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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Review of NBC’s Timeless second season finale. How well did they handle the Civil War? Did they break their own rules?

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Timeless’s heroes meet Harriet Tubman

So, the season finale of Timeless was a doozy, receiving big critical praise and trending #1 last night on Twitter. It blew the minds of its fans, and made a pretty strong case to NBC for renewal of a show that currently sits on the proverbial bubble.

I loved it too, but have to admit I’m angry at the Civil War historical inaccuracies, and also that the show’s creators broke their own time travel rules, apparently just to shock and surprise us. (Which worked).

SPOILERS AHEAD.

The opening scene was set in June 1863 in coastal South Carolina, yet we see what looks to be the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia hanging in the tent of a Rebel officer.  I knew at that moment we were in for some pretty basic historical inaccuracies, and boy, we sure were.

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Battle flag of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. NOT the Confederate flag.

Yet, I reminded myself, the flag is just a fairly minor detail.  Most people think the Army of Northern Virginia’s battle flag is the Confederate flag, so just let it go.

Later, however, Wyatt (one of our time traveling heroes) explains to Harriet Tubman that he and the others are spies sent by “General McClellan” to help her with her planned raid into the interior of the state.

Oh come on! This is just lazy research by the writers, as Little Mac was removed from command as general-in-chief of all Union armies over a year earlier, and was in fact not in command of anything (except his New Jersey household) in June 1863. Lincoln canned him in November 1862.

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You say McClellan sent you? Hmm.

If Wyatt had told Tubman that McClellan sent them, instead of taking the group into her fold, she surely would have taken the assertion as proof that our heroes were particularly ill-informed Rebel spies, and then would have promptly unloaded her gun into them.

As if this historical error weren’t enough, the Rittenhouse “sleeper cell” agent working as a Rebel colonel reveals to other Confederate officers that Grant is converging on Vicksburg and that they must now maneuver to get him. “We leave at dawn,” the colonel declares, “face them on the road before they join forces. Should be easy pickin’s'” He knows this because he has a copy of a “military history of the Civil War” that tells him everything Union troops are going to do before they do it.

Too bad the show’s writers didn’t read the same book.

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The book contains a military history of the Civil War. The writers apparently skipped almost everything about the Vicksburg Campaign.

First of all, Confederate troops in coastal South Carolina would have had little to do with maneuvering in Mississippi, and secondly, that Grant was moving on Vicksburg was hardly unknown in June 1863.  He had been converging on that city for over 7 months, had tried digging a canal across the river from it, had already fought several battles as he marched there, and in fact was already entrenched and besieging the city!

I’m sorry, colonel, but you’re too late. The Yankees had already “joined forces” outside of Vicksburg. So much for “easy pickin’s.”

I have to wonder how Confederate officers would have reacted had the Rittenhouse agent delivered the news that Grant was trying to get Vicksburg.

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This is all just lazy research on behalf of the writers, but what was most maddening about the episode is that they would have us believe the Combahee River Raid was a pivotal moment in the war.

Yes, it was a unique campaign in that it was planned by an African American woman, Harriet Tubman, and was a spectacular success for the Union, achieving all its primary objectives. For the estimated 700 or more enslaved people that got their freedom as a result, it was a pretty huge deal.

But did it alter the course of the Civil War? Not even close. It was a minor raid that is rightfully famous today only because of Tubman’s involvement and because it was a Union operation mainly for the direct purpose of liberating slaves (and getting them into Union uniforms). It is a great story, and one of the war’s largest emancipation events, but hardly a crucial event in the course of the Civil War.

Had Rittenhouse wanted to change the outcome of the war by changing events, June 1863 in South Carolina would have been a strange place to start. (Unless they targeted the 54th Massachusetts before its assault on Fort Wagner).

And yet, when Tubman’s raid is thwarted on the show by Rebel troops tipped off by the Rittenshouse agent, one of our heroes declares, “so we’re too late? History has already been changed? The South’s going to win?”

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The real Tubman was definitely hardcore.

Um, no.

FYI: the real raid involved Tubman directing two Union ships up the river (she was aboard ship, none of which we see in the episode), avoiding Rebel mines thanks to intel she gathered from local runaways, and her singing songs to attract and encourage some 700 enslaved African Americans to escape, many of which then enlisted in Union service. They also destroyed southern plantations and supplies in the process.

The irony is that Comedy Central’s Drunk History hilariously covered the raid, and did a much better job at getting the details correct. Check it out (language warning):

And yet,  if the biggest thing viewers take away from the episode is that Tubman was “hardcore,” (as one of our heroes rightfully observes) that’s pretty great. The show provides a quick and accurate biography of Tubman (including the rightful assertion that she claimed to see visions). Most people know of her Underground Railroad activities, but fewer know she was involved in Union military efforts during the Civil War.  Actress Christine Horn’s performance as Tubman was fiercely on-par with that of Aisha Hinds, who played her so memorably in WGN’s Underground.

(We could definitely use more Tubman on screen. What happened to the project HBO announced several years ago, as well as the separate theatrical film? What’s taking so long? My guess: the difficulty of securing funds for a movie featuring an African American female protagonist. Come on Hollywood, it’s time).

The best part: Timeless demonstrates that Tubman and the enslaved community probably wouldn’t have needed the help of our time traveling heroes anyway. Despite the setback, Tubman is determined to just change plans and try again, convincing our heroes to go along with it AND go after the Rebel spy (the Rittenhouse agent) as equally important missions. Yet when the decisive blows are struck, Tubman fires the shots, backed up by runaways and black Union soldiers.

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Standing strong against the bad guys.

Further, as hoped, the whole episode was a hit on the Lost Cause. Timeless has the evil democracy-hating forces of Rittenhouse trying to engineer a Confederate victory.  It’s clear that a southern triumph would have sucked for African Americans and democracy, and that the Union cause became intertwined with the liberation of enslaved peoples. (I loved when Rufus referred to the Rittenhouse agent/Confederate officer as “David Duke.”)

I especially appreciated the depiction of African Americans heroically fighting against their oppressors—the Confederacy.  “Believe me, we are we NOT going to lose this friggin’ war,” African American time traveller Rufus stubbornly assures Tubman, indicating the importance of Union victory for the future of African Americans. Timeless’s 2.4 million viewers last night were shown that in the American Civil War, the Rebels were the bad guys and that African Americans played an aggressively active role in bringing them down.

In the end, that lesson is way more important than flags, General McClellan’s career status, and the whereabouts of Grant’s troops in June 1863.

On another note . . .

Let me bitch about something apart from the episode’s historical accuracy. Timeless got a lot of attention last night because of its surprise ending. I too was pretty wrapped up in the show (which took us far afield from the Civil War, and ultimately into 1888 San Francisco) and caught off guard. BUT, it’s because they broke their own time travel rules.

At the start of the first season, the creators told us that their rules would be simple, because they wanted to focus on the history, not the sci-fi. For example, our time travelers couldn’t revisit a place/time where they had already been. And, to quote co-creator Eric Kripke, “What we’re trying to avoid is the overly complicated time travel trope where you’re meeting slightly older and slightly younger versions of yourself.” For example,  “we didn’t want an older version of Lucy meeting a younger version of Lucy.”

And yet that is EXACTLY what they did in the shocking last seconds of the show. Making this worse in my mind, is that in an interview with Entertainment Tonight actress Abigail Spencer (Lucy) tells us that they had been planning this all along.

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Future Lucy and Wyatt. Wait, what??

“What you see at the end of the finale,” Spencer claims,”was pitched to me in my meeting when [executive producers] Shawn [Ryan] and Eric [Kripke] asked me to play the part.”

So that means the creators established and publicly shared their time travel rules, just so that it would be a shock to audiences when they broke those rules at the end of the second season?

I call foul. That’s cheap audience manipulation.

Anyway, that aside,  I was still admittedly very entertained by the pulse-quickening episode that paid off all the more because of the strong character development we’ve gotten, especially this season. I also appreciated the overall message about Tubman and the Civil War (though the writers should have done their history homework better), and everything positive I wrote about the show last week still applies.

I sure hope NBC renews it.

 

PS: Also count me as one of the ones hoping Lucy ends up with Flynn and not Wyatt. Yes, ordinarily I would cheer for the “good guy” instead of the “bad boy,” but there is something about Wyatt that rubs me the wrong way. Flynn is way more of an interesting character. But maybe that’s just me.

(And one more thing, please get that modern make-up off Lucy’s face, especially when she is in the 19th century).

 

Dear Kanye: Runaways and violent rebels were NOT the only enslaved peoples who resisted, and who deserve our admiration

 

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These people did not choose to be enslaved, so let’s talk about what they did choose . . .

Dear Kanye West,

You’ve recently demonstrated that you have some educational deficiencies when it comes to understanding American slavery. “400 years” of enslavement, you said, “that sounds like a choice.”

When you said it, you were quickly shot down by TMZ‘s Van Nathan, in a “mic drop” moment that seemed to warrant no additional comment.

Yet you wouldn’t let it go at that. “To make myself clear” you tried to clarify later on Twitter, “Of course I know that slaves did not get shackled and put on a boat by free will. My point is for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side (they weren’t) means that we were mentally enslaved.”

You also tweeted that people were attacking you for having original thoughts. Further, you claimed that had you lived during slavery, you would have been a “Harriet,” meaning a runaway, or a “Nat,” meaning a rebel that violently resisted and went down fighting. You’d never be “mentally enslaved!”

But these aren’t original and new thoughts that you’ve stumbled upon. Honestly, the first thing that came to my mind was Eddie Murphy’s 1987 “Raw” performance, when he comically and frankly confronted the idea that you just put forth as new.

“The first dude that got off the boat said that,” Murphy joked.

WARNING: VERY foul language:

Murphy’s comedy aside, I could spend my time trying to educate you about the extensive mechanisms that white Southerners put into place to subjugate and control the enslaved– from laws, to slave patrols, to militia companies, (all of which continued in various forms to maintain white supremacy after the Civil War and explain, in some part, the gun culture of the South). The failure of Nat Turner’s revolt, and especially the subsequent brutal retribution meted out to the mostly uninvolved black community afterwards, is evidence of just how well-prepared and equipped Southern whites were for dealing with large-scale violent slave resistance. John Brown’s Raid further makes the point. The enslaved understood this, because it was their reality.

Or, I could use this time to point out that the chances of escaping slavery by running away were just too great to expect very many to be successful.

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Amos, and thousands like him, were clearly not mentally enslaved. But neither were the ones that didn’t run.

Historians are now heavily involved in collecting, quantifying, and digitizing slave runaway ads from period newspapers, and the more they find, the more we see just how many enslaved peoples made the attempt, despite the odds against success. Yet the truth is that successful runaway attempts were relatively rare, which is why Tubman is justly famous. For most, the risks were too high, and the punishments and separation from families too great a deterrent. The enslaved also understood this.

So does this mean that the vast majority of the enslaved who were not Harriet or Nat were weak? Were they mentally enslaved, as you asserted? Were they so completely dominated and subjugated that we should consider them unworthy of honor and admiration?

Kanye, your recent words imply just that, and THAT is what pisses me off. So please let me address that here.

Listen, you are definitely not the first one that thinks this way. In fact, many white Americans during and after slavery pointed to the relative lack of Harriets and Nats as proof of the docility and inferiority of the race–and thus they viewed that fact itself as justification for black enslavement. Your words implied the same thing.

Is that really how you want to use your high profile voice–making the same argument as the defenders of slavery? That’s the point Van Nathan was making when he took you down.

But you’re also not the only person in our present time that seems to make the same point for which you have received so much backlash.  Anyone that has read many of my blog postings knows that I am annoyed by much of our recent pop cultural depictions of slavery. Thankfully, Hollywood no longer peddles the image of happy and contented slaves like we used to get prior to the Civil Rights movement (à la Gone With the Wind). And that is definitely a good thing. 9781623567804.jpgBut recent exceptional films and TV shows like 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, the Roots remake, and WGN’s Underground, have painted most of the enslaved as essentially subhuman, non-resistent drones, all the while casting violent rebels and runaways as the heroes.

In telling their stories that way, these films miss the same point you do, Kanye. The enslaved did not choose to be enslaved, but what the vast majority of them did choose was to not let enslavement define them, their culture, or their race.

They resisted the complete domination of their lives not by risking death or separation from family by becoming Nat or Harriet, but by constructing and living in a culture largely of their own making, much of it outside of white control.

As I have insisted before: “Slaves routinely played tricks on their owners, covertly left the plantation for moonlit social and religious gatherings, entertained themselves, and created strong bonds that enabled them to maintain sanity and hope.

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There are no Harriets or Nats here, but make no mistake, these are heroes.

Slaves laughed at their master’s expense; told stories to teach their young how to outwit, control, and fool their owners; engaged in slowdowns and “laid out” to negotiate their work load; and worshipped a Christian God that they believed would one day free their people and damn their masters to hell.”

Unfortunately, there are few glimpses of this type of resistance, self-determination, and hope depicted in our current pop cultural depictions of slavery. And yet this is how most of the enslaved resisted. They were resilient, powerful people, taking the worst of what man can do to man and surviving it. African Americans live and thrive today BECAUSE of THEM.

In surviving this way, they built and passed along lessons to their descendants about self esteem, self reliance, and hope. And the culture they built has shaped America’s pop culture to a remarkable degree, especially considering all the mechanisms long in place to fortify white supremacy. Such things as America’s religious practices, foods, fashions, entertainments, and music are largely constructed upon, or heavily influenced by, what the enslaved and their descendants built and shaped in order to resist domination. (The irony, Kanye, is that your own career is part of that story).

Thus the enslaved deserve our acknowledgement and appreciation for all of this, as well as our respect and admiration. They made choices that all of America, black and white, have benefitted from and have been shaped by.

What they certainly do not deserve is your derision because they could not all be Harriets, or Nats.

Peace,

Glenn David Brasher

 

 

 

 

 

 

A response to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, from a born and bred Alabamian

 

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Dear Governor Ivey,

You recently declared that you have no interest in what “folks in Washington,” or “out-of-state liberals” have to say about Alabama’s Confederate monuments.

Ok then, how about a white native-born and bred Alabamian that has made a life out of historical research and writing, and who teaches history to college students right here in our mutually beloved state? Would you mind hearing from me?

You claim that “to get where we’re going, means understanding where we’ve been.” Yet I am not so sure you fully understand where we have been.

Stay with me here  . . .

I was born in the turbulent year of 1968 on Birmingham’s Southside, at St. Vincent’s hospital.

I’m sure you can remember the year well: the Tet Offensive in Vietnam led to President Johnson’s decision to not seek reelection; Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, sparking racial violence in many of America’s cities; Bobby Kennedy was shot down after winning the California primary; young American war protestors clashed with the police in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention; Richard Nixon won the presidency by blowing the proverbial “dog whistle” about “law and order”; And our very own George Wallace made a strong third party showing in the election, despite (and because of) his recent career of standing firmly against integration.wallace-campaign-button.jpg

Oh, that George Wallace. I’m sure you know about how he won the job you now have by proclaiming he would resist “outside agitators” that wanted to integrate our schools. “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” he declared, while harkening to the Confederacy and the “heart of the great Anglo-Saxon southland.”

Yet those “outside agitators” were mostly southern born and bred African Americans. MLK? Heck, he was just a young Georgian that got his first job in our state and first gained fame as a resident here.

And then there was that time Wallace stood in the door of Foster Auditorium on the University of Alabama campus, speaking out against the “tyranny” of Washington DC that was forcing the school to integrate.

He lost that battle as Vivian Jones and James Hood, two native born Alabamians, were allowed to register. Damn those outside agitators.

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Jones and Hood, getting registered at their own state’s flagship University

In the years afterward, a lot of white Alabamians placed their kids in private academies to avoid integration, but I was part of the first generation of Alabama school children that went to integrated public schools their whole life. From first grade in 1975 until I graduated from Homewood High School in 1987, my world was filled with black faces and friends that I sat next to in class and in the lunchroom, played sports with, hung out with on the weekends, and walked across a stage with to receive our diplomas.

Turns out that integration wasn’t so bad after all, and is likely the main reason why I grew up largely judging people by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin.

Yes, that was MLK’s dream, that Georgian who lived and spent much of his life in Alabama. Oh, and remember that time he marched across the Pettus Bridge in Selma alongside native born Alabamian John Lewis, the same guy that was a leader in the Freedom Rides? Damn those outside agitators.

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King and Lewis, those darn agitators.

Anyway, after finishing up high school, I went to college at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, where I majored in history. Guess what I learned in both those Alabama public schools and at UAB? I learned that the reason the southern states seceded from the Union and tried to establish their own government was so that they could prevent the destruction of slavery.

It seems that they too did not want “outside agitators” like abolitionists and a democratically elected president in Washington DC to tell them what to do with their domestic institutions.

So they seceded, establishing a Confederacy that their vice president unashamedly declared to have been built “upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government [the Confederate States of America], is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Yes, that Confederacy. The one we have all those monuments to.

While at UAB, I also learned much about the “Lost Cause,” the successful attempt of white Southerners to rewrite the history of the Confederacy after its defeat, stressing that secession had been about “state’s rights,” not slavery. Furthermore, they insisted, slavery had been a benign institution that benefitted both races, and that a strict racial hierarchy had created a much more peaceful and harmonic society than existed elsewhere in the country.

Yet if slavery had to be gone as a result of the efforts of “outside agitators,” white Southerners believed they could at least recreate its racial order through “Jim Crow” segregation laws. At the forefront of those efforts during the late 1800s and early 1900s, was the construction of memorials to the Confederacy and its gallant soldiers. Monument dedications became “teachable moments” in which speakers enthralled crowds with the deeds of the glorious dead that gave their lives in defense of a superior racial order.

Yes, I learned much of that while at UAB, from a professor that was born and raised in Mobile and received her PhD in Georgia. Damn those outside agitators.

Also while I was at UAB, Birmingham opened its beautiful Civil Rights Institute and Museum, and I took enormous pride in the facility’s effective presentation of the role of my hometown in some of the Civil Rights movement’s most dramatic events in fighting to end those Jim Crow laws.

It always struck me that the Children’s March in 1963, (when hundreds of children were jailed and firehosed in the streets of their very own hometown–damn those outside agitators), took place under the shadow of one of those Confederate memorials in Linn Park.

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Confederate monument in Linn Park

You know the one. It is the one that Alabama citizens and elected officials in Birmingham now want removed. They stand in defiance of that law you so pridefully signed that prevents local Alabama communities from making their own decisions about what they want to memorialize in their own streets and cities. Damn those outside agitators.

And damn local rights.

After college, I started pursuing a PhD, and that journey temporarily led me out of state. It was then that I learned that many people outside of Alabama believed it was still 1963 down here, with racism and perhaps even Jim Crow still reigning supreme. I tried to tell them about how far our state had come, but it was a tough sell, even in the 1990s.

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This had to be written by an “out of state liberal!”

I returned home when the University of Alabama lured me with fellowships and scholarships, and it was there that I earned my PhD by researching and writing a book about the roles that enslaved African Americans played in the fight against the Confederacy. Imagine that! A white Alabamian writing about such a thing! Don’t only “out of state liberals” focus on the Confederacy’s commitment to defending slavery? Damn those outside agitators.

I’m still here in Tuscaloosa, but now I am teaching—about slavery, the Confederacy, the Civil War, the Lost Cause, the Civil Rights movement. And guess what? I can promise you that even if every last Confederate memorial were to come down, those things will still be researched, written about, and taught in schools. History would not be erased.

And it will continue to be taught in ways that corrects the history that those monuments were built to distort.

The irony here is that I am actually not in favor of removal of the monuments (I support contextualization), but I am in favor of local communities deciding for themselves what they want to do with them. They shouldn’t be dictated to by people outside their community.

Even those in Montgomery.

Governor Ivey, I know that your defiant message probably plays well with many of your constituents. But please understand that when you use the language you have about “out-of-state liberals” and “folks in Washington” you’re using the same message as proslavery advocates when they resisted abolition, post-Reconsruction era politicians when they maintained white supremacy by passing Jim Crow laws and building Confederate monuments, and anti-integrationists like your predecessor George Wallace when he led the state against the Civil Rights movement.

And just like Wallace, you’re ignoring the fact that native-born Alabamians, then as well as now, are on the forefront of these efforts at racial reconciliation, Civil Rights, and an honest reckoning of our history.

You only insult and belittle them and demonstrate that you care little about listening when you label their beliefs “politically correct nonsense” coming from outside the state.

Do you really want to sound like you’re on the same side as proslavery advocates, Jim Crow, and George Wallace? If so, perhaps our beloved state actually is still stuck in 1963, and you’re definitely not the one that can lead it forward.

Sincerely,

A proud Alabamian.

 

A Short History Lesson on the United States & “The Young and Fearless of Heart.”

 

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“March for Our Lives” in DC, 3/24/2018

Flashback to the day after the 2016 election when I wrote this on my blog:

“After spending all day acting as a counselor for classrooms of college students that are angry and frightened by these results, I am actually a bit hopeful that the Election of 2016 will go down in history as the event that caused the millennial generation (and/or generation z) to create a powerful political movement that will be a force to be reckoned with. I heard them say some really powerful and encouraging things today. Stay tuned.”

Since then, more and more events have convinced me that this will turn out true, obviously none more than today’s “March For Our Lives” across the country. Yes, the shooting in Florida was the immediate catalyst for this movement, but it has been brewing well before now and is really about more than just gun control—and it is more than just teens.  The last year and a half has seen more highly attended marches, demonstrations, protests, and rallies than we have seen in a very long time. We’ve also seen several special elections that have reversed decades of voting patterns.

Is this all adding up to something big? Something revolutionary (again, beyond just gun control)? Only time will tell, but it sure looks like it today.

Besides a huge voting block, were there any future influential lobbyists and pundits, congressmen and women, judges, and presidents in the crowds of marchers? You can bet on it.

Yet it is perhaps too easy to dismiss the marches today as the product of naive, and overly emotional young people that do not fully understand the issues, or what they are up against.

To that, I say, almost every major successful movement in our nation’s history has been the result of the efforts of naive, overly emotional young people that perhaps did not fully understand what they were up against—including the protest movement that led to our independence and the founding of our Republic, and all the later movements that expanded the number of people that receive protection for their individual rights.

If you love our country and the rights that Americans have which are protected by our laws and Constitution, you must understand that those beautiful things are the results of protests movements—–usually led by the young.

To demonstrate the point, lets take a very brief look at some of those movements in our history, focusing on the ages of  just a select few  (for the sake of brevity) of the more famous and prominent leaders of those movements.

The American Revolution:

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, was 26 when he was first elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and began arguing court cases in his legal profession that leaned on his belief in the “natural rights” of man and that the purpose of government was to protect those rights.

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young James Madison

James Madison, considered the Father of the US Constitution, was 23 when he joined a pro-revolution militia unit. Just a year later, he was a member of the Virginia convention that broke the state free from the British empire, producing the Commonwealth of Virginia’s first constitution. At the convention, young Madison argued vehemently for separation of church and state and protection of religious freedom.

Alexander Hamilton, the “other” Father of the Constitution and current Broadway sensation,  was 17 (or 19, there is dispute about his birth year) when he too joined his local pro-revolution militia company, soon serving on George Washington’s staff and becoming part of his very exclusive inner circle as they fought a rebellious war against their own government.

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Young and naive protestors in NYC  energetically and defiantly knocking down a statue of King George III.

The Abolitionist Movement:

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William Lloyd Garrison was 25 when he joined the anti-slavery movement, soon becoming one of its most important leaders, later publishing the newspaper The Liberator, promising ” I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard.” His paper helped unite the many localized abolitionist organizations, creating a powerful national organization that challenged a system that legalized human bondage.

Frederick Douglass was a young teen when he engaged in his first acts of defiance against slavery, clandestinely learning to read and getting into a physical confrontation with an overseer. He was about 19 or 20 years old when he successfully escaped from slavery, and 23 when he gave his first anti-slavery speech.

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Bucktown Village store in Maryland, the recreated site of Harriet Tubman’s first act of defiance

Harriet Tubman was a pre-teen when she committed her first act of defiance, refusing to help a slave catcher wrangle a runaway slave and getting hit in the head with an iron as a result. She was 29 when she successfully escaped and soon began her famous Underground Railroad activities, helping undermine a system that was protected by government laws.

Women’s Suffrage

Susan B. Anthony, perhaps the most important suffrage leader of the 19th century, was in her twenties when she first began to attend and lead local social reform movement meetings.

Carrie Chapman Catt, who later built the League of Women Voters, was in her mid twenties when she first got involved in the Gilded Age women’s suffrage movement. She was later instrumental in the movement to get states to ratify the 19th amendment.

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Suffrage banner held during the White House protests of 1917

Alice Paul, perhaps the most important of the 20th century suffragettes (radicalizing the movement by leading protests at the White House and engaging in a hunger strike after being arrested), was 22 when she moved to England, got involved in the British women’s suffrage movement, and came to believe in that movement’s more militant tactics. She soon came home and brought youthful energy and activism to a stalled movement that soon broke the stubborn resistance of President Woodrow Wilson and got his support for the 19th amendment.

The Civil Rights Movement

This is perhaps the best example of the point being made, so the number of names here is WAY too few in number to do it justice, . . . yet still enough to support the point.

The 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights movement was largely energized by the defiant actions of 14 year old Emmett Till, which led to his lynching and the subsequent moral outrage from a nation shocked by his mother’s decision to have an open casket funeral so the world could look directly in the face of the violence of white supremacy.

Claudette Colvin was 15 when she was arrested for breaking Montgomery’s bus segregation laws, the often forgot progeny of the legal case that gained larger attention after the arrest of Rosa Parks and the subsequent bus boycott.

The “Little Rock Nine” were 16 and 17 year olds that choose to participate in the integration of the city’s main public high school, causing a confrontation that soon

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The young, but exceptionally brave “Little Rock Nine” led the way in school integration.

involved the Arkansas governor, President Eisenhower, and US troops, beginning the slow and torturous process of school integration in America.

The lunch counter sit-in movement was started when 18 and 19 year old college students in Greensboro, NC., planned and executed a protest of local segregation laws at their local Woolworth Store.

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, often pronounced “Snick”) was organized and led by college students in their early 20s. The violent resistance the movement received in reaction to its efforts brought wide-scale media attention to the Civil Rights movement’s agenda, creating many moral crises that repeatedly forced the federal government to intervene. Perhaps their greatest results came with the Nashville Sit-ins, where 22 year old Diane Nash emerged as a particularly well spoken and charismatic leader, and the Freedom Rides, which included the 20 year old John Lewis, who later at the ripe old age of 25 led the March across the Pettus Bridge in Selma which pushed LBJ into pressuring Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

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The young, marching off to jail in Birmingham, 1963

Gwendolyn Sanders was 13 years old when she helped organize her classmates to participate in the 1963 Birmingham protests which led to the famous confrontation between young blacks and Eugene “Bull” Conner’s firehoses and police dogs, an event that sparked JFK to propose the Civil Rights Bill, which later ended public segregation.

And let’s not forget that Martin Luther King Jr. himself was only 26 when he was asked to help lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott movement.

Further, the Civil Rights movement’s successes were an inspiration for the Vietnam War protests that successfully turned public opinion against the War in Vietnam. It too was a youth movement in which upwards of 80% of college campuses held some form of protests, eventually resulting in the end of America’s involvement in a senseless war in which the young were paying the greatest price.

Of course this short list of names misses hundreds of thousands of others, from prominent leaders, to the largely unknown names of young Revolutionary soldiers, picket-sign makers, and tireless and brave marchers that were carted off to jail by the hundreds, frequently beaten, and all-too often killed because of their determination to change America in ways that made it live up to its promises of protection for the natural rights of all.

“And that’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this . . .” our last inspiring president reminded us a few years ago while standing in front of the Pettus Bridge in Selma:

“You are America. Unconstrained by habits and convention. Unencumbered by what is, and ready to seize what ought to be. For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, and new ground to cover, and bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.”

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Recent history-based TV shows; Time travel, Gilded Age New York, strong women, and the really, really, Wild West

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Clockwise from top left: NBC’s Timeless, TNT’s The Alienist, Netflix’s Godless

Recently, the University of Alabama hosted a screening of The Free State of Jones, featuring comments and a Q&A with historian Victoria Bynum, the author of the book on which the film is loosely based. It was interesting to see the film for a second time, as it validated most of the perceptions I had after my first viewing (you can read the review I wrote then here), although I felt the Reconstruction scenes worked better upon a second viewing than I did initially. If you have not seen it yet, be sure to catch it on disc or cable.

Anyway, the event got me thinking about more recent Hollywood stabs at history. During this past award season, exceptional films like Dunkirk and Darkest Hour received much warranted awards and nominations (I highly recommend them both, and Gary Oldman was stunningly effective as Churchill). But ever since the cancellation of PBS’s Mercy Street and WGN’s Underground it seems to me that there has been a dearth of quality, high-profile history-based dramas on television.

(Thankfully, it appears that the creators of HBO’s Game of Thrones have backed away (at least temporarily) from their proposed series featuring an alternate timeline in which the South wins the Civil War, turning their attentions instead on a new set of Star Wars films. I like that idea MUCH better).

Still, in the last few months there have been three big budget TV shows that have caught my attention: The second season return of NBC’s Timeless, TNT’s limited series, The Alienist, and the best of the three, Netflix’s limited series, Godless.

The first season of Timeless was pretty harmless fluff, featuring a few episodes that were truly riveting. I’m not a big fan of conspiracy-driven shows (the stand-alone episodes of The X-Files are the best ones, and I’ll debate anyone on that). Thus, Timeless’s focus on an Illuminati-like organization’s attempt to control the world (“Rittenhouse”) became a bit annoying as our three time traveling heroes (Abigail Spencer, Malcolm Barrett, and Matt Lanter) unraveled more and more of the shadow ageny’s secrets and reasons for trying to alter history.  Further, Spencer’s character, historian Lucy Preston, was depicted as far too much of an expert on every period of time in history, having readily retrievable knowledge about minutia that only a specialist on a particular topic would have (to be fair, the show can’t have a regiment of historians, each with their own specialities). These quibbles aside, I watched almost all of the first season as mindless entertainment. You can catch up with it all by streaming it on Hulu.

NBC was ready to cancel the show after one season, but it was saved by social media outcry (which I wish could have saved the much more valuable Mercy Street), and thus season two premiered last Sunday. The first episode took our heroes into World War I in the midst of American troops fighting at St. Mihiel.

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The cast of Timeless fires back up their time machine. It is not exactly a DeLorean, . . . or a hot tub .

As usual, the producers did their homework and got much of the details correct, focusing on Marie and Irene Curie (just in time for Women’s History Month), their nursing efforts, and their technologically advanced mobile X-ray. NBC’s budget was reflected in the nice visuals of a charred WWI landscape, and quick glances at aerial dogfights over the trenches. It all looked pretty good and bodes well for future episodes.

Yet the thing that has me the most excited about the second season of Timeless is that Smithsonian is going to be commenting each week on each episode’s historic accuracy. That should prove interesting to follow.

But speaking of time travel, I have always joked in my classes that whenever I hear blowhards like Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck criticise the progressive movement, I wish I could put them in a time machine and drop them somewhere in Gilded Age New York. I wonder how they would feel about Progressivism after living in the fetid slums, working in a sweatshop in disgusting  and dangerous conditions for god-awfully long hours and unfairly low pay, all while seeing the “robber barons” ostentatiously displaying the unprecedented wealth they derived from the misery of the impoverished. I have a feeling the progressive movement might appear a little bit more appealing to them, and perhaps it would give them a different outlook on current events.

(PBS recently aired an American Experience episode on the Gilded Age, disappointingly focusing almost exclusively on the barons and almost completely ignoring the era’s racial dynamics).

Anyway, it is this Gilded Age New York that TNT’s The Alienist effecitvely re-creates. Set in 1896, the limited series is about a psychologist (Daniel Bruhl), a newspaper journalist (Luke Evans), and a police stenographer (the always effective Dakota Fanning) teaming up with two police detectives (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear) to track down a serial killer. Based on a series of novels that are themselves based loosely on actual people, the show depicts the use of then cutting edge investigative techniques, such as finger printing and criminal profiling. The events are completely fictional, but the world the characters inhabit is stunningly and accurately brought to life.

One of The Alienist’s merits is how Fanning’s character, Sara Howard, is career-driven in a place and time when women pursuing a professional career were a rarity.

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Fanning as Sara Howard and Brian Geraghty as Theodore Roosevelt in The Alienist

She confidently pushes back at workplace condescension and mistreatment (#MeToo in 1896), and yet simultaneously and realistically deals with her conflicted desires to adhere to societal pressures to fall in love, quit work, and start a family. Fanning’s performance in the role of a woman ahead of her time, protecting herself behind a bland and no-nonsense exterior, is a strength.

As a fan of Theodore Roosevelt, I especially enjoy his presence as the NYC Police Commissioner determined to clean up police corruption and take on both political and criminal bosses. This is accurate, though actor Brian Geraghty plays Roosevelt as too subdued, depriving the show of the energetic gusto that it sorely lacks. TR was a force-of-nature, and thus his personality should dominate every scene in which he appears. Sadly, that is not the case. Yet The Alienist captures TR’s virtues and has some good scenes between him and JP Morgan (Micheal Ironside, in some good makeup) that nicely foreshadow the hostility the men would have towards each other when TR ascended to the White House and battled Morgan’s horizontally integrated banking trust.

Unfortunately, ten episodes has proven too long to tell the show’s story and after eight episodes I am anxious for it to end (yet still hoping the ending will be rewarding). It is dark and brooding, increasingly disjointed, and besides Fanning, lacks performances that keep you glued to the screen. I’m still hooked, but it feels a little like a slog.

Yet it is still compelling television that you should catch because of how well it depicts Gilded Age New York and what it says about that time in our history. From the ridiculously ornate and ostentatious homes of the super wealthy, to the slums and seething nastiness of the streets, the enormous disparity between classes is impressively demonstrated in The Alienist, reminding us of how Progressivism eventually saved American capitalism from itself.

You can catch up with the series by streaming it at TNT’s site.

From a purely entertainment perspective (but not historical), however, the best of these recent shows is Netflix’s limited series Godless. Set in a Gilded Age western town in which most of the men have been killed in a mining disaster, the show was advertised as a feminist take on the Western, as the women run the town and defend themselves from some VERY bad men. [Warning: the trailer below drops one F-bomb]

Yet that’s not exactly what you get. In the end, Godless is a pretty standard Western dominated by dastardly but complex bad guys, and emotionally traumatized good guys. Which isn’t a bad thing, it is just not as advertised (which is not the fault of the show’s creators).

I discovered Godless because of historian Megan Kate Nelson’s article for the Civil War Monitor about the lack of Civil War battles and campaigns in western movies. Of course she is right, although I think she is a bit harsh on Sergio Leone’s cinematic masterpiece, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and her discussion of how Civil War animosities do often drive the tensions in many western films glaringly misses such classics as The Outlaw Josey Wales and Shane. 

As with those classics, almost every character in Godless is interesting and well acted, and in my mind the series rivals Lonesome Dove as riveting television (yes, it is that good). It also manages to deliver some surprises, one of which is its rather conventional ending. Yet unfortunately, the show’s most interesting characters are the ones that are explored the least—the females—which is all the more frustrating given how the series was advertised. Getting an even bigger shaft is a local community of former Buffalo Soldiers! Ugh! What could have been!

Yet the most troubling aspect of Godless is the level of graphic violence. The “Old West” has always been romanticized and depicted as more violent than it actually was. In the wake of the Florida school shooting and the fresh energy that high school students have injected into the gun control movement, this sort of depiction of the West is all the more untimely (to be fair, it was released before the events in Florida).

Gun control laws have been common throughout the history of the United States (look for an upcoming article about this from me soon) and in fact were pretty rigorously enforced in Western towns.  Yet Godless indulges in just about every cliché we have ever had about the “Wild West” frontier, and ramps it up to a ridiculous level.

The villains, (led by Jeff Daniels in a wickedly good performance) go around doing things that would have brought down upon them the full weight of the US government and military.

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Jeff Daniels leads some VERY bad men in Godless

Since the show is set in New Mexico, a student of history can’t help but think about how the territorial governor (Civil War general and author of Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace) got directly involved in the capture of Billy the Kid, yet in Godless a large group of criminals is able to go around practically unopposed (except by our heroes) doing things that Billy Bonney would have never even dreamed of in his most violent nightmares. Further, the climactic battle scene is largely a nonsensical mess (though nevertheless thrilling).

Godless didn’t create our myth of the Old West, but it certainly sustains and significantly adds to it.  Still, if you can divorce yourself from all that and embrace Godless as a “shoot ’em up” with plenty of interesting characters, uniformly strong performances (particularly by Merrit Wever, Michelle Dockery, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and beautiful cinematography, do not miss this one. It is well-worth every penny you paid for your Netflix subscription.

Now, I think I’ll go watch the recent episodes of Drunk History. Did you see the one featuring the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, 1963? Brilliant, and very timely just now when we need a reminder of what younger generations have done in our history to bring power and life to a movement.

In praise of my Alabama: Doug Jones & the Crimson Tide

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Alabama Senator Doug Jones happily watching the Crimson Tide’s championship victory with the D.C. chapter of the Alabama National Alumni Association at Willie’s Brew & Que

Well it has been a month since I’ve posted, and my last one was on the day of our special election here in the state of Alabama. Much has happened since then that I have wanted to blog about, but Christmas vacation trips (more on that in another blog), the new year, a writing project, and the start of the new semester have kept me too busy. I’ve finally gotten a second to breath again, so I wanted to quickly comment on the two events that have had my beloved state in the national news over the last few weeks.

My last posting was a pretty emotional one, as I was not quite sure whether my state would do the right thing by putting its normal commitment to the Republican Party aside to vote against Roy Moore and for Doug Jones. I have been voting since 1988 and I have to tell you, I never felt more exhilarated in exercising my suffrage rights than I did in voting in this senate election.

With no other elections going on, and with an enormous amount of interest in results that would have major consequences, much of the nation’s eyes were on Alabama that night.  Sadly, when my state brings national attention to itself like this it is usually something negative . . . except for football.

That’s one major reason why football is so beloved in the state of Alabama. Starting with their unexpected 1926 Rose Bowl win and 1925 national championship, and continuing into the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, the University of Alabama’s football team has been about the only thing that has brought national praise to the state.

During the Civil Rights era, Alabama appeared on television stations across the country when Freedom Riders were firebombed in Anniston, and beaten in Birmingham and Montgomery. A few years later, Americans watched in horror as police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Conner had children fire hosed in the streets of Birmingham as they demonstrated for desegregation.  Having been arrested earlier in the same demonstrations, Martin Luther King wrote his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail garnering worldwide attention.  Later that year, Alabama Governor George Wallace defied the Kennedy administration live on national television by forcing the president to nationalize state troops to integrate the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The nation was then stunned into numbness when four black children were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.16th_Street_Baptist_Churchs_Neon_Sign_(268472006).jpg And then as if for a brutal encore, the state grabbed attention again as the country watched Civil Rights marchers get pummeled and gassed marching across the Pettus Bridge in Selma while attempting to walk to Montgomery to demonstrate for African American suffrage rights.

The media’s attention on those events rocked the conscience of our nation, shaming it on a world stage during the height of the Cold War and thus leading to the Civil Rights movement’s biggest victories. Yet the black-eye brought to the state solidified people’s opinion of Alabama in ways that still very much shape outside perceptions of the Heart of Dixie.

Still,  during those very same turbulent years, the University of Alabama gained national attention because of the dramatic success of its football program under the direction of Paul “Bear” Bryant.

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Bryant & Namath

Winning three national championships in the 1960s with legendary players like Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, the Tide brought adulation to the state instead of the typical scorn (they would have one a 4th in 1966, but the AP punished them for resisting integration). This of course intensified the pride and love that people in the state had for their football.

This dynamic outlived the 1960s. The state of Alabama consistently ranks near the bottom in far too many lists, such as literacy, funding for public schools, quality of life, health and healthcare, infrastructure, wealth, and tax base. Yet all the while, football continued to bring accolades as the Tide has won national championships in 1973, 1978, 1979, 1992, 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2015. Auburn too has added to the pride, winning a championship in 2010 and playing for another in 2013. If there is only one thing the state of Alabama does well in the eyes of the nation, it’s football.

And then came the special senate election in December, 2017. The campaign received an unprecedented amount of national attention, as Alabama voters had to choose between a candidate who’s politics seemingly came from the state’s ugly past, and a man who promised to keep it moving in a progressive and inclusive direction.

Roy Moore was woefully unqualified and shamefully undeserving of the job of US senator. He believes in theocracy, that America was “great” during the era of slavery, that we were better off before the 14th and 15th amendments (which made the Civil Rights era’s successes possible), and apparently believes women’s suffrage and officeholding is bad for the country. I’ve no doubt in my mind that Roy Moore would have stood with Bull Conner and George Wallace.

Doug Jones, on the other hand, also conjured up the state’s ugly past, but only because he was the lawyer that finally successfully convicted two of the KKK members responsible for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. He is also a rather moderate Democrat with political positions that align well with Alabama values (besides abortion).

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Doug Jones successfully convicting a Klansman

Those scandalous sexual allegations about Moore aside, the election thus seemingly came down to whether voters wanted to reinforce the  image of the state’s ugly past, or move boldly away from the reputation that still haunts it and shapes perceptions. The choice seemed clear, but would enough white Alabamians be able to put the state’s image and future ahead of their strong party loyalties? The whole country was watching . . .

The turnout of African American voters was of course crucial, but so too was having enough white Alabama Republicans willing to vote for a Democrat. I went to the polls that day unsure of whether we could depend on either. Still, as I looked around at the people voting in my precinct, I was hopeful when I quickly calculated that about one third of the voters I saw were blacks. My precinct here in Tuscaloosa County is actually a pretty good racial mix that’s probably a good representation of the county as a whole. I felt that if one third of people voting across the state were black, there was a chance of a Democrat victory. Yet it would also require a significant amount of white voters for Jones, and of that I was most uncertain.

Watching the returns that night was about as tense and dramatically exciting as it gets. Because the polls in the evangelical North Alabama counties came in first, Roy Moore took a lead that seemed to indicate the election was going down a predictable red path. Yet with the New York Times election meter consistently indicating a Doug Jones victory, I became cautiously optimistic.

And then there was that late surge as the returns came in from Tuscaloosa (where Wallace had defied Kennedy), the so-called “black belt” counties (where the Selma marchers were beaten), and Birmingham (where Bull Conner had once reigned with terror) . As those votes came in, the whole country watched with bated breath as Jones pulled even, took a slight lead, and then in almost an instant was declared the winner by the Associated Press and other media outlets.

The victory was exhilarating, all the more so because of the late night dramatic shift in the numbers and from where they had come. I have to tell you, I cried real tears of joy, and I can’t even recall the last time I’ve done that.

I was very proud of my state because we were in the national spotlight again, with everyone thinking that the home of George Wallace and Bull Conner was going to screw it up . . . but then, dramatically, we didn’t. African American turnout was larger than normal (how proud the Selma marchers must be!), but I believe a much larger number of white Alabamians voted for Jones than the flawed exit polls indicate.

It was as if we as a state, both black and white, collectively said, “chill out America, we got this.”

And then just weeks later, as if the state pride could not get any larger, the Alabama football team found itself in the national spotlight yet again. Looking unbeatable in the Sugar Bowl, they took down last year’s national champion in a revenge game. One week later, they found themselves in a championship game that mirrored the previous month’s special election. Like Jones, Bama got down big early, fought to tie it up, and then with the whole country watching on the edge of their seats, pulled off a late night win in what seemed like an instant.

Jubilation abounded across the state as Coach Nick Saban tied Bear Bryant in number of national championship wins.

As I sat on my porch that night with friends smoking a victory cigar and sipping champagne, I couldn’t help but once again well up with pride in my state. We’ve won a lot of national championships down here, but this one was special. For once, we didn’t need football to save our reputation. This time, it was just the cherry on top.

And to that I have but one thing to say:

Roll Tide.

 

 

My Top Ten “Spook Movies” of all time!

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As many of you may know, I am a big fan of ghost stories. I enjoy them as folktale, and for what they say about the culture and time from which they emerged. But, I’ll admit I also love them simply because they are fun. Last Halloween I discovered Colin Dickey’s Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (winner of a Best Book of the Year Award from NPR).  It was so good that I read it again over the last few nights to get in the Halloween spirit. Dickey is a fine writer with a healthy cynicism about ghosts. He explores many of the more famous American ghost stories that are a product of particular moments in American history, and he effectively roots the tales within solid historical context (such as the rise of spiritualism in the 19th century). He is less interested in the alleged ghosts than he is how these stories came about and how true events help to explain their creation. I cannot recommend the book highly enough.

But for today’s blog I wanted to do something different than I normally do. Besides ghost folklore, I am also a big fan of what I call “spook movies.” These are films about ghosts, and are not horror movies filled with shock and gore. They’re more subtly scary stories about what may or may not be paranormal.  I am most impressed with films that do not utilize a ton of over-the-top special effects, as I am a big believer that nothing has the potential to scare you more than your own mind. With the right lighting, camera angles, sounds, and intelligent storylines, ghost movies can produce a lot of eery fun without cheap shocks or gross visuals.

Every Halloween I enjoy watching such films. They create the perfect mood, staying with you long after the lights go out and you crawl into bed. So in very carefully considered descending order, let me present my top 10 spook movies—all from an historian’s perspective.

10. The Ghost Breakers (1940) and Scared Stiff (1953) ghostbreakers1940.76190_080820140135.jpg

-Why not start with a little comedy before we descend into darkness? The Ghost Breakers is a Bob Hope film which was remade by the legendary comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as Scared Stiff. I have a fondness for both films because at a young age they introduced me to the joys of ghost movies. Both are played for laughs, but there are some truly creepy moments involving both “zombies” and ghosts. Of the two, Ghost Breakers is superior, with Hope playing a radio show host during the Golden Age of radio broadcasting. It was made at a time when celebrities like him did double-duty as both radio and film stars. (Whenever I teach my classes about the American home-front during WWII, I am dismayed by the increasing number of students who have never even heard of Bob Hope, much less the role he played in entertaining our troops during so many of the 20th century’s wars).  The film also provides a glimpse of how zombies were portrayed in films before George Romero changed the rules with Night of the Living Dead (1968). Prior to that groundbreaking film, zombies were creepy, but essentially harmlessly catatonic and tied to voodoo practices. The film is also set in Cuba before the Cuban revolution, when it was a fashionable tourist destination for wealthy Americans. Shamefully, it features a comedically stereotypical black character such as Hollywood was prone to depicting in the Jim Crow era, reinforcing white America’s racist assumptions. Willie Best’s performance in the major role is laudatory, however. Meanwhile, Paulette Goddard plays a spunky woman who shows much less fear than Hope or Best, and it is her bravery that fuels most of the action. For you that may not know, Goddard was married to Charlie Chaplin and was a finalist for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. (I believe she would have been perhaps equally as stunning in the role as was Vivien Leigh). This one is great to pop in before the kids go to bed.

9. The Innocents (1961). innocents-the-1961-004-miss-giddens-in-the-dark.jpg

Starring the magnificent Deborah Kerr, this film is based on Henry James’s classic novel, The Turn of the Screw. I love it because like most of the movies on this list, it is more psychological drama than horror. A governess in charge of two young children, Kerr becomes convinced that their house is haunted, and/or that the children are possessed. But are they? Or is she just slowly losing her mind? Everything about how to make a truly creepy movie without shock and special effects is on display in this intriguing character study.

8. The Sixth Sense (1999). the-sixth-sense-4.jpg

No real reason to say much about this movie because I am sure that most of you are familiar with it.  I like that it is set in Philadelphia, where colonial ghosts abound. And while I was one of those that sensed the surprise twist ending coming, it still carried quite a jolt. The best thing about it, however, is that in an age when CGI special effects could have really sent this movie over the top, director M. Night Shyamalan opted for restraint and traditional special effects. The film is all the more effectively creepy because of it.

7. The Innkeepers (2011)

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Okay, here is one that many of you may not have seen even though it is a more recent film. I am not a big fan of most current horror movies because I feel that they rely too much on shock and CGI special effects. Director Ti West’s The Innkeepers is an exception—for the most part. Set in an old New England hotel (filmed in Connecticut’s real-life Yankee Pedlar Inn, founded in 1891), the film is purposely slow at delivering its story and relies mostly on character development. We come to really like the two protagonists, and are fascinated by their interest in capturing proof of the paranormal in a hotel with a ton of history.  The film builds its suspense in the old-fashioned way and, like the hotel itself, seems a product of a bygone era.  There is no use of CGI in it at all! Sadly, I feel that it goes over-the-top in its climatic finale, but like any truly great spook movie, the biggest chills come from what you do not see rather than what you do. (FYI: The cast and crew claims to have had some paranormal experiences while filming the movie at the historic inn).

6. The Shining (1980).

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Again there is probably not much to say here about a movie that most have seen.  To me the power in this film is that like The Innocents, it leaves you wondering if the protagonist is simply losing his mind. Some 1920s Jazz-era spooks are truly and clearly haunting the deserted hotel, but the real terror comes from Jack Nicholson’s slow-burn dissent into madness. If you ever get a chance to see this film on the big screen, take it. It is a much different experience than on TV. Trust me. Danny’s big-wheel rides and the pursuit through the maze are stunningly more effective and terrifying on the big screen.

And now the top 5!

5. The Body Snatcher (1945). boris-karloff-body-snatcher.jpg

Here is another one that many of you may not have seen. The film was produced by legendary filmmaker Val Lewton, who was hired by RKO in the 1940s to tap into some of the success that Universal studios had with “creature feature” films like Dracula (1931) Frankenstein (1931),  The Mummy (1932), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and The Wolf Man  (1941). (All great movies–especially the Bride of Frankenstein— with an appeal all their own, but this list is about spook movies). Working with a very limited budget, Lewton and his team of directors and editors were masters at using lighting, music, camera angles, and sound to scare you with what they did not show rather than what they did. Lewton’s greatest masterpieces are Cat People (1941) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), but neither of those involve ghosts. The Body Snatcher is directed by Robert Wise, featuring Boris Karloff (who had played both Frankenstein and the Mummy for Universal) as a seedy early 19th century slum-dweller who makes a living producing freshly dead bodies and selling them to a prestigious doctor who uses them for anatomical research. Does Karloff dig them up, or murder them? Either way, the doctor is unconcerned. The plot is rooted in historical fact (and based loosely on a series of Scottish murders in 1828).  In the 1700 and 1800s, this sort of thing did indeed occur in the name of medical progress, and even Benjamin Franklin was probably somewhat involved in this nefarious trade when he lived in London. A ghost does not make an appearance in the film until the very last moments and it is a situation where we have to question whether or not it is supernatural, or if there is a more psychological explanation. This ambiguousness is its brilliance, and either way, the ending provides a powerful punch.

4. The Others (2001).

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This is another one that many of you have probably have seen. It is heavily inspired by The Innocents (with the always brilliant Nicole Kidman), building its drama by forcing us to consider whether the events are paranormal or if there is a psychological explanation. It is set just after WWII, but one scene builds the plot and creates a very eerie mood by portraying the mourning photographs that were popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s (In which grieving families took photographs of their beloved dead, often propping them up and posing with them). It has a surprise twist ending, and to me the brilliance of it is that once you know the ending, watching the film again creates an almost completely different movie because you see events from a totally different perspective.

3. The Uninvited (1944).

the-uninvited.jpgNot to be confused with the 2009 film with the same title, this film broke the mold for how Hollywood dealt with ghosts. While Universal studio’s “creature feature” movies gave us real monsters in the 1930s, ghosts were almost always explained in the end with a natural explanation–usually involving some bad guy trying to fool people. (à la Scooby Doo).  But during the dark days of World War II when many films started exploring darker themes in almost every genre, The Uninvited played the ghosts straight. This makes it perhaps our first true spook movie. It features a haunted house with two spirits, and a mystery that our protagonists (including the ever-dapper Ray Milland) must solve in order to give rest to the restless dead. This storyline and many of its scenes seem clichéd now, but this is because this film created the clichés. For instance, a séance scene (that is very rooted in the practices of 19th century spiritualists like the Fox Sisters) harkens to almost every ghost movie you have seen that was made after 1944. And like all the other movies on this list, the film’s power derives from character development and eeriness generated from what you do not see rather than what you do. This one was a game-changer.

2. The Changeling (1980)

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Again do not confuse this film with a more current one with the same title. This George C Scott film will truly freak you out. If you think The Shining is scary, I dare you to watch this one alone. The film is set in a Gilded Age mansion that carries a dark secret involving a quintessential robber baron magnet who was determined to pass his empire on to a son that could maintain the fortune and make it grow. Mourning the recent loss of his family in a car accident, George C. Scott’s character moves into the mansion during the present day, and while dealing with his own problems, discovers a spirit with much bigger emotional issues than his own. Like The Uninvited, the film also has a séance scene straight from the practices of 19th century spiritualists, and provides subtle moments of terror that will freak you out the more you think about them afterwards. The power of this film is that it will terrify you with simple images, such as a child’s ball rolling down the stairs.

And my #1 spook movie!

1. The Haunting (1963)

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Please forget about the 1999 remake. It is crap.

The less I tell you about this film is probably for the better, because everyone deserves to watch this brilliant movie the first time without any preconceived notions. All I will say is this: if you’ve read all of my list so far, you’ve now got a good sense of what I feel creates the best spook movies. Simply put, The Haunting is the finest blend of all these elements, and regardless of genre is a true cinematic masterpiece. Produced and directed by a Val Lewton protégé, the legendary Robert Wise (who also directed The Body Snatcher, but also such classics as West Side Story, and The Sound of Music), the movie is an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Legend of Hill House. Honestly, I am still waiting for this film to be topped by a better spook movie, though I suspect it never will. Watch this one and then try not to dream about Hugh Crane as you drift off to sleep.

And remember, no one will hear you cry out for help.

“In the night.

In the dark.”

 

 

In search of slave resistance, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

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You guys recall that show, “In Search of” with Leonard Nimoy? What a great series (even though it was probably an inspiration for that later pile of rubbish,  Ancient Aliens).

Anyway . . . more travel blog today:

Last month after leaving Philadelphia (where we visited the new Museum of the American Revolution) our band of history nerds travelled south by going through Delaware and the Maryland Eastern shore. Our ultimate destination was Yorktown’s new American Revolution museum, via the Virginia Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel. This once again allowed us to skip the hell that is I-95 (after we got out of the Philly metro area) enjoying a rather pleasant drive through a mix of suburban sprawl and rural countryside.

The bigger reason for this route, however, was to locate Frederick Douglass’s birthplace, visit some of the sites on Maryland’s Harriet Tubman Byway, and check out the brand new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor’s Center in Church Creek, Maryland. We stopped for the night at a really well-kept Best Western in Denton, Md. which is very near the neighborhood of Douglass’s early youth.

The site of the famed abolitionist’s birth has long been marked with a roadside historic marker on route 328 near Easton, Md, as well as a nearby bridge dedicated to him.  The marker was probably placed there to catch traffic on the heavily traveled US 50 (and from which a road sign leads you the short distance down route 328 to the marker), but in reality it is 4-6 miles away from the actual spot— which is on a secluded farm with very little traffic (even local). If you’ve stopped at this highway marker before, I hate to tell you, it’s not really very close to the real spot.

Douglass himself visited the area in 1878 looking for his birth site, and indicated it was on a farm near “Tapper’s Corner.”  This is the intersection of Lewistown Rd. and Maryland Rt. 303. At birth, Douglass was owned by Aaron Anthony (or “Captain” Anthony, as Douglass names him in his autobiography, and who might have actually been his father), who had a small farm in the shadow of the enormous nearby Wye Plantation (which dominated the region). Many of the slaves on the Wye Planation were apparently bred on Anthony’s farm and later sold to the larger plantation, which is the case with Frederick Douglass. He was born in his grandmother’s cabin on the Anthony farm.

Census records indicate that if you are standing at Tapper’s Corner looking east, you’re looking at what was Anthony’s farm (today it is called No-No Acres). The northern side of the farm is bounded by a creek that had a grist mill on it (the remnants of which are still highly visible when you drive by). When Douglass was there in 1878, he identified the probable location of his grandmother’s cabin as being at the head of a heavily wooded and un-tillable ravine which runs into the Tuckahoe River (which forms the eastern border of the Anthony farm).

The farm house that stands on the property now was not there when Douglass was born, but was when he visited in 1878. The farm is privately owned, so after getting our bearings at Tapper’s Corner,  we approached the owner and asked if we could walk out to the head of the ravine (which was apparently called “Kentucky” in Douglass’s day). He was a very nice man that has received this request before, so he happily gave us permission. Luckily, he’d recently cut a path all the way around his hay field, so we were actually able to carefully drive a circuitous route around the field out to the head of the ravine.  Nice.

It is important to keep in mind that the identification of the spot is a product of Douglass’s memory as an older man, recalling a farm he lived on only until he was about 8 years old. (And upon which he experienced the only connection to his mother, as she sometimes slipped off at night from another planation twelve miles away just to slip into the cabin and sleep next to her child for a few precious moments before walking back).  Thus, it might not actually be the precise location of the cabin. However, it is still pretty cool to be on the ground that he felt pretty sure was the spot, and even if it’s not correct, these are definitely the fields that his grandmother toiled on as an enslaved laborer. That in itself is pretty amazing to contemplate as you stand in the fields.

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“X” marks the spot. Mississippi University for Women Assistant Professor Jonathon Hooks (left) and myself standing near the spot that Frederick Douglass identified as his birth site.

The entire area has changed extremely little from the time Frederick Douglass was enslaved here, and is still very secluded (probably the reason why the marker was never placed in the area), as we saw only one or two other cars (and they were locals) the whole hour that we were snooping around.  (Seeing us pulled off the road, one truck turned around and came back just to see if we were OK). If you want to “feel” the past, this is a remarkable spot for it. It was one of the more emotional experiences that I’ve had while visiting an historic site.

If you’d like to go to the location yourself, I highly recommend viewing this website for information and help. It is invaluable. And PLEASE, keep in mind that this is private property and that you need to ask for permission to get out into the fields.

After this highly moving experience (all the more special because we had to work for it), we drove to the Wye Planation house, which is where Douglass was sent at about age eight. At its peak in the early 1800s, this planation was well over 20,000 acres (some sources say as much as 42,000) and around 750 enslaved laborers toiled on it, making it highly profitable for the white masters (by far the area’s largest slaveholding plantation). It isn’t anywhere near that size now, but is still in the same family, thus it is privately owned and can not be toured. We were disappointed that the house sits at the end of a long private drive that has signs on it clearly discouraging sightseers. Still, it was interesting to be in the heart of a plantation that Douglass memorably wrote about in his autobiography (describing the especial brutality of the overseer as one of his first exposures to slavery’s cruelty), even if he was there only about a year before he was given to the Auld family and forcefully taken to Baltimore.  The countryside around the Wye Plantation house has also changed very little since the antebellum era.

Better still, while traveling through the region we stumbled along another gem (thanks to Maryland’s Civil War Trail signs). We stopped at historic St. Stephens AME Church, about three miles from the Wye house.  Before the war, the area was near a spot where local slaves gathered to worship, and after emancipation they established the church nearby. Naming their community “Unionville,” the formerly enslaved citizens bought land cheaply from local Quakers and began farming.

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St. Stephens AME Church in “Unionville,” Maryland

The center of the community was the church, and behind it is a cemetery in which eighteen African American Union soldiers (USCTs) are buried. We couldn’t help but feel it is likely that some of these men had been enslaved on the Wye Plantation, but had “come back fightin’ men” (to quote the movie Glory). As a former park ranger at the Richmond National Battlefield Park, I was interested to see that some of the veterans had fought at New Market Heights, Virginia, where fourteen black soldiers earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Again, the area around the church has changed very little, so this too was a very moving experience, and I left wanting to know more about Unionville and the postwar experiences of its community of U.S. veterans and former slaves.

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Our next destination was the new Harriet Tubman museum, which acts as a visitor’s center for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, 125 miles of roads that connect 45 sites together associated with Tubman and/or the Underground Railroad. Even before finding Douglass’s birth site, we’d already visited a few of these places, including the Caroline County Courthouse where captured runaways and alleged conductors (like Hugh Hazlett) were jailed, the Choptank Riverbank site where a runaway named Daniel Crouse gave the slip to a pack of dogs and crossed in a canoe, and Tuckahoe Neck Meeting House, where local Quakers coordinated efforts to help runaways.

Finally reaching the museum in Church Creek, Maryland, we found this area too is vastly untouched by time, which is one reason the location was chosen near the fields Tubman grew up in as an enslaved child and young adult. The building itself is rather nice and has all the gloss and shine you’d expect from a brand new facility. The small museum features few relics, however, relying on the effective presentation of interpretation. This is nicely done, as I was struck by how successful it was at delivering solid and thought-provoking history, yet also providing kid-friendly interpretation.

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Displays offer a solid overview of Tubman’s biography, slavery, and the Underground Railroad, introducing themes explored in more detail at sites along the trail. One display that stands out is a listing of the names of people that Tubman is known to have helped rescue from slavery. Despite its rather out-of-the-way location, we were pleased to find a healthy number of visitors filling the museum and parking lot.

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We were sad that the museum’s film is not yet ready for viewing, but we had an engaging conversation with a Maryland park ranger who stuck around even after closing to talk with us about Tubman, and an area in which she herself had grown up. We even got so deep in conversation that we talked with this African American woman about modern race relations, why many blacks are often reluctant to want to learn or talk about slave history, and how many whites refuse to accept that the legacy of slavery still infects and shape’s our society and culture.

Yet the best part of the hunt for Tubman came afterwards.  The farm she grew up on is but a short drive away, and again takes you through fields that are untouched by time. We located the site of the Bucktown Village Store, where a reproduction of the building stands at a crossroads in the middle of farm land.IMG_20170520_180655734.jpg

Here as a young girl Tubman had perhaps her first moment of overt resistance. While she was in the store, an enslaved man that did not have permission to be there was caught by his overseer, who then ordered the young Tubman to help him tie-up the fugitive. She refused (a remarkable act of defiance by a young enslaved girl) and the enslaved man then tried to run. The white man grabbed a two pound weight and threw it at the absconding slave, but struck Tubman instead, gashing her head open. The injury plagued Tubman the rest of her life, as she was prone to blackout spells that came and went unexpectedly, perhaps a reminder of her young act of overt defiance.

We also visited more sites associated with Quakers that helped runaways, and another Choptank River crossing spot on the Underground Railroad. Yet perhaps most emotionally compelling was the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where it is believed that Tubman met with enslaved individuals who were contemplating escape.

It was getting late in the day when we arrived at this spot, a cool breeze was blowing, and it was here that I think I most connected with Harriet Tubman. I imagined her meeting under the cover of darkness and amongst the graves with folks that might have still needed to be inspired by her determination and bravado in order to overcome their legitimate fears. The courage it took to try and escape slavery is more than the average person possesses, and I was moved while standing in a spot in which Tubman infected others with her uncommonly large reservoir of bravery.

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Mount Pleasant Cemetery. None of the current headstones date to antebellum America, but it’s still a powerful spot for connecting with Tubman

Once this amazing day came to an end, we all agreed that the travel experience had answered many questions for us about Tubman. Visiting the sites, it becomes abundantly clear that much of her Underground Railroad success was due not just to her, but to a strong and defiant community of both free and enslaved African Americans, as well as a large and active population of white Quakers in the region, who together created a highly efficient and effective network on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in Delaware.

Those of us that enjoy visiting historic sites know that there is nothing like standing on these spots to help connect with the past, to “feel” the presence of our forebears, and to understand their experiences.

Which points to a truth: We need to preserve more sites like these and interpret them properly. Yes, the fact that we had to work to find Douglass’s birth site, and stumbled upon the Unionville Cemetery,  made the experience all the more special, but sites like these need to be in the hands of more state and national parks. The Tubman Byway and the new Reconstruction Era National Monument park in Beaufort, South Carolina are hopefully just the beginning of efforts to mark and interpret such locations.

Think of all the land that we have that tells the story of the Civil War. What if we had an equal number of sites that interpreted slavery and resistance to it? Or Reconstruction? So much could be learned and “felt” about both topics at even small places like Unionville.  Sadly, most surviving antebellum planation homes are in private or local hands, filled with guides still hashing out romanticized versions of the Old South and the Lost Cause.

While it is true that an increasing number of sites are more fully developing interpretations of slavery (good recent examples are James Madison’s Montpelier, as well as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and a Nat Turner visitor center and trail is in the works, though progressing slowly), we need more places like the Whitney Planation in Louisiana, where the entire focus is centered on the enslaved community.

With the recent cancellation of WGN’s Underground (by the way, the show’s producers had been at the Tubman museum just a few days before we were there), I’m afraid that Harriet Tubman and the many other heroes of the Underground Railroad will become less highly visible again, as will the plight of the enslaved and their resistance.

Let’s become less worried about tearing down Rebel monuments, and more active in marking, memorializing, and interpreting our sites associated with slavery and emancipation, so more people in more places can have experiences like my friends and I had on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. These stories need to be told and these lives and decisions understood.

I’ve spent untold hours visiting Civil War battlefields and antebellum sites, but this experience of traversing these battlefields of survival and resistance to slavery is one that I’ll long remember.

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Forgive my cheesy selfie with Harriet Tubman, but after such a great experience, I just had to.

 

 

 

 

Visiting our two new American Revolution museums

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Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution (left) and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown (right)

My “travel blog” continues today. Two of the four brand new museums I recently visited were Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution, and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Virginia.

My group of history nerd friends headed to Philadelphia after our day in DC (in which I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture), deciding to go via Annapolis and the Maryland Eastern Shore/Delaware route rather than up I-95 North through Baltimore. What a great decision! Anyone that has ever travelled on I-95 north of Richmond (all the way to Boston) will tell you to avoid it at all costs if you can. Not only did our route cut down on the toll charges, but it was a relaxing drive with very little traffic as we came through in the late evening. Having driven the stressful I-95 route many times (which sucks no matter what time of day or night it is), I can tell you, this was an extremely nice alternative. If you are traveling from DC to Philadelphia, I highly recommend it (sorry, Baltimore).

Our hotel was only a short walk from the museum (I also recommend the Wyndham Philadelphia Historic District. I have stayed there twice now and it is easy walking distance from just about everything you want to see in Philly). The new museum is in a great location (the site of the old visitor’s center), across the street from the First Bank of the US, and next door to the historic (and delicious) City Tavern (don’t miss the dining experience there). Before construction began on the brand new building, they found about 82,000 relics from colonial and 19th century Philadelphia while excavating the site.

The new facility is visually appealing on the outside and strikingly beautiful inside, featuring a grand spiraling staircase. The ground floor contains the obligatory introductory movie (honestly I don’t recall much about it), and then you ascend the stairs to the main galleries.

Here you are immediately immersed into the history, as a film projected on a wall around and above you places you in the middle of the pulling down of the King George III statue in New York (an event that took place on July 9, 1776). This first room asks you to question why the colonists came to despise a king that they once celebrated with a monument. I don’t think the museum’s planners intended a connection to our current wave of dismantling monuments, but it is a good reminder that there are precedents for Americans tearing down monuments when they no longer wanted to lionize men that they once did. It seems our revolutionary generation was not against “erasing history.”

The tight hallways then usher you through the exhibits, starting with George III’s coronation and ending with the New Republic. Unlike some museums, there is no guesswork involved in where to go and what to view next, as tight corridors snake through chronologically arranged displays. These are a nice mix of relics, interpretation, and immersive experiences.

The core of the objects on display were first obtained in the early 20th century by Reverend W. Herbert Burk, a collector/amateur historian from Valley Forge who obtained the pieces and later bequeathed the collection to the Valley Forge Historical Society. Some of the objects were then loaned out to other institutions, but most of them sat in warehouses waiting for the organization to build a large facility to display it all. That didn’t come until the early 2000s when the collection was handed over to the planners of the Museum of the American Revolution, who then spent nearly two decades cataloging the relics, planning the museum, raising funds, constructing the 118,000 square foot facility, and finally openings the doors in April 2017.

On display are such items as a pocket bible that was carried by a soldier during the Battle of Bunker Hill, Benjamin Lincoln’s sword, some of Patrick Henry’s law books, remnants of the aforementioned destroyed statue of George III, silver cups used by Washington and his staff, a powder horn used in the Battle of Fort Washington, a wooden plank from Concord Bridge (seriously cool), and a sash that Washington used early in the war to distinguish his rank and which he is seen wearing in the famous portrait painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1776.

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Washington wearing the sash in the Peale painting (left), and the sash on display

The relic collection is amazing, but the museum is also heavy on exhibits that use technology and carefully constructed sets and life-sized figurines to immerse visitors into the times. For instance, you’ll stand under Boston’s Liberty Tree, smell the tea that was cast into the Harbor, sit in replica chairs in a mockup of Independence Hall, get shot at during a skirmish with British troops, and (my favorite of all) stand among elders of the Oneida Nation as they make the decision to support the Patriots in the Revolution. (It is even way cooler that it might sound, and FYI, the Oneida Nation was one of the museum’s biggest financial contributors).

As the presence of the Oneida Nation suggests, the emphasis is on inclusiveness, and everyone in my group agreed that the Museum of the American Revolution does this exceptionally well. Instead of having a women’s section, or an African American section, or Native American section, etc., those people, their experiences, the roles they played in shaping the Revolution, and (most important) how it effected them, is fully, appropriately, and effectively interwoven into the narrative at nearly every step along the way.

This is the way that I think history should be done, not just in museums, but in textbooks and classrooms. I am not a fan of segregating people that were not caucasian men off in their own museum sections, book sidebars, or separate lectures, because that in itself suggests that they are not included in the mainstream narrative. For instance, I’ll never deliver a lecture titled “African Americans in the Revolution,” or “Women in the Civil War,” because I feel when done correctly, those groups show up in meaningful ways in every lecture. In my mind, the Museum of the American Revolution is now a model for how to do this effectively. Other museums, and teachers, take note.

The crown jewel in the museum’s collection is the exterior section of one of George Washington’s headquarter tents (his office and sleeping tent). Once you have finished your trip through the exhibits, you’ll be sent into a movie-theater-like room where a high tech audio/visual program introduces the history of the tent and its usage during the war. The climax is the reveal of the tent, which you’ll never come anywhere near arm’s reach to, as swelling music and dramatic dialogue dictate exactly how you should feel as you view the relic. I found this presentation to be a bit overly dramatic/cheesy. (“The Republic, like the tent, endures”), but I’ll admit it was effective, leaving you feeling like you have seen and experienced something quite amazing.

Visitors should know, however, that Washington had two campaign tents, and the interior of the other one (the dining and meeting tent for Washington and his officers) is at the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor’s Center at the Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia. Yet not only do they have the interior of the dining/meeting tent, they possess the interior of the sleeping/office tent (the exterior of which is what they are displaying in Philadelphia) as well as its poles. Further, without the stirring music and grandiose rhetoric, the Yorktown display is set up in a way that allows you to walk part-way inside the tent (you are separated from it by glass). Personally,  I like the tent display by the National Park Service in Yorktown much better. It is immersive and powerful without the high tech and overly dramatic fluff.

And speaking of Yorktown, the other new American Revolution museum is there at the site of what was formally known as the Yorktown Victory Center. After 50 million in upgrades, the institution has recently opened a new museum dedicated to telling the story of the whole Revolution. My group visited it two days later (after spending a day on Maryland’s Eastern Shore tracking down Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. More on that in my next posting).

Like the one in Philly, the building is immediately impressive and welcoming, with a brand new smell and shine. First up is once again the obligatory intro movie, but the Yorktown film is far more original than the one in Philadelphia (and most other historic sites). Set in the early 19th century, the film depicts a traveling carnival-type show that uses high tech (for the times) displays and a charismatic barker (“gather round, ladies and gents!”) to tell the story of the American Revolution to a group of enthralled children and adults. I really appreciated the originality of this film’s introduction to the museum’s interpretive themes. You really feel as though you are about to experience something special.

The museum does not disappoint. Honestly, the thing I immediately liked most about it is that it is open and airy, containing far more places to sit down among the exhibits than are available in the Philadelphia museum (for a weary traveler with a strained back and tired feet, this was a godsend).  It too is laid out in mostly easy to follow chronological order (although the drawback to the openness is that in contrast to the tight corridors in Philly, there are a couple of spots where it is not clear where you should go next to maintain the chronological flow. But that doesn’t last for long and is not a major problem.)

The Yorktown museum has less relics (though there are many, and some nice pieces, such as pistols owned by Lafayette), relying mostly on the interpretation and immersive exhibits.

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Two of Lafayette’s pistols on display at Yorktown

Unlike Philadelphia’s museum, Yorktown’s focuses more attention on the “big name” Founders and their influences. For instance, the Enlightenment, the philosophes, and their impact on the Founders is largely missing in Philly, and less attention is paid to the standard pantheon of Founding Fathers. These men get more of their just due in Yorktown.

Yet, while the Yorktown museum also strives for an inclusive story, it commits what I consider the sin of mostly (not exclusively) segregating women, African Americans, and Native Americans into their own separate sections.

In defense of the museum, these exhibits feature solid interpretation and derive from a genuine and non-patronizing effort (there are no “tokens” here). I just think there is a better way.

Further stemming from efforts at inclusiveness, the museum has exhibits on the typical life and the homes of colonial and revolutionary Americans of all classes.  I found this to be an odd waste of space, as Colonial Williamsburg is nearby, and anyone visiting the area will likely be spending time there. (The Philadelphia museum, for instance, spends little time on Benjamin Franklin or even the Continental Congress, presumably because there are famous areas nearby where those stories are explored in detail).

As in Philadelphia, technology is used to draw you into the Revolution, as an especially neat exhibit features a battle simulation game in which visitors can compete against the computer, or each other, and then learn how the real battle played out. Yorktown also has a Liberty Tree exhibit, yet upstages the Philly museum because visitors can type in a message that is quickly posted electronically on the tree’s lanterns. (I may or may not have posted something about being vigilant against tyranny and the need to resist chief executives that obstruct justice and decry a free press).

Far and away, however, the coolest thing I found at either museum was Yorktown’s immersive film on the Battle of the Capes and the Yorktown Siege. It is only about 12 minutes long, but is rather amazing. As you sit surrounded on three sides by film screens, you’ll feel the sea air in your face, smell the coffee being served to troops in the entrenchments (seriously, the coffee), feel the rattle of shell explosions and thunder, and be surrounded by fog and smoke during the Alexander Hamilton-led attack on redoubt # 10. The combat scenes are beautifully filmed and thrilling, yet not gruesomely realistic. Yes, other museums have similar presentations, but this one if by far the best I have ever seen (I watched it three times!) It alone is worth the price of admission.

The Yorktown museum includes a living-history area, where siege lines, military encampments, and even a colonial farm are replicated. My group did not have time to visit this area, and it didn’t seem to be much different than what has long been available at the previous Yorktown Victory Center. Still, it should be noted this alone makes a visit to the Yorktown museum a much different experience than the one in Philadelphia.

In both museums, all the high tech bells and whistles are largely designed to deliver the message that the American Revolution and our experiment in republican government are far from over. The last exhibits in both focus on the fact that our nation’s history is largely the story of increasing freedoms for peoples and groups that our Founders left out when creating a government to protect individual liberties.

Despite powerful and significant opposition, slow and halting progress, and significant times of retrogression, we’ve continually forced the United States to live up to and expand the promises of the Revolutionary generation in ways that the Founders never intended or even envisoned. Instead of canonizing them, their work, and their design for our government as infallible, we’ve honed, expanded, and bettered what they started. It is up to us to continue to do so.  Thus, both museums stress, the Revolution continues, and whatever it becomes is up to our current values and actions, as well as our vigilance and resistance to those that would turn the Revolution backwards.

It may have been because I was rushed at the end of the day through the final exhibits at Yorktown, but I felt the Philadelphia museum delivered this message more powerfully. As you exit the exhibits, you very literally look into the faces of the current generation of revolutionaries. (Hint: it is us).

Bottom line: Both of these new museums are exceptional and dedicated to telling an inclusive story of the American Revolution.  The intro movie is more unique at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, the facility is more comfortable, and the Yorktown battle presentation is by far the coolest and most successfully immersive exhibit at either site. Nevertheless, Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution more effectively tells its inclusive narrative, has more awe-inspiring relics, and more inspiringly delivers its message.

Thus the Philadelphia museum is the superior one, but not by much (and perhaps the outdoor living history displays at Yorktown make the experience there superior in the end).

I highly encourage you to make it a goal to see visit both institutions.