Posted in 20th century America, atomic bombings, death, journal articles, Ku Klux Klan, military, religion, terrorism, violence

Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field

Gage, Beverly. “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field.” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73-94.

“Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field” by Beverly Gage, appeared in the Journal of American History in 2011.  Gage sets the foundation for her argument by presenting historian Richard Hofstadter’s call in 1970 for historians to “remedy their ‘inattention’ and construct a history of violence that would speak to the present and the past.”[1]  She explains how the historical profession stepped up to the challenged over the course of the next forty years by publishing numerous studies on “racial conflict, territorial massacres, gendered violence, empire, crime and punishment, and war and memory,” yet, even though terrorism dominates American political discourse, historians have not effectively confronted the issue.[2]

In the early part of her essay, Gage shows that “terrorism” is difficult to define, although she does claim that terrorism tends to be a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[3]  Throughout the essay, certain examples are repeatedly cited as terrorist acts, such as Klan lynchings and labor violence like the Haymarket riot.

She also discusses political violence and social movements, and historians’ hopes of developing a general theory of terrorism through studying groups such as The Weather Underground and the Irish Republican Army.  But most of all, Gage contends that these historians sought to underscore the “illegitimacy of terrorism as a means of social change, a violation of state sovereignty and moral norms.”[4]  These historians afforded the state exceptional status rather than holding the government to the same moral codes as individuals.

There are many challenges to distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence, including determining whether formal “states” can be terrorists.[5]  Most specialists agree that the term terrorism needs to be “restricted to nonstate actors—specifically, groups or individuals seeking to challenge existing governments.”[6]  One of the big issues, though, was that the government funded many of the studies, so there seems to be a conflict of interest.  Chomsky and others emphasized the large role the United States government played in exporting a “state-sponsored ‘culture of terrorism.’”[7]  Such actions should not be ignored.

Since 9/11, there has been a boom of studies focused on terrorism.  Yet a primary focus of these studies has been based on a “new terrorism” framework, which Gage connects to sociologist Mark Jurgensmeyer’s work.[8]  In this framework, violence is always motivated by religion.  Placing the focus on religious motivations, however, pushes politics out of the discussion.[9]  Isabelle Duyvesteyn states that emphasizing religion tends to obscure the political nature of terrorism.  She offers Timothy McVeigh as an example and remarks: “[he] may have purported to love Christ, but he certainly despised the federal government.”[10]

I view the atomic bombings of Japan as acts of terrorism, so clearly I do not side with historians who wish to exempt the state from such considerations.  Bombing cities that were heavily populated with civilians aimed to send a very strong message to Japan and the rest of the world and therefore fits Gage’s assessment of terrorism being a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[12]  I do not necessarily think that there is anything for me to gain by labeling President Truman or other government officials as terrorists; however, my approach is to view the evidence from a guilty perspective.  What I mean by this is that I tend to analyze evidence without trying to justify the bombings.

Duyvesteyn’s point about religion is well-taken, but I also feel like religion is not the only lens that can obscure the political nature of terrorism.  Blaming the bombings on the American government’s racist attitudes, as some historians have, also distorts the truth.

I have read two of Jurgensmeyer’s books and a number of books on lynchings, Timothy McVeigh, Waco, Ruby Ridge, abortion clinic bombings, and about museum exhibits and memorials dedicated to these and similar themes.  The most frustrating issue I have found is that few authors (and even fewer public exhibits) seem to address the role American leadership plays in evoking and advocating these acts of terror.  The narratives tend to focus on demonizing the actor without effectively evaluating all of the contributing societal factors.

In her final paragraph, Gage writes, “The historiography of terrorism with its uneasiness about terminology, its political uncertainties, and its fractured discussions, is still struggling to find the proper balance between these imperatives.”[13]  I am not attempting to reach any definite conclusions about the atomic bombings or the definition of terrorism, but I hope that my project might help others in the field think about the issues and relationships in more creative and objective ways.

[1] Beverly Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Ibid., 77.

[5] Ibid., 74.

[6] Ibid., 78.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 82.

[9] Ibid., 91.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 93.

[12] Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” 74.

[13] Ibid., 94.

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, Christianity, Civil War, death, material culture, military, photographs, religion, rituals, violence

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Drew Gilpin Faust is a historian of the Civil War and the American South.  She is also the first female president of Harvard University.  Faust’s latest book, This Republic of Suffering, focuses on how the massive number of deaths that occurred during the Civil War (620,000) forever changed Americans’ understanding of death and their relationship with religion.  As Reverend John Sweet noted in his 1864 sermon that asked “What is Death?”: “There is not a household exempt from the universal lamentation which ascends from a grief stricken people.”[1]  The common belief in the “Good Death” was torn apart as thousands of loved ones faced violent deaths far away from home.  Faust compares letters written by dying soldiers to conclude that “[l]etters describing soldier’s last moments on Earth are so similar, it is as if their authors had a checklist in mind.”[2]  In addition to letters, Faust includes and analyzes political drawings and photographs that were published in newspapers and magazines, as well as literary works that grappled with the nation’s trauma.  Importantly, Faust shows the development of national responsibility for the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the ideals of the country.

Faust does an excellent job of showing how literate white Christian Americans and their families, Union and Confederate, were affected by the war and how the nation responded to their trauma.  African Americans were not completely overlooked, but free and enslaved people’s stories were not given the same nuanced attention as those of white soldiers.  American Indian soldier’s stories were not included at all.  Faust portrays a conservative white Christian understanding of what important factors contributed to the United States as a nation during and immediately following the Civil War.  Additionally, with Faust’s major focus on deciphering meaning from letters, tales from illiterate soldiers, of any color, were omitted.  Oral history did not appear to be an included research methodology.

[1] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 171.

[2] Ibid., 17.

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” (http://mappingdecline.lib.uiowa.edu/). 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 http://heuristscholar.org/digital_harlem/, 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” (http://mappingdecline.lib.uiowa.edu/), an interactive mapping project based on his St. Louis research; “Digital Johnson County” (https://worldmap.harvard.edu/digitalJC/), 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” (http://telltalechart.org/), 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, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-08-15/how-st-dot-louis-countys-map-explains-fergusons-racial-discord.

[14] Tony Messenger, “Historian Highlights Racial Divide That Haunts St. Louis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 13, 2016, accessed November 1, 2016, http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/columns/tony-messenger/messenger-historian-highlights-racial-divide-that-haunts-st-louis/article_8c83ef3c-522a-5634-b816-e10d181e4d4f.html.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Jeannette Cooperman, “St. Louis: A City Divided,” Aljazeera America, August 18, 2014, accessed November 1, 2016, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/8/18/st-louis-segregation.html.

[17] Ibid.

Posted in atomic bombings, imperialism, journal articles, Ku Klux Klan, labor, military, propaganda, terrorism, violence

Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field

Gage, Beverly. “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field.” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73-94.

The “State of the Field” essay that I am addressing is “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field” by Beverly Gage, which appeared in the Journal of American History in 2011.  Gage sets the foundation for her argument by presenting historian Richard Hofstadter’s call in 1970 for historians to “remedy their ‘inattention’ and construct a history of violence that would speak to the present and the past.”[1]  She explains how the historical profession stepped up to the challenged over the course of the next forty years by publishing numerous studies on “racial conflict, territorial massacres, gendered violence, empire, crime and punishment, and war and memory,” yet, even though terrorism dominates American political discourse, historians have not effectively confronted the issue.[2]

In the early part of her essay, Gage shows that “terrorism” is difficult to define, although she does claim that terrorism tends to be a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[3]  Throughout the essay, certain examples are repeatedly cited as terrorist acts, such as Klan lynchings and labor violence like the Haymarket riot.

She also discusses political violence and social movements, and historians’ hopes of developing a general theory of terrorism through studying groups such as The Weather Underground and the Irish Republican Army.  But most of all, Gage contends that these historians sought to underscore the “illegitimacy of terrorism as a means of social change, a violation of state sovereignty and moral norms.”[4]  These historians afforded the state exceptional status rather than holding the government to the same moral codes as individuals.

There are many challenges to distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence, including determining whether formal “states” can be terrorists.[5]  Most specialists agree that the term terrorism needs to be “restricted to nonstate actors—specifically, groups or individuals seeking to challenge existing governments.”[6]  One of the big issues, though, was that the government funded many of the studies, so there seems to be a conflict of interest.  Chomsky and others emphasized the large role the United States government played in exporting a “state-sponsored ‘culture of terrorism.’”[7]  Such actions should not be ignored.

Since 9/11, there has been a boom of studies focused on terrorism.  Yet a primary focus of these studies has been based on a “new terrorism” framework, which Gage connects to sociologist Mark Jurgensmeyer’s work.[8]  In this framework, violence is always motivated by religion.  Placing the focus on religious motivations, however, pushes politics out of the discussion.[9]  Isabelle Duyvesteyn states that emphasizing religion tends to obscure the political nature of terrorism.  She offers Timothy McVeigh as an example and remarks: “[he] may have purported to love Christ, but he certainly despised the federal government.”[10]

My project began with my Religious Studies MA thesis, where I explored how Americans think about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  My exploration was guided by Susan Sontag’s question from her book Regarding the Pain of Others: “Which atrocities from the incurable past do we think we are obliged to revisit?”[11]  For my history MA thesis, I continued to explore these themes through a public history digital project.  “Terrorism and the American Experience” was an appropriate “State of the Field” essay for me to consider in light of my project.

I view the atomic bombings of Japan as acts of terrorism, so clearly I do not side with historians who wish to exempt the state from such considerations.  Bombing cities that were heavily populated with civilians aimed to send a very strong message to Japan and the rest of the world and therefore fits Gage’s assessment of terrorism being a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[12]  I do not necessarily think that there is anything for me to gain by labeling President Truman or other government officials as terrorists; however, my approach has been to view the evidence from a guilty perspective.  What I mean by this is that I tend to analyze evidence without trying to justify the bombings.

Duyvesteyn’s point about religion is well-taken, but I also feel like religion is not the only lens that can obscure the political nature of terrorism.  Blaming the bombings on the American government’s racist attitudes, as some historians have, also distorts the truth.

I have read two of Jurgensmeyer’s books and a number of books on lynchings, Timothy McVeigh, Waco, Ruby Ridge, abortion clinic bombings, and about museum exhibits and memorials dedicated to these and similar themes.  The most frustrating issue I have found is that few authors (and even fewer public exhibits) seem to address the role American leadership plays in evoking and advocating these acts of terror.  The narratives tend to focus on demonizing the actor without effectively evaluating all of the contributing societal factors.

In her final paragraph, Gage writes, “The historiography of terrorism with its uneasiness about terminology, its political uncertainties, and its fractured discussions, is still struggling to find the proper balance between these imperatives.”[13]  I am not attempting to reach any definite conclusions about the atomic bombings or the definition of terrorism, but I hope that my project might help others in the field think about the issues and relationships in more creative and objective ways.

[1] Beverly Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Ibid., 77.

[5] Ibid., 74.

[6] Ibid., 78.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 82.

[9] Ibid., 91.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 93.

[12] Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” 74.

[13] Ibid., 94.

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, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-tarzan-colonial-stories-feature-20160621-snap-story.html.

[17] Ibid.; J. Weeks, “Reprints of `Tarzan’ Books Soften Racism,” Florida Times Union  (1999), accessed October 19, 2016, http://proxyau.wrlc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/414096128?accountid=8285.

[18] Richard Brody, “Tarzan Cannot Be Rebooted,” The New Yorker  (June 30, 2016), accessed October 19, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/tarzan-cannot-be-rebooted.

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

[20] Ibid., 16.