In the News
Matthew Fox-Amato, April 24, 2018, The Washington Post
It seems it’s not a protest in the age of social media without a photograph. From the women’s marches to Black Lives Matter protests to sit-ins for a Green New Deal on Capitol Hill, participants have flooded the digital landscape with photos of their activism: demonstrators brandishing signs and packing America’s streets, plazas and corridors of power.
But while social media makes this act of sharing protest imagery seem like a new innovation, it's actually an organizing tool with roots almost two centuries old. Antebellum abolitionists pioneered the use of photography as a tool for social movements, and in the process, they heightened their sense of solidarity and urgency, exacerbating the political crisis over slavery.
Abolitionists understood that building a movement meant making themselves visible. Early photography offered a bracing new tool for them to do so. Arriving in the U.S. from Europe in 1839, the medium was widely hailed as a means of picturing the world with startling precision. Though long exposure times and clunky cameras made photography a poor tool to take action shots of slave auctions or floggings in the South, it did offer activists something else: a means of picturing themselves in their ongoing battle against slavery and racism.
Why We Need a New Civil War Documentary
Keri Leigh Merritt, April 23, 2019, The Smithsonian Magazine
Airing over a span of five nights during late September in 1990, Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” remains, to this day, the only documentary that claims to explain the entirety of the war that engulfed the United States in the mid-19th century. “The Civil War”’s premiere became the most-watched PBS program at the time, with the nine-episode series carrying a total running time of 11 hours, and to this day it remains one of the most popular shows ever to air on public broadcasting. Garnering scores of awards, “The Civil War” has now influenced generations of Americans and shaped their beliefs about slavery, the war itself, and its aftermath. The documentary had an outsized effect on how many Americans think about the war, but it’s one that unfortunately lead to a fundamental misunderstanding about slavery and its legacies—a failing that both undergirds and fuels the flames of racism today.
With the recent debut of Henry Louis Gates’s new multi-part documentary “Reconstruction” on PBS amidst great fanfare, I found myself reflecting upon why Americans desperately need an updated Civil War documentary as well. (You can, and should, stream the documentary for free on PBS.)
Watching “The Civil War” as a teenager several years after its initial release, I became enamored with the series—so much so that I spent my hard-earned money on the expensive companion book and the soundtrack for the haunting “Ashokan Farewell”—a song from the 1980s (not the Civil War era!) that played throughout the series. In many ways, the documentary helped spur my own interest in U.S. history.
“JIM, (alias James Boyd;)”: Enslaved Migrant Laborers in the American North
Cory James Young, April 15, 2019, The Activist History Review
In early summer 1804, James Boyd left John Weidman’s iron forge in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. Boyd had been gone for two weeks before Weidman decided to place an advertisement in the local paper, offering forty dollars to anyone who could help capture his “negro man, named JIM (alias James Boyd;).” It seems two weeks was time enough to convince Weidman that Boyd was not coming back.
James Boyd was a skilled worker and a snappy dresser. He could play the violin; understood at least three different industries, iron, farming, and sailing; and, reading against Weidman’s advertisement, appears to have been a congenial drinking companion. He wore an “old beaver hat,” fashionable but secondhand, and kept his face clean-shaven. The fact that Weidman did not include Boyd’s age suggests that he either purchased him from a previous owner or was keeping him in bondage illegally. He would have included it had he known it, and he would have known it had he registered Boyd’s date of birth at the county courthouse as required by Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition law.
Weidman worried that Boyd might successfully pass as a free man, suggesting that the man possessed the knowledge to navigate the Pennsylvania countryside and negotiate with white employers. In a world where black men were still assumed to be slaves, this was no small feat. Although state law compelled slaveholders to register those they kept in bondage, a requirement which in theory supposed all black Pennsylvanians free unless someone could prove otherwise, the 1793 federal fugitive slave law cast doubt on the legal status of all unfamiliar black people in white communities. Other northern states were even more hostile. In 1821, the New Jersey Supreme Court went so far as to rule that all black men were “prima facie slaves” before the law and were to be “dealt with as such.”
Hidden In Plain Sight: Oldest Known Cookbook Authored By An African-American (audio)
Jorge Avellan, April 15, 2019, 89.1 WEMU
Domestic Cookbook Containing A Careful Selection Of Useful Receipts For The Kitchen.
Published in 1866, Malinda Russell’s cookbook is the oldest known cookbook authored by an African-American. University of Michigan Special Collections Curator Juli McLoone gently flips through the 39 pages of the only original copy that remains today. It contains 265 recipes.
"There’s an allspice cake, a coconut sponge cake, a couple of different lemon cakes. Interestingly, we think of vanilla as the standard cake flavor today, but in the 19th century, lemon cake would have filled that rule. A lot of times rose water was also used for flavoring cakes and pastries. She has a charlotte russe recipe, a baked peach cobbler, she has few savory recipes like a chicken pie, chow chow, catfish, also a number of custards. Also a lot of jams and preserves, so cranberry jam, a couple of different quince jams," said McLoone.
White supremacy was at the core of 19th-century science. Why that matters today.
Christopher D. E. Willoughby, April 22, The Washington Post
Last month, Tamara Lanier, a retired professional from Connecticut, filed a lawsuit against Harvard University over photographs of her enslaved ancestors, taken for the racial scientist and Harvard professor Louis Agassiz during the 1850s.
Lanier accused Harvard of capitalizing on these images of her ancestors, two enslaved people named Renty and Delia, for centuries. In her suit, Lanier asserts that her family should control the rights to the photos, not the university whose racist faculty member commissioned them.
Lanier’s lawsuit draws attention to how universities continue to profit from their past dealings with the slave system. But dig into the history, and this case has even deeper meaning. For Agassiz was more than just a Harvard professor. He was a leading figure in a wildly popular movement that brought together pro- and anti-slavery forces to use science to justify white supremacy.
Agassiz’s beliefs and position in the scientific community expose the central and largely unquestioned role of white supremacy in the history of American science. That history further justifies the need for reparations for slavery and American racism, while underscoring that they are only one part of the reckoning that needs to happen.