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Archaeological Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Studies from South Africa, Bostwana, Namibia, Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana

TOYIN FALOLA AND CHRISTIAN JENNINGS, EDS. Part II of Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004. Part II is called “Archaeological Sources,” 3-104.

CHRISTOPHER R. DECORSE AND SAM SPIERS. “A Tale of Two Polities: Socio-Political Transformation on the Gold Coast in the Atlantic World,” Australasian Historical Archaeology, Vol. 27 (2009): 29-42.

Introduction

This review paper is the first part of a two-part series about non-textual sources for studying West African history in the eighteenth century. It is based upon a reading of five essays that provide case studies for working with sources in archaeology and material culture. To begin this paper, I would like to summarize what the anthropologist James Denbow concludes about archaeological source materials in his introduction to the “Archeological Sources” part of Sources and Methods in African History. Writing in the year 2004, Denbow states that the discipline of archaeology has traditionally “served history in a ‘validationist’ role,” meaning that practitioners often took their leads from the documentary record and engaged with archaeology as a way to track and confirm stories that they found in written sources.[1] By now, however, researchers are using archaeological methods in a way that is much more expansive. Instead of a supporting role, material culture plays an equal role alongside oral traditions and written records in the process of historical inquiry. Generally, this means acknowledging the fact that archaeology, like these other two modes of inquiry, suffers from “inherent biases and limitations.” It also means recognizing that archaeology has the potential not only to validate, but to amend old theses and even to propose new ones. [2]

Archaeology and the Study of African History – Conclusions from the Case Studies

For the study of African History more specifically, the rise of material culture as an equally valid mode of historical inquiry carries special meaning. The study of archaeology allows historians to move the geographic and temporal boundaries of analysis beyond areas that were only covered by literary sources. With archaeology, so-called “non-literate” times may be used as a vantage point from which to interpret the historical events of later eras that left behind written records. This is done in Laura Mitchell’s chapter on the spatial geography of Dutch, white settler-colonialism in the Cedarberg frontier of South Africa during the eighteenth century.[3] Mitchell uses mapping techniques to literally overlay sites of Khoisan material culture that date back to the Late Stone Age—identified mostly through rock art and the presence of stone tools—with land-grant data taken from the archives of the Dutch East India Company. What Mitchell discovers is that these maps occupy the exact same spaces. Her research suggests that scholars should not understand the colonial war that Khoisan people waged against Dutch settlers in 1739 as a general confrontation over contested resources, but as an engagement over the right to access and control very “specific pieces of land” that were both environmentally strategic and spiritually sacred to the Khoisan people.[4]

In addition to expanding the geographic and temporal bounds of African History, archaeology allows historians to effectively combat lingering stereotypes about the primitive, primordial, or unchanging African society. This theme comes out in several of this week’s readings. Akinwumi Ogundiran’s piece, for example, brings a much greater definition to the precolonial history of the Yoruba-Edo region (today western Nigeria and Benin). Ogundiran uses the archaeological record to outline “six cultural historical phases” that defined the area from 500 BC to 1800 AD. The result is a “long-term chronological scheme” that historians can now use for “understanding the origins, changes, and continuities of the cultural institutions in the region over time.”[5] Ogundiran bases his historical schema off of changes that are visible in the material culture of the region. One piece of evidence, for example, that testifies to the ascendancy of a confederacy-style political structure in the region during what Ogundiran defines as the Early Formative Period (500-800 AD) is the proliferation of defensive embankments, ditches, and ramparts. To mention just one additional example, Ogundiran tracks Ile-Ife’s rise to political and cultural dominance during the Classical Period  (1000-1400 AD) through its monopolization and exportation of several new artistic traditions, like terracotta ceramics, potsherd architecture, brass casting, and glass-bead production.[6] Continue reading “Archaeological Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Studies from South Africa, Bostwana, Namibia, Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana”

Documentary Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Texts by and about Suleiman Diallo, Philip Quaque, and Antera Duke

TOYIN FALOLA AND CHRISTIAN JENNINGS, EDS. Part III of Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004. Part III is called “Documentary Sources,” 169-238.

PHILIP D. CURTIN ET AL. Part I of Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967. Part I is called “African Travelers of the Eighteenth Century, 3-139, omitting the section on Olaudah Equiano, 60-98.

STEPHEN D. BEHRENDT, A.J.H. LATHAM, AND DAVID NORTHRUP. Part II of The Diary of Antera Duke: An Eighteenth-Century African Slave Trader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Part II is called “Extracts from the Diary of Antera Duke,” 133-220.

Introduction:

The main readings for this week are documentary sources for studying West African history in the eighteenth century. Two of these sources were written by West African peoples themselves, while the third was written by a European man yet based off of his interactions with a West African. Additionally, two of the sources appear as excerpts in Africa Remembered, an edited volume compiled by the historian Philip Curtin. They come from the book’s first part, entitled “African Travelers of the Eighteenth Century.”[1] The first source is the published slave narrative of a Fulbe Muslim trader named Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1734). The second is a series of letters from a Fanti missionary, slave factory chaplain, and sharity school teacher named Philip Quaque (1766-1811). In addition, the diary of a prominent Efik chief and slave trader named Antera Duke Ephrim constitutes the third source (1785-1788). Taken together, these three documentary sources not only represent different regions of Africa but also different experiences with the slave trade and different genres of writing. Finally, chapters taken from Sources and Methods in African History, compiled by Toyin Falola and Christian Jennings, provide context for analyzing these narratives.

In his introduction to the “Documentary Sources” section of Sources and Methods in African History, Thomas Spear explains why historians of Africa have been more reluctant to critically engage with written primary sources than scholars of other fields.[2] Documentary sources for studying African history, particularly from the long eighteenth-century, are both rare and problematic. As the African philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe has demonstrated in a detailed theoretical and historiographical critique, called The Invention of Africa, these sources often reflect ‘Western epistemologies’ such as ‘discourses on African primitiveness.’ These epistemological frameworks typically fail to engage with how African peoples thought of themselves and their own societies.[3] As Spear explains, the problematic nature of documentary sources has led African historians to devote their energies to developing alternative materials for understanding he African past. These innovative departures are epitomized by scholarship like that of Jan Vansina. An historian and anthropologist of Africa, Vansina devoted much of his career to developing a guide for fieldworkers who want to employ oral traditions as a primary source for understanding both the past and present of African societies. Vansina’s work, written up in 1959 and then updated in 1985, has demonstrated that oral traditions are a complex, diverse, and necessary component of historical research in African societies. They are not just a medium to be turned to when written materials are unavailable.[4]

Inspired by the innovative methods of anthropologists like Vansina and the cogent critiques of philosophers like Mudimbe, many scholars of Africa are starting to revisit the historical potential of documentary source materials, especially when these materials are interpreted in new ways. In a series of three essays on written source materials of the nineteenth-century, Christian Jennings, Kristin Mann, and Meredith McKittrick offer case studies that suggest why “documentary sources remain vital to our historical understanding, no matter who produced them and how and why they did so.”[5] These authors reaffirm the view that, just like oral traditions, written source materials can spark historical revelations about African societies when historians approach them with thoughtful questions. For example, in revisiting early Church records from East Africa in the 1840s and 1850s, Jennings demonstrates that missionaries had a much better understanding of the cultures of Massai and Iloikop pastoralists than later historians were willing to concede. The missionaries had interpreted these Rift Valley societies through the lens of their own prejudices, like Mudimbe explains, but they also based their ethnographic work on local informants from within the communities. As a result, when their works are carefully studied, they have the potential to affect some of our most longstanding historical assumptions—in this case, about the evolution of Massai identity. It is with this view in mind that we turn to our three readings from the eighteenth century.[6]

Continue reading “Documentary Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Texts by and about Suleiman Diallo, Philip Quaque, and Antera Duke”

All Creole Cultures: Identity, Community, and the Limits of Talking About African “Ethnicities” in the Early Americas

In taking their cues from the extant primary-source materials, scholars have written about African “ethnic” communities in the colonial Americas since almost the moment that they began writing about the transatlantic slave trade and its origins. Researchers today are occasionally surprised to discover that even scholars of the Jim Crow-era, such as Ulrich B. Phillips, wrote about these various “ethnic” groups in the Americas. As early as 1918, Phillips gestured to a theory of ethnogenesis—the idea that distinct African identities underwent a collective transformation on American plantations. “Ceasing to be Foulah, Coromantee, Ebo or Angola, ” Phillips wrote, African people in the diaspora became “instead the American negro.” This statement was one of the earliest expressions of what the historian Michael Gomez has more-recently called the “process whereby Africans [in the Americas] moved along a continuum from ethnicity to race.”[1]

The discussion around African “ethnicities” has a long history in the literature of American slavery. Nonetheless, as a scholarly conversation, it has received an unprecedented amount of attention over just the past quarter century. Case studies by authors like David Littlefield and David Wheat (Rice and Slaves, Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean), surveys by authors like Michael Gomez and Gwendolyn Midlo Hall (Exchanging Our Country Marks, Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas), and compilations by editors like Paul Lovejoy and David Trotman (Trans-Atlantic Dimension of Ethnicity in the African Diaspora) have all contributed to a renewed interest in studying African diasporic identities through the framework of “ethnicity.” For many of these historians, “ethnicity” serves the simple function of moving our dialogue beyond homogenous portrayals of African peoples in the diaspora. “Ethnicity” helps scholars avoid speaking in the analytically flat categories of “African,” “Black,” or “Negro.” In this sense, the conversation is both well-intentioned and necessary. However, in another sense, the language of “ethnicity” brings with it a series of assumptions that threaten to limit our ability to understand African identities. I address a couple of those limitations in this essay. In doing so, I argue that that framework of “ethnicity” is useful, provided scholars localize their studies, interrogate their sources, and emphasize the inherently creole, dynamic, fluid nature of all diasporic groups.[2] Continue reading “All Creole Cultures: Identity, Community, and the Limits of Talking About African “Ethnicities” in the Early Americas”

To Hold Both Sides Together: Miami Historiography and the Question of the ‘New Immigrant City’

“Mid-flight between Miami and Havana, in either direction, I believe I can hold both sides together. Increasingly, there is the possibility for a coherent perspective, for an imagined future that transcends the rupture without denying the pain, without compromising the ethics and principles that in the long run make a difference in history.”

– María de Los Angeles Torres, In the Land of Mirrors (200)

In the summer of 2005, the historian and scholar of human migration, Melanie Shell-Weiss, published an essay in a special, transnational issue of the regional journal Florida Historical Quarterly. The article was called “Coming North to the South: Migration, Labor and City-Building in Twentieth-Century Miami,” and it described the experiences of early-twentieth-century Bahamian migrants to South Florida in order to argue that “Miami has always been a transnational city, even if it only recently has become a global city.” In the commentaries section of this same issue, Alex Lichtenstein, an historian of race and labor in the American South, set out to respond to Shell-Weiss’ thesis that Miami was “not a new immigrant city.” He cited sociological distinctions between “internal” and “foreign-born” migrants, and he questioned the historical impact of the latter group in “the first half of the twentieth century” when compared with the second half. He dug into the city’s census records, listing out percentages of foreign and native-born migrants for each decade of Miami’s history. He then weighed the early statistics for human migration against other urban areas with substantial portions of foreign-born migrants. Afterward, he concluded that “by no stretch of the imagination could Miami be described as a city significantly shaped by foreign immigration prior to 1960.” Later, he stated bluntly that “the visible imprint of the Bahamian contribution was limited,” leaving only a “faint” impression on the urban landscape. This impression was minimal when compared to that of the Latin American and Caribbean migrants who completely “remade the face of the city” in the decades following the Cuban Revolution of 1959.[1]

These FHQ exchanges between Shell-Weiss and Lichtenstein epitomized the character of Miami historiography in the early-twenty-first century. Everything from a mutual desire to “distinguish sharply between the pre- and post-1960s eras,” an interrogation of a “foreign” Bahamian influence in reference to that of later “foreign” migrants from the Spanish and French-speaking countries of the Caribbean and Latin America, and what some have called an often-excessive “quibble over numbers” was characteristic of where the urban history of Miami stood in the early 2000s, as well as where it had come from. All things considered, the debate over whether Miami was or was not a “new immigrant city” was essentially a trial about the city’s past. Indeed, if Miami was a “new immigrant city,” as Lichtenstein argued, then where did its pre-1960 history belong? On the contrary, if Miami had “always been” a transnational city as Shell-Weiss claimed, then how should the unique effects of its post-1960 transformation be fully appreciated?[2]

The following essay will provide background to this special historiographical moment. It will offer a cursory overview of Miami historiography from about the founding of the city in 1896 up to these 2005 exchanges. The defining factor of the essay is that its analysis is confined entirely to the provincial, urban historiography of one single city. In other words, this paper does not draw upon theoretical models applied in different urban environments, American or otherwise; it is not comparative in scope; and it does not cite broader historical contexts. Of course, there are moments when Miami’s historiographical turns are probably more indicative of larger trends—like the rise of cliometrics, new social sciences, or postcolonial narratives—than they are of any self-contained idea about the city or a single generation of writers. Nonetheless, the present author hopes only that this historiography of Miami, however insulated and self-serving in its content, will provide a detailed case study for those authors who are bold enough to make larger connections. Continue reading “To Hold Both Sides Together: Miami Historiography and the Question of the ‘New Immigrant City’”

A Truly Revolutionary Removal: An Introduction to the “Backlash Thesis” of Politics, Gender, and the American Revolution

Images: The engraving on the left depicts the so-called “petticoat electors,” women permitted to vote in the New Jersey electorate from 1776 to 1807. The painting on the right depicts a Missouri election in the 1850s. As the historian Rosemarie Zagarri writes, the contrast between these images captures a backlash against gender in early America. Although the political process was much more inclusive in the revolutionary era, only white men were empowered by the 1850s.

Introduction: Please excuse me. This historiographical essay begins in an unorthodox way: with a personal story. This past fall, I was serving as a teacher’s assistant for the very first time at UC Davis. I was assigned to Professor John Smolenski’s course, “HIST 17A: History of the United States to 1877.” On Wednesday morning, November 2, Smolenski gave the class a particularly memorable lecture. It was about the age of former president Andrew Jackson, and the theme was “An Age of Removals.” Of course, Smolenski talked about the Trail of Tears, and the removal of the five major Southeast Indian tribes west across the Mississippi River in the 1830s. Then he talked about the ongoing work of the American Colonization Society—their continuing effort to remove free black people from the country in the same era. Last, but not least, he talked about the so-called “petticoat electors.” Now this was a subject that I had come across before, but only in passing, as I skimmed textbooks in preparation for teaching at Solano Community College. Nonetheless, I am ashamed to admit that, as a twenty-eight-year-old PhD student in History, I had never appreciated the subject until Smolenki’s lecture. As most historians of early America know, the “petticoat electors” refers to a group of property-holding women in New Jersey. These women took advantage of a new state constitution from 1776 that did not specifically prohibit women from voting. They voted in local elections from the 1790s to 1807, when new state laws removed them from the electorate.[1]

What is the purpose of discussing the “petticoat electors?” The forced removal of property-holding women from the New Jersey electorate is only one example of what historians often refer to as the “limits” or the “paradox” of the American Revolution and the subsequent establishment of the United States of America as a new nation-state. In the above example of Smolenski’s lecture, the case of these female electors serves to round out a three-dimensional introduction to such limits. The example of the Trail of Tears introduces the limits in relation to Native American peoples; the example of the American Colonization Society introduces them in relation to African-Americans; and, last, the case of the “petticoat electors” introduces them in relation to propertied women. On the one hand, the story of these women has become a standard line in history textbooks, because perhaps no other incident in early American history can so clearly demonstrate the blatant failure of revolutionary ideals—like calls for “liberty” and freedom from British “tyranny, oppression, and slavery”—to translate into increased freedoms for women. On the other hand, the example of the “petticoat electors” is also an introduction to a much larger argument about the history of gender and the founding of the United States. This argument is called the “backlash thesis.”[2]

What is the “backlash thesis?” Well, if you searched the phrase in an online journal database like JSTOR, America: History and Life, or Academic Search Complete, you would probably come away thinking that it was about Southern, white racial conservatism in reaction to the desegregation decision in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. Indeed, the phrase “backlash thesis” is most commonly used in academia to refer to the postwar period of the twentieth century, especially to how the modern conservative movement arose as a direct response to gains that were made in areas such as racial equality, women’s reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights. Much of this work derives from a foundational article by the Civil Rights and legal historian Michael J. Klarman. However, the phrase “backlash thesis” is also employed in the field of early American history. Here it refers to a national conservatism in reaction to gains in women’s and gender rights that accompanied the American revolution and the founding of the country. Perhaps its most vocal advocate—its Michael J. Klarman—is the historian Rosemarie Zagarri, in her 2007 monograph Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic.[3] Continue reading “A Truly Revolutionary Removal: An Introduction to the “Backlash Thesis” of Politics, Gender, and the American Revolution”

“A Presumptive Evidence?” An Introduction to the Historiography of African Provenance Labels in the Early Modern Era

Images: The engraving on the left supposedly depicts a “Coromantyn” person living in the Dutch colony of Suriname in the late-eighteenth century. The picture on the right supposedly depicts a “Congo” person living in South Carolina in the mid-nineteenth century. Both images show an interest in labeling African provenance in the early-modern era.

Epigraphs: “There is a vast difference in the…dispositions of the Negroes, according to the coasts they come from.” – B. Moreton, West India Customs and Manners, 1793[1]

“…good subjects are frequently found in cargoes of the worst reputation, and bad ones in those of the best. The country, therefore, forms only a presumptive evidence of quality, which may mislead…”- Anonymous, Practical Rules for the Management and Medical Treatment of Negro Slaves, 1803[2]

Introduction: Mandingo. Jollof. Ballum. Kissy. Temne. Coromantee. Chamba. Asante. Papaw. Nago. Dome. Igbo. Moco. Angola. Mungola. Kongo. For scholars who work on both slavery in the Americas and the Black Diaspora in what historians often define as the early-modern era (1490s-1830s), at least some of these words will be familiar. They are words that appear to a varying degree in the documentary record of the Atlantic colonies, from English-speaking New York to Dutch-speaking Suriname and Portuguese-speaking Brazil. More precisely, historians call these terms ethnic, national, or provenance labels. They are words that were used by both blacks and whites to differentiate between Africans in the Americas. As contemporary authors indicated, these labels were associated in the minds of early-modern writers with what we generally call ethnicities or nationalities, but what contemporaries more often referred to as “countries,” “nations,” and sometimes even “races.” Even more important, these labels were associated with provenance: areas of the African coast out of which slaves embarked on the Middle Passage. For example, Mandingo was used for people from Senegambia on the Upper Guinea Coast; Ibo for those from the Bight of Biafra on the Lower Guinea Coast; and Congo for those from Congo-Angola in West-Central Africa.[1]

Provenance labels are common in the documentary record of the early-modern period. As the historian Michael Mullin has written, “ordinary people identified Africans as members of particular societies more carefully than scholars have given them credit for doing.” From the engravings that were featured in travel narratives like that of John Gabriel Stedman in 1796, to the black-and-white photographs that were taken by J.T. Zealy in 1850, the evidence demonstrates that many people in the early-modern period had a desire to see beyond monolithic categories like “African,” “black,” or “negro.” Instead, they expressed an interest in representing difference among Africans in both visual and literary forms. However, as the two epigraphs featured above show, these same contemporaries often disagreed about how reliable provenance labels really were for determining the origin, culture, or behavior of an African person who was brought into American slavery.[2] Continue reading ““A Presumptive Evidence?” An Introduction to the Historiography of African Provenance Labels in the Early Modern Era”

From Chicanismo to Chuy: The Long History of the Chicano Movement in Chicago’s Lower West Side, 1965-2015

Note:  For a PDF version of this graduate research prospectus, which includes all of its appendices, please see the following link: From Chicanismo to Chuy — Recovering the Long History of the Chicano Movement in Chicago’s Lower West Side, 1965-2015

INTRODUCTION:

The Chicago Tribune printed historic news on Tuesday night, February 24, 2015. The Mexican-American politician, Jesús G. “Chuy” García, succeeded in forcing a runoff against his opponent in the previous day’s mayoral election. The runoff, scheduled for Tuesday, April 7, became the first runoff in the history of Chicago mayoral elections. Though García lost that race by 11.4%, he had come closer to obtaining the highest office in the third largest city of the United States than any Latino/a politician before him. The closest comparison had been Gery Chico, who became the first Mexican-American to run for the office of mayor in 2011. Nonetheless, García topped Chico’s vote by 9.6% in the 2015 General Election. He captured majorities in every one of the fourteen wards dominated by “Hispanic” residents except for one: the 13th. More specifically, the 22nd, 12th, and 25th wards roughly corresponded to the Latino/a barrios of Chicago’s Lower West Side. García won these wards by ratios of 80%, 75% and 61% respectively. In part, his strong showing drew upon the fact that Chicago Latinos/as were more influential than they had ever been, at 33% of the city’s population, 19% of its voting-age citizens, and a handful of its elected officials. Yet, in order to fully understand these successes, we must go all the way back to the 1960s and 70s.[1]

García had a long and storied career that culminated in the 2015 runoff. More importantly, that career mirrored larger trends in postwar, Mexican-American activism for Civil Rights. He was born in Mexico in 1956, but he moved to Chicago at the age of nine because his father was a farm laborer in the WWII-era bracero program. When the family settled in the growing Latino/a barrios of the Lower West Side, these areas of the city were quickly filling up with both new migrants and displaced, Spanish-speaking wartime immigrants. García found himself in a rare climate of vigorous Latino/a activism known as the Chicano Movement. Many Latino/a residents in the Lower West Side were uniting under the banner of a new, cultural-nationalist ideology called chicanismo. They were agitating against issues like racism, gang violence, community neglect, immigrant and union rights, poverty, under-education, police brutality, joblessness, and urban renewal. [2]

García witnessed chicanismo activism firsthand. When he was thirteen, for example, over one-hundred Latino/a residents gathered in the street to attend a public meeting of ALAS. During this meeting, those present endorsed a local Mexican-American activist named Arthur Vásquez as the next executive director of Howell House, Pilsen’s settlement house, which had historically been home to the white, Presbyterian Czech immigrants. Vásquez became the house’s first Mexican-American director, and the center was re-christened Casa Aztlán. This name was a symbol of chicanismo that memorialized the ward’s demographic tipping point. One year later, in 1970, the city’s decennial census recorded the Lower West Side’s first ever Latino/a majority. The barrios Little Village/South Lawndale and Pilsen/Heart of Chicago have retained that majority to this day.[3]

Continue reading “From Chicanismo to Chuy: The Long History of the Chicano Movement in Chicago’s Lower West Side, 1965-2015”

Like Two Waves of the Same Flood: Comparing John Trudell’s Lines from a Mined Mind and Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song

SHERWIN BITSUI. Flood Song. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2009. Pp. 73 $15.00. ISBN: 978-1-55659-308-6.

JOHN TRUDELL. Lines from a Mined Mind. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2008. Pp. vii, 270. $18.00. ISBN: 9781555916787.

Introduction:

“Bitter fruit emerges where bitter seed is sown,” sings the native artist John Trudell in one of his 1999 song-poems called “Blue Indians.” “Economic chains all dressed out as reward/Gender race age edged in love and rage/Oppressorman builder keeper of the cage.” In acerbic pieces like this one, listeners can feel the full force of Trudell’s searing and unabashed voice. A radical child of the 1960s and 1970s, and a leading activist of the nation’s Alcatraz-Red Power Movement, he flings his words like sharpened daggers at what he views to be an oppressive and shallow American society—a society that pollutes the minds of its people with the “toxic waste” of consumerism and the “poison” of “fears doubts and insecurity.” In this poem and others, we experience Trudell’s characteristic critique of First World deceit and decadence. His language is biting and direct. There is not much room for ambiguity in lines like “Industrial reservation tyranny stakes its claim” and “Blue Indians emotional siege in a civilized stain.” In fact, many song-poems in his oeuvre, as they appear in his 2008 compilation Lines from a Mined Mind, are unambiguous and impassioned. They feature “political pimps,” “citizen whores,” and “material junkies.” Readers are informed that they are living in a “broken” and “industrially insane” world of “tech no logic slavery.” We are weathering the “oppressor’s brutality” and “surviving genocide because we have to.”[1]

Then there is the poetic work of the native artist Sherwin Bitsui. His groundbreaking book-poem Flood Song was published in 2009, exactly one year after Trudell’s retrospective anthology. Yet the work is strikingly different. The language is much more subtle, nuanced, quiet, intimate, and deeply visual. Scattered across wide savannas of blank, white space are small pools and rivulets of deep imagery. They spread like oases or trickles in a vast desert. Each one draws the reader’s imagination forward, carrying it upon the back of a meandering and powerful current of contemplative visions. There is a “waning lick of moonlight on the dashboard.” Then, we see “A shower of sparks skate across the morning sky;” and, in continuing, we “inhale earth, wind, water/ through the gasoline nozzle/at trail’s end/a flint spear driven into the key switch.” These images are punctuated and fleeting; yet, somehow they form part of a bigger picture. They are like specific, tactile pieces from the fragmented mosaic that is our memory. They are pieces of evidence for an endangered, lived experience. There is a reality embedded in a thought of “a flashing yellow sign,/blinks between charcoal sheets of monsoon rain.” With each deliberate verb, Bitsui somehow manages to conjure an entire world of feeling within his readers. “It is here,” he writes, “that they scoop the granite stones from your chest/snap each rib shut over the highway leading south.”[2]

Continue reading “Like Two Waves of the Same Flood: Comparing John Trudell’s Lines from a Mined Mind and Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song”

The Sensuality of Sustenance: The Embodiment of Food, Life, and Sex in Natalia Toledo’s Black Flower

Citation: NATALIA TOLEDO, “A Hand in the Bush Makes Sweet Work in the Kitchen.” In The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems. Trans. from the Spanish and the Isthmus Zapotec by Clare Sullivan. Los Angeles: Phoneme Media, 2015. Pp. xi, 244. $16.00. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-939419-46-0.

Image credit: The designs of Natalia Toledo’s poems on amate paper that are featured as images in this post were designed by Mexico City Lit.

Introduction:

“You open your legs wide,” writes Natalia Toledo, “when you sit down in the hammock/so that the chocolate chili of your man/may enter your calabash.” In select poems like this one, “Chocolate Chili Pepper,” Toledo puts the erotic dimensions of her poetry on full display. She constructs intimate pieces that are short and sweet, and descend into palpable meaning like water falling over cliff sides. Throughout, she scatters poignant comparisons between food and sex like rocks on the falls, throwing them into the water’s path to create a confusing and entangled fall of sensuality and sustenance. The reader is left like many subjects of these poems, feeling both hungry and aroused. They crave food and they desire orgasm. Most importantly, they question the very idea of artificial boundaries between two of the most primal activities of human life. One is the ritual crafting of food that resurrects life in its subsequent consumption; the other is the intimate crafting of actual people that reproduces life through the cycle of sex, cooking in the womb, and then birth.[1]

The following essay is a short piece that explores select themes from one section of Natalia Toledo’s Black Flower, a translated compilation of her poetry from 2015. The essay begins with a biographical section on Toledo which is intended to provide context for those who have not heard of her work. The essay will then discuss the interwoven themes of food, life, and sex in her section of poems, “A Hand in the Bush Makes Sweet Work in the Kitchen.” Meanwhile, it will draw upon language from the “Embodiments” track of the Performance Studies discipline. The discipline describes this track in one of its statements by writing that it “deals with questions of representation and documentation of bodies in performance that will encompass not only artist/practitioners but also those working in discursive fields such as literature and languages.” The language of the track also refers to the interaction of “bodies in space” and “bodies in motion.” In the sections of Black Flower relevant to this essay, we will explore how Toledo uses the vehicle of her native language and the themes of food, life, and sex to explore the body as a physical site of sensuality and sustenance, as well as the idea of the “body in motion” as it creates and sustains life.[2]

Continue reading “The Sensuality of Sustenance: The Embodiment of Food, Life, and Sex in Natalia Toledo’s Black Flower”

Becoming Traditional in the Contemporary New: A Relational Analysis of Two Native Authors

JOY HARJO. How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, 1975 – 2002. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002. Pp. xxviii, 242. $17.95. Hardback. ISBN: 978-0-393-32534-8.

LEANNE HOWE. Evidence of Red: Poems and Prose. Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2005. Pp. 101. £9.99. Hardback. ISBN: 9781844710621.

In her poem “Song For The Deer and Myself to Return On,” of the compilation How We Became Human, Joy Harjo (Muscogee Creek) narrates the story of a Native American person who is living “in a house near downtown Denver.” This character invokes a traditional, Native American hunting song in order to call deer into the house. When these animals arrive, as surely they do, they “wondered at finding themselves” crammed together in this strange and very modern setting. After their initial bewilderment subsided, the deer and the narrator came together and tried to “figure out a song…to get all of us back.” Because, although both parties had gathered together in this urban environment, neither of them actually wanted to remain there. Both the deer and the narrator desired to return to a more “traditional” space, perhaps the space of their ancestral hunting grounds, where they had once lived alongside one another, long before the city of Denver had ever existed. Similarly, in the piece “The Unknown Woman,” from LeAnne Howe’s (Choctaw) book of poems, Evidence of Red, a narrator who is identified only as “The Spirit” regrets that “Copper masks made by my children appear in the Field Museum’s case. They rest in the future—from the past.”[1]

Continue reading “Becoming Traditional in the Contemporary New: A Relational Analysis of Two Native Authors”

A New Place for Stories: Essay On the Idea of Environmental History in the Florida Straits

But if environmental history is successful in its project, the story of how different peoples have lived and used the natural world will become one of the most basic and fundamental narratives in all of history, without which no understand of the past could be complete.

William Cronon, “A Place for Stories”[1]

I am trying to think, to see if I read anything more about Miami…I can’t tell exactly how far we are from there. There are no borderlines on the sea. The whole thing looks like one.

Edwidge Danticat, Krik? Krak![2]

In the year 1990, the Journal of American History hosted its first roundtable on the emerging sub-field of Environmental History. This academic forum included five short responses by a generation of established scholars to a centerpiece article by the historian Donald Worster, a man who had already become a founder of the field. Evident in the forum was an early tradition of disputing the intellectual boundaries of Environmental History, even while they were being formed. On the one hand, Worster called for practitioners to begin “Seeing Beyond Culture” and analyzing “modes of production as ecological phenomenon.” He called for scholars to collaborate with scientists and explore capital–m Man’s relationship to the environment throughout time as a set of “autonomous, independent energies that do not derive from the drives and intentions of any culture.” On the other hand, established historians used their responses to push back on this argument. Writers like William Cronon, Richard White, and Carolyn Merchant called for scholars not to lose focus on the “broader cultural systems in which [agro-ecological modes of production] are embedded.” They asked for us to avoid ignoring cultural categories that existed “below the level of the group” implied by Man, and they asked us not to forget how particular relationships to the natural environment depended upon social constructions like race, gender, reproduction, and class.[1]

Continue reading “A New Place for Stories: Essay On the Idea of Environmental History in the Florida Straits”

Steering the Course: Essay on Continuity and Change in the New Deal Era, 1933-1940

The Democratic nominee Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered the White House on March 4, 1933. The former New York governor had won the 1932 election by a landslide to become the thirty-second president of the United States. Once in office, he immediately began enacting a series of wide-ranging domestic measures known as the New Deal. These reforms were designed to address the Great Depression, which reached a tipping point after the Stock Market Crash of 1929. From approximately 1933 to 1940, the New Deal fundamentally altered the texture of American history. Political parties realigned, the federal government’s role in society mushroomed, labor and consumers received support against capital, Progressive legislation redefined welfare, and the landscape was redrawn with new infrastructure. As Jason Scott Smith states, the New Deal was nothing short of a revolution in “state-sponsored economic development.” Eric Rauchway adds that, while “The New Deal did not end the Great Depression,” it was instrumental in healing its wounds. Both unemployment and the economy were steadily improving throughout the 1930s.[1]

Continue reading “Steering the Course: Essay on Continuity and Change in the New Deal Era, 1933-1940”

Manufacturing Sustainability in the Postindustrial Age

Image of Meiji-Jingu forest on the outskirts of Tokyo

Ninety years ago, citizens of Tokyo, Japan, asked their government for permission to honor the passing of their imperial leaders by cultivating a sustainable, forest shrine on the outskirts of town. The result was Meiji-jingu, an “eternal forest” of 120,000 trees, planted on 700,000 square meters of previous “marshland, farms, and grassland.” Based upon the Shinto religious belief that natural deities, called Kami, reside within the wood of sacred forests, the shrine was designed to be a paragon of sustainability. But, while the model of Meiji-jingu proves to be sustainable, it is also anything but natural. An examination of literature in the sub-fields of environmental and urban history reinforces this relationship, suggesting that sustainable environments have indeed existed in the past, but that they have suffered as a consequence of failed stewardship during the industrial era. Continue reading “Manufacturing Sustainability in the Postindustrial Age”

Conquering the Organic in Filthy Cities

In 2012, the final episode of the BBC-documentary series Filthy Cities, hosted by the English television presenter Dan Snow, took viewers back “to a seething Manhattan in the throes of the industrial revolution.” Among other things, the only American episode of this three-part series argued that New York was a “nightmare” for the millions of poor emigrants who settled in the Lower Manhattan slum of Five Points in the late nineteenth century. Continue reading “Conquering the Organic in Filthy Cities”

Separating Cultures in Opening the Vaults at the Field Museum

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On Friday, October 23, 2013, the Field Museum of Chicago launched its temporary exhibit Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair in their Holleb Exhibition Gallery on the first floor. To be clear, this post is not intended to be a journalistic review of that exhibit. If that is what you are looking for, I can only direct you to reviews by the Chicago Tribune reporter Steve Johnson and the TimeOut Chicago reporter Jake Malooley. Instead, this post is intended to address a singular, structural assumption that other reporters have not fully discussed. This assumption is the strict and continued separation of Western civilization from other cultures—an intellectual separation that was embodied in the structure of the original Columbian Exposition of 1893, and reaffirmed one-hundred and twenty years later in the structure of Opening the Vaults. Continue reading “Separating Cultures in Opening the Vaults at the Field Museum”

The Columbian Question: A Call for a Plebiscite on Columbus Day

Columbus Day ECardIn 1994, Common Courage Press, a progressive publishing house dedicated to social justice and based out of the small town of Monroe, Maine, produced a manuscript entitled Indians Are Us?: Culture and Genocide in Native North America. The author of this text was none other than the Creek-Muskogee intellectual, political activist, and scholar, Ward LeRoy Churchill, who was at the time serving as the professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. In the second chapter, entitled “Bringing the Law Back Home: Application of the Genocide Convention in the United States,” Churchill joined—and perhaps even surpassed—a growing number of journalists, scholars, activists, and citizens by emphatically calling for an end to the annual celebration of Columbus Day in America. “Undeniably,” Churchill wrote, “the situation of American Indians will not—in fact cannot—change for the better so long as such attitudes are deemed socially acceptable by the mainstream populace. Hence, such celebrations as Columbus Day must be stopped.” Continue reading “The Columbian Question: A Call for a Plebiscite on Columbus Day”

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