Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The women behind Rosa Parks

Today's Hutchins Lecture sponsored by the Center for the Study of the American South, by Danielle McGuire, a fellow this year at the Center, was a fascinating study of the decade-long movement of African American women in Montgomery, Alabama who made the 1955 boycott happen. At the heart of their anger was much more than not being able to sit where they pleased on a bus: it was sexual abuse.

It was near midnight on September 3, 1944, when the Rock Hill Holiness church, in Abbeville, Alabama ended its evening service. After a night of singing and praying, Recy Taylor and her friend started towards home. Strolling along the Abbeville-Headland Highway toward town, Recy Taylor, a twenty-four-year-old African-American mother and sharecropper, noticed the same green sedan, packed full of gawking young white men, drive by at least three times. When the car rolled to a stop just a few feet behind the black women, seven men with knives and guns got out of the car and walked toward them. Herbert Lovett pointed a gun at Taylor’s head and ordered her into the car. Lovett’s friends piled in and they sped away into the night. Ten minutes later, the car rattled down a tractor path and stopped on a vacant patch of land. Standing beneath a grove of pecan trees, Lovett demanded Taylor get out of the car, remove her clothes, or, he threatened, “I will kill you and leave you down here in the woods.” Lovett held Taylor at gunpoint while each of the white men took turns “ravishing” her. After the gang rape, Lovett blindfolded Taylor, pushed her into the car, and dropped her off in the middle of town.
When the Montgomery branch of the Alabama NAACP heard about the brutal assault a few days later, they sent an investigator. Her name was Rosa Parks.
A Montgomery minister named Martin Luther King Jr. rose to a leadership position soon after Rosa Parks' arrest on December 1, 1955, but as McGuire persuasively reminds us, the movement belonged to the women.

Thus I have to question one sentence in the Chapel Hill narrative of the 1947 "freedom riders" story: "[Bayard] Rustin's writings directly inspired Ms. Rosa Parks, in 1955, and the Freedom Riders of 1960-61, to challenge Jim Crow segregation on buses and other souther institutions."

When the case over the Montgomery boycott came to trial in a federal courtroom, the women plaintiffs were asked pointedly whether it was Dr. King who put them up to it. Said sixteen-year-old Claudette Colvin, "No, sir. We haven't changed our ideas. It has been in me ever since I was born."

(See Frank Sikora, The Judge: The Life & Opinions of Alabama's Frank M. Johnson, Jr. (1992).)

1947 "Freedom Ride" remembered

Everyone knows about the 1961 "freedom rides," but not everybody knows that they had a precedent in 1947. In 1946, the Supreme Court held that interstate Jim Crow laws on buses and trains were unconstitutional. A group of activists led by Bayard Rustin and the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, took to the road to test the opinion. When they got to Chapel Hill, they were met with violence--a sorry bit of history for our "city on the hill."

The legendary Rev. Charlie Jones took the victims to his home (pursued by cabs filled with men who got out and threw rocks at his house) and then helped them make safe passage to Greensboro.

Three men--Bayard Rustin, James Felmut, and Igal Roodenko--served time for their offenses against the state by working on a chain gang. (The high profile of this travesty at least led to a legislative investigation of North Carolina's chain gangs and ultimately their abolition.)

At last night's Council meeting, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro branch of the NAACP, together with the Community Church (the church Rev. Jones helped to found after he was expelled from the Presbyterian Church over these issues), sought a resolution from us in support of their campaign to get a North Carolina historical marker erected to commemorate this event. We passed the resolution with dispatch--and we look forward to their success in Raleigh.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Lot 5 public art preview tomorrow

At tomorrow night's Town Council meeting we'll get a look at what public artist Mikyoung Kim is working on for the Lot 5 project with Ram Corp.

She's giving the same presentation tomorrow at 5 p.m. at the public library if you'd rather catch it there.

UPDATE: Ms. Kim's presentation was fascinating. She's on her way to creating a great, inviting, beautiful, urban public space. It's going to be great for Franklin Street. Reporter Meiling Arounnarath has a video snippet of the 3-D model.

"Durham: A Self-Portrait"

Tomorrow night at 6:30 in the Stone Center on the UNC campus: "Durham: A Self-Portrait," a documentary by Steve Channing. With civil rights attorney Julius Chambers and UNC business professor Jim Johnson. I'll hope to catch it another time.

But Paul and I did see another Steve Channing production, or one in progress, tonight: a film he is working on on Elizabeth Spencer. We were among the hosts of a benefit and great celebration of this work held this afternoon at the home of Walter and Betsy Bennett.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Window into a colorful past in Wilmington

How fun to see that my friend Catherine Bishir has posted a message on H-Material-Culture, cross-posted at H-Slavery, about a wonderful celebration of the Johnkannaus this past December at Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington.

Earlier this winter, there was a reenactment of a traditional African American festival that prevailed in Wilmington, New Bern, and some other Carolina coastal towns during the 19th century at the Christmas season, at which slaves and later freed people paraded through the streets, went to homes of the wealthy for money, and performed certain dances and songs believed to trace from African and Caribbean traditions. (As you probably know, there was a slave holiday of about a week at Christmas, followed by slave hirings about January 1; Jonkonnu, or John Canoe, was the highlight in certain communities.)

A few years ago, Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens began the revival of the event in New Bern, and it has become quite popular and powerful. This winter, the Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington was the site of the first such revival event in Wilmington, NC.

The scenes of people in costume descending the steps of the big house are probably pretty authentic to that of the antebellum period, as related by accounts of the time. These pictures are pretty exciting.

Slide show.

Harriet Jacobs observed the "Johnkannaus" in Edenton:

Every child rises early on Christmas morning to see the Johnkannaus. Without them, Christmas would be shorn of its greatest attraction. They consist of companies of slaves from the plantations, generally of the lower class. Two athletic men, in calico wrappers, have a net thrown over them, covered with all manner of bright-colored stripes. Cows' tails are fastened to their backs, and their heads are decorated with horns. A box, covered with sheepskin, is called the gumbo box. A dozen beat on this, while other strike triangles and jawbones, to which bands of dancers keep time. For a month previous they are composing songs, which are sung on this occasion. These companies, of a hundred each, turn out early in the morning, and are allowed to go round till twelve o'clock, begging for contributions. Not a door is left unvisited where there is the least chance of obtaining a penny or a glass of rum. They do not drink while they are out, but carry the rum home in jugs, to have a carousal. These Christmas donations frequently amount to twenty or thirty dollars.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ch. 22.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Recently speaking

Christine Madrid French is an architectural historian, president of the Recent Past Preservation Network, and, as far as I can tell, the person who has single-handedly kept the bulldozers away from Richard Neutra's remarkable Cyclorama building at Gettysburg National Military Park (so far). Here, she gives an interview for the Next American City Project.

Related: Berkley Square, a neighborhood in West Las Vegas built after World War II and marketed to African Americans, has recently been noted for its historic value. "The community has expressed much interest in its past, and the Historic Preservation Commission is excited about the prospect of designating this historically rich African American neighborhood."

Sunday, January 13, 2008


An interesting review of a new book about Starbucks (admirably written by someone who doesn't drink coffee).

Starbucks is well known for its utilization of the "third place" concept, but we get to read about the focus groups where Americans first revealed that they were willing to pay more for their coffee—even if they were just getting it to go—if they were in what felt like a "public living room." We also get clued in to the thinking behind Starbucks's unique vernacular (names like "grande Valencia latte" not only lend a patina of sophistication to a product, but also build brand loyalty); we learn that Starbucks deliberately locates stores on the driver's righthand side as she heads downtown so she won't have to make a left turn across traffic; we shake our heads at the revelation that, in 2002, Starbucks introduced the vanilla and coconut Creme Frappucino in order "to capitalize on the expected popularity of the color white."

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Fifty years of Reynolds Price

On Jan. 31 through Feb. 2, Duke University will celebrate the 50-year teaching career of novelist Reynolds Price. Toni Morrison and Stanley Fish will lend their voices!

On violence

Speaking (as I recently was) of Bruce Lawrence, he and his colleague Aisha Karim appeared on "The State of Things" Tuesday to talk about their essay collection, On Violence.

This anthology brings together classic perspectives on violence, putting into productive conversation the thought of well-known theorists and activists, including Hannah Arendt, Karl Marx, G. W. F. Hegel, Osama bin Laden, Sigmund Freud, Frantz Fanon, Thomas Hobbes, and Pierre Bourdieu. The volume proceeds from the editors’ contention that violence is always historically contingent; it must be contextualized to be understood. They argue that violence is a process rather than a discrete product. It is intrinsic to the human condition, an inescapable fact of life that can be channeled and reckoned with but never completely suppressed. Above all, they seek to illuminate the relationship between action and knowledge about violence, and to examine how one might speak about violence without replicating or perpetuating it.

Spooky return

D.J. Spooky returns to the UNC campus on February 8.

Preview: "Hail the Jewel in the Blue Lotus Mix: Buddhist hip hop." Featuring Monks of Deprung Loesling Monastery, Daniel Bernhard Roumain, King Tubby, Philip Glass, The Beastie Boys, Saul Williams, John Coltrane, and Alice Coltrane.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Lutherans are fitting in.

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Rosemary Street gets my personal Sierra Club Anti-Sprawl Good Infill Award. The long, slender building is nestled between homes in a historic district, and the neighbors are happy about it. All around, a beautiful thing.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Disaster at the AHA

The History News Network has done a great job of blogging the American Historical Association's conference in D.C., in text and a few choice YouTube clips.

I enjoyed the two clips of Kevin Rozario of Smith College (day 3), whose work I remember from a conference at MIT that took place shortly after Sept. 11, "The Resilient City: Trauma, Recovery and Remembrance." (Organized by Larry Vale, whom I got to meet later at a UNC conference on affordable housing, and Tom Campanella, now a professor of urban studies at UNC.) In that paper, he argued that the great disasters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries--to wit, the Chicago fire of 1871 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906--for all of their devastation, paradoxically were reinscribed to conform to a great American narrative of optimism and recovery. From the version of his talk in the conference proceedings, published in 2004,

A quick glance at American history shows that narrative has long been the magic that makes blessings out of calamities. Sermons and private writings attest that calamities were among the most enthralling topics in colonial America. Disasters had to be explained but there was little doubt that theyw ere meaningful. They were part of God's greater designs. Misfortunes were not exactly welcome, of course, but a religious framework for understanding them was by and large consoling. Possessing a strong conviction that God was especially close in calamity and that God was good, Puritans, like most other European settlers, simply had to believe that disasters possessed some benevolent purpose. Hence they foun themselves plotting their disasters according to "comic," as opposed, in the Aristotelian scheme, to "tragic" conventions. The narrative sequence usually went something like this: some wretch or group of wretches commits a sin; God sends a disaster to punish and test the individual or the community; people heed the warning and mend their ways; they rededicate themselves to God and ultimately earn salvation.

This spring, Rozario's book came out, The Culture of Calamity: Disaster and the Making of Modern America. But by then, another disaster: Hurricane Katrina.

As Rozario turns to the present, he finds that the impulse to respond creatively to disasters is mitigated by a mania for security. Terror alerts and duct tape represent the cynical politician’s attitude about 9/11, but Rozario focuses on how the attacks registered in the popular imagination—how responses to genuine calamity were mediated by the hyperreal thrills of movies; how apocalyptic literature, like the best-selling Left Behind series, recycles Puritan religious outlooks while adopting Hollywood’s style; and how the convergence of these two ways of imagining disaster points to a new postmodern culture of calamity.

This is the idea that he elaborates on in his AHA talk: why did this progressive narrative "fail at the moment of Katrina"? Having just read Naiomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, he heads there for his tentative conclusion: "crisis as a tremendous opportunity for profit."

Relatedly at the AHA, Elizabeth Turner of the University of North Texas recalls the Galveston Flood of 1900 (day 3).

Not so disastrously, our friend Bruce Lawrence of Duke with a reconsideration of Marshall Hodgson's The Venture of Islam (day 1).

Friday, January 04, 2008

Give a little. You'll feel better.

Researchers conclude that "charitable activity induces endorphins that produce a very mild version of the sensations people get from drugs like morphine and heroin."

Prize "planning" in 2007

Texting for toilets, insuring against paper cuts, and more.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Betty Friedan, wielding a spatula and a sharp kitchen wit

Two musty old fifty-cent paperbacks that have followed me around since college, probably lifted from my mother's kitchen, are Peg Bracken's I Hate to Cook Book and the Appendix to the I Hate to Cook Book. This past Sunday's Times Magazine tribute to her as one of the notable deaths of 2007 puts her work in context.

The men who ruled the world in the late 1950s, or at least six of the men who ruled publishing, rejected Peg Bracken's manuscript, "The I Hate to Cook Book." It would never sell, they told her, because "women regard cooking as sacred." It took a female editor at Harcourt Brace to look at the hundreds of easy-to-follow recipes wittily pitched at the indentured housewife and say, "Hallelujah!" Since its publication in 1960, Bracken's iconic book, which celebrated the speedy virtues of canned cream-of-mushroom soup and chicken bouillon cubes, has sold more than three million copies. That helped lift her spirits, her daughter, Jo Bracken, said, about her $338 advance.

Bracken had the nerve to say what so many women felt: they liked cooking fine, as long as they didn't have to cook all the time. There was scant takeout in postwar America, no prepared foods, certainly no men rushing home from the office to don an apron and help out. The job of a wife and mother was to put food on the table, three times a day, seven days a week, and not just like it--live for it.

I can't remember ever making a recipe out of these cookbooks, not even in college when I was much more of a cook. They were too interesting as little bites of laugher. For example, a two-page dissertation on "The Leftover" speaks to me again today, timelessly:

Some women can keep a leftover going like an eight-day clock. Their Sunday's roast becomes Monday's hash, which becomes Tuesday's Stuffed Peppers, which eventually turn up as Tamale Pie, and so on, until it disappears or Daddy does. These people will even warm up stale cake and serve it with some sort of a sauce, as some sort of a pudding.

But when you hate to cook, you don't do this. You just go around thinking you ought to. So, much as you dislike that little glass jar half full of Chicken a la King, you don't throw it away, because that would be wasteful. Anyway, you read somewhere that you can put spoonfuls of it into tiny three-cornered pastry affairs and serve them hot, as hors d'oeuvres.

Actually, you know, deep down, that you never will. . . . But you still can't quite bring yourself to dispose of it! So you put it in the refrigerator, and there it stays, moving slowly toward the rear as it is displaced by other little glass jars half full of leftover ham loaf and other things. And there it remains until refrigerator-cleaning day, at which time you gather it up along with its little fur-bearing friends, and, with a great lightening of spirit, throw it away.

When I read this passage out loud to Paul, he reminded me that it's more often he who throws away the little fur-bearing friends, and moreover, that it was he who had just made a delicious caldo verde soup as well as a perfect pan of cornbread, smartly finding a recipe that used the masa harina I'd gotten him to buy (it only comes in large quantities) for a dish I once made that I can't even remember any more. (Nobody needs large quantities of masa harina unless they are in the tamale-making business.)

We've come a long way, baby. Happy new year.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

An uncelebrated anniversary

Today is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the importation of slaves into the United States. Did you know that? Historian Eric Foner offers an explanation of both why it's too much of an embarrassment to celebrate and why it's too important to ignore.

Let us imagine that the African slave trade had continued in a legal and open manner well into the 19th century. It is plausible to assume that hundreds of thousands if not millions of Africans would have been brought into the country.

This most likely would have resulted in the “democratization” of slavery as prices fell and more and more whites could afford to purchase slaves, along with a further increase in Southern political power thanks to the Constitution’s three-fifths clause. These were the very reasons advanced by South Carolina’s political leaders when they tried, unsuccessfully, to reopen the African slave trade in the 1850s.

More slaves would also have meant heightened fear of revolt and ever more stringent controls on the slave population. It would have reinforced Southerners’ demands to annex to the United States areas suitable for plantation slavery in the Caribbean and Central America. Had the importation of slaves continued unchecked, the United States could well have become the hemispheric slave-based empire of which many Southerners dreamed.

Jan. 1, 1808, is worth commemorating not only for what it directly accomplished, but for helping to save the United States from a history even more terrible than the Civil War that eventually rid our country of slavery.

Professor Jack Balkin adds some thoughts about the constitutional bases upon which Congress acted.