Wednesday, July 1, 2015
On Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad: Given that Tubman has recently been selected as a potential replacement for Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, it only seems fitting to post about her. Born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1822, not far from where famed African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass was born in 1818, Tubman had a rough childhood. Her mother "Rit" struggled to keep the family together, especially since she worked as a house servant on a large plantation while Harriet (and her brothers) frequently worked in the fields. Having been "hired out" to other plantation owners of numerous occasions, even after contracting the measles and suffering a serious head injury, Tubman vowed either to become free or die trying. Thus, on a September night in 1849, she embarked on a 90-mile journey northward along the Choptank River through Delaware and into Pennsylvania. The following year, Congress passed an infamous Fugitive Slave Law (as part of the 1850 Compromise), which allowed slave-owners to search for and forcibly retrieve their "runaway slaves" (stolen property) in any part of the country. Brushing aside the implicit danger of this new law to her freedom, Tubman sought to expand usage of the Underground Railroad (UR) for Southern slaves who wished to escape to the North. Although not literally an "Underground Railroad," the term referred to a network of safe houses or "stations" that harbored runaway slaves on their journey northward. Because Tubman made numerous trips to the South to help guide runaway slaves along the UR, she's perhaps considered its most notable "conductor."
Monday, June 15, 2015
On the Jazz Age: Although the term "Jazz Age" can be credited to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote a 1922 book called Tales of the Jazz Age, the birth of jazz music can be attributed to the African-American community in New Orleans, Louisiana, during the early 1900s. Given New Orleans' diverse urban history, jazz can be considered the product of various cultural heritages, especially Creole and French. After World War I, however, when the United States was attempting a "return to normalcy," jazz came to symbolize a laid-back and almost-whimsical attitude toward major events of the period such as prohibition (1919), women's suffrage (1920), and even immigration restriction (1924). But by the mid-1920s, jazz's popularity began to stretch across both ethno-racial and social-class lines, as upper-class whites like Cole Porter and lower-class blacks like Louis Armstrong each produced their own versions of "jazz" music. As a genre of musical fusion (drums, pianos, trumpets, etc.), jazz became particularly popular in underground "speakeasies," which served alcohol during prohibition. These speakeasies were generally patronized by artists, intellectuals, and mobsters alike. Perhaps the greatest congregation of speakeasies occurred in New York City during the 1920s, when alcohol, jazz, poetry, and painting went hand-in-hand to help fashion the Harlem Renaissance.
Monday, June 1, 2015
On Rousseau and His Novel "Emile": Perhaps Jean-Jacques Rousseau's writings (along with Voltaire's and Diderot's) were the intellectual underpinnings of the entire French Revolution (particularly for the Jacobin faction). His work is also considered the inspiration behind the phrase "pursuit of happiness" in the American Declaration of Independence. Needless to say, Rousseau's influence on Enlightenment thinking in the late eighteenth century was very trans-Atlantic. But it was his novel Emile, which Rousseau thought of as his finest work, that can be viewed as one of the first educational philosophies in the Western world. And because Rousseau maintained such a cynical view of human nature, he felt that everything mankind built or touched would eventually succumb to degenerative forces like corruption and greed. Thus, schooling and teaching ought to be focused on undoing whatever "evils" society instilled in its members, not helping children to conform to the status quo. At times, Rousseau got very specific when mentioning topics such as "breast-feeding" and "swaddling," but on the whole, he kept his commentary generalized regarding Emile's continuous development. In short, Rousseau's educational philosophy largely downplayed "book-learning" while emphasizing the importance of everyday "experiences" and "interactions" with the physical world.
Friday, May 15, 2015
On Black Socialism and A. Philip Randolph: Unlike European socialism, which is very "statist" and "top-down" (coming from the government), American socialism is more "organic" and "bottom-up" (emerging from the people). Perhaps the most famous African-American socialist was A. Philip Randolph, a railroad worker who admired Eugene V. Debs' efforts at organizing the American Railway Union (ARU). Even though Randolph was about a generation behind Debs in terms of age, he followed Debs' lead by founding the nation's first black labor union in 1925. Known as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), the union sought to bargain collectively with the Pullman Company, which produced a variety of train cars for use in passenger rail travel. In the 1920s, the job of a "porter" was largely limited to baggage handling, ticket punching, and custodial duties. Over time, it became an occupation traditionally associated with African Americans. Thus, being a porter generally meant there was no chance of getting promoted to "conductor," which was a position often reserved for whites. As the BSCP progressed, Randolph pushed for changes in federal labor law during the 1930s. And in 1941, he succeeded in getting President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802, which attempted to ban racial discrimination in the national defense industry. Although it was not a law, EO8802 marked the first federal effort to curb segregated labor practices.
Friday, May 1, 2015
On the Civil War Draft Riots: Ten days after the Battle of Gettysburg ended, which was perhaps the Civil War's biggest turning point, the streets of Manhattan erupted. The Union Army, under direct orders from President Lincoln, began to conscript able-bodied men into fighting the Confederacy. Indeed, since New York City had seen an astronomical influx of European immigrants, especially Irish, during the preceding two decades, it made sense to target these "new" immigrants as recruits. Promises of steady employment, food, clothes, camaraderie, shelter, and even "full" citizenship were all presented as benefits to being conscripted into the Union Army. But many of these young (Irish) men would rather take their chances in gangs or working as clerks to jump potentially from the underclass to the middle class. Fighting in the Union Army meant leaving NYC to head South and liberate African-American slaves. And in many respects, these immigrants saw themselves as sharing the same socioeconomic status as Southern slaves. Thus, the conscription process was ultimately doomed from the start. The above clip is from Gangs of New York (2002), which did a terrific job portraying the city's draft riots.