Thinking (and Reading) About the Art of the 1930s

We have reached the final list for my comprehensive exams: American art history. For the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at what I’ve been reading about art history, beginning with today’s post on the 1930s.

 Many of the works I have been reading have delved into the political nature of 1930s American art. As both Cécile Whiting and Andrew Hemingway point out in their respective monographs, art historians have tended to understudy the art of the 1930s in favor of postwar art such as Abstract Expressionism. They posit that the art of the interwar period gets dismissed because it’s regarded as formally regressive and overtly political, rejecting the abstraction of the 1910s for a more conservative, social realist style. Yet as both authors point out, the seemingly timeless, individual aesthetic attributed to Abstract Expressionism is itself a historical idea, and simply dismissing the art of the 1930s as political and regressive oversimplifies the cultural complexity of this period. Just as Michael Denning argues in his seminal volume The Cultural Front that the creative output of the Popular Front was more innovative than traditionally believed, so these authors argue that the art of the 1930s is more aesthetically and politically complex than conventionally thought. So Whiting points out, for instance, that antifacist art could be as subtle as Stuart Davis creating abstractions inspired by jazz or electric signs, celebrating the vivacity and diversity of American culture. Likewise, Andrew Hemingway posits that not all artists were hardcore Communists during the 1930s, and that they engaged with leftist ideas to varying degrees. 

While the majority of the books I’ve been looking at focus on the United States, I’ve also been reading about Mexican Muralism, since the work of Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, among others, significantly influenced both artists working in the United States and the federal government in terms of sponsoring a national art. As the authors contributing to the anthology Mexican Muralism point out, muralists had to navigate a lot of logistical and ideological challenges, including the negotiation between maintaining a radical art versus appeasing the interests of the state providing sponsorship. Indeed, Mary K. Coffey explores this question more deeply in her book, How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture, arguing that artists such as Orozco and Rivera underwent a conventionalizing process through their placement in museums. In other words, by commissioning artists to paint new works in museum spaces, institutions that have historically been associated with the state and official iterations of culture,  the Mexican government endeavored to domesticate the more radical politics presented in Mexican muralism. Throughout the New Deal era,  artists working in the United States faced similar issues. On the one hand, working in public spaces provides you the opportunity to express your messages to a wider audience. At the same time, however, when it’s the state that’s sponsoring you, it’s questionable whether you’ll be able to get any radical content out there. Indeed, a lot of critics of the New Deal at the time made this very argument regarding art, suggesting that art was better served when left to its own devices in a free market because it didn’t have to acknowledge or appease government oversight.

Given my interest in the New Deal, naturally a lot of the readings I’ve been looking at focus on the Federal Art Project, or share similar ideas. In Democratic Art, for instance, Sharon Ann Musher frames her study around the following questions: how did art advocates temporarily secure a New Deal for the arts, and what lessons does the past offer about government funding for the arts today? Looking at the political and cultural history underpinning the New Deal art movements, Musher goes beyond the standard critiques of middlebrow or radical content to explore the relationship between art and the state. Examining both renowned, federally-operated projects such as Federal One as well as smaller, more merit-based projects, Musher considers how the various institutions and projects associated with the New Deal functioned in society, and how both their critics and participants responded to them. Rather than lump them collectively into either conservative or liberal reactions, she instead considers local as well as national responses. Her discussions of community responses to various projects is particularly thorough, as when she describes different local reactions to community art centers. Rather than simply dismiss them as conservative or reactionary, she examines and identifies a variety of responses reflecting local politics, from the aversion toward nudity at the Phoenix Art Center, to the discomfort toward Communist politics at the Oklahoma City Art Center. 

If Musher concentrates on the political aspects of the Federal Art Project, Victoria Grieve highlights the educational side of the FAP in her book, The Federal Art Project and the Creation of Middlebrow Culture. She argues that FAP administrators emphasized the importance of public art education and appreciation to the various art projects they sponsored, because they believed that educating citizens in art appreciation helped to cultivate a critically engaged citizenry. Influenced by the writings of John Dewey, John Cotton Dana, and other Progressive Era thinkers from the turn of the 20th century, she posits that art administrators believed that teaching citizens to critically engage works of art would influence other behaviors. In other words, teaching visitors to look at a painting and assess its quality by analyzing such formal aspects as line, shape, or color, would encourage them to be more proactive thinkers in other aspects of their life, because they were being taught to actively engage their surroundings. Additionally, teaching visitors to appreciate art would not only demystify it and make it appear more approachable, but would also encourage visitors to view themselves as art consumers, making them more likely to purchase works of art for themselves. In this way, the FAP served an economic as well as educational dimension, enabling an active approach to art appreciation that fed into both capitalist and democratic ideals. This book has been particularly influential in my own work up to this point, because Grieve talks explicitly about community art centers and their role in cultivating citizenship, not only through teaching art appreciation through exhibitions, but also through participatory, hands-on art-making classes.

Lauren Kroiz also reconsiders the significance of art education in the 1930s in her work Cultivating Citizens: The Regional Work of Art in the New Deal Era. Looking at the careers of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry, she argues that education not only comprised a vital part of their work, but also reflects broader questions about art, citizenry, and the development of a distinctly American visual culture and identity. At the heart of this ongoing debate, according to Kroiz, is the question of who gets to teach art and its appreciation to the public, and by extension, use art to cultivate a more robust democracy. For Wood and Benton, artists should be the instructor because they possess the practical experience with the medium that enables them to pass that interest on to amateur makers. For art historians such as H.W. Janson, it is art historians who should be the primary teachers, as they can provide the historical and stylistic context to inform citizens while still enabling them the freedom to choose which styles to emulate. Museum directors and educators, in turn, argued that they were crucial because they possess the repositories of works that enable viewers to study them first-hand.  More than petty conflicts between clashing personalities, Kroiz argues that the educational efforts surrounding Regionalist artists and their respective institutions reflect ongoing debates regarding the role of art education in the cultivation of an engaged, democratic citizenry. Although her work doesn’t specifically address the Federal Art Project per se, her focus on the pedagogy of Regionalism shares affinities with the FAP’s educational interests.

While the books I’ve been reading focus on what would be called the so-called fine arts, such as painting and sculpture, also been reading text focusing more explicitly on what we call folk art or vernacular art. Given my previous curatorial experience at Shelburne Museum, which is renowned for its vernacular art collection, I’ve been especially interested in exploring this topic more deeply. Among the texts I’ve been reading is the seminal catalog,  Folk Art in America: Art of the Common Man, by Holger Cahill, future director of the FAP itself. Accompanying an exhibition of the same name that was held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1930, this project was one of the first shows to elevate such objects as trade signs, cigar-store figures, vernacular paintings, and other objects to the status of so-called fine art. Cahill’s curating and writing would prove immensely influential on the development of folk art as a field, and continues to inform us today. Reading this text is illuminating because you get to see what kinds of objects Cahill is designating as art, and just as importantly, what isn’t.

The omission of objects from the folk art canon it is a particularly driving theme in a related work, Kentucky by Design. This catalog accompanied an exhibition of the Kentucky submissions to the Index of American design, one of the FAP’s biggest undertakings. Consisting of thousands of illustrations hand-painted by American artists and illustrators,  the index attempted to document American design through a selection of vernacular objects such as textiles, furniture, toys, and so forth. Yet as numerous scholars have pointed out, the Index, while claiming to offer a comprehensive view of American visual culture, was in fact highly selective. The vast majority of its objects originated from Eurocentric immigrant cultures, for instance,  while works originating from Native American or African American traditions were essentially ignored. While Cahill argued he wanted to avoid repetition because Native American objects were already being documented through ethnographic projects, the mere designation between ethnographic object and fine art is illuminating, offering insight into the ways that the Federal Art Project classified different visual cultures. In other words, American works originating from a European tradition were more likely to be regarded as art, whereas works coming from indigenous cultures were labeled as artifacts. All of these observations remind me of one of the first books I read for comps, Sorting Things Out, which argues that for every designation made in a classification, something has to get left out.

Since I’m interested in the Community Art Center Project, all of these readings are also relevant to what I’ll be working on. Even if I’m not addressing post office murals directly, or overtly political art, it’s important to be familiar with the visual culture of the period, and how it might have influenced the selections made in the Community Art Center Project exhibitions. I’ll definitely be keeping all of these works in mind as I start putting together my own prospectus. 

Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist

As part of our ongoing work to challenge racism, this month we’re going to be taking a look at Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist.

How to Be an Antiracist: Kendi, Ibram X.: 9780525509288: Amazon ...

First, a little about Kendi himself, because this book is closely linked to his life and work. Kendi is a historian, professor, and antiracist activist. He is the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, DC, and starting this fall, he will be a professor of history and the Founding Director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. His essays have appeared in The Atlantic and CBS, and he has authored four books: The Black Campus Movement; Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America; Antiracist Baby; and the text we’ll be looking at today, How to be an Antiracist. He is a powerhouse when it comes to antiracist research and policy.

Intertwining history, theory, and autobiography, Kendi’s book introduces readers to antiracist ideas through the lens of his own life. Over the course of eighteen chapters, Kendi examines how racist and antiracist policies and ideas influence our thinking about different topics, including space, gender, sexuality, or color. He discusses these ideas while describing his own transformation from a teen with aspirations to playing for the NBA to becoming a history professor and activist. Each chapter follows a similar format: he provides a racist and antiracist definition of a term or idea, such as racist culture and antiracist culture. Following these definitions, he opens his prose with a personal vignette reflecting how his life at that moment embodied the concepts he describes. He then contextualizes his personal experiences within a broader historical framework before finally introducing an antiracist counterpart. He concludes by returning back to his personal life to show how he had learned or changed from the incident. The resulting argument is lucid, nuanced, and deeply personal.

An important theme underpinning this book is learning. Kendi demonstrates in each chapter that his antiracist stance did not develop overnight. On the contrary, he considers this process ongoing. He also underscores the multiple layers of racist belief to demonstrate how deeply embedded it has become in American culture. Every time he thought he understood racism, he argues, he discovered yet another layer that he needed to unlearn, whether it pertained to gender relations, queer bodies, or ideas of success.

For Kendi, the key to being antiracist is to recognize racism as a form of power. Whereas the default to explaining racism is ignorance and misunderstanding, Kendi argues that self-interest rather than ignorance underpins racism. In other words, people who have power use racism as a means of exploiting other people while maintaining their power. Related to this idea of power is the importance of distinguishing individual racism from racist policies (he avoids the term institutional racism because it tends to render the machinations underpinning our institutions invisible. To dismantle racism, we need to concretize it by confronting the actual policies that enable it). The key to real change is targeting the policies that enable racist beliefs and practices. Only through this large-scale, systemic change can we hope to see improvement. For white people, this means recognizing that racist policies also adversely affect them because they promote inequality.

Intersectionalism plays a key role in Kendi’s book. As he argues, racist policy does not affect all people equally. Your gender, sexuality, and economic standing will also shape your experience. Nor is oppression an either/or binary. People are oppressed or empowered to different degrees. Poor white people can be economically oppressed while still benefiting from white privilege. A middle-class, Black man is still affected by racial policies, but will have very different experiences from a Black, trans woman. The point isn’t to make it a competition, but rather to recognize that everyone’s experiences are different, and that lumping any group of people into a monolithic category is unproductive.

Kendi spends a lot of the book exploring how racist beliefs manifest in Black communities. In his chapter entitled Color, for instance, he explores colorism within African American communities, with light-skinned Blacks often viewed as more attractive than darker-skinned blacks, for instance (for another article exploring colorism, check out Dr. Catherine Knight-Steele’s work on The Proud Family). He discusses this idea through his experiences as an undergraduate at Florida A&M University, from his experiments with wearing lighter-colored contacts, to the ways his friends responded when he briefly dated a light-skinned Black woman. As he does with each chapter, he scrutinizes his own behavior to identify persistent racism, as when he subsequently decided to date exclusively dark-skinned women in an instance of reverse discrimination. As a white person who’s admittedly not terribly familiar with Black culture, I appreciated Kendi’s nuanced exploration of African American communities, and his refusal to condense Black people into a monolithic group. Throughout, he argues for the importance of recognizing everyone as an imperfect individual.

He also emphasizes the importance of being open to change. By using himself as an example and being frank about his past racism, sexism, and homophobia, Kendi demonstrates that it’s possible to unlearn old beliefs. Throughout he emphasizes how he changed his viewpoints by not only reading books, but especially through having conversations with Black people who had different perspectives and experiences. As he makes clear, it’s hard, ongoing work, but it can and must be done.

If you’re a white reader who’s new to thinking about racism on a cultural or policy-wide level, I recommend starting with Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race or Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Kendi’s argument is a subtle one that focuses primarily on how racism manifests in Black communities, so if you’re not used to thinking about your own privilege, your white fragility may be tempted to push back and recuse you from responsibility. If you have read these other texts and you’re ready for another engaging, nuanced argument from a Black perspective, I recommend it.

Brandon’s Art Handling Adventures: 2020 So Far

Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, my schedule had become repetitive due to reading for comprehensive exams. I’ve been at home reading every day since January, and while the books I’ve been working on have been quite interesting and helpful for my future work, my day-to-day activities have been rather mundane. For the last couple of months, the most exciting thing I’ve been doing is walking around the neighborhood and seeing how many rabbits I can count (I’ve gotten up to 20, in case you were curious).

That hasn’t been true for Brandon though. As Senior Preparator at Colonial Williamsburg, he has not only continued going to work since the pandemic started (since he doesn’t interact with visitors he can social distance from them), but has also been busy installing brand-new galleries and refreshing older ones at the art museums as part of a long-awaited expansion. Today then, I’d like to highlight what he’s been up to by taking you on a tour of these new spaces.

For clarification, when I say art museums at Colonial Williamsburg, I’m referring to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. Since these two collections are housed in the same building, they’re often just called the art museums. I’ll also start referring to Colonial Williamsburg by its initials, CW, as that’s what Brandon and I typically use when we talk about it.

This new exhibition, British Masterworks, showcases some of the most exquisite objects in the museum collection. And not surprisingly perhaps, a lot of them are very heavy.

Brandon took me to the art museums a few weeks ago so that I could see these spaces for myself. I hadn’t been to a museum since February, so I definitely noticed new safety protocols in place. All visitors are expected to wear face masks, and there’s plenty of signage reminding people to practice social distancing. CW has injected a little humor into these signs by using references from the collection. So a sign might say “Remember to stay 6′ apart, or one George Washington,” for instance, or “Remember to stay 6′ apart, or six teapots.” Through these playful references to the collection, CW aims to defuse the discomfort of social distancing while reminding visitors of these new rules.

The biggest change at the museum is arguably its entrance. For those who haven’t been the art museums before, the entrance was a little peculiar because it was underground. You’d enter through the old mental hospital, but in order to reach the museum, you’d have to walk downstairs and through the gift shop. It all felt a little covert and confusing, and the exhibits on the hospital itself felt like an afterthought.

Now however, you enter the museum through this building:

You then walk down this hallway to the entrance desk. It looks a little empty right now due to social distancing protocols, but I can assure you it feels a lot less covert than the old entrance. The openness and formality of the new architecture, with its series of brick archways, definitely plays a role in that. As for the hospital, it will use its newly-opened space to expand its exhibitions and explore the history of treating mental health more deeply.

What Brandon has been busy doing is getting the galleries ready for visitors by filling them with lots of wonderful objects. Some of this work has entailed refreshing older galleries with new collections or exhibitions. The gallery on the left, for instance, used to be dedicated to musical instruments, but now focuses on Southern pottery. Brandon actually picked up some of the newer acquisitions during a courier trip to Atlanta last year, so he was already familiar with some of these pieces and their structural quirks. The gallery on the right, in turn, is part of an exhibition called British Masterworks, which highlights the most ostentatious and sumptuous works in the DeWitt Wallace collection. There’s even an original portrait of Elizabeth I, which is pretty rare for a United States collection.

There are also several brand-new galleries. These two installations, which are placed right next to each other, are meant to show off the respective holdings of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Museum while also clarifying the two collections to visitors. The Rockefeller display on the left features plenty of imaginative folk art (including a carving of a hybrid rhinoceros-hippopotamus that doubles as a record player, because why not), while the DeWitt Wallace installation highlights furniture and other decorative arts holdings. There are also portraits of Rockefeller and the DeWitt Wallaces on view to help visitors connect the objects they see to the collectors who donated them.

While there are several new installations ready for visitors to peruse, other spaces are still in progress. The carved buffet below, for instance, was made by a former enslaved man named Jonathan Moss and will be part of a new exhibition showcasing Black furniture makers and artisans in Williamsburg. The gallery on the right contains a partially installed map exhibition.

Other expansions within the museum address the behind-the-scenes aspects of exhibition design. This new installation of paintings by Edward Hicks, for example, includes text panels that were designed and printed entirely in-house. Even that wall sticker you see with the Peaceable Kingdom backdrop was printed here. This allows the exhibition team more freedom and leeway in determining exactly what they want for each show, which will make them look that much more polished in terms of detail. The text panels for the Hicks show, for instance, are custom-designed to each painting, with details from each work appearing alongside the border. As someone who has had to outsource print jobs like this, I imagine it will be very liberating to the staff at CW to design and print their texts on their own time and by their own expectations.

This new exhibition on Edward Hicks offers a more comprehensive overview of his career. In addition to the Peaceable Kingdom paintings for which he’s most famous, this space features examples of his landscapes, trade signs, and history paintings. I especially like the decal used on the entry wall, which is basically a giant sticker that CW produced in-house. The fact that CW can print its own exhibition materials will give them a lot of freedom in terms of design.

This installation work has not been easy for Brandon. As I mentioned in a previous post, being a Preparator demands creative problem solving, especially with collections as eclectic as those at CW. Even under the best of conditions, the objects he works with are often old, heavy, and fragile all at the same time, qualities that demand delicate installation work. Social distancing has made his work even more challenging because he’s had to move these pieces with either fewer coworkers to help out, or none at all. During the peak of the installation process, Brandon would come home from work exhausted, but was already thinking about what he would need to do the next day to get the next pieces in place. Despite these challenges, however, Brandon and the rest of the collections department have done a wonderful job, and the galleries look fantastic. While the pandemic has necessitated that CW cancel the opening receptions that would have celebrated these new spaces, I’m still proud of Brandon and all his hard work, and I’m delighted to have been able to see these spaces he’s helped assemble in person.

When you feel safe to visit, there’s a smiling hippo-ceros-record player waiting to say hello!

I hope everyone gets a chance to see these exhibitions when it feels comfortable for them. There’s some great stuff to check out, and there will be more exhibitions to come in the near future. And Brandon will be there to make sure they’re all put up safely.

Thinking (and Reading) About Urban Segregation

I’ve been thinking recently about one of the first jobs I  had after I finished my Master’s degree. From the fall of 2010 to the spring of 2011, I was a curatorial intern at the Dallas Museum of Art. During those nine months, I gave tours, curated my first exhibition, helped write a couple of grants,  all while getting to know the city of Dallas. It was a fun time, and I got to see a part of the country that I never expected to visit.

Yet what I’ve been thinking about hasn’t been the actual job I had at the museum, but the commute I used to take to get there. Since the stipend was relatively modest, I couldn’t afford the swanky apartments downtown, so I rented a room from a woman living in one of the neighboring suburbs. Because I didn’t have a car at the time, I relied on public transit to get to work. Every morning, I would ride a bus for about 45 minutes, and then walk an additional 15 minutes to get to the museum.

During the course of that bus ride, I watched the demographics of the city change. When I would get on, I was usually the only white person on board. Everyone else was Black or Latinx, and the suburb I lived in, originally built in the 60s, had similarly shifted from a predominantly white population to people of color. By the time I arrived at the museum and the neighboring arts district downtown, nearly everyone was white. The closer I got to the so-called nicest parts of the city, the whiter its residents became.

When I look back on my time there, what also stands out to me is how much walking I had to do to reach public transit centers. Although there was a bus stop very close to my house, getting to the museum was another matter. Aside from a quaint trolley going to Uptown, there was no light rail station or bus stop going directly to the museum. In order to get to work, I needed to walk at least half a mile. It was as though the city didn’t want any kind of bus station near the museum. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but in retrospect, it makes me wonder what kind of audiences can really access the museum in its related spaces.

The exposure I got to the demographics of cities while living in Dallas, limited and brief as it was, has helped me appreciate the final group of readings in my history list, which have focused on urban segregation.

Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law explores residential segregation through the lens of government action. The author argues that, as the title implies, residential segregation was promoted and enacted by the government on all levels, through legislation, Supreme Court rulings, and federal programs such as the CCC and the Affordable Housing Act. The book centers the significance of racism to government policy on all levels, local, state, and federal. It advocates for a much more aggressive stance toward desegregation, arguing that residential segregation is not only symptomatic of institutionalized racism, but is unconstitutional. Jessica Troustine’s Segregation by Design looks at segregation as practiced on the municipal level. Taking a more local perspective, she argues that city governments have played a seminal role in the segregated nature of American urban environments by giving precedent to white property owners concerned with maintaining their property values while also benefiting from public goods. She posits that white property owners should acknowledge their privilege by supporting the construction of multiunit complexes and other forms of public housing in their neighborhoods. She also suggests that the federal government should take a stronger role in promoting desegregation practices, positing that when flight is not an option, whites are more likely to willingly integrate with other populations.

While The Color of Law and Segregation by Design focus on urban segregation as a broad national problem, other texts have focused on specific cities. Colin Gordon’s Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of an American City looks at urban decay through a case study of St Louis. In addition to the monograph, Gordon has also done a digital mapping project enabling viewers to visually follow along with St. Louis’s changing demographics. Gordon focuses on the intersections between the anxiety of white homeowners and the codification of real estate practices intended to protect those rights. He is particularly critical of the idea of home rule, or enabling cities and suburbs to legislate themselves, as he believes this encourages communities to view one another as competitors for resources rather than collaborators. As a result, the communities with the most financial resources at hand, white suburbs, are more likely to get what they want, while black populations are increasingly constrained to decaying, urban areas. While Gordon concentrates on real estate practices, Tyina Steptoe’s Houston Bound looks at the culture of urban segregation. She looks beyond the black-white binary to focus on race relations and culture within Jim Crow communities, with a focus on the 1920s through the 1960s. Concentrating on Houston’s East Texas, Creoles of color, and ethnic Hispanic populations, she argues that the concept of race in the segregated parts of Houston are culturally complex, impermanent, and changing throughout the 20th century. She looks specifically to cultural forms, such as sounds and music, as well as the physical experience of urban spaces. Through these explorations, she complicates Houston’s racial identities by looking beyond legislative definitions to consider cultural exchanges.

With regard to my research on the Community Art Center project, these readings have been relevant when thinking about the kinds of buildings used for these spaces and where they were situated. A particularly striking contrast is the one between the Roswell Museum and the South Side Community Art Center. The Southside Community Art Center is based in the southern part of Chicago, which is a historically Black community. It is housed in an old Brownstone mansion, which was built in the 19th century. When it was built, it was part of a white neighborhood, but during the 20th century, as whites moved out of the city center, the community became predominantly Black. The South Side Community Art Center then, architecturally attests to the history of the changing demographics of the neighborhood. By contrast, the Roswell Museum and Art Center was a brand new building when it opened in 1937. Additionally, it was built in the northern part of town, about a block or two from the New Mexico Military Institute and adjacent to what is now designated as the historic district. Roswell, for those who are familiar with it, know that the white population primarily lives in the northern part of the city, while the southern part of town is mostly Hispanic. The Roswell Museum then, is actually housed in the white part of town, and not surprisingly perhaps, attracting Hispanic visitors has been an ongoing challenge.

Thinking about urban segregation and housing has also extended into my personal life as well. Brandon and I happily rent a townhouse in New Town, but like a lot of people, we have talked about buying a place of our own someday (emphasis on someday, given the state of things). As part of those conversations, one issue we have talked about is whether we would rather buy a single-family home or a condo. While we both acknowledge that single-family, detached homes hold a lot of appeal, not least because they have been touted as the ideal in terms of the homeownership dream, they also bother us for a lot of reasons. While you get the benefit of privacy and the space to indulge all your hobbies, from an ecological standpoint single-family homes are inefficient and demand more space than you need. Looking at housing from the perspective of the readings I’ve been doing, moreover, single-family homes have historically been the privilege of white people. Not only have suburbs preferred white residents over people of color, but suburban neighborhoods have also used their financial and legislative powers to limit affordable, multiunit housing. As a result, the housing that is available remains expensive and unavailable to the majority of working-class people because there is a finite amount available. The single-family home that has been touted to us as the dream in terms of ownership relies on the exploitation of other people, while the finite supply of housing due to an overwhelming cultural preference for the single-family home further contributes to high housing prices overall. When we talk about housing, Brandon and I can’t help but think that aspiring to the single-family home perpetuates this exploitation. At the very least, we agree that we should actively support the construction of multiunit and public housing in our neighborhood, wherever we eventually settle.

Our neighborhood in New Town.

Not that I haven’t thought about these kinds of issues before. When I was in Roswell, I can remember attending a City Council meeting where the councilors debated getting rid of one of the polling centers to save money. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this polling center was located in the Hispanic part of town, and the counselors who supported its removal were white. With American studies though, you realize that if you’re going to deal with the United States and its culture, whether in a historical or contemporary context, you have to deal with race. Everything about our history and our infrastructure, whether it’s the housing markets or art markets, inevitably comes back to race in one form or another.  The main thing that I’ve learned from these history readings isn’t so much the idea of systemic inequality, but rather the subtlety of its pervasiveness, and the hard work it will take to dismantle it. Based on what I’ve seen, that will be very hard work to do indeed, but vital to our future.

Thinking About Public Histories

One of my first museum jobs was a summer fellowship at the Old York Historical Society in York, Maine. I held this position during the summer of 2009, between the first and second years of my Master’s program at Williams College. I remember it as a pleasant summer overall. I made some great friends, and I did a lot of different things. I gave tours of various historical buildings, did research on early 19th century processions, and perhaps most memorably, participated in a bit of costumed reenactment. While my subsequent career has not gone down the road of the house museum, that summer was still an important time for me, as it anticipated my eventual shift from medieval and early modern European painting to American art and culture.

Me in a replica 18th-century costume. As part of my summer fellowship at the Old York Historical Society, I participated in historical reenactment. In keeping with the norms of the period, I wore a head covering when I was actually working.

I have been thinking about this summer more recently because a lot of my readings on my history list address public history, whether in the form of living museums and reenactments, or historic preservation. in addition to tracing the historical development of these practices, a lot of these texts are addressing the social and economic impacts of these public histories for various communities. In History Comes Alive for instance, M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska argues that during the 1970s, public history and developed alongside a growing interest looking to history to advocate political agendas. Taking the 1976 Bicentennial as a launching point, Rymsza-Pawlowska explores how a variety of individuals and institutions, from the federal government to more grassroots organizations, looked to historical episodes in an effort to find parallels with the present. Their objectives ranged from promoting patriotism to protesting current policies, as when indigenous groups protested a reenactment of a 19th-century wagon train. Whereas the 1950s and 1960s seem to regard history as both finished, and distantly located in the past, this book posits that the 1970s collapsed the distinction between past and present by appealing to more affective ways of experiencing history, a practice that we continue to see today, whether in the form of living museums, or political invocations to a previous historical era. 

Other texts, like the essays in Giving Preservation a History, focus on historic preservation, both as a historical practice and a means of providing economic stimulation to different communities. A key argument in this book, as well as related texts, is that historic preservation is not a neutral activity. The histories that get preserved and just as importantly, the ones that get erased in the form of demolition, say a lot about the society that deems them significant. If public history is a way of cultivating citizenship, then it matters which stories get to be told to which communities. Additionally, many of the authors argue for balancing the economic stimulation that often accompanies urban revival, with cultivating a sense of community. Too often, downtown areas get revitalized architecturally, only to have the people who lived there be driven out due to rising real estate prices. not surprisingly, it is often Black people and other people of color who bear the brunt of this displacement.

The texts on historic preservation have resonated with me in particular, not least because I actually got to experience a little hands-on historic preservation back in college. During my  sophomore year, I took a seminar called “Lake Forest College as Cultural Landscape.” Over the course of the class, we studied different architectural styles within the history of college campuses, with our own college campus serving as the primary case study. A significant assignment entailed doing a survey on a specific building. This meant that we needed to look at a specific building on campus and visually document all of its architectural features. We then needed to go to the college archives, do research on the buildings, and document what kinds of changes took place. 

I was assigned a building called Moore Hall, one of the older surviving dormitories on campus. Built around 1892-1893 by the architects Pond & Pond, the dorm was originally intended as a second-class dorm for male college students. In other words, it was nice, but not quite as elaborate as a first-class building. Originally the structure was three stories high, but after a fire during the 1920s, it was rebuilt with a fourth story, because by that point the college was experiencing a housing shortage and needed more room. Over the next several decades, the building would undergo subsequent changes that gradually stripped away its original features. As a result, by the time I was surveying it in the early 2000s, a lot of the architectural features that made the building distinctive to its period, the qualities that we call architectural integrity, were gone. Moore Hall had also developed a somewhat infamous reputation as one of the least desirable dormitories, offering very little in the way of modern amenities. A few years after I took that class, the building was demolished to make way for a more modern, suite-style dormitory.

It was a very interesting project, but if I were to do it again, I would pay more attention to the histories of the people who actually lived in that dormitory. The main thing I remember about Moore Hall was that the jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke once lived there as a student, but I don’t recall all that much about the demographics of the building. What were the demographics of the Moore Hall community, and did that change over the years? How did people actually live in the building? What sorts of spaces did they use for social activities, if at all? In other words, I was so preoccupied with documenting the architectural history of the building, that I  neglected its social histories, which were just as important.

It’s important to delve into the social histories because neglecting them can lead to real consequences in terms of living spaces. During that same seminar, we took several field trips to different college campuses in the Chicagoland area to explore other case studies that we could compare and contrast with the Lake Forest campus. One of these places was IIT, and more specifically one of its most famous buildings, Crown Hall by Mies Van der Rohe. Initially affiliated with the Bauhaus, he relocated to the United States and became one of the most important proponents of the International Style. He settled in Chicago, so a lot of his most famous buildings are in the city. I’ll admit, it was very cool being able to see this structure after learning about it in class.

What I did not know about was the history of this site before Crown Hall, something I only learned about recently while reading “Mecca Flats Blues,” one of the essays in Giving Preservation a History. Before Crown Hall, there used to be an apartment building called Mecca Flats. Built in 1892, it served as a hotel during the Columbian Exposition of 1893. A distinguishing feature of Mecca Flats was its open-air lobby, which provided access to a communal space from the individual apartments. After the fair, it became a working-class apartment building. By the 1920s, African Americans primarily inhabited the building, and it was an important site for jazz and other kinds of performance. During the mid-twentieth century, IIT decided to take over this area in order to build a new campus in the International Style. Despite being an important living space for the African American community, as well as architecturally significant due to its distinctive lobby and multiunit living accommodation, Mecca Flats was ultimately cleared out and demolished.

If we ever discussed this history in class, I don’t remember it, which suggests that we didn’t discuss it nearly enough. If I were to take this college class again, I would hope that we would discuss this. Better yet, if I were to design a course like this, I would be sure to include this history and others like it.

Studying this history matters because we continue to live with its repercussions. If we don’t contextualize current living conditions within historical frameworks, and see how past actions have enabled present inequalities, it becomes tempting to look at the past through the lens of nostalgia. We wish for a sanitized version of yesteryear that never existed.

Contextualizing our histories is also important for accountability, something I’ve been considering with regard to the Northeast’s role in promoting systemic racial inequality. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to my very first museum job. During the summers of 2006 and 2007, I served as a tour guide for the Victoria Mansion in Portland, Maine. Built between 1858 and 1860, the house is an architectural gem, as it represents the earliest and most complete interior design commission for the Herter brothers, important American designers. Constructed in brownstone and emulating the Italianate style then popular in Europe, the house is a marvel, with more than 90% of its original interior features and furnishings intact (they’ve also been doing a lot of conservation since I worked there, so it looks even more spectacular now). When I gave tours of this house, I would talk about these features, from the symbolism of the paintings, to the hotel-like layout from which the homeowner, Ruggles Sylvester Morse, took inspiration.

What was only mentioned in passing was the house’s connection to slavery. Though originally from Maine, Morse was a hotelier based in New Orleans; the Portland house was his summer home. As far as I can recall he didn’t own any enslaved people himself, but as a businessman based in the South, his work benefitted from slavery as an institution. During the Civil War, he actually spent little time in New England because he was a southern sympathizer. While we would mention Morse’s southern sympathies during the tour, it was never a primary focus. Thinking back on the readings I’ve been doing, I wonder now what a tour centered on Morris’s role as a southern sympathizer and hotelier benefiting from slavery would look like. No doubt, the tour format has changed since I was a guide there, but if I ever revisit Victoria Mansion, I’d be curious to see what kind of content they address now.

The readings have especially resonated with me this time because so many of them connect to previous experiences, both as a college student and early career professional. While I cannot change the way these courses were taught or the way I conducted my tours then, moving forward, I can be more mindful of the kinds of issues these texts raise.

Antiracist Reading: Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race

As promised, the first post of the month will focus on a contemporary work of anti-racist reading. Today, we’ll take a closer look at Ijeoma Oluo’s seminal book, So You Want to Talk About Race.

Before we get into this book, here’s a quick bio. Based in Seattle, Oluo describes herself as “a writer, speaker, and Internet yeller.” She writes about the intersections between race, feminism, social justice, mental health, and other issues. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, NBC News, Elle, TIME, The Stranger, The Guardian, and other places. She has a degree in political science from Western Washington University. 

As the title suggests, So You Want to Talk About Race aims to facilitate open and honest conversations about systemic racism. It is written for both Black and white audiences, with Oluo explicitly pointing out when she’s talking to specific readers (note: she discusses other people of color as well, such as Indigenous peoples, Latinx people, and Asian people, but she states that her primary focus is on Black experiences, so I will follow her lead). When she’s talking to white audiences, for example, she stresses the importance of resisting white fragility and being willing to listen. When talking to Black readers, she acknowledges the legitimacy of their experiences and emotions as people who experience systemic racism.

Oluo takes a very pragmatic approach to race by highlighting common examples of systemic racism that occur in daily life rather than broader theoretical ideas. Each chapter is framed around a common issue or question surrounding race,  including cultural appropriation, microaggression, and white fragility. Chapter 9, for example, is called “Why Can’t I Say the N-word?”, while chapter  11 is called “Why Can’t I Touch Your Hair ?” From there, she describes a personal experience demonstrating how she has experienced these issues, and then widens her scope to discuss their broader social implications. So an uncomfortable personal experience about white people wanting to touch her hair, when examined in a broader social framework, becomes indicative of systemic issues surrounding about the agency we try to deny black bodies, reflecting the ongoing legacy of chattel slavery (And seriously, white people, stop doing this. Everyone from my college German professor to my cohorts at William & Mary have had to endure this, which is ridiculous).

Whereas Robin D’Angelo’s book White Fragility is primarily diagnostic in nature, So You Want to Talk About Race aims to move beyond description and encourage difficult conversations about race. Oluo acknowledges that the material is difficult to discuss, and that it would take multiple conversations, but it is important to be having them, and ultimately, to take action. In a lot of the chapters, she includes bullet points intended to frame and guide race-based conversations, and the latest reprintings of the book feature a discussion guide at the end. Her final chapter also includes action items, such as voting, participating in City Council meetings, supporting black-owned businesses, and other ways of challenging systemic racism through tangible acts.

Oluo does not hold back when describing how systemic racism has affected her mentally and emotionally, and as a white reader, I felt this was an important part of the book. It’s difficult for white people to understand how racial microaggressions hurt other people because our privilege shields us from those kinds of experiences. At the same time, we cannot expect to rely on our Black colleagues to describe their experiences for us, because repeatedly reliving them is painful and draining. Oluo, however, openly divulges how microaggressions have hurt her, and white readers should take her recollections seriously. From the disappointment of seeing cultural appropriation in an airport lounge modeled on a superficial understanding of African aesthetics and culture (and seriously white people, you do know that “Africa” isn’t a monolithic place, right? Dozens of countries exist in that massive continent, all with different cultures, languages, traditions, etc.), to comments about her being considered too loud or unprofessional, to the pain of being called the n-word by laughing schoolchildren, she lets you know how much white supremacy hurts when you’re not its intended beneficiary. 

Intersectionality is another key facet of Oluo’s book. Throughout her text, she reminds readers that she is sharing her experiences as a black, queer, single mother, and emphasizes that her recollections and encounters will differ from those of other Black people. As a light-skinned black person, for example, she acknowledges her privilege from more closely resembling the whiteness touted as the normative beauty in our society. She also points out how her affluence as a college-educated woman has also benefitted her. Nevertheless, the stories she shares about being told that she shouldn’t wear red lipstick because she would look like a clown, or the conversations she’s had with her sons about minimizing police aggression, make it quite clear that systemic racism affects her life deeply and persistently.

 If you have read D’Angelo’s book and you want to take on something that is more action-oriented and written from a Black rather than a white perspective, I highly recommend this book. I’ll admit, confrontation is one of my least favorite things to do, but it is vital to talk about race, especially with the other white people in our lives, and I know this book will help. I appreciated the suggestions and advice that she includes, and she admits that even with these guidelines, chances are good that the conversations will not always go well. Nevertheless, we need to do the work, and this book will help you take those first steps.  

The Multifaceted World of Cultural History

Some of the most engaging readings that I’ve explored on my history list so far belong to the genre of cultural history. This is partly because cultural histories tend to encompass unusual subject matter (see my recent post on toilet paper advertising), and over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been able to read about everything from amusement parks and gas station architecture to television. Beyond exploring the quirky stories behind certain these ideas or things though, cultural histories consider broader social or economic issues through the lens of these specific objects or technologies. Through an intimate consideration of a particular concept or object, in other words, cultural histories offer insight into the culture from which that thing originated. Today then, we’ll take a look at some of these readings and what they have to say about American society at large.

Gustave definitely merits his own cultural history.

An overarching theme connecting a lot of the cultural histories I’ve been looking at has been the adjustment to modernity. In other words, a lot of these historians have explored how the specific objects they study enabled American citizens to adjust to modern life, with its emphasis on speed, instantaneity, mass culture, and a reliance on technology. That is the major theme of the monograph Electric Dreamland, by Lauren Rabinovitz. Focusing on the popularity of electric amusement parks and movies during the early 20th century, she argues that these technologies helped audiences adjust to the unfamiliarity of modern life by taking the sense of danger associated with modern machines and other developments and converting it into entertainment. Concentrating specifically on somatic experience, she posits that roller coasters and other thrill rides encouraged visitors to yield bodily control to machines in order to achieve a sense of excitement. This experience, she posits, played out in other facets of modern society through the growing popularity of the automobile, the increasingly complex infrastructure of cities, and so on. Far from a frivolous pursuit distinct from the more “serious” aspects of modernism, Rabinovitz argues that amusement parks played a crucial role in the shaping of modern life. 

I appreciated this book for a couple of different reasons. Rather than focus exclusively on famous urban sites such as Coney Island in New York, Rabinovitz concentrates on amusement parks in more suburban and western areas to demonstrate that the kind of modernity these places promoted was not limited to major metropolitan areas. I also thought that her somatic grounding of the modern experience was intriguing, as it reminded me of Diana Taylor’s discussion of bodily ways of knowing in The Archive and the Repertoire. I also connected with Rabinovitz’s argument on a personal level because I had the opportunity to experience amusement parks first-hand. Last December, Brandon and I went to visit his family at Universal Studios in Orlando. Consequently, I was able to draw on my own experiences of riding roller coasters and walking around fanciful architecture when reading the book. 

(For the record, I’m a terrible amusement park visitor by somatic standards; the rides either scare me, make me nauseous, or both. Hot butterbeer at Diagon Alley though? I am totally fine with that.) 

Other books take a subject matter regarded as nondescript and emphasize its significance. That is what Gabrielle Esperdy does in the book American Autotopia, which focuses on gas stations and other structures related to the automobile. She argues that these places, far from insignificant, played a key role in the development of modern architecture, not just through style, but rather through space. She posits that the car and its need for wider, paved roads encouraged architects and urban planners to think about cities differently, as they conceptualized spaces adapted to cars. As such, the look of modern architecture, with its emphasis on clean lines and accessible spaces for cars in terms of both driving and parking, is very much informed by the automobile. Consequently, she argues that we should pay as much attention to gas stations and other roadside stops as much as we do the more iconic skyscrapers and other structures.

Still other books highlight new facets of technologies that we thought we understood. Such is what happens in Lynn Spigel’s book TV by Design. While authors such as James L. Baughman have explored television through its relationship with other entertainment mediums such as vaudeville and movies, she focuses on television’s relationship with modern art. She argues that television as it developed in the 1950s and early 1960s maintained an ongoing dialogue with modern art, whether through the abstracted animations of early commercials, the appearance of modern abstract paintings in the backgrounds of television shows, or the hiring of modern artists to design film sets. Through this multi-faceted exploration, she offers new insights into television by aligning it with another medium that often gets analyzed separately from it.

A lot of these readings bear the influence of a specific scholar, Raymond Williams, who introduced a sociological aspect to the study of culture. In early essays like his 1958 “Culture is Ordinary,” Williams advocates for a more anthropological take on culture that considers everyday practices as well as art or theater. He wasn’t the first scholar to argue for scholarly considerations of the ordinary, but the way he synthesized these different ideas has proven quite influential.  He would further explore this idea in his 1977 monograph Marxism and Literature, which argues for taking a Marxist scholarly framework and reconsidering it through the lens of material culture. In other words, the state of our material surroundings says a lot about a society. This idea in particular has influenced a lot of scholars, who have explored capitalism, institutional racism, gender norms, and other big concepts through the lens of specific objects.


These writings have definitely intrigued me in a lot of different ways, and I appreciated the multimedia, interdisciplinary quality of these works. Given my own peculiar taste in art, as my blog post on Seal and Polar Bear suggests, I could see myself doing a cultural history on Victorian business cards and their relationship with nineteenth-century painting, vernacular or otherwise. With regard to my interest in the Community Arts Center project, I could also see myself exploring the kind of art shown through a cultural history lens. So for instance, what kind of subject matter was especially popular among viewers in different regions, and what might those subjects suggest about society at large? How about the history of typewriters and other communicative technologies in museums? What my cultural history readings have underscored is that nothing exists in a vacuum and any topic is fair game so long as you have strong questions that connect your topics back to broader social issues or concerns.

Rethinking the New Deal

Last week’s post explored some recent texts that examine the growth of the federal state. Today, I’d like to take a look at some works that address the period frequently credited with the development of the modern State: the New Deal.

The driving questions underpinning these texts is assessing the historical impact of the New Deal, a question that’s as historically specific as the WPA itself. During the 1960s, for instance, many assessments were positive, reflecting the optimism of the proposed reforms associated with the Great Society. During the 1970s, in the wake of stagnating wages and the oil crisis, scholars associated with the Marxism of the New Left took a more critical position, arguing that the New Deal didn’t so much transform society as maintain extant capitalist structures. During the 1980s, the New Deal’s influence was further questioned in light of President Reagan’s neoliberal policies and the resurgence of free-market advocacy. 

Today, the results continue to remain mixed. On the one hand, scholars working through feminist, critical race, and other lenses have rightly pointed out that the New Deal supported white male workers over all other populations, reflecting the nation’s white supremacy.  As a result, the questions have shifted somewhat from asking whether the New Deal was effective, to asking what kinds of structural preferences or inequalities shaped its outcomes. At the same time, the New Deal remains a paragon for the government as service provider and security net because its the most extensive American example we have. Democratic politicians in particular continue to invoke the New Deal when seeking to provide government aid to citizens, a phenomenon that we’ve seen most recently with the Green New Deal as well as Government stimulus checks.

One of my readings, Beyond the New Deal: Politics from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, is itself a response to an earlier volume, The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, published in 1989. Edited by Gary Gerstle (the same person behind one of last week’s books, Liberty and Coercion), this book offers a very different outlook on the New Deal than its 1989 predecessor. Whereas that earlier volume argued that the New Deal era ended as a result of the political and social unrest surrounding the Civil Rights Movement, Gertsle now argues that the conservatism associated with today’s political moment has had a much stronger presence historically than previously believed. In short, the conservatism we see nowadays is a legacy of the New Deal, because there was resistance to it from the beginning.

This seems to be the angle Jefferson Cowie takes in The Great Exception. He posits that the New Deal didn’t signal the onset of a new political era, but rather represents an anomaly within an otherwise conservative political and social history. He argues that the only reason the New Deal worked at all was that the working-class population was more homogenous than usual. This in itself stemmed from restrictions on immigration, policies that favored white male working people, and the continuation of systemic racism in light of FDR’s willingness to ignore the Jim Crow policies of Southern Democrats. As a result, the working class was more open to progressive, labor-focused policies because white men were the primary benefactors. As soon as you started introducing other demographics, the population became fragmented and less willing to agree on different issues. 

Other works are decidedly more optimistic about the New Deal, particularly Nick Taylor’s American Made. Published in 2009, the book appeared in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession. Whether he anticipated the recession while writing the book or not, I always find it interesting that the New Deal gets brought up whenever we entered a new economic crisis. The Green New Deal, for example, has been a lot of attention for the last couple of years, and I have no doubt that the New Deal will get renewed attention in the wake of COVID-19.

Most of the texts I’ve read take a more ambivalent stance, reflecting the complexities that intersectional scholarship seeks to underscore. While a lot of scholars know that the New Deal did accomplish things, they also argue that it was systemically flawed due to policies that favored white men over other populations. As a result, the long-term impacts of the New Deal were always going to be limited because its reforms maintained the social status quo. 

At the same time, we still live with the ongoing effects of the New Deal, even if a lot of the social programs associated with it have been dismantled. Typically we think of Social Security when we think of ongoing New Deal legacies, but Jason Scott Smith takes a more concretized approach in Building New Deal Liberalism, which focuses on the actual infrastructure that was developed during this time. He argues that we continue to live with, and rely on, New Deal infrastructure, including roads, dams, and other projects, for better or worse. As somebody interested in traveling to structures and their role in the production and consumption of our, I found Smith’s book particularly interesting.

In terms of recent scholarship the most interesting work doesn’t address the New Deal itself directly, per se, but rather the response of conservatives. As scholars such as Angus Burgin observe in works like The Great Persuasion, the conservative strain in American politics was not a radical outlier during the New Deal and Great Society eras. On the contrary, it remained a prominent part of American politics throughout these eras of reform and government expansion.

So why study the New Deal then? In terms of urgency, a lot of historians continue to look to this era, and the conservative response, for the roots of Trump and his policies. Trumpism, they argue, is not anomalous, but has developed from decades of conservative mobilization in terms of advocating free market, neoliberal policies and courting a disenfranchised white male population. Looking at The New Deal and the Great Society through the lens of conservatism reveals that this approach has been an underlying current throughout America’s political, cultural, and economic history. In this regard, the emphasis in recent scholarship is not so much the growth of big government (although that is still a prominent aspect) but rather the growing conservative reaction against such expansion. It’s not so much an abandonment of one topic for another as it is a shift in perspective from the New Deal’s supporters to its opponents.

As someone interested in the New Deal era, I naturally found these readings interesting, even if my own focus is on the arts rather than politics per se. Nevertheless, it is important to understand these political arguments because they impacted the Community Art Center Project. The broader arguments about political reforms, big government, and individual liberties, moreover, continue to affect the current cultural landscape, something that I’ve been following through the museum world in particular.

As a lot of smaller museums and cultural institutions struggle financially in the wake of COVID-19, difficult questions are being asked regarding whether some museums will ever reopen. On the one hand, the idea that a museum should be able to sustain itself financially reflects classical liberal ideas of the free market taking its natural course. Museums that cannot support themselves, according to this line of thought, should be phased out so that better, more efficient institutions can take their place. Conversely,  non-profit museums require a substantial donor base in order to subsist, and such donor bases usually only exist in larger cities. Consequently then, allowing smaller museums, especially those in rural or otherwise underserved areas, implies that poorer populations don’t deserve museums, an attitude that runs counter to the philosophies of the Community Art Center Project. To complicate things further, museums themselves are problematic institutions (art museums are particularly complicit in white supremacy, given their collections), so we need to have some difficult conversations before we scramble to save them. In short, like everything in our society, the issue is complicated and raises all kinds of questions about what kinds of institutions we need.

Ultimately this narrative is still ongoing, but having a better sense of the political background of the New Deal, and especially the conservative reaction to it, will provide context for my future research.

Thinking About the State

Today I wanted to get started with talking about my third reading list, but don’t think that we’re finished with talking about antiracism here. I’ll be sharing a new book here on the first of every month, so we can keep learning together. More importantly, we need to keep taking action through donating money, protesting, voting, supporting black businesses, and more. For a list of things you can do, click here.

Whereas my first two reading lists focused primarily on theory, the last two address more historical content. Yet historians also use different methodological and theoretical questions to frame their work. Over the next few weeks, we’ll tease out some of these major themes and inquiries with regard to the study of U.S. history today.

The first section I looked at focused on the state, or the institutions, policies, and mechanisms of the federal government. Regardless of how you feel about the size and scope of the state, whether it’s too intrusive on individual liberties or not proactive enough with regard to helping the citizenry, we can all agree that it’s grown and changed a lot over the last 200+ years. Indeed, a common inquiry running throughout these texts with regard to the state is, to paraphrase Talking Heads, “how did we get here?”

On a more serious note, I first wrote this post several weeks ago, before the Black Lives Matter protests really got going. In light of the systemic issues these ongoing debates and protests have raised however, the following readings remain relevant with regard to the government, its power, and what it will or will not do for its people. In short, who does the state actually serve?

The books I looked at can be grouped into three clusters, though they all overlap given their common broad interest in the state. The first group takes what I call the long view of history. They examine the development of the state from the founding to the present while trying to ascertain a common quality or characteristic underpinning its various expansions and changes.

For Gary Gerstle’s Liberty and Coercion, that quality is an ongoing tension between the preservation of individual liberties through the limitation of the federal government, and coercion as granted through the police powers of state and local governments. According to Gerstle, the framers of the Constitution developed the three-branch federal government in an effort to limit the central authority, reflecting their disdain of monarchies. What people tend to forget, however, is that the framers, recognizing the government’s obligation to protect its people, granted the police powers traditionally granted to kings, surveillance, martial law, and so forth, to the state governments. As Gerstle argues, this kind of power has subsequently been used to perpetuate racism and other forms of discrimination, as demonstrated through the Jim Crow laws of the South, among other examples. This tension between liberty and coercion has also influenced the growth of the federal government itself. Again taking the long view, Gerstle traces the growth of the state through a series of what he calls improvisations, with the state more or less inventing loopholes to circumvent limitations, with exemptions (e.g using wartime to justify federal action because the conditions are unusual), surrogacy (substituting one service, like supervising the mail to limit the circulation of pornography, to act on other interests, like enacting morality), and privatization (using private businesses to enact federal interests, like the railroad companies to construct a national infrastructure). The result of these methods is a piecemeal rather than comprehensive approach to the federal government, a profound public misunderstanding of the state’s role in daily life due to a conflation of state and federal roles, and a seemingly unbreakable gridlock between Democratic and Republican politicians due to their different understandings of the state and its function in society.

If Gerstle’s work focuses on the historical paradoxes underpinning American government and politics, Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide and Empire reinterprets U.S. history through a more geographic lens. He argues that the United States has long exhibited imperial ambitions, but due to its ostensibly republican values, has never stated these interests explicitly, substituting terms like territories or commonwealths for colonies. The result of this murky treatment is that territories like Puerto Rico or Guam tend to get ignored altogether in the U.S. cultural imagination despite their historical and demographic significance, which, as Hurricane Maria has demonstrated, can have fatal effects. Immerwahr then sets out to correct this by writing a narrative of U.S. history that includes its territories.

A second group of works takes a more focused look at U.S. history, with an interest in identifying the critical moment when the modern federal state began to emerge. For Nancy Cohen’s The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, that moment occurred during the Gilded Age. Whereas we often see parallels between our society and the Gilded Age for monopolistic operations and extreme wealth inequality, Cohen argues that we can also trace a lineage to the modern state, and more specifically its ability to step in an interfere with the market. While historians have traditionally traced the beginnings of the modern state to the Progressive era and the demand for more humanitarian treatment of workers through imposing limited hours and other rights, Cohen argues that the expansion of the state began earlier during the Gilded Age. Reacting to the mass democratic possibilities stemming from Reconstruction and the expansion of suffrage, intellectuals and politicians debated whether it was more important to protect mass democracy or private property. They ultimately opted for the latter, and advocated for a government capable of interfering with the market to prevent crashes and other financial disasters. Cohen looks at the rise of the modern state through the lens of capitalism, with the government’s ongoing support of corporate capitalism being one of the major legacies of the Gilded Age, for better or worse.

James T. Sparrow’s Warfare State locates the emergence of the modern state to the mid-twentieth century, and specifically during the Second World War. Like Cohen, Sparrow is also redefining the moment when the federal government as we know it began to grow and coalesce, but whereas Cohen recenters the state from the Progressive Era to the Gilded Age, Sparrow refocuses it from the New Deal to World War II. While twentieth-century scholars have often regarded the New Deal as the era of big government, Sparrow argues that its actual impact in terms of taxation, particularly on the rich, was primarily symbolic. By contrast, the Second World War not only ushered in mass taxation for the first time in American history, but also employed millions of more people than the New Deal’s programs ever did. Additionally, the federal government took on a much more prominent role in the daily lives of Americans, whether through taxation, selling war bonds, or even propaganda against gossip. The key to this expansion, Sparrow argues, was the conflation of nationalism and civic duty with the new government demands and roles. Blurring the homefront with the battlefront, the federal government used patriotism exuded toward soldiers to the benefit of its own programs by arguing that taxation, buying war bonds, and other forms of government action were acts in civic duty. Conversely, as the public became more familiar with the federal government’s presence through taxation and war bonds, they came to expect more of it in terms of providing jobs and other services. This mutual dialogue, Sparrow argues, enabled the growth of the federal government both during and after the war, particularly with the Cold War prolonging the crisis mode of the previous conflict and justifying extreme measures.

The third group of works seeks to expand understandings of government history by integrating gender and sexuality into political history. Margot Canaday’s The Straight State explores the intersection between the growth of the federal government and the emergence of homosexuality as a legal definition. She begins her book by observing that the United States has long been more interested in defining and curtailing homosexuality compared to its counterparts in Europe. She notes that homosexuality as a medical and psychological definition developed at the turn of the twentieth century, around the same time that the federal government began to expand into its modern bureaucratic form. From that observation, she argues that the federal government used its changing perception of homosexuality as a testing ground for defining its own institutional powers through laws and other means. Whereas institutional racism has been interwoven with the government since its founding and earlier, homosexuality emerged in concert with the modern government, and as such played a crucial role in the state’s understanding of both itself and the kind of citizenry it wished to cultivate (i.e. a heterosexual one). As a result, Canaday argues that LGBTQ history, far from a fringe interest, actually constitutes a core aspect of U.S. history and government and should be treated as such.

Robert O. Self’s All in the Family also explores gender and sexuality as part of a broader discussion of the conservative political turn that has taken place in U.S. culture since the 1980s. Taking the Great Society as his launching point, he observes that the white, nuclear family, originally a symbol of government liberal support, has become emblematic of conservative, patriarchal values, a shift that both coincides with, and enables, the neoliberal political turn. He notes that during the 1960s and 1970s, black freedom advocates, gay activists, and feminists critiqued the nuclear family as too confining, and demanded for greater representation in terms of both identity politics and equality rights such as parental leave and abortion access. Conservatives, in turn, reappropriated the nuclear family not as a unit needing the assistance of government programs, but as a traditional, timeless value in need of protection from government interference. They argued that rather than interfere in society, the government should promote a free market system that could play out naturally, a system that would inherently come out in support of the family because it is moral and inherently right. The result of this shift, Self argues, is a government willing to recognize negative rights via identity politics (I acknowledge your identity as gay, black, feminist, etc), but less willing to impose positive rights that actually provide equality. As one example, the government is willing to allow women to pursue careers, but will not offer paid leave, birth control access, or other means that actually enable women to feasibly pursue careers (or at least, not without taking on the additional burden of domestic labor and childrearing). In short, the American government favors liberty over equality, which is in keeping with the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality that defines the neoliberal turn. Like The Straight State, All in the Family argues that gender, sexuality, and race are critical elements of political history, and should be analyzed in conjunction with government development and legislation.

As someone interested in the Federal Community Art Center Project, exploring the history of the state from different perspectives will benefit my future research. Considering how the state developed and understood itself could be crucial when looking at the kinds of exhibitions it chose to circulate among the states, for instance, especially when it comes to the exhibitions’ role in propagating a national art identity. Additionally, works like All in the Family underscore the importance of considering the significance of women, and more broadly gender, to the Project. Women exhibited their work through the program, women worked at community art centers, and most significantly, a woman, Mildred Holzhauer, selected and compiled the exhibitions that traveled to them. Taking a closer look at the role of women to the Community Art Center Project in its various dimensions could be a very fruitful way of synthesizing the feminist ideas I’ve been exploring in my previous reading lists, as well as provide a focus to the state itself.

Another angle would be to consider the kind of work the state chose to circulate. Beyond stylistic preferences, what did the art exhibited say about the kinds of values the state promoted? Is there an inclination toward domestic subjects, rural or urban settings, or heterosexual identities? What did these works have to say about race, or gender identity? How did these selections compare to more locally-arranged shows, and what do they say about local and national identities? All of these questions could be explored in greater detail.

A watercolor by Dong Kingman, which I talked about in a previous post. What did works like these say about the state as it understood itself through art?

I’ve only just started this list though, and I’ll doubtless be thinking of other potential angles as I keep working through these texts.

Thinking (and Reading) about White Fragility

In the spirit of last week’s post, I’ve been working to better educate myself about white privilege and systemic racism. This is ongoing work that will never be finished, but it’s important for us white people to be willing to learn and embrace change when it comes to our attitudes about racism. With that in mind, one book that I’d like to talk about today is Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race. If you’re a white person who’s new to thinking about race and privilege, I recommend it because it’s a succinct, clearly-written, yet thorough introduction to white fragility. It’s less than 200 pages, so you’ll get through it in a couple of days. It’s also an instance of someone using their white privilege to positive ends, as the author is a white woman talking to white readers about systemic racism and how we’re all complicit in it. For white readers who want to learn about systemic racism but are feeling intimidated about confronting their own privilege, DiAngelo’s text can get you acquainted with some of the major questions and issues before you begin exploring the engaging, challenging work that Black scholars have written.

Before we go further, let me clarify that we’ll be talking primary about white privilege in relation to Black lives, as that is what DiAngelo concentrates on. Also, let me also emphasize that this book is an introduction when it comes to thinking about race. Don’t think that you’ve mastered antiracism when you finish it. Instead, you should continue your education by reading the numerous books out there that Black scholars and other academics have written. Check out last week’s post for some reading lists. DiAngelo also includes a list of resources.

DiAngelo frames white fragility as the emotional reaction white people have when confronted with race. She argues that as people raised in a racialized society that privileges whiteness as the norm, white people are not well-equipped to talk about race because we haven’t been socialized to think in racial terms. Because we live in a society where we are welcomed as the norm, we assume that our experiences and perspectives are universal when it comes to being human. Compounding this naive outlook is an oversimplified view of racism that we conflate with personal prejudices. Essentially, white people view racism as a good/bad binary. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, white viewers saw violence against Black people on TV, were horrified, and decided that overt racism is bad. If you say something racist, you’re a bad person. We don’t want to be seen as bad people, so we say we’re not racist, calling ourselves “colorblind” or proclaiming that “all lives matter.” (as Brandon puts it, we’ve been taught to conflate any racist expression with being a part of the KKK, so rather than examine our responses critically we retreat from them altogether).

What makes this so insidious is that this behavior actually masks racism. As DiAngelo points out, as humans we practice discrimination because that’s what human behavior does. We notice when people don’t look like us, and make judgments about that. Because we’ve been taught that racism is bad, we don’t articulate it. But since we’re human, we implicitly judge, which again makes us feel bad. Since we don’t like feeling badly, we retreat from thinking about these issues altogether and tell ourselves that we’re not racists. This is further compunded by our individualistic values. Because we’ve been taught to believe that we’re unique and special, white people feel uncomfortable being labeled as a group that practices group behaviors, even though that’s exactly what we do when we look at other racial groups. Couple that with the guilt we do experience when we witness the suffering of Black people, and the comfort we’re used to experiencing as the benefactors of white privilege, and you’ve got a group of people who aren’t well equipped to discuss race at all. Instead, white people tend to deflect with dismissive statements like “but you always make it about race,” which turns the onus of racism back on Black people, or resort to emotional outbursts like crying or anger that puts the attention back on them, thereby restoring the system. Not helpful responses at all.

The only way to address this, DiAngelo asserts, is to have white people learn to recognize their white fragility and work past it. We need to recognize that we live in a racist society that privileges whiteness, and that as white people, we have and will make mistakes when it comes to talking about race because we haven’t been taught to think through a racialized lens. We need to distinguish personal prejudice from systemic racism, and realize that we are complicit in racism even if we proclaim that we don’t feel prejudiced toward Black people or other groups that don’t look like us. Rather than react with feelings of defense, anger, or guilt, we need to learn to be uncomfortable with our racial standing as white people, stop making everything about us and our feelings, be open to feedback from Black people and other people of color, and learn to change our behavior. We also need to accept that this work will never be complete, and that we’ll have to continually strive to be better when it comes to racism. Most importantly, we need to use our privilege to demand real systemic change, because as white people, we’re the ones who have the power to make it happen.

While I’ve encountered facets of DiAngelo’s argument in different sources, her book offers a succinct synthesis, so it’s a good resource for white people who are looking for a place to start learning about their privilege. She also makes an effort to teach white people to recognize that their experiences as white people are not universal. She also distinguishes between prejudice and racism, and disrupts the good/bad binary of systemic racism by suggesting a continuum model. Rather than be ashamed of our racism or try to hide it, she argues that we acknowledge it, and critically, be open to change. As she puts it, Black people aren’t buying it when we claim we aren’t racist, because we’ve been raised in a racist society and are complicit just by living in it. By recognizing that complicity and realizing that systemic racism extends beyond a simple good/bad binary, we’re much more likely to be open to feedback and change. Instead of concealing or ignoring our racism, we need to dedicate ourselves to a lifetime of learning and change.

An analogy that I’ve found strangely helpful when thinking about this book is Purgatory as described in Dante’s Divine Comedy. According to Catholic doctrine (though it’s by no means universally agreed upon), Purgatory is the place you go to after you die to work off your sins. As creatures of sin, we are imperfect and prone to mistakes. Unless you have the faithly fortitude of a saint, you probably won’t be good enough to get into Heaven when you die. But rather than be condemned outright to Hell, you go to Purgatory, where you slowly get purified to worthiness. Like Hell, it’s torturous and grueling, but instead of being stuck there for eternity, you gradually ascend to lighter ordeals as your soul gets purged of sin. If the primary emotion defining Hell is regret or doom, what underpins Purgatory is hope.

It’s not a perfect analogy (not least because of the danger of slipping into a white savior narrative or saying that a less racist society can wait indefinitely), but I see parallels when it comes to striving toward antiracism on an individual level. As white people living in and benefiting from a racist society, we’re all racist and we’re going to make mistakes when talking about race, even if our intentions are good. That’s a given. But rather than retreat into feelings of guilt or self-righteousness, which may be self-soothing to us but useless when it comes to enacting change, we can consciously work toward a less racist society through learning and activism. It’s hard work that makes us uncomfortable, but through that work we become better people and work toward a more equal society. Will you or I become fully antiracist in our lifetime? Probably not, but we can consistently work on making ourselves better by looking beyond our own emotions to see how our words and actions affect Black people and other people of color. We can learn to recognize our privilege and check it. We can teach what we’re learning to our children so that they become less fragile. We can donate to organizations that support Black lives. We can protest. And we can use our privilege to amplify Black voices and enact change.


White people, if you’ve read White Fragility, what are your thoughts on it? If you haven’t, what antiracist texts or media have you been using to educate yourself? And if you haven’t started with your antiracist education, what are you waiting for?