Friday, November 29, 2013

Mythmaking Thanksgiving

As we recover from copious amounts of turkey, cranberries, and mashed potatoes, it may be instructive to consider what we really know about the origins of our Thanksgiving holiday celebration.

According to historian James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, the Pilgrims did not start the Thanksgiving tradition; instead, east coast Indians had celebrated autumnal harvests for hundreds of years. In fact, our modern celebration only dates back to President Lincoln's 1863 proclamation of a national Thanksgiving holiday (during the perilous times of the Civil War), when the Union badly needed a boost of patriotism. The Pilgrims of New England were not even incorporated into the tradition for another 30 years.

There are literally only two brief primary sources that deal with what happened in the Fall of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The most familiar might be Edward Winslow's Mourt's Relation (modernized spelling below) in which he stated:
our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
What from the traditional holiday celebration is mentioned and what is left out?

Importantly, the above-mentioned quote lacks historical context. Think about it: why exactly were the Indians so willing to sit down with these "invaders"? Toward answering that question, some historians have argued that our yearly celebrations whitewash the permanent colonization of America that might have been impossible without the devastating (but unintentional) plagues that preceded the Pilgrim arrival. This onslaught of disease might have been the most important single occurrence in the history of America. Lastly, feel free to comment on the traditional painting embedded in this post as another contributor to the Thanksgiving mythology.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Proclaiming Emancipation

Martin Luther King

In your presentations on Frederick Douglass's Narrative(s) last week, many groups discussed the failures of Reconstruction efforts designed to help disenfranchised and exploited African Americans — especially those efforts that intended to "speed up" equality after hundreds of years of enslavement and exploitation. That context is necessary to truly understand two of Martin Luther King's most famous texts: his Letter from a Birmingham Jail and his I Have a Dream Speech, delivered later that summer, 1963.

Dr. King was in that Birmingham jail, in part, because he non-violently refused to comply with racist laws. His letter is an attempt to answer his critics who questioned his actions. Many said to King and his colleagues that "the action [King and his colleagues] have taken in Birmingham is untimely." Dr. King, like many of you saw this argument as specious and cruel. Haven't African-Americans waited long enough? As King puts it in his Letter:
"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'"

Dr. King picks up on this idea at the start of his most famous (Dream) speech. First he echoes Lincoln's Gettysburg Address by saying recognizing the 100th anniversary: "Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation." Then he launches into his main claim, "one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free."  

Perhaps because the main text of his speech — racism and inequality — does not fit our comforting progress narrative, Dr. King's speech has been remembered for its uplift — as if the promised land were not a place to strive toward, but a land upon which we already stand.  

Fifty years farther on, I'd like to raise this question again: Are we any closer to equality? Given the gross disparities in income, education, housing, criminal prosecution, etc., Are African-Americans — and all people of color — free today? And is it possible to be free if you are not economically free?  

Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist wrote about this question earlier this year. There are some encouraging signs to be sure — but some deeply troubling ones as well. Blow ends his article by quoting Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: “Today there are more African-American adults under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

Your turn. How would you answer the questions in bold above?  

Separate is Not Equal

In class, we've been thinking about the context of the photo The Soiling of Old Glory. While some people may think that desegregation ended with the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, educational segregation persisted. According to Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, rather than embrace integration,"much of the South translated" the phrase with all deliberate speed "loosely to mean whenever they got around to it." Shockingly, "one county in Virginia closed its entire system for five years, from 1959 to 1964, rather than integrate." Chickasaw, MS, she reports, "didn't integrate until 1970. Private schools sprouted up all over the country to create a de facto segregation that complied with the de jure integration the Court had endorsed.

Sadly, such responses were not limited to the the 60's or the 70's or even to the South. In fact, we may see similar battles being fought right here in Chicago today.

In an article in last year's Reader, Steve Bogira argues that " the vast majority of CPS students are still in schools that are highly segregated, racially and economically." Incredibly, "85% of all CPS students are [classified to be] low income" and "nearly one-third of [CPS]schools have enrollments that are at least 95 percent low-income...[those schools] are also 97 percent Hispanic and African-American." In part this segregation is attributable "to middle- and upper-class families enrolling their kids in private schools or moving to the suburbs once their children reach school age." Sound familiar?

Since the link between low income and low test scores is well documented, Bogira offers a bold proposal: "Rather than concentrating on raising test scores, school and city officials should focus on sharply reducing CPS's low-income proportion. Do that, and test scores and graduation rates will take care of themselves." Low income students would not be the only winners in an integrated school system. Middle and upper-class white students would benefit, according to an education analyst in the article, since "it's good for their children to be in a more diverse environment."

How possible, how plausible, is Bogira's proposal?  To what extent can we say we've made progress as a nation on this issue of education?

Monday, November 04, 2013

"Where's the proof?" #anamericanstudies

The latest exemplars from #anamericanstudies. This week's winner:

"Where's the proof?" by Jack O.

And this week's honorable mention:

"So Many Choices" by Jayce