Friday, January 16, 2015

Back Into The Woods

Yesterday after I posted this Chronicle piece on writing, a friend joked on my Facebook wall that the next thing he expected to see was my own post about writing. Well, this is my hour for doing my own writing. I have 15 minutes left, so rather than be productive, I'm going to be reflective and share one valuable insight to add to Rob Jenkins' list.

His advice is pretty standard but important. Commit, prioritize, schedule, and be patient. My favorite tidbit here? Repurpose. USE what you have written! It is so true. Writing is rewriting. The fantasy of starting from scratch and doing it better is just that, a fantasy. Think about a piece of writing that you are really proud of. Presumably you didn't shoot that out in one inspired composing session. (Or if you did, I don't want to hear about it and we're not friends. I jest.)

I just sent off an article that I thought I'd never get done. It wasn't a new piece but a revision of a dissertation chapter. Funny how surprising difficult that can be! And yet, starting with a foundation of text that I completely rewrote felt much more manageable. I finished it over break only to discover that I needed to cut a third to meet the journal's requirements for submissions. Back to the drawing board! And let me tell you, it actually got better after I'd lobbed off one of the limbs! Repurpose, rewrite, and don't be afraid to go in with a machete.

Today I return to my book manuscript. Back in October I was at my wits end with this chapter. It didn't feel like it was going anywhere. Was I ever going to finish it? The argument was a mess. 

Well. What a difference two-and-a-half months make. I sat down to read through my writing from the Fall and was surprised to discover that from this distance, once I had stepped outside of the piece, I heard a voice that was clear and confident with something interesting to say. I'm excited to get back to it.

So here's my piece of writing advice, an addendum to Be Patient: Be Willing to Step Away and Come Back. Sometimes you need to force your way through, bushwack through that underbrush. But sometimes (get ready for some tortured metaphors) and if you have the time, allow yourself to step back, walk out of the ticket, climb up on the hill and look down. You might just be able to see the forest for the proverbial trees. Happy writing semester, everyone. Now, BACK INTO THE WOODS!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Listening and Learning After the Ferguson Moment

This past fall, I watched from afar as friends and colleagues around the country joined in protests, chanting and displaying now familiar slogans -- Black Lives Matter! Hands Up Don't Shoot! -- and after the failure of Staten Island grand jury to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the choking death of Eric Garner -- I Can't Breathe. In Ann Arbor, my graduate school stomping ground, protests over the Mike Brown case also picked up outrage over an event shockingly close to home, the shooting death of Ann Arbor-resident Aura Rosser.

I read tweets and facebook posts, newspaper coverage and blog posts. Like so many other Americans, I set to work on the #Fergusonsyllabus. The events of the past fall have produced an overwhelming amount of writing from experts and observers, activists and pundits, all analyzing and reassessing what we think we know about race and justice in America in 2014.

Then I was invited to participate in a panel organized by the USD Law School on The Ferguson Moment (on which part of this post is based). Where to begin? What stories to tell, what framework to provide to begin to chip away at the complexity that produced Ferguson October?

Like so many Americans, I was surprised by what the Mike Brown shooting, the months of protests, and ongoing and contentious media coverage revealed about our racially divided America. I thought I understood. I thought my training as a historian had provided me with the context and the frameworks I needed to understand race in 2014. But there is always more that we don't understand. 

These cases and the mounting examples of black deaths at the hands of police officers seemed to suggest that there was something about our moment that many of us were missing. What structural context could help me explain these events and the outpouring of grief and anger in response? What could help me explain Why Mike Brown? Why did this case become our national reckoning? What could I learn now so that this coming semester, when I stand in front of my US history survey to tell the story of the so-called American century, I will have stronger, clearer narratives to help make the politics of our moment more comprehensible?

There were books by historians of course. But I also had to look in other disciplines, to the work of sociologists Douglass Massey, American Apartheid, and Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth and the timely The New Jim Crow by legal scholar Michelle Alexander. I revisited "The Case for Reparations," Ta-Nehisi Coates' chronicle of housing discrimination in the June Atlantic.

Of course, one of the tensions operating within our ongoing national dialogues about race and justice after Ferguson is how to figure RACE in our analysis. The greatest divide in our national conversations has been around race. I looked to what a new generation of critical race theorists like Imani Perry were saying about race in America today, challenging pervasive and damaging narratives of a postracial America.

As I explained in my remarks at the law school panel, one of the statistics that I found most fascinating in my reading on Ferguson was about polling that asked whether race was a factor in the death of Mike Brown and revealed a striking racial divide. 76% of black respondents in one Huffington Post poll said the shooting was "part of a broader pattern" of encounters while only 40% of whites agreed. According to a Pew poll, 80% of black Americans felt that the shooting "raises important issues about race that need to be discussed" compared to 37% of whites. Meanwhile 47% of whites "believe the issue of race is getting more attention that it deserves." 

Wasn't it Tim Wise who noted that the Mike Brown case had become a national racial Rohrshach test?

Clearly, there is a major disconnect between the ways in which black and white Americans identify race as a factor – in policing practices, the deaths of black citizens at the hands of police, and in assessing the factors contributing to black poverty and segregation. But why? 

Perhaps the tendency to see and confront race as a factor in these cases was also a reflection of  our different experiences of being racialized subjects, particularly racialized subjects in relation to the state. Many argue that the ability to claim that race was not a factor in the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and others is a function of what scholars call white privilege. The experience of white privilege limits white Americans' ability and willingness to consider how black Americans in communities that are hypersegregated, economically blighted, and the focus of policing experience themselves as criminalized bodies within their communities.

The deal with privilege.

Most white Americans wear (to paraphrase one of my colleagues) the blinders of white privilege. We move through our daily lives without fear of the police or police harassment. We don't expect to be stopped and search on a city street. We have rarely been asked to get out of a car after being pulled over. Like many white women, I have gotten out of tickets and been accused by male friends of cashing in on the privileges of being a girl. Well, I was actually cashing in on the privilege of being white. I don't expect to be followed by security guards in department stores. I grew up expecting that were I to be arrested, my rights would be respected and my physical person not violated.

Racial privilege also effects how white people are often regarded as voices of authority and expertise. We do not expect to have our legitimacy as authorities questioned. We are not asked or assumed to speak for our race, but we are often implicitly assumed to have a more neutral perspective on matters of race. No one's perspective is neutral. None of us are neutral. But the tricky piece of it is that most white people think about race in terms of the way they experience race as an absence. Actually, white people often experience race as a privilege. 

Privilege can be a challenging concept particularly for those who carry the most privilege. Having privilege, particularly racial privilege, doesn't mean that we are without struggles; it means that white people start out with a different balance sheet, different forms of capital. I'll choose another metaphor. Racial privilege is a blank check many white people are never aware we are constantly cashing in. When navigating daily life most white people will not have many of the same experiences with law enforcement as people of color. We also won't know what we are missing. 

That is why white people need to to listen--to the voices, the experiences, the critiques of people of color. Because it is a privilege to be able to ignore it. 

And then a nation discovered that Mike Brown's death had become a tipping point in an ongoing struggle that many white people didn't realize was happening. We couldn't see our national water because so many of us carried invisible oxygen masks. But sometimes, especially for people who carry the benefits of privilege, even those invested in their role as activists and allies, listening is a difficult thing to do.

* * *
After news that a grand jury in New York had chosen not to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the choking death of Eric Garner, and in light of the nationwide protests in response, I asked the Center for Diversity and Community if they would host a dialogue about Race in America After Ferguson  -- you can read more about it here. I wanted to be part of a space and a set of conversations that weren't virtual. 

At Dialogue: Race After Ferguson, the students I spoke with in our small groups grappled with the implications of nationwide events and protests--for South Dakota. News coverage seemed overwhelming and contradictory. Some were unsure how racial politics in Ferguson or Staten Island were relevant to us in South Dakota. How were we supposed to take what were learning and apply it to our lives? We came up with some provisional answers. The Ferguson moment is relevant to us here in South Dakota because discriminatory policing practices happen everywhere that there is entrenched racial inequality and a history of fraught and violence race relations. We aren't Ferguson or Staten Island, but what is our Ferguson?

The following week we got an even better answer. On December 19, the protests that blossomed all over America came to South Dakota. Activists led a rally in Rapid City to call attention to race relations between whites and Natives in South Dakota and protest police brutality. Indian Lives Matter! was the slogan.

Through local reporting I learned about the 1999 Civil Rights Commission that came to South Dakota following a succession of unsolved murders of Native men. The findings of the commission highlighted the deep racial divide in South Dakota and feeling of hopelessness within its Native communities caused by entrenched economic inequalities and compounded by a total lack of faith in the justice system. None of the recommendations of the commission have been followed through to the present. The recent protests and reporting suggest that its findings remain relevant to South Dakota today.

The Ferguson Moment is our national moment. It is about forcing us to confront unfinished civil rights struggles all around us, and to discover what we didn't know we didn't understand.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Taking the Historiann Book Challenge

Last week, the New York Times interviewed Civil War historian James McPherson about -- books! McPherson is a prolific scholar and a wonderful writer--Battle Cry of Freedom is a classic--and he is also coming out with a new biography of Jefferson Davis. But as historian and blogger Historiann pointed out, the interview presents a very narrow view of what historical scholarship looks like in 2014. Historiann followed this up with an interview of her own and challenged other historians to do the same. And they did!  I can never resist a book meme, though I come a little late to the party (or rather, I have been meaning to post this since last Friday!) so without further ado, here is my response to the #historiannchallenge.  

What books are currently on your night stand [i.e. your personal on-deck]?
Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests (which looks amazing -- and the NPR review only got me more excited) and Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. 

What was the last truly great book you read?
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration is masterful. If you are going to read one book of American history this year, read this. I have been saying that since 2012 and I mean it. From a writing perspective, I also think Warmth is a fantastic model of a different way to structure a work of history. I talked with Wilkerson at the OAH this past spring about how she came up with the structure. Wilkerson stretches the histories of her main characters out over the length of the book, then breaks them up with interstitial chapters that reiterate and carry forward her larger argument and the overarching historical narrative into which the stories of her core characters fit. She explained that in her struggle to invent her own structure, she looked to a range of models, particularly fiction. In fact, the interstitial chapter idea was inspired by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I think this is such great advice, to look for writing models across literary genres, which is especially important for historians who want to speak to a broader, nonacademic audience.

Side note: I also was extremely taken by Leslie Chang, Factory Girls, which I read this summer. I love really smart, well-researched contemporary nonfiction. Chang weaves her own family history into this exploration of the young women who are the majority of Chinese migrant laborers and who are transforming modern China. Without flinching from the abuses and excesses of global capitalism, she pushes back against a tendency to paint these women as passive victims, instead exploring their motivations, struggles, and strategies for "making it" in the new China. 

Who are the best historians writing today? 
I hate “best” questions, but that is what this meme is all about, right? And so without further ado: Jill Lepore. Collect them all. I love scholars who can do really creative but compelling things with unusual or limited sources.

Friday, September 5, 2014

That whole "Well-behaved women" thing...

You've all seen the bumper stickers, T-shirts, coffee mugs.  "Well-behaved women rarely make history." And sometimes the quote is actually (correctly) printed as, "Well-behaved women seldom make history. -- Laurel Ulrich"

Confession: every time I see this, I cringe.

When I ask my students to reflect on whether this popular phrase is a useful way of thinking about women's history, their response is usually some variation on, "Kind of. But..." They point out that this can be read as a statement encouraging women, in the context of popular feminism today, that they don't have to conform to rigid gender codes -- defying the restrictive standards femininity is Good! So the mugs and tee-shirts become about empowerment. But when we actually start to think about the phrase as a notion or theory of history, some wrinkles appear. As one of my students put it, this seems to set up a troubling binary: you are either a "well-behaved" woman who will be of zero interest to "history" or you are a rebel, the kind of woman who breaks barriers and gets noticed. What about everyone who falls between? Those women and their lives and struggles aren't captured in that phrase.

Precisely.

My students also pointed out that the phrase skips over the more interesting question: What does it mean to be "well-behaved" and how has that changed? The premise of most academic scholarship today is that gender roles, like other social roles, are historically and culturally constructed. They change. But neither are they rigidly fixed within any historical moment. That's what makes history so complicated: everyday folk are always in the the process of negotiating and challenging the rules and boundaries and expectations of their world. Sometimes this happens in little ways that don't exactly "make" history but do make historical change, something as small and seemingly insignificant as fertility control. (As the historian Susan Klepp has argued, the biggest untold story of America in the age of Revolutions is that at some point in the late 1700s, women begun to restrict their family size, setting a host of other social and cultural and economic changes in motion. Her book, Revolutionary Conceptions is an extended exploration of how and why that came about.)

What bugs me the most about "Well-behaved women..." is the "make history" part. As it stands, that phrase just doesn't make sense in the context of the politics of women's history. The politics of women's history IS the politics of "making history."

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Writing Advice from Around the Web

Fellow writers of all stripes and varietals! Come get your free interwebs writing advice!

As the summer slams to a close many of us are either firing on all cylinders or (more likely) wishing we could find the energy for that final sprint...and probably got a little behind in the race. Remember guys, it's not the speed that counts, but the distance traveled (and also the speed...and the distance...and I'm so done with this dumb metaphor).


I recently stumbled across How I Wrote 4000 Words in A Year from Daily Beast writer Jaime Todd Rubin. He has some great ideas. In particular,

"Focus on content, not word count. What matters to me most is that I write every day, not how much I write. There have been a few days where I’ve written only one or two paragraphs. Quantity will take care of itself as the streak builds.

"Be flexible. Learn to write anywhere and in small scraps of time. If you don’t think it is possible, give it a try—you may surprise yourself. Don’t worry so much about when to write each day. Eventually, you’ll find a comfort zone."

Friday, August 1, 2014

What Gangs of New York Got Wrong

Every Fall, Americanists teaching the US History survey face the same dilemma: To Show or Not To Show clips from the 2002 Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York. It is such a great film. It is such an historically inaccurate bordering on epically WRONG film.

Gangs of New York makes us historians crazy because of its terribly misleading narrative about class, race, immigration, and enlistment in the Civil War. Fortunately, one scholar's work is helping to challenge the myths Scorsese has perpetuated, while  filling in some crucial gaps in our understanding of the relationship between the Irish and the Civil War. Check out Damiel Shiel's piece Gangs of New York: Recruiting the Irish ‘Straight Off the Boat’. And I'll definitely be sharing this fascinating document, "NO RECRUITING IN CASTLE GARDEN" with my students this Fall to cap our discussion of the film.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How the Kids Do Research These Days

Greetings from New York! Here is your bonus shot of the Hudson River from the window of my train car (yes! train car) where I'm drafting this post. This is quite possibly the most scenic metropolitan train commute in America.

 
I've been thinking a lot about the way we do research today and about the way our sources and the research process make us feel.  A few weeks back I was feeling sentimental.  Today I was feeling, well, eye strain.  Allow me to explain.

Today's manuscript source was a fitting object of sentiment: a small pocket diary crammed with two years of notations, consisting of some dry financial transactions—75c for velvet, $10 to Mother, carriage 50c—and day-to-day accounts of the year that changed Charlotte Cushman’s career. The diary begins with her miserable tour of New England theaters in early 1844, follows her decision to give her acting a go in England, then takes a stormy and homesick Atlantic crossing.  Empty entries in late 1844 signal days filled up by sightseeing in Scotland until finally we arrive at Cushman's jubilant account of her successful debut and starring run at London’s Haymarket Theatre in early 1845.

Stirring stuff, huh? I was not filled with warm fuzzies.