Remembering Katrina

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In reflection, we’d like to highlight a few recent books that explore the effects of the historic storm and its impact on the resilient city of New Orleans.

Mardi Gras, jazz, voodoo, gumbo, Bourbon Street, the French Quarter—all evoke that place that is unlike any other: New Orleans. But what is it that makes New Orleans ‘authentic’? In Authentic New Orleans, Kevin Fox Gotham explains how New Orleans became a tourist town, a spectacular locale known as much for its excesses as for its quirky Southern charm. Beginning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina amid the whirlwind of speculation and dread surrounding the rebuilding of the city, Gotham provides a unique interpretation of New Orleans, one that goes beyond its veneer and moves into the rich cultural roots of this unique American landmark.


 

In Critical Rhetorics of Race, a groundbreaking collection edited by Michael G. Lacy and Kent A. Ono, scholars seek to examine the complicated and contradictory terrain of racial rhetoric, critiquing our depictions of race in innovative and exciting ways. In the powerful first chapter, Michael G. Lacy and Kathleen C. Haspel take us back in time to the post-apocalyptic New Orleans of 2005 to explore the media’s troubling representations of black looters following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.


 

When the images of desperate, hungry, thirsty, sick, mostly black people circulated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it became apparent to the whole country that race did indeed matter when it came to government assistance. The Wrong Complexion for Protection illuminates the long history of failed government responses to a range of environmental and health threats to African Americans. Drawing on compelling case studies and jaw-dropping statistics, the book is a sobering exploration of the brutal realities of institutionalized racism in disaster response and recovery.


 

Research: Salvation with a Smile

9780814723883_FCPhillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, will be a featured guest blogger on From the Square leading up to his book’s publication in October. The posts will unveil certain aspects of the project and provide selected snapshots of the book’s backstory, including the research he conducted, the writing process, and his hopes for Salvation with a Smile in the classroom. In case you missed it, read his earlier post about encountering Lakewood Church here, and the third post about the project’s origins. The initial post about Salvation with a Smile, which revealed the book’s cover, is over at Baldblogger. For this month’s post, the author addresses the processes of researching Salvation with a Smile.

The discipline of history defines the primary investigative lens of Salvation with a Smile. Published and unpublished primary source material formed the documentary foundation of my work, while I also conducted oral history interviews and recorded field notes from participant observation in various congregational activities at Lakewood Church. While I am not formally trained as an ethnographer or sociologist, the work of religious studies scholar Robert Orsi in Between Heaven and Earth, as well as the work of historian Randall Balmer—particularly his quip about being a “shade-tree sociologist” for the research he conducted on evangelicalism in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory—methodologically informed parts of my qualitative research on Lakewood. In Salvation with a Smile, my historical and cultural assessments of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church focus on context and change over time.

First and foremost, the rich scholarship on American religious history provided a robust historiographical tradition upon which to base my book. The excellent work of David Edwin Harrell on neopentecostalism, for example, helped me to frame Lakewood’s early years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Books on the history of the prosperity gospel by Kate Bowler and Gerardo Marti assisted me in making sense of John and Joel Osteen’s teachings. Publications on Pentecostal healing and prayer by scholars such as Joseph Williams, Candy Gunther Brown, and T. M. Luhrmann, along with publications on evangelical biblicism by James S. Bielo and Brian Malley, offered a way to understand religious experience at Lakewood Church. And the list goes on and on. My book’s endnotes and Bibliography demonstrate the breath of scholarship to which my work is indebted.

With respect to primary sources, the publications of John Osteen and Joel Osteen, along with works by Dodie Osteen (Joel Osteen’s mother), Victoria Osteen (Joel Osteen’s wife), Lisa Osteen Comes (Joel Osteen’s sister), and Paul Osteen (Joel Osteen’s brother), as well as the books of former Spanish Lakewood pastor Marcos Witt, provided clear windows into the religious perspectives and ideas with which these individuals understand the world. When I started the research for Salvation with a Smile, John Osteen’s books were difficult to obtain, so in addition to Amazon.com, I found a number of his books on eBay. As I discuss below, interlibrary loan also came in handy, as did archival research.

In addition to printed materials, my book also utilizes audio and video sources, including a number of Joel Osteen’s early cassette sermons, along with his messages on VHS between 2001 and 2004. Around 2003, most of Joel’s materials became available on CD and DVD. I purchased over a dozen of the cassette packages, along with CDs and DVDs on eBay. In a stroke good fortune, several current and former Lakewood members I interviewed for the book kindly loaned me over 50 of John Osteen’s VHS messages from the 1980s and 1990s. This vintage material, some of which has become available on YouTube in the last 2 years or so, proved vital for my research. I used the videos for primary source materials of John’s teachings. In addition, since Joel Osteen produced the VHS sermon videos (he was Lakewood’s media producer during the 1980s and 1990s), the episodes also offer a literal view into Joel’s production strategies, which I interpret in light of televangelism’s recent history.

Participant observation also forms part of the evidentiary basis of my analysis of Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen. I first began attending services and congregational activities at Lakewood in 2005. As I indicated in an earlier post, some of this initial ethnographic work and research appeared in Holy Mavericks. For Salvation with a Smile, I continued to attend worship services and visit Sunday school classes, scribbling notes and thoughts down along the way. I also attended a number of “Night of Hope” events, as well as stadium and arena meetings Joel Osteen holds around the country. I attended two events held in Texas (one in Killeen, the other in Corpus Christi), and obtained a DVD of another— Joel’s very first arena event at Madison Square Garden. Thus, about a decade of participant observation informs the parts of my book that deal with Lakewood’s congregational life, primarily contained in a chapter on religious identity titled “The Redemptive Self”—a concept I borrow from narrative psychologist Dan McAdams.

Oral history interviews with current and former Lakewood members, as well as with journalists and scholars, allowed me to develop an understanding of Joel Osteen and the congregation’s broader history. I conducted about 25 interviews—including several follow-up interviews—over a four-year period. The stories I heard from members and attendees were intriguing and fascinating. They provided unique perspectives on Lakewood’s history, as well as the religious experiences that took place within the context of congregational worship services.

I’d like to share two anecdotes from my interviews that appear in the book. First, Joel Osteen routinely recites a “Bible confession” at the beginning of every service and “Night of Hope” event (read the text here, and find it performed here), a tradition that he adopted from his father. As detailed further in chapter 2 of Salvation with a Smile, from one of my interviews I discovered the unique origin of the “Bible confession,” which began suddenly when John Osteen opened one of his services with it in the 1980s. A moment of call-and-response between John and a Lakewood member created the memorable mantra of “This is my Bible…”. Second, Joel’s own narrative about how he became Lakewood’s pastor emphasizes a divine prompting that inspired his decision to fill his father’s shoes. While I don’t dispute Joel’s interpretation of those events in the book—after all, I don’t have access to his interior life—I document that as John’s closest assistant in the 1980s and 1990s, Joel was the likely candidate to succeed his father as Lakewood’s pastor. Moreover, an interview I conducted with scholar David Edwin Harrell added additional evidence. Harrell had met John over the years while researching his books. For instance, while Harrell was researching All Things are Possible during on a Fulbright in India in 1995, he ran into John, who was there leading a revival campaign, and conducted another interview. From that conversation, Harrell remembered querying John about Lakewood’s future, during which time the aging pastor suggested that his son Joel might assume pastoral duties at the church.

While I enjoyed the challenge of understanding and interpreting content from audio and video sources, participant observation, and oral history interviews, another delightful aspect of researching Salvation with a Smile was tracking down Lakewood’s history in the archives. All told, I obtained research materials from approximately 18 different archival collections.

Fortunately, a number of collections in the greater Houston area, including materials on John Osteen from the San Jacinto Baptist Association, Central Baptist Church, and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, did not require extensive travel. Documents from the San Jacinto Baptist Association and Central Baptist Church—as chapters 1 and 2 reveal—helped me to document John Osteen’s history before his start at Lakewood Church in 1959. A visit to the Pentecostal Research Collection at Regent University proved particularly fruitful in this regard as well; here I found evidence of John’s affiliation with the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International, along with vital material on the print culture of neopentecostalism.

Research conducted at Oral Roberts University’s Holy Spirit Research Center was probably the most important archival excursion I took. As I write in chapter 2 of Salvation with a Smile, this archive provided rare Lakewood material from the 1970s and 1980s. One of the most interesting and puzzling discoveries included a VHS tape of a 1986 Good Friday service at Lakewood, during which an evangelist named Lucy Rael exhibited the stigmata—visible trauma on hands, feet, forehead, and back that, according to traditional Roman Catholic teaching, mimics injuries similar to those of Jesus Christ at crucifixion. I interpret the Rael event in light of neopentecostalism’s broader history, and John’s teachings on spiritual warfare. And speaking of spiritual warfare, while this particular work appeared in spring 2015, too late to include in my book, religious studies scholar Sean McCloud’s recent book American Possessions offers a keen interpretation of neopentecostalism’s notion of spiritual struggle.

Also vital to my research were a number of digitized archival collections. In the first chapter, I explore some of John Osteen’s earliest engagements with televangelism, contextualized by material on the subject in the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College. From the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, I found material on the civil rights movement in Houston, a time, as I explain in chapter 2, that marked an important juncture in Lakewood’s history. At the very end of my research for the book, I discovered digitized copies of the Pentecostal Evangel at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center, a publication that covered a number of John Osteen’s early revival meetings (thanks Arlene Sánchez-Walsh!).

This post covers some of the research I conducted for Salvation with a Smile. The next post discusses areas for future research on Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church. In the meantime, you can find the rest of the story here.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, he is the author or editor of several books including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace.

Genocide denial by default

—Nicole Rafter

The great centennial commemoration of the Armenian genocide is almost over. With parades in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City, massive rallies in Argentina, prayer services in Washington, D.C., historical displays at the Library of Congress, and a formal remembrance by the European Union, Armenians and their supporters have kept alive memories of the atrocities of 1915.

In Boston, over three thousand gathered at the Armenian Heritage Park to honor the 1.5 million Armenians slaughtered by the Turks, a genocide that saw men tortured and shot, women raped and beheaded, and children forced to jump into the Black Sea to drown. Pope Francis recognized the event as “the first genocide of the 20th-century.”

Trouble is, the Pope—although admirable in his intentions—was wrong. So were others who memorialized the Armenians as the first 20th-century victims of mass atrocities.

The first victims of 20th-century genocide were in fact the Herero, a group of semi-nomadic tribes in South-West Africa (now Namibia). Before colonization by Germany began, in the 1880s, the Herero’s tribal confederation consisted of about 85,000 people. Caught up in the “scramble for Africa,” Germans settlers moved into South-West Africa as if by right, taking the natives’ cattle, building railroads on their grazing lands, raping and shooting women, and flogging men to death until the Herero decided to rise up.

The Herero knew they could not possibly win a fight against the Germans settlers and their army. “Let us die fighting,” counseled one chief, “rather than die as a result of maltreatment, imprisonment, or some other calamity.”

The surviving son of a Herero leader said his father “knew that if we rose in revolt we would be wiped out in battle because our men were almost unarmed and without ammunition. The cruelty and injustice of the Germans had driven us to despair, and our leaders and the people felt that death had lost much of its horror in the light of the conditions under which we lived.”

In response to the uprising, the German emperor put the colony under military rule and sent in Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha, who had already brutally suppressed rebellious blacks in East Africa. Delivering his opinion of “race war” with Africans, von Trotha declared that “no war may be conducted humanely against nonhumans.” To his soldiers (as to the general himself), Africans seemed more like “baboons” than human beings.

Hung, burned, shot, starved, and driven into the desert to die of thirst, few Herero survived von Trotha’s extermination order. More than three-quarters died, while survivors became virtual slaves to the German settlers.

Germany held onto the colony for another decade but was forced out by an invasion from South Africa during World War I. After that, the British took control of what had once been Herero lands.

This was the first genocide of the 20th-century. If the Herero genocide is more obscure today than the Armenians’, it may be because of race, location, and geopolitics. It is wonderful that we have, in the Armenian case, monuments and memorials commemorating white people who were targeted for extermination partly because the Turks wanted their land. At the same time, we should remember these black people who were targeted for extermination because Germany wanted African land.

Genocide denial comes in many forms. We are familiar with the brazen dismissals of Holocaust deniers. We are also familiar with Turkish insistence that their country did nothing but “relocate” the Armenians. A more subtle but equally insidious form of erasure is genocide denial by default—by inadvertence or ignorance.

Unfortunately, the Pope’s claim that the Armenian genocide was “the first genocide of the 20th-century” marginalizes and ignores the near-extinction of the Herero.

This too is a form of genocide denial.

Nicole Rafter is Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. She is the author of Criminology Goes to the Movies: Crime Theory and Popular Culture (NYU Press, 2011).

Mad Men, Esalen, and spiritual privilege

—Marion Goldman

The online community is still pulsing with speculation about the final close up of Don Draper meditating on the edge of the Pacific at Esalen Institute—where he found bliss or maybe just an idea for another blockbuster ad campaign.

stevemcqueen

The writers and set decorators of Mad Men got 1970s Esalen spot on: from the lone outside pay phone at the run-down central Lodge to the dozens of long-haired hippies, former beatniks and spiritual seekers revealing themselves to each other in encounter groups. The images are so accurate that an alternative cyber universe of old Esalen hands has been speculating about how the writers were able to depict the old days so well—and whether the morning meditation leader was supposed to be Zen trailblazer Alan Watts or edgy encounter group leader Will Schutz.

None of these debates matter much to the entrepreneurs who have transformed Esalen from a rustic spiritual retreat to a polished destination resort that serves gourmet meals and offers workshops with themes like ‘capitalism and higher consciousness.’ Soon after the last episode of Mad Men aired, Yahoo Travel published an article promoting a “Don Draper Weekend Getaway” for fortunate consumers who could foot the tab. The rates vary, but on a weekend, a premium single room at Esalen costs $450 per night and the prices go way up for luxurious accommodations overlooking the sea. In a throwback to the old days, there is a ‘hardship policy’—making it possible for up to a dozen people who take weekend workshops to spend ‘only’ about $200 a night to spread out their sleeping bags in meeting rooms that they must vacate between 9:00 in the morning and 11:00 at night.

When Esalen opened its gates in the 1960s, visitors and residents traded work for housing or paid what they could afford. The founding generation believed that everyone was entitled to personal expansion and spiritual awakening through the growing Human Potential Movement. My book, The American Soul Rush chronicles how Esalen changed from being a mystical think tank, sacred retreat and therapeutic community into a wellness spa dedicated to de-stressing affluent customers with challenges at work or in their relationships.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s very different kinds of people drove along Highway 1 to Esalen, hoping to create better lives for themselves and often hoping to repair the world as well. They were spiritually privileged, with the time and resources to select, combine and revise their religious beliefs and personal practices. However, many of them were far from wealthy, because Esalen opened at a time of economic abundance that extended far down into the white middle class and there was widespread faith in unlimited possibilities for every American.

People in small towns and distant cities read long articles about Esalen and human possibilities in Life Magazine, Newsweek and other popular periodicals. Its key encounter group leader briefly became a celebrity when he appeared regularly on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. And during Esalen’s glory days, movie stars like Natalie Wood, Cary Grant and Steve McQueen regularly drove north from Hollywood to discover more about themselves and to soak in the famous hot springs baths. But once they arrived, they stayed in simple rooms, they were called only by their first names and other workshop participants tried to honor their humanity by treating the stars as if they were just like them.

Esalen was dedicated to opening the gates to personal and spiritual expansion to everyone and it fueled a Soul Rush. It popularized many things that contemporary Americans have added to their lives and can practice almost anywhere: yoga, mindful meditation, holistic health, humanistic psychology and therapeutic massage.

But most people can no longer afford to visit Esalen itself. A leader who left Big Sur to counsel clients in disadvantaged neighborhoods summed up how much the Institute has changed over the decades: “Damn,” she said, “I guess we got gentrified just like everybody else.”

Marion Goldman is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Oregon, and author of The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege (NYU Press, 2012).

Q&A with Ralph Young, author of Dissent

youngHow did you come to write an entire book on the concept of dissent? 

Ralph Young: The idea came to me while I was compiling and editing Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation. This was a massive 800-page compilation of 400 years of dissenting speeches, sermons, petitions, songs, poems, polemics, etc. I let the voices of dissenters speak in this book and then I thought I should write my own narrative history of the United States from the standpoint of dissenters and protest movements. From the standpoint of those outsiders who sought more equality, more opportunity, more empowerment.

Can you succinctly define what dissent is—or perhaps it’s easier to say what dissent is not?

There are many ways to define dissent. And I go into this at great length in the introduction to the book. On the broadest level it’s going against the grain. Dissenting against what is. Whatever that is is.

The act of dissent covers a lot of ground ranging from intellectual skepticism to radical violence. Is there ‘good’ dissent and ‘bad’ dissent?

I believe there is. Dissent is dissent, regardless of the motives behind it. But for me dissent that seeks to empower the disempowered without infringing on anyone’s natural rights, that seeks to broaden rights rather than limiting rights is “good” dissent. Dissent that seeks to disempower other individuals or groups, that seeks to maintain white supremacy, or in other ways to limit the rights of others, is “bad” dissent. But ultimately I don’t like to use the words good dissent or bad dissent, because things have a way of working out in surprisingly unexpected ways.

What separates violent dissent from terrorism?

Violence is a somewhat mindless blind reaction against what is and resorting to violence reveals the frustration of those who have been fighting for a cause without success. Terrorism is on a different level. It is more strategic and is the ultimate weapon of groups that wish to destroy a government or a ruling paradigm and set up something entirely different. Violent dissent expresses frustration and is perhaps the last gasp of a group that still wants to reform the system. Terrorism is an attempt to utterly destroy the system.

Is dissent a uniquely American construct, sort of like jazz?

No, it is not uniquely American. Dissent has existed from time eternal and throughout the world. But it is a concept that Americans valued so much that we put it in our constitution as a right and we have been dissenting and refining dissent ever since. (In fact, dissent itself was one of the forces that brought about the creation of the United States, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights itself.)

The book you’ve written is in many ways an alternate history of America. How would you compare Dissent to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States?

I admire Zinn’s People’s History, but it is clearly a one-sided point of view. And while my book admittedly has a point of view, and any reader will know where I stand about the subject under discussion, I do try to give voice to those I don’t agree with. Also Zinn’s book looks at America through the prism of class, of class consciousness, of the age-old class struggle, while Dissent: The History of an American Idea looks at the scope of American history through the lens of dissent, which is a broader perspective. True, some dissent is a manifestation of the class struggle, but it is not limited to class. There are thousands of middle-class, even upper-class, dissenters. So dissent can be a manifestation of far more divergent points of view.

What would you say are some of the biggest triumphs of dissent in America and the biggest disappointments or failures?

Certainly the abolitionist, women’s, and civil rights movements achieved a great deal of success although at the time it seemed maddeningly slow to the participants. The movements that have protested income inequality, like Coxey’s Army and the recent Occupy movement have not achieved success, although they might simply have been the early rounds in an ongoing struggle. Some movements had a great deal of success, like the labor movement in the 1930s, but much of that success has been rolled back since the 1950s.

Have the active protest aspects of dissent such as rallies and marches permanently given way to more passive activities still such as legal action and armchair clicktivism (hitting a like button to support a cause) or are we just going through a phase?

I don’t think active protests and marches will ever come to an end. In some ways the Internet and social media have diminished attendance at protest rallies and marches, but in some ways social media has also increased attendance. I would say the jury is still out on the impact of social media on protest movements. Throughout history dissenters have always employed the latest technology to get out their message: radio, television, song, poetry, mass-printed sources like posters and flyers, etc.

Some would argue that modern dissent is less about life and death struggles and more of a lament against first world problems. Would you agree or disagree and why?

Dissent has never had to be about purely life and death struggles. In some cases, like with the abolitionist movement, yes. But in other cases it has primarily been about forcing the United States to live up to its part of the bargain. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution established highly idealistic principles that have not always applied to all people. Those who have felt left out of the “American Dream” have viewed these documents as a contract that the United States government must honor.

During the roughly 400-year history you examine in the book, many of the root causes of dissent—race, gender and economic inequality, religious differences, whether or not to fight wars and even police violence—are recurring themes. Does this repetition mean that we are not learning from history and are therefore doomed to repeat past mistakes?

Do we ever learn from history? There are lessons, to be sure, that history can teach us. But these issues are central to human nature. One of my favorite protest signs I saw recently was “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit!”

Does the passage of time make it easier to judge the motivational integrity and the results of dissent? In other words, is it easier to draw conclusions about the Revolutionary War than the Occupy Wall Street or Tea Party movements?

Yes. The Revolutionary War resulted in the foundation of the United States and so we can interpret and evaluate its motivational integrity far better than we can Occupy or Tea Party since these are still unfolding. The irony, though, is that interpretations of the past are fluid, they are still changing. Historians have analyzed and critiqued the motivations of the Founding Fathers ever since the creation of the United States. Were they motivated by truly democratic principles, or were they economic elites who created a Constitution that would protect the interests of economic elites? This is still a debatable interpretation.

By studying the past, might you be able to predict the future face of dissent or perhaps see the next wave of dissent in America on the horizon?

I’ve always viewed history as the study of the past, the present, and the future! History is organic. And we are part of that organism. We cannot actually predict the future, but we can see the patterns and come up with some reasonable expectations of what they might lead to.

Do you think it’s only a matter of time before some form of violent revolution revisits America or have we progressed beyond that in the 21st century?

I can’t see it happening in the near future, but I wouldn’t count out anything. It depends on how bad things get. If economic inequality continues to grow and fester, it’s like putting a cap on a volcano. Pressures will continue to build unless there is some effort at reform to act as a safety valve. Theodore Roosevelt always believed that reform is essential and that if the powers that be ignore reform they are stoking the fires of revolution.

What do you hope people will take away from reading Dissent?

That dissent is patriotic. It is one of the central attributes of being an American. And that no single individual can change the world, but if thousands, millions of individuals work together toward a goal, together they can make a difference. And making a difference in small incremental steps is the way we do change the world.

Ralph Young is Professor of History at Temple University. He is the author of Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation, a compilation of primary documents of 400 years of American dissenters.

Book giveaway: Dissent

Dissent (NYU Press, 2015)“Temple University historian Young delivers a doorstopper that few readers will ever want to misuse in such a manner; his clear and elegant style and a keen eye for good stories make it a page-turner…Young convincingly demonstrates that the history of the United States is inextricably linked to dissent and shows how ‘protest is one of the consummate expressions of Americanness.'”
STARRED Publishers Weekly

“A broad-ranging, evenhanded view of a tradition honed into an art form in America: the use of dissent as ‘a critique of governance’…Young has a knack for finding obscure but thoroughly revealing moments of history to illustrate his points; learning about Fries’ Rebellion and the Quasi-War with France is worth the price of admission alone, though his narrative offers much more besides…Refreshingly democratic—solid supplemental reading to the likes of Terkel and Alinsky, insistent on upholding the rights of political minorities even when they’re wrong.”
Kirkus Reviews

To celebrate the stellar reviews rolling in for our forthcoming book, Dissent: The History of an American Idea, we are giving away a free copy to two lucky winners!

Dissent: The History of an American Idea examines the key role dissent has played in shaping the United States. It focuses on those who, from colonial days to the present, dissented against the ruling paradigm of their time: from the Puritan Anne Hutchinson and Native American chief Powhatan in the seventeenth century, to the Occupy and Tea Party movements in the twenty-first century. The emphasis is on the way Americans, celebrated figures and anonymous ordinary citizens, responded to what they saw as the injustices that prevented them from fully experiencing their vision of America.

To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred e-mail address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, May 1st, 2015 at 1:00 pm EST.

Picture us free

—Jasmine Nichole Cobb

I have always been enamored by U.S. illustrations of black struggles for freedom. Typical depictions feature African descendants insisting on respect and white state officials denying privileges. Cross-generational portrayals mediate these conflicts by construing blackness as spectacularly distinct within U.S. race relations. Although the specific “rights” in question change over time, these characteristics appear in images from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. They are the stakes that underpin racist caricatures, early photography, and black screen cultures; in many ways, these themes define the pictorial history of the United States.

The year 2015 marks several watershed moments in the long arc of strivings for black freedom, including the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, as well as the 150th anniversary of the 13th amendment, ratified in 1865 to abolish the legal practice of slavery. On this continuum, 2015 will contribute its own pictures to the timeline of race in America, with illustrations of the first black president presiding over many important commemorations.

Last Saturday, March 7th, President Barack Obama gave a speech to memorialize the marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. While his words were politically salient—charging congress to restore the Voting Rights Act—it is in pictures that the first black president marked an important contribution to the history of black people in the United States. Joined hand-in-hand with survivors of the civil rights struggle, the First Family stood on the frontline of a procession to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge—the site of Bloody Sunday. Captured on the verge of marching, the Obamas were camera ready, smiling, their sense of motion stilled for the photographic opportunity. Hand-in-hand with Senator John Lewis and foot soldier Amelia Boynton Robinson, the Obamas were at the forefront, with Martin Luther King III and Rev. Al Sharpton among those notable figures that receded into back rows of the image.

blog

Staged to reminisce on the marches to Montgomery, this illustration suggests the fulfillment of black citizenship by the existence of a black president. It honors the murder and violation of activists in 1965, but draws on the sober and respectable depictions of triumph taken from days like March 25th when Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and other activists safely arrived in the state capital. In living color, Obama implies the completion of black freedom struggles. Read against the precursor images—black-and-white photos of sixties activists marching forward, lips parted in song, tired, but convicted—the affirmation of black citizenship pictured in 2015 connects to illustrations that exclude contention.

blog2

But like every attempt to picture freedom, threats against black life persist at the margins. While President Obama described the abuses of billy clubs and tear gas during the 1960s, he denied a connection to Ferguson, Missouri, where many of these tactics endure. While we were all invited to picture freedom through illustrations like Selma 2015, we were to look away from the mediation of murder, this time of Wisconsin teen, Tony Robinson.

I cannot deny the beauty of seeing a black president address civil rights activists at the site of transgression. I especially enjoy seeing the First Lady, her mother and growing daughters. But seeing the Obama family is different from viewing their existence as a representation of black freedom. National commemorations of the black freedom struggle, which ask us to hail the Commander-in-Chief as the fulfillment of our strivings, refuse the ways in which that struggle remains ever present. The tension between these motives animates every illustration of this kind.

The most popular depictions of free black people serve to bolster national narratives of U.S. race relations. In my book, Picture Freedom, I explore how people of African descent envisioned black autonomy in the context of slavery and among popular representations that were hostile to the idea of free black people. I consider complicated images that reveal the power and permanence of nineteenth century approaches to blackness. After them, I still enjoy pictures of black freedom, but now I wonder what they obscure.

Jasmine Nichole Cobb is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University and an American Fellow of the AAUW. She is the author of Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (NYU Press, 2015).

St. Patrick, St. Joseph and Irish-Italian harmony

—Paul Moses

[This post originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.]

Right after Valentine’s Day, the front window of my Brooklyn home sprouts a field of cardboard shamrocks each year. A statue of St. Patrick appears on the bookshelf and a sign is posted on the back door: “If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.”

moses-comp-finalThis is the work of my Irish-American wife in preparation for St. Patrick’s Day. As the Italian-American husband, I have in past years suggested equal attention to St. Joseph, a favorite saint of Italians. Nothing doing.

The proximity of St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 and the Feast of St. Joseph two days later leads to a good deal of teasing and ribbing every year between Catholics of Irish and Italian ancestry.

There is nothing extraordinary about this little bit of fun, unless one considers the bitterness that once marked relations between these two peoples. As impoverished Italians poured into New York and other major cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the already established Irish became their mentors and tormentors—more so the latter, at first.

Much of the rivalry concerned jobs: Italian laborers were willing to work for less pay and longer hours than the Irish, and sometimes they were used to break strikes. Fights were so common between crews of Irish and Italian construction workers that the Brooklyn Eagle headlined a 1894 editorial: “Can’t They Be Separated?”

This bitterness spilled over into the Catholic parishes where the two peoples mingled with their very different forms of practicing the same religion.

The Italians “are so despised for their filth and beggary that in New York the Irish granted them free use of the basement of the Church of Transfiguration, so that they could gather for their religious practices, since the Irish did not want to have them in the upstairs church,” a Vatican agency noted in an 1887 report that singled out an Irish parish on Mott Street in what is now Manhattan’s Chinatown for maltreatment of Italian immigrants.

The pastor of Transfiguration Church responded through an article his brother wrote in a Catholic journal that said the Italian immigrants didn’t know even elementary Catholic doctrines. Nor were they so concerned about having to hold services in the church basement, it added, because “the Italians as a body are not humiliated by humiliation.”

These were, in turn, fighting words for a prominent Italian priest who wrote to his bishop in Italy: “I have proofs at hand—it would make your blood boil—to see how Italian priests have been treated by American pastors.”

Such exchanges continued for decades, with Irish churchmen trying to cope with the “Italian problem” and Italians complaining angrily to their bishops and the Vatican.

The Italian brand of Catholicism—with processions and raucous street celebrations in honor of patron saints—didn’t sit well with Irish-American prelates. They knew their Protestant opponents looked down on these customs as pagan-like superstitions. Michael Corrigan, a son of Irish immigrants who served as New York’s archbishop in the late 19th century, tried to bar the processions. The Italians ignored him, and took note of the fact that the Irish celebrated their own feast on St. Patrick’s Day.

This battle within the Catholic Church was fought in many big-city parishes well into the 20th century. No Italian-American headed a diocese in New York state until 1968, when Francis J. Mugavero was appointed bishop of Brooklyn.

And yet, as a diverse group of marchers steps up Fifth Avenue led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan in this year’s New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade, it is worth noting that the Catholic parish played an important role in reconciling the Irish and Italians. In the years after World War II, people got to mingle and know each other in their parishes, especially in the suburbs and residential sections of the city.

Scholarly studies have shown that Italian-Americans who attended Catholic schools became more like the Irish in their practice of the Catholic faith.

As a result, as one 1960s study of New York Catholics found, Italian-Americans who went to Catholic schools and attended Mass regularly almost always wed spouses of Irish origin if they did not marry another Italian. That’s especially so for third-generation Italian-Americans, as I am on my mother’s side, a fact to which my Irish-American wife Maureen can attest.

In the early years of the 20th century, those who predicted large-scale Irish-Italian friendship and intermarriage were dismissed as impossibly optimistic. But the story of the Irish and Italians in America demonstrates that it is possible over time for serious divisions to be transformed into a matter of gentle teasing and ribbing between friends—if not husbands and wives.

Paul Moses teaches journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY. His book An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians will be published by NYU Press in July.