‘Ghettoside’ by Jill Leovy

A couple of months ago I was reading an article about gun violence in America and a factoid caught my attention: “Eighteenth-century [homicide] rates among settlers on the wild edge of American colonies were almost exactly those of South-Central [Los Angeles] blacks in the tw
enty-first century.” What a simple yet unexpected comparison, and one that could make for an interesting revisiting of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis”– what does it mean for America to be defined by such a violent and lawless state? I was astounded, and the statement lodged in my head somewhere. So did the source of the quote, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy.
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Remembering the Black Hawk War

Historical markers must have been on my mind after hearing that NPR story (featured in my “Collected Links” blog post), because the other day, from the bus, I saw a marker that I had never seen before. As the driver lurched forward with another passenger in tow, I could just make out the title: “Tragedy of War.”

The next afternoon I returned to the small green space surrounded by busy streets and a parking lot to read the full text.

 The micropark that holds the marker.

Here’s the full text:

TRAGEDY OF WAR

On July 21, 1832, during the Black Hawk War, the U.S. Militia “passed through the narrows of the four lakes,” Madison’s isthmus, in pursuit of Sac Indian leader Black Hawk and his band. Near this location, the Militia shot and scalped an old Sac warrior awaiting his death upon his wife’s freshly dug grave.

Erected 1998

Let’s unpack this a little.

The Black Hawk War was a series of battles between Sauk (or “Sac” as the marker puts it) leader Black Hawk and his followers (which at times included some Kickapoo and Potawatomi Indians) and (at different times) both U. S. regulars and militiamen. It’s a convoluted conflict that lasted from May to August of 1832, meandering across Illinois and Wisconsin as Black Hawk and those with him sought to evade the militiamen and regulars. There were numerous miscommunication and missed opportunities for diplomacy.

It was a conflict that caused panic throughout Illinois and Wisconsin, in part because there were reports of Indian raids (not Black Hawk’s people) in militiamen’s home communities (in their absence). Battles were chaotic, often fought by small groups in the form of raids rather than pitched battles.

By early July, General Henry Atkinson discharged the Illinois militia (which included Abraham Lincoln!) in order to conserve dwindling supplies, and continued on with his soldiers (including Colonel Zachary Taylor!). It was on July 21, the same day as noted on this historical marker, that Atkinson’s troops caught up with Black Hawk’s rear guard near present-day Sauk City. Though many of Black Hawk’s followers successfully crossed the Wisconsin River and continued to flee westward, the “Battle of Wisconsin Heights” (as that rear guard action by the Sauk came to be called) proved to be a turning point as Atkinson’s forces killed around 70 Indian combatants (only one white man was killed).

In the next two weeks, Atkinson’s troops met up with militia forces commanded by Colonel Henry Dodge (later Governor of the Wisconsin Territory) and chased Black Hawk and his people westward. When they came to the Mississippi, there were roughly 400 people left following Black Hawk. Nearly all of them were massacred when they were pinned between a gunboat on the river and Atkinson’s reinforced troops. Black Hawk surrendered on August 8. In the next year, Black Hawk and a handful of fellow prisoners were paraded around the country to be ogled. Writer Washington Irving came to see them, as did George Catlin and many other artists. Crowds flocked in the cities along the East Coast to catch a glimpse. The prisoners were burned in effigy in Detroit. And then they were released. Black Hawk lived another five years in Iowa before passing away in 1838.

“Like most frontier wars,” James Lewis writes, “the Black Hawk War provided a boost to a number of political careers.” Besides Lincoln and Taylor, two other presidential hopefuls were involved in the Black Hawk War. Winfield Scott, later Whig candidate for president, saw action in the conflict and Jefferson Davis, later president of the Confederate States of America, was in charge of escorting the captive Black Hawk south to St. Louis. (1)

Given that context, let us turn back to the militiamen of the historical marker. If they were not facing Black Hawk’s rear guard on the banks of the Wisconsin, 7 hours on foot to the northwest, it seems possible that they were members of some of the forces that had been sent home by General Atkinson. Perhaps they were frustrated at having seen little battle and saw this Indian man as a chance to get in on the action. They were certainly not ashamed of what they had done, for not only did they scalp their victim but told their tale to someone (or the marker wouldn’t exist).

Whatever the militiamen’s motives, it seems clear by that this was not, by contemporary standards, a battle of any sort, but rather a war-time atrocity. Perhaps the marker should read “Tragedy Near War”?

That is not to say that it was an isolated incident. At the massacre on the banks of the Mississippi two weeks later, the white forces scalped many of their victims and took trophies of back flesh. For any folks wondering if our sainted President Lincoln partook in these ghastly displays, the answer seems to be “no.” He was not involved in any battles and was sent packing to Peoria on July 10 from Whitewater, WI. (2)

If this marker serves no other purpose than to draw attention back to a shameful past that is rarely thought on, it will have been worth it.

  1. James Lewis, “The Black Hawk War: Interpretive Essays” Northern Illinois University, accessed 14 May, 2016, http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/blackhawk/essays
  2. Carl Sandburg, ‘Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years’ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002: 32.

Collected Links

 

Often I come across stories online that connect in someway with what I’m reading or thinking about at the time. Sometimes on this blog, I’ll collect some of those links with a few notes about what parts of them resonated with my train of thought. This week I seemed to see a lot of stories about how we remember (or don’t) places and how markers, monuments, or programming can affect those memories.

 

“Race Riot” or “Massacre”?

http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/05/02/476450908/in-memphis-a-divide-over-how-to-remember-a-massacre-150-years-later

On one level, this article tells a harrowing story of an 1866 massacre in which 46 black residents of Memphis were killed, others were raped, and homes, churches, and schools were burned to the ground. But when some people petitioned for a historic marker, they couldn’t agree with the Tennessee Historical Commission about what to call the tragedy; was it a “race riot” or a “massacre”? In the end they put up the marker with their own money (and the city’s blessing). In a region dominated by monuments to Confederate generals, this marker stands out and may lead to more like it as well as a broader conversation on memorializing the South’s slave-holding and Jim Crow past.

For more on the massacre (and its lasting impact today), see this article from the Atlantic too: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/05/the-memphis-massacre-of-1866-and-black-voter-suppression-today/481737/

 

Public Squares

http://www.npr.org/2016/05/01/475265075/from-tahrir-to-tiananmen-city-squares-cant-escape-their-history

While there’s a lot to unpack about how public places such as squares shape human interaction, I was more interested in how some squares are linked to certain events and how that connection is marked. Tiannanmen Square, for example, bears few markers of its iconic “tank man” and the protests that surrounded him, but rather has been stripped of features that may invite people to gather in the plaza.

 

Eastern State Penitentiary

http://www.philly.com/philly/entertainment/20160504_Eastern_State_tackles_true_terror__Mass_incarceration.html

Eastern State Penitentiary has run a successful Halloween attraction for over two decades but they’ve just opened another scary exhibit: “Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” In part a response to criticism from historians such as Seth Bruggeman (who will be one of my professors at Temple!), the historic prison’s new installation uses “informative wall panels, video displays, and interactive panels” to tell the story of American prisons today. And it includes a massive graph/sculpture in one of the courtyards.

UPDATE: And then I saw that Prof. Bruggeman linked to this article from the BBC about ESP employing former inmates as tour guides. Well worth a read!

 

Stonewall to be National Monument

http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2016/05/04/obama_may_make_stonewall_nation_s_first_lgbtq_national_monument.html

Exciting news for LGBTQ activists and historians of various stripes, I should think, as the site of the iconic 1969 riots looks to be slated for National Monument status this summer. It’s fascinating that the bar itself will remain a private enterprise–I don’t know what all that entails but it could be precedent setting?

 

Using Old Records for Climate Science

https://grist.org/climate-energy/8-ways-humans-were-recording-the-climate-before-it-was-hot/

This article popped up on Facebook because it was written by a fellow graduate of Goshen College. I include it here because it features a few exciting way that scientists are using old records. I was especially intrigued by the UK Coastal Floodstone Project which is using a relatively recent convention (crowdsourcing) to make use of a really old one (floodstones). And I like that these efforts are displaying  touch of longue durée. I also just really enjoyed looking at photos of floodstones (seriously, how cool is the image at the top of this post!?).

 

Ok, that’s all for this collection of links, I imagine I’ll have enough for another one before too long.

The Long Answer

Since I’ve been living in Wisconsin, this has been a conversation that I’ve had a lot:

“So where are you from?” they ask.

“Pennsylvania,” I say.

“So you’re a student at the UW?”

“No, I went to college in northern Indiana.”

“What took you there? What brought you here?”

And that’s where I pause. Sometimes I give the short answer: “I went to college in Indiana because I had friends who went there and then I followed some of those same friends to Madison with a program that’s basically Americorps.”

If the inquisitor seems particularly interested and I have time to kill, I give the long answer, which requires a bit of context. What context? It boils down to one word: Mennonite.

I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a county that has one of the largest concentrations of Mennonites in the country (It also, incidentally, is more demographically similar to 1950s American than any other metro area outside of Utah). Both of my parents grew up in Mennonite communities; I grew up attending a Mennonite church. I went to a private Mennonite high school and when I went to Indiana, it was to attend Goshen College, which is owned (in part) by the Mennonite Education Agency.

When I lay out these facts, I get blank looks.

“But,” they say, “don’t Mennonites wear funny clothes?”

“Some do,” I say.

“But you don’t?”

I look down at my outfit. “Not really. And mostly you’re probably thinking of the Amish. Or Old Order or ‘plain’ Mennonite communities like the ones Jonathan Groff calls ‘watered-down Amish’.”

This internet meme, tweeted by writer Kate Baer, sums up a bit of the challenge of the long answer:

The truth is that “Mennonite” can mean a whole bunch of things.*  I have an aunt, uncle, and cousins who dress very plainly. They drive modest, dependable, utilitarian, and, most importantly, black vehicles. The last bit dates to the age of chrome on cars when conservative Mennonite communities suggested painting shiny bumpers black to remain humble, thus the “black bumper” moniker is sometimes given to these “Old Order” groups as a whole.

In the two-thirds world (there were 736,801 Mennonites in Africa last year; 431,313 in Asia, the Pacific, and Australia; and 199,912 in Latin America and the Caribbean), “Mennonite” may just mean another stream of Christianity, distinct from Catholics and Lutherans only in that the first (or most active) missionaries in an area were Mennonite. Or it may mean a dedication to working for peace even in the midst of conflict.

About half of Americans who identify as “Mennonite” are affiliated with the Mennonite Church USA denomination (120,381 out of 319,768 in 2000), a body which formed from a merger of two pre-existing denominations (that merger is a story for another day, perhaps). Most MC USA members are indistinguishable (visually) from any other American, apart from the occasional “coverings” on some women’s hair, a throwback to previous generations, and perhaps a greater presence of jean skirts than the American population as a whole. Central tenets of the denomination (those that distinguish Mennonites  from broader Christianity) are simplicity of living, humility, pacifism, and a general sense of disengagement with the state and mainstream culture. Theologically Mennonites tend to  foreground the New Testament, especially the gospels and the Sermon on the Mount.

Even within MC USA, however, there are great divisions, vastly different understandings of what some of those central tenets mean. Politically, the MC USA median is right of center, based largely on social conservatism (many Mennonites feel a kinship with the Religious Right) as well as a history of successful agribusiness and entrepreneurship that has coupled with ideas of simple living to result in concentrations of wealth and an emphasis on passing it down to heirs. That is, the estate tax isn’t too popular.

On the other hand, there are Mennonites who feel an affinity with the political left. They feel an affinity with one of their fellow “Historic Peace Churches”: the Society of Friends. Whereas other Mennonites see the connection between disengagement with the world and small government/low taxes, more liberal Mennonites have actively protested the United States’ involvement in conflicts around the world and protested their tax dollars funding the military. Whereas simple living has allowed modest wealth to accumulate in some Mennonite communities, others (on both sides of social and political divides) have dedicated their lives to non-profit organizations and work abroad, whether in mission settings or more service-oriented capacities. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the Mennonite Disaster Service are two widely respected organizations (focusing on international service of varying stripes and disaster management, respectively) that reflect this impulse. I grew up in a church firmly in this more liberal wing of the church and today, on the rare occasion that I attend church, I go to another that is similarly progressive.

Which leads into another facet of my biography: I spent three years of my childhood in Tanzania when my parents worked with MCC. International service is also stressed at Goshen College, so I was able to return to Tanzania for a semester as a college student.

A little better

Just a bunch of Mennonites on safari!

So what does this all mean about me? It means if you ever run into a Mennonite (especially one who has left one of the enclaves in PA, VA, OH, and IN), I probably know them or someone they know. It means I care a lot about the idea of peace and the reality of war. It means I know cultural the meanings of in-group terms such as “Relief Sale,” “606,” and “zwiebach.” I asked one of my non-Mennonite roommates what, if anything, he thought set the Mennonites in the house apart from society at large: “I’ve never lived with people so ready to share their food.”

I value the cultural and ethnic markers of the Mennonite bubble, but they’re just another facet of myself, intersecting with my white male privilege, my love of trivia, my appreciation of craft beer, my respect for the works of Terry Pratchett, and lots of other identities and preferences and experiences.

“So after I finished Mennonite high school, I went to Mennonite college, and after I finished that, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I joined Mennonite Voluntary Service–it’s basically Americorps–and found a placement in Madison, Wisconsin and now I’m here. Where are you from?”

 

* You can go over to the Wikipedia entry on Mennonite for a more comprehensive rundown, but here I’m mostly concerned with summarizing Mennonite culture and ethnicity in broad terms rather than providing a primer on the history or doctrine of the Mennonite church and the broader Anabaptist tradition. GAMEO.org is also a great source for quick reference. My experience is far from the only Mennonite experience; here’s another one: http://www.anabaptistwitness.org/2014/12/hyphenated-mennonites/

Artifice and Cultural Institutions in ‘Bats of the Republic’ by Zachary Thomas Dodson

Zachary Thomas Dodson’s Bats of the Republic: An Illuminated Novel  is an achievement. It’s the kind of book that reaffirms that books made of pulp and ink and glue still have something to offer (if that was in any doubt). It sits heavy in your hand.

It also belongs to a certain genre of novels the genius of which lies in stunning artifice. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is kind of the archetype of these books, but there are others that come to mind, such as A. S. Byatt’s Possession. Like both of these other books, Bats consists of texts within texts and, like House of Leaves, explores how graphic design can enrich the reading experience. Beyond the use of color to differentiate different texts within the book, one of Bats‘ books-within-a-book is presented as scans of a physical book, complete with a bullet hole through each page. Did I mention there’s an envelope at the back with a secret message waiting for the reader to reach it? This book is really cool.

The plot of Bats consists of the stories of the Thomas family in two different eras: 1843 and in 2143. Dodson mixes alternative history and speculative fiction as he tells the story of Zadock Thomas delivering a letter to a general in the Republic of Texas and his descendant Zeke mulling his future in the Texas city-state 200 years later. Much of the narrative tension comes from the resonances of these men’s stories and the societies around them. For instance, Zadock’s horse is named Raison D’Etre and Zeke’s best friend is Raisin Dextra, and weapons in both eras are known as “sabres.”

So why am I writing about this work of fiction on this blog that’s supposed to be a place for scholarship? Beyond the fact that Bats happened to be what I’ve been reading, the novel also sets itself around two cultural institutions that feel relevant to my future studies in Public History:

In the 1843 timeline, Zadock is apprenticed to Joseph Gray, a formerly successful businessman who has opened a Museum of Flying. Dedicated to the appreciation of birds and winged insects, it is also one of the first places the through-running image of the bat is introduced. Gray faces all the obstacles of museum operators today: he must maintain his collection, nurture patron relationships, and often find ways to accommodate wealthy patrons’ interests through compromise, as when someone gifts the museum a poorly mounted bison. He relies on fundraising galas and the work of apprentices (interns) to keep the doors open. Gray’s audience is quite niche (though I think his museum sounds pretty great) and he doesn’t seem able (perhaps he doesn’t want to?) expand it. Suffice it to say that Gray’s museum felt very familiar.

In 2143, Zeke lives in a somewhat dystopic society characterized by ubiquitous surveillance. This constant invasion of privacy grew out of an attempt to better record individuals’ lives to capture the history of the community, but there have been unintended consequences. Every conversation generates a record, every piece of paper must be “carbon’d” and a copy deposited in the Vault. This called to mind the first time I learned about the concept of deaccessioning and realized its necessity. Even worse, access to the Vault is limited to its employees, who must prick their fingers to enter the building. I think of how intimidating the process of using an archive was the first few times I ventured in: first registering, then signing in, then asking for a specific box of records that I hoped contained what I thought I wanted/needed and waiting for it to be delivered–not for the casual visitor. In Bats, this limited access allows employees to counterfeit records and frame innocent people. In archives in our world, the limited access just means that we hear from limited voices.

 So what does Bats ultimately have to say about museum and archive work? The text treats the Museum of Flying and the intention of the Vault with respect and characters care about these institutions. Beyond that, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the book as a whole and, well, to say the plot is twisty is to get somewhere near what it’s like. So it will take some processing. As my reading turns mostly academic, I’ll let this story percolate and I’ll report back if I have any epiphanies! I heartily recommend Bats of the Republic, especially to those who love intricacy even if it’s a little gimmicky at times.

Looking forward

About four months stand between me and my re-entry into an academic setting and I need to get my head in the right space. To start getting back up to speed, I plan on reading more regularly and I’m starting this blog as a place to reflect on the things I read. I may from time to time include a post of links to things I’ve enjoyed or thought about or been inspired by without any commentary. We shall see together how this space evolves.