Boxing Shadows (2009)
In November 2005, Anissa "The Assassin" Zamarron entered the ring for one of her most important bouts: a chance to win the Women's International Boxing Association junior flyweight title. At 35, fighting in her opponent's hometown and having lost her last four fights, Anissa was considered the underdog. San Antonio's Maribel Zurita, a decade Zamarron's junior, had earned the title three months earlier and was overwhelmingly favored to retain it. After ten full rounds, as the fighters awaited the scoring result from the judges, Anissa took comfort in the belief that she had fought the best match of her career. In the eight months since her last fight, she had eaten better and trained harder than ever before, and her preparation paid off: her trainer, Richard Lord agreed. "You did a great job," he repeated, as the ring announcer came to the microphone. Anissa didn't know it at the time, but it was her last fight, and she won: WIBA junior flyweight world champion!
Boxing Shadows tells the story of Anissa Zamarron's life in Central Texas, including her rise to two-time world champion boxer. To those unfamiliar with the sport, Boxing Shadows offers a primer on the training, traveling, and match-ups of the early years of professional women's boxing. Zamarron fought in the first sanctioned women's bout in New York State along with a number of international bouts before women's boxing was much of a blip on the radar of most American sports fans.
The Bennett sisters boxing, circa 1910.
But the book, co-written by Zamarron and sports writer Kip Stratton, is about much more. Boxing was not just a meal ticket for Zamarron, it was a life-saver. She was born in San Angelo, Texas, and her family moved to the Austin area when Anissa was seven. Shortly after, her parents separated and her family was divided. Her brothers -- her heroes -- lived with their father and Anissa went with their mother who, having married in her teens, relished a freedom she had never experienced before, to work full time, go to happy hour every night, and date. The loss of the structure of family life, the longing for the company of her brothers, and the rough and tumble apartment complex where she spent these formative years pushed Anissa further and further into darkness.
Anissa "The Assassin" Zamarron (The Women's Boxing Archive Network)
Anissa felt a strong self-loathing as early as second grade, began cutting herself in middle school, and was committed to a mental hospital for the first time in her early teens. She discovered boxing in 1993 at age 23. After years of therapy, self-mutilation, and struggle, boxing was an outlet for the demons that drove Zamarron to hurt herself. Boxing did not end her battles with herself, but gave Anissa ways to work through challenges in the gym, rather than in her mind. Zamarron is open about her struggles with learning disabilities, mental illness, and drug addiction. Her success in the ring offers inspiration for others struggling to overcome similar challenges to reach their goals.
Master-at-Arms Seaman Rhonda McGee, left, spars with Patricia Cuevas during an exhibition match in the preliminary rounds of the 2011 Armed Forces Boxing Championship.
Boxing Shadows is devastating in its frankness, uplifting for its courage, and all the more impressive when one meets Anissa. In May of 2012, I visited Anissa at Richard Lord's Boxing Gym in Austin, Texas to talk about Boxing Shadows. [You can see the video interview at the bottom of this page or on our Youtube channel here.] Zamarron is marked, more than scarred, by her past. She is surprisingly forgiving of those who disappointed her or otherwise contributed to the internal battles she fought as a child. After the interview, Anissa prepared to spar, and even then, nearly seven years after her last bout, in the ninety seconds it took Richard Lord to wrap her hands, the Anissa I had just interviewed was completely transformed. She forgot about the camera, disconnected from everybody in the gym, and began moving like a boxer -- even standing still. Focused in a way I had not seen in the half dozen years I had known her, at that moment -- "The Assassin" was back.
Producer: Amanda E. Gray
Co-Producers: Therese T. Tran and Anne M. Martinez
Cinematographer: Therese T. Tran
Editor: Amanda E. Gray
Colorist/Online: Therese T. Tran
Transcriber: Lizeth Elizondo
All photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Except the photo of Zamarron in the ring, which comes from the Women's Boxing Archive Network
Train Dreams (2012)
On the surface, Train Dreams appears to be an historical novel; most of the story takes place during the first third of the twentieth century, and it includes real people and places. Yet as a narrative, the novel—or rather, novella (consisting of 116 short pages)—is fundamentally ahistorical. The protagonist Robert Grainier lives for 80 years, but he remains outside the mainstream of American life; when he dies, he has never used a telephone. He has no heirs, and he has no personal history before the time he can remember as a boy. He never learns anything about his parents or the place of his birth, and in fact he “soon misplaced this earliest part of his life entirely.” Thus he lacks a sense of his own beginnings.
Grainier suffers a great tragedy in mid-life, and that tragedy shapes his subsequent being in the world, but he does not seem to change much as a person; throughout the book he remains a skinny and steady hard worker, and though we feel for him in his loneliness, we do not learn much about him as a person. The book is not organized chronologically, and from start to finish certain constants endure—Grainier’s encounters with the menacing magnificence of nature in northern Idaho, and with the “the hard people of the northwestern mountains”—his people—who live there. Johnson highlights the railroad as a metaphor and as a source of employment for Johnson, but it is not a machine that takes us from one place to another; rather, its whistle blends with the howl of the coyote, and as it passes through the valley where Grainier lives, it enters his dreams.
From a historian’s perspective, the greatest virtue of Train Dreams is its evocation of the rough life followed by railroad construction workers and lumbermen in the Pacific Northwest. As a young man Grainier spends time as what he calls a “layabout,” but what we today would call a casual worker. He helps to blast tunnels, bridge canyons, cut trees, and roll logs. He embraces outdoor engineering feats as intrinsically heroic, hailing the spanning of a 60-foot deep, 112-foot wide gorge akin to building the pyramids. He and his co-workers “fought the forest from sunrise until suppertime,” and then collapse, exhausted, into their bunks.
An 1869 sketch depicts men Working on the last mile of the Pacific Railroad. European and Asian laborers mingle together. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Railroad workers for the Southern Pacific Company in San Francisco. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Southern Pacific Company railroad yards in San Francisco. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Women railroad workers take over the cars and maintenance of freight and passenger trains in the Southern Pacific Company yards at San Francisco. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
By the time he is in his late 30s Grainier is making and saving money to care for his wife Gladys and their daughter Kate, whom he regularly leaves in their valley cabin for months at a time while he seeks work wherever he can find it. Returning from a railroad job in the fall of 1920, he sees that a fire has consumed the valley and that Gladys and Kate have vanished: “Soon he was passing through a forest of charred, gigantic spears that only a few days past had been evergreens. The world was gray, white, black, and acrid, without a single live animal or plant, no longer burning yet full of the warmth and life of the fire.” Devastated by the loss of his family, Grainier slowly rebuilds a cabin on the site of the old one, and lives isolated from the rest of the world, as long as his savings sustain him.
Railroad worker housing along the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks in Sacramento County, CA. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
A tool shed along the Idaho Northern Railroad in Gem County, ID. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Juxtaposed to the tenderness Grainier feels for his family is the deep and persistent violence that Johnson presents as a fundamental fact of rural western life. The author punctuates his story by accounts of horrific deaths—a lumber worker killed by a falling tree branch; a 12-year old girl murdered by her father when he discovers she is pregnant (unbeknownst to him, raped by her uncle); an Indian run over by a train, his remains scattered in tiny pieces along the track; a teen done in by a weak heart while lifting a sack of cornmeal; a prospector blown to bits while trying to thaw out a stick of dynamite on his wood stove.
Gladys appears as a ghost to tell her widowed husband the circumstances of her own painful demise; in fleeing the fire with Kate she fell onto rocks in a river, breaking her back. The rushing waters bore her away. Train Dreams contains other elements of magical surrealism—think Toni Morrison flirting with Paul Bunyan--mainly as a means of melding humans and animals into a single life-force that animates the mountains and valleys. After years of living alone, Grainier hears terrifying stories of a “wolf-girl,” half person and half beast, who roams the land with no other apparent purpose than to strike fear into hearts of grown men: She was “a creature God didn’t create. She was made out of wolves and a man of unnatural desires.” Predictably, this wolf-girl turns out to be Grainier’s long-lost daughter Kate, though the first and only time they confront each other, she shows no recognition of her father, and quickly disappears forever into the forest. To mourn, Grainier howls with the wolves, his lament echoing off the mountainsides.
One of the great pleasures of Train Dreams is the evocative language Johnson uses to describe the brutality of entwined natural and human forces. A group of white men grab and try to lynch a Chinese railroad worker accused of stealing, but the attackers are at least momentarily thwarted when their victim “shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck.” Grainier finds that his snug home with Gladys and Kate has been reduced to “cinders, burned so completely that its ashes had mixed in with a common layer all about and then had been tamped down by the snows and washed and dissolved by the thaw.” Yet there is beauty too: Before too long, as Grainier drives through the valley in a wagon “behind a wide, slow, sand-colored mare, clusters of orange butterflies exploded off the blackish purple piles of bear sign and winked and fluttered magically like leaves without trees.” At night Grainier contemplates his own solitude as he “watched the sky. The night was cloudless and the moon was white and burning, erasing the stars and making gray silhouettes of the mountains.”
This spring the Pulitzer Prize board rejected all three nominees put forth by the fiction jurors—David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (a behemoth at fifty chapters and 500 pages), Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, and Johnson’s Train Dreams. If the Pulitzer intends to reward “the great American novel” or even “a great American novel,” then it is not difficult to discern the rationale behind the board’s decision to bypass Train Dreams at least. Johnson has written a novella that is more literary than historical (the book did win the National Book Award). Even had he intended to reveal the fraught enterprise of modern “progress”—the human price it exacts, and the natural barriers to it—then Train Dreams is only a qualified success, for it lacks the substance of a larger early twentieth-century story. Missing here is any meaningful intertwining of technology, capitalism, community, and the exploitation of labor and the organized resistance of laborers to that exploitation. The evocations of Train Dreams are not exclusively American; we can imagine, and document, similar themes in the history of Canada or Australia, for example—the prejudice and anger of various ethnic groups toward each other; the hard living of single men toiling in the forests and on the railroads; the unforgiving nature of the seasons; and the predatory wiles of beasts which are, perhaps, not so different from humans after all. Still, the story is a great pleasure to read.
Posted on July 13, 2012
Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (1997)
Historian Jules Tygiel presents not only an account of Jackie Robinson’s heroic struggle to integrate Major League Baseball, but a larger history of links between African American history, baseball, and the modern civil rights movement.Baseball’s Great Experiment further raises questions about race and sports in our current day.
The integration of baseball in the immediate post-World War II years profoundly impacted American racial attitudes and culture. Baseball, the national pastime and most popular sport at the time, had remained segregated even as football and basketball had begun integrating. Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey became convinced that the integration of African Americans into Major League Baseball would serve as both a moral cause and an untapped resource of talented players that could strengthen his team. Rickey recruited Jackie Robinson, a former army lieutenant and exceptional athlete who had played numerous sports at UCLA, to initiate his great experiment. Robinson suffered threats, taunts, and abuse while breaking baseball’s color line in 1947, but performed remarkably on the field, carrying himself with a righteous dignity that amazed Americans. Tygiel contends that Robinson’s quest raised awareness among white Americans ignorant to the scourge of racism in their midst. Additionally, the integration of baseball influenced future civil rights initiatives by providing an example of brave nonviolent protest in the face of brutal opposition, and also through illustrating how economic factors could undermine segregation.
Tygiel emphasizes the importance of Rickey and Robinson’s endeavor in the struggle for black equality. Robinson played the 1946 season for the Montreal Royals before joining the Dodgers the next year, thereby also challenging Jim Crow in the minor leagues. Integration in the minors became as critical as in the majors, since farm clubs provided opportunities for blacks to develop their baseball skills. The author notes that black ball players in the minors often continued to face vicious racism, even after Robinson broke down the color barrier in the majors. Robinson’s success with the Dodgers eventually caused other ball clubs to recruit athletes from the Negro leagues, continuing baseball’s integration. Soon African American athletes like Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Satchel Paige starred in Major League Baseball. These ball players became heroes to the larger black community and caused whites to reexamine their racial attitudes. Black major and minor leaguers often challenged southern segregationist mores while in spring training by attempting to integrate hotels, restaurants, and other public venues, setting the stage for later civil rights battles. Tygiel argues that the successful coalition of black protestors (like Robinson), white liberals (such as Rickey), and sympathetic members of the press (both white and black) created a precedent for the modern civil rights movement.
(Image courtesy of ozfan22/Flickr Creative Commons)
(Image courtesy of Black History Album/Flickr Creative Commons)
(Image courtesy of stechico/Flickr Creative Commons)
The economics of baseball in small town life also played a role in integrating baseball. Major and minor league spring training provided valuable income for hosting locales, most of which were in the South. After some initial resistance, southern boosters largely abandoned their protests against integrated teams for fear of losing their lucrative deals with baseball clubs. Economics outweighed social customs for most business people seeking to build a prosperous South.
Yet while Robinson and Rickey’s great experiment achieved success, the author reminds us that inequality persists in baseball, and indeed, other sports. In the years following his retirement from baseball, Robinson became disillusioned with the pace of racial integration in baseball, and in society itself. The lack of African Americans in manager and front office positions in Major League ball clubs particularly disturbed him. Although the number of minority coaches has increased since 1983 when this book was published, we continue to see a disproportionately low number of minorities in coaching and organizational positions not only in baseball, but also in football, basketball, and in other sports, at both the college and professional levels of play. Baseball’s Great Experiment illustrates the fascinating story of the struggle to integrate baseball while encouraging us to contemplate the continued presence of racism in sports. Today, with sports occupying such a prominent place in American life, readers will benefit from studying this interesting and moving book about race and athletics.
Posted on July 6, 2012
The Fiery Trial (2011)
Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial examines Abraham Lincoln’s views on American slavery, southern secession and the convergence of events that produced the Emancipation Proclamation. Although Foner’s narrative relies on speeches, correspondence and newspaper materials many scholars have previously engaged, the author seeks a new “Lincoln in motion” by “tracking the development of his ideas and beliefs.” Rather than framing emancipation as an inevitable outcome, Foner regards that epochal moment as a confluence of both ideological and contingent forces—Lincoln’s personal desire to curtail the institution, the military necessity of destroying its economic value and, above all, the President’s determination to preserve the Union.
Beginning with Lincoln’s childhood years in Kentucky, Foner’s narrative stresses the future President’s moderate temperament and perpetual anxiety over division and radicalism—a judicious disposition that helped shape his views on slavery. As a state legislator, Lincoln spoke out against the institution’s divisive nature, anticipating its potential to threaten America’s social and political stability. However, the author is careful not to cast Lincoln as an arbiter of total race equality, revealing instances in which he was all too willing to engage, and manipulate, contemporary racial ideologies. One notable example is the presidential campaign of 1858, during which Lincoln accused the Democratic candidate, Franklin Pierce, of encouraging racial “amalgamation” by opposing the Fugitive Slave Act. Foner depicts these attitudes as fairly ordinary within the Republican Party of antebellum America: a center point between “radical abolitionism” and the Democratic Party’s virulent racism.
Foner argues that Lincoln’s instinctive moderation continued to inform his presidency following the outbreak of the Civil War. Calming sectarian tensions and reestablishing legal authority across the Union persisted as his chief objectives. During the early years of the war, abolition was not an inherent objective for Lincoln, but rather a bargaining chip to encourage reunification. While he sought to avoid the slavery question on a national level, the President was simultaneously courting border states with offers of compensated emancipation, leading one contemporary writer to note that to “soothe southern wrath…the negro is thrown in as the offering.”
At The Fiery Trial’s conclusion, Foner directly challenges the existing historical narrative surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation, namely that it represented a uniquely progressive decision impelled solely by the moral evil of slavery. Stressing the document’s political and military objectives, Foner depicts the pronouncement as one final effort to entice slaveholders back into the union. Although its language eschewed the gradualism of Lincoln’s earlier views on abolition, the Proclamation’s emancipatory edict was fundamentally borne out of wartime necessity. In addition to providing fresh soldiers for the Union cause, liberating southern slaves also effectively gutted the Confederacy’s labor pool and, consequently, larger economic system.
Ultimately, Foner portrays the Emancipation Proclamation as a pragmatic means of achieving both political and military objectives—very much in keeping with Lincoln’s inclination to be “propelled” by provisional events rather than by a linear moral imperative. Lincoln himself even acknowledged as much: “I claim not to have controlled events…but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” By forgoing the inevitability of emancipation, Foner removes Abraham Lincoln from the idealism of history and recasts the 16th President as a practical administrator, intent on restoring political control over the United States. Emancipation, despite its significance within the annals of American history, was for Lincoln a means of attaining that outcome.
- Alexander Hay Ritchie (engraver), F.B. Carpenter (artist), "The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet," 1866.
- Artists' own via The Library of Congress
You may also like:
Our blog post debating the origins of the American Civil War.
George Forgie's offers a list of his favorite history books about the Civil War.
Kristie Flannery reviews a book about the very visible legacy of the American Civil War.
Professor Jacqueline Jones talks about her latest book Saving Savannah.
Posted on May 3, 2012
Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South (2008)
To say that the US Civil War (1861-65) was tragic and destabilizing is a glaring understatement. Hundreds of thousands died or were wounded in combat, entire cities were destroyed, and afterwards, the large segment of the nation that had seceded had to be reincorporated into the national body, and a new citizen-subject remained to be embraced by post-bellum societies. Hannah Rosen’s Terror in the Heart of Freedom analyzes the experiences of recently freed blacks, released from the bonds of slavery and plantation life, who sought to create new lives as freedmen and women. Many headed to cities as part of a “mass exodus from slavery.” The city of Memphis, Tennessee became one such “city of refuge” where freedpersons practiced their freshly conferred citizenship. They established new communities, built churches, opened their own schools, and formed African American benevolence societies that sponsored community events. In short, freedpersons in Reconstruction Memphis, as in many other cities, catalyzed changes in the socio-spatial boundaries of urban spaces that had previously been closed to them.
These changes did not come without tensions, which the continued occupation of southern cities by federal troops exacerbated. White society had also undergone transformations in the wake of the Civil War. In Memphis, working-class white immigrants filled a political vacuum left by the outmigration of the city’s antebellum commercial and political elite. These immigrants lived primarily in South Memphis, a region of the city that also happened to be a major destination for recently arriving freedpeople. Not only did the emerging white elites have to contend with a federal force that undermined their hegemony, they also encountered an expanding entrepreneurial and professional Black elite that they viewed as another threat to their political and economic ascendance. These tensions came to a head on Tuesday, May 1, 1866 in what is known as the Memphis Riot.
On this day, black Union soldiers that had been the primary federal force occupying Memphis turned in their weapons as part of their very public discharge. Because of the public nature of their de-armament, Rosen believes that the city police and white civilians chose this day to act. Over the course of three days, white rioters killed 48 African Americans, wounded 70 to 80, and set fire to 91 homes, four black churches, and 12 black schools. The rioters also raped several freedwomen. What started as a clash between black Union soldiers and Memphis police soon came to affect many more people and to symbolize much more.
Recently, historians have found that the Memphis Riot was not entirely spontaneous, random, or anarchic. It was “well-orchestrated” and the assailants made a “clear political expression.” What historians have missed in previous studies, Rosen argues, is the symbolic weight of the sexual assaults that African American women suffered during the riot. In the wake of the riots, a series of Congressional hearings were convened in Memphis with the aim of clarifying what had happened in Memphis that May. Rosen goes back into the records of the congressional investigating committees that took freedpeople’s testimonies in Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, as well as the records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands to uncover the “coherent symbolic order” demonstrated in the riot. This order was the “nexus of racial and gendered meanings...performed and rearticulated through [rape].”
Why did freed people testify? Rosen’s close analysis of the meanings and discourses embedded in their testimony about the rapes suggests that for freedmen and women, testifying was an act intended to claim the right of all citizens “to live free of violence.” Freedom for formerly enslaved persons meant more than “to be free.” It also meant “to be a citizen,” which presupposed the same rights and protections for all citizens (in law and practice, however, citizen typically signified adult male). Women who described acts of rape had to “find the words to narrate and record” what they had witnessed or experienced. Many of the testimonies of freedwomen who the white rioters raped described the men as having acted very nonchalantly before the sexual assault. Rosen interprets this as stemming from a mentality that saw black women as occupying a position so low on the socio-sexual hierarchy that they simply did not have the choice to refuse a sexual act. Several women recalled having asserted their free status to no avail. Quite convincingly, Rosen contends that by ignoring freedwomen’s freedom claims “the assailants thereby asserted, through their words and gestures, that emancipation was of no significance and that black women continued to be different from white women...who were...protected from sexual exploitation by patriarchal family structures and the rights of citizens.”
White northerners viewed the Memphis Riot as evidence of the continued need to take a hardline in the reintegration of former Confederate states. One of the most polemical Reconstruction Acts, which set the terms for the reincorporation of the seceded states, was the 14t Amendment. Southern states debated the issue of universal citizenship rights and their extension to former slaves in a series of Constitutional Conventions. Rosen examines one such convention held in Little Rock, Arkansas, in January 1868 to uncover the meanings ascribed to masculinity and femininity that contributed to the “racist terror” that continued unabated from 1865 to 1876 even though Congress and the northern press publicized the riot and the testimonies of freedpeople.
What is so powerful about Rosen’s study is that it shows the hope that freedpersons had for their future, their trust that government institutions would protect their rights as citizens, and the mentalité that “impinged on their ability to claim their rights as citizens.” The subject matter is not light, but Rosen offers a study of the post-bellum period that helps us interpret the violence against African Americans that was to come and it proposes a way of “reading” rape that has relevance to studies of violence against women used as a political weapon, both past and present.
- Alfred R. Waud, "Scenes in Memphis, Tennessee, during the riot," 1866.
- Harper's Weekly via The Library of Congress
Posted on March 27, 2012
Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: Birth Control in America (1976)
In 1873, the US Congress passed an “Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles for Immoral Use.” The “Articles for Immoral Use” were devices and potions for contraception or abortion. Commonly called the Comstock Law after Anthony Comstock, one of the founders of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and a major proponent of the legislation, by 1900, over twenty states including Connecticut had state “Comstock Laws” that made the distribution of birth control illegal. It was decades before birth control was fully decriminalized. When, in 1965, Justice William O. Douglas wrote the majority decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, he identified a “right of privacy” implicit in the Fourth Amendment that guaranteed the right of couples to receive birth control information, devices, or prescriptions from physicians. After subsequent decisions extended this right to non-married people, a woman’s right to prevent pregnancy seemed secure. Since birth control is in the news again, a look at one of the best histories of the birth control movement in the U.S. is timely.
Linda Gordon, the Florence Kelley Professor of History at New York University, published Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: Birth Control in America in 1976. In 2002, she published a revised and updated version of that book under a new title: The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America. Gordon’s analysis of the history of birth control politics is not an uncritical tale of the heroic triumph of birth control advocates. Her central argument is that crusades for reproductive rights must be evaluated in their particular political context: “Reproduction control brings into play not only the gender system but also the race and class system, the structure of medicine and prescription drug development and reproduction, the welfare system, the education system, foreign aid, and the question of gay rights and minors’ rights.” Gordon’s account is a multi-dimensional exploration.
She begins with a discussion of Victorian sexual ideology and the work of late-nineteenth century birth control entrepreneurs. She then traces a complex history of birth control movements to demonstrate that “neo-Malthusianism, voluntary motherhood, Planned Parenthood, race suicide, birth control, population control, control over one’s own body,… were not merely different slogans for the same thing but helped construct different activities, purposes, and meanings.” The campaign for legal access to birth control included individuals and organizations with diverse and often contradictory goals.
Gordon explains that early twentieth-century “birth controllers” were radical reformers—feminists, socialists, and liberals—who hoped to aid the working class in their struggle with capitalism by helping women limit family size. Birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger initially found support for birth control among socialists and sex radicals but by 1915, she abandoned socialist organizing and focused on the single issue of birth control. Gordon analyzes the work of Sanger’s first birth control clinic in New York City, her creation of the American Birth Control League, her civil disobedience, her strategic cultivation of moneyed and influential allies, her attraction to eugenic arguments for birth control, her effective consolidation of once-rival organizations in 1938 into the Birth Control Federation of America, and that organization’s emergence as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) in 1942. But Sanger’s work is not the only narrative that Gordon provides. Gordon’s account of the birth control movement includes nuanced discussions of how the medical profession, the New Deal, the Roman Catholic Church, and the social conservatism of the 1940s and 1950s influenced birth control politics. For example, the PPFA and the medicalization of birth control brought needed attention to women’s health. At the same time, in its first two decades, the PPFA projected a defense of traditional marriage and, too often, “isolate[d] sexual and reproductive problems from women’s overall subordination.”
Gordon’s treatment of birth control politics and the larger issue of reproductive rights in the last half of the twentieth century lacks the comprehensive and critical attention that she provides for the late 19th century through the early 1960s. She briefly traces the abortion rights movement and the rise of antiabortion activism. She concludes this chapter presciently when she writes that “No one issue dramatizes the basic cultural/political fissures in the United States at this time more than abortion does—although there is competition from gay rights, gun control, and religion in the schools.”
Gordon writes about the Women’s Health Movement and notes that it positively influenced gynecological practice. She also writes about problems with the first generation of oral contraceptives, the notorious Dalkon Shield IUD, the salutary changes among “population control” advocates, and the scandal of sterilization abuse among women of color. Gordon suspects a racial subtext to the 1980s alarm about the rising rate of teenage pregnancies; and she makes the commonsense observation that while the U.S. has a higher teenage pregnancy rate than twenty-seven other industrialized countries, it is also the case that U.S. teenagers are less likely to use contraception that those in comparable countries.
She notes, but does not investigate, the conflicts between women’s rights activists. Mainstream, white and middle-class feminists were slow to recognize the particular concerns of women of color—concerns about forced sterilization, the availability of pre-natal care, and the persistent racism that motivated some birth control activists. In addition, Black Nationalists condemned birth control as a genocidal plot. Black women who hoped for a larger understanding of reproductive rights as well as access to birth control and abortion struggled both within their communities and with white women’s organizations. Gordon’s comprehensive and astute analysis of the first many decades of birth control advocacy encourage the reader to want more of the same about the last several decades. Still, Gordon’s book remains a superb examination of birth control politics.
Unknown photographer, "Ms. Margaret Sanger,"
Bains News Service via The Library of Congress
Warren K. Leffler, "Demonstration protesting anti-abortion candidate Ellen McCormack at the Democratic National Convention, New York City," 14 July 1976
Photographer's own via The Library of Congress
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Harvard University Professor of History Jill Lepore's article on Planned Parenthood in a November 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Posted on March 19, 2012
The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (2001)
Bruce J. Schulman in his 2001 work The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics surveys the history of an overlooked decade.Defining the “long 1970s” as the period between Richard Nixon’s entrance in the White House in 1969 and Ronald Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984, Schulman counters popular conceptions that the decade was seemingly forgettable and unimportant. Instead he argues that during the 1970s the United States experienced a transformation in multiple facets of its character that helped shape our current time.
Schulman’s narrative weaves together politics, economics, social developments, and cultural trends to illustrate the significance of this decade. The author asserts that the 1960s effectively ended with the turbulent events of 1968, and when the “Great American Ride,” or booming postwar economy, finally ran its course. During the 1970s, political power in the United States shifted from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and Southwest, the so-called Sunbelt, as Americans, jobs, and federal dollars flocked to these warmer and more business-friendly regions. Politicians such as Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan hailed from Sunbelt states, and recognized such political trends. Indeed, the author suggests that the United States encountered no less than a “southernization” of American life in the decade.
Americans experienced significant changes in their attitudes during these years. The tragedy of Vietnam and the trauma of Watergate created much skepticism toward government. People looked to the private sphere and its potential for solving economic and societal problems, a key theme of the later 1980s. Yet while conservatism toward government grew amongst the populace in the 1970s, social and cultural legacies from the 1960s became more mainstream. Most Americans, even southerners, accepted the immorality of racial segregation and disfranchisement. Long hair and outrageous clothing became the norm for Americans of all political and social backgrounds, while sexuality outside of traditional marriage became widely practiced and accepted, especially amongst the younger generation. Schulman contends that personal liberation and rebellion against authority became key themes of the 1970s, as Americans sought individualism through new outlooks on religion, popular culture, and sexuality.
Although such tendencies developed, not all Americans welcomed them. The author notes that by the late 1970s, the New Right emerged as a powerful force in politics. Religious conservatives, most notably Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, decried social excesses, while anti-feminists, such as Phyllis Schlafly, organized against the Equal Rights Amendment. Affirmative Action and racial busing divided Americans. Economic conservatives railed against taxes. Cold Warriors disillusioned with détente and the outcome of the Vietnam War theorized a new foreign policy, based on American international power and aggressiveness toward the Soviet Union, known as neoconservatism. Schulman proposes that such groups played a major role in Ronald Reagan’s election and reelection to the presidency through exploiting American anxiety. The author commendably illustrates how the 1970s, rather than being an uneventful and lackluster decade, critically affected the course of United States history. The Seventies will prove insightful reading for anyone wishing to reflect upon this transformative time in our nation’s recent past.
David Falconer, ""'No Gas" Signs Were a Common Sight in Oregon During the Fall of 1973, Such as at This Station in Lincoln City Along the Coast. Many Stations Closed Earlier, Opened Later and Shut Down on the Weekends 10/1973," 1973
Author's own via The U.S. National Archives
Charles O'Rear, "Hitchhiker with His Dog, "Tripper", on U.S. 66. U.S. 66 Crosses The Colorado River At Topock: 05/1972," May 1972
Author's own via The U.S. National Archives
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The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) project, Documerica, a collection of photographs taken by freelance photographers from 1971-77 that capture moments related to environmental problems, EPA activities, and everyday life in the 1970s.
For more on Documerica, you can also look at our Tumblr blog.
Dolph Briscoe IV's review of Sean Wilentz's "The Age of Reagan: A History."
Posted on March 7, 2012
Before Red Tails: Black Servicemen in World War I
Moviegoers who recently flocked to cinemas around the country to take in George Lucas’ World War II aviation blockbuster, Red Tails, may be unaware of the long and checkered history of black servicemen in the American military in the decades before the ascendance of the now famous Tuskegee Airmen. Two recent books, however, provide well-documented accounts of the struggles endured by black soldiers as they fought for democracy on both sides of the Atlantic during and after World War I. Adriane Lentz-Smith’s Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I (2009) and Chad L. Williams’s Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (2010) share in celebrating the triumphs of black soldiers during World War I as well as in exposing the profound hardships endured by these brave men. Together, both books also offer a rich counter-narrative to traditional World War I history. By eschewing the classic topics associated with the subject, namely German nationalism and the heroism of white American soldiers and politicians, Lentz-Smith and Williams write the black soldier out of the margins and recount the wartime experience largely from his perspective.
Lentz-Smith’s Freedom Struggles spotlights the more than 200,000 black soldiers dispatched to Europe with the American Expeditionary Forces during the Great War and chronicles the numerous battles these soldiers encountered along enemy lines. Lentz-Smith reveals that sometimes white American soldiers were more threatening to black soldiers than the foreign enemies. Nonetheless, for many of these black servicemen, it was their sustained contact with Europeans, mainly French civilians, and especially French women and colonial African troops that helped shape their vision of an America unburdened by the racist impositions of Jim Crow. Through highlighting moments when French civilians graciously welcomed black soldiers into their war-torn nation and often shielded them from the indignities hurled from their fellow American soldiers, Lentz-Smith masterfully juxtaposes that foreign hospitable treatment with the more antagonistic racial climate that lingered back in the United States. Unfortunately, these sable heroes did not garner the same level of respect from their military counterparts or from the various American communities where segregation and a strict racial caste system governed social and political relations of the day. But Lentz-Smith points out that black servicemen were unprepared to surrender defeat either in Europe or at home in the States. Instead, they consistently demanded equality, recognition, and respect at nearly every turn.
In one particularly telling moment, Lentz-Smith recasts the infamous 1917 Houston Race Riot, also known as the Camp Logan Massacre, to illuminate how internecine military racial tensions coalesced with prevailing southern racial, gender, and class assumptions, resulting in a bloody uprising in which four soldiers and sixteen civilians perished. In the end, the riot that stemmed from the Houston Police’s racist and un-gentlemanly treatment of a black woman in a poorer part of the city, led to one of the largest military court martials in U.S. history. That members of the Twenty-Fourth U.S. Infantry ultimately came to this Houston woman’s aid and found themselves eventually hanging from government nooses or imprisoned for life, underscores Lentz-Smith’s main contention that black World War I soldiers valiantly fought on numerous fronts to help dismantle Jim Crow, push for recognition of their manhood, and certainly propel the modern civil rights movement, all while maintaining firm belief in President Wilson’s claim that the Great War was a “war for democracy.”
Torchbearers for Democracy, reiterates some of the major themes found in Freedom Struggles. Williams, like Lentz-Smith, probes black soldiers’ beliefs that military service would lead to a quicker acknowledgment of their citizenship and manhood rights. After all, military service has long been a vehicle for white men to prove their loyalty and fitness for American citizenship, so in the minds of many of black soldiers, the same formula had to work for them. Yet, Williams maintains that a bulk of the black soldier’s work would have to be performed at home since it was here that Jim Crow proved an unrelenting combatant. Williams offers a poignant chapter on how black veterans navigated the intensely violent summer of 1919, known as “Red Summer.” He also reveals the numerous ways in which black soldiers and veterans fought to end racial inequality in practically every area of American life—from politics to labor. Williams also reflects on the role of black soldier in history and memory, ultimately arriving at some original and insightful claims regarding the notions of internationalism and diaspora.
Overall, Williams’ study offers a more thorough engagement of the Great War as a defining moment in the long quest for civil rights in America. Taken together, these two books provide a much needed historical context, or the prequel, to George Lucas’s astounding World War II fighting drama, Red Tails. Those interested in understanding the foundations of black military service and the pre-1950s Civil Rights Movement should certainly consult both monographs and the movie.
For more on African American soldiers in WWI, take a look here:
"Teaching with Documents," from the National Archives
New York's famous 369th Regiment returning from France
National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the War Department, Record Group 165, ARC Identifier: 533548
Posted Monday February 13, 2011
A History of Islam in America: From the New World to the New World Order (2010)
In the last decade, the history of Muslims in America has come into its own and A History of Islam in America provides one of the most comprehensive and even-handed treatments of the subject. Many previous studies breezily pit “Islam” against the “West.” Sidestepping the assumption that the two categories are essentially different, GhaneaBassiri studies the actual lived tradition of Muslims in America instead of second-guessing their compatibility.
America has been home to Muslims for a long time. Compelling stories come to the fore. Some Muslims arrived in the New World before slavery, like the adventurous sixteenth-century Moroccan cowboy and healer, Estevanico. Enslaved African Muslims sometimes resorted to private worship and remained active in their local communities. The story of Selim, an Algerian captive who petitioned for his freedom, is fascinating. Understanding his constraints, Selim converted to Christianity and, as a result, received economic and political benefits. He finally earned enough money to return to Algeria as a free man. Once there, he reverted to Islam.
Much past research about Islam in the West has focused on perceptions. For instance, Timothy Marr’s The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism and Susan Nance’s How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream: 1790-1935 study only non-Muslim Americans’ representation of Islam. But images of Muslims in literature and political propaganda are not the only sources at our disposal. The historical records of Muslim individuals and institutions show that in the past four hundred years, Islam and America have interacted and the relationship between the two has defined each. Islamic America, like the rest of American society, is not one uniform set of communities, practices or symbols, but it has nonetheless existed in different forms continuously on this side of the Atlantic.
American political, legal, and civic institutions have provided many ethnic and religious groups, not only Muslims, with opportunities for participation mixed with doses of exclusion. GhaneaBassiri tells us of Muslims who collaborated and challenged these norms through organizations of their own. In the period between the two world wars, Islamic community building took root in mosques and benevolent societies like the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam. Islam allowed black Muslims new tools for rethinking race, religion, and progress in the aftermath of World War II when optimism about human accomplishment waned. Civil Rights legislation offered opportunities for immigrant Muslims by declaring loudly that discrimination based on race would not be tolerated. A positive, if accidental, symptom of immigration reform was the realization that the Muslim community also struggled for self-reliance.
In the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the popular American use of the term “Islamic terrorism” in place of “Arab terrorism,” Muslims in the United States continued to participate in activism. Optimistic that their adopted land gave them substantial socio-economic and political advantages, Muslims also realized that prejudice, like anything else, fades through interaction. Today, the juggernaut terms “Islamic terrorism and fundamentalism” are the focus of U.S. foreign policy rather than Cold War enemies. But at the same time, GhaneaBassiri believes that American Muslim objectives continue to show increased diversity. With a multiplicity of institutions, Muslim groups and organizations have ties to non-Muslim institutions and individuals. These relationships, bonds and experiences testify to a larger and more varied experience than merely cultural conflict. This book drives home the point that America’s historical encounter with Islam has not been a clash. But, as the author explains, we can only get our arms around it when we look at how Muslims actually lived on American soil.
Marion S. Trikosko, "President Jimmy Carter greets Mohammad Ali at a White House dinner celebrating the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty, Washington, D.C., 7 September, 1977"
Library of Congress
Kamal al-Din, People Marching before the Iranian Revolution
Author’s own via Wikimedia Commons
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Lior Sternfeld’s review of Erez Manela’s book about Woodrow Wilson and the origins of anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia.
UT Professor Yoav di-Capua’s blog post about political and social conditions in Egypt eight months after Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011.
Kristin Tassin’s review of Zachary Lockman’s 2004 book Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism.
Posted on January 20, 2012
The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (2006)
In 1958 Frank Kameny was out of a job. A Harvard trained astronomer and veteran of World War II, he had been working for the Army Map Service. In the wake of the Russian launch of Sputnik in October of 1957, the American government was rushing to catch up, and the young scientist seemed poised to play a role in the new emphasis on space exploration. Yet within just a few months, Kameny’s career was over because he was a homosexual. His story was not unique. He was one of many victims of the Lavender Scare – a manifestation of Cold War paranoia and social bigotry that led to the dismissal of hundreds and possibly thousands of gays and lesbians from government jobs.
Historian David K. Johnson sheds light on this forgotten episode in American history. The Lavender Scare grew from the McCarthy persecutions of the 1950s, but Johnson argues that its policies lasted far longer and became more institutionalized than the anti-communist hysteria. The government dismissed homosexuals on the grounds that emotional weakness and the likelihood of blackmail made them security risks. No evidence supported these accusations and medical experts challenged the idea that homosexuals were in any way different from the majority of employees, but to little avail. Executive departments hurried to dismiss employees suspected of homosexuality, lest ambitious congressmen – already suspicious of the expansion of bureaucratic policymaking – target them for public scrutiny. In the midst of the Cold War, fear, politics, and prejudice combined “to conflate homosexuals and communists.”
The Lavender Scare offers an arresting political narrative, but Johnson also makes sure to present the very human face of this drama. Johnson utilizes extensive interviews to demonstrate the way the purges changed the lives of victims and the social milieu of Washington D.C. itself. The rapid growth of the federal government during the Depression and its relatively egalitarian hiring practices attracted large numbers of young people seeking employment, including many homosexuals hoping to escape the limitations of small town life. By 1945, Washington was, in the words of one resident, “a very gay city,” where vibrant communities thrived and authorities tolerated homosexual activity. In an effortless combination of social and political history, the author shows how the rise of the national security state transformed gay Washington, forcing many to leave and others to endure years of joblessness.
Persecution also inspired a nascent movement in defense of gay lifestyles. Activists like Frank Kameny recast the discrimination against homosexuals as an issue of civil rights. The Mattachine Society of Washington organized picketing and supported challenges to government dismissals, consciously combining “political activism with service to and affirmation of the gay subculture.” Johnson explores how these vocal demands led the government to reevaluate its policies and the connection between the private and public lives of its employees. These early manifestations of homosexual activism not only helped end decades of vocational persecution, but they also informed the networks and tactics that would come to define a movement.
In light of Frank Kameny’s death last October at the age of 86, it is appropriate to look back at the origins of the LGBT activism. The recent repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy demonstrates that cause of homosexual equality has made great strides, specifically in regard to government service. But at the same time, the continuing debate over the necessity of this policy and calls to reinstate it remind the country that Kameny’s ultimate goals have not yet been achieved. David Johnson’s smart, well-written, and truly engaging book clearly lays out the history of anti-gay sentiment in the modern federal government. It also, perhaps, hints at ways activists can continue to challenge discrimination in the future.
United Press, Joseph Raymond McCarthy, 1954
Library of Commons via Wikimedia Commons
Kay Tobin Lahusen, “Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny, and John Fryer in disguise as "Dr. H. Anonymous,”” 1972
New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division via Wikimedia Commons
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Dolph Briscoe’s review of Clint Eastwood’s latest film J. Edgar, about the first director of the F.B.I.
Posted on January 18, 2011