Posted in 20th century America, African Americans, Civil Rights, gender studies, marginalization, racism, resistance, urban studies, violence

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision

Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Barbara Ransby outlines the focus of her biography, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement as follows:

Ella Baker played a pivotal role in the three most prominent black freedom organizations of her day: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC; pronounced “snick”). She worked alongside some of the most prominent black male leaders of the twentieth century: W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, George Schuyler, Walter White, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., and Stokely Carmichael. However, Baker had contentious relationships with all these men and the organizations they headed, with the exception of SNCC during its first six years. For much of her career she functioned as an “outsider within.”

Yet, Baker did not work as a sole female activist, nor were her struggles confined to African American communities. “Baker was part of a powerful, yet invisible network of dynamic and influential African American women activists who sustained civil rights causes, and one another, across several generations.” And even though Baker’s primary frame of reference was the African American experience and the struggle for black freedom, she dedicated herself to making the entire world a better place for everyone. Ransby points out that Baker was involved in more than thirty major political campaigns and organizations, “addressing such issues as the war in Vietnam, Puerto Rican independence, South African apartheid, political repression, prison conditions, poverty, unequal education, and sexism.”

Ransby attempts to sum up Baker’s life and work at the end of the book. She notes Timothy Jenkin’s eulogy at a SNCC reunion in 2000 where he describes Baker as being the “mortar between the bricks.” But Ransby disagrees. She likens Baker to a patchwork quilt, noting that “like the quilting tradition itself, [Baker’s] life work was collective work.”
Ransby, who is also an activist, admits that she came upon Ella Baker’s story in her search for “political role models, not research subjects.” But Ransby refers to Baker as a “biographer’s nightmare.” Being a very private person, Baker left little personal correspondence that Ransby could assess. Her public voice and presence as documented in over thirty archival and manuscript collections of organizations and individuals across the country is what remains. Ransby incorporated numerous oral interviews into her research and even conducted a number of the interviews herself. In addition, Ransby consulted published books, theses and dissertations, newspapers, and a variety of other sources.

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement connects with the themes of gender and racism explored in other books on this site. Baker defied gender restrictions of her time, not unlike Dorothea Lange. Both books address how these women fought for those less fortunate than themselves and how they changed as women and human beings as a result of their struggles.

Posted in 19th century America, 20th century America, African Americans, Christianity, class, immigrants, marginalization, material culture, racism, reformers, religion, sexuality, urban studies

Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940

Heap, Chad C. Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Chad Heap, author of Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940, is an Associate Professor of American Studies at George Washington University. His academic work examines the relationship between sexuality and the city in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Slumming, Heap explores how, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, affluent white Americans ventured into immigrant and mixed-race neighborhoods in order to ogle, lecture, and cavort with their social inferiors. This slumming not only created spaces that enabled middle-class whites to expand their own racial and sexual boundaries, it contributed to the emergence of a new social order where black/white and hetero/homosexual were being clearly defined. The act of slumming helped to reinforce notions of whiteness and social superiority, as did the post war exodus of whites from the inner cities to the suburbs.

Heap researched a wide range of documents, including local government records, sociological studies, novels, newspapers, and trade magazines. However, Heap claims that the most important evidence came from “the field reports of undercover investigators employed by private anti-vice organizations.” Several maps, illustrations, and photographs support the text.

Heap weaves together a variety of experiences into his definition of slumming. While many readers would readily recognize slumming as late-night dancing, drinking, and sexual exploration, Heap also includes missionary and reform activities into the mix. By adding the popular Protestant reform movements into his narrative, he shows how slumming provided middle-class white men and women with a useful way to define their own moral and social superiority. Heap shows how slumming enabled each dominant group to better define themselves: heterosexuals declared themselves against homosexuals, and whites defined themselves against blacks. In addition, even emerging populations, such as immigrant Italians and Jews, were able to use slumming to define themselves as white.

Heap’s argument differs from than Laura Wexler’s Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U. S. Imperialism; however, both books offer a fresh perspective on how whiteness (and heteronormativity) is constructed and reinforced through images of the “other.” Both books also suggest that images of domesticity play a leading role in normalizing dominant group identity. Wexler’s analysis shows that domesticity was used as a trope in actual photographs to offer evidence of civilizing Black and Indian cultures, and to downplay the violence of imperialist military endeavors. For Heap, images of domesticity can be found in the geographical containment of whites in the suburbs. The inferior other remains in the chaos and poverty of the inner city.

Posted in 20th century America, African Americans, capitalism, class, gentrification, law, marginalization, material culture, racism, urban studies, violence

Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City

Gordon, Colin. Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

St. Louis, Missouri was once a thriving metropolis, but is now a ruined landscape. As Colin Gordon explains in Mapping Decline, “[d]isinvestment and depopulation are so pronounced in central St. Louis that pockets of unintended green have replaced much of the housing stock.”[1] In this book, Gordon researches and maps the causes and costs of St. Louis’s urban crisis.[2] His research shows that St. Louis’ failure was not a consequence of free market conditions, where people simply wanted a bigger or better house in the suburbs. It actually reveals how racist policies and attitudes dramatically shaped the demographic boundaries of the city. Specifically, Gordon shows how federal and local governments, as well as private industry, were complicit in maintaining segregated neighborhoods by blocking minorities from residing in white communities.

Gordon puts much of the blame on policies created by the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange (SLREE). He claims that around 1915, “The fear of ‘negro invasion’ in St. Louis was best expressed, and carefully orchestrated, by local realtors.[3] They created ‘restricted deed covenants’ to prevent minorities from moving into white areas (zones). The SLREE regulated and constrained its members even where no covenants existed.”[4] Real estate agents who sold homes to African Americans outside of the zone would lose their licenses.[5] Even though restricted deed covenants were judged to not be legally enforceable by the Supreme Court in Shelley vs. Kraemer in 1948, the practice continued.[6]

Furthermore, Gordon illuminates federal culpability in maintaining a segregated society. New federal policies enabled white flight from the city into the nearest suburbs. FHA mortgage insurance was primarily granted to white people moving to the suburbs, in effect, subsidizing white flight, while federal public housing assistance was implemented mainly in the inner city, which helped to solidify the region’s spatial organization of race and poverty.[7] Gordon claims that these suburbs “poached” the city’s resources while placing restrictive zoning policies on their own neighborhoods that kept out minorities.[8] In addition, during the housing boom that followed World War II, the federal government figured prominently in segregating neighborhoods through a process known as “redlining,” which essentially barred banks from investing in areas inhabited by people of color.[9] Housing and urban-renewal legislation cleared out black neighborhoods (“slum clearance”) that were perceived to threaten business districts and replaced them with public-housing projects.[10]

Mapping Decline is unique for the ways in which it combines archival research with geographic information system (GIS) digital mapping techniques.  The book includes more than 75 full-color maps that were rendered from census data, archival sources, case law, and local real estate records. Together the maps trace the ways private property restrictions, local planning and zoning, federal housing policies, and urban renewal encouraged “white flight” and urban decline in St. Louis.

The research for Mapping Decline began with a grant to apply GIS technology to the historical intersections of blight and public policy. As Gordon and his partner, Peter Fisher, wrestled with the challenge of digitizing historical sources, they soon realized that they needed a local case study. Sorting through the legal and political history of “blight,” they noticed that many of the most egregious cases were in the St. Louis suburbs. Their research revealed a general pattern found in many modern American cities, where “wealth sprawled to the urban fringe and the central city suffered stark and sustained decline.”[11] Gordon presents Mapping Decline as the St. Louis chapter of a story of urban decline that has been exposed in other studies, namely, Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960 (1998) and Tom Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996).[12]

Gordon created a supplementary website to the book, “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City” ( Four interactive maps that relate to major themes in the book show visitors St. Louis’ deterioration in terms of “White Flight,” “Race and Property,” “Municipal Zoning,” and “Urban Renewal.” Each map page is animated by a chronological slidebar or a menu of map layers, and includes primary source documents. Visitors to the site can see change over time within each map by moving the slidebar across different date ranges. Primary source documents, such as zoning maps, urban renewal plans, and legal documents, can be viewed by selecting the “Documents” checkbox on the map page or by selecting “Documents” from the site’s main menu. Notes about historical context and full bibliographic citations are included for each resource. In addition, the website includes a page of links to other web-based historical GIS projects, data and map sources, and St. Louis documents and maps. Unfortunately, a number of these links proved to be outdated or broken at the time of the review. One of the projects, “Digital Harlem, Daily Life 1915-1930,” could be relinked by updating the URL to, while others, such as “Mapping Dubois,” were not located through searches.

The “Mapping Decline: About the Maps” page offers a number of interesting data options and tools to assist further research. Researchers who are members of Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research can log in and download 1940-2000 tract level census data used in Gordon’s study. The site also offers a link to Social Explorer, which provides easy-to-use tools for visual exploration of demographic information. Gordon notes that the Race and Property, Municipal Zoning, and Urban Renewal series are based on a number of archival sources and public data, which he further explains and provides links to relevant collections. The Urban Renewal link is outdated, but a Google search located the appropriate link to St. Louis’ Open Data page, which includes census data, property information, and geospatial data.

Even though I appreciate the scholarship and ingenuity that went into Gordon’s study, and resulting book and website, I could not help but feel that the project felt isolated from larger, related social issues and lacked much needed counter narratives and personal stories. Although much different in scope and context, one example of a study that connects forced segregation with consumerism is Liz Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003). Cohen shows how the mass-consumption-driven economy offered false promises of political and economic democracy following World War II. Her study also revealed how federal policies and local racism prevented people of color from upward mobility and access to white suburbia. And Katherine Beckett and Steve Herbert’s Banished: The New Social Control in Urban America (2011) shows how a set of almost invisible policing practices ban the homeless and other “disorderly” people from occupying certain public spaces. Once “zoned out,” they are subject to arrest if they return. Gordon might have connected his findings to issues, such as consumerism or the control of unwanted urban populations, that would have enriched his overall story.

Gordon also failed to provide counter narratives to the arguments and maps he presented or to personal stories that could have helped the reader connect to the lived experience of African Americans living in St. Louis. Additional research using newspaper articles, letters, or oral history interviews would have shown how people in African American communities fought against the discriminatory practices highlighted in Mapping Decline. Gordon briefly mentioned actions by the NAACP, but did not convert any of their court cases into visual data.

Even with these oversights, Gordon’s study has successfully connected to recent social and political events. In 2014, Gordon’s maps helped frame a discussion about unrest in Ferguson, Missouri following the Michael Brown shooting, an event that launched the Black Lives Matter movement. On August 14, 2014, BloombergBuisinessweek published an article, “The County Map That Explains Ferguson’s Tragic Discord,” which highlights the maps posted on Gordon’s website. The article begins with the question, “What does a map have to do with a riot?”[13] The rest of the article connects Gordon’s maps to other recent scholarship to show how a history of racism and inequitable development of the city contributed to the recent tragedy.

Gordon and his research have become authoritative resources for people all over the country who are trying to make sense of events in Ferguson and St. Louis at large. Earlier this year, Gordon became the star witness in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of the Missouri NAACP against the Ferguson-Florissant School District in North County, St. Louis. In his testimony, Gordon exclaimed that “white flight patterns moved first from the city of St. Louis into the northern suburbs in the county. Blacks became concentrated in various large apartment complexes east of West Florissant Avenue, such as those on Canfield Drive, where Michael Brown was shot on Aug. 9, 2014.”[14] Gordon contends, in his book and testimony, that the city’s boundaries were drawn to keep black people out. “The seeds of that past discrimination are blooming now.”[15]

Another news article that references Gordon’s research went beyond the city’s physical restrictions to explain why white people and people of color continue to be separated psychologically. Michael Allen, director of the Preservation Research Office in St. Louis underscored centuries-long white fear of African American franchise and agency with the following questions: “What would happen if the slaves revolted? If they got the right to vote? If thousands came and took our jobs? If they lived next door? If they came to the suburbs we built to get away from them? Or the suburbs we built to get away from those suburbs?”[16] This same article also suggested that any transition out of the current state of affairs would be difficult for a city that has been finding ways to control black people’s movements for hundreds of years, noting that “Today’s rules are about curfews, sagging pants, and evening protests. In the late 1770s, Spanish colonial ordinances restricted slaves from holding nocturnal assemblies, dressing ‘in barbarous fashion,’ and leaving their cabins.”[17] The parallels are eye-opening.

Seeing the connections between the historical and urgent current events in our country has given me a greater appreciation for Gordon’s book and website. As his research and news stories show, the results of systemic racism are not easily overcome. I expect that Mapping Decline will continue to contribute to this national conversation for years to come.

[1] Colin Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 4.

[2] In addition to Mapping Decline, Gordon authored Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality (2013); Dead on Arrival: The Politics of Health in Twentieth Century America (2003); and New Deals: Business, Labor and Politics, 1920-1935 (1994).  His digital projects include “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City” (, an interactive mapping project based on his St. Louis research; “Digital Johnson County” (, which provides access to a wide range of map and data layers documenting the social, natural, and political history of Johnson County, Iowa; and “The Telltale Chart” (, a data visualization project that focuses on historical and recent economic data.

[3] Gordon, 70.

[4] Ibid., 83.

[5] Ibid., 84.

[6] Ibid., 71.

[7] Ibid., 98-99.

[8] Ibid., 221.

[9] Ibid., 96-97, 103-09.

[10] Ibid., 162-63.

[11] Ibid., 222.

[12] Ibid., xiii.

[13] Peter Coy, “The County Map That Explains Ferguson’s Tragic Discord,” BloombergBusinessweek, August 15, 2014, accessed November 1, 2016,

[14] Tony Messenger, “Historian Highlights Racial Divide That Haunts St. Louis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 13, 2016, accessed November 1, 2016,

[15] Ibid.

[16] Jeannette Cooperman, “St. Louis: A City Divided,” Aljazeera America, August 18, 2014, accessed November 1, 2016,

[17] Ibid.

Posted in African Americans, film, gender studies, imperialism, masculinity, material culture, myths, propaganda, racism, violence

Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917

Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Prior to the 1990s, most literature on American whiteness and its relationship to masculinity emerged out of the historiography of labor and the working class.[1] Gail Bederman helped to shift this emphasis by her work which explored the political and cultural implications of whiteness, manliness, and civilization.[2] Bederman is considered to be one of the “first generation” of gender historians to study masculinity in the United States. Her 1995 seminal work, Manliness & Civilization, investigates connections between manhood, race, and power, which she identifies as the defining attributes of the “discourse of civilization,” during the Progressive Era.[3]  Her study is based on the premise that gender is an ongoing “historical, ideological process.”[4]  Bederman insisted, in a 2011 article entitled “Why Study ‘Masculinity,’ Anyway? Perspectives from the Old Days,” that “masculinity,” as scholars use the term, is a heuristic category and is most useful when recognized as such.[5] But, she confessed that she had not worked on masculinity studies since 1995 and felt like “Rip Van Winkle, awakening from his twenty-year nap.” She noted huge changes in the field of gender studies since she stepped away and admitted that she did not understand what members of this generation of masculinity scholars really want to know, or why.[6]

Manliness & Civilization opens with an exemplary model for Bederman’s argument: the world heavyweight boxing championship in 1910 between Jack Johnson, the first African American to hold the title, and Jim Jeffries, who was marketed as the “Hope of the White Race.” From the beginning, the Johnson-Jeffries fight was framed as a contest that would prove racial and masculine superiority.[7] After “Johnson trounced Jeffries,” interracial violence and riots broke out across the United States and government officials colluded to imprison Johnson. His victory was perceived as an affront to the power of white masculinity.[8] Bederman concludes that Johnson’s triumph “implicitly challenged the ways hegemonic discourses of civilization built powerful manhood out of race.”[9]

To build her main arguments in Manliness & Civilization, Bederman analyzes key experiences in the lives and work of four prominent and diverse American figures, Ida B. Wells (anti-lynching activist), G. Stanley Hall (psychologist), Charlotte Perkins Gilman (feminist), and President Theodore Roosevelt, who each worked to shape the meaning of manliness using their own conceptions of “civilization.” She shows how their work challenged or upheld notions that “civilization” is predicated on white masculinity. In her conclusion, Bederman analyzes the original 1912 rendition of the character Tarzan to show how the previous four examples combine into an image of perfect manhood that is both civilized, signaled by his descent from noble English aristocracy, and primitive, marked by his childhood among the apes and his drive to rape and kill.[10]

For Bederman, Tarzan is Teddy Roosevelt’s great white hunter who conquered racial inferiors and even nature itself.[11] Tarzan, who lynches Africans, is more savage than Wells’ lyncher because he enjoys killing as a sport (much like Roosevelt enjoyed killing animals). Kill or be killed is the law of the jungle.[12] He is Gilman’s “brute” who progresses from potential rapist to a chivalrous and civilized man due to his genetic superiority.[13] Tarzan is also Hall’s savage little boy who is allowed “racial recapitulation” to emerge as the most powerful civilized man.[14] Bederman admits that Burroughs most likely was not directly influenced by the works of any of these four individuals; however, the alignment of these “discourses of civilization” illuminates the pervasiveness of the “cultural project to remake manhood” during the Progressive Era.[15]

Before wrapping up discussion on Bederman’s work, I must digress to consider a couple of modern cinematic remakes of the Tarzan story. Hundreds of films, radio and television shows, stage plays, and video games have featured Tarzan. Most adaptations have continued to propagate the paternalism and racism found in the original.[16] Walt Disney employees decided to completely remove all African natives from its 1999 children’s animated Tarzan, a move that helped them to avoid any hint of racism found in the original stories.[17] Although, it makes one question the underlying message for a diverse global society. Yet, in an even more surprising move (at least for me now that I know the original storyline), the film’s villain, a white hunter by the name of Clayton (Tarzan’s family name), dies in an accidental hanging (lynching?) that viewers witness through the shadows. And in 2016, a new film, The Legend of Tarzan was released.

In this most recent reimagining of Tarzan, the storyline begins in England, where Tarzan and Jane are happily married and living as Lord and Lady Greystoke. The action takes place in the 1880s during the colonization of the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium. African American diplomat George Washington Williams, whose character is based on a real American Civil War soldier, Christian minister, politician, lawyer, journalist, and historian, enlists Greystoke/Tarzan’s help to thwart King Leopold’s plans to enslave the Congo. Although the filmmaker attempted to upgrade the story for twenty-first century sensibilities, there are foundational problems inherent to the Tarzan storyline. As Richard Brody points out in his New Yorker review of the film, “There are inescapable underlying racist horrors built into the very notion of Tarzan—the idea that, as a white man raised by apes, he’s the white-skinned equivalent of black Africans, their equal as a force of nature but with the natural aptitude to be rapidly civilized, and that, as a white man, he is Jane’s one acceptable African mate.”[18] If we understand films to be a way to gauge how we see the world and how our world is reified, these examples illustrate that gender and race are indeed ongoing historical, ideological processes that we need to question.

Looking today at the continued influence of Bederman’s work, Google Scholar returned 2,189 results for Manliness & Civilization. Searching within these results, 83 results related to publications in 2016, which indicates that the work continues to have relevance. However, I found that numerous works that cited Manliness & Civilization over the years did so only in passing. By citing a page or two from the work, these publications seem to acknowledge the importance of Bederman’s contributions, but few seemed to actively engaged with any of her arguments. This may indicate that scholars of gender and/or race studies are at least expected to be familiar with this work. Some of these titles include Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (2014) by Michael Omi and Howard Winant, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (1998) by Karen Brodkin, and Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany (2000) by Uta G Poiger, each of which were cited by hundreds of additional publications.

“So where does that leave us in the twenty-first century?” Bederman asks.[19] She does not offer an answer; however, one point she makes is clear. There is nothing self-evident about what it means to study “masculinity.” The term is a heuristic category that allows us to ask certain kinds of questions and is useful only when scholars clearly define what they want to know and what they mean when they use the term.[20]

[1] Tanfer Emin Tunc, “Recapitulating the Historiographical Contributions of Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color and Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization,” Rethinking History 12, no. 2 (2008): 281. The author of this article suggests that Jacobson’s and Bederman’s contributions should be looked at together in order to better understand their contributions to the field.

[2] Ibid., 282.

[3] Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 4-5. She posits that as “middle-class men actively worked to reinforce male power, their race became a factor which was crucial to their gender…whiteness was both a palpable fact and a manly ideal for these men.” In addition, Bederman’s use of the term “discourse” was influenced by the work of Michel Foucault. By simultaneously looking at the intellectual constructs and material practices of a society, this methodology helps historians understand ways in which a society defines itself and how that society deploys social power. Ibid., 24.

[4] Ibid., 7. Emphasis in original.

[5] Gail Bederman, “Why Study ‘Masculinity,’ Anyway? Perspectives from the Old Days,” Culture, Society and Masculinities 3, no. 1 (Spring, 2011): 14. The paper is based on a keynote address given at the conference “Performing the Invisible: Masculinities in the English-Speaking World,” Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3, September 25-26, 2010.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, 2.

[8] Ibid., 41.

[9] Ibid., 42. This example provoked me to think about Jesse Owen’s win at the 1936 Olympics. Many American history and sports sites publicize how Owens, who was the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves, had single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy. Yet, we don’t often hear about how Americans treated Jack Johnson.

[10] Ibid., 218, 21.

[11] Ibid., 220-21. “Tarzan’s cultural work was to proclaim that ‘the white man’s’ potential for power and mastery was as limitless as the masculine perfection of Tarzan’s body.”

[12] Ibid., 225.

[13] Ibid., 229-31.

[14] Ibid., 222. “…civilized man could be powerful if, as a child, he repeated the primitive life of his savage ancestors.” Hall believed that children grew up literally repeating the psychological experiences of their primitive adult ancestors. Ibid., 94.

[15] Ibid., 232.

[16] Rebecca Keegan, “Can You Make a Non-Racist Tarzan Movie?,” The Los Angeles Times  (July 1, 2016), accessed October 19, 2016,

[17] Ibid.; J. Weeks, “Reprints of `Tarzan’ Books Soften Racism,” Florida Times Union  (1999), accessed October 19, 2016,

[18] Richard Brody, “Tarzan Cannot Be Rebooted,” The New Yorker  (June 30, 2016), accessed October 19, 2016,

[19] Bederman, “Why Study ‘Masculinity,’ Anyway? Perspectives from the Old Days,” 24.

[20] Ibid., 16.

Posted in 17th century America, African Americans, gender studies, marginalization, material culture, Native Americans, racism, religion, resistance, slavery, violence

The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast

Lipman, Andrew. The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Merrell, James H. “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians.” The William and Mary Quarterly. 69, no. 3 (2012): 451-512.


James Merrell presents evidence in his article “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians” that shows how many historians continue to propagate a flawed lexicon that impedes understanding of early American history. He points out that “early Americanists are still shackled to a lexicon crafted by the victors in the contest for America, one fashioned to explain, even justify, how things turned out (Merrell 2012, 458).  Merrell urges historians to find new ways to explore this history. Andrew Lipman’s book, The Saltwater Frontier, has been lauded for its new and insightful narrative that refocuses American Indian history away from the land towards the sea. Lipman’s intention was to do just that as evidenced by remarks in his introduction, “By looking towards the sea rather than the land, this book offers a new way of thinking about Indian history and a new way of understanding this all-too familiar region” (Lipman 2015, 4). In order to evaluate this claim, I contemplated what a new way of talking about early America might look like. I also considered places where Lipman succeeded and where he missed the mark.

Lipman asserts that “viewing saltwater as the primary stage of cultural encounters changes our simple narratives of colonization” (7). He acquaints readers with several simplified stories in the book’s introduction and discusses ways that many historians already have successfully challenged pervasive myths of the Great Frontier (8-13). Lipton’s work is built upon the work of other historians, so in many ways, Saltwater Frontier is a continuation rather than a new way of thinking about the frontier. In a particularly telling example, Lipman credits Olivia Bush-Banks and her poem “Driftwood” (1916) as his inspiration for reimagining America’s embattled territory as a sea story: “Her verses articulated the idea that the ocean was a frontier” (12). Poetry and metaphor are extraordinary tools for rupturing closed systems of thought. Unfortunately, most of Lipman’s prose remains within the limits of traditional historical writing, even though he has reimagined contested territory to include the ocean. In order to devise a truly new way of talking about early American history, Lipman could have infused his historical writing with meaningful creative insights such as his “Driftwood” example. Instead, his work is bounded within the academic norms of his genre.

Saltwater Frontier is “primarily about how three things—seafaring, violence, and Atlantic geopolitics—shaped one place” (14). All three of these topics are endemic to a male worldview. Lipman offers an extensive reading list for those interested in learning more about this time period through the lens of gender, slavery, religion, etc. Indeed, authors must select which information to include and leave out in order to create a coherent narrative; however, some of the particular choices Lipman made relegated his narrative to sit within the hegemonic ranks. Why show preferential treatment for the male propensity for conquest and domination? Of course, writing a book about “Indians and the Contest for the American Coast” would be near impossible without such a focus. So the question becomes, if Lipman wanted to meet Merrell’s challenge to talk about early American history in a new way, why did he choose to write a book that remains rooted in a dominant perspective? The answer to this question may be tied to another of Merrell’s insights.

Merrell referred to something that he called “cartographic mind games.” In essence, maps are tools of the elite that help to control how people view the world. Quoting Gregory H. Nobles and others, Merrell asserts that maps “often represented the world not as it really was but as the mapmaker (or, more to the point, the mapmaker’s sponsor) wanted it to be. Thus maps became important instruments of imperial policy” (Merrell 2012, 483). Maps and language are tools used to represent reality. Most academics are severely restricted within the confines of their professional fields (especially newly minted academics, such as Lipman). I would not go so far as to assert that historians at the top of the field and academic publishers intentionally manipulate the field. Nevertheless, they are the driving force as well as a part of the academic history apparatus. Academics have been trained to think and speak about the world in particular ways and are censured or rewarded accordingly. Perhaps, someday, Lipman will return to his “Driftwood” inspiration and find new ways to explore the territory.

Posted in 18th century America, 19th century America, African Americans, assimilation, capitalism, gender studies, historiography, imperialism, marginalization, material culture, Native Americans, paternalism, racial cleansing, racism, resistance, slavery, violence

American Slavery, American Freedom

The ‘Origins Debate’; Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom; and Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage

Glymph, Thavolia. Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003 [1975].

(Cheating a little. This paper discussed two books, so I am posting the same paper under both titles.)

During the 1960s, distinguished scholars engaged in an “origins debate” that explored how and why a slave society in North America rose to such prominence. Initial questions had focused on when and why “Virginians first began enslaving blacks (and whether racism prompted or followed their decision).” [1] Eventually, historians expanded their research to encompass capitalist concerns, specifically questioning when and why plantation owners turned to slavery as the primary form of bound labor.  Later studies placed domestic slavery within a global context where it was foregrounded as the Civil War’s inevitable cause.[2] The “origins debate” was part of a longer conversation by scholars trying to make sense of the Civil War and developed alongside a larger debate over American exceptionalism in a war-torn world.[3]  This scholarship goes far beyond proving that slavery was the primary cause for secession. As Frank Towers points out, “Slavery now seems more integral to antebellum society, and secession looks more like other episodes in the creation of nineteenth-century nation-states.”[4] This paper examines the “origins debate,” Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom (1975) as the embodiment of this debate, and argues that Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage (2008) embodies a literature that now transcends the once pivotal “origins” question that runs through Morgan’s work.

Cathy Matson notes in her essay, “The Early Modern Chesapeake Redux–Again,” (2013) that scholars are indebted to a “long line of distinguished historians in the Chesapeake School” whose research provided the foundations for this field. Recent scholarship reveals the continued benefits of revisiting slave society localities from new vantage points with fresh sources.[5]  Matson revisited the long historiography in her 2013 essay, noting that some historians had subscribed to Winthrop Jordan’s “unthinking decision” thesis about the relationship between slavery and racism.  In his Bancroft Prize-winning book, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968), Jordan argued that English and Anglo-American perceptions about difference were used to justify race-based slavery, and liberty and justice for whites only. While other scholars “boldly reconceptualized” political and social history by integrating “religion, slavery, tobacco economies, and elite power.”[6]

In 2011, Frank Towers offered a historiographical review that outlined how historians attempted to make sense of the Civil War era. He noted that even as late as the 1970s, a grand narrative still told the story of America’s transition from “small-scale, agrarian communities with unfree labor to large-scale, industrial cities without it.”[7] Leading the way, Eugene Genovese had emphasized the role that Southern paternalism played. In this view, planters worked to maintain traditional order through master-slave relationships and proslavery Christianity.[8]

Also published in 2011 were two works by John C. Coombs: “Beyond the ‘Origins Debate’: Rethinking the Rise of Virginia Slavery” and Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion, which he co-edited with Douglas Bradburn. In both works, Coombs reconsiders the “origins debate” and challenges conclusions asserted by several leading scholars, including Edmund Morgan.

In 1975, Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia not only embodied this debate, it became the “most authoritative argument about the ‘paradox of slavery and freedom’ for the next thirty years.”[9] Morgan selected Virginia as the surest place to illustrate the “American paradox” of the “marriage of slavery and freedom.”[10] He shows that as the colony progressed, the elite landowners shifted their reliance on the labor of servants to slaves in order to demarcate and maintain their higher status and to increase production.[11] Converting enslavement into a permanent condition also helped to significantly reduce the growing number of impoverished freedmen in a society “where opportunities for advancement were limited.”[12]

Morgan asserts that white elites developed a racially-based slave system in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 as a way to control lower-class whites: “Resentment of an alien race might be more powerful than resentment of an upper class. For men bent on the maximum exploitation of labor the implication should have been clear.”[13] But Coombs challenges Morgan’s argument by insisting that African slavery already existed by the late seventeenth century, “These [elites] were not men on the verge of turning to slavery; they already had. And neither Bacon’s Rebellion nor the steep decline in the availability of white servants that occurred in the years after the revolt had anything to do with it.”[14]

Morgan presents a convincing argument that illuminates the progression from temporary servitude to lifetime slavery for nonwhites. He also offers strong evidence of white racism (upper and lower class) towards both Indians and Negroes. Some of the most revealing evidence of changing attitudes presented by Morgan involves the shift away from wanting to Christianize and civilize nonwhites because of a “lingering uneasiness about holding Christians in slavery.”[15]  As slavery became more profitable, laws were enacted to protect masters’ monetary investments by “building a wall between conversion and emancipation.”[16] Baptism no longer could be used to release Negroes or Indians from bondage.[17]

Morgan explains a similar “unthinking” transition from servant to slave labor as Winthrop Jordan argued in White over Black. For example, he writes, “The planters who bought slaves instead of servants did not do so with any apparent consciousness of the social stability to be gained thereby.”[18] However, Morgan concentrated extensive attention on Anglo-American/Native American race relations in the first half of the book in order to establish his argument. He conveyed these relationships as historically contingent processes rather than portraying them as inevitable nemeses.

Morgan concludes that elite white Virginians devised a system of slavery built on racism in order to focus lower-class white workers’ attentions on racial differences, away from the economic disparities between themselves and the elite. Yet, if Morgan’s assertion is correct, that elite white (male) planters further developed an already existing culture of racism in order to exert social control over poor white people, we need to carefully examine white women’s investment in racism and slavery. As noted historian Kathleen Brown points out in her review of American Slavery, American Freedom, “Only if white women actively promoted and reproduced the cultural values supporting slavery out of their own self-interest can we make sense of the deep and rapid proliferation of the racism.”[19] Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage (2008) makes great strides addressing this gap by revealing the power dynamics between black and white women in plantation households and uncovering the small acts of resistance that were central to enslaved women’s sense of self and dignity.

Glymph notes that many historians have questioned the power relations between slaves and slaveholders and between women and men; however, few historians have focused on the power relations solely between women. In Out of the House of Bondage, Glymph concentrates on the relationship dynamics between women of different races, rather than following in the footsteps of prior gendered discourse that examined men and women in opposition. Key to Glymph’s argument is her focus on “relations of power between women, and contests over that power.”[20] Although previous historians have recognized white slaveholding women’s privileges, they also treated these women as “suffering under the weight of the same patriarchal authority to which slaves were subjected.”[21] Glymph argues that presumptions about relationships between black and white women in these paternalistic households, “rest ultimately on uncritical acceptance of a huge assumption: that a gentle and noble white womanhood had once existed in fact, together with a cult of domesticity to which enslaved and free women mutually ascribed.”[22]

She reconstructs the daily practices of domination and defiance within the antebellum, wartime, and postbellum plantation households, while ceaselessly emphasizing that plantation mistresses were slaveholders who quite literally held the power over the life and death of enslaved people.[23] According to their diaries and letters, plantation mistresses considered themselves to be on a mission to civilize slave women. But, as Glymph reveals, enslaved women were notorious for not complying with their mistresses’ vision: “Slave women did not so much resist slavery as they resisted its supposed civilizing mission, no matter that slaveholders believed their status as slaves made them ineligible candidates for civilizing.”[24]

Parts of Glymph’s arguments are not new. Even Edmund Morgan described Virginians’ early attempts at civilizing Indians and Negroes. Glymph, however, refocuses attention within the “private” realm of the plantation household to expose its inherent violence and to demonstrate how myths of domesticity developed. She believes that when mistresses wrote about their attempts at civilizing their servants, they were actually trying to cover-up their own inadequacies and frustrations about slave resistance within the household.

Household slaves were restricted to the plantation, and were therefore severely limited in their ability to partake in violent rebellion.[25] Instead, they opted for subtle types of resistance, such as feigned illness, or stealing food or clothing. Many historians, even those who concentrate on gender studies, have overlooked these small acts of rebelliousness and the inter-female dynamics within the plantation household. Glymph underscores the importance of slave women’s small, ongoing acts of insubordination: “Resistance of this sort did not break the back of slavery, but it made the job of maintaining slavery more difficult and was central to black women’s sense of self and dignity.”[26] The agency of black women is visible in their daily defiance of white women’s demands for obedience.

Out of the House of Bondage transcends the origins debate in part by offering readers a glimpse of the politics of memory and the experience of the once enslaved. Along with the voices of ex-slaves gathered through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) slave narratives project, Glymph discloses the details of notes written by interviewers, which illuminate social undercurrents not otherwise seen. For the most part, local white women interviewed former slaves who brazenly exposed a “nongenteel white womanhood that was at odds with the Lost Cause propaganda” that permeated the North as well as the South.[27] These women actively challenged the symbolic and ideological apparatus of southern racism. Glymph asserts that by accusing former mistresses with “violent, unladylike conduct, with manufacturing dehumanizing spectacles for sadistic pleasure,” these former slaves intentionally violated the South’s racial creed. Making these accusations to other white women “added to the aggravation.”[28]

These personal notes shine a light on the enduring racism former slaves experienced long after the war, even within the realm of well-intentioned conversations. During one interview, George King recounted his memory of the “she-devil Mistress whipping his mammy.”[29] The interviewer seemed to be undisturbed by the nature of the punishment and simply concluded that the mistress “was a great believer in the power of punishment.”[30] Glymph notes that, for King, his mistress’ brutal actions and her ability to “walk away, laughing” prompted a different assessment of the event. “It fixed in his mind a portrait of southern white womanliness cropped of the metaphor of religiously sanctioned parental chastisement.”[31] These revelations also disclose the callous obliviousness of at least some of the WPA interviewers towards the former slaves they interviewed.

Like Steven Hahn’s A Nation under Our Feet, Glymph recognizes the Civil War as an episode in a much longer battle for black freedom.[32] In this view, the origins of slavery are a mere footnote to an epochal history of slavery and freedom. Hahn’s argument stressed the “national protections for slavery and the ‘revolutionary’ effort required to end the institution.”[33] However, this “institution” did not end with emancipation or the Civil War. Quoting Harold D. Woodman, Glymph emphasizes that “slavery was ‘more than a legal relationship; it had social and psychological dimensions that did not disappear with the passage of a law or a constitutional amendment.’”[34] She shows throughout her book that “the victories black women won in the first years of freedom, however, were not to last. Poverty, landlessness, peonage, discrimination, and violence forced them back to the fields and white homes on a full-time basis.”[35]

Glymph has offered a unique contribution to historical studies on slavery and the Civil War by reinterpreting plantation life and its aftermath through the lens of black women’s labor relations in white people’s homes. She highlights African American women’s political consciousness and agency by focusing on the small acts of defiance in which female slaves, and later freed women, engaged.  She also demonstrates that “white women’s agency has been profoundly underestimated.”[36] Although historians have not been clear about the role mistresses played in the construction of the social values of the Old South and in disciplining slaves, Glymph has thoroughly addressed these issues and set the bar for future scholarship.

[1] John C. Coombs, “Beyond the ‘Origins Debate’: Rethinking the Rise of Virginia Slavery,” in Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion (University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville, 2011), 239.

[2] Frank Towers, “Partisans, New History, and Modernization: The Historiography of the Civil War’s Causes, 1861-2011,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 1, no. 2 (2011): 245.

[3] Ibid., 238.

[4] Ibid., 256.

[5] Cathy D. Matson, “The Early Modern Chesapeake Redux–Again,” Reviews in American History 41, no. 2 (2013): 190.

[6] Ibid., 181.

[7] Towers,  247.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Matson,  181.

[10] Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003 [1975]), 6.

[11] Ibid., 307-09.

[12] Ibid., 308.

[13] Ibid., 269-70.

[14] Coombs,  in Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion, 249.

[15] Morgan, 332.

[16] Ibid., 331.

[17] Ibid., 332.

[18] Ibid., 308.

[19] Kathleen Brown, “Review: American Slavery, American Freedom,” Common-place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 1, 4 (July 2001), accessed December 8, 2016,

[20] Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 235.

[21] Ibid., 23.

[22] Ibid., 135.

[23] Ibid., 2, 227.

[24] Ibid., 66.

[25] Historian Stephanie Camp refers to this restricted and surveilled space as a “geography of containment” in her book Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (2004).

[26] Glymph, 72.

[27] Ibid., 12.

[28] Ibid., 14.

[29] Ibid., 39.

[30] Ibid., 40.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Towers,  255-56. This refers to Hahn’s A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (2004).

[33] Ibid.

[34] Glymph, 136.

[35] Ibid., 11.

[36] Ibid., 31.