Tuesday, February 26, 2013 2:24 PM
Most of us think of dolls as children's playthings, but they have a story to tell about race, culture, heritage, and history.
This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared at Collectors Weekly.
As a little girl, Samantha Knowles didn’t stop to consider why
most of her dolls—her American Girl dolls, her Cabbage Patch Kids, her Barbie
dolls—were black like her. But black dolls were not common in her upstate New York hometown, whose
population remains overwhelmingly white. So when Knowles was 8 years old, one
of her friends innocently asked “Why do you have black dolls?” And she didn’t
know quite what to say.
But that question stuck with her, and in college, she started to consider
how she would answer as an adult. Finally, as an undergraduate film student at
Dartmouth, she connected with a small but passionate group of black doll
enthusiasts who gather at black doll shows around the country, and for her
senior honors thesis, Knowles, now 22, completed a documentary called Why Do You Have Black Dolls? to articulate the answer.
What the Brooklyn filmmaker didn’t know was that her mother felt so strongly
that her daughters, Samantha and Jillian, have dolls of
their own race, that she would stand in line at stores or make special
orders to make sure they got one of the few black versions. “My parents
made sure to get us a lot of black dolls in a wide variety of hues and shapes,”
Samantha Knowles says. “We didn’t have exclusively black dolls, but we had
mostly black dolls. After I started working on the film, I had a lot of
conversations with my mom, and she would say, ‘Oh, you don’t know what I had to
go through to get some of those dolls!’”
Many black doll enthusiasts, like Debbie Behan Garrett, the
author of “Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and
Experiencing the Passion,” feels the same way as Knowles’ mother.
“I’m emphatic about a black child having a doll that reflects who she is,”
Garrett says. “When a young child is playing with a doll, she is mimicking
being a mother, and in her young, impressionable years, I want that child to
understand that there’s nothing wrong with being black. If black children are
force-fed that white is better, or if that’s all that they are exposed to, then
they might start to think, ‘What is wrong with me?’”
Why Do You Have Black Dolls? debuted in October at the Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival
in New York City,
where it won the Reel Sisters Spirit Award. It has also been selected for
the Martha’s Vineyard African-American
Film Festival and the Hollywood Black Film
Festival in Beverly Hills.
In the film, doll maker Debra Wright says when little girls see her dolls,
they’ll exclaim happily, “Look at her hair! It’s just like mine.”
In fact, Knowles says that Wright gave a quote that best sums up her answer
to the question posed by the film: “I think women know that they’re beautiful,”
Wright says. “But when you see a doll, it’s such a wonderful reminder of that
beauty—because somebody took the time to make a doll in your likeness.”
Among Knowles interviewees were Barbara Whiteman, a longtime black doll
collector who runs the 25-year-old Philadelphia
Doll Museum where she has a rotating display of 300 of her collection of
1,000 black dolls. On Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, Knowles’ documentary screens as
a part of the Black History Month programming at the National Black Doll Museum in Mansfield, Massachusetts.
Five black-doll collecting sisters Debra Britt, Felicia Walker, Celeste Cotton,
Tamara Mattison, and Kareema Thomas opened that museum in the summer of 2012 to
teach black history and showcase their collection of 6,200 dolls.
The only black girl at her school in 1950s Dorchester, Massachusetts,
Debra Britt grew up carrying the vinyl white Baby Bye-Lo doll. “I didn’t have a
lot of self-esteem with it.” Britt says. “I had big issues because I was black
and fat, and kids were teasing me. And I had to ride a bus with nobody on it.
When I would get to school, the other kids shook my bus every day and called me
Britt’s grandmother stepped in and started dip-dying store-bought dolls
brown for her granddaughter, and she also taught Britt how to make African wrap
dolls from a gourd, an apple, and vines. These dolls were also made by slaves
on plantations in the South, who would have their children put in a pebble to
represent each fear or worry and relieve them of the burdens. “My grandmother
kept saying, ‘You don’t know where you’re coming from and you need to.’” Britt
says. “And so she made this African wrap doll and gave me the history.”
Read the rest of this article and see more photos of black dolls through history at Collectors Weekly.
Image (top): Jillian Knowles, Samantha’s younger sister, sits with their doll collection from childhood in a still from Why Do You Have Black Dolls?
Thursday, November 10, 2011 11:05 AM
How long does it take to change how the world thinks about human history? French priest Father Patrick Desbois has been trying to broaden our collective understanding of the Holocaust for the past eight years—and despite diligent work, constant advocacy, and a spiritual impetus, the light at the end of the tunnel remains dim.
Recently profiled in Jewish lifestyle and culture magazine Moment, Desbois contends that people generally simplify the Holocaust as “trains taking people to death camps.” He gives a number of reasons why, including the iron-fisted Soviet control of Eastern Europe, complicit actions of non-Jewish Europeans, and that Western Jews were more likely survive and tell their story. Although a brutal element of the Nazi war effort in Central and Western Europe, ghettos and gas chambers weren’t nearly as common on the Eastern front. In the bread basket of Europe, guns were the executioner’s weapon of choice, and “the rule became one Jew, one bullet.”
Much of Desbois’ work in the past decade has been to find the sites of mass graves—no easy task. Traveling across the Ukranian and Polish countryside, he and a team of researchers have found and interviewed nearly 2,000 witnesses of Nazi atrocity. Many describe how, fearing for their own skin, non-Jews helped exterminate large numbers of their countrymen. Some participated in the Berlin-ordered “Sonderaktion 1005,” a tactic to destroy evidence of the mass shootings in case Western nations heard of the genocide. Some would “exhume and burn the bodies buried in mass graves,” others would help pile up corpses to conserve space. (33,771 people, for example, were killed during one massacre at the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev.) Desbois’ investigation is also running against the clock—the clock of decay. Many of the executed (the ones that weren’t exhumed) have been buried for more than 60 years.
In addition to correcting history and ensuring victims are properly buried, Father Desbois sees broader implications in his work. “I have the conviction that we cannot build a modern Europe, and perhaps a modern world,” he told Moment, “above thousands of mass graves of Jews, who have been killed like animals, buried like animals. We cannot build democracies above mass graves. Otherwise, what can we say to Rwanda, to Darfur, Cambodia? What can we say to other countries if we don’t bury the victims?”
I’ve glossed over or completely left out many fascinating facets of Desbois’ life and work—including his family’s history with the Holocaust and his run-ins with Holocaust deniers. All in all, an excellent profile of an individual wearing out the soles his shoes for social and historical justice.
, licensed under
Friday, August 12, 2011 12:15 PM
Cats embody different qualities to different people—gods to ancient Egyptians, witches’ familiars to Puritanical Americans, disease carriers and rodent exterminators, howling scourges to writers, cuddly medication to depressives. In the digital age, cats have become cheezburger-craving running punchlines and adorable lunch break distractions.
In short, we’ve become a society obsessed by cats. That doesn’t mean, however, that we had any say in the relationship. “[A]mong all domestic animals cats boast a unique distinction,” writes Tom Chatfield for Prospect, trying to understand Western civilization’s feline affinity, “to the best of our knowledge, it was them who chose us. Or rather, cats chose what humans represented: the plentiful supply of tasty vermin that lived among the stock and refuse of early civilization.”
From a sociological perspective, cat people (this writer included) are fairly irrational. “Vermin-catching skills aside, cats are not useful to humans in any instrumental sense, nor much inclined to put themselves at our service,” says Chatfield, stating the obvious,
In contrast to the empathetic, emphatically useful dog, a cat’s mind is an alien and often unsympathetic mix of impulses. And it’s perhaps this combination of indifference and intimacy that has made it a beast of such ambivalent fascination throughout our history. Felines have been gods, demons, spirits and poppets to humankind over the centuries—and that’s before you reach the maelstrom of the internet and its obsessions. They are, in effect, a blank page onto which we doodle our dreams, fears and obsessions.
It sounds more like Stockholm Syndrome. But Chatfield lucidly acknowledges how the power dynamic might play out in a slightly different world: “I know that [my cat] appreciates the stroking as well as the feeding; but I’m equally certain that, if our sizes were reversed, the only thing that would stop him from eating me instantly would be the pleasure of hunting me first.”
Image by stephenhanafin, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, August 02, 2011 1:48 PM
“Of all the epochs, events, and ideas we could study, war seems to grab a disproportionately large chunk of time in many classrooms around the country,” writes The Smart Set’s Dwight Simon, who’s also an eighth-grade history teacher at Epiphany School in Boston. “If violence truly is the spirituality of our society, then, I fear that we as teachers and students of history have become its theologians.”
Over the past few years of teaching, Simon noticed an unsettling trend, one that may belie a still-developing generation of war apologists-to-be. “[M]ore voices in my classroom are willing to speak up for war’s noble purpose,” Simon observes,
its grand narrative, all-too-comfortably calculating away six- and seven-figure body counts, factoring away numerous tales of suffering, and rearranging variables to conclude that the end justifies the means, the sum is somehow greater than the piles of bodies and body parts. Out of violence comes redemption.
Not comfortable with his students’ one-sided approach to history, Simon tried to rearrange his curriculum and more explicitly teach the moral complexities of war.
The handout I eventually distributed—a proud achievement, I thought—included a quick-fire compendium of devastating statistics and provocative reflections from soldiers, the enslaved, and observers of all kinds, alongside several grim photographs of Civil War battlefield dead. At the end, I asked students to reflect: “Was the war worth it?”
And after being subjected to a wholly different lesson plan, what did Simon’s students think of the Civil War? A resounding “the war was worth it.”
Altogether though, Simon isn’t too upset that his students came to the same judgment via a different path:
Had I hoped they would answer in the opposite? Perhaps, but I had really just hoped for some existential angst, a bit of tossing and turning or lost sleep. I hoped only that we might pause for a moment, overcome by the complexity of it all. In some sense, though, I was proud of the sophistication my students offered in response. Several students reasoned that the death, suffering, and torment of enslaved peoples across the centuries in America far outweighed any statistics that could be produced by just four years of war between North and South. It was, they seemed to argue, a small price to pay for the abolition of such a wicked institution.
Source: The Smart Set
Image by David Masters, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011 4:10 PM
The typical U.S. historical marker, cast iron with raised lettering, usually raises more questions than it answers, and many of these signs are rife with errors and bias. Artist Norm Magnusson’s I-75 Project uses the form for a different sort of provocation.
Magnusson hopes to install these signs at rest stops along the 1,775-mile Insterstate 75, which stretches from Michigan to Florida. He has already shown them in several states and is seeking funding for the proposed installation. Thick Culture quotes him on their sly, Zinn-meets-Banksy appeal:
“ ‘Are they real?’ is a question viewers frequently ask, meaning ‘are they state-sponsored?’ I love this confusion and hope to slip a message in while people are mulling it over. These markers are just the kind of public art I really enjoy: gently assertive and non-confrontational, firmly thought-provoking and pretty to look at and just a little bit subversive.”
Source: Thick Culture
Images courtesy of
Thursday, June 03, 2010 10:41 AM
If all you know about Iceland are its unpronounceable, un-spellable volcanoes, the musician Björk, and the fact that it’s near Greenland (but not as icy), then maybe you should read a bloodcurdling social history of the island nation. The Economist has a short and sweet (or maybe not-so-sweet?) review, which includes this choice passage:
The story is not wholly pleasant. Even readers with strong stomachs will find them tested. The book opens with an account of a man who rips his own testicles off with a cord after a tantrum involving allegations of infidelity. The pressure-cooker of emotions induced by isolation (the road round the island was completed only in 1974) dispel any stereotypes of Nordic stolidity. The dank squalor of the turf-built hovels in which most Icelanders lived is described with disconcerting relish, along with the suppurating sores, stoically borne, that resulted. Clothes were boiled in urine occasionally, but were otherwise worn without washing.
(Thanks, The Second Pass.)
Source: The Economist
Image by Atli Harðarson, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010 11:15 AM
The Iraqi journalist Yasmine Mousa ha spublished a nice piece at the New York TimesAt War blog. She pays a visit to the Iraqi Hunting Club, best known as a gathering place for upper crust Iraqis in the days of Saddam Hussein. When Mousa's mother invites her to coffee at the club, which is in stellar shape and has become a destination again (and a popular spot for bingo), she is uneasy. The feeling fades when she arrives at the gates: "In Baghdad, apart from some tentative attempts by individuals, progress is a word seldom used or seen," Mousa writes. "I set eyes on the exception."
What she sees outside the pristine facility is another story. Her description of Baghdad's public space offers a rare glimpse at the more-mundane variety of destruction in the city:
The once-clean streets with bushes and trees along their medians have now become an eyesore. Today, these streets are occupied by large concrete blast walls, garbage, shattered glass and rubble from previous explosions.
The sidewalks are broken, and side streets are blocked off by palm tree trunks and broken bricks. The bumps and potholes force you to drive slowly, and I lost count of them after I reached 20. Some used to call the road Princesses’ Street. I wonder what princess would live now in this snaking maze of a so-called street.
Source: At War
Tuesday, October 13, 2009 11:06 AM
America has been a nation of sports nuts for even longer than you might imagine—a thousand years, in fact. In “America’s First Pastime,” Archaeology magazine (Sept.-Oct. 2009) writes about the early Native American game of chunkey, which involved throwing spears or sticks at a rolling, hockey-puck-size stone disk. The game was an important tradition in the culture that sprang up around the great prehistoric city called Cahokia, which existed near where St. Louis, Missouri, now lies. And apparently it was much more than just a game, being used to win converts, settle scores, and spread culture:
The people of Cahokia practiced human sacrifice, incorporated obelisk-like timber posts into their worship, told stories of superhuman men and women, used Mesoamerican-style flint daggers, and understood the cosmos in ways similar to Mesoamerican notions. They then spread this new way of life, which included intensified maize agriculture, across the Midwest and into the South and Plains with a religious fervor. Archaeologists refer to the culture as Mississippian, after the river that flows by many of its known sites.
One of the primary vehicles for the growth of this new civilization may have been Cahokian envoys who carried chunkey stones in one hand and war clubs in the other as they ventured into the hinterlands with the purpose of making peace or political alliances. These emissaries seem to have established and enforced a region-wide peace of sorts, a veritable Pax Cahokiana, an important element of which may have been the game of chunkey.
The article describes the biggest chunkey contests as great spectacles taking place on large town plazas with a 30- or 40-foot-tall obelisk or wooden post in the center on a raised mound. And if you think things get crazy when Manchester plays Liverpool or the Packers play the Vikings, consider that other nearby posts were used to exhibit enemy scalps, skulls, and recently captured foes who would soon be killed. “Not only was chunkey an important event,” the magazine writes, “but there were other possible associations, direct or indirect, with warfare and enemy executions.” Suddenly, burning a Brett Favre effigy seems almost tame by comparison.
The story of Cahokia itself, with its cultural undercurrents of brutality and power, is an incredible tale in its own right. The author of the Archaeology story, Timothy Pauketat, writes more extensively about it in his book, Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi, which is the subject of a recent Salon article, “Sacrificial Virgins on the Mississippi.” “Some of Pauketat’s ideas,” writes Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, “are both speculative and controversial”—but with characters like “He-who-wears-human-heads-as-earrings,” they certainly are fascinating.
Source: Archaeology (abstract only online), Chippewa Valley Newspapers, Salon
Image by TimVickers, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, September 24, 2009 3:21 PM
Al Jazeera English broadcasts to 150 million households in over 100 countries—with the exception, until very recently, of North America. As the news service makes headway in the United States and is poised to break into Canada, The Walrus takes an in-depth look at the history and challenges facing Al Jazeera English, “a network that much of North America still considers Terror TV.”
Source: The Walrus
Friday, July 17, 2009 12:18 PM
Wow, if this continental drift animation is at all accurate, you're totally going to be able to see Africa from your house.
Friday, July 17, 2009 11:01 AM
The facts surrounding Guantanamo Bay detentions are quickly slipping down the memory hole. “A protective order that governs Guantánamo records leaves room for the government to destroy documents, including lawyers' notes,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “or put them off-limits in the name of national security.”
A few dedicated archivists are fighting to make sure the Guantanamo Bay records aren’t lost forever, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports. The team is collecting as much source material as possible for a collection that will be held at Seaton Hall, New York University, and using the Web At Risk digital archiving project. Archivists have begun by focusing on first-person accounts from defense lawyers, which will soon be published in a book called The Guantanamo Lawyers: Inside a Prison Outside the Law (New York University Press).
“We know, at the time it's happening, that Guantánamo has potential for iconic and historical significance, and the truth of Guantánamo is going to be a matter of great importance," says law professor Mark Denbeaux, who heads the program. "It's been my experience that the battle to redefine these sorts of events can be lost if one side is more organized and eager to present its point of view." He adds, “It’s not a political exercise, it’s an educational exercise, and a historical one.”
Source: Chronicle of Higher Education
Wednesday, May 20, 2009 11:19 AM
You can almost see it from here, but Russia remains an enigma to many Americans, easily reduced to crude caricatures. Start filling the Ural-sized gaps in your knowledge by reading Russian Life magazine’s “100 Things Everyone Should Know About Russia” in its May-June issue (article not available online).
“How was it that one of the most isolated, illiterate societies in Europe produced, in the 19th century, so many giants of literature, science, music, and the arts? Why is it that such a conservative, deeply religious, and agrarian-feudalist society so eagerly embraced the revolutionary, atheistic, and industrial ideology of Communism, and then, 80 years later, with equal vigor, cast this ideology aside in favor of the previously despised ‘bourgeois capitalism’?”
That’s the provocative introduction to the list, a way of commemorating the magazine’s 100th issue since launching in 1995.
Here are a few of our favorites:
Some 70% of Russia is forested and 22% of the world’s forests are in Russia. As such, Russia—which has been called the “lungs of Europe”—is second only to the Amazon in the amount of carbon dioxide it absorbs.
Among “20 Must See Films”: Belorussky Train Station by Andrei Smirnov and Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears by Vladimir Menshov.
From “10 Important Legends and Folk Tales”: Koshchey the Deathless, the evil sorceror, kidnaps a princess from Russia and takes her to his kingdom, where the hero must save her by finding Koshchey’s death. The princess tricks Koshchey into revealing where he has hidden his death: on an island in the middle of the sea in a coffer buried under an oak.
Cyril did not create the Cyrillic alphabet. [He and his brother created the Glagolitic alphabet, from which Cyrillic descended. Ha!]
Vodka, so pure and purposeful, so ideal for warming the despondent soul in February or cooling passions in August, is a feast or famine sort of drink. One would expect something like vodka to arise from a Northern culture with a communal peasantry, where long winters and tortuously short growing seasons mean back-breaking labor intermitted only by community-building social feasts and drinking bouts.
Source: Russian Life
Friday, May 15, 2009 3:49 PM
Reading Tom Zoellner’s book Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World (Viking) is a great way to wrap your head around many of the technical, geographical, and ethical issues surrounding nuclear power and nuclear weapons. By learning exactly how we came to turn an odd yellow rock into an agent of phenomenal promise and danger, you’ll be better informed to decide the wisdom of reviving nuclear power and letting nuclear weapons proliferate.
One of the book’s most memorable sections is about William L. Laurence, the public relations man who hyped the atomic bomb for the U.S. government. Laurence was a science writer for the New York Times who became so enthralled by nuclear weapons that he became their paid P.R. man while covering the science beat, a brazen conflict of interest that was kept secret until the day after the bombing of Hiroshima.
Zoellner chronicles Laurence’s almost spiritual conversion to the religion of the atom and unsparingly critiques his writing style, which was so over the top that the White House once sent back a press release draft for being too exaggerated:
Laurence never met a classical allusion that he didn’t like, or attempt to employ. ... Uranium was to Laurence, at various points, ‘a cosmic treasure house’ and a ‘philosopher’s stone’ or a ‘Goose that laid Golden Eggs,’ which ‘brought a new kind of fire that lead to ‘the fabled seven golden cities of Cibola.’ These messianic word-pictures of a life to come, though wildly overoptimistic , helped to create in the American public a generally positive and hopeful feeling about the dawn of the new atomic age.
Laurence, known as “Atomic Bill” to some, won a Pulitzer Prize for his Times series about the making of the atomic bomb—a prize that journalists Amy Goodman and David Goodman have said should be rescinded. Not only was Laurence on the War Department’s payroll, they contend; he also wrote stories that debunked the deadly effects of gamma ray radiation even as Japanese bomb victims lay dying.
Fairly, Zoellner notes that Laurence himself had misgivings about the “great forebodings” of the nuclear age, and once characterized the human race’s dilemma in his typically dramatic style: “Today we are standing at a major crossroads,” he wrote. “One fork of the road has a signpost inscribed with the word Paradise, the other fork has a signpost bearing the word Doomsday.”
It might have been as close to the truth as he ever got.
Sources: Viking/Penguin, Common Dreams
Thursday, April 02, 2009 8:32 AM
Alt Wire is a morning digest of links and information collected and explained by a different guest blogger every weekday. Today's guest is Matt Novak of Paleo-Future. We asked him for five links. He sent us the best online archivists you may not know (want more paleo-future goodness? Listen to our Utnecast interview with Matt).
may be the most visually stunning website around. Culled from old books
, Paul never ceases to amaze with his often beautiful, sometimes macabre discoveries.
Charlie Shopsin has cornered the market on 20th century popular science magazines. If you're looking for inspiration from pure American ingenuity, look no further than the Modern Mechanix blog.
While the name of this blog has never made sense to me, the collection of amateur photos from '50s and '60s tourists to American theme parks on Gorillas Don't Blog is pretty interesting to peruse.
The Animation Archive collects comic books, single-panel cartoons and animated films from all eras of illustrated history.
After discovering the Prelinger Archives in college I spent about 3 sleepless months downloading and watching an amazing collection of old industrial and ephemeral films. You've been warned.
BIO: Since he started the Paleo-Future blog 2007, Matt Novak has become an accidental expert on past visions of the future, and has amassed the world's largest (only?) library of media related to the study of paleo-futurism.
Previous Alt Wire Guests: Jason Marsh, David LaBounty, Jen Angel, Will Braun, Regan Hofmann, Josh Breitbart, Andrew Lam, Jessica Valenti, Jessica Hoffmann, Noah Scalin, Rinku Sen, Paddy Johnson, Melissa Mcewan, Fatemeh Fakhraie , Joe Biel , Anne Elizabeth Moore
Wednesday, February 04, 2009 12:27 PM
Meth dealers and addicts have found a destructive way to get money for drugs: by looting artifacts and selling them on the black market. The March-April issue of Archaeology Magazine explores this nexus of antiquities and drugs and finds that “twiggers,” a combination of “diggers” and meth addicted “tweakers,” are fueling "a new epidemic of looting” especially in the American southwest.
The compulsive effects of methamphetamine make it an ideal drug for the repetitive and tedious work of artifact hunting, according to the article (not available online). Since the meth addicts generally have little knowledge of the artifacts, the process of digging them up can be particularly destructive. And since the artifacts are seldom traceable, convictions are extremely hard to come by.
Phil Young, a former agent with the National Parks Service, described one operation saying, “it was a very destructive process to the cultural resource, and of course to the individuals as well.”
Wednesday, January 21, 2009 10:27 AM
Barack Obama’s announcement that he would take the oath of office on Abraham Lincoln’s bible set off a flurry of historical analogies between the two presidents. According to historian Eric Foner, interviewed on Fresh Air, “this whole Lincoln analogy has gone a little too far.”
Any religious analogy would be particularly historically problematic, Foner told Terry Gross, since Lincoln never belonged to a church throughout his life. And, unlike Obama, Lincoln didn’t have a preacher involved in either of his inaugurations. In the 19th century, according to Foner, “it was quite uncommon to have ministers there. You know, they believed in the separation between church and state back then.” In fact, John Quincy Adams didn’t take his oath of office on a bible at all, opting instead for a more secular book of laws.
It should be acknowledged, however, that Obama made strides, at least rhetorically, in the secular realm when he acknowledged “non-believers” in his inaugural address.
Image of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008 3:49 PM
Thanksgiving is quickly approaching, and many people gathering for turkey will have no idea what they're celebrating. For one thing, most of the pilgrims didn’t eat turkey, according to Neatorama’s list of Thanksgiving myths; they ate deer. And the settlers didn’t call themselves “pilgrims” back then, opting instead for the far more presumptuous moniker of “saints.”
One could assume that the bevy of misinformation is coming from schools, but if reports on civic literacy are to be believed, most people weren’t paying attention in school anyway. A survey from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute found that more than 68 percent of respondents failed their civics quiz (pdf), scoring less than 50 percent. The survey found that more than “twice as many people know Paula Abdul was a judge on American Idol than know that the phrase 'government of the people, by the people, for the people' comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.”
You can take the civic literacy quiz here.
And for more on the importance of history, read History Lessons by Keith Goetzman, and Can We Handle the Truth? by Howard Zinn from the September-October issue of Utne Reader.
Wednesday, November 05, 2008 5:43 PM
Herewith, a smattering of memorable quotes from America’s history-making election.
“America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves—if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made? This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment.”
—President-elect Barack Obama in his victory speech
“I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating [Barack Obama], but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences, and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited. Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.”
—Senator John McCain in his concession speech
“Obama’s gift is that he understood America's great secret, that Americans have a deep and abiding need to love one another, and that we only lack the courage to do so.”
—Adam Serwer at American Prospect’s Tapped blog
“What I’ve been forced to acknowledge is there has been a shift—it’s not a sea change. But there's been a decided shift in the meaning of race. It’s not an ending. It's a beginning.”
—novelist Kim McLarin, to the Washington Post
“Citizens with eyes, ears, and the ability to wake up and realize what truly matters in the end are also believed to have played a crucial role in Tuesday's election.”
Obama erweckt das neue Amerika
(Obama wakes up the new America)
—headline from Spiegel.com
“The Civil War is over. Let reconstruction begin.”
—New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman
“If you are incapable of mustering pride in this moment, and if you cannot appreciate how meaningful this day is for millions of black folks who stood in lines for up to seven hours to vote, then your cynicism has become such an encumbrance as to render you all but useless to the liberation movement. Indeed, those who cannot appreciate what has just transpired are so eaten up with nihilistic rage and hopelessness that I cannot but think that they are a waste of carbon, and actively thieving oxygen that could be put to better use by others.”
—Tim Wise at Racialicious
“It really is fun to see those people out there jumping up and down. There’s something about jumping up and down that I think is good for the soul. It’s a universal sign of joy.”
—Fox News anchor Brit Hume, musing at the student crowds that gathered outside the White House on election night
“Good morning, Republicans! Welcome to the wilderness. We saved you a seat right over here, next to us. Looks like we'll have a lot of time to talk in the next four years.”
—libertarian blogger Katherine Mangu-Ward on Reason’s Hit & Run blog.
“[A]s the result of a financial panic that unfairly undermined all Republicans, Obama has stumbled into the most dangerous kind of victory. A mandate for change but not for ideas. A mandate without clear meaning.”
—Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson
“It’s a good to have a president again. The last couple of years we haven’t had one—or rather we have one who decided to give up after failing badly. This has been an especially painful vacuum during the collapse of the economy, and in the face of our diminished reputation in the world. There’s been no one to reassure the country, and no sign that a leader was actually tending to the national well being.”
—New Republic editor Franklin Foer
Did we miss a good one? Add it below in our comments.
Monday, April 28, 2008 12:50 PM
If you spend much time in office meetings or college classrooms, you’ve likely run into Gender Guy. He’s an alpha male and a liberal, and he likes to talk about gender issues—in the workplace, in society, in the book you’re reading, wherever. He pontificates and patronizes; he interrupts and shouts down. He makes the rest of the room endure his pissing matches with men less enlightened, or with those who share his general opinions but oblige his desire to quibble over details, loudly and at length.
Gender Guy’s assumed expertise might come from overly simplified connections he makes between gender and race, or class, or sexual identity, or religion. It might be based on the fact that, as an intelligent and well-spoken man, he’s by definition an expert on everything. Or perhaps he thinks he understands gender because the word—unlike, say, “women”—suggests a subject that deals not with one gender’s concrete realities so much as, more abstractly, with the relationship between two.
This last point in particular interests historian Alice Kessler-Harris. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kessler-Harris considers the consequences for her own discipline when, starting in the early 1990s, gender history began to take over the ground previously held by women’s history (subscription required). She allows that “gender is a tempting and powerful framework”:
Far more inclusive than the category of women, [gender] raises questions not so much about what women did or did not do, but about how the organization or relationships between men and women established priorities and motivates social and political action. While the history of women can be accused of lacking objectivity—of having a feminist purpose—that of gender suggests a more distanced stance… The idea of “gender” frees young scholars (male and female) to seek out the ways that historical change is related to the shape and deployment of male/female relations.
And yet, something is lost:
Gender obscures as much as it reveals… [I suspect] that in seeing the experiences of men and women as relational, we overlook the particular ways in which women—immigrants, African-Americans, Asians, Chicanas—engaged their worlds… We lose the power of the individual to shed a different light—sometimes a liminal light—on historical processes.
In short, Kessler-Harris worries that abstracting “women” into “gender” can have the effect of silencing the voices of actual women—a danger not limited to the rarefied world of historians. The tension between analyzing gender relations and highlighting female voices is an old one, and it’s as broadly relevant as ever. While Gender Guy’s opinions may be impeccably feminist, how helpful is this if the abstraction “gender” gives him cover to go on and on, preventing the women in the room from getting a word in?
Thursday, April 17, 2008 11:13 AM
Looks like 2008 is going to be a bumper year for graphic adaptations of U.S. history. Metropolitan Books just released A People’s History of American Empire, based on a chapter of Howard Zinn’s 1980 classic A People’s History of the United States. Cartoonist Mike Konopacki and historian Paul Buhle collaborated on the luxurious 8½-by-11 book, which utilizes Zinn’s text as narration. (Check out his style in our Sept.-Oct. 2007 excerpt of A Power Governments Cannot Suppress.) Historical photographs play into some of the frames, providing a cool contrast to Konopacki’s lively illustrations.
Then—and you’ll have to wait awhile for these—we recently received a booklet previewing two more graphic adaptations, both of them forthcoming from publisher Hill and Wang. Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón, the duo responsible for The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, will be back in bookstores this August with After 9/11: America’s War on Terror (2001- ). Then, in October, look for The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation, written by Jonathan Hennessy and illustrated by Aaron McConnell.
Wednesday, March 05, 2008 11:33 AM
It’s a prestigious journal indeed that can name such luminaries as Mark Twain, Sun Tzu, and Winston Churchill among its contributors. The debut issue of Lapham’s Quarterly features work from these thinkers and many others, which makes for a fascinating read and a pretty startling group of contributor bios (Homer’s and Herodotus’ are crowned by classical-sculpture mug shots).
The hefty new journal (all 200+ pages of it) is a labor of love for former Harper’s editor and unabashed history buff Lewis Lapham. Four times a year the Quarterly’s editors will seize upon the most urgent question in the headlines—foreign war, financial panic, the separation of church and state—and dig up relevant responses from authors whose writings have passed the test of time. Lapham’s method assumes that profound observations of the human character and predicament don't become obsolete.
Each issue adheres to a specific theme (this one’s is “States of War”), which is explored through essays by prominent writers past and present. The way the journal frames the ideas of long-dead thinkers within a contemporary context is engrossing, and the selections from modern writers and thinkers are no less effective or prescient.
Lapham’s Quarterly is careful to avoid narratives bogged down in scholar-speak, instead favoring histories rich in both detail and prose. This commitment to readability makes the journal’s content a unique, pleasant marriage of great storytelling and important historical accounts.
Friday, February 08, 2008 10:11 AM
The first zine in J. Gerlach’s Simple History Series, Christopher Columbus and His Expeditions to America, tells the story of the world’s most famous explorer through drawings of stick figures in various states of one-dimensional distress. The details are far from simple, though—they transcend mere stick-people problems at every turn—and the zine takes a de-mythologizing tack on Columbus and his ships.
The key to the zine’s charm is that Columbus reads alternately like a textbook and a children’s illustrated history. Gerlach accomplishes this feat by widely varying the zine’s ratios of words to pictures. On some pages, a small rectangle of text acts as a caption for an accompanying illustration; elsewhere, words dominate an entire page. What’s consistent throughout is that the zine does not suppress the gory details of Columbus’ romps to the New World. For instance, illustrator Cindy Crabb’s depictions of stick-figure corpses being dumped overboard are somewhat wrenching: They’re the bodies of would-be slaves.
Nevertheless, Columbus, with its bibliography full of Howard Zinn and James W. Loewen, presents a digestible version of a narrative that is not as familiar as it should be. It’s a useful, friendly zine. Even the title makes it sound like a congenial outdoor excursion by two friends: Columbus and his Expeditions! At last, together again!
If you’re interested in checking out Gerlach’s Simple History Series zines, contact Danielle Maestretti, the Utne librarian.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008 12:33 PM
The grinding Doppler buzz of Minneapolis’ tornado warning siren, tested the first Wednesday of every month, always puts me in mind of the first apartment I occupied in the city’s southern neighborhoods. Even now, I associate the siren’s harsh stutter with the swelter of June 2006. I envision myself sweating in my apartment, studiously applying my energies to a Graduate Record Examination practice test and wondering what the hell 11 lawnmowers are doing careening back and forth by my window. The memory isn’t necessarily pleasant, but it is vivid.
This aural recollection was triggered as I read Anne Matthews’ article “If Walls Could Talk” in the November-December issue of Preservation (excerpt available), a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Matthews reports on the study of sensory history, a budding field whose purveyors research and reconstruct the bygone sensory content, particularly the sounds, of physical spaces. Matthews highlights not only big-budget reproductions—for example, Philadelphia’s “Lights of Liberty,” a walking tour at Independence National Historical Park that features images projected onto buildings and headphones broadcasting whispers, creaking wheels, and sailing bullets—but also the meticulous efforts of radio producer and reporter Alex van Oss.
Van Oss produces “soundscapes,” sonic essays designed for radio broadcast and CD recording. For a 2005-2006 exhibition on the 19th century architect Adolf Cluss, he coproduced a CD featuring multiple soundscapes of Cluss’s Washington, D.C.-area buildings, including the downtown Masonic Temple. Though the building has been renovated and adapted for modern usage, van Oss generated a recording that pays homage to its sonic past and present.
The soundscape boasts an authentic 1879 Masonic Temple dedication march, played on a contemporaneous piano by the music researcher who unearthed the sheet music. Van Oss also mixed in the sound of footsteps and squeaking floorboards, even multiplying the footfalls to create the impression of an organized gathering: a recreation of the dedication march. Finally, he bookended this historical content with the contemporary sounds, such as automobile traffic, that characterize the Masonic Temple today.
Van Oss has labored to fashion a lasting impression of space across time. He says of the piece, “Truthful? Not really. Authentic? I think so. Evocative? Most certainly.”
Sample van Oss’s recordings and read an interview with Anne Matthews at the Preservation website.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007 4:58 PM
If 2007 is the future, then the future is lame. All the flying cars and ray-guns promised by scientists and science-fiction writers have failed to materialize. Proof of the past’s broken promises can be found at Paleo-Future, a blog devoted to antiquated visions of what today could have looked like. The website recently posted a scanned page of the Ladies’ Home Journal from 1900 that asked “the most conservative minds in America” what the year 2000 would look like.
Here are a few of their expert opinions (with added commentary):
- Efficiency will force Americans to bid goodbye to the letters C, Q, and X. English will be “a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas.” O RLY? LOL!
- “Ready cooked meals will be bought from establishments similar to our bakeries of today.” Yeah, they’re called restaurants.
- “Food will be served hot or cold to private houses in pneumatic tubes or automobile wagons.” Well, we don’t have the pneumatic tubes yet, but we do have delivery pizza.
- “Grand Opera will be telephoned to private homes” giving even the “best music to the families of the untalented.” Would listening to my iPod count?
- The Ladies’ Home Journal also predicts central heating, airplanes, and international phone service.
For all its anachronistic predictions, the Ladies’ Home Journal article evokes a better and more-efficient future. Most of today's future visions aren’t nearly so hopeful. Where do you see us 100 years from now? Leave a comment here, or discuss it in Utne Reader’s online salon. —Brendan Mackie
Image from the Library of Congress.
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