A quick response to Max Boot’s critique of historians. Aren’t retention and anti-intellectualism the real problems?

fast-times-at-ridgemont-high-1982-ray-walston-pic-6.jpg

Mr. Hand taught it to them, but what did they retain?

So an opinion piece by Max Boot appeared today in the Washington Post that has historians riled up and angry, venting and offering a corrective on Twitter and elsewhere.

The short of it: Boot argues Americans today don’t know the nation’s history very well, Trump’s election is an indication of that, and professional historians are somewhat to blame for the problem because they have turned away from more traditional and narrative history (“perversely” neglecting political, economic, and military history), and are not engaged with the public.

Here’s my humble and quick response:

First, there is not much proof today’s Americans are less educated about historical facts than they were in the past. Ironically, Boot criticizes the “Make America Great Again” slogan for its hearkening to a Golden Age that never existed. He is right, of course, but Boot is a little guilty of doing the same thing when he seemingly implies there was a Golden Age when Americans knew their history better than they do now.

Show me the empirical evidence of that and I’ll concede the point. Personally, I find my parent’s and grandparent’s generations to be in as much need of historical education as my students.

As for Trump’s election, historians TRIED to warn the public about him and his agenda, and on much the same things Boot points out; such as the dangerous isolationism and nationalism of “America First,” the lessons about tariffs from Smoot-Hawley, and his ignorance of the importance of NATO and free trade. We wrote blog posts, articles, opinion pieces (many in Boot’s own Washington Post), and even signed petitions, started Facebook pages (complete with videos), created podcasts, and engaged in Tweet-storms in a desperate attempt to reach the public before the election.

Further,  these and other public outreach activities hardly began or ended with the election, and more historians are involved in them now than ever. To say that professional historians are not publicly engaged shows a willful ignorance of just how active we are in both traditional and social media.

Yet the sad truth is there is only so much we can do when there is an anti-intellectual sentiment out there among many voters (which is not a new dynamic, but is now fostered and cultivated by the blowhards on Fox News, talk radio, and most recently, by Don Jr.’s rant about “loser” teachers) that holds that professional historians are all left wing “libtards” trying to brainwash an entire generation. If we stood against Trump, many felt, than voting for him seemed to them to be the right thing to do.

As to the last charge, that we have been neglecting political, economic, and military history in favor of an ever-narrowing focus on cultural, social, and gender history, that is a touchy subject within the profession creating riffs in history departments across the country. Boot’s assertion riled up historians because it touches a nerve.

However, while I agree much of the research that professional historians are engaged in nowadays has become increasingly microcosmic and esoteric (with shrinking usefulness in engaging the broader public), I refuse to accept that more traditional history and narrative history is not still done, and that it is somehow disappearing in the classroom, particularly in high school and survey-level history classes.

I teach at both a large research university and a small community college and have friends that teach at others and in high school, and I can assure you my colleagues are rightfully teaching cultural, social, and gender history (which even Boot acknowledges is a necessary corrective to much that has been taught in the past), right along with political, economic, and military history. EVERY DAY.

Boot’s assertion to the contrary has become a tired old critique that, in the words of my favorite 19th century phrase, has become “played out.”

Nevertheless, if we are honest with ourselves, Boot’s bigger point still remains; Americans are largely ignorant of history. So if this stuff IS getting taught every day, why don’t Americans seem to know it?

That many professionals emerge from graduate school as excellent researchers, but ill-prepared to be effective teachers, is without a doubt part of the problem.

But to me, the bigger problem is with how we grade and assess what students learn. Simply put, the way we are doing things assures only one thing: that students cram things into their short-term memory just long enough to do well on a test and a course . . . and then it is gone.

At some point in their lives, most Americans that have been through school or college have taken American history courses, they have read and/or been lectured on all the things we wish citizens knew about our history, and then proved on a test that they absorbed it.

Sadly, however, most seem to have not retained it.

So in the end, Boot is wrong, but he is right. Instead of getting defensive and angry, perhaps educators need to consider better strategies for how we test, assuring that our lessons actually get committed to our student’s long-term memories.

Personally, I have grappled with this for years in my own classes, and still have no good answer (although I often think final comprehensive oral exams for even undergrads– at the end of their four years– is perhaps a good idea).

Instead of blaming historians for things that are not true, and bemoaning a Golden Age of history education that never existed, I think we would all be better served if we spent more time asking the question, “why are students not retaining what they get taught about America’s history?,” and also figuring out how to combat the anti-intellectualism that is at the core of much of the public’s refusal to hear us out.

 

Advertisements

“They Shall Not Grow Old”—See it, Seriously. Just Do It.

maxresdefault.jpg

Today my mind is on the movies (as it frequently is). Did you notice that six out of the eight films nominated for Best Picture are based on history? (Roma, The Favourite, “BlacKkKlansman,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Vice,” and “Green Book.”) No one will ever be able to convince me that people are not interested in history, but think about the diversity in those films: Powerful white guys in the White House; A Mexican female housekeeper in the 70s; A gay rock star; A black jazz pianist and his white bodyguard traveling in the segregated south; Two female cousins vying for the affection of Queen Anne in the early 1700s; A black police detective that infiltrates the 1970s Klu Klux Klan.

That’s an impressive array of historical diversity.  Don’t forget I reviewed BlacKkKlansman back in the summer.  I don’t think it is the favorite to win, but it is also up for 5 total awards (including director for Spike Lee and supporting actor for Adam Driver). It is a powerful film.

But the movie I’m posting about today is the WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old from Peter Jackson. It may have came and went from your local theater without you ever realizing it, as it was presented in December and mid-January as a Fathom Event (which puts limited-run programs into theaters, such as classic Hollywood movies, concerts, operas, and Broadway musicals). It broke records during its first two-day run, so they brought it back for two more in January (which is when I caught it).

Thankfully, both appearances of the documentary did so well that they’ve decided to open it up on February 1st in 500 theaters in 150 markets. I can’t encourage you enough to see it if it comes to a theater near you (and if not, consider a road trip) . Rearrange your schedule if you have to, but DO NOT MISS IT.

It uses the Imperial War Museum’s collection of WWI footage, along with interviews with veterans that were done by the BBC in the 1960s. There are no historians or a narrator, just the vets themselves, telling the story of their experiences; training, arriving and living on the Western Front, going over the top, dying or arriving at the hospital, and then going home. There is no thesis or agenda apart from hearing and seeing the British soldiers themselves.

What makes it so spectacular, however, is what Jackson has done with the film footage and the sound. I really don’t want to tell you much because, honestly, it really is just too difficult to explain the power of this film until you see it for yourself.

It is deceptively simple just to tell you that he corrected the original speeds of the footage, colorized it, put it into 3D, and added a meticulously accurate soundtrack (so much so that they had lip readers decipher what the soldiers were saying, then hired voice actors from the same geographic regions as the soldiers on screen so that the accents would be accurate). But really, that just doesn’t even come close to explaining the experience of seeing what Jackson has done with this footage. (Stick around after the credits for Jackson’s explanation of how it was all done).

Do not wait to see this at home on DVD or Blu Ray. The big screen and the 3D are key to its visual power (and I tend to loathe 3D). Those things will be lost at home, no matter how big your screen is.

The first twenty minutes or so of the movie saves its punch for when the troops arrive in the trenches. At that point, Jackson pulls you into the trenches in a way that is stupefying and mesmerizing.

Again, it really can’t be described. Just see it. It is nothing short of perhaps the most visually stunning experience I have ever had in a movie theater.

Seriously.

In the end, however, what you will be struck with the most is the way that Jackson uses the faces of the soldiers to tell their story. The images that are most imbedded in my brain are of men just minutes away from going “over-the-top” to what was certain death. You can see in their faces that they know it is their last moments on earth, and they are scared to death.

No movie or documentary has ever presented the true face of war as stunningly as They Shall Not Grow Old. We are looking at men about to die on the Western Front, but they just as easily could be men moments from dying in any war.

Jackson has truly captured the face of battle.

When it was over, I couldn’t help but feel the film is perhaps as powerful to look at in our times as it was for 1862 New York audiences to have seen Matthew Brady’s “Dead of Antietam” for the first time.

You know that famous quote from a New York Times reviewer: “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

Well, that’s pretty much what Jackson has done.

Let me say it one last time as emphatically as I can:

DO NOT MISS THE FILM IN THE THEATER AND IN 3D.

Just trust me.

Public History, the NPS, and the Shutdown

During the partial government shutdown I wrote a little piece for the Daily Beast about the impact Trump’s war for his wall was having on the public historians that work for the National Park Service. Based on interviews I did via email with several rangers, their frustrated voices came through loud and clear.

In many ways, however, I consider the piece a small love letter to the work they do at the sites of our nation’s most important historic events. When I was first started falling in love with history and visiting those sites, the rangers and their tours were a great inspiration to me. I eventually become a seasonal park ranger at the Richmond National Battlefield Park back in the 90s, and still cherish those years of working with such great historians to bring the importance of the sites and the Civil War to the public. There are many days in which I wish I was still doing it.

Anyway, during the shutdown, my thoughts were mostly with them because I knew not only about their financial sacrifices, but how much it was hurting them to not be able to do a job they dearly love. I am happy they are back on the job (for now), and let’s hope the government will no longer hold federal employees and their important jobs as hostages during a political fight.

 

An Historian’s Review of “On the Basis of Sex”

MV5BYzJlYmEwYjEtMmE1Ny00ZjdiLTg2ZjctMmMxYjRhNGJkNTY2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTMxODk2OTU@._V1_.jpg

First a disclaimer: While I have a PhD in US history and teach 20th century history every semester, I do not specialize in legal history, women’s rights, the career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or even modern U.S. history.  I’m far from an expert on those topics. That said, I found the historical accuracy of the new biopic On the Basis of Sex to be praiseworthy, but better still, it’s just a darn good movie that reminds us that most of our rights have come from people fighting for more than what our Founding Fathers intended.

I’ve been excited about seeing the film since the trailers started running several months ago, but alas my college town is not one of the chosen ones when films open in “select cities.” It was only this past week that it went nationwide, so I joined a couple of my fellow historians and caught it on a Saturday night when my local mutliplex was bustling with a large crowd of diverse filmgoers. Most were there to see the latest action flicks, comedies, and family films, of course,  but I was pleasantly surprised by both the number of people there to see on the Basis of Sex, as well as the diversity in the audience.  Excellent. Different races, genders, and ages were represented, and I even had two families with young children sitting behind me.  While that wouldn’t be surprising in a big budget action film, it was encouraging to see for a history film about a modern feminist icon.

On the Basis of Sex tells the story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s path toward becoming one of the most successful legal champions of gender equality, from her early days in law school to one of her first successful cases before a circuit court.

OTBOS_00489_R1536794589.jpg

1 of only 9 women in her 1956 Harvard class of over 500

Along the way, we learn  the important role her husband played in her career (It’s nice to see a flip on the normal Hollywood script of a male protagonist with a doting and supportive wife. Here it’s the other way around), but more importantly, her legal battle plan for taking on sex discrimination.

A little history: Ruth Bader Ginsburg understood that Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP’s success in Brown V. Board of Education came because the building blocks of legal precedents were in place before that landmark decision. The problem in the war against sex discrimination, however, was that when Ginsburg started her fight, the legal precedents did not exist. What did exist, however, were hundreds of laws nationwide that differentiated between the sexes, many of which restricted the rights of women.

Lawyers like Dorothy Kenyon and Pauli Murray had argued for gender equality in the past, but had been unsuccessful, Ginsburg felt, because America’s culture was not ready for it. As she has noted, “the courts are seldom out in front of social change.”

Yet by the late 60s and early 70s, a cultural revolution had begun to bring about a social change for women, so Ginsburg set about to build the legal precedents for gender equality, one case at a time.

“I [saw] myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days,” she explained in the recent critically acclaimed documentary, RBG, “because the judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed.” This required her to hone a non-confrontational yet educational argumentative style that served her well, all the way to her current seat on the Supreme Court.  In lower courts and often before the Supreme Court in the 1970s, she successfully built a string of legal precedents which interpreted the 14th amendment as providing equal protection for citizens regardless of gender.

“My expectation,” she explained in RBG, “was that I would repeat that argument maybe half a dozen times. I didn’t expect it to happen in one fell swoop. I think generally in our society, real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”

On the Basis of Sex focuses on just one of the first steps, Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. In it, Ginsburg and the A.C.L.U. did something seemingly ironic, taking on the case of a gentlemen for whom the law discriminated against in a tax-deduction law because he was a man.

Though not in the film, this case was not the only time Ginsburg used discrimination against men to build legal precedent for the unconstitutionality of sex discrimination (one case even included some frat bros challenging a law that allowed women to buy beer at a younger age than men!). This was not reverse psychology, it was constructing important legal building blocks that challenged gender-based discrimination.

On the Basis of Sex is an entertaining film that works because of a uniformly fine cast with particularly solid performances from Felicity Jone as Ruth, and Armie Hammer as her husband Martin. They make for a very attractive couple, which was true of the real life Ginsburgs.

31-edit_custom-a0745d2f1d6a1b23abec2bd081e9a46e32f40f4c.jpg

But so too were the real Martin and Ruth Bader Ginsburg

f09e649c-cfec-40a6-a633-aeb493fa17e0-AP_Film_Review_-_On_the_Basis_of_Sex_1.JPG

Hammer & Jones, a good looking pair.

The set designs and wardrobes are subtly authentic (they don’t over-the-top scream “This is the 50s. This is the 60s! This is the 70s!” as we get in so many other films and shows), the story pacing feels just right, and the dialogue sounds true-to-life. The film also works on several levels; as love story, social commentary, and courtroom drama.

 

So is it accurate?

Warning: Some spoilers coming next. You might want to see the film before proceeding—

As with most history movies, the film has to simplify and condense some elements in order to suit the needs of a well-paced and dramatic two-hour story (something that all-too-often annoys historians as they nit-pick a film’s accuracy). In this case, most of these factual distortions are pretty minor (for examples, Ruth didn’t actually spur-of-the moment fly out to Denver to meet her client, the ACLU was not as reluctant to take the case as portrayed, there was never a moot court that led them to decide on splitting the argumentation between the husband and wife).

The biggest bending of the facts are understandable and forgivable. In truth, Dorothy Kenyon and Pauli Murray

20190111-094530-BASISOFSEX-T5_18348.jpg

Ginsburg & daughter meet with Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates).

were not involved in the case as depicted in the film (the above mentioned distortions were created for the purpose of getting them in the story). In real life, their names were added to the legal brief as a show of respect and acknowledgement of their pioneering work, and thus their additions in the movie come from the same honorable motive.

Further, the climactic court room scene before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals features a dramatic moment when Ginsburg gets a bit rattled by the challenging questions she received from the circuit justices. This requires her to buck up her resolve and find her voice, dramatically winning over the court during rebuttals. That’s all hogwash, as Ginsburg never actually faced that moment of weakness, she took control of the proceedings with her powerful argumentation from the outset.

Still, we can forgive the screenplay’s punching up of the drama (it was written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman), as it gives the film some tension-filled moments that ramp up the triumphant tone of the ultimate victory. I’m ok with that, it’s a movie that has to sell tickets. Unlike some historians, I sympathize with films taking a little dramatic license, as long as the the greater historical truth is told. That’s very true in the case of On the Basis of Sex.

The climactic moment in the film prominently features a quote that shows up in the movie’s commercials and trailers, and it seemingly challenges the assertion that On the Basis of Sex is accurate. In response to a judge’s assertion that the word “woman” does not appear in the Constitution, Ginsburg dramatically reminds the court, “nor does the word freedom.”

on-the-basis-of-sex-felicity-jones.jpg

“Nor does the word ‘freedom,’ your honor.”

A knee-jerk reaction might be to point out that it DOES appear in the Bill of Rights, certainly that makes it in the Constitution.

Uh oh! Major error?

But the scene requires context. The unamended version of the Constitution in fact does not include “freedom.” Thus Ginsburg was reminding the court of something I try to remind my students of every semester. Our Constitution is not restricted by its framer’s values. It can, and has been amended to extend its rights and protections to people that our founders excluded.

Praise be! Otherwise, as I tell my students, many African Americans would still be legally enslaved, women would have few rights, and only white male landholders would have the right to vote!

Thus the line is not inaccurate and is in fact a powerful reminder that part of the story of our nation’s history has been the extension of rights beyond original intent.

While the movie ends there, the Moritz victory led to Ginsburg’s other 1970s victories in bigger and more important cases, most immediately Reed v. Reed (which the film shows Ginsburg writing the legal brief for, building on the Moritz case’s argumentation). Ending the film with this early triumph provides it with an appropriate running time and victorious moment, yet misses the challenges Ginsburg and the women’s right movement faced in the 1970s from conservative forces like Phyllis Schlafly.

The film’s focus also allows it to sidestep Ginsburg’s sometimes controversial thoughts on Roe v. Wade. While certainly not an opponent of the decision, she’s famously expressed the belief that grounding its argumentation in the right to privacy, rather than as a matter of equal protection, made it a questionable ruling without enough precedent to make it more firm. “Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped,” she has argued, may prove unstable.” Further, “Roe v. Wade sparked public opposition and academic criticism, in part, I believe, because the Court ventured too far in the change it ordered and presented an incomplete justification for its action.”

These sentiments (as well as a more moderate reputation she earned while on the DC Circuit Court–voting more with Republican appointees than Democrats and straying little from precedent) are part of the reason why many feminist groups initially privately opposed Ginsburg’s nomination for the Supreme Court.

But will the ongoing shift in the court’s make-up ultimately prove Ginsburg to have been correct about Roe v. Wade? Should it have been based more firmly on the precedents she established?

Also in light of current events, another thing that struck me about On the Basis of Sex stems from it reminding us in the ending titles that Ginsburg was confirmed by the Senate, 96-3. This seems most remarkable now, and it is, especially considering she was a Clinton appointee. Of course her confirmation was a breath of fresh air that the nation needed after the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill tawdriness, and that likely played a role in the vote count.

And yet the tally still tells us much about how our current polarization has unfortunately politicized our court, certainly not what the Founders intended for it. During Ginsburg’s confirmation hearing, Senator Orrin Hatch told her, “I disagree with you on a number of things, and I’m sure you disagree with me. But that isn’t the issue, is it? And frankly, I admire you. You’ve earned the right, in my opinion, to be on the Supreme Court.”

Can you imagine Hatch or very many other senators saying something like that now?

Anyway, go see On the Basis of Sex, it is an accurate and timely reminder that not all of our nation’s heroes have been men, that protests and cultural revolutions often have to precede changes to the law, and that the expansion of rights in this country has had to be fought for by those wiling to buck the system established by our Founding Fathers.

Twitter: @GlennBrasher

 

 

 

My favorite ghost tales: A specter from Ancient Rome, and the “Moon Ghost” of Virginia.

halloween-history-and-the-bible.jpg

Happy Halloween!

I’m a big fan of ghost story folklore, especially because almost every culture and era of human history has its share of ghost “sightings.” In the ancient world, spook tales abounded in Mesopotamia and Egypt, with perhaps the most famous ancient ghost story coming from Rome, recorded by the Roman lawyer and writer Pliny the Younger (61 AD-151 AD).

In a letter, Pliny asks a friend about his thoughts on “specters.” “[Do] you believe they actually exist,” he inquires, “or are [they] only the false impressions of a terrified imagination?”  He then relates three stories he had heard, the best of which involves a house in Athens where “In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of [chains]. At first it seem[s] at a distance, but approach[es] nearer by degrees.”

“Immediately afterward,” Pliny records, “a phantom appear[s] in the form of an old man, extremely meager and squalid, with a long beard and bristling hair; rattling the [chains] on his feet and hands.”

Several different inhabitants of the house apparently witnessed this phenomenon, Pliny relates, until eventually no one would live in the house, so that it was “at last deserted, as being judged by everybody to be absolutely uninhabitable.”  However, “in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this great calamity,” the owner offered it at an incredibly low price for sale or for rent.

Eventually,  “Athenodorus the philosopher” inquired about why the place was so cheap, and when learning that it was haunted, he was not discouraged and in fact “was more strongly inclined” to rent it out. During his first night in the house, the apparition emerged, chains and all, beckoning the new resident to follow him.ghost.jpg When Athenodorus did so without fear, he was led to a certain spot in the house’s courtyard, where the specter then vanished.

Athenodorus quickly “marked the spot with a handful of grass and leaves,” Pliny relates.  “The next day he went to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. There they found bones commingled and intertwined with chains. . . .  The bones were collected, and buried at the public expense.”

After that, Pliny insists, with the ghost now properly buried,  “the house was haunted no more.”

As for Pliny, he was convinced of the tale’s veracity. “This story I believe upon the affirmation of others,” he told his friend. But do the details of this ancient story sound familiar? Haunted house; Chains; Improperly buried corpse; A Ghost needing a mystery solved so it can move on. All of this obviously formed the basis for many ghosts tales to come, which is why I find it so interesting.

But my all time favorite ghost story is one that is actually documented and comes from Reconstruction-era Virginia.  No, I’m not saying that there is actual documentation that proves the existence of a ghost, but there is documentation that indicates some really strange things were happening on an estate about 12 miles south of Charlottesville from 1866- 1867 that were observed by (and freaked out) A LOT of eyewitnesses.

ghost-moon-small-thumb-300x170-10896.jpgWas it a real ghost? Doubtful, but the question of how someone pulled off such an amazing prank night after night for over two years makes the story all the more incredible. If you are unfamiliar with it, I don’t want to spoil it for you and will just direct you to read about The Moon Ghost of Virginia.

What the heck was going on? (Did it involve former slaves “haunting” their former master?) Trust me, it is good stuff and has long been my favorite spook tale.

Enjoy, and don’t forget to check out my Top Ten Ghost Movies!

Starting with the Man in the Mirror: How Can We All Help to Heal America’s Political Incivility?

Tattered-American-Flag.jpg

The last time I posted, I asked the question, “Can the McCain Eulogies Unite Us?”

I knew it was overly-optimistic to even fantasize that they could—even if just for a few days. But the answer to my question has been given over the last two months, and it is a resounding NO.

Make no mistake, it was nice to see Biden, Graham, Bush, Obama, and others discuss McCain’s life-long attempts to work when he could across party lines, denigrating those that divide us and praising McCain’s calls for civility.

barack-obama-john-mccain-funeral-2.jpg

If only all political rivals saw this as the best way to engage with each other.

“We never doubted that we were on the same team,” Obama said of his political rival, speaking of the times they shared in the White House having discussions and disagreements about policy.

The eulogies brought a ton of tears and clear criticisms of those that peddle in the politics of fear and division (Meghan McCain was amazing and probably stole the show), calling on us all to have the same optimistically positive view of America and of American democracy that John McCain had. Democrats and Republicans both stood in line to offer praise of the man and his convictions about what made America great. Those that had nothing positive to say about him just simply kept quiet.

It was a nice salve for our wounds, but at best, it lasted about one week before we started to rip the nation apart again.

I don’t have to dwell on the things that have divided us lately. We’ve all lived out the partisan ugliness that has been the last couple of months, from the Kavanaugh fiasco to our current pipe bombs/murders.

It seems like we are nearing a breaking point. On Monday of this past week I was having a great discussion with one of my classes about our current national divisiveness, and in an effort to put things into context, I told them that we’ve had worse moments than this in our history, and yet emerged from them. Discussing the 1960s as one example, I said, “Hey, at least we have not had any political assassinations or attempts,” and then reeled off the names of JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X, and Wallace.

Even as I said it, I feared it was exactly where we were headed. And then came a quick spate of political violence: a Kroger shooting of 2 African Americans when the shooter was thwarted from entering a black church, pipe bombs delivered to two former presidents and other high profile political leaders, and then the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history by a guy that was led to believe Jews were helping to bring a caravan of dangerous immigrants into the country.

It all feels almost as numbing as 9/11. The difference this time: the enemy is within (homegrown terrorists that are products of our own political divisions and rhetoric), and this time we have no president metaphorically standing on the rubble, uplifting us with hope and American pride.

139986-a-september-14-2001-file-photo-shows-president-bush-at-the-scene-of-th.jpg

A moment like this is not going to happen with the current president.

But I post today because this is not any one person’s fault, and focusing on the leadership problems with our current president is only going to make things worse.  As I have posted before, I am done with hate, because the events of the last couple of months are perfect examples of what hate brings.

Instead then, I’d like to humbly point out the things that I hope and pray we will all consider doing—collectively, and with an optimistic outlook on what can be accomplished.

1. Look to others for rhetoric that unites us. We have got to stop expecting the current president to be a pillar that will say the right things that will bring the country together and return us to civility. That simply is not who he is. When he reads from a teleprompter he says good things, but when he reverts to his true sentiments, he just cannot overcome who he is.

Instead of constantly bashing the man for not being what he should be, let’s start uplifting and passing along the words of people who appeal to our better angels. Be they politicians or pundits, preachers, teachers, celebrities, fathers, mothers, or innocent children, let’s listen closely to each other and champion those that unite us. Post their words on social media. Make and share positive memes. Bring these people to the attention of others in our conversations and online chats.

And VOTE for them when we find them among those running for office.

2. And while I am on memes—I wish people would start checking on the veracity of a meme before they retweet or share it. The internet is flooded with inaccurate quotes and “facts” that are misleading and/or downright fabricated lies made by people that just make up or pass along whatever seems to support what they believe. These things are usually incredibly divisive and just plain wrong. abraham-lincoln-quote-internet-hoax-fake-450x293.jpgWhen seeing one that we think should be shared, I wish people would  pause and do a quick check of the facts (Snopes.com does a great job of debunking most of them), and ask themselves, “does this unite or divide us” before they pass it along.

3. Be honest about our history as a nation. It frustrates me when I hear or read people stating things like, “this political violence is not who we are. This is not America.” etc. The truth is, America has always been racked by political violence.

Let me name but a few examples (look them up if you need to): The protests that led to the American Revolution. Violence against loyalists during the Revolutionary War. Burr kills Hamilton. The Trail of Tears. Antebellum attacks on abolitionists. Nat Turner’s Revolt and its retaliatory aftermath. The Caning of Sumner on the floor of Congress. “Bleeding Kansas.” The Civil War. Reconstruction-era violence to suppress black equality and suffrage. The wars on the Plains Indians.  The Haymarket Riot. Violence and imprisonment of women’s suffrage protestors. The “Red Summer of 1919.”  Race riots during WWI and WWII.  The strength and activities of the 1920s KKK. Thousands of lynchings between the 1880s and 1960s. Civil Rights era violence (Little Rock, the beating of Freedom Riders, Oxford riots, Birmingham bombings, numerous murders– including children, Selma, etc.), Kent State. 1960s political assassinations.  The clash between police and protestors at the 1968 Democrat Convention in Chicago. Stonewall riots. Oklahoma City. Four presidents assassinated and fifteen others threatened by plots and/or attempts.

Need I go on? And this is just a very small sampling that readily comes to mind. I list these not to insist that we have always been this way and that therefore there is no hope we can change. Rather, I list these so that we realize that contrary to what we often hear, political violence has long been part of the fabric of who we are. Let’s stop longing for a time when things were so much better. There is no golden age. We can’t solve a problem until we are honest about it.

We have to work to make America greater now than it ever has been in the past.

4. Let’s be introspective and look at the “man in the mirror.” Our current political tribalism is destroying us, and if we are honest with ourselves, at some level we are all guilty of making the problem worse. I am as guilty as anyone.

b5bd287e44c347ae0a050a1a59fc1c21.jpg

We can’t keep seeing politics like this—Good vs. Evil.

When we talk or post about the people that support political parties other than our own, we all too often paint them as dumb, naive, and insane, or worse, evil people that hate our country, its values, and its mission. Good vs. Evil.

I can’t see how that helps anything. How can you expect someone to listen objectively and civilly to the thoughts and opinions of others, when their own opinions are belittled, twisted, and demonized? Or how can you expect everyone to act civilly when people are whipped into a frenzy by someone that paints the opposition as a dangerous threat to our country and our lives?

I wish people would be careful in their words when they talk about the political opposition, and would show a willingness to listen. We are more likely to find the places where we agree and can compromise if we are willing to demonstrate, as Obama said of McCain, that “we are on the same team.”

Our government was created as a product of compromise, meant to facilitate compromise. Our Founders were politically divided, just as us, and on many of the same issues. But in working to find common ground, they crafted the Republic that we love so much. Compromise is the only way it could be created, and the only way that it works.

Bottom line: we are not going to get anywhere if we’ve come to believe that the opposition is evil and must be destroyed. If our Founders had felt that way, our nation would have never made it out of the cradle. Instead, let’s follow their example by understanding that most Americans want the best for our country, and that because we disagree on how to obtain that, we MUST compromise in order to get it.

5. Educate our youth about how democracy and voting works. Don’t assume that our younger generations understand our political process. I can tell you as a college educator, a very large number of them leave high school without a basic understanding of how our system works.

There are myriad reasons for this, so please don’t interpret my words here as a criticism of our teachers. They are absolute warriors on the frontlines of our nation’s problems, but they are handcuffed in innumerable ways—not the least of which is how we test and grade learning.

But the simply truth is that our young are not voting in large number because they often times don’t even know how or why they should. This is one of the things that I have learned from my college students over the years, especially when discussing the U.S. Constitution.

Over the last week, I have had detailed discussions with my college classes about everything that is going on, and I can tell you, they ARE paying attention and are worried about our nation’s future. But many honestly do not know what they can do about it.

IMG_20181019_115905858.jpg

Students working on campus and in my building just last week to get their generation voting. Let’s help them!

They all too often are ignorant about the functions and limits on our state and national government, where to go to find unbiased information about candidates, the basics of what to expect when handling a ballot, or even that they have to register ahead of time.

The fear of the unknown plagues them when they consider voting, and that frightens many of them away. Further, all too often those that ARE voting, are simply doing so based on who mom or dad directed them to vote for, and/or because of the party the candidate represents.

Let’s all work to fix that. Don’t leave it to just teachers and professors. Engage the young on voting and the democratic process, and please do it without using language that only increases tribalism and division. Encourage them to find candidates, irregardless of party, that they like and agree with, avoiding language about defeating the enemy, or saving America from those that seek to destroy it.

So that’s it. Just five things I am going to try to do better, and that I encourage others to consider.

Look, I am just some guy with ideas and thoughts no more valuable than anyone else’s. As they say, “opinions are like butts; we have all have them, and they all stink.” So I am far from some authority that should be preaching to others about how they should live their lives.

But there is one thing of which I’m certain—our current tribally partisan problems are only going to get worse, probably MUCH worse, before they get better.

But I refuse to sit idly by, bemoaning the sad state of affairs, waiting for some political savior to ride in and save the day.

We ALL have to be a hero that stands on this rubble and seeks to unite us. I’ve offered my five things that I plan to do and that I hope might inspire others. What’s your ideas? What would you like to see people do to change things? Get your ideas out there and practice them.

And in the words of our last inspiring president; “Don’t boo, . . . . VOTE.”

 

Can the McCain eulogies unite us?

download.jpg

I hope the week-long events and media attention surrounding McCain’s funeral and burial will be an extended plea for America to put aside its current tribalism and work for bipartisanship. I’m guessing most of the many speakers will emphasis this theme, and that both Obama and Bush will hit the message hard in their eulogies (you can especially count on Obama nailing it).

I know many strongly disagree with McCain’s politics, and he would be the first to admit he made mistakes in some positions he took during his long career. But this isn’t about his political stances, it’s about his conviction that we can disagree without hate and animosity, and that our government has to function on compromise.

Perhaps the large number of politicians in attendance at these upcoming events will not only hear the message, but be inspired and transformed by it. Will it result in change? I dunno.

But John McCain himself opened up the first salvo by not inviting Trump to any of the major events that will receive enormous attention and worldwide press coverage this week, but he also did so posthumously in releasing a “final message” to the American people today.

I hope you will read it in full, but I wanted to highlight the parts that I hope become the dominate theme this week of every kind word said about him.

In the message, McCain bemoans our political party “tribal rivalries” that we “mistake for patriotism,” and explains that we weaken our role in spreading and protecting democracy around the globe “when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”

And then he says this:

 

Oh, how we need to be reminded of this right now—that no matter our party affiliations, most of us truly love our country. All of the tribal blowhards on both sides do nothing but vilify their political opponents,  paint the other side as unpatriotic, or depict them as only desiring their own personal or group power.

As McCain said in his last floor speech, “to hell with them.”

Listen, we all want America to be great. No matter our skin color, religion, or ethnic background, most of us love our families and friends, and we want them to be safe, have better wages, better schools, and better healthcare. It’s  just that we have different ideas about how we obtain those things.

But if we can just start, as McCain said,  with the “presumption that we all love our country” and thus stop seeing our political opponents as evil, bad people that are out to harm America, we can start to listen to each other and find where we agree, where we can compromise, and where we can work together.

That’s what our Founders had to do, and what they created our system of government to accomplish. As I tell my students all the time, our Republic is a product of compromise, meant to facilitate compromise.

When our system failed to keep us united, the result war a Civil War that nearly divided us in half and gave us one million casualties. I think there’s a lesson there.

Look, we all know working with our political rivals isn’t easy. It never has been. But it is never going to happen if we keep thinking about and describing our political opponents as hated enemies that MUST be crushed and annihilated. We’ve got to stop thinking that our way must be wholly triumphant, without compromise and without the influence and ideas of the other side.

Let’s be honest, in some ways, to larger or small degrees, we are all probably guilty of demonizing those with different beliefs than our own. And we all want to see our candidates and ideas win.

But aren’t we better when we all win?

We are going to see the video a million times this week of McCain giving a thumbs down to the GOP’s attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare. But let’s remember why he did it–because the bill was hastily constructed just to defeat the enemy and not an honest effort at bipartisanship. And lets also notice that when he did it, some Democrats started to cheer as if they had just scored in a football game. But Schumer very quickly waved them off and stopped them.

Let’s have more of both of that.

This isn’t a football game with clear winners and losers. Winning requires us ALL to win, and the only way that happens is if we move forward. The hatred and animosity that tribally divides us only produces gridlock, and in that case, we ALL lose.

The current generation of politicians in DC and elsewhere is largely infected with this tribal disease. I wouldn’t mind seeing us getting rid of almost all of them.

I pray we start listening to pundits and politicians that eschew language that demonizes the opposition, divides us, and plays on fear. Let’s turn to the ones that use inclusive language, that refuse to paint our opponents as unpatriotic, and that whole hardheartedly promise to work with, rather than destroy those across the aisle.

Hopefully we will all do a little soul searching.

Call me a dreamer, but like John McCain, I have faith in what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.” Perhaps the eulogies this week will call us back to them.

“Do not despair of our present difficulties,” McCain said in his last message, “but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender.

We never hide from history. We make history.”

 

 

Godspeed John McCain, may we heed your advice before it is too late.

dd0c6616ec15965e0b17f952192b01b8.jpg

John McCain (1936-2018), American Patriot

I am in tears as I write this.

After a long career in the Senate working hard for bipartisanship, John McCain’s last floor speech implored Congress to put aside the tribal politics that have this country so divided and to return to “regular order” by working with our political opponents for compromise.

“Let’s trust each other,” he begged. “Stop listening to the bombastic loud mouths on radio and television and the internet. TO HELL WITH THEM.”

Amen.

“What have we to lose by trying to work together?” he implored. “We’re not getting much done apart. I don’t think any of us feels very proud of our incapacity. Merely preventing your political opponents from doing what they want isn’t the most inspiring work. There’s greater satisfaction in respecting our differences, but not letting them prevent agreements that don’t require abandonment of core principles, agreements made in good faith that help improve lives and protect the American people.”

Because his words apparently went unheard, in superhero fashion and with a down-turned thumb right in Mitch Mcconnell’s uber-partisan face, he killed a far too partisan effort at health care legislation. Why did he do it? Because he wanted it done the right way; through honest efforts at bipartisan compromise.

Stone cold! Stone cold!

His refusal to let anyone demonize his 2008 presidential opponent (even to the point of pulling the microphone away from a woman at one of his town hall meetings), was also one of the finest moments in our recent political history.  It was true leadership by example. It is unimaginable that our current president would ever do this at one of his rallies:

 

All of this, and his gracious concession speech that acknowledged the truly historic moment in our nations’ history when we elected our first black president, are in my mind his finest moments, even above his illustrious military career and survival of POW torture.  The concession speech harkened to history and how far we’ve come (like me, one of his biggest heroes was Theodore Roosevelt), and was an eloquent call for political civility and the unity of all Americans.

But I will always remember him most for those last moments in his life when he begged us to unite, working to end our partisan divide.

“We are here to vote,” he once yelled at his fellow senators, “not to block things.”

“The times when I was involved, even in a modest way,  with working out a bipartisan response to a national problem . . . are the proudest moments of my career,” he said in his last floor speech, “and by far the most satisfying.”

I pray that any hope for compromise between Americans and America’s politicians didn’t just die with this great man.

If we truly want to honor him, let’s stop listening to “the bombastic loud mouths,” and start listening to each other. To hell with those that seek to divide us. Let’s find what unites us.

Godspeed, John McCain. May we heed your advice before it’s too late.

Spike Lee’s definitely got something to say: A review of BlacKkKlansman

blackkklansman_poster_2.jpg

After spotting some commercials and a trailer (see below), I was somewhat interested in seeing Spike Lee’s new “joint,” the true story of a black Colorado Springs police officer named Ron Stallworth that somehow managed to infiltrate the KKK, establishing a connection to David Duke back in the early 70s. TV commercials have played up the comedic aspects of the story (and there are plenty), but considering Spike Lee’s involvement, I knew there had to be a deeper message.

What really drew me in, however, was an interview that Spike did with CNN’s Anderson Cooper discussing the movie’s attempt to connect the past to the present. Cooper confessed that seeing the film shook and unsettled him. After that, I made sure to put the movie at the top of my weekend agenda.

I’m sure glad I did.

The opening sequence of BlacKkKlansman is borrowed from Gone With the Wind, and is perhaps the most famous use of the Confederate flag in cinema history.

tumblr_inline_ovk2zoXpaV1qfb043_500.jpg

Perhaps the most famous film use of the Rebel flag.

Recalling that Spike said he wanted to connect the past to the present, when this scene popped up on the screen my immediate thought was: “Oh man, Spike has definitely got something to say.”

Based on just my Twitter feed, I’m surprised that historians have apparently not paid much attention to this film, especially when they seem to be consumed right now with analyzing what Charlottesville and the Confederate monuments debates tells us about modern race relations, politics, and Civil War memory in the Trump era, and/or debunking Dinesh D’ Souza’s Death of a Nation book and film.

I don’t want to give away any big spoilers here, because everyone needs to see this film, so I will tread lightly.

From start to finish, Spike Lee offers a primer on how movies have shaped perceptions of race in the United States. Besides Gone with the Wind, he makes heavy use of Birth of a Nation (1915), but also has characters discussing the Tarzan films of the 1930s and 40s, as well as the “Blacksploitation” films of the early 70s.

Spike’s use of Birth of a Nation is particularly interesting (and satisfying) to watch because he uses one of D.W. Griffith’s pioneering film techniques, crosscutting, to make a powerful point about how that film distorted history. I won’t give the scene away, but you’ll know it when you see it (it’s a pleasure to see Harry Belafonte on screen again), so take pleasure in seeing Spike use Griffith’s own technique against him.

One of the film’s most engrossing scenes is a speech delivered by Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) to a group of African American college students, in which he focused on how blacks had allowed American culture to define how they saw themselves.

Unknown.jpeg

Hawkins as Ture. “Black Power!”

The role is played by Corey Hawkins, and he is mesmerizingly good, delivering a wake-up call to the film’s protagonist. It feels historically and artistically authentic, and is an unforced method of kicking the film’s narrative into motion.

As if this were not enough to get the attention of historians, Spike more directly connects the present to the past by demonstrating the way that racial politics have evolved, from the disgustingly upfront and honest language of “massive resistance” in response to school integration and desegregation, to the “dogwhistle” political tactic of speaking about traditional America values, law and order, taking back our country, and “America first.”

Spike makes clear that the latter is the more dangerous form of racial politics. In one particularly well-written scene, a character explains to the film’s protagonist Ron Stallworth (exceptionally played by John David Washington) that someday someone might get elected president using such tactics. When Stallworth then expresses disbelief that someone like David Duke could ever get elected president, he is told that he should not be so naive.

Duke is played in the film by Topher Grace (don’t be surprised if he gets a best supporting actor nomination), and he is a strong contrast to the other Klansman in the film.

1533821419066.jpg

Grace as Duke

The rest are the dimwitted, redneckish, gun-obsessed buffoons that most people associate with the Klan. Duke, however, is a smooth talking, well -read, and deep thinking charmer who understands that “dogwhistle” techniques are more politically powerful than terrorism. As Topher Grace discovered when researching the role, and as Spike powerfully demonstrates,  Duke predates Trump’s use of “America First” and making America “Great Again.”

The film also features another fine performance by Adam Driver as Stallworth’s partner. He’s quickly becoming one of our best and most intense actors, and his character’s evolution is also at the core of the film’s point about identity.

blackkklansman.0.jpg

Driver and Washington

Driver plays a Jewish detective that never really gave much thought to being a Jew (“I was just another white kid”), until he must reckon with the Klan’s anti-Semitism. Suddenly, the white privilege he’s enjoyed most of  his life seems fake. He too is the member of a marginalized minority, and he’s just been “passing.”

All this is wrapped up in a well-paced action/comedy/buddy film. I don’t know Stallworth’s story well enough to comment on how much of it is true and how much of it is just based on truth, but from what I have read, the specifics of what the investigation accomplished is accurately told, uncovering Klansmen in the military and NORAD, and thwarting cross burnings and violence. (Although you’ll be able to tell that the film’s climactic moments and timing are most likely pure Hollywood formula).

The acting is uniformly fine, the dialogue believable, and Spike’s recreation of the 1970s is evocative. (One extended dance sequence makes great use of the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose classic soul hit “It’s Too Late to Turn Back Now,” oozing with the pride of the blossoming Black Power and “Black is Beautiful” movements.)

Ultimately, BlacKkKlansman does an excellent jump of connecting the Confederacy to current events, and demonstrating the line from David Duke to Donald Trump. By now you’re probably aware of the TV news footage that Spike uses at the end of the film to not-so-subtely tie his story to the present (if not, I won’t ruin it), and it is a powerful jolt.

Rather numbing, actually.

And yet for me, the most powerful jolt coming out of the theater was in placing the film in context of even more up-to-the-minute events.

Just last week, Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham made comments about immigration policy that David Duke publicly praised. The big news today as I write this is that tapes exist of our president using racial slurs, and even the White House Press Secretary can’t guarantee that it is not true. Oh, and H.U.D. has eliminated the strongest effort in decades to combat housing segregation.

And in my local cineplex, BlacKkKlansman is now playing on the opposite end of the hallway from D’Souza’s Death of a Nation.

It doesn’t get more stark, or timely,  than that.

 

TCM is my lifeboat: Escapism, and taking comfort in the fact that there is no “Golden Age.”

1200px-TCM_logo_2009.svg.png

As I mentioned in my previous posting, like many folks today I am a bit burned out trying to keep up with the daily insanity that is the news during the Trump era. As a professional historian, it is a bit surreal and highly fascinating to watch these truly historic events play out in real time.

But it is exhausting! And frankly, terrifying.

Viewing events from a historical perspective gives us many reasons to be worried about what is transpiring these days. We have lots of faith in our constitution and democratic system, but, history demonstrates, democracies can and do fail.

Yet one of the comforting things about viewing events from a historical perspective is also the knowledge that we as a nation have faced trying and divisive times before, and came out on the other side all the better for it.

Second_Civil_War.jpg

More divided now than ever? Um, no.

I’ve repeatedly asserted here and in my classrooms that our current divisiveness and tribulations will ultimately actually reshape the nation in positive ways, and that’s where this whole story is headed. Americans are increasingly getting “woke,” and that’s refreshing when we have had so much electoral apathy for so long.

But it isn’t always easy to keep that optimism.

In that vein,  I am following up my reading of John Fea’s Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump with Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. I’ve yet to complete it, but so far it has been a nice tonic for the daily news.

That’s where Turner Classic Movies (better known as TCM) comes in.

Like most historians, I love movies. I think we tend to relish them because at the core of our passion for history is a love of storytelling and stories. You’ll find very few professional historians that will not profess a love for the movies, and when we are not talking about historical events, you can almost bet we are talking about our favorite films. (Here’s me discussing my favorite.)

And of course history and movies have always been linked to one another. Many of the greatest films of all time are historical dramas. And in our classrooms, historians frequently analyze the ways in which films either reflected their times, and/or helped shape them. Birth_of_a_Nation_1915.pngFor example, no discussion of the Jim Crow era, or racial perceptions in the US, is complete without reckoning with The Birth of a Nation (1915), or Gone With the Wind (1939). How can one analyze the late 1960s without dealing with Easy Rider (1969) or The Graduate (1967)?

In our current age when Hollywood seems stuck in a rut of poor dialogue and computer generated imagery, in which remakes, retools, and big budget “the-world-is-endanger-someone-save-us-now” flicks rule the day, going to the movies isn’t what it used to be.

The best new movies these days, I believe, are the independents, not the big studio pics. I’m particularly tired of all these films in which the world is somehow on the brink of disaster, with the only thing standing in the way of armageddon being a band of superheroes, or a rogue government agent/assassin.

Which is why, more and more, TCM is the place to go when I need a break from current events. After watching all the talking heads on the news channels hash and rehash the latest and daily insanity, it is refreshing to flip over to TCM and be greeted by one of the network’s affable and knowledgable hosts as they provide a little background, historical detail, and interesting opinions both before and after a feature presentation.

TCM-Cast-Featured.jpg

Muller, Malone, Karger, & Mankiewicz

And they are all equally good. Ben Mankiewicz’s dry and sarcastic wit never fails to crack me up. Alicia Malone’s interesting commentary and opinions are delivered with a constant smile and sunny demeanor that are downright infectious. (Yes I have a crush on her). Dave Karger’s smooth delivery and pleasant personality never fails to charm. And Eddie Muller’s “film noir” lessons are insightful, fascinating, and always delivered with just the right amount of macho style.

Not every movie TCM shows is great, of course, but they rely on films made during a time when, as Mankiewicz explains in one of TCM’s promos, “we didn’t know how to blow up buildings (or rely on CGI) so we had no choice but to tell great stories, with great characters.” Most of the films they show were made in Hollywood’s heyday—the 1930s and 40s, but also the 1950s, & 1960s. (Although they frequently feature movies from the 70s, 80s’s, 90s, and even more recent films).

I’ve loved TCM for several decades now (and still mourn the loss of the incomparable Robert Osbourne), but I have come to cherish its value as escapism more so now than ever. But most comforting to me, is knowing that these films were escapism for audiences even when they first came out.

Many people (classic film lovers especially) have a tendency to think of the past in terms of a “golden age,” overly romanticizing a bygone era when things were supposedly so much simpler and more innocent than they are now.

But that’s pure hogwash. Every era of time has had its own stresses and problems, causing people to feel just as distressed and burdened by current events and realities as at any other time in history (and often more so).

3dglasses.jpg

Some good 3-D fun, circa 1950s

Thus, when I watch the films of the 1930s, I put them in the context of the Great Depression and the growth of global fascism. During the early 40s, there was the stress of having loved ones fighting and dying overseas, and the enormous burden of supporting the conflict on the home front. In the late 40s, veterans returned home to a world and families that they struggled to integrate back into, many suffering from PTSD. The 50s brought another overseas war,  the fear of atomic destruction, red scare paranoia, and Civil Rights tensions. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement, the ever-growing death toil from political assassinations, and the Vietnam War divided us culturally and politically in extreme ways that we are only just now starting to experience again.

1e266d6e027a0c7c2c49364a5573e57b---movies-top-movies.jpg

A film as timely now as it was then

It is often argued that 1939 was the greatest year in Hollywood’s history (The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Ninotchka, Young Mr. Lincoln, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, Gunga Din). Just think for a moment what terrifying events were going on in the world when those films were in the theater breaking box office records.

And if you were African American during any of those eras, life was far from a “golden age,” as it was the heyday of Jim Crow, unpunished lynchings, and residential segregation, among other burdens.

But even during those dark eras, there was always the movies–Films that swept audiences up with their humor, excitement, and music, helping them escape, even if only two hours, from the world outside the theater. The big studios turned out every genre of film, created imaginary worlds, and took viewers away from the harsh realities of their times.

PA-9645103.jpg

Gable, headed off to war

And that’s the beauty of TCM now. Those very same films are still offering a bit of escapism, as Garland, Bogart, Hepburn, Stanwyck, Gable, Lombard, Stewart, Wayne, and oh so many other timeless actors fill the TV screen with great characters, great dialogue, and great stories. All the while reminding us that we have always needed the movies to take us away from a world that seems out of control.

And just as Americans survived and triumphed over those dark times then, . . . so shall we again