

Chad Williams is associate professor and chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Department at Brandeis University. He is the author of Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer. Twitter: @Dr_ChadWilliamsKidada E. Williams is associate professor of history at Wayne State University and the author of They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War One. Twitter: @KidadaEWilliams Keisha N. Blain is an assistant professor of history at the University of Iowa. She received the 2014 Huggins Quarles Award and honorable mention for the 2015 Lerner-Scott Prize from the OAH. Twitter: @KeishaBlain

Could you briefly describe your book and how you created it?

Keisha N. Blain: The Charleston Syllabus book is a collection of secondary and primary sources on race, racism, and racial violence in the United States and abroad. The book is an outgrowth of the popular #CharlestonSyllabus Twitter hashtag and subsequent online reading list that we created in the days following the Charleston Massacre in June 2015. The original reading list is very extensive with hundreds of reading recommendations and resources—reflecting the depth and breadth of the scholarship and resources on race, racism, and racial violence. At the same time, the length of the reading list can be intimidating for someone coming to these topics for the very first time. The Charleston Syllabus book rectifies this problem, highlighting 66 core readings—many of which appear on the original reading list. In this collection, readers will find a wealth of resources—including scholarly essays, song lyrics, poems, and op-eds—addressing a variety of key topics in U.S. and global history such as slavery, religion, and racial identity.

Why did you choose the sources you included in your book?

Keisha N. Blain: We carefully selected what we believe are some of the best and most accessible works in the field of African American and African Diaspora History. As we finalized the pieces for the collection, we wanted to ensure that we would have a variety of texts, representing various academic fields, highlighting the richness and complexity of black experience from the era of slavery to the present. In addition, we arranged the readings by core themes and topics and provided introductions for the general reader to better understand the significance of the pieces included in the book. Whereas the #CharlestonSyllabus was a reading list, the book takes the next step in order to provide more context and explanation for readers. As we explain in the book’s introduction, we also envisioned the book as a response to some of the critiques that the #CharlestonSyllabus was not a “syllabus” in the true sense of the word. Certainly, educators who use the book will need to craft their own syllabi depending on the topic/theme of the course they are teaching but the Charleston Syllabus book is all the more useful because it provides a road map for those who are unfamiliar with the history. Like the hashtag, the Charleston Syllabus book is geared towards members of the general public so we were careful to select the core texts that would be accessible to anyone regardless of educational background. In addition, a significant number of the texts in the book (like the reading list) are specifically about Charleston and South Carolina.williamsblain_charlestonsyllabus_hp

How can educators at all levels better teach black history? In what ways might we reach out to and educate those who have already left schools and universities?

Kidada E. Williams: Present and future educators need only to commit to ensuring the courses they teach engage black history and research resources often produced by top educational institutions. From the Library of Congress to local museums, institutions across the country are committed to revealing the complexities of U.S. history. As part of their missions, these institutions produce free, well-researched, open-access materials for history educators at all levels that are inclusive of African American history. Educators simply need to make a scholarly and civic commitment to accessing and incorporating African American history into their teaching. For #CharlestonSyllabus, educators came together across various levels to form an intellectual community committed to addressing deficiencies in some Americans’ historical educations. As history professors, we would be well served by committing to developing more opportunities for communal teaching and learning. Continue reading


Black and White in the Free State of Jones

Nina Silber is professor of history at Boston University and focuses on issues related to the US Civil War, historical memory, and gender in the Civil War era. She is the author of numerous publications including The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900; Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War; and Gender and the Sectional Conflict. Her article, “Reunion and Reconciliation, Reviewed and Reconsidered” appears in the June 2016 issue of the Journal of American History.

Nina Silber is professor of history at Boston University and focuses on issues related to the US Civil War, historical memory, and gender in the Civil War era. She is the author of Gender and the Sectional Conflict. Her article, “Reunion and Reconciliation, Reviewed and Reconsidered” appears in the June 2016 issue of the Journal of American History.

I’ll confess: I was fully prepared to be disappointed with the recently-released Free State of Jones. Not out of any disrespect toward the excellent historical scholarship behind the film, including Victoria Bynum’s superb book by the same name which helped inspire filmmaker Gary Ross’ initial interest. Rather, my skepticism stems from a long history of bad Civil War films, a history that includes truly atrocious movies like Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, and Gods and Generals. As these films attest, Civil War film-making has frequently been an exercise in myth-making and obfuscation: these movies have, repeatedly, erased the central problem of slavery; ignored the critical role of African American slaves and freedpeople in fighting for emancipation; and portrayed Southern whites as the victims of a tyrannical Northern onslaught, both during but especially after the war had ended. These movies fit in a long history of what, in my recent JAH article, I refer to as “the imagined reconstitution of the nation,” an imagining that privileged the sectional reunification of whites while pushing African Americans to the sidelines. Free State of Jones, in stark contrast, generally gets the central historical narrative right and even manages to tell some complicated history in a moving and compelling manner. Most notably, it effectively pushes back on some of the most deeply entrenched myths of all: on the true meaning and significance of Reconstruction.

Yet, Free State of Jones, for all its didactic historical lessons, is hardly a film treatment of a history book. It remains a work of the imagination and a product of a Hollywood film system. And, in this respect, Free State of Jones reminds us that even an earnest and well-intentioned Hollywood director, which film-maker Gary Ross seems to have been, cannot avoid bending and shaping the history to make a movie that fits with certain Hollywood demands and cinematic conventions.

Free State of Jones tells the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a true-to-life, non-slaveholding farmer from Jones County, Mississippi, who deserts from the Confederate Army, disgusted at the senseless brutality and the increasing pressure on poor men to fight a war that served the interests of wealthy slaveholders. With its vividly gruesome battle and hospital scenes, its references to the “20 Negro Law” (which allowed slaveowners with twenty or more slaves to claim an exemption from military service), and the merciless seizure of poor farmers’ goods to support the Confederate war effort, Free State of Jones accurately conveys the intensifying class conflict within the Confederacy. Outraged by what he has seen and been forced to endure, Knight flees to a swamp where he encounters a group of escaped slaves. Gradually, he is joined by more Confederate deserters who ultimately declare their independence from the Confederacy and proclaim a “Free State of Jones.” The politics of this resistance movement is hazy, as it no doubt was in the 1860s: were they pro-Union? Anti-slavery? Anti-authoritarian? Dealing with the black-white alliance was also clearly a sticking point as the film pushes the initial group of escaped slaves to the sidelines but then gradually brings them back into the mix, especially after there has been some disgruntlement among the whites about sharing food with “niggers.” Eventually, Knight proclaims that “everybody is somebody else’s nigger” in order to impress upon the white people in his group the need for inter-racial cooperation. In short, the film very much wants to showcase a genuine, bi-racial movement, including Knight’s loving relationship with a female slave (beautifully portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw)—and there is evidence in the historical record to support some level of black-white collaboration—yet, to do so, it must simplify and compress a host of complicated historical issues.

Most importantly, Free State of Jones unabashedly tackles Reconstruction, refusing to draw a neat point of closure with Appomattox. Indeed, one can almost hear the chorus of historians with whom Ross consulted, urging a thorough telling of this part of the story. The film spotlights the limits of emancipation by calling attention to the postwar “Black Codes” and especially the” apprenticeship” system that allowed state officials to force black children to work for white planters. It conveys frustration over the betrayed promises of “forty acres and a mule,” yet also demonstrates the pain-staking work of black activists who built a grassroots political movement amidst a brutal white supremacist backlash. The chronology, it is true, gets a bit messy but the basic outlines of the story are in place.  Continue reading


Teaching the JAH: Robert Michael Morrissey on “The Power of the Ecotone”

Map from the second exercise of Teaching the JAH.

Map from the second exercise of Teaching the JAH.

“Rethinking early Native American history is a difficult enterprise,” Robert Morrissey argues. “Myths and stereotypes are well entrenched in American lore, and historians have few sources to use to tell a different and more balanced story about native peoples— especially about those who lived in the continental interior, away from centers of colonization. To rethink the history of the Illinois we can, of course, use the traditional sources of colonial history: the writings of European colonists who encountered and lived among native peoples and witnessed their actions. These sources, however, are few in number and imperfect….We do have other sources of information to supplement the colonial writings. Archaeology, linguistics, and material culture can add to our understanding and do not share the same problems as written sources. And if these sources can help us begin to recover history from an Illinois perspective, we can also learn a lot about Indian actions and motivations simply by considering natives’ specific ecological and geographical settings.”

In the latest Teaching the Journal of American History, Robert Michael Morrissey provides a teaching supplement for his December 2015 article, “The Power of the Ecotone: Bison, Slavery, and the Rise and Fall of the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia.” The article’s full text is available here.

Morrissey includes six exercises that tackle the scarcity of primary sources from a Native American point of view. These exercises present students with interdisciplinary sources that they may not expect, such as ecological maps of biomes and soil, as well as more traditional sources like memoirs, letters, and excerpts from language dictionaries. By providing an opportunity to interact with a diverse group of documents, this teaching guide will encourage students to consider a more nuanced, demythologized history of Native Americans.

Previous Teaching the JAH pieces featuring are available here.


Free State of Jones Capsizes Lost Cause Myths

Matthew E. Stanley is Assistant Professor of History at Albany State University in Albany, Georgia. He teaches courses on Slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, Revolutions and Social Violence, and the Long Civil Rights Movement. His book, The Loyal West: War and Reunion in Middle America, will be published in the fall of 2016 by the University of Illinois Press. Stanley’s current research focuses on the convergence of collective memory and radical class politics among Civil War veterans.

Matthew E. Stanley is Assistant Professor of History at Albany State University in Albany, Georgia. His book, The Loyal West: War and Reunion in Middle America, will be published in the fall of 2016 by the University of Illinois Press. Stanley’s current research focuses on the convergence of collective memory and radical class politics among Civil War veterans.

Reconstruction is perhaps the least understood period in American history, a distinction that has been both perpetuated by and reflected in popular culture since the late nineteenth century. Films in particular have gone from presenting the era through the Dunning lens of rank white supremacy (The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, Tennessee Johnson) to skipping straight to white reunion (Abraham Lincoln, Ken Burns’s The Civil War) to addressing its social achievements and betrayals through either subtle foreshadowing (Lincoln, Glory) or highbrowed metaphor (The Hateful Eight). Director Gary Ross’s Free State of Jones, however, which depicts the origins and aftermath of Newton Knight’s bigender and biracial anti-Confederate insurgency in Jones County, Mississippi, might be the first to properly and historically situate Reconstruction in full relation to the war itself, serving as a vigorous repudiation of Lost Cause mythology.

Consulted by and employing source material from historians including Eric Foner, David Blight, and Victoria Bynum, Free State of Jones presents a wartime regional counternarrrative that becomes a postwar national standard narrative. In other words, the events depicted both are and are not historically representative. Led by farmer-turned-renegade Knight, ably portrayed by a suitably angular Matthew McConaughey, white members of the “Knight Company” are deserters and poor farmers who have rejected the Confederate “Twenty Negro Law” and regressive property confiscation; its black constituents are self-emancipated slaves and intrepid spies with even greater interest in overthrowing the callous Southern plantocracy. Through a series of competently shot skirmishes and ambushes, this militant underclass slowly drives Confederate forces from a large swath of southeast Mississippi. Persecuted by the Confederacy and ignored by the Union, Knight’s militia declares a “Free State of Jones” committed to principles of social and economic egalitarianism. His white wife and child having absconded, Knight falls for a mixed race slave, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and together they create a biracial community that still exists.

The final act, however, is a sweeping depiction of how gains achieved during the war changed amid postwar social and political complexity—loyalty oaths, sharecropping, Black Codes, apprenticeship laws, Union Leagues, ballot box fraud, arson, lynching, white paramilitaries, and the establishment of a hard, legal color line are all here. Nearly all of the Knight Company’s white members quickly bow out—a choice of racial solidarity over class solidarity that has characterized so much of American history. Meanwhile, empowered freedpeople and the small number of white comrades who remain use legal political channels to challenge former Confederates and planters (embodied here by the dastardly Lieutenant Barbour and Master Eakins) who are looking to reclaim power at all costs. We know how this story ends: wholesale white-on-black political violence, the “redemption” of the master race, and those defeated in war winning the peace.

Nevertheless, charges of “white savior” began with the release of the film’s teaser trailer. To be sure, this is a story—a true story—in which a white male character “leads” people of color and whites in a military capacity. He also has a romantic relationship with a woman of color. But that’s really where the tropes end. Not only does the film (unlike Lincoln) feature multi-dimensional black characters, the scenes of black political mobilization, particularly those led by the remarkable actor Mahershala Ali as the suggestively named Moses Washington, are some of the movie’s best. Knight, meanwhile, follows Washington and other freedpeople in a political capacity after the war. More importantly, Free State’s lack of a redemptive angle—any accurate assessment of Reconstruction must affirm the era’s progressive to regressive arc—precludes it from standard white savior fare. This is not simply a story of paternalistic white people teaching black people how to do things, nor is it a story in which black characters merely serve to enlighten the white protagonist. Rather, it’s a story of the mediation between black and white worlds, the violent struggle to unite those two worlds on the basis of shared (though by no means equal) oppression, and the failure of that project due to white supremacy and the political and economic power it conferred. Indeed, as any proper interpretation of Reconstruction should be, this is a story of rapid, even revolutionary change, things looking hopeful, then slowly getting worse. Continue reading


The Paradox of Gun History

Pamela Haag is a non-fiction writer, essayist, and historian. She is the author of The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of a Gun Culture

Pamela Haag is a non-fiction writer, essayist, and historian. She is the author of The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture.

I recently completed a book on the history of the gun industry, culture, and the Winchester rifle family. In subsequent interviews with mainstream media outlets, I had a chance to observe where hosts and callers begin in the gun debate, and their starting point about the American gun’s place in history.

In this popular conception, if generalization is possible, the historical status of the gun is a paradox: there are few themes so historically grounded, and few so historically loamy and vague.

On the one hand, the American gun is “timeless” and deeply-engrained. Think of how many sentences in the gun conversation begin, “Americans have always _____.” Americans have always loved guns; they have always been a nation of cowboys (some celebrate and some condemn this, but it has always been thus); they have always associated guns with freedom from tyranny.

As the twentieth century advanced the gun industry itself became more self-conscious about their product’s historical mystique and gravitas as a selling point. This was something new. Oliver Winchester wasn’t selling guns in the 1870s by trading on nostalgia about firearms in the Revolutionary War; Samuel Colt wasn’t invoking the minutemen or Thomas Paine to sell a revolver. Actually, to be accurate, they lay the first strata of their respective gun fortunes outside of the U.S., seeking military and other contracts internationally.

In a post-frontier, modern America of the early 1900s, however, the industry increasingly utilized gun history as part of its marketing. Smith & Wesson ran a series, “Makers of History,” that airbrushed their pistols into historical timelines featuring events unrelated to guns; Colt’s touted its revolver as “famous in the past;” the Winchester company slogan, the “gun that won the west,” was a marketing campaign introduced in 1919. Meanwhile, bottom-up interest in guns as antiques and collector’s items grew.  The gun’s instrumentality and historical influence were magnified: Guns were imagined to have done more work historically than perhaps they did. This is encapsulated by the Colt’s Company’s 1926 book, Makers of History: A Story of the Development of the History of Our Country at the Muzzle of a Colt.

On the other hand, the American gun lacks a true historical sense of change over time, or of historical specificity and nuance. Indeed, the narrative of timeless gun love conforms more to the characteristics of myth: It’s a story that explains present values through a hybrid of fact and fiction about the past.  Continue reading