Friday round-up: the good and evil edition

Ding a ling a ling!

Ding a ling a ling!

Ask not for whom the dinner bell tolls!  I’m on a tight deadline to crank out an essay before the bell rings, so here are a few long reads to keep you busy while I’m out roping up some historiographical longhorns.  I don’t know why, but all of these links seem to be about good actors struggling to cope with their mixed feelings about the bad behavior of others.  Bookmark this post the next time someone tells you that “secular humanists” and “liberal relativists” refuse to deal with the problem of evil in the world, willya?

  • Clemson Communications Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika writes at the NPR Code Switch blog about “The Cost of White Comfort,” and nails a sneaking suspicion I’ve had about the (mostly white) chorus of hosannas about the forgiveness shown by the families of the black victims of last week’s terrible massacre in Charleston:  “I couldn’t shake a paralyzing feeling: When black people and white people clasped hands in the arena that night, the comfort wouldn’t be evenly distributed. The healing wouldn’t flow both ways.”  White Americans just love it when we’re let off the hook, don’t we?  We’re the kings and queens of the fantasy that history doesn’t matter.
  • Writer Andrew Chee dishes on his time in the early 1990s working as a cater-waiter for William F. and Pat Buckley:  “The tuxedo and the starched white shirt—and the fact that each assignment was at a different, often exclusive, place—all made me feel a little like James Bond. Sometimes my fellow waiters and I called it the Gay Peace Corps for how we could come into places, clean them up, make them fabulous, throw a party, and leave. And I liked that when I went home, I didn’t think about the work at all.”  But would his recent past as an ACT-UP activist get him kicked out of the famously anti-gay Bill’s household?  Or would it get him an invitation to skinny dip with Bill at the end of the evening?  (Because “that’s how they used to swim at Yale, after all.”)  Really!  For you younger people, this essay really captures a slice of gay, urban life in the 1990s, before and just after the invention of protease inhibitors while rendered HIV a condition people could live with instead of just die from.  I was an urban straight at the time, but Chee and I are the same age and his recollections really jibe with my memories of the time.

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Be sure you’re right THEN GO AHEAD: more on the alt-ac/post-ac trackity track.

crockett1840backFriends, I’ve been at the beach for a last look at the blue Pacific, packing up, and picking up loose ends of my sabbatical year as we get ready to hitch up the team and head eastward back to our home in the alta sierra.  While I’m busy with all this glamour, check out Tom Bredehoft’s latest post on the alt-ac/post-ac life.  He’s got a fascinating description of a little mystery he solved regarding a Davey Crockett almanac of 1840:

The almanacs in this lot, as it turned out, were very much a mixed bag, but the one I immediately spotted as most interesting was titled only “Crockett Comic Almanac 1840.” No author or publisher was given, and there seemed no obvious way to identify even the printer. But I knew that much of Davy Crockett’s reputation as a rough-and-ready frontiersman had been spread and elaborated by a variety of Crockett almanacs dating from the 1830s to the late 1840s, and that those books were very collectible indeed. My almanac was missing one leaf, and someone had snipped out a further joke or two, but it still seemed likely to have some value.

But it wasn’t listed in Drake, the standard bibliographic reference on American almanacs before 1850. A closer look revealed that the first interior page, listing the eclipses for the year, stated that they had been calculated for the longitude of Cincinnati, and it seemed likely that the book had been printed there. Still, I could find no record of any Crockett almanac printed in Cincinnati, and the Morgan online bibliography of early Ohio imprints had no record of such a book either. At last I turned to WorldCat, and was nearly frustrated there, too, but for a buried reference to an almanac with the same title bound in a collection of almanacs from the 1840s in the state library of Ohio. On my next trip to Columbus, I dropped into the library and called for the book, and I was delighted to see that it was the same as my own Crockett almanac. Further, I glanced through the other almanacs bound together with it, and I discovered that type batter on the eclipses page of another Cincinnati almanac enabled me to pin down the printer (and probably the publisher) with certainty. I had learned something.

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Caitlyn Jenner portrait “a picture from the past rather than the present.”

caitlynjennerOne of the things about L.A. I’m really going to miss is reading the shrunken, vestigial, adware-addled Denver Post instead of the rich and lively LA Times, and one of the writers I’ll miss most is art critic Christopher Knight.  Here’s his review of Caitlyn Jenner’s big reveal portrait by Annie Leibovitz on the cover of Vanity Fair published yesterday.

For all the advance buildup, the picture feels flat — a pedestrian celebrity pastiche of rather tired visual cliches. That’s too bad. Jenner’s courage in taking control of the public process of coming out as transgender is bold, and this will be the most widely seen initial image.

.       .       .       .       .

[T]he Vanity Fair photograph seems a missed opportunity — a picture from the past rather than the present. Maybe that’s because all its conventional, glamour-girl signals weigh down the lively fluidity swirling at the center of gender identity.

After describing work by photographer Catherine Opie and Judith Butler, and explaining that a more expansive and complicated vision of gender performance has been part of both the feminist and LGBT movements’ DNA since the early 1990s, Knight writes that the VF cover appears to have missed these conversations entirely.  Instead, it’s a portrait of a 60-something woman by a 60-something woman that feels dated and conventional.  “Leibovitz’s Caitlyn Jenner is a newfangled Vargas girl, one of those airbrushed cuties from the old pages of Playboy. Is that all there is?” Continue reading

Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present, and age as a category of historical analysis

ageinamericaIs age the next new category of analysis in history?  I think it might be, and not just because I’m one of the contributing authors.  From an email from co-editor Nicholas L. Syrett I received this weekend:

Age in America has been published (New York University Press, 2015)! I’m at the Organization of American Historians’ annual meeting this weekend in St. Louis and the very first two advance copies made it here just in time (and both were sold by conference’s end). The assistant editor at NYU Press will send you your copy as soon as the books stock at NYU’s warehouse (Cori and I don’t even have ours yet). I have attached a photo of the book sitting in the NYU Press booth. Within a couple weeks it should be available to order through bookstores, etc.

The co-editors of the volume, Nick Syrett and Corinne T. Field, worked hard with contributors to get a good mix of established and emerging scholars and to cover a pretty broad swath of American history (table of contents here.)  My essay, “‘Keep me With You, So That I Might Not Be Damned:’  Age and Captivity in Colonial Borderlands Warfare,” is the first essay in the collection after Field’s and Syrett’s introduction.  There are thirteen other essays in the volume, which covers not just the expected modern markers of age and how they came to be (age of suffrage, the drinking age, the age of retirement and Social Security benefits), but also essays by Yuki Oda on age and immigration politics (“‘A Day Too Late:’  Age, Immigration Quotas, and Racial Exclusion,”) Stuart Schoenfield on age 13 for American Jews, and Norma E. Cantú on the quinceañera for Latin@ girls. Continue reading

How is this OK? On dismissing historical subfields and the evolution of our intellectual lives.

I’ve had some conversations with senior male historians over the past few years that have troubled me.

When talking about my work, or about the work of another women’s historian, some scholars apparently feel it’s OK to say “Oh, that’s why I don’t know her work.  I just don’t do women’s history.”  Or, “Women’s history is just something I never think about,” or comments to that effect.

I get it that we historians can’t all do everything, but how is it acceptable to announce that you never think about half of humanity in your own work or even read the scholarship on this half of humanity?  Would these white men (and they have all been white) announce blithely that “I don’t do race,” even if it were true?  (Odds are they’re not as ignorant of the scholarship on race as they are on the scholarship on women, gender, and sexuality, but this is just a guess.  This post is mostly about the liberty some feel to confess their total ignorance of what has become a major subfield of history, and why that’s a bad idea not just for the audience but for the speaker.) Continue reading

Bryn Mawr “affirms. . . institutional identity as a women’s college” and the universal She

From an email I received from the Chair of the Board of Trustees at Bryn Mawr College about the “recommendation from a Board working group that was created at the September 2014 Board meeting to examine the mission of the College with respect to transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming applicants” that was “discussed and approved” last weekend.  I’m sure this working group came in response to this story from the New York Times last fall about trans* students at Wellesley.

The working group concluded unanimously that the mission of the College at the undergraduate level is to educate women to be future leaders. In its recommendation to the Board, the working group noted that Bryn Mawr’s identity as a women’s college is fundamental to its distinctive environment, one in which women are central, faculty assume and expect excellence from women, and women assume positions of leadership. The working group also recommended that the College use language that affirms our institutional identity as a women’s college (e.g. use of gendered language) while respecting the diversity of individual identities in the community.

The working group also proposed that the College more clearly articulate the eligible undergraduate applicant pool in the context of its mission. The Board approved the working group’s recommendation that in addition to those applicants who were assigned female at birth, the applicant pool will be inclusive of transwomen and of intersex individuals who live and identify as women at the time of application. Intersex individuals who do not identify as male are also eligible for admission. Those assigned female at birth who have taken medical or legal steps to identify as male are not eligible for admission.

In cases where an applicant’s gender identity is not clearly reflected in their application materials, the College may request additional information, which could include verifiable legal or medical steps taken to affirm gender. In evaluating such additional information, the College fully intends to be as flexible and inclusive as possible. 

Within the context of our mission as a women’s college, all Bryn Mawr students will continue to be valued and supported members of the community, no matter how their gender identity shifts during their time at the College.  

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The Vagina Dentatalogues

Just go read Elizabeth Reis on the Mount Holyoke College non-production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues at Nursing Clio:

Intersex activists have coined the insightful slogan, “No Body is Shameful®,” to draw attention to the shaming and forced cosmetic adherence to the idea of a “normal” body. Of course, here they are talking about people born with atypical sex development, like the one in 5000 infant girls born with MRKH Syndrome [Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser (MRKH) Syndrome]. Since the nineteenth century, girls born without vaginas have endured the surgical creation of such anatomy. This reconstructive “corrective” surgery, described eloquently here by Esther Morris Leidolf, in a narrative she calls the “The Missing Vagina Monologue,” has never been done for the pleasure of the girl, but as her physician bluntly explained when she was only thirteen years old: so that she “could have a normal sex life with her husband.”

This is the kind of violence that The Vagina Monologues speaks to, even though there are no intersex characters in Eve Ensler’s play. It doesn’t matter (though it would be a good idea!). Watching the play encourages us to appreciate the profound refrain, “No Body is Shameful,” whether we have a vagina, want a vagina, like vaginas, or just love hearing the word spoken rebelliously and repeatedly on stage.

I like Reis’s point about the surgical violence done to women’s bodies for men’s pleasure.  I know that many trans* people have embraced this kind of surgery as something that can make them whole or complete, but I sometimes wonder where the feminist critiques of allopathic medicine have gone sometimes in the trans* celebrations of the power of technology to alter people’s bodies through hormones and surgery. Continue reading