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Author: Michael Stein

Disobedience and Change

Nowadays, it’s impossible to escape the upcoming Presidential election. Whether it be in class on Wednesday or while watching an NFL game on Sunday, Joe Biden and Donald Trump have crept into every corner of our lives. While the pandemic is a big focus of the election, so too is racial justice and police reform. After the killing of George Floyd in May, both Joe Biden and Donald Trump affirmed their support for peaceful protests while denouncing violent riots. The candidates both seem to be trying to maximize their likability by denouncing all forms of violence resulting from the Black Lives Matter movement. While many in the electorate might engage with this message, the argument that riots are dangerous and ineffective is wrong as evidenced by today’s Zinn reading.

 

In the chapter “Or Does it Explode?”, Zinn explains the long history of the civil rights movement from its origins in the 1950s through the end of the 1960s. In doing so, Zinn dispels the myth that peaceful protest was the only agent of change in the civil rights movement. The strategy of peaceful protest was “effective because it could be used to appeal to national opinion against the segregationist South.” However, Zinn recognizes that, while leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. had a great impact on turning American sentiment against the Jim Crow South, acts of defiance such as rioting sealed the passage of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act. As Zinn notes, “Congress responded to the riots of 1967 by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1968.” Indeed, the violence incited by leaders such as Malcolm X and Huey Newton served a purpose by pressuring the US government to act and make legislation to protect black communities. The proximity of the CRA’s passing with the riots of 1967 show that disobedient behavior, contrary to current political opinion, is a valuable method of affecting change. 

 

The Carson article adds nuisance to Zinn’s argument by showing that Martin Luther King Jr. should not necessarily be celebrated in the fashion he currently is on MLK day. In the article, Carson dispels some of what our current education system tells us about the civil rights activist. In no manner does the author attempt to criticize or delegitimize the importance of King in the civil rights movement. Rather, the article displays how the movement originated from the ground up. Only after issues were brought to the forefront by individuals were leaders like MLK able to lead through sophisticated, academic, and charismatic leadership. Indeed, in order for MLK to make this change, acts of disobedience such as riots or sit-ins were needed as an impetus.

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The Yellow Wallpaper and Feminism

The main character and speaker of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” struggles to live contently in a world that forces any women’s sense of empowerment into a box. Quickly after the start of the story, the speaker admits to having “a slight hysterical tendency.” (648). While there are valid historical reasons to believe that her husband and brother actually diagnose her with hysteria, I believe the story takes on a more nuanced meaning if this “hysteria” that she is diagnosed and locked away for is understood as feminism.

 

The men in the speaker’s life — namely her husband and brother — are the ones who “diagnose her with hysteria;” however, their roles as successful men living in a patriarchy explains why they condemn her for (at least what I understand as) feminist sentiments. If her hysteria is seen as feminist sentiment, then it would make sense why the men in her life attempt to suppress it. Indeed, the men in the story try to convince the speaker that “the very worst thing [she] can do is think about [her] condition.” (648). Here, the speaker alludes to the point often made by sexists that “women should just be happy to be taken care of.” By insisting that she should not think about her “condition” (that is feminist sentiments), the men forward the idea that women should not give too much thought to her individual freedom or rights. So, recognizing that her husband will not listen to her complaints, the speaker “let it alone and talk[s] about the house.” (648). Despite her concern for herself, the speaker listens to her husband because that is what is expected of her. By shifting focus to the house, the speakers subjects herself to a domestic role. Ironically, this eventually drives her crazy as she becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper. Eventually, she sees a women in the wallpaper which can represent herself. Repressed by her denial of empowerment, the speaker feels trapped like the women in the wallpaper, thus explaining why the woman escapes when her husband passes out.

 

The story of the speaker is a product of its time. Published in 1892, the story responds to increasing sentiments about women’s rights. Indeed, women in the late 19th century rightfully felt that they were restricted in both opportunity and rights. In specific, this story shows both how small-scale power structures indicate larger societal issues and how the cult of domesticity negatively impacted women for centuries. First, the lack of power the speaker has over her husband reveals how misogynistic attitudes can suppress women from expressing their true feelings. On the small scale, this may go be hard to see. However, when this power structure exists in countless relationships, it suppresses women from becoming empowered. Finally, the story explains how the myth of women finding happiness in the house is harmful. Indeed, the speaker does not appreciate being locked away in a house and only being able to find interest in wallpaper. By granting women basic rights and eliminating patriarchal power structures, women can feel empowered to become agents of their own change. However, there are many walls that need to be broken down in order for complete change to occur.

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Blog Post 10/07/20

Today’s reading from Zinn furthered the points we have made in class about classism in American society. In the lead up to America’s involvement in World War I, President Woodrow Wilson declared — to the approval of many Americans — that the United States would not involve itself in the European conflict. However, by 1917, the United States had entered the war on the pretense that Germany had attacked American ships whereas the British, French, and Russians had not. Zinn describes that Wilson’s reasoning for justifying the war was flimsy because the attacks on Americans on the seas were not the President’s true motivations. Instead, Wilson used the German attacks to join the economically advantageous side of the Triple Entente. Indeed, Wilson was waiting until the election of 1916 to make the politically unpopular decision. When he did, Wilson — as well as prominent banker J.P. Morgan — envisioned an alliance with the economic power houses of France and Britain to be the key out of an economic slump. While on the face this appears to be a classless policy, Zinn is quick to explain that the average American did not gain much from the increased production as a result of the war. W.E.B Dubois, along with others, criticized the role that the rich had in encouraging the war. Examining US diplomacy today would likely reveal a similar criticism. In hopes of maintaining peaceful relations with its allies, the United States will sell American-made weapons and military equipment. These weapons can easily lead to the rapid militarization of regions such as the Middle East; however, American corporations and the economic elites who run them benefit from these sales. Like during World War I, the elite social classes still make decisions that harm the lower classes and only provide minimal gain to the masses.

 

Due to the influence of the economic elite in the decision to go to war, it is not a surprise that socialism gained greatly in popularity after the US declared war; meanwhile, the backlash against the movement and its free speech reveals how rooted classism is in America. As opposed to capitalism, socialism argues against the creation of socioeconomic classes. Instead of separating people by their economic success, socialists believe that all citizens should matter equally in the eyes of the state. Thus, when citizens reasoned that the American economic interest and involvement in World War I did not outweigh the human cost of war, people began to vehemently speak against it. Instead of hearing the people, however, the US pushed forward with the war and instead focused on limiting its citizens from criticizing the war. The fact that the United States openly forbid the free speech of its citizens in favor of a war filled with economic interests reveals the importance of socioeconomic class in American society. Indeed, in order to line the pockets of American corporations and investors, the United States put lower class lives on the line and arrested those who spoke in dissent. As Zinn notes at the end of the chapter, while American Capitalism was supposed to eliminate classes, World War I highlighted the class tensions in American society.

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Education and Imperialism

Education is important. I don’t think any of us would attend a challenging university like Richmond if we did not believe in the power of knowledge. Today’s readings on American Imperialism and American Exceptionalism revealed a lot to me about how our education system persuades our perception of our country. For example, many of us learned about the atrocities committed by European imperial powers in Africa and Asia in the late 19th and 20th century. We learn about the Belgians in the Congo and the British in India, but we don’t learn about the Americans in the Philippines. Indeed, American control of the Philippines resulted in countless murders and the subjection of terrible conditions onto Filipinos. Still, many American history classes do not detail this part of American history. Instead, we choose to focus on other parts of our history during the same time period such as the creation of Unions and National Parks. I believe a good example of the one-sided history taught in the American education system is the history of the Panama Canal. For myself, and I suspect many American school children, the creation of the Panama Canal is taught as a feat of American greatness. The engineering masterpiece provided an economic good to the world and the people of Panama — or so the history says. In reality, the United States overthrew the Colombian government in Panama and controlled the area until the canal was fully constructed. While the canal did open trade routes for the global economy, the history we learn does not recognize how Panama was gifted and immediately stripped of its Independence by the United States in order to build the canal.

If we establish that our educational system teaches us lies about the history of American foreign policy, we must question our education’s effects on society. When examining the Walt article it becomes clear that American education is designed to foster a sense of pride in our nation which easily flows into American Exceptionalism. By not learning the entire history of our countries actions — both domestically and abroad — we shutter ourselves from gaining an honest look at our country. Instead, we inject ourselves with a dopamine of pride that encourages a belief in superiority. This belief in superiority becomes dangerous when people begin to perceive America as standing for and representing one people or idea. Instead of promoting a diverse, nuanced understanding of the world, Americans promote a world view that sees Americans as superior. When this is combined with a domestic history of racism and sexism, the toxic parts of American society quickly spread to the rest of the world. If America reformed their education system, this could be combatted. If children grow up to understand that their country is not infallible, they will believe they have obligation to make it better. Thus, rethinking how we tell American history to our children could have major, important impacts on our society.

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The Great American Indian Story

In today’s readings, Zinn’s history of the early to middle nineteenth century from the Native American perspective informs the Roanhorse piece, allowing the symbolism of the story to be more deeply understood. The main character of Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience,” works as a virtual spiritual leader. In this imagined job, Jesse Turnblatt pretends to be a barely-literate, Indian spiritual leader who provides customers (referred to as tourists) with an “authentic” Indian, spiritual experience entailing vast nature, costumes, long hair, and spirit animals. Indeed, this is what the character known as White Wolf looks for when he makes an appointment with Jesse. Despite initial doubts about the experience, White Wolf eventually warms up to Jesse and the two become friends. However, after about a month of friendship, Jesse gets sick and White Wolf steals his job, wife, and eventually house. 

Jesse’s character arch is not a simple tragedy; rather, his story ironically provides himself with the authentic Indian experience that White Wolf originally sought. White Wolf — a pale, brown haired, white male — represents the Anglo-Saxon settlers of North America. After a timid, failed attempt at settling into the landscape (Roanoke), the settlers were welcomed by Native Americans as traders. Likewise, White Wolf is initially timid and helpless before Jesse welcomes him and gifts him his nickname. However, after the two fraternize, things start to go poorly for Jesse in a similar fashion to the Native Americans of history. Indeed, Jesse soon finds himself sick like many Native American communities did after the arrival of Anglo-Saxon settlers. Additionally, White Wolf stealing Jesse’s job, wife, and house is analogous to the confiscation of Native American lands under the Indian Removal Act. Indeed, this is why Roanhorse’s piece begins with the quote from Sherman Alexie: “In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written, all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.” In this story, a white man steals a Native American’s life because that is the “authentic” Indian experience he asked for. Meanwhile, Jesse, the Native American, watches his life fade away as he becomes a ghost in his own home. 

The reason the quintessential American Indian story should end this way is deeply rooted in the history and proven by America’s response to that history. While white Americans enjoy the fruits of Native American lands, they also choose to forget the painful history of Native Americans in this country, thus subjecting them to ghost status.

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Who Really Tells Your Story?

As the curtain falls on Hamilton, the cast repeats one saying in a mysterious voice: who lives, who dies, who tells your story? Indeed, this is the main question the musical embarks to answer; however, while 1776 does not attack this question with the same veracity, it helps us better understand how the stories we tell about our founding fathers shape our understanding of our history. By examining two differences in the productions, we gain an understanding of how our story telling changes with time (the two films were made almost 50 years apart) and how that shift changes our perception of our leaders.

The first difference between the two films is noticed in the introduction of each film’s first female character(s): Abigail Adams and the Schuyler Sisters. When John Adams converses with his wife via mail in the opening number of 1776, her interests are strictly domestic. Her concerns include her children, her out-of-state husband, and clothing pins. While she does stand up to John and demand the pins, her wishes are still restricted to the domestic sphere. In juxtaposition, the Schuyler Sisters’ opening number in Hamilton reveals Angelica Schuyler, the oldest of the three, to be an empowered woman with a knack for critical thinking. She confidently rejects suitors before proudly declaring women as political equals to men. The shift from 1776’s portrayal of Abigail Adams to Hamilton’s Angelica Schuyler shows how the author of each musical will attempt to tell a story about their female character in the next few hours. In 1776, Abigail Adams’ depiction tells the story that women in Colonial America were focussed solely on their husbands and family, a story furthered by Martha Jefferson’s depiction. Meanwhile, Angelica Schuyler’s intellectual pride tells a story that reminds us of how women were excluded from contributing their ideas in Colonial America. While most of Hamilton will focus on the ideas, conversations, and actions of men, it does not let you forget that women could have played an equally important role had they been permitted to transcend the domestic sphere. 

Thomas Jefferson’s depiction in the two films also reveals how two different story tellers from two different decades attempt to understand the founding fathers. In 1776, Jefferson is first introduced as a reluctant member of John Adams’ council to write the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, Jefferson wishes only to spend time with his wife and play violin. This depiction shows the third president in an extremely flattering light. In typical American fashion, Jefferson is glorified in 1776 as a reluctant leader who writes the declaration because he is begged. This version of Jefferson is incredibly likable. The issues of slavery are never touched on while his political leanings are hidden. In contrast, the Thomas Jefferson of Hamilton is introduced with a flamboyant musical number that exudes confidence. As the musical continues, Jefferson is beaten in political theater again and again, eventually avoiding an electoral upset to Aaron Burr by the thinnest of margins. This sharp contrast between the two musicals’ depictions of Thomas Jefferson shows how two story tellers can tell two different versions of the same story. In 1776, Jefferson is depicted as an ideal hero, while Hamilton attempts to make the third president’s flaws obnoxiously noticeable. Again, Hamilton attempts to tell a different story than the myths of national creation that preceded it.

Like Zinn, Hamilton is keenly aware that a historian’s perspective can shape the way a history is told. In the plays final number, characters — like Elizabeth Schuyler and Aaron Burr — live while characters such as Alexander Hamilton die. Indeed, the musical answers the questions “who lives?” and “who dies?”; however, by telling a different story of history, Hamilton makes the viewer think about the final question in more detail. Careful observation will reveal to the viewer that who tells the story is just as important as the story itself — the story itself being represented by the first two questions. Thus, the Hamilton’s finale truly focuses on one thing only: the story.

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Classism in American Society

In class on Monday, we entered a debate about how social media might shape our world into either a more egalitarian utopia or will continue to exacerbate the problems of our modern society. Reading through Chapters 3 and 4 of Howard Zinn’s history, I believe that American colonial society offers us an idea as to how we will shape the internet in the future. Like the internet, many Europeans viewed the “new” world as a chance to create a new society, free from the constraints of European norms. Indeed, the vastness of the continents lended itself nicely to this idea given the frequent fighting over land in Europe. For some, the new world offered a chance to create a society free of the extreme classism of Europe. Indeed, the new world originally did not have serfs or feudal lords; however, the system of indentured servitude, and eventually slavery, ended any hopes of a new, utopian society. The system did not offer servants any real, statistical chance of joining the land owning upper class. Instead, indentured servitude was designed to increase the wealth of already wealthy Europeans who had been sold land in America before others were given a chance. When these wealthy landowners mistreated their servants, justice was rarely served. Instead, the British government set up the House of Burgesses to arbitrate contract disputes between servants and landowners. Since the House was designed in Europe, many European qualities stained the institution. Likewise, when internet algorithms were designed to police the internet, many real, human stains were left in the programming. Thus, as it is impossible for an algorithm to go against its code, it became impossible for the House of Burgesses to promote equality in the new world. Instead, the first democratically elected body in America was designed to encourage class division.

 

Another interesting point from the reading was how the founding fathers, all of which were landowning elite, were able to divert the anger of the white lower class away from themselves and towards the English, dodging a cross-racial, class revolution in the process. For many poor white workers in colonial America, it was difficult to associate with the rich landowners like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. In fact, many despised the founding fathers more than the English. Thus, a logical step towards overthrowing the system of oppression in the new world would have been to join forces with enslaved African Americans and overthrow the elite. However, through unfair legal treatment and impassioned speeches (ie Patrick Henry), the founding fathers were able to unite white Americans against the British at the expense of African American slaves and indigenous communities. When reflecting on this today, we cannot ignore the fact that racism was a tactic used to garner support for the American revolution, deeply embedding it into our country’s political philosophy, in addition to our economics.

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Money: Is Slavery’s Motivation Also Its Solution? Not Necessarily.

In class today, Dr. Bezio mentioned an age-old saying: money is the root of all evils. While attempting to justify the application of this saying to all of history’s evils would be both beyond my abilities and result in a reaction much too long for anyone to read, the sayings application to American slavery rings true. As David Smith and Howard Zinn note in their writings, slavery — specifically the enslavement of Africans in America — was born out of the strive for profits. Many of the early European settlers in America were “skilled craftsmen, or even men of leisure” (Zinn 25), thus making them untrained in the practical skills of farming and domestic chores. Recognizing the settler’s struggles, merchants brought African slaves across the Atlantic to be sold in the Americas. Indeed, the potential for profit by both parties — that is the settlers and merchants — is what drew merchants to strip Africans of their ancestral homes, families, and cultures to work as slaves across the ocean. The merchants were not wrong. The sale and use of slaves was so profitable that James Madison once claimed that he could “make $257 one every Negro in a year, and spend only $12 or $13 on his keep” (Zinn 33). This practice started formally in America at Point Comfort in 1619, however, the institution of slavery continued to rob countless more Africans of their lives both physically and figuratively. The destruction of lives in the name of money greatly benefitted the lives of European settlers and, thus, as some argue, a debt must be repaid.

A story from the David Smith article that caught my attention was that of Terry E. Brown, a park service superintendent at Fort Monroe, which sits on the sight of Point Comfort. Brown, the descendant of slaves, did not know the genealogy of his family until recently when he discovered an ancestral link to Cameroon. Discovering his family’s history made Brown “emotionally and spiritually tied to Africa” (Smith), filling a void in ancestral pride that was missing before. Reading this reminded me of a Facebook post made by my friend back in June. Like Brown, my friend could trace his ancestry back only as far as slavery. In his post, I remember him describing the shame he felt whenever an elementary school teacher would ask him where his family originated. Embarrassed, he recalled always answering with the Bahamas, a country in which his family has zero ancestral linkage. This embarrassment and loss of pride is part of what white merchants stole from Africans when they stole them from their homelands. While money was the motivation for this sin, it is not necessarily the answer. US Representative Jim Clyburn has spoken against reparations — the idea of repaying African Americansfor the work of their ancestors — claiming that it is “impossible to monetise” (Smith) the issues associated with slavery. I agree with Representative Clyburn that, while easy, money will not solve this evil the same way it created it. The divisions that slavery inflicted on this nation and the pain it caused in the soul of slavery’s descendants cannot be reconciled with money. The loss of culture and generational trauma will not be solved by paying one generation of reparations. Healing must require change on the personal, national, and institutional level. 

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Leadership’s Obligation to the Humanities

My first week on campus was a dream. Beyond the ability to share a living space with like-minded people of similar age to me, I had the opportunity to get to know one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. However, for all the beauty the University of Richmond has to offer, the amount of goose poop often turns the brick-lined sidewalks into minefields. The feces, while annoying, serves as a reminder — a history if you will — that geese call this campus home too. While humans often do so in a more sterile way, Penelope L. Corfield reminds us in All people are living histories – which is why History matters that we too leave our marks on history. In order to leave a better mark than our geese neighbors, Corfield encourages us to study history. In the process, we connect ourselves to the shared story of humanity by gaining an understanding and appreciation of the factors that shape our society which prevents us from living destructive lives. Thus, the study of history helps us add to humanity in a helpful, rather than harmful, way.

 

Like history, leaders have a shrewd role in helping us live connected, positive lives. In Bernard M. Bass’s Concepts of Leadership, he asserts that leaders have “rights and privileges, duties and obligations.” Certainly, among a leader’s obligations is an understanding of how history leaves a scar — for better or for worse — on our institutions, jobs, and personal lives. Thus, excellent leadership requires an astute understanding of and appreciation for the humanities. This does not mean that all leaders exhibit said qualities. As Corfield notes, Henry Ford — who undoubtedly was a leader in the automobile industry — claimed to find history “bunk”, or useless. However, later in his life, Ford collected antique automobiles, suggesting that he did, after all, understand the impact history had on his industry and, furthermore, his role in shaping that history. That understanding, whether or not it is explicit, ties leadership and the humanities together in an inseparable bond.

 

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