[An American Studies:] History's Missing Pages

Watching the impossibly expensive Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Olympics on Friday, I was intrigued to see how the organizers of the event would present the entire span of Russian history (starting as far back as the 10th century, CE). After all, with a limited amount of time and space, the designers, much like textbook authors, would have to make choices about what to highlight, as well as what to include, and what to omit.

Opening Ceremony, Sochi Olympics

While the tsarist imperial period, starting with the accomplishments of Peter the Great, was impressively beautiful (see above), I was most interested in how the Russians would deal with the period after the Russian Revolutions of 1917. As USA Today put it in their recent headline,"5 things you will, and won't see in opening ceremony", I, too, wondered how the Russians would present the long and rather recent Soviet period, which ended in 1991, in what is widely viewed as a failure. For example, how would we "see" Josef Stalin, the towering figure who not only presided over the rushed industrialization and agricultural collectivization of the USSR during the 1930s (killing at least 20 million people), but also over the undeniable victory against Nazi Germany in the 1940s?

Soviet Cosmonaut Team, 1970s
We wouldn't "see" him at all, apparently. He would be erased from the historical record, of course. Now, this is not the first time the Russians or the Soviets "photoshopped" their own history: numerous examples abound. And a "De-Stalinization" started as early as the 1950s. But to eliminate someone so influential so completely seems an insurmountable task, as opposed to these relatively smaller historical figures featured in this doctored photo.
But I would argue that Russia is an easy target for Americans: we've been at war with them since we refused to recognize the Soviet Union in 1917. A more interesting challenge would be to identify people and periods in American history that have seemingly been whitewashed away from our collective memory. What would you choose to write in the blank pages of American history?

[An American Studies:] The Forgotten King

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The title of this post is intentionally ironic. Everyone knows that we are away from school today because Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is commemorated by name with a national holiday. And just about everyone alive is familiar with King's "I Have A Dream" speech. However, as we wrap up the semester, we invite you to think about what you have previously learned about Dr. King when you were a younger student, in light of this particular speech. The subject of the talk was the Vietnam War, in an excerpt from a sermon given at Ebenezer Baptist Church, on April 30, 1967. During that very perilous time, consider the public response to his words back then:

...after giving the speech...King was dropped from Gallup’s annual list of the most admired Americans and was ridiculed by the New York Times, among too many others. Soon after, he was murdered (Robert Scheer, Truthdig.com).

Although it is over 20 minutes long, you are encouraged to listen to as much of it as you can (it's audio only). We know what amazing multitaskers you are. Press PLAY and have it on in the background as you message your friends and surf the net ;) Ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Why is this post titled, "The Forgotten King"?
  2. Why don't we Americans celebrate this speech?
  3. How does it relate to our course themes?
  4. Can you make connections to today?

[An American Studies:] TV Tokenism

Just how much TV do you watch in a given week? No need to out yourselves here. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "After work and sleep, TV viewing is the most commonly reported activity in the U.S., taking up just over half of all leisure time." Does it affect how you see others? Most people would say that watching TV doesn't have a profound effect on themselves, though the very same people believe it has a great effect on others.

If you're like most Americans, you watch a lot of TV, and if you own a mobile phone, about half of you are using it while watching the "boob tube", sometimes texting and tweeting during commercials and content. Advertisers and researchers have coined the term, "Connected Viewers", as a more sophisticated term for these screen zombies.

And speaking of zombies, the mid-season finale of AMC's smash hit drama, The Walking Dead aired last week, so I guess I now have time to write this post tonight :) I thought of this series specifically because I saw a particular tweet from a celebrity fan:
Of course, if you haven't seen the show, a lot of this Twitter-speak may seem confusing. But I was struck by the final hashtag, "please develop Michonne's character". Played by Danai Gurira, who also is a film actor and a writer, she is one of the few prominent African-American characters on the show since it began three years ago. But what's Kelly Choi complaining about? The Walking Dead has featured an African-American character since the very first season. Isn't that a mark of progress?

My guess is that characters like "Michonne" simply serve as "tokens": racial minority actors who are featured as 2-dimensional characters just so the show's creators (or perhaps the network) can claim they are being inclusive and "diverse". Consider the quote below and ask yourself if you think Gurira's characterization of the USA as "open" is actually true.

"I find it distressing that stories about African people who are in this country and people of African descent can sometimes be marginalized. It doesn't make any sense to me. I think we're in a place as a world, as a country, where we are open to a lot of other stories.... If the story's good, the themes are universal."

[An American Studies:] 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.

[An American Studies] What is <i>your</i> Columbian Orator?

Nearly four years ago, historian Howard Zinn died of a heart attack at the age of 87. I was surprised how emotionally affected I was by his passing -- I certainly didn't know him, but saw him speak on several occasions, most notably at Northwestern University, days before the Iraq War in 2003.

I believe Zinn's death had such an impact on me because his writings and life were so formative in how I began to finally think for myself. Although most of us are familiar with Zinn's seminal A People's History of the United States, the book I always reference is the lesser-known Declarations of Independence, which has been since renamed.

This work always reminds me of a passage from Frederick Douglass' Narrative, in which he had secretly obtained a book, The Columbian Orator while in the depths of despair about being a slave for life. He wrote: "Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book....[It] gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance"(23-24). That's what Declarations was for me: an affirmation of the "interesting thoughts of my own soul": my own deepest-held beliefs. His book thus provided a model for expressing them openly. Zinn had subtitled his book, "Cross-examining American Ideology", and challenged every one of the assumptions listed below.

‘Be realistic; this is the way things are; there’s no point thinking about how things should be.’

‘People who teach or write or report the news should be objective; they should not try to advance their own opinions.’

‘There are unjust wars, but also just wars.’

‘If you work hard enough, you’ll make a good living. If you are poor, you only have yourself to blame.’

‘Freedom of speech is desirable, but not when it threatens national security.’

‘Racial equality is desirable, but we’ve gone far enough in that direction.’

‘Our Constitution is the greatest guarantee of liberty and justice.’

‘The United States must intervene from time to time in various parts of the world with military power...[to] promote democracy.’

‘If you want to get things changed, the only way is to go through the proper channels.’

‘There is much injustice in the world but there is nothing that ordinary people, without wealth or power, can do about it.’

What is your Columbian Orator?