BOSTON, MA September 12, 1974: A large crowd gathers in South Boston's Columbus Park to protest federal court-ordered busing of black students to all-white neighborhood schools. A prominent sign at right reads 'Whites Have Rights' while militant anti-busing members of the 'South Boston Information Center'—an anti-busing organization—are visible wearing white caps among the crowd.
This year, in the 40th anniversary of the explosion that was Boston busing, it’s time to be clear: busing wasn’t just about black and white. It was also about green—who had some in their pockets, and who didn’t.
Busing was the best thing that ever happened to Whitey Bulger.
In the years leading up to the 1974 busing plan, my neighborhood—South Boston—was perceived as the bastion of white supremacy and privilege in Boston. After all, some of the city’s most powerful politicians were from South Boston, and the most egregious symbol of white supremacy in Boston, school committee member (later city councilor) Louise Day Hicks, was a resident of the affluent and beautiful shoreline of South Boston’s City Point. Although the reasoning behind the State Board of Education’s busing plan will forever remain a mystery, I have had to presume that this was the motivation for a plan that—disastrously—included busing students from predominantly black Roxbury to Irish-American South Boston and vice versa, even though both groups were desperately poor with desperately underfunded schools.
Historian and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote a letterto President Obama requesting that the US end its celebration of Christopher Columbus, a symbol of colonization and genocide for Native American nations and communities. Tell the world that we should honor the many contributions of Indigenous People instead of the conquest of one man. Sign the petitionon WhiteHouse.gov to add your voice!
“Our nation was born in genocide. . . . We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. . .” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dear President Obama:
“Columbus Day” was made a federal holiday in 1934, when Native American nations and communities had little voice to protest the celebration of the onset of colonization and genocide in the Western Hemisphere. In the era of global decolonization of the second half of the 20th century, Native Americans remained colonized. Columbus Day is a metaphor and painful symbol of that traumatic past, although the United States did not become an independent republic until nearly three centuries after Columbus’s first voyage. None of Columbus’s voyages touched the continental territory now claimed by the US. Yet, the United States soon affirmed that a 15th century Papal Bull, known as the “Doctrine of Discovery,” applied to the Indigenous nations of North America. This remains US law in claiming that Native nations are “domestic, dependent nations” with no inherent rights to the land.
Cornel West’s Black Prophetic Fire is both a new look at six revolutionary African American leaders and a rousing call for more “fire” in what West calls the Black prophetic tradition, a reframing of the social order in terms of radical justice. As Dr. West writes in the introduction,
The deep hope shot through this dialogue is that Black prophetic fire never dies, that the Black prophetic tradition forever flourishes, and that a new wave of young brothers and sisters of all colors see and feel that it is a beautiful thing to be on fire for justice and that there is no greater joy than inspiring and empowering others—especially the least of these, the precious and priceless wretched of the earth!
It’s that time of the year again, a time when readers, writers, and publishers everywhere are reminded of the fragility of free speech, even within a country that purportedly protects it. Though this will be the 32nd year of the annual freedom to read celebration, the reality is that book banning is still distressingly common. “It takes guts to take a stand against censorship,” free speech activist Chris Finan recently remarked in response to the banning of Emily M. Danforth’s teen novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Finan is president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and author of From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America, the first comprehensive history of free speech in America for general readers, and a book that should be required reading for Banned Books Week.
Senator Maria Cantwell’s proposed bill to strip the NFL of their nonprofit status is the latest strike in the ongoing effort to pressure the Washington Redskins to change their mascot. Canwtell joins a growingchorus of opponents to the disparaging name. Back in January, the National Congress of American Indians created a powerful PSA that outlined the issue in just a few words: “Native Americans call themselves many things. The one thing they don’t...” The ad ends with a close-up image of the Washington Redskins logo. The implication is clear.
During the late seventeenth century, Anglo settlers in New England began the routine practice of scalp hunting and what military historian John Grenier identifies as “ranging”—the use of settler-ranger forces. By that time, the non-Indigenous population of the English colony in North America had increased sixfold, to more than 150,000, which meant that settlers were intruding on more of the Indigenous homelands.
Viktor Frankl, the psychotherapist and author of the hugely influential book Man’s Search for Meaning, died seventeen years ago this week.
Frankl had already begun to establish himself as a prominent neurologist and psychiatrist in Vienna—heir to the legacies of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler—when the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938. For a time, Frankl was able to maintain his practice as the anti-Semitic climate continued to grow in Austria. But in September 1942, he and his wife and parents were arrested and deported to Theresienstadt, the “model ghetto” and concentration camp where Frankl’s father would later perish. That would begin a tragic odyssey for Frankl, who was transferred with his wife and mother to Auschwitz in 1944. Only Frankl would survive.
One hundred and seventy-five years ago today, La Amistad and its crew of former slaves was captured off the coast of Long Island and towed to New London, Connecticut, where the story of the slaves’ revolt and subsequent trial for piracy and murder immediately became the sensation of the popular press, and a cause célèbre for abolitionists and other sympathizers. In this excerpt adapted from Outlaws of the Atlantic, historian Marcus Rediker takes us back to the first days of the ship’s capture, when the idea of “black pirates” would ignite the imagination of early America and take these fifty-three Africans on a journey from the holds of a slave ship to the halls of the Supreme Court and beyond.
The story began with a sensational headline: “A Suspicious Sail—a Pirate.” The New York Morning Herald announced on August 24, 1839, that a pilot boat had spotted a mystery ship about twenty-five miles off the coast of New York. On deck were “a number of negroes, twenty five or thirty, . . . almost or quite naked; some were wrapped in blankets, and one had on a white coat.” They were a “strange crew,” all the stranger for brandishing machetes, pistols, and muskets. One sailor “had a belt of dollars round his waist; another called the captain, had a gold watch. They could speak no English, but appeared to talk in the negro language.” Black pirates, armed and flush with plunder, were cruising the coast of Long Island.
The vessel itself was in eerie disrepair: “Long grass was growing upon her bottom, and her sails were much torn, as if she had been driving about at the mercy of the gale, with her sails set and no one at the helm.” Here, declared the Morning Herald, was the “Flying Dutchman,” the ghost ship that wandered the seas endlessly as a portent of doom. Indeed, doom seemed already to have struck the vessel, which once upon a time had been a slave ship: “It was supposed that the prisoners had risen upon the captain and his assistants and captured her.” Having murdered the master and crew, those aboard could not navigate the vessel. They “are now drifting about bound for no particular port.”
I had long been fascinated by the history of Haiti, especially its profound revolutionary self-emancipation based on the greatest slave revolt in modern history (1791-1804). The small island nation also boasts one of the world’s greatest folk art traditions—it has more painters per capita than any other place on earth. They paint sheer wonder, as André Breton, leader of Europe’s surrealist movement, discovered when he arrived in Haiti in 1945. When he saw the paintings of the vodou houngan Hector Hyppolite, he remarked that by these astonishing works he recognized his own as failures.
As we celebrate the 238th birthday of the United States on July 4, 2014, one question remains as important today as it was when we declared our independence. What causes some citizens to be patriotic and others to become traitors?
Periodically this question arises during Congressional inquiries and in the press when a particular American is revealed as a potential or active domestic terrorist. Equally disturbing are reports about citizens who have emigrated to foreign countries to join anti-American organizations bent on producing death and destruction from afar.
The reasons for betrayal are complex and often highly personal, but one common thread seems to be the traitor’s long-standing inability to embrace the values of American society. With that in mind, I researched the lives of two late-eighteenth century couples who reacted to the ideals of the American Revolution in vastly different ways.
As Father’s Day approaches, I’ve been thinking of books I’d recommend to my own father. I have fond memories from childhood of sitting with my father while he watched “his shows,” the science and nature and history programming on public televison channels that my other siblings would spurn as too educational to be entertaining. My father, a former Navyman who’d traveled the world in his youth, loved pointing out places he had been to, and I loved discovering a sense of the world through his eyes. Later, after we moved to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, we would go on hikes together and stand at the summits, taking in the vastness. Or we would go fishing together, which seemed mainly an excuse to sit in inflatable rafts and read, or listen as nature filled in the quietness between us. I don’t know if I inherited my curiosity of the world from him, or if I was drawn to that part of him that intersected with my own sensibilities. In a way, it doesn't matter. It’s the commonality one cherishes.
Here are five titles that, like my father, share a deep interest in the world, or that tell the story of fatherhood itself, with all its memories and complexities and sometime revelations. If your father is anything like mine, I’m sure he would take any of these books, find a quiet place to sit, and then read every word.
On November 30, Melissa Harris-Perry honored my biography of Rosa Parks, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by including it amongst a group of ground-breaking Black feminist texts and histories on her “Black Feminism Syllabus.” This recognition came on the 58th anniversary of Rosa Parks' bus arrest and the public marking of the day, including the RNC's unfortunate tweet celebrating “Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism.” The RNC’s tweet spoke to what has been a theme at the heart of much Parks memorialization across the political spectrum—the honoring of her is regularly accompanied by a element of national self congratulation. Her stand is often now commemorated as a way to mark how far we’ve come in the successful movement to end Jim Crow segregation and racism.
What my book sought to do was rescue Rosa Parks from the narrow pedestal she exists upon. This national sainthood has paradoxically diminished the scope and importance of her political work and functions, across the political spectrum, to make us feel good about ourselves as a nation. It misses the lifelong activist who worked against injustice in both the North and South and paid a heavy price for her political work but kept struggling to address contemporary racial and social inequalities until her death in 2005. It misses her global vision and how she was treated as un-American for great stretches of her life by many Americans for these political activities. And finally, it misses that a real honoring of her legacy requires us to do the same hard, tedious, scary work of pressing against the injustices of our time, both nationally and internationally, because she firmly believed the movement was not over.
Rosa Parks greets Nelson and Winnie Mandela after his release from prison in 1990
In the second part of our literary examination of JFK's legacy, we begin with a look at the hopes that the next generation brought to JFK's candidacy, and how those hopes—combined with the pressures of the campaign and the mounting conflict in Vietnam—led to the impromptu "definition" of the Peace Corps during an unplanned campaign stop at the University of Michigan. Later, Claire Conner takes us to Dallas on the morning of November 22, 1963, where she as a curious young woman—and daughter of the national spokesman for the ultraconservative John Birch Society—had gone to see the presidental motorcade, only to witness anguish and paranoia in the aftermath of JFK's assassination.
There is perhaps no modern President whose legacy resonates in the public consciousness as much as John F. Kennedy's. It was, in a sense, the first modern presidency: The first to be televised—from its historic inauguration to those shocking final moments in Dallas fifty years ago today—and the first to truly grapple with the maelstrom of social unrest that would lead eventually to the posthumous passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, just months after his death. In this first of two posts on JFK's legacy, we reach into some of our recent books for look at the Kennedy administration's complex and evolving relationship with race and the Civil Rights Movement, starting with the struggle between the Kennedy's Secretary of the Interior Stewart Lee Udall and Washington Redskins owner George Marshall over the integration of his team, and ending with an on-the-ground accounting of the 1963 March on Washington for Civil Rights, and JFK's meeting with the major civil rights leaders of the time.
out for the distressing double-header, I saw the Polish film Aftermath the
same weekend as 12 Years a Slave. Both films were an opportunity to view how
a filmmaker handled a country’s national shame through the art of storytelling. Aftermath, is a fictional film inspired by Jan Gross’s book Neighbors, about the Jedwabne pogrom, a 1941 massacre of a
Polish village’s Jewish population by their Catholic neighbors. It’s just been released in the US. 12 Years, based on the diary of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and pressed into bondage in the American South, brings to
Technicolor luridness the hideous cruelties of the slave trade.
are deeply disturbing and both films necessitate a revising of a national
self-image. For Poles, that involves admitting that they were not always the
victims in World War II; on some occasions, they were perpetrators. Americans must countenance
that our country’s literal foundations were built on the blasphemy of human
The first thing that hooked me on the manuscript of Steve Puleo’s Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 (published 10 years ago this month) was the molasses. How could it not? I’d heard a bit about the molasses flood before, which is to say that I knew there had been a deadly wave of molasses, and that it had taken place in the North End. But I’m not a native Bostonian. I was surprised, then, to discover that no one had ever written a full-length account of the disaster. It’s such a dramatic and quirky bit of history; it’s irresistible.
What surprised me even more, however, was the full story Steve uncovered. The flood itself was a terrible tragedy, and Steve has a great sense of drama; he knows how to build narrative tension. Dark Tide dives deep into the specifics of why the molasses flood was so fast and so powerful, bringing to life the many people and animals who died terribly when the tank burst. (The death of fireman George Layhe, pinned beneath the collapsed firehouse, until he finally ran out of the strength to keep his head above the molasses and drowned, stays with me still.)
With a new school year just around the corner, students are stocking up on supplies and teachers are polishing their curriculum plans. To help the latter, Beacon offers guides to help in teaching many of our most popular titles. Find these and other teachers guides at our Scribd page and at Beacon.org.
Psst: if you're not a teacher, these guides can still be great tools for reading and comprehending some great books!
Teacher Patricia Rigley shares ideas for lesson plans, discussion questions, and sample assignments.
Long before the avalanche of praise for his work—from Oprah Winfrey, from President Bill Clinton, from President Barack Obama—long before he became known for his talk show appearances, Members Project spots, and documentaries like Waiting for "Superman", Geoffrey Canada was a small boy growing up scared on the mean streets of the South Bronx. His childhood world was one where "sidewalk boys" learned the codes of the block and were ranked through the rituals of fist, stick, and knife. Then the streets changed, and the stakes got even higher. In his candid and riveting memoir, Canada relives a childhood in which violence stalked every street corner.
The trial of Whitey Bulger continues at the Federal Courthouse in Boston. One of the witnesses "on deck" for the prosecution is Paul "Pole Cat" Moore, so here's a timely excerpt from All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald. All Souls is, among other things, an excellent guide to Southie under Whitey Bulger's criminal empire. In this excerpt, MacDonald describes Pole Cat's connections to the local boxing world, the popular rock club the Rathskeller (or "The Rat") and Bulger's drug-dealing operations.
Hard hitting Frank MacDonald of South Boston met and defeated a very comparable Jose Miguel from Cranston, Rhode Island. Frank totally devastated his opponent with a series of crippling punches to the body which succeeded in incapacitating Miguel, who was of great courage but unable to fathom Frank’s awesome body attack—congratulations Frank, and corner men Paul "Pole Cat" Moore and Tommy "Stove Man" Cronin.
—South Boston Tribune
Frankie was one of the few young people in the neighborhood not being dragged down by drugs and crime in 1980. His boxing career was one of the only things that brought good news to the streets of Old Colony in those days. Frankie was fast becoming a neighborhood hero, not only in Old Colony, but all over Southie. Everyone knew who he was, and he had a nickname now, "Frank the Tank," for his "hard hitting" style that was bringing him championship titles, from Junior Olympics bouts at Freeport Hall in Dorchester to the New England Golden Gloves tournament in Lowell.
Mary and Kathy said all their girlfriends talked about Frankie’s looks, and the guys who hadn’t yet got caught up in the world of drugs talked about getting a ripped body like Frank’s. He was working out seven days a week, running from Old Colony, through the Point, around Castle Island, and back to the project, always in his combat boots from his days in the Marines—and sometimes he ran backwards. Frank was welcome all over Southie. The little kids in the neighborhood would run after him, asking him questions about his bouts and begging him to show how he knocked out his opponents. That’s why Frankie was so intent on being what they called "a stand-up guy" in Southie. That’s what they called anyone who would never snitch, even if it meant doing a life bid because of it. But in Frankie’s case, it just meant he was clean-cut. Sure, he knew all the top gangsters in the neighborhood; anyone with Frankie’s status in the Southie boxing world would. But he never got involved in their rackets, stayed away from the dust and coke they were pumping into the streets, and refused to work for Whitey, telling Ma that he never wanted to be "owned."
But still Frankie had "the boys," as we called Whitey’s troops, working in his corner as he fought his way through four years of New England Golden Gloves championships, starting out as a two-time middleweight champ in the novice class, and ending up a light heavyweight champ for the whole region in 1982 and 1983. South Boston Tribune articles always pointed out the sound advice and leadership "the boys" were giving Frank in the ring:
Following closely the instructions of trainer Paul "Pole Cat" Moore and manager Tommy Cronin, Frank pursued his opponent most aggressively with a savage body attack which . . . wore down O’Han to the point of becoming a bit careless and somewhat frustrated . . . at being unable to figure out MacDonald’s technique. Frank, once again following the instructions for his corner, succeeded in landing a barrage of lefts and rights to the jaw and head of his adversary. This will prove to have been a most excellent victory for Frankie in the upcoming bouts he is to have.
In Southie having the gangsters in your corner, in the ring or on the streets, meant that you had the ultimate protection and power. Grandpa didn’t believe that, though. He had warnings for all of us, from his own days as a longshoreman on the Southie docks, where he said he’d worked alongside some men who ended up in the Brinks robbery of 1950, "the big one." Grandpa always told us how the rule on the docks was to keep your mouth shut about the rackets you saw. He said many a time the longshoremen were lined up by the cops and asked to step forward and speak about crimes. That’s how a waitress from the local diner got killed, after she stepped forward among the silent longshoremen. She was found murdered the next day, her blood scrawled into the letters snitch all over her cold-water flat. Grandpa had another rule of his own for the underworld: "Watch out whose hand you shake," he told us. He said there was no such thing as a gangster giving something without wanting more in return. "They’ll give you a quarter for a dollar any day," he said. Grandpa had been trying to get closer to us since Kathy’s coma and had even bought a condo in City Point. He got a closer look at the neighborhood, and he kept coming around the house cursing "that fuckin’ Whitey Bulger, a no-good bum if there ever was one," and wondering if the Bulgers were even Irish at all, with Senate President Billy Bulger’s insulting Irish brogue imitations at drunken St. Paddy’s Day festivities. "They’re a shame to the Irish altogether," he said, "and what respectable Irish person would name their kid William?" he asked. "That would be like a Jew naming a kid Adolf."
Kevin started to go to the Rathskeller downtown, where Frankie along with some of the other boxers and some of the boys were working as bouncers. They were big and tough looking, and good for keeping the college students and punk rock types in line. Frank’s corner man, Pole Cat Moore, worked at the Rat, and introduced Frankie to Ricky Marino, an ex–state trooper, who became Frankie’s best friend. Then there was Kevin "Andre the Giant" McDonald, not to be confused with my brother Kevin "Mini Mac" MacDonald. He was a Southie champion too. Ricky and Paul Moore were pretty high up in what the papers in later years would call the "Southie underworld." But Frankie knew his little brother wasn’t going to get involved in their plans, no matter how much he wanted to. They were too high up to be bothered with Kevin, who despite his involvement in some of the big stuff was still just a kid to guys like these. They also had a position to maintain, and weren’t about to bring someone with Kevin’s potential into their rackets.
My brother Joe would go to the Rat too, whenever he was on leave from the Air Force. Joe told Ma it was weird how Frankie’s friends pulled each other aside when they were "talking business." We all knew Joe was the tattletale in our family—he told Ma everything—and the boys must have sensed this too. But one night at the Rat, he did overhear Pole Cat Moore telling Ricky that he’d be getting his cocaine directly through Whitey’s Colombian connections, rather than going through Ricky. Pole Cat had a job with the Boston Housing Authority, and an apartment with his brother, right next to ours on 8 Patterson Way. Pole Cat never touched the stuff. He was too into his body, coming and going from our building with a gym bag and a clean white towel around his neck. But he was starting to make a killing on the coke, by the looks of the number of kids knocking on his door day and night. Joe said he would know if Frankie was into that stuff, though, and that Frankie had never been involved in Pole Cat’s huddled conversations with Ricky at the Rat.
Then I started showing up at the back door of the Rat most nights. Ever since I was fifteen I’d gone there to see bands. Frankie’s friends knew who I was, and snuck me downstairs through the piss-puddled hallways, to where the bands played. Frankie snuck me in too, but he didn’t know I was there on weeknights, and I told his friends to keep it quiet. I hadn’t returned to Latin School since Kathy’s coma. They’d tried to make a deal with me that I could be promoted, despite all my absences, if I left Latin and went to Madison Park High School in Roxbury. "Yeah, right," I said, "and be the only white kid in the class."
Latin had been my only escape from the busing, and now I felt guilty for messing it up. I couldn’t believe I was a high school dropout. I’d always been the straight-A student Ma bragged about, along with Johnnie, and Davey. For a while I was still pretending to go to school, even after Kathy was out of the coma. I’d wander around Boston all day, freezing at bus stops when I didn’t have money for the three-hour-long coffee refills at Mug and Muffn, trying to stay awake after a night at the Rat. Ma eventually found a letter I’d written to myself about my guilt for being a dropout, and she was bullshit that I had pulled one over on her. She confronted me about it and said I’d have to go right to work the next day. She too knew high school in Roxbury wasn’t an option. That’s when I switched from pretending to go out to school every day to pretending to go out looking for a job. I was still freezing at bus stops, or getting warm at Mug and Muffn; and I still snuck out of the house at night to go to the Rat.
I had my own group of friends at the Rat. While Frankie, Pole Cat, Andre the Giant, and the rest of the gang hung out upstairs, I was down in the basement with misfits from all walks of life. Some were working-class kids, others were suburban white-picket-fence types, and others were rich. "What’s a trust fund?" I remember asking. "Ah, man, it’s nothing—just ’cause my dad’s rich doesn’t mean I am. I gotta wait on it. Got a dollar for a beer, dude?" But wherever these people came from, they didn’t like it. I’d always preferred black music—soul, then disco, and now hip-hop and rap. The words made more sense to me. But I also liked the energy and rage of punk rock; I just couldn’t relate to the lyrics about life in the suburbs, and having strict parents. Then I discovered the original version of punk, from England. I’d never thought about the fact that there were poor and working-class English people who hated the Queen, and her mother, and the whole British establishment. I could get into that. This was a movement of people who didn’t fit in where they came from, and they’d made that cool. I could get into that too.
Punk music became an escape for me, but I still had to come back to Old Colony every night. I often hitched a ride with Frankie’s friends, the whole way home not knowing what to say to men as powerful as "the boys." Other times I had punk rockers drop me off on the outskirts of Southie, so they wouldn’t see that I lived in the project, or accuse me of being a racist for living in my neighborhood. But I was protecting them too; I didn’t want them to get bottles thrown at them for being different in Southie.
Invisible to the rest, henceforth become my companions;
Follow me ever! desert me not, while I live.
Sweet are the blooming cheeks of the living! sweet
are the musical voices sounding!
But sweet, ah sweet, are the dead, with their silent eyes.
Dearest comrades! all now is over;
But love is not over—and what love, O comrades!
Perfume from battle-fields rising—up from fœtor arising.
Walt Whitman "Hymn of Dead Soldiers," Leaves of Grass (1867)
The Army Hospital Feb 21, 1863. There is enough to
repel, but one soon becomes powerfully attracted also.
Janus Mayfield, (bed 59, Ward 6 Camp[bell] Hosp.)
About 18 years old, 7th Virginia Vol. Has three brothers also in the Union
Army. Illiterate, but cute—can neither read nor write. Has been very sick and
low, but now recovering. Have visited him regularly for two weeks, given him
money, fruit, candy etc.
Albion F. Hubbard—Ward C bed 7 Co F 1st Mass
Cavalry/ been in the service one year—has had two carbuncles one on arm, one on
ankle, healing at present yet great holes left, stuffed with rags—worked on a
farm 8 years before enlisting—wrote letter—for him to the man he lived with/
died June 20th 1863
Richard Voos: In American history the Civil War forms a
turning point in American history however one defines it, in terms of the sheer
number of Americans dead on both sides as well as the transformation of the
United States into a modern industrial nation. It also has a transformative
effect on the role of men, the sheer violence on the role of men, as well as
the ability of women to perform in a different role.
Michael Bronski: That's totally correct. When we look at the
Civil War—and the Civil Ward plays such an important role in the mythology of
American history—it really is central. But I think people don't understand the
role of violence in the Civil War. We all know that all war is violent, but the
sheer number of deaths of American men in the Civil War is tremendous. If we
were to do a percentage, based on our current population, of the Civil War
versus today and the number of deaths, the number of deaths given today's
population would be six million deaths. Which is staggering when you think about
it. So what the Civil War does within the history of American gender is
something quite unique. If after the Revolution we saw the making of the new American
man, the divorcing of the Daniel Boone/Davy Crockett type from the effete fop
from England, that trend continued and the Civil War presents us with a
complete crisis of masculinity. In the two Whitman quotes we heard, we actually
see this sort deluge of mutilation and death and harm to the male body
happening, and at the same time we see this enormous amount of tenderness
towards the male body. Because well, everybody, North and South, who fought in
the Civil War was brave, even if they
were brave for those 35 seconds before they were shot coming into the first big
battle if they were in the first wave of people.
And let’s not forget that the
Civil War deaths were fairly personal: you actually shot people or you
bayonetted them and they were right in front of you. You did not get to be in a
tank and shoot people who were 50, 150 yards away from you. The sheer amount of
death was devastating to the men who fought in the Civil War, and who survived.
So when we hear the Walt Whitman poems, it’s just this endless elegy to male
beauty, to male sentiment, to the uniqueness
of men—and quite sexualized, often, within Whitman's poetry and in his journals.
On the other hand we have… not the image of the brave Union soldier or brave “Johnny
Reb,” but in fact the young vulnerable boy who has simply been torn apart. So
the male body becomes here, and we see this later in World War II, which we'll
discuss in a later podcast, we see the male body completely heroicized and
lionized for being brave, and at the same time pitiable in its vulnerability.
RV: How does the violence associated with the Civil
War continue to influence the definition of manliness after the war?
MB: Having just spoken about the dichotomy between the
brave soldier and the vulnerable soldier, I think one thing to keep in mind
here—and it continues to be a central part of American culture today, but particularly
up until World War II—is that we see the very definition of manhood changing.
So the rite of passage for men from the age of 13, 14 up until 50 in the Civil
War, the rite of passage was actually killing someone. Killing another soldier,
killing another American, even if they had seceded from the Union. So, the very
definition of manhood—quite different from Davy Crockett, if Davy Crockett
proved his manhood by killing animals—the definition during the Civil War was
actually to kill another American.
Get A Queer History of the United States or any of Beacon's other LGBT titles for 25% off the list price during the month of June, a.k.a. PRIDE MONTH. Use the code PRIDE at checkout. Read more at Beacon.org.
Portrait of Victoria Woodhull by Matthew Brady
“Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable,
constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as
short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with
that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.
And I have the further right to demand a free and unrestricted exercise of that
right, and it is your duty not only to accord it, but as a community, to see I
am protected in it. I trust that I am fully understood, for I mean just that,
and nothing else.” Victoria Woodhull, "And the truth shall make you
free," a speech on the principles of social freedom, 1871
“I think we have wronged the South, though we did not mean
to do so. The reason was, in part, that we had irreparably wronged ourselves by
putting no safeguard on the ballot-box at the North that would sift out alien
illiterates. They rule our cities today; the saloon is their palace, and the
toddy stick their sceptre. It is not fair that they should vote, nor is it fair
that a plantation negro, who can neither read nor write, whose ideas are
bounded by the fence of his own field and the price of his own mule, should be
entrusted with the ballot. . . . The Anglo-Saxon race will never submit to be
dominated by the negro so long as his altitude reaches no higher than the personal
liberty of the saloon.” Frances Willard, the New
York Voice, October 23, 1890
Richard Voos: One
of the themes of Queer History is the
conflict between two political and cultural movements throughout America's
history. On the one hand what you describe in different periods of American
history as the “persecuting society”—the social purity movement—in the civil
rights movements, in contrast to advocates for religious freedom, labor, and
women's rights organizers and the gay liberation movement. Let's start with the
idea of the “persecuting society,” Michael. What is that?
This is a phrase that, as far as I can tell, was invented by a British scholar,
R. I. Moore. He wrote a
great book about the persecuting society in which he speculates that in the
Late Middle Ages, European culture was diverse enough and falling apart enough
that, as a mechanism to maintain social stability, those people in power—the
clergy and the aristocracy—began to single out distinct groups of people to be persecuted. So by persecuting these
distinct groups of people, and I'll name them in a second, the society actually
became more stable. By the exclusion of some people, more specifically some groups of people, what we might call “the
mainstream society” became much more solid.
The first groups that were targeted for persecution were
lepers, heretics, witches, and sodomites. So these are four very distinct
groups, often related to appearance or behavior: Lepers obviously had leprosy;
sodomites were accused of committing sexual sins. It’s interesting to note that
at that point “sodomy” did not just mean, as we think of it today, same-sex
behavior but a whole range of sexual misbehaviors under Canon Law. And “witches”
singled out almost entirely women and heretics who were going against some
Church doctrine. So the connections here are actually quite clear: lepers
probably—we know today this is not true—probably had leprosy because they had
committed some “sin.” Under Canon Law witchcraft was a sin, as was heresy, as
was sodomy. So there is a clear theological bent with all of this here. As
Western societies and Western civilizations progressed, these groups were
modified; we now have a much better attitude about people with leprosy,
although I must say it’s only in the last hundred years that we stopped putting
people in leper colonies. But the notion that you create and maintain a general
society by the exclusion of other people is still with us today.
RV: You cite an
example, Michael, early on in American history and it's one of the mythologies
of American history, when the Puritans expel Anne Hutchinson. Some of the
accusations made against her and her followers are sexual. Not only are they
religious heretics; they're accused of sexual behavior that contravenes the Puritan ideal.
MB: We see that
with Anne Hutchinson, we see it with the Quakers. And the Puritans, the Quakers—actually
there were nine Quakers that were executed on Boston Common. The Quakers are an
interesting case because Quakerism at its core not only attacked the theology
of the Anglican Church but also the social mores and the gender mores of the
time. Quaker men were forbidden to carry guns, a clear sign of manliness in
that society. Quaker women were allowed to speak during meetings, a clear
deviation from “women should be silent within Church.” So from the very
beginnings (in England), Quakerism—the Society of Friends—violated not only
theology but gender norms as well. When the Quakers were in America, the same
charges were also used against them there, too.
RV: We see at the
end of the nineteenth century, with the social purity movement, actual,
explicit—and as we heard earlier with the reading from Frances Willard—an
extremely explicit connection between social control and stability, and the
sexual and the racial.
MB: I think that
the tension here goes back to R.I. Moore's notion of the persecuting society,
which he admits changes over time. But the tension here is really between those
who want to control society—who want to shape society to fit their own
theological, moral, social norms—and another group of people. Emma Goldman is a
good example, being an anarchist who would like to have less state control,
less mainstream cultural control over what’s going on. So when we get to the mid-
to late-nineteenth century and the social purity movements we find a terrific
reformer like Frances Willard—who is for suffrage, who is for lots of
educational change, who is actually for lots of reform within the workplace—being
pretty explicit in her racism, and called on it by Ida B. Wells. So that even in
a progressive movement we have someone like Frances Willard who needs to use
the very concept of a persecuting society to reaffirm what we would all agree
would be generally pretty good ideas, except she's actually using
African-Americans as her foil.
RV: Some of the
ways that that conflict and contrast plays out at the end of the last century
are almost bewildering to us today, or laughable, and I'm thinking about Graham
Crackers, for example. Describe for us the invention of Graham Crackers and the
purpose, and a little bit more about Kellogg and Post. When we think of
breakfast cereal… they were thinking of something very different.
MB: They were
certainly thinking of something very different. When we look at the social
reform movements of the mid- to late-nineteenth century we're looking at people
who are concerned about a variety of social ills: the “uneducation” of people,
factory work, people starving to death. One of the main themes that connects
all of these together, and one of the main places where they place the blame
for this, is on what they would consider a dangerous and renegade male
sexuality. So it’s male sexuality that causes alcoholism, it’s male sexuality
that causes the abuse of women, it’s male sexuality that causes most of the
social ills. So one of the themes within these reform movements was to control
male sexuality. And the focus of this to a large degree—and we see this going
back to European culture as well although not as strongly as we see it in
American culture—is on stopping masturbation which was seen as a degenerative
act that could cause madness, blindness, and would lead to further acts of
sexual perdition. Some of the diet reformers, people who wanted to reform the
food industry and also how Americans thought about food, people whose names we
see in the supermarket everyday—Mr. Kellogg, Mr. Post, Mr. Graham—began to
invent cereals based on the notion that eating whole grains, unprocessed foods,
unprocessed flour, would be not only healthier but would curb masturbation. So the
origin of Corn Flakes and for Graham crackers, while they were healthier for
you in general, were seen as ways to stop—and we're speaking specifically about
men here because good women would not think about masturbating—were ways of
stopping male masturbation.
I think if you look at American history, and again this is
mirrored, to some degree in European history as well at the same time, one of
the clearest ways of seeing this divide—and its a divide that's highlighted by
the social purity movement—is to look at the divide between the American
anarchist movement and even homegrown freethinkers and atheists such as
Victoria Woodhull as well. People who are advocating a complete absence or at
least the diminishment, the great diminishment, of state control over people's
lives. So these people, let’s look at Goldman and at Woodhull, are looking to
reform people's lives, to make people's lives better to, make people more free,
and they're doing this by essentially eliminating state control over people's
activities. At the same time we have the social purity movement, people who
firmly believe they want to make a better society and who in many ways make
considerable and very significant changes within society that makes it better
for people. And their way of doing this is to actually reform society, making
society a better place for people but also by controlling people's behaviors as
Part of the social purity movement was the temperance
movement, which was to get people to stop drinking and then to ban liquor. We
see this same tension as time goes on between, let's say the African-American
civil rights movement—a movement that’s done spectacularly fine things to make
American society better—but through reforming
rather than through eliminating state
control. If we want to compare, this is not an exact comparison, but we could
compare Victoria Woodhull to Frances Willard and later on we might compare
Malcolm X, who is looking for complete freedom from white society, essentially
eliminating white society in his life, to Dr. Martin Luther King, who wants to
reform mainstream white society, to make it better for everyone. This is a
Queer History of America and I think this tension is quite a queer tension in
terms of freedom versus control. We see the gay liberation movement in 1969
quickly evolving into the gay rights movement. So the gay liberation movement,
in the tradition of Goldman and to some degree Malcom X, wanting to have
complete freedom from the state and from social controls, versus the gay rights
movement, which actually wants to reform society, to make it better for
lesbians and for gay men.
RV: It seems to
me this plays out in the culture wars of the last 20 years also, some of the
same tensions but in different ways.
MB: I think that
when we look at the culture wars—and I think its useful to see the culture wars
as coming in waves that are slightly different than each other as time goes
on—we see certain ironies. I think one irony of the culture wars of the 70's
and 80's involving the federal funding of gay and lesbian material through the
arts, we see a predicament in which a reformist movement, the gay rights
movement, which has granted the state with quite a bit of authority, is now
faced with the fact that the state has so much authority that they're actually
willing to try to wipe out even the gay rights movement and any representations
of lesbians and gay men. I think our more current cultural crises—cultural wars—involve,
lets say the fights about same-sex marriage in which we have a very clear
notion of the gay rights movement as a reformist movement wanting to support
the state in the broadest way possible, to acknowledge gay and lesbian
relationships. This seemed very radical, and is indeed radical, in our current
political setting but goes back to the early reform movements where monogamous
marriage was praised above everything else, and is quite at odds with the
sentiments of Emma Goldman or Victoria Woodhull.