Archive for category Public History

Turn, Turn Turn

I feel like I’ve known Pete Seeger since I was 18, even though I never met him.  So, when the news came that he passed away this week, memories of his music and social causes that inspired many returned easily.

A little about my connection with someone who was my idol.  It was his integrity that drew so many to him, even though it’s the same integrity that would likely make him wince at the word “idol”

When I graduated from high school, I received a guitar as a graduation present from my parents.  Odd, since I had shown no interest in playing the instrument.  A few months later at Christmas, my brother gave me “The Incompleat Folksinger,” a book doubling as a songbook and autobiography.  In it, Pete laid out his views on social and economic justice, his flirtation with popular music as a member of the Weavers in the early 1950s, and then his targeting as a Communist in the 1950s.  All that, he interspersed with lyrics and tablature of many songs.  His story, from his work with labor unions during the Depression through the McCarthy era and into the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s, became the subject of a history thesis my senior year of college.

My thesis argued that the political left showed continuity, from its heyday of support for the working class in the 1920s and 30s, moving through the anti-Nazi era, then weathering the lean, red-baiting 1950s, only to emerge in the 1960s with new issues of peace abroad and racial justice at home.  Through it all was music, the folk music of Pete Seeger and others that helped frame the issues, spread the word  and unite the activists and supporters.  Pete played with Woody Guthrie whose ballads touched a nerve for the mass of unemployed during the Depression; he played with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, whose folk music in the 1960s addressed the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement.

Moving into the 1970s and 1980s (and beyond my graduation and focus of thesis,) the fervor of those movements was passing, even though goals connected to those movements had not been attained.  Pete Seeger remained, while many in my generation moved on, to work and family, leaving behind those ideals for which we had once so passionately believed in.  Pete (as if he were my best friend) stayed true, true to his music and to his ideals, finding the right balance to match his humble lifestyle.  He was the thread to the next progressive movement, using his name and his music to advance environmental issues, specifically the cleaning up of the Hudson River.

I was not surprised to see Pete Seeger performing at President Obama’s inaugural in 2009.  He was on the stage set up in front of the Lincoln Memorial, along with Bruce Springsteen.  Springsteen had put out an album a few years earlier entitled The Seeger Sessions, where he adapted Seeger’s Americana songbook to his own band and style.  Seeger again became the continuity, for the music and the politics, sharing his concern for the common man and woman, the working class squeezed out by an economy that catered to the wealthy few.  Thus, it was not surprising to see Pete join the Occupy Movement.  He was 90 then.

Much has been written of Pete Seeger’s affiliation with the Communist Party and with the resulting blacklist for ten years which kept him off the airwaves for ten years.  Not his music, though, with its clear lyrics advancing causes which now seem mainstream.  The blacklist became his badge of honor, one he didn’t thrust forward as a victim but one that kept him steadfast in his own view of the world.  His life made it on to the front page of the New York Times, while those who tried to silence him have long been forgotten.   His season had come, again and again.

The first and only time I saw Pete Seeger in concert was in 1975 when he performed with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry at Carnegie Hall.  What was most memorable was Pete brought out a log and an axe for one song, and sang by himself, keeping beat with the swings of his axe hitting the wood.  We will likely never see that again.

My last post was another obituary of sorts.  Mandela and Seeger were the same age.  And exhibited the same persevering commitment and passion for social justice.

Pete singing with Eleanor Roosevelt listening (and singing along?)  Photo: Photograph by Joseph A. Horne. Via Library of Congress site

Pete singing with Eleanor Roosevelt listening (and singing along?) Photo: Photograph by Joseph A. Horne. Via Library of Congress site

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The Power of Film

No matter how many times I have read about slavery and all its accompanying violence, I was still unprepared for the impact of visualizing the beatings, the rapes, the breaking apart of families, the hangings and other assorted fears and horrors portrayed in 12 Years a Slave.   This new film by British director Steve McQueen tells the story of Solomon Northrup, a free Black man from Saratoga New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and then wrote a book about his ordeal upon his release after 12 years working on a string of southern plantations in the mid-18th century.

Solomon, from his autobiography published in 1855

Solomon, from his autobiography published in 1855

I had to cover my eyes on several occasions; my wife walked out during one scene, so disturbed.  Yet, while she said at the end of the film that she “hated the movie,” I walked away thinking this was a movie every American should see.  Both sentiments came from the same effect of the realities of the institution of slavery.  She hated to see the suffering so vividly captured.  She

was right in that it was certainly something to hate.  The film though succeeded in evincing her reaction, and therefore was effective in forcing people to see exactly what it means to read about a slave getting a whipping, the oozing welts crisscrossing the back, the keloid scars, and the immediate return to the fields to work.  It would be hard to walk out of that movie and think that those scars on individuals long since dead do not still, or should not still, weigh on the national consciousness.

It wasn’t just the graphic violence which was so horrifying. The film was also able to show the endemic fear and indifference on the plantation.  “I survive,” said Solomon at one point to a mother whose grief over her lost children was inconsolable, leading ultimately to her own death at the hands of her owner.  Living in fear of the whims and temperament of the person who controlled your existence was the norm.  So was the indifference, as McQueen showed owners’ wives watching casually from the balconies of their houses as punishments were meted out.  Even other slaves went about their daily chores as Solomon struggled to stand on his tiptoes to avoid choking to death from the noose around his neck.

This film reminded me of 42 or Brokeback Mountain, Schindler’s List, or even The Passion in their ability to evince a transformational reaction, through the visual portrayal of suffering, despite the abundance of the printed word on

topics portrayed in those movies.  People have heard of the abuse Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues, received when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, but seeing an opposing manager yell out the n-word repeatedly has the ability to shock that words on a page simply cannot convey.

I am unsure of the appropriate reaction, from a national, collective perspective.  It has to lie somewhere between the c

asual “national conversation” and the probably unrealistic reparations claims.  Steve McQueen, said in a New York Tim

es interview that he wanted people to see the connections of this historic past to the present, in Trayvon Martin, in our prisons crowded with African-American offenders, in still segregated neighborhoods.  Ridley Scott, the script writer, said on the PBS News Hour that he wanted Americans to confront this past.

 Two final points.  Going back to Roots or even further To Kill a Mockingbird, film has helped place race and slavery in the forefront of our national consciousness.  The frequency of films exploring these themes has increased in recent years, from 42 to The Help and even Django Unchained.   These films have achieved both commercial success and critical acclaim.  Do their frequency

and success have more to do with an increased public acceptance to confront this uncomfortable past, or more of a need for the country to face its legacies?

Finally, it is unfortunate that 12 Years a Slave is not in theaters in my hometown.  Movies like Ender’s Game and Thor, the Dark World dominate the local complexes, so we had to travel to an adjoining town to an arts theater to see the movie.  So much for my hope that every American view this film about the real dark world, that of slavery in our past, and its vestiges in our present.

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The Poetry in Emily’s and Austin’s Homes

Time for another field trip.  This time to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst Massachusetts.  It turns out the Herman Melville is not the only American author who achieved public and literary acclaim only long after his death.  So did Emily Dickinson with her poetry, but with a twist: she never sought that acclaim in her lifetime.

The only known photo of Emily Dickinson, the original owned now by Amherst College

The only known photo of Emily Dickinson, the original owned now by Amherst College

Emily’s house, now a museum, is actually two houses.  One, next door, belonged to her brother Austin; both help to tell the story of her writing.  What draws people to the home is this story of a private woman, creating, in bursts of prolific energy, a poetry ahead of its time and for the ages, but not publishing any of it.  It is through Austin that the world eventually gets to see and appreciate the poetry.  It is hard to know if mid-18th century American readers were ready for her poetry, which expanded the boundaries of the form.

Still, the renovations and additions, the wallpaper and paintings, the path and hedge of both houses are historic traces, primary sources themselves, revealing the complicated relationships between Austin, his wife, his daughter, his paramour and his sister.  Through the objects, the museum guide is able to craft the story of how Emily’s writing became known to the outside world.  It is a story which speaks to us today, of women’s roles in society, of the unknown loss of similar treasure due to an inability to contribute fully.   There is a strong possibility that her poetry may never have emerged.

The two side-by-side historic houses tell a different story as well, a story of authenticity in their contrasting models of preservation.  They tell a story of authenticity, juxtaposing ways to create an honest portrayal of how we now can appreciate the lives of the siblings, how we now understand the story of her writing.  Emily’s house, The Homestead, is restored, with fresh, clean paint and new wallpaper, sanded floors, with new work underway to “take away the 20th century in Emily’s bedroom,” as Jane Wald, the director of the museum, characterized the project.  Austin’s house, The Evergreens, on the other hand, stands as it was found and transferred to the museum, with nothing changed or restored.  The walls are moldy and crumbling, the wallpaper is peeling, the rugs threadbare and the furniture unfinished.  Dark and smelly.  It is a ruin, akin to one of those old stone walls scattered in the New England woods.

The contrast has much to do with what transpired between the Dickinson occupation/ownership of the houses and their acquisition by Amherst College, and then the museum.  Simply, Austin’s home was kept intact, first by his by his daughter Martha and then by her heir, the young man who helped Martha edit Emily’s poetry for publication.  Next door, no Dickinson lived in Emily’s home after her unmarried sister Lavinia’s death in 1899, 14 years after Emily died.  First tenants, then new owners moved in to The Homestead, and they renovated and changed features of the structure.  Once the house was bought by Amherst College, then work began to restore to as faithful a version as possible the house Emily lived in.

Which is authentic?  Both, but it depends.  It depends on how we approach them.  Authenticity implies honesty.  Austin’s home in its ruinous state, does not honestly reflect how he and his family lived.  The threadbare carpets gave it away; they alone do not allow anyone to say “this is how the house looked when Austin lived here.”  It may have been Austin’s carpet, but it is not how it looked in his tenure.  Emily’s home, preserved, does try to reflect the “present-ness” of how Emily lived.  But, it is only a reflection, and as a re-creation, is a present version, unable to say without caveats, “this is precisely how the house looked when Emily lived here.”  Her plush carpet may look like the one she had, but it is not the same carpet.

From a preservation perspective, it is useful to have the two different approaches side-by-side.  From the insights which the two houses tell us about gender and art, the juxtaposition also offers meaning, by showing both the actual, deteriorating objects in Austin’s home, but re-imagining them to a prior era in Emily’s home.  Side-by-side, these traces complement each other, the real and the imagined, to tell the story of women’s lives and routines and the central role of their homes.


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Is it August 1914 or March 1999?

Where are we now?  Europe, August 1914?  Iraq, March 2003? Afghanistan, August 1998?  Rwanda, April 1994 or Yugoslavia, March 1999?

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.  Photo: Department of State

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: Department of State

As we lurch hesitatingly towards some form of military action in Syria, pundits and politicians search for the right historic precedent, trying to  bolster their political case for a response to the accusations that Syria used saran gas against its own citizens.

Let’s leave aside from the start the political maneuvering by certain politicians who all of a sudden are concerned about the unknown and unpredictable consequences of military action, whenever it happens.  These same individuals who so blindly supported the Iraq invasion just ten years ago without credible evidence (despite the volume and confidence of the assertions) are preaching caution now that they have fairly firm evidence of poison gas use by Syria’s President Assad.   They might use Iraq in 2003 as their precedent, but then that might also expose their previous support for invasion.

Others preaching caution point to Europe on the verge of the Great War, when a political assassination of a member of the Austrian royal family in Serbia triggered a chain of events that saw nations line up in treaty-bound coalitions to protect and defend each other.  They rushed with folly into a war they would surely have sought to avoid had they known the death toll, devastation and brutal violence which ensued.   Would such a strike unleash a larger war, in a region so fraught with its own complex web of rivalries and abundance of arms?

You would think in a scenario like either Iraq 2003 or Europe 1914, there would be support for the kind of limited action President Obama is gambling on.  Yet, by showing his hand holding only a limited air strike (not only to domestic political opponents, but also to the Syrians who can now prepare,) Obama opens himself up to the comparison with the Clinton airstrikes following the African Embassy bombings in 1998.  They were loud and may have felt good in seeking a dose of punishment, but they ended up having not just no practical effect, but may have further aggravated the anger directed at the U.S.

So, we hear those whose guiding principal for use of the largest military force in the history of the world is conditioned on the direct attack on U.S. interests.   We don’t want to become the “world’s policeman,” a phrase stemming from Vietnam or Somalia, when in both large and small scale-scale military interventions, questions about our own national interests led to weak withdrawals short of our stated goals.

With unclear U.S. interests, then we may end up watching from the sidelines, as the world allowed an unspeakable genocide to take place in Rwanda.  In such a case, should the discussion of U.S. interests extend beyond U.S. physical or economic security to include a moral responsibility?  Do our long-term interests include demonstrating to peoples, who in this particular region are still struggling to define the outcome of their Arab Spring, that the U.S. will stand on the side of ordinary citizens?  And, if that connection is too fuzzy or moral, can we define our long-term interests in something more practical like long-term security in a region which has held a great share of the global economic and political well-being in its grasp for decades?

The global crises immediately following the world’s paralysis in Rwanda were situated in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Determined not to watch from the sidelines another humanitarian disaster brought on by an earlier incarnation of Assad attacking his own citizens, the U.S. and Europe took months to act, but eventually they did.  Unable to secure UN Security Council approvals because of the same vetoes by Russia and China who refuse to vote now, NATO forces were brought to bear in a punishing air assault to force the soon-to-be convicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic to stop the assault on his own non-Serb citizens.

Direct U.S. interests were hard to define in that action.  What makes this precedent the most compelling may be the almost exclusive use of air power to bring about the intended result.  Fighting from the air meant limited casualties on the NATO side, but tragic unintended civilian loss of life.

Precedents, we know, are never exact.  Yugoslavia was not the Middle East; Libya stood farther away from the Lebanon-Israel-Palestine than  Syria.   Unlike 1914, the world has institutions of varying effectiveness to prevent a global escalation of conflict.  And, unlike Iraq, we have greater trust that we are not being lied to.

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I and My Lawnmower

Reliable friend. Photo: JDickson

Reliable friend.
Photo: JDickson

One of the highlights of walking through Herman Melville’s home at Arrowhead in Pittsfield, Massachusetts is the central fireplace in the dining area.  Its grand size and fine stone work dominate the room and evoke a time when all the heating and cooking came from that one source.  What is most unusual here though is the writing above and across the fireplace.  It quotes from Melville’s whimsical story “I and My Chimney” which first appeared in Putnam’s Monthly in 1856, six years after Melville moved to Arrowhead from New York City.

The story is of a husband’s determination to save the destruction of the chimney in his home from his equally determined wife to have a central hallway, instead of a space-wasting chimney.  Melville speaks of this chimney as a person, even a friend, and a close one at that:  “I and my chimney, two grey-headed old smokers reside in the country.”  The two of them are “old settlers,” putting the chimney on the same human level as the narrator.  Melville explains the unusual construction placing the “I” before “my chimney” in the title as the only time that he actually takes precedence over the chimney.

In grand humor and 19th century majestic style, Melville describes the female head of household’s attempts to rid herself of the chimney, hiring architects and enlisting her daughters to convince her male counterpart of the multiple reasons to rid herself of this domineering structure.  “I will never surrender,” says the protagonist, reassuring his pipe and his chimney that he will prevail.

I have my own chimney problem, and it is my 22-year old push lawnmower.  Purchased for barely more than $100, my walking companion has served me well in three different residences, suffering through ten years of neglect while in storage.  Upon his release, though, he started right up and, as long as he can avoid rain in the fuel tank, he has never let me down.

This faded red gas push mower has outlasted a brief flirtation with an electric/battery model with its commitment to a green environment as an enticement.  Barely five years into this newer arrangement, the battery model could not keep up with either high grass or more lawn.  With barely an apology, the old push mower took me back and has remained faithful since.

We are alone in our weekly endeavors.  My wife and pretty much any outside observer think me mad, for walking around these almost 2 acres with such an outdated, hard to operate companion.   The hot sun, the uneven terrain, the long grass, the obstacles of rocks and roots and trees conspire to leave me exhausted each time.  My wife claims it will be the end of me.  I call it exercise which will make me stronger and live longer.

Melville was on to something, that genius of human nature and descriptive detail.  From even before his time, he knew that every marriage needs a chimney or a lawnmower, to test its foundation and durability.

I only wonder what his quill pen would do to my lawnmower.

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