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Archive for the 'American History' Category

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Images from Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City

Capital of Capital

The following are some examples of the extraordinary images and historical documents from Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City, 1784-2012, by Steven H. Jaffe and Jessica Lautin:

New York One-Cent Note
New Yorkers were familiar with paper money before the founding of the Bank of New-York in 1784. In the early republic, the issuing of paper money would become the province of private, state-chartered banks such as the Bank of New-York. City governments and even private businesses also issued notes in payment to employees or vendors.

Greenback
Recognizing that the Northern economy needed a more ample and liquid money supply in order to win the war, Secretary of Treasury Samuel Chase resorted to a radical new plan in 1862 and 1863. The secretary now pressed Congress to authorize the Treasury to issue a new paper currency “bearing a common impression.” These greenbacks as they became known , would enter the economy as the government paid soldiers, sailors, and war contractors with them; as banks made loans and cashed checks for customers; and as citizens exchanged notes from state banks for the federal money.

Women's Banking
The divided spaces of Beaux-Arts banks reflected the diversified operations and activities of Gilded Age banking. Clerks, tellers, and cashiers were separated from the public by elaborate brass grillwork, and female customers were segregated. Responding to the fast-growing population of women depositors while adhering to Victorian gender norms, banks provided women with their own teller windows and maid service.

Depression
Albert Potter evoked the despair of the depression years in New York with the figure of a beggar; Death hovers above.

(more…)

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

New York City as the Capital of Capital — Steven Jaffe and Jessica Lautin on The Brian Lehrer Show

Today, we offer another interview with the authors of Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City, 1784-2012.

Steven H. Jaffe and Jessica Lautin recently appeared on The Brian Lehrer Show to discuss the book and the frequently contentious history of banks in New York City. Among other issues, Jaffe and Lautin discussed why New York City became the “capital of capital,” surpassing Philadelphia and other cities; how New York City became not only the center of banking but also the center of protests against capitalism from the union movement to Occupy Wall Street; how immigration gave rise to savings banks; and whether or not New York City will remain the “capital of capital”

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

Interview with Jessica Lautin, Co-Author of Capital of Capital

Capital of Capital “Banks are not a monolith; and their functions have been extraordinarily diverse—worthy of both ire and praise.”—Jessica Lautin

The following is an interview with Jessica Lautin, co-author of Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City, 1784-2012

Question: What is Capital of Capital about?

Jessica Lautin: Capital of Capital examines how New York’s banks became central first to the city’s, then the nation’s, and ultimately the world’s economy. And it’s about the symbiotic relationship between the development of New York’s banks and the city itself.

Q: Why is it important?

JL: You can’t understand the growth of New York City without understanding the growth of its banks. There are excellent books and articles out there on specific periods in this great narrative—on Alexander Hamilton, the Gilded Age, the Depression, the fiscal crisis, and of course the Great Recession. But this book is the first to cover the full sweep. By looking at this long history you can see certain themes, trends and topics emerge: the cycles of booms and busts; the denial of and access to credit; the relationship between New York’s banks and government; the creation by New York’s banks of new financial instruments and strategies; and banks’ investment in the infrastructure of the city.

Q: The exhibition that preceded the book was on view at the Museum of the City of New York in 2012. Why did the City Museum decide to cover this topic at this time?

JL: Citigroup was interested in sponsoring an exhibition about the history of banking in Gotham to honor the 200th anniversary of the founding of the City Bank of New York in 1812. This idea dovetailed perfectly with the Museum’s mission to connect New York City’s past, present, and future. We began planning this exhibition when the city and nation were still reeling from the financial crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement had just made the news. Everything was still so fresh that we wondered if the opening of the exhibition might even draw protestors. (It didn’t). All of the headlines echoed those that appeared in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries: outrage at the city’s banks and attacks on its wealthiest citizens; calls for tighter regulation; announcements of new forms of currency; concerns about banks leaving town. We covered this history in the exhibition while also leaving visitors with a question about the future: Would New York City continue to be the capital of global finance? Newly generated and designed infographics in the last section (that also appear in the book) helped visitors to come up with an answer—graphics on such topics as: banks and the labor force; assets of commercial banks; and loans by foreign bank branches. Then there was an opportunity to register an answer in a survey programmed on old ATMs.

Q: Banks today and throughout NYC’s history have been the frequent targets of criticism. How fair is this?

JL: It’s true that banks have been the target of vitriol since their founding. Like the Occupy Wall Street protestors, John Adams attacked them as corrupt and elitist, calling bankers “swindlers and thieves.” It makes sense, and yes, it’s fair, that Americans have always been suspicious of the institutions that pool, grow and distribute money and credit. There are many instances throughout the nearly 230 years when banks have willfully ignored excessive risk to themselves and their customers in the interest of profit. If in 2008 it was the packaging and selling of subprime mortgages, in 1857 it was speculation in railroad securities. Also, before legislation forced banks to change their lending and hiring policies in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, many banks systematically denied employment and credit to African Americans, women, gays and lesbians. And this denial of credit had profound and lasting effects, for example, on the segregation of neighborhoods. By subsidizing the building of single-family homes for whites in the suburbs while refusing home loans to blacks and Hispanics in poorer neighborhoods, banks perpetuated poverty and racism.

(more…)

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

Book Giveway!: Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City

Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City, 1784-2012

This week our featured book is Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City, 1784-2012, by Steven H. Jaffe and Jessica Lautin.

In addition to features on our blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Capital of Capital to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, June at 1:00 pm.

From Revolutionary Era bank notes to the 2008 financial collapse, Capital of Capital explores how New York City gave rise to a banking industry that in turn made the American and world economies. The authors also examine the frequently contentious evolution of the banking business, its role in making New York City an international economic center, and its influence on America’s politics, society, and culture.

The following is an excerpt from the book:

Monday, May 12th, 2014

Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter Discuss Pot Smuggling on HuffPost Live

Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter, coauthors of Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade, were recently on HuffPost Live to discuss their book and drug smuggling in Thailand in the 1960s and 1970s. Also joining them was Jim Conklin, the DEA agent who busted Mike Ritter for smuggling.

As the three explained, surfers began smuggling marijuana from Thailand but in relatively small quantities, driven by a spirit of adventure as much as a thirst for profit. Initially, neither Thai or U.S. officials paid much attention to the smugglers, who were generally nonviolent and “laid-back”. It was only later in the 1970s when professional criminals became involved and the amounts began to grow that the drug crackdown began.

After discussing this fascinating history, the three consider current drug policy and the dangers of synthetic opiates:

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

RV-topia: Gatornationals at the Gainesville Raceway

James Twitchell, Winnebago Nation

The following post is by James Twitchell, author of Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture:

“The democracy of the RV parking lot may be the last of the much-eulogized American Exceptionalism.”—James Twitchell

Every March the small north Florida town where I live is overrun by swarms of drag-racers and their enthusiastic fans. On the Gainesville Raceway, a quarter-mile track a few miles out of town, everything on wheels that can have an engine attached is raced. You can watch rubber laid by motorcycles, old cars, new cars, a special category called “funny cars,” and, of course, the main attraction, the Brobdingnagian 8,000 horsepower top-fuel dragsters.

You don’t just watch these big rigs roar down the track, you feel them. They shake the spectator stands and scorch your eyes with a potent mix of burning tires, nitromethane, and exhaust. This particular event is called the Gatornationals and it’s a major stop along the National Hot Rod Association’s traveling circus.

Since the show lasts for three days, the parking lot is filled with another kind of machine—the recreational vehicle. During the day, many spectators, amped up by speed, fumes, beer, and no shade, get pooped. Hence many of them retire to the parking lot, get in the RV, rest up, and then return later. The races often run well into the night.

RVs are all over the place and of every conceivable kind: pick-up truck slide-in campers, van conversions, school-bus retrofit, and lots of what are called class A rigs in various conditions. Fans can park their RVs out in the woods, near the track, or rent a space in the parking lot.

The closer you camp to the hot asphalt, the more expensive it is. If you want to be at the finish line, the RV space will cost you $675 for the three days. But you can “camp” in the Motorhome Corral for $450. Or in the dirt parking lot with the, ugh, cars, for $75. What I find interesting is that various rigs from different economic strata park side-by-side in these lots as if Richie Rich and Hobo Hank are united by both this spectacle and love spending lots of time in what is essentially a motorized tent.

In Winnebago Nation I found the same mixing-up of social and economic status in the parking lots of football games, the NASCAR infield, the desert of Quartzsite, as well as on the Wal-Mart tarmac, or in the generic off-the-interstate campgrounds.

What we separate in our “sticks and bricks” communities, we dispense with when parking the RV. Occupy Wall Streeters take note: the democracy of the RV parking lot may be the last of the much-eulogized American Exceptionalism.

That said, there is the exception to this Exceptionalism. At Gatornationals there is a “gated community” where the royalty of Dragland assert their separation by erecting orange plastic fencing. This restricted parking lot is where the owners, drivers, and mechanics park their rigs. Like their racecars, these huge RVs are flashy and festooned with bling. These are the black-windowed monsters with the psychedelic paint jobs that you see whizzing past you on the interstate. Many of them are conversions of Prevost buses and can cost well over a million dollars. In the RV world, this is what the one-percenters look like.

James Twitchell, Winnebago Nation

Friday, April 18th, 2014

The Future of the RV — James Twitchell

Winnebago Nation

In “The Rise and Fall of the RV in America,” the concluding chapter to Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, James Twitchell looks at the future of the RV, its need to change and its continuing promise to offer a new way of living:

“Our cars are smart, our clothing is smart, our food is smart, our temperature controls are smart, but our RVs are stupid.”—James Twitchell

FUTURE FORM: NO MORE BUS BOXINESS

The RV is also going to have to change its form. No more box. It needs a new outline. The gypsy wagon went from horse-drawn to engine-driven, then from looking like a parlor on wheels to looking like a ranch house on wheels. Let’s face it: Most RVs today look dreary, which may be why they get those flashy paint jobs. To get a better form, the RV needs a new consumer. The current consumers are too old and dull. Moving from empty nests, they want a mimic of what they are leaving behind (washer/dryer, ice maker, drop-down televisions, comfy chairs…). Sociologists call this “compensatory domesticity.”

And that may explain why the contemporary RV looks the way it does: It’s trying to get it both ways, home away from home. It’s simply too homey. That’s why the awning that can be extended to welcome neighbors, why the green indoor/outdoor carpeting often spread near the doorway, why the ersatz fireplaces, potted plants, massive couches, twinkle lights, and, most perplexingly, the huge television set that comes sliding out of the cargo bay so it can be watched from lawn chairs. What’s happening is that the old-time home has been dehydrated and then reconstituted so that it is essentially a split-level ranch house compressed and then expanded thanks to the slide-outs and yard art.

But as the demographics change, the mobile-nest prototype may change as well. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) asserts that the fastest-growing group of RV owners is now made up of young families between eighteen and thirty-four years old. If the RV really is moving out of what’s called Phase 3 (retirement) consumers and into Phase 2 (active individuals), then the lines of thing itself should change. No longer will “getting away from it all” mean “taking it all with you.” Something else may happen, something more experimental. And the outlines for this change may well come from the places where RV life is just taking hold—Australia and China as well as the American Southwest.

There’s precedent for this flux. Architects have long dreamed of unbolting their buildings from the earth. In the early twentieth century, Le Corbusier and the Italian futurists went gaga over steam trains, ocean liners, biplanes, and anything that moved. Why should housing always be fastened to the ground? After all, humans for centuries have lived in yurts, hogans, teepees, pods, and desert tents. The French Utopie group experimented with pneumatic architecture that could be blown up and deflated. Archigram, in London, responded with the Walking City, which literally got up on its legs and wandered about. Both of these groups took movement as a necessary part of interesting housing.

Winnebago Nation

Now a new generation of designers is experimenting with varia­tions on the gypsy architecture. All kinds of unfolding mini-homes with fewer than 1,000 square feet are on the market. Nils Moormann’s Walden, Sustain Design’s Bunkie, and Tumbleweed’s Tiny Houses are all moveable compressions. You buy the kit and then assemble it, but then you’ll need a crane to move it about. Other innovations are parasitic dwellings, such as the Loftcube, which you assemble on a rooftop, stay in for a while, and then take apart (or hire a helicopter). And there’s a little aluminum-clad box called a Micro Compact Home, which opens up like Origami. To assemble, you plug it into an electrical outlet and up it goes. A selling point is that Micros fit together like Legos. You can attach ten of them and have a little apartment house like the famous Habitat of the 1967 World’s Fair.

But why do the wheels have to come off? Maybe it’s time that we pay more attention to one of the real visionaries in small-space architec­ture, Wally Byam, who back in the 1930s also realized the importance of wheels. The designer of the Airstream trailer, Byam was also a suc­cessful lawyer and publisher of do-it-yourself magazines. Ironically, because his reputation never transcended his signature product, he has never really been appreciated. His vision was for far more than the single sculpted trailer. He imagined putting these trailers together to make a self-contained habitat, a moveable city. He never got to that stage, but his idea of these things moving separately in a caravan by day and then hooking up at night was a step in the right direction. The Airstream trailer, like its cousin the RV, got stuck in the rut of the independent self-contained mimic of home. And that rut was not of Byam’s making; it is a function of who was buying them.

(more…)

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

The RV in Popular Culture: From Lucy to Walter White

In Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, James Twitchell also explores the depiction of the RV in the movies. Up until the 1960s, Twitchell argues, the RV was “an object of much interest and even yearning”. However, as “the epynomic Winnebago started to be mass-produced, the allure of escape grew double-edged” and “by the 1970s the RV had become a metaphor of middle-class uncouthness and was well on its way to becoming a symbol of wastefulness.”

A movie reflecting the more hopeful side of the RV is The Long, Long Trailer (1953), starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The trailer in the movie gleams and the film is “dedicated to a new phenomenon: the ability to move your house around the country whenever, wherever you want:

As attitudes toward the RV shift, a new kind of genre emerges, which features a middle-aged or older man “learning about things he may have missed earlier in life….The middle-aged American male is off on an adventure, to be sure, and he’s using this kind of transport because he’s a doofus.” Examples from this genre include About Schmidt (2002), in which Jack Nicholson plays “a sad sack, a gray man, and the RV is both a palliative and an escape.”

A more recent entry into the RV film is the aptly titled RV: The Movie (2006), starring Robin Williams. The movie according to Twitchell includes all the cliches of the contemporary RV film: “the picaro‘s frustration with his job, the long-suffering family, the problems with above-ground sewage, the deep allure of the gypsy life, the road hogging … and even a scene lifted from The Long, Long Trailer with the motorhome suspended on a precipice in the Rockies.”

The film that Twitchell cites as the most sophisticated of the RV genre is Lost in America (1985), starring Albert Brooks as a disgruntled adman, who “takes off to find himself in America….It’s Desi and Lucy all over again, with Mr. Brooks playing the Lucy part. This film abruptly ends in medias res because there is really no ending this kind of trip. It just goes on and on.”

Finally, while it is not quite in the same genre, Breaking Bad has featured perhaps the most notorious and famous Winnebago in recent years. Here is Bryan Cranston and, show creator, Vince Gilligan discussing the RV used to cook meth:

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Slab City

Winnebago Nation

“Slabs is Burning Man with a vulture overhead. It looked to me like the end of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.”—James Twitchell

As described in Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, the camping site is an important part of the lure and the mythology of the RV lifestyle. In the chapter, “Park It,” Twitchell describes “Slab City,” located in California, and one of the more distinct RV Parks in the country. The following is an excerpt from the chapter:

The Slabs is the largest free camping site in the country. As a utopia of “do your own thing,” it is well worth a trip for those Panglossians who promulgate the faith in “least government is best government.” This place does not celebrate the more famous Burning Man joy in an untethered world; it lives it. Burning Man tries to find new order in the desert for a week or so; the Slabs tries to get away from order by going into the desert for an indefinite time. Burning Man is intensely self-conscious: How’m I doin’ takin’ my clothes off? It’s recreation. Slabs is more pragmatic: I’m naked; my clothes are worn out. It’s survival. Slabs is Burning Man with a vulture overhead. It looked to me like the end of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

I was repeatedly told that the Slabs has changed. In the early 1960s, this was a place where you could see the $300,000 rig parked in peaceful tranquility next to the dilapidated school bus. Here was boondocking in its idyllic form. Snowbirds could fire up their generators while Slabbers could harvest battery power from solar cells. Potable water was trucked in, and sewage was either dumped down the gopher holes or trucked out. The community was connected by CB radio, which broadcast a nightly program of local events, including dances, pot-luck dinners, book clubs, and board games. To the people who first observed this New Harmony and reported on it in the LA Times, New York Times, Harper’s, and Time magazine, the magic was palpable. In the wake of such good press, the Slabs also started appearing on the endless lists of cheap places to retire. It was part of what easterners call “Weird California,” by which they often meant Belmont and Fishtown side by side.

Winnebago Nation

After all, the Slabs was, in a sense, the apogee of American Roman­ticism, each person finding salvation on his own slab, hoeing his own bean row, as Thoreau supposed, and coming together only when it fitted individual needs, not group demands. What law there was was the law of unreflecting generosity. The limits of individual freedom were indeed the edges of one’s desire. Sure, the state was hovering over the slabs, but there was so much confusion as to who actually owned the land that no one knew who could legally kick the squatters out, or even force them to pay for their “externalities.” (There were a few kids going to school in Niland, there was a continual ambulance service to hospital, and there was the garbage problem.)

No wonder that in Sean Penn’s 2007 adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a central scene takes place in the Slabs. Here we see Chris­topher McCandless meeting other RV vagabonds who will induct him into the fraternity of enlightened earth wanderers. The Slabs is por­trayed as utopian, an unfettered life in discarded school buses under the warming sun. At the Slabs, Christopher changes his name to Alexander Supertramp, and he is finally with his own people. But, alas, he must push on to his fate, which just happens to be a strange turn on his time at Slabs: He spends his final days holed up and freezing in a discarded school bus in Denali National Park.

Perhaps it was the attraction of the movie that caused a shift in clientele at the Slabs. For a while younger people came, stayed, and then moved on. Gray hair notwithstanding, there is a deep strain of adolescence in the RV life, as there is in American Transcendentalism. Experiments in American utopia from Brook Farm, Amana, Fruitlands, and the Shakers all bump up against the fact that finally someone has to take out the trash. The City on the Hill, or, in this case, the City in the Sand, slowly started to crack from underneath. Of course the Slabs was never self-consciously constituted as a commune of freedom-loving individuals. It had no manifesto other than, “If you don’t like it, move out.”

(more…)

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

The RV Through History — Images from Winnebago Nation

The following are images that illuminate the evolution of the RV from the “Gypsy Van” at the beginning of the twentieth century to the iconic Winnebago. The images, of course, come from this week’s featured book Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture by James Twitchell:

Winnebago Nation
Superior Truck, aka “Gypsy Van,” owned by Conklins of Huntington, NY 1915 (Huntington Historical Society).

Winnebago Nation
Zaglemeyer Kampkar, 1921 (Al Hesselbart collection at the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum).

Winnebago Nation
Covered wagon trailer, 1930s (RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum).

Winnebago Nation

Winnebago Nation
Frank/Dodge motorhome before (late 1950s) and after (1963) application of the French curve (Al Hesselbart collection at the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum and Dodge ad).

(more…)

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Book Giveaway: Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, by James Twitchell

Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, James Twitchell

This week we will be featuring Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, by James Twitchell on our blog, twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Winnebago Nation to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and indicate your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, April 18 at 3:00 pm.

In Winnebago Nation, James B. Twitchell takes a light-hearted look at the culture and industry behind the yearning to spend the night in one’s car. For the young the roadtrip is a coming-of-age ceremony; for those later in life it is the realization of a lifelong desire to be spontaneous, nomadic, and free. Informed by his own experiences on the road, Twitchell recounts the RV’s origins and evolution over the twentieth century; its rise, fall, and rebirth as a cultural icon; its growing mechanical complexity as it evolved from an estate wagon to a converted bus to a mobile home; and its role in bolstering and challenging conceptions of American identity.

For more on the book, read the book’s first chapter, Thoreau at 29¢ $4.00 a Gallon,” .

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Video: Mary Helen Washington on African American and the Communist Party

In the following video, Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, explains how her Catholic upbringing in the 1950s led to an interest in the relationship between African Americans and the Communist Party. She describes how Communist newspaper in the United States became one of the few venues to provide serious discussions and coverage of African American literature during the 1950s. She also talks about her desire to see the work of radical African American artists and writers from this period become part of the canon:

Mary Helen Washington Video from UMD College of Arts & Humanities on Vimeo.

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Interview with Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s

Mary Helen Washington, The Other Blacklist

“I’m trying to restore that tradition of mid-century black left radical resistance, so that we don’t remember the 1950s only as the era of ‘integration’ but as the era of black civil rights radicalism. I’m restoring the other blacklist, the black blacklist.”—Mary Helen Washington

The following is an interview with Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s:

Question: Why did you choose to focus on the 1950s?

Mary Helen Washington: I came of age in the early 1950s in Catholic schools in Cleveland, Ohio, fed on a steady diet of anticommunism at school, and, at home, a steady diet of integration, but both of those prescribed lessons—anticommunism and integration—separated me from the story of radical civil rights activity. While the black left of the 1950s was protesting discrimination on every front, from residential segregation to unions and factories, we black kids were being taught that integration meant blacks becoming acceptable to the white mainstream. When the left-leaning National Negro Labor Congress (NNLC) came to Cleveland for their 1952 conference, they staged a protest downtown against the airlines for refusing to hire blacks. Since stories like these were blacklisted by the anticommunists as well as the integrationists, black kids grew up in the 1950s with no access to a critical discourse on race. Radicals used terms like white supremacy and racial justice, not integration, while black kids were learning that we should dress, act, and speak a certain way as a marker of acceptability, radicals were defining integration as claiming the rights of citizenship—as you can see from the NNLC poster featuring the Statue of Liberty as a black woman.

Q: Why did you call the book The Other Blacklist?

MHW: Most of what we know about the McCarthy era focuses on the white left. Communism is seen as a white left radicalism, though black civil rights activists were deeply involved in radical movements in the 1940s and 1950s. People who were investigated by J. Edgar Hoover for being communists were routinely asked if they were involved interracially because civil rights activity was considered radical. This is a very powerful and commendable radicalism that black people don’t get credit for. They weren’t the Hollywood Ten, but they were the New York/Chicago 100. There’s a fine documentary on screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo and his admirable resistance to HUAC, but there’s no documentary on black radicals like Alice Childress, Lloyd Brown, Julian Mayfield, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett or Lorraine Hansberry [some of the figures in my book], who also paid a price for their radicalism. I’m trying to restore that tradition of mid-century black left radical resistance, so that we don’t remember the 1950s only as the era of “integration” but as the era of black civil rights radicalism. I’m restoring the other blacklist, the black blacklist.

Q: You have a chapter called “Spycraft and the Black Literary Left.” Can you talk about the connection between government agencies, politics, and art?

MHW: Keep in mind that the Left and the Communist Party supported black artists when no one in white mainstream culture (with the exception of J. Edgar Hoover) showed any interest in black culture. They came to the defense of black culture because they saw art as a means to effect social and political change. One critic Willliam Maxwell says that Hoover should be considered an important historian of black culture becaue he always took black literary production seriously. The FBI files are thus a mixed blessing—a gold mine for biographical material because the FBI kept close track of the activities of radicals, and also a record of governmental abuse of artists and intellectuals. There’s a current play on Broadway about the life of Lyndon Johnson called All the Way that shows how relevant these issues still are. The character playing J. Edgar Hoover asks LBJ to justify his relationship with Martin Luther King because, Hoover claims, King is being advised by communists. The government, particularly in the age of McCarthy and Hoover, created the tradition of demonizing the Left that is still with us and that has resulted in the dismissal of an entire generation of black intellectuals and artists.

Q: Why is radicalism of the 1950s still relevant?

MHW: We’re grappling with the same issues today but without that radical perspective. I’m thinking about Rachel Jeantel in the Trayvon Martin case and all the discussion that was generated about Jeantel’s appearance and speech—the way she looked rather than the case itself. Another example is Paul Ryan saying “inner city” people live in a culture that doesn’t value work or doesn’t have a work ethic. And here we see how “inner city” becomes a code for “black.” The jurors from the Jordan Davis case in Florida, one white and one black, said that the Davis case, in which a black man was shot and killed because a white man thought his black music was too loud, was not about race. This kind of political illiteracy shows how and why we need what I call a critical racial discourse. As Boston Governor Deval Patrick said—“words matter.” Even more than words, the radical left—and, yes, I include communists– gave us examples of a powerful resistance. The Rosa Ingram case and the Trenton Six—which were also about racial violence inflicted on blacks– were fought in the courts, in the streets, and in African American artistic production. When Rosa Ingram was sentenced to death along with her two sons for killing a man she claimed had violently assaulted her, the left and civil rights groups organized the protests that eventually freed them, and, as part of that protest, artist Charles White made the Ingram case the subject of his 1949 drawing.

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Monday, April 7th, 2014

Book Giveaway! The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, by Mary Helen Washington

The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, Mary Helen Washington

This week we will be featuring The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, by Mary Helen Washington on our blog, twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Other Blacklist to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and indicate your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, April 11 at 3:00 pm.

In The Other Blacklist, Mary Helen Washington recovers the vital role of 1950s leftist politics in the works and lives of modern African American writers and artists. While most histories of McCarthyism focus on the devastation of the blacklist and the intersection of leftist politics and American culture, few include the activities of radical writers and artists from the Black Popular Front. Washington’s work incorporates these black intellectuals back into our understanding of mid-twentieth-century African American literature and art and expands our understanding of the creative ferment energizing all of America during this period.

For more on the book, read an excerpt from the introduction.

Monday, March 17th, 2014

When Was the First St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City?

St. Patrick's Day Parade

An increasingly controversial event, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade has nevertheless been a staple of New York City life. But just how much of a staple is it? To answer that question, we turn to When Did the Statue of Liberty Turn Green?: And 101 Other Questions About New York City, edited by The Staff of the New-York Historical Society Library, Nina Nazionale, and Jean Ashton:

When was the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City?

This is a tough question, since a definitive answer hinges on whether a record of the event has actually survived. Addition­ally, the sources that do exist are not particularly explicit about the form the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations took.

That aside, the first allusion to something resembling a pa­rade appears in the March 20, 1766, issue of the New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy. The newspaper account notes the playing of fifes and drums at dawn—which we can reasonably interpret as a parade—and festivities later in the evening, both organized by Irishmen serving in the British army. Still, the first known reference to any commemoration of St. Patrick’s Day in New York City is a full decade earlier, in 1756. There is no specific mention of a parade or procession, but according to a brief notice in the New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy, the event was worthy of the governor’s attendance.

Regardless of the exact date of the first parade, these cele­brations differed notably from those of later generations. In this early period, organizers were Loyalists, proposing toasts not only to “The Day; and Prosperity of Ireland” but also to “the King and Royal House of Hanover,” “the glorious memory of King William,” and “the Protestant Interest.” The influx of Irish Catholics into New York in the nineteenth century, along with the appointment of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (an Irish Catholic fraternal organization) as the parade’s chief sponsor in the 1850s, signaled a swing to a more Catholic, na­tionalist tone.

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

LINCOLN: Sacrifice, Family, and Politics

Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation, Paul W. Kahn

As part of our ongoing feature of Paul W. Kahn’s Finding Ourselves at the Movies, we’re delighted to share a guest post from the author himself on Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln. Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Finding Ourselves at the Movies!

Lincoln: Sacrifice, Family, and Politics

Had my writing of Finding Ourselves at the Movies extended over one more year, Steve Spielberg’s Lincoln would no doubt have had a central place in my discussion of the narrative of politics that we find in American films. I would have placed a discussion of the film alongside that of Gran Torino, which places an act of sacrificial love at the foundation of law. Lincoln too is about sacrifice and love at the foundation of the state. To see this, we must look past the film’s immediate focus on low politics. To secure House passage of the bill making way for the 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery, Lincoln was not above trading patronage positions for votes. We also see that he could be less than honest, as in his representation of southern peace overtures. To be sure the use of political tactics to pursue principled ends raises interesting questions, but the meaning of the film does not lie in this direction.

Lincoln is a great example of the first rule of American film: There is no political movie that is not also a film about family. A disturbance in the political order is a disturbance in the familial order – and vice versa. We cannot say whether Lincoln is a film about family or state. The crossing of the familial and the political is the meaning of the White House – both family residence and office – a theme beautifully illustrated in Lincoln’s late night wanderings.

This theme is powerfully portrayed in the subplot involving the radical Republican, Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens, who had spent 30 years fighting for racial equality, must compromise his rhetoric to obtain passage of the bill. He restrains himself to the disappointment of his radical followers, but he succeeds politically. In the only truly surprising moment in the film, he returns home, bill in hand, to share the event with his black housekeeper, who is also his lover and companion. The political and the familial are inseparable.

Political and familial success should go hand in hand for Lincoln too. Instead, he is assassinated. We do see, after passage of the bill, a moment of domestic happiness, as President and wife dream of future travels. It never happens. There is no family recovery, but only endless pain at the death of husband, father, President.

Lincoln’s death represents the great unsettled moment in American history. Without family reconciliation, there is no political reconciliation. Reconstruction fails; we continue to live with many of the same divisions of race and region at issue in the War. Lincoln’s assassination is the rend in the fabric of American life.

The greatness of the film, and its deepest lesson, is in the portrayal of Lincoln as a figure of love. He is, in Thadeus Stevens’s words, “the purest man in American politics.” From the opening scene in which Lincoln speaks with black and white soldiers, to his constant companionship with his young son, to his conversations with an ex-slave, to his visit to a hospital, he is a figure of overwhelming compassion. He quite literally touches all those with whom he comes in contact. This man of amazing oratory is also a man of extraordinary love.

Lincoln is, of course, the American figure of Christ. He speaks in parables, loves the least among us, embraces the enemy, and takes on to himself the nation’s pain. Like Christ, he suffers the paradox that for his faith endless numbers will kill and be killed. Love makes sacrifice possible. Lincoln knows this as the unbearable pain of the war that he must bear for the sake of the nation. The Civil War marks American politics as tragedy; Lincoln personifies that tragedy of love and sacrifice.

Love is at the center of Lincoln, and it is here that we can truly learn something about ourselves. The film constantly moves between the familial and the political, between inner life and outer practice. The family is the site of an inner pain no less grievous than the pain of the battlefield. Lincoln and Mary bear the unspeakable pain of the loss of a child, just like every other family touched by this war. The message is unmistakable: there is no line to be drawn between the family and the polity for both are expressions of love. Every soldier who dies for his country is a loss to a family. We must love the state, if we are to bear the sacrifice our loved ones. The success of the film suggests that this is a story that Americans want to hear: Ours is a project that is worthy of sacrifice because it is a project of love. Lincoln is the face of that love.

We will miss this point if we think the 13th Amendment is about a theory of equality or that liberal politics is about keeping the government out of our private lives. Before we can have a government, we must have a state; before we can apply a theory, we must have a community. To have either, we must be bound to each other. Americans believe – or want to believe – that the ties that bind us are elements of our very being. Lincoln speaks to a common faith that these are ties of love, and that for this love we will give everything.

Can we translate love into a political program? Because the American love of nation is a sacrificial love, war has occupied much of our history. The narrative of sacrifice often comes easier than a political program of charity. Yet, the final words of the film – Lincoln’s words – are precisely on point: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Lincoln’s words call us still to heal the nation’s divisions. He left us no instruction book, and the film offers none. Lincoln shows us the stakes, but the burden of politics is our own.

Monday, December 16th, 2013

Book Giveaway: This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains

“This marvelous book offers us a glimpse of the ghost of the Great Plains as it makes a last appearance. We ought to be immensely grateful to David Stark and Nancy Warner for inviting us to their deeply moving séance.” — Ted Kooser, former U.S. Poet Laureate

This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains, David Stark, Photographs by Nancy Warner

This week we will be featuring This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains, by David Stark, with photographs by Nancy Warner, on our blog, twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains to a lucky winner.

To enter our Book Giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on Friday, December 20 at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

You can also read an excerpt and view photographs from This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

VIDEO: Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter on Thai Stick

Australia Network News recently broadcast a story about Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade, by Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter.

The story focuses, in part, on Mike Ritter’s personal story as someone who dropped out of college in 1967 and traveled the world searching for enlightenment and “the perfect wave.” Ultimately, in order to pay for his lifestyle, Ritter turned to smuggling Thai marijuana or Thai stick. While drug smuggling from Thailand in the 1970s was very lucrative, it was not without its dark side.

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

Doughnuts? A Thanksgiving Tradition? Apparently So.

Gastropolis, Thanksgiving in New York City

We culminate our week-long (or, at least short week) feature on Thanksgiving with a quick look at the holiday’s history in New York City.

In his chapter, “The Food and Drink of New York from 1624 to 1898,” from Gastropolis: Food and New York City, Andrew Smith describes the role both George Washington and doughnuts have played in how the holiday has been celebrated in New York City:

Although it had originated in New England, [Thanksgiving] was quickly adopted in communities throughout New York. Indeed, it was in New York City that President George Washington issued the first presiden­tial thanksgiving proclamation, which set aside Thursday, November 26, 1789, as a day of prayer and thanksgiving. New York was one of the first states outside New England to declare Thanksgiving an official holiday. In 1795, John Jay, the governor of New York, tried to establish a statewide thanksgiving day, and in 1817 it was finally recognized as a state holiday. Thanksgiving was celebrated with what is now considered the traditional meal of turkey, apple pie, mince pie, and cranberries; New Yorkers often added doughnuts and crullers to the menu. Thanksgiving holiday remained an important holiday throughout the nineteenth century. The Ladies Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church opened a mission in the gang-infested Five Points District, and on Thanksgiving Day, under the eyes of their bene­factors, the ladies paraded and fed hundreds of Sunday- school students.

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Interview with Peter Maguire, author of Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade

Thai Stick, Peter Maguire

The following is an edited transcript of a podcast interview with Peter Maguire, coauthor of Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade. The excerpt starts with midway with Maguire talking about the marijuana smugglers.

For another interview with Maguire, you can listen to Waking from the American Dream.

PM: Yeah, these were modern day pirates who basically needed to find a way to finance their endless summers and growing up in southern California they were sort of our heroes and I was a young lifeguard in Malibu and knew many people in this world and for many years I kind of tried to, to pretend I was you know, a straight history professor that didn’t have this other life that I had led before I moved on to academia, but I figured it was time for me to come out of the cannabis closet.

Q: These surfers that were part of this giant drug trade, just, they didn’t think it was immoral

PM: No, absolutely not.

Q: Certainly there were people executed, who were caught….. I don’t understand why this story hasn’t been , well, part of the vernacular of the war on drugs.

PM: Well, you know you figure that you had a generation of, of many of these guys were draft dodgers, and had basically been turned criminal as a result of, of dodging the draft and evading service in the Vietnam War, or you know minor criminal convictions for marijuana use and they just left the system.

And in case of my co-author Mike Ritter, he was a draft dodger, went to Afghanistan, began, they all began, very small and the thing just escalates, and so by 1974, the Thai stick, the finest marijuana, really, of the 1970′s, grown by the hill tribes in, in northeast Thailand, one pound of Thai sticks in the United States was $2000 in 1974.

So basically, if you could fill a boat with Thai sticks and get it back to the United States you could set yourself up for life.

One of our favorite narrators, Mike Charley Tuna Carter, one of the great captains of the Thai marijuana fleet, he brought back six tons in I think 1975 and netted something like twenty million dollars that he seal-a-mealed, put in igloo coolers in his yard and called it the bank of the igloo underground.

But that’s, that’s half the story.

The other half of the story is the Southeast Asia 1975 to 1979 was probably one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world given not only the pirates, the boat people, the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese Navy, so the DEA was the least of the worries that the Thai smugglers faced.

Q: Well, in going, in going through the Pirates and Perils chapter, I can’t believe that they were taking that kind of risk, but for $2000 you could buy a house in 1974 for that.

PM: Oh absolutely. And my co-author, Mike Ritter, he would contract Thai fishermen, and Thai fishermen will traffic in anything. Smuggling is not really frowned upon in Thailand as long as you make money. And marijuana to the Thais is grown in every garden in the Northeast. It’s a therapeutic plant, really not many people even smoke it, it’s used in chicken soup, it’s used to sooth menstrual cramps, and help pregnant women, and the idea that, that the US government was coming down on this, the Thais had a hard time taking it even seriously.

Q: So, when the DEA decided that they were going to go after this, the way that they did why do you think it was specific to that?

PM: Money. It was all about money. And there was one DEA agent in particular who we interviewed extensively, named James Conklin, and he was a Vietnam veteran who understood Southeast Asia. He very candidly told us that in his early years in the DEA, he started in the BNDD, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, that marijuana was called kiddy dope and they weren’t allowed to touch it and they had to focus on heroin. And he said the thing that turned the tables was the money and that he got a tip from an informant about a Thai marijuana smuggler’s house in Santa Barbara and then he began to see the assets that these guys had and it absolutely blew his mind and he was the first one to really begin to get his head around it. He single handedly pretty much took down the Thai industry. So by 1988 they arrest Brian Daniels who had two gigantic loads come across the Pacific. One was in a boat captained by two former Green Berets and it had been loaded by the Vietnamese military. And so you know, money transcends all things. And the actual smugglers, I really would compare them to the rum-runners or the moon-shiners of the North Georgia mountains where there was arbitrary law against it this, but they didn’t see it as immoral or anything else.

Q: Well it was Dave Catenburg who you cited was a former Vietnam veteran, who said that in the 70′s it was a Robin Hood sort of thing.

PM: Oh absolutely.

Q: And the links that you make between these people who were draft dodgers, who are Vietnamese vets, who are Vietnamese military, there were no obstacles for them anymore, it was like they had just one currency.

PM: Absolutely, and you know for many, and it was interesting, for many who served in Vietnam and for many who were draft dodgers, the defining event of their lives was the Vietnamese war and so you had these very disparate groups come together in the post ’75 period, because you had Vietnam vets who had trade craft language skills, knew the country, they could procure loads, and then you had the surfers who could sail boats, offload boats and all that and they formed an uneasy alliance which breaks down over time and many of the former military guys become confidential informants and are much more comfortable dealing with the government and turning on their former co-conspirators and pretty much everyone gets busted, everyone.

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