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Archive for the 'American History' Category

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Interview with Michael Smith, co-author of “Flickering Empire”

Interview with Michael Smith, co-author of

“A lot of innovations came out of Chicago. There were a lot of ‘famous firsts’ for the American film industry and for movies as an art form—including the first pseudo-documentaries, the first two-reeler, the first slapstick comedy to feature a ‘pie-in-the-face-gag….’”—Michael Glover Smith

The following is part 1 of our interview with Michael Glover Smith, co-author of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry:

Question: Why does Chicago get left out of the history of early cinema in America?

Michael Glover Smith: The story of American film production begins in New York and New Jersey (where Thomas Edison was headquartered) in the late 19th century. Hollywood didn’t really become the nation’s film-producing capital until about 1915. All official histories are somewhat reductive and I think it’s been convenient for scholars and historians to just skip over the story of Chicago’s contributions to film history, which mainly occurred in in the late 1900s and early 1910s. Even though the contributions of Chicago filmmakers were enormous by any objective standard, it was a fairly narrow window of time when the film industry in Chicago was at its peak and, also, the vast majority of Chicago-made films of that era no longer exist. They’ve been destroyed or lost and it’s never been fashionable to write about films that people can’t see.

Q: How does Chicago’s role in the development change the way we think about the history of movies in America?

MGS: I think a lot of innovations came out of Chicago. There were a lot of “famous firsts” for the American film industry and for movies as an art form—including the first pseudo-documentaries, the first two-reeler, the first slapstick comedy to feature a “pie-in-the-face-gag,” the first films made by African-American directors, etc. We give a rundown in the introduction to the book. It’s entirely possible that movies as we now know them would look very different if not for the contributions of studios like Essanay and Selig-Polyscope and also the independent filmmakers (especially the aforementioned black directors).

Q: What was the role of the 1893 Columbia Exhibit in popularizing film in Chicago and the rest of the country?

MGS: The World’s Fair of 1893 had an enormous influence on the developing film industry. There were several important prototypical movie-exhibition devices that premiered there—including Eadweard Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope and Otto Anschutz’s Tachyscope. A lot of the early Chicago filmmakers went to the Fair and were inspired to start making films based on what they saw.


Monday, March 23rd, 2015

Book Giveaway! “Flickering Empire”

This week our featured book is Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry by Michael Glover Smith and Adam Selzer.

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

We are also offering a FREE copy of Flickering Empire to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, March 27th at 1:00 pm.

Flickering Empire tells the fascinating yet little-known story of how Chicago served as the unlikely capital of American film production in the years before the rise of Hollywood (1907-1913). Flickering Empire illustrates the rise and fall of the major Chicago movie studios in the mid-silent era (principally Essanay and Selig Polyscope). Colorful, larger-than-life historical figures, including Thomas Edison, Charlie Chaplin, Oscar Micheaux, and Orson Welles, are major players in the narrative—in addition to important though forgotten industry titans, such as “Colonel” William Selig, George Spoor, and Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson.

Friday, March 20th, 2015

A Genealogy of Morgan Stanley

Genealogy of American Finance

This week our featured book is Genealogy of American Finance, by Robert E. Wright and Richard Sylla, with a foreword from Charles M. Royce. Today, for the final day of the feature, we’ve excerpted a sample chapter focused on one of the Big 50: Morgan Stanley.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy!

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Charles Royce’s Foreword to Genealogy of American Finance

Genealogy of American Finance

This week our featured book is Genealogy of American Finance, by Robert E. Wright and Richard Sylla. Today, we are happy to present Charles M. Royce’s foreword to Wright and Sylla’s book, in which Royce focuses on the importance of the Museum of American Finance both in the process of creating the Genealogy and in a broader cultural context.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy!

By Charles M. Royce, CEO, The Royce Funds

I was introduced to the leadership of the Museum of American Finance through my friend and television personality, Consuelo Mack, who serves on the Museum’s Board of Trustees. During the course of my initial conversation with President David Cowen, I brought up an idea I have had for years, which is to trace the genealogies — or family trees — of the major American financial firms. I have been working in finance for more than 50 years and have witnessed first-hand many dramatic changes in the industry. So many firms that existed when I first began investing are no longer around.

Given that my firm looks for “value” in companies when we invest, I asked David if there was value in this idea. His response was that, indeed, this would be an invaluable research tool. This book is the first output of that discussion.

As the only independent finance museum in the nation, the Museum often fields calls from researchers inquiring about what happened to certain firms or banks — now defunct or acquired. Many times those questions have been difficult to answer. Moreover, the two main regulatory bodies, The Federal Reserve and the FDIC, do not have complete information and are, therefore, also unable to also answer those questions. According to the Museum’s exhibit team, an area of the “Banking in America” exhibit featuring an abridged genealogy of the Bank of America was the single largest piece of research that went into any section of the Museum’s permanent exhibits. This is largely because more than one hundred years’ worth of merger and acquisition data is so difficult to come by.

My conversations with David and the Museum team resulted in my commitment to underwrite a massive research project to compile these family trees and house them in a central location. It has taken well over a year of research — which included hundreds of hours of archival legwork — to compile these genealogies and make them publicly available.

I applaud Professors Wright and Sylla for their research and writing efforts, which have made this project a reality. As a Columbia University MBA, I am pleased to note that my alma mater has enthusiastically embraced this idea as well, and that this beautiful book has been produced by Columbia Business School Publishing.

Now, if the Museum receives a research inquiry about past financial firms, the staff is able to answer where that firm’s history fits into the modern financial landscape. Or, better yet, people can access the information themselves via this book or the Museum’s website.

This project sheds tremendous light into the dynamic nature of our nation’s financial history. One can never completely understand the future without a comprehension of the past. In an easy-to-read and understandable manner, this book gives a narrative history that is accessible to all — from the newcomer working at a bank to the finance professional, from the student to the scholar, from the practitioner to the regulator.

Please enjoy the book, as each chapter will transport you back in time to see the birth and growth of these 50 financial institutions.

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

An Overview of the Big 50 Banks

Genealogy of American Finance

This week our featured book is Genealogy of American Finance, by Robert E. Wright and Richard Sylla, with a foreword from Charles M. Royce. Today, we’ve excerpted “Overview of the Big 50,” a set of infographics provided by Wright and Sylla that give context for their discussion of the Big 50 Banks.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy!

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

A Brief History of Banking in the United States

Genealogy of American Finance

“To fully comprehend the history or genealogy of any bank or BHC, a general knowledge of US banking and business organizational history is required.” — Robert E. Wright and Richard Sylla

This week our featured book is Genealogy of American Finance, by Robert E. Wright and Richard Sylla, with a foreword from Charles M. Royce. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from the book’s introduction, “A Brief History of Banking in the United States.”

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy!

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Genealogy of American Finance, by Robert E. Wright and Richard Sylla

Genealogy of American Finance

Genealogy of American Finance is a treasure trove of information on American banking and its history, in an unusual — and unusually useful — format.” — John Steele Gordon

This week our featured book is Genealogy of American Finance, by Robert E. Wright and Richard Sylla, with a foreword from Charles M. Royce. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Genealogy of American Finance. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, March 20th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, March 13th, 2015

The Legacy of Eric Walrond: The Caribbean, Harlem, and Europe

Eric Walrond and Shirley Graham DuBois
(Shirley Graham Du Bois and Eric Walrond, Paris, 1930)

In the following excerpt from the postscript to Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean, James Davis explores some of the ways in which Walrond, and, specifically, his life spent moving from the Caribbean to the United States and then to Europe reflect questions of blackness and identity in today’s world:

One can see the ways in which Walrond’s world—the struggles and communities in which he participated—was a precursor to our own; it is more difficult to grasp its difference, its inscrutability, the possibilities that sprang into being but have since been foreclosed…. Even as we recognize in Eric Walrond incipient forms of familiar contemporary identities and communities, we should also consider the “historical mutilation” of the anticolonial struggles, transnational periodical formations, aesthetic movements, and political solidarities that animated Walrond’s work. We are ourselves the victims of their truncation. It may defy comprehension that a celebrated Harlem author would leave the United States, sabotaging his career at the height of the New Negro movement. It may seem unintelligible for a cosmopolitan Caribbean intellectual to spend twelve years as the only “Negro” in an English village….

Walrond forged a precarious career by crossing borders, none of which he crossed completely. From the “West Indian Circles” column of Pana­ma’s Star & Herald, to his work on Garvey’s journals in New York and London, to his Caribbean efforts at Opportunity and his Wiltshire essays about colonialism and the “colour bar,” his journalism was, like his fic­tion, an exercise in cultural translation. But borders are rarely neutral. They often presuppose or enforce privilege, and Walrond’s translations challenged the privileges attending the borders he crossed. Even within New York, the unofficial border he straddled between white and black Manhattan occasioned a Caribbean challenge to monolithic notions of Harlem’s blackness and a “Cabaret School” challenge to the prevailing discourse of respectability and “Negro” uplift. He benefited from his mobility and suffered for it, too.


Thursday, March 12th, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner: James Davis on the Writing of Eric Walrond

Eric Walrond, James Davis

For our Thursday Fiction Corner, we asked James Davis, author of Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean, to discuss what makes the fiction and journalism of Walrond so distinctive.

All of Eric Walrond’s writing has a kind of restless quality, a turbulence that is a bit disturbing yet intensely compelling.

Besides Tropic Death, which I enjoy for these sensory appeals as much as its critique of colonial relations, I really like Walrond’s story “Miss Kenny’s Marriage” and his essay “White Man, What Now?” The first is a sly trickster tale set among Brooklyn’s early 20th century black bourgeoisie. It’s shrewd and hilarious, published originally in 1923 in The Smart Set, a New York magazine edited at the time by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. A sendup of the social pretensions of the “strivers” of the race, the story chronicles the rise and fall of a pompous Atlantic Avenue hairdresser—or as Miss Kenny puts it, “not a hairdresser at all, but a beauty culturist.” Day and night she’s in the shop, coiffing “girls and old women, spinsters and preacher’s wives, scrubwomen and colored ladies of gentility,” and saving bundles of cash. But despite her work ethic and churchgoing ways, she is arrogant and her striving for respectability involves deep prejudices. “I am not like a lot of these new niggers you see floating around here,” she tells a client, “A few hundred dollars don’t frighten me. Only we used-to-nothing cullud folks lose our heads and stick out our chests at sight of a few red pennies.” No, she adds, “there ain’t none of the nigger in me, honey.”

Walrond delivers her comeuppance in the form of Elias Ramsey, a prominent young lawyer, member of Brooklyn’s “olive-skinned aristocracy,” twenty-three years her junior. Courting Miss Kenny with professions of love and adulation, he absconds soon after their wedding with all her hard-earned savings. Although the story is just a lark, it exhibits Walrond’s flair for code switching, alternating idiomatic registers between Southern migrant characters, black New Yorkers, and his own wry narrative voice. A twenty-four year old writer only a few years removed from the Caribbean, Walrond’s performance in “Miss Kenny’s Marriage” is a kind of masquerade, a way of becoming a New Negro author by writing like an American. The story also stages a theatrical punishment for its title character because she commits the cardinal sin of harboring contempt for less respectable members of her race.


Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Interview with James Davis, author of “Eric Walrond,” Part 2

James Davis, Eric Walrond

The following is the second half of our article with James Davis, author of Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean. You can read part 1 here.

Question: One of the more fascinating aspects of your biography are your descriptions of Walrond’s youth in Panama during the building of the canal. How did this episode shape Walrond and how does the Panama of this period fit in with the larger story of the Transatlantic Caribbean in the first half of the twentieth-century?

James Davis: Walrond described himself as “spiritually a native of Panama,” despite having spent his childhood in Guyana and Barbados. Panama during the construction of the Canal (1904-1914) was at once a new frontier for a United States eager to consolidate power in the hemisphere and an extraordinarily diverse contact zone in which laborers and their families from the entire Caribbean region converged. Panama attracted people from other parts of the world, to be sure, but economic precariousness in the Caribbean led to emigration in large numbers.

The U.S. occupation imported to the Canal Zone a Jim Crow form of racial segregation, which introduced an acute form of race consciousness many West Indians had not felt previously, despite living in European colonies with perceptible hierarchies of color. Walrond was among those for whom life in Panama compelled a new self-understanding as a West Indian (rather than, more parochially, a Barbadian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, etc.) and as a Negro. Recall that outside of the United States, the most successful branches of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association emerged in Panama, where the imprint of white command was stark, and in neighboring Costa Rica, where the United Fruit Corporation, a North American concern, effectively ran things. Despite segregation in the Canal Zone, however, Walrond was inspired by Panama’s tremendous ethnic diversity; it provoked the cultural tensions, collaborations, and hybridity that always intrigued him.

Q: Jumping ahead to later in Walrond’s life, is it fair to characterize his time in England as a letdown from the promise he showed as a writer during his time in Harlem?

JD: I struggled with this exact question while writing the biography. The record is clearly stacked against Walrond’s later career; he published much less after leaving the U.S. and didn’t publish another book, despite having composed several. It’s also hard to tell the story of someone who committed himself to a mental hospital for five years late in life as anything other than a tragedy. So from a certain empirical standpoint there’s no question that Walrond’s post-Harlem career was a letdown; he felt it acutely himself.

Nevertheless, the one-hit wonder label that affixed itself to Walrond distorts the real story. Very little of Walrond’s post-Harlem writing was available to readers until recently, with Louis Parascandola’s two collections, so any assessment of promise fulfilled or unfulfilled must attend to this work. Examining it closely, placing it in context, one realizes some things that complicate the idea that his career simply declined. First, although Tropic Death contains much of Walrond’s best fiction, some of the stories he wrote in England equal or surpass its quality, and some of his non-fiction prose in England definitely rivals his work for Negro World, Opportunity, and the mainstream publications for which he wrote in the mid-1920s. It just crackles with anti-colonial militancy and acerbic wit.

Second, we should recognize that while writing by non-white Americans was published in book form with increasing frequency after World War I, it would not be until the 1950s that writing by non-white Britons – or by colonial subjects in England – appeared in book form with any regularity. Exceptions occurred but they were few and far between. The real cultural action in black letters in England was in periodicals, and here Walrond was, if not prolific, then quite present. So I don’t dispute the idea that Walrond disappointed expectations, nor do I explain away his shortcomings, but I definitely revisit the criteria by which we judge matters of success and failure and offer a sustained analysis of what his later work represents when considered on its own terms.


Friday, February 27th, 2015

The Legacies of Reaganism and Reagan — Doug Rossinow

The Age of Reagan, Doug Rossinow

“Reagan was not a stupid man, but he sometimes took refuge in stu­pid lies.”—Doug Rossinow

In the following excerpt, Doug Rossinow, author of The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s, examines the legacy of Reagan and his policies:

The relationship of post-1990 conservatives to Reaganism was an ambivalent one. Some elements of the Reaganite formula lived on in the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Fiercely unapologetic patriotism and a belief in U.S. military preponderance remained funda­mental tenets for most conservatives. So did faith in unrestrained busi­ness as a source of social good, and the cherished ideal of hardy individu­alism, free from entanglements with the state. But the conservatism of Bush and his supporters departed from Reagan’s in other respects. Fis­cally, it was more responsible; politically, it was coarser. The balance of sentiment on the American right, as of 1990, was tipping away from the embrace of hedonism that had marked the 1980s, and toward cultural traditionalism. In terms of foreign policy, Americans looked back to Rea­gan for little guidance as a new age of resource wars in the Persian Gulf vi­cinity dawned. Later in the 1990s, foreign policy neoconservatives would call for “a neo-Reaganite foreign policy of military supremacy and moral confidence.” These were undeniably Reaganite values. But Americans would find it hard to say, after the Cold War’s conclusion, exactly what foreign policies those values should dictate.

Just as aspects of Reaganism lived on, so did Reagan’s personal legend. At his presidency’s end, Reagan shucked off the worst e.ects of scandal and emerged an honored figure. His farewell address in 1989 was graceful, yet self-satisfied. At one and the same time, he downplayed his own role as an individual in creating change and boasted of a nation made “more prosperous, more secure, and happier” because of his leadership. “All in all, not bad,” he said, in grading his accomplishments in office; “not bad at all.” The Reagans moved back to their ranch in the hills near Santa Barbara, but the former president ventured out in the ensuing years to make highly paid appearances before business groups. Some found this unbecoming; previously, among ex-presidents, only Gerald Ford had cashed in on his status in this way. (Americans would become accus­tomed to this habit over time, as retired presidents of both parties would follow suit.) In November 1990, Reagan’s memoir, An American Life, was published. It exuded his characteristic combination of self-effacement and complacency. Even before Reagan drifted into senescence in the mid-1990s—a victim of Alzheimer’s disease—he became a symbol of the 1980s, a totem of the conservative narrative of recent American his­tory: the man who saved the country from self-doubt and liberal failure. Conservatives emphatically identified Reagan with their creed and their movement—the way liberals long had identified their own cause with Franklin Roosevelt—and for decades would proclaim themselves Rea­gan’s heirs, even as they swore they would never do things that Reagan had done, such as raise taxes or approve an amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Understanding Reaganism is more important than knowing Reagan. But there is no interpreting the 1980s without arriving at a judg­ment on Reagan, who, it seems likely, will always be closely tied to our memories of that era.


Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Proposed 1920s Orphanage Study Just One Example in History of Scientific Racism — Michael Yudell

Race Unmasked, Michael Yudell

“Racism has indeed left its stain on scientific thought.”—Michael Yudell

The following post is by Michael Yudell, Drexel University and author of Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the Twentieth Century. The essay was originally published in The Conversation:

In the late 1920s, scientists hatched an outrageous plan to settle a question at the heart of American racial thought: were differences between racial groups driven by environment or by heredity? In other words, was the racist social order of the time – white over black — an inevitable and genetically driven outcome? Or did the environment in which all Americans lived create the deep disparities and discord between races that defined the social, economic and political reality of the United States?

A committee on “Racial Problems,” jointly sponsored by the venerable National Research Council and the Social Science Research Council, discussed an experiment: create racial orphanages, separate institutions where children of different races would be received as close to birth as possible. The idea was to compare white and black children under similar conditions. Scientists could closely monitor the institutionalized children as they developed to figure out whether differences were due to innate characteristics or environmental influence. Nursery schools and foster homes were proposed as places of comparative study too, but most of committee’s discussions focused on the idea of racial orphanages.Science has made claims about race in America since the late 18th century, when Thomas Jefferson hypothesized that the differences between races are “fixed in nature.” In the 19th century, anthropologists such as Samuel Morton argued for a racial hierarchy of intelligence and believed human races evolved from separate origins. Eugenicists tried to quantify the hereditary nature of race difference in the early 20th century, using their science to develop social policy, including forced sterilization and anti-immigration laws. Racism has indeed left its stain on scientific thought.


Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Interview with Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler

Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler

“Up until 1938-1939, there were really no anti-Nazi films from the major Hollywood studios….For most of the 1930s, the major studios were missing in action.”—Thomas Doherty

The following interview with Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, which is now available in paperback:

Question: Hollywood celebrities today are associated with a variety of different social and political causes. How was the situation different then and how did it curtail film stars’ anti-Nazi activism?

Thomas Doherty: In the 1930s, motion picture stars were typically very timorous about expressing their political opinions in public, especially if the sentiments were in any way controversial or left of mainstream opinion. Why alienate a potential customer at the ticket window? For their part, the studio heads considered the stars their own personal property, not unlike the costumes and props in the studio warehouses. They didn’t want anything to deplete the value of their investments. At first, only the most stalwart and secure actors and actresses defied convention and broke ranks.

Q: What effect if any did their activism have on shaping American attitudes towards Hitler?

TD: It’s hard to say, but the anti-Nazi activism of popular stars like James Cagney, Melvyn Douglas, John Garfield, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford not only brought publicity to the cause but served to normalize the sentiments. The mere fact that movie stars—who more typically sold their faces for commercial endorsements—were now speaking out against Nazism, for free, made at least some people think about the reasons for the transition.


Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Reaganism and the Rise of the Carceral State — Doug Rossinow

The Age of Reagan, Doug Rossinow

The following is a post by Doug Rossinow, author of The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s

In the moment of Black Lives Matter, with public awareness of mass incarceration and lethal force by police reaching new heights, it’s important to look back on the racial dimension of what I call “the Reagan era” and how that politics led us to where we are now.

Today’s carceral state has its roots in the “war on crime” that took hold in America in the 1980s. That “war” was led by the political forces that I associate with Reaganism, a conservative political formation that generally favored a rollback of state power. A notable exception to this rule was policing and imprisonment. Both Reaganism and the “war on crime” had a racial politics embedded in them, so that these three phenomena—Reaganism as a movement, the “war on crime,” and the resulting carceral state, and the racial politics of the 1980s—strengthened and reinforced the others.

All of those who care about racial equality, of a certain age are likely to remember the 1980s as a bleak time for people of color and for African Americans specifically. The social reality of the era was complex. More African Americans were making it into the middle and upper classes than ever before, while others were stuck in impoverished urban neighborhoods. Because of middle-class flight, being a big-city mayor in the 1980s was very challenging; nonetheless, it is significant that, during this decade, African Americans were elected or reelected mayor in four of the country’s five biggest cities (Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City).

While African American political power was growing in the city, at least by some measures, Ronald Reagan and the broader conservative movement he led were often openly hostile to urban America and African Americans. When Reagan ran for president in 1980, he peddled a fictionalized tale, one with an obvious racial subtext, of what he called a “welfare queen” living large on the public dole, and he visited Bob Jones University, a segregationist institution in South Carolina, which he called a “great institution.” Moreover, throughout his political career, Reagan was antagonistic toward civil rights law. That was his record, a long record—one that was interrupted only at moments when Reagan bent to irresistible political forces, as when he signed a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982. Reagan was a realist, but there is no mistaking the broad pattern of his views about civil rights.


Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

An Interview with Doug Rossinow, author of The Reagan Era

The Reagan Era, Doug Rossinow

“We still live in the world Reagan and Reaganites made.”—Doug Rossinow

The following is an interview with Doug Rossinow, author of The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s.

Question: Were the 1980s really “the Reagan era”? Is it possible to exaggerate the significance of one individual leader?

Doug Rossinow: The only other leaders in twentieth-century America who compare to Reagan, in terms of being personally identified with the eras when they served as president, are Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and maybe Teddy Roosevelt. I’d say that Reagan is more closely tied to our memories of the 1980s than Dwight Eisenhower is to those of the 1950s—and rightly so. Reagan is most like FDR: he helped shape as well as propel a political agenda and social vision that defined an era. Reagan really led a kind of movement, Reaganism, which captured the spirit of the age as well as a policy agenda.

Q: What were the characteristics or spirit of Reaganism?

DR: The key to that spirit—and to the agenda—was to elevate the status of wealth in America, and in policy terms to let the wealthy keep more of their money. A new celebration of wealth, and of capitalism, was pervasive in America during the 1980s—and, with a few hiccups along the way, it continued through the 1990s, really up until the Great Recession. Reaganism was a revitalized, energized conservative force in a very broad sense. There were Reaganite preachers and lawyers and even union leaders, not just senators and congressmen. Of course Reagan had a foreign policy agenda too. But since that agenda was driven by a newly aggressive anticommunist stance, the moral basis for Reaganism in domestic and international contexts was the same: upholding freedom, which Reaganites defined fundamentally in terms of the capacity to earn and keep wealth. In some ways we still live in the world Reagan and Reaganites made.

Q: Some people say that Reagan would have trouble getting nominated for president by today’s Republican Party, that he would seem moderate for today’s GOP, for example on an issue like immigration. Is this true? Has the Republican Party moved to the right of where Reagan was in the 1980s?

DR: Specifically on the issue of immigration, yes, Reagan’s policies would be out of step today in the Republican Party. He signed a 1986 bill that created an “amnesty” for about two million undocumented immigrants—he and others actually called it “amnesty,” which they could never do today. Reagan had a lot of sympathy with immigrants, perhaps tending to view them as people who believed in the bootstrap promise of American life in a way that many native-born Americans no longer did. He also was very libertarian at his core, and might have preferred, in a perfect world, to see open borders. So differences over immigration policy can be as much a question of which kind of conservative you are as of how conservative you are.

But more broadly, I’m not sure it’s true, in any meaningful sense, that Reagan and his GOP were more moderate than those of today. There were a larger number of moderate Republicans in Congress then, but their influence in their party was questionable. Most of them enthusiastically supported Reagan as their nominee in 1980, and when Reagan became president, the moderates went along with the essential items in his conservative agenda. The conservative agenda of today—or of George W. Bush in the 2000s—is only possible because of the conservative victories of Reaganism in the 1980s. I also think Reagan was a sufficiently skilled politician, with a keen enough sense of his own party, that if he were around today he would know how to pitch himself to Republican voters and activists.


Monday, February 23rd, 2015

Book Giveaway! The Reagan Era, by Doug Rossinow

This week our featured book is The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s, by Doug Rossinow.

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

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, February 27 at 1:00 pm.

“”This is one of the best books on the 1980s written to date. Doug Rossinow offers a deeply researched and compelling account of the decade in its many facets: political, economic, cultural, and international.” — Jeremi Suri, University of Texas at Austin, author of Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama

For more on the book, you can read the introduction:

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

Cultural Foreign Policy from Cold War Modernism to Today’s Hollywood Bromance — Greg Barnhisel

Greg Barnhisel, Cold War Modernists

The following post is by Greg Barnhisel, author of Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy.

Greg Barnhisel will also be in New York City to talk about the book on Thursday, February 5 at the National Archives at noon and then at the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library at 6 pm.

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominees for the 2015 Academy Awards, the James Franco/Seth Rogen comedy The Interview wasn’t on the list. That Oscar spurned this “bromance” surprised nobody. Most critics hated the film and even Rogen’s fans found it one of his lesser works.

Those audiences almost didn’t have a chance to see the film. The Interview, of course, centers on a half-baked but accidentally successful plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. North Korea, though, didn’t like jokes about the murder of its leader. In one of the most remarkable episodes in the recent history of the entertainment industry, a group of computer hackers calling itself the “Guardians of Peace” (linked later with the North Korean government) infiltrated the computer servers of Sony Pictures, shutting down the studio’s communications and throwing its data open for anyone to see. The “Guardians” demanded that Sony scrap The Interview, and the studio acquiesced if only for a moment.

Apart from some of the obvious questions here—has Hollywood so convinced itself that the Kims are cartoon villains that it thought it could play up the assassination of a sitting foreign leader for laughs? Would a studio greenlight a comedy about the killing of Vladimir Putin or Bashar al-Assad?—this incident evokes the larger issue of the place of art and popular culture in international relations. Does the U.S. really want smirking irony to be the face of our culture? What sorts of art and culture would tell the stories we want to tell foreign populations about who we are?

Currently, two of our greatest foreign-policy challenges (the confrontation with fundamentalist Islamism, and the standoff with an expansionist Russia) have important cultural dimensions. Both Islamism and Putinism put themselves forward to the world as defenders of traditional values, and depict American popular culture as a threat to those values. How should the U.S. respond to this?

Such issues are at the heart of Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy. As the Cold War began, both adversaries and allies viewed the U.S. as having nothing to offer the world but military and economic domination and a crude, violent, hypersexualized popular culture. American cultural diplomats had to win over skeptical intellectuals in allied nations, and counteract enemy propaganda generated by the Soviet Union that we were just Mickey Mouse and cowboy movies.


Friday, January 30th, 2015

The Fate of Black and Latino Politicians in New York City — Frederick Douglass Opie

Frederick Douglass Opie, Upsetting the Apple Cart: Black-Latino Coalitions in New York City from Protest to Public Office

As suggested by the subtitle, in Upsetting the Apple Cart: Black-Latino Coalitions in New York City From Protest to Public Office, Frederick Douglass’s book tracks the rise of Black and Latino politicians, which in some ways reached its apex with the 1989 election of David Dinkins as the first African American mayor of the city. He was also the last New York City mayor of color.

In the conclusion to the book, Opie considers why gaining citywide or statewide offices has proven so difficult for Black and Latino politicians and what can be done:

There were a number of Black-Latino Progressive coalitions that waged bat­tles before the creation of Latinos for Dinkins. David Dinkins’s campaign victory and his administration’s support for the political reapportionment and increase in the number of seats in the City Council from thirty-five to fifty-one have ensured that blacks and Latinos are today well represented among New York City elected officials. But representation in higher citywide or statewide offices still remains elusive, largely because of racial fragmenta­tion within the Democratic Party.

A number of problems remain among black and Latino elected officials in Albany. They need to clearly articulate issues relevant to the communities they represent, but, most of all, their efforts and reputations have been seri­ously hampered by the rampant corruption in Albany. Officials have to do a better job investigating allegations of improprieties among elected officials. For example, just as the 2013 New York mayoral election began to rev up, corruption scandals and the arrest of black and Latino legislators from New York City rocked Albany. “You have a better chance” of being led out of the Assembly or the Senate in Albany in “handcuffs than you do being voted out of office,” says Ken Lovett, Albany bureau chief for the Daily News.

In order to regain the strength that had helped Dinkins into office, black and Latino elected officials need to mobilize around issues important to Progressives in the same way that labor leaders did in hospitals in the 1950s and 1960s, as student activists did on college campuses in the late 1960s, as activists did on the streets and in tenements in the 1960s through the 1980s, and as various groups did in 2012 (under the aegis of Occupy movements that first began in New York City).

The demands of black and Latino Progressive coalitions from 1959 to 1989 were consistent and remain important concerns today: a living wage in which to provide better housing, health care, food, and educational opportunities for them and their families; the end of police brutality; and greater black and Latino representation among elected officials. On the question of ending police brutality, Progressive coalitions have been engaged in a campaign for almost two decades to end the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk crime-prevention pro­gram. It is viewed as a civil rights violation, which police officers most often carry out against male youth in black and Latino communities across the city. In fact, stop-and-frisk remained a constant part of the debate among candi­dates vying for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York.

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

The Role of Black and Latino Students in the 1968 Takeover of Columbia University — Frederick Douglass Opie

Student activism and revolt in the 1960s were crucial in developing Black-Latino coalitions during the decade. On campuses such as CCNY and Columbia, student organizations successfully lobbied for new curricula that would include Black and Latino studies and worked with local communities to stop the expansion of their institutions.

In the following excerpt from Upsetting the Apple Cart: Black-Latino Coalitions in New York City from Protest to Public Office and in the video below, Frederick Douglass Opie discusses the role of Black and Latino students and student organizations during the takeover at Columbia in 1968:

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Interview with Frederick Douglass Opie, author of “Upsetting the Apple Cart”

Upsetting the Apple Cart, Frederick Douglass Opie

Upsetting the Apple Cart reveals how when the NYPD talks about the death of Eric Garner, they view it as an incident or a moment; Black and Brown folks who support the Black Lives Matter movement talk about it as history.”—Frederick Douglass Opie

The following is an interview with Frederick Douglass Opie, author of Upsetting the Apple Cart: Black-Latino Coalitions in New York City from Protest to Public Office

Question: How did you get interested in the project?

Frederick Douglass Opie: While working on my first book Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America, I came across a set of Works Progress Administration records in the New York City Municipal Archives that described blacks and Latinos in Harlem in the 1930s eating in the same restaurants, frequenting the same nightclubs and theaters, and intermarrying. This was during the summer of 2005, and I was struck by these descriptions given the degree of separation I observed between contemporary blacks and Latinos (Ecuadorians, Dominicans, and some Puerto Ricans and Cubans) in Westchester County, just north of New York City, where I was living at the time. The contrast inspired me to explore the dynamics of African American-Latino coalitions.

Q: What are some of the distinct moments recounted in Upsetting the Apple Cart?

FDO: It tells the story about the first time that Malcolm X, at the height of his popularity in 1962, supported a labor union and the first time as Elijah Muhammad’s principal spokesman for the Nation of Islam that he joined a multiethnic coalition. The book traces the history of when large numbers of Dominicans who migrated to New York began to turn their attention away from the Dominican Republic becoming political mobilized behind African American candidate David Dinkins in 1989. It’s seasoned with recipes because throughout this history people used food to help activists do the necessary work at strategy meetings and protests to advance a cause.

Q: What role did unions play in forging alliance between Blacks and Latinos?

FDO: Labor unions helped Blacks and Latinos develop strong bonds as workers who shared a common political goal, employer, or class status. For example, Black and Latino members of Local DC 37 mobilized against President Ronald Reagan’s plan to cut spending to programs for the urban poor in order to increase spending on weapons systems and military interventions abroad. DC 37 supported the electoral campaigns of Mario Cuomo and others whose platforms addressed Reagan cuts. In addition, DC 37 participated in protest including acts of civil disobedience in their objection to the Reagan administration’s tacit support for the apartheid regime in South Africa and explicit support for authoritarian dictatorships in Central America. For many young workers this served as their foray into public protesting.