Exploring the Black Experience

In honor of Black History Month, PUP is running a special blog series aimed at Exploring the Black Experience. Each week, we’ll highlight titles from PUP’s catalog to highlight a different facet of Black Americans’ experiences and histories. There are as many understandings—not to mention experiences or mobilizations—of identity as there are individuals. Today we look at the role of Black identity in local neighborhood history, nonviolent religious activism, global liberation movements, and American historical memorialization.

These four books explore Black identities both local and transnational, through movements both religious and political, and conversations both current and historical.

American Prophets sheds critical new light on the lives and thought of seven major prophetic figures in twentieth-century America whose social activism was motivated by a deeply felt compassion for those suffering injustice. In this compelling and provocative book, acclaimed religious scholar Albert Raboteau tells the remarkable stories of Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and four other inspired individuals who succeeded in conveying their vision to the broader public through writing, speaking, demonstrating, and organizing.

Raboteau examines the influences that shaped their ideas, discusses their theological and ethical positions, and traces how their lives intertwined—creating a network of committed activists who significantly changed attitudes about contentious political issues such as war, racism, and poverty. A momentous scholarly achievement as well as a moving testimony to the human spirit, American Prophets represents a major contribution to the history of religion in American politics.

I Hear My People Singing shines a light on a small but historic black neighborhood at the heart of one of the most elite and world-renowned Ivy-League towns—Princeton, New Jersey. The vivid first-person accounts of more than fifty black residents detail aspects of their lives throughout the twentieth century. Their stories show that the roots of Princeton’s African American community are as deeply intertwined with the town and university as they are with the history of the United States, the legacies of slavery, and the nation’s current conversations on race.

An intimate testament of the black community’s resilience and ingenuity, I Hear My People Singing adds a never-before-compiled account of poignant black experience to an American narrative that needs to be heard now more than ever.

Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Harlem in 1917. By the early 1920s, his program of African liberation and racial uplift had attracted millions of supporters, both in the United States and abroad. The Age of Garvey presents an expansive global history of the movement that came to be known as Garveyism. Offering a groundbreaking new interpretation of global black politics between the First and Second World Wars, Adam Ewing charts Garveyism’s emergence, its remarkable global transmission, and its influence in the responses among African descendants to white supremacy and colonial rule in Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States.

The United States of America originated as a slave society, holding millions of Africans and their descendants in bondage, and remained so until a civil war took the lives of a half million soldiers, some once slaves themselves. Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves explores how that history of slavery and its violent end was told in public space—specifically in the sculptural monuments that increasingly came to dominate streets, parks, and town squares in nineteenth-century America. Here Kirk Savage shows how the greatest era of monument building in American history arose amidst struggles over race, gender, and collective memory. As men and women North and South fought to define the war’s legacy in monumental art, they reshaped the cultural landscape of American nationalism.

Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves, the first sustained investigation of monument building as a process of national and racial definition, probes a host of fascinating questions: How was slavery to be explained without exploding the myth of a “united” people? How did notions of heroism become racialized? And more generally, who is represented in and by monumental space? How are particular visions of history constructed by public monuments? As debates rage around the status of Civil War monuments in public spaces around the country, these questions have never been more relevant. An updated edition, forthcoming in fall 2018, will feature a new introduction from the author addressing these debates.

Christie Henry: Celebrating Black History Month

This month we celebrate the altruism and insights of the educator Carter Woodson, and his enduring legacy, which includes the creation of Black History Month. We are grateful for the opportunity as a publisher to underscore our commitment to promote work that informs and ignites conversations about the African American experience, and to honor PUP authors such as Edwidge Danticat, who encourages her readers to “Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously…. Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”

During this month’s reflection and celebration, we also take stock of our responsibility and aspirations as a publisher of a diverse and engaging library. We strive for inclusivity, as does the university community we inhabit. We can deploy, with intentionality, the power of books to encourage further growth and inquiry. Fellow publisher Chris Jackson eloquently remarked in an address to the Association of University Presses (and reprinted in What Editors Do):

“I believe in book publishing, in its capacity to help us all retrace our paths back into history, to see the present in all its complexity, and to imagine different futures. To do that we have to build a publishing industry—at all levels of publishing—that honors the potential, the complexity, and the fullness of the world itself.”

In sharing with you, our partners in this publishing endeavor, books of great pride and import that we have published in recent years about African and the African-American experience specifically, I also want to underscore, as PUP’s new director, born in the Cote D’Ivoire in a Baoule community, how vital it is to our mission to embrace this fullness of the world, and its every complexity. To further quote from Mr. Jackson, and in admiration of his publishing ethos,

“When we expand the range of the industry’s gatekeepers, we expand the range of our storytelling, which expands our ability to see each other, to talk and listen to each other, and to understand each other.”

This month, as we do throughout the year, we will invest our human and fiscal capital in cultivating books that lead to understanding and inspire smarter listening. We also invite your ideas; as Princeton University professor emerita Toni Morrison has elegantly challenged the writerly world,

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” 

The Greatest Showman and the Deceptions of American Capitalism

by Edward J. Balleisen

BalleisenPerhaps unsurprisingly, The Greatest Showman, the new cinematic musical about the nineteenth-century American impresario of entertainment P. T. Barnum, unabashedly takes liberties with the historical record. As reviewers have already documented (Richard Brody in the New Yorker, Bruce Chadwick for History News Network), it fabricates matters large and small, as is the wont of Hollywood screenwriters and directors who work on biopics, while ignoring a host of truthful vignettes that cry out for cinematic treatment. As a historian of business fraud, I found myself especially disappointed that the musical steered clear of many aspects of Barnum’s career that speak powerfully to elements of our own moment, including the rise of a Barnum-esque publicity hound and conductor of media misdirection from the White House, and the constant turmoil swirling over allegations of fake news. And yet, The Greatest Showman does get some of the larger implications of Barnum’s life right—especially his injection of a democratic style of hullabaloo into American capitalism.

A full inventory of the film’s flights of fancy would require catalogue length. But a sampling conveys the minimal concern for fidelity to historical detail. The movie portrays the young Barnum as the poorly-clad son of an impoverished Connecticut tailor, rather than the child of a respectable proprietor who had a number of well-to-do relatives and also owned a store and inn. It gives Barnum experiences that he never had (begging and stealing food as an orphaned New York City street urchin; clerking for an insurance company). It depicts his move into the world of entertainment as occurring sometime well after the establishment of the railroad, perhaps even after the Civil War, rather than in the 1830s.

The Greatest Showman ignores Barnum’s earliest promotions of lotteries, curiosities and hoaxes, including his cruel exhibition of the elderly African-American slave woman Joice Heth as supposedly the 161-year old former wet-nurse of George Washington, and his willingness to profit further after her death through a public autopsy, experiences that laid the groundwork for his management of the American Museum. The screenwriters (Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks) have Barnum buy the museum on a wholly fictional mix of frustration, fantasy, and fraud, made possible by his fraudulent provision of fake collateral to a New York City bank that lends him the necessary $10,000. Instead of coming to grips with the actual Barnum’s vociferous advocacy of temperance, the film conjures up a hard-drinking man who makes deals over whiskeys in saloons. Rather than showing how Barnum consistently found new performers over the years, it brings together the midget Charles Stratton (known on stage as Tom Thumb), the Siamese twins Change and Eng, and the other members of the troupe within weeks of Barnum’s purchase of the American Museum.

The historical Barnum had a falling out with the famed Swedish singer Jenny Lind not because he refused her amorous advances in the middle of their American tour (the musical’s explanation), but because she tired of his relentless focus on maximizing the returns from her concerts. A key antagonist for Barnum in The Greatest Showman is one “Bennett,” portrayed as a stiff-collared, high-toned theatre critic of the New York Herald. The actual James Gordon Bennett was the publisher of that paper, who proved more than happy to go along with hoaxes and sensationalism himself, using both to help cement his newspaper’s position as the first penny newspaper that catered to the broad masses. The character of Barnum’s high society sidekick Philip Carlyle is entirely fictional, as in his relationship with Anne Wheeler, an African-American female trapeze artist. One last illustration—the film attributes the fire that destroyed Barnum’s New York City Museum to neighborhood toughs who did not like his business, rather than the actual arsonist, a Confederate sympathizer who wished toward the end of the Civil War to strike a blow against the Union.

Of course, by indulging a willingness to elide facts or push outright lies in the service of a hokey story, the makers of The Greatest Showman adopt Barnum’s own modus operandi as a purveyor of entertainment. And the movie does a creditable job of engaging with some of Barnum’s larger cultural significance—his recognition that publicity and HYPE of any kind was often a marketing asset; his understanding that the public would be forgiving of misrepresentations and humbug if they, on balance, enjoyed the eventual show; his embrace of difference and variation within the human condition as worthy of celebration (if also exploitation); his compulsion to expand operations to take advantage of new opportunities, even at the cost of incurring gargantuan debts; his relentless focus on the American mythos of democratic opportunity, whether through his own experience (as carefully narrated in his autobiographies) or those of the stars in his shows. As the film implies, there was indeed deep-seated antagonism to Barnum’s business practices and willingness to engage in fakery, though the complaints came overwhelmingly from pulpits and the pages of evangelical newspapers, rather than protesters who made their presence known outside the Museum. And Barnum did in fact seek to defuse those critiques through the promotion of respectable performers such as Jenny Lind, alongside his curiosities, penchant for misdirection, and outright fakery.

Nonetheless, The Greatest Showman also missed many opportunities to explore episodes in Barnum’s life that have renewed resonance in the early twenty-first century. One crucial theme here concerns Barnum’s engagement with American race relations, both as promoter and in his post-Civil War forays in Connecticut politics and public service. Barnum’s often dehumanizing treatment of people of color and his evolving political views on race will surely occasion much commentary amid the current dramatic growth in ethnocentric nationalism and racially-grounded politics, as in a recent Smithsonian Magazine piece by Jackie Mansky. Other contemporary developments that suggest the value of reconsidering Barnum’s historical significance, closer to my own expertise, include the reoccurrence of massive business frauds, the emergence of enduring conflict over the appropriate role of government in consumer and investor protection, and diminished faith in institutions of all sorts.

The musical, for example, overlooks Barnum’s own bankruptcy in 1855, brought about because of his misplaced faith in the promises of a clock manufacturer who was willing to relocate his operation to Barnum’s adopted home town of Bridgeport, Connecticut, as part of an industrial development scheme. Barnum freely endorsed the Jerome Clock Company’s loans, opening himself up to devastating losses when the company failed, losses made worse by the firm’s eventual forging of Barnum’s endorsement on many additional notes. Yet he also sidestepped the worst consequences of that failure by illegally transferring assets into his wife’s name, a move that greatly facilitated his ability to get back on his financial feet, and for which he never faced public condemnation or legal penalty. Barnum’s insolvency thus speaks to the reality that even the savviest operators can be victims of imposition; and that well-connected perpetrators of commercial deceit have often been able to sidestep the most damaging fallout from their actions.

Another fascinating episode that The Greatest Showman ignores is Barnum’s growing focus on debunking the deceit of other purveyors of rhetorical (or actual) snake oil. By the 1860s, the promoter sought to legitimize his own brand of hokum and bluster not only by adding unquestionably respectable acts to his museum and eventual circus, but also by exposing frauds in many sectors of American life.  Compiled in his 1866 volume, Humbugs of the World, these endeavors targeted misrepresentations in retail trade, medicine, and religion (especially in the realm of spiritualism). Here Barnum intuited the great power associated with well-constructed strategies of deflection—that one could gain trust in part by setting oneself up as an arbiter of untrustworthiness. Perhaps there is no greater contemporary practitioner of this particular form of showmanship than the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump has rarely hesitated to get out ahead of critiques of his own business and political practices by casting the first stones, as through his allegations of malfeasance by political opponents (the pleas during the 2016 general election campaign to investigate Hillary Clinton and “Lock Her Up”) or representatives of the media (the incessant allegations of FAKE NEWS.) In addition to muddying factual waters, such strategies can shore up support among the faithful, sustaining the conviction that their champion is fighting the good fight, and could not possibly be engaging in duplicitous behavior of his own.

In the end, The Greatest Showman cares most about exploring fictionalized or wholly fictional romantic tensions—those between Barnum and his wife Charity and between the Philip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler—as well as the degree to which Barnum lives up to his purported insistence on an inclusive respect for his socially marginalized performers. These choices constrain the musical’s capacity to engage deeply with Barnum’s historical significance as an entrepreneur who played an outsized role in creating modern mass entertainment. And so a multitude of opportunities go begging. Barnum’s many legacies, however, continue to reverberate in contemporary America, whether one focuses on the the dynamics of social media saturation, the process of invented celebrity, the sources of abiding racial tensions,  the implications of pervasive commercial dissembling, or the nature of popular skepticism about expert appraisals of reality. And so the ground remains open for cultural reinterpretations of the Great Showman’s life and times.  If the twentieth-century is any guide, we won’t have to wait too long for another cinematic treatment—every generation or so, some movie-maker finds the resources to put Barnum back on the screen.[1]

[1] Previous films include “The Mighty Barnum” (1934), “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), “Barnum” (1986), and “P. T. Barnum” (1999).

Edward J. Balleisen is professor of history and public policy and vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Zora Neale Hurston in 2017: How Art Can Help Us Remember and Understand Disaster

Princeton University Press will donate the net proceeds from the sale of The Flood Year 1927 to hurricane relief through December 31, 2017

by Susan Scott Parrish

ParrishHarvey. Irma. Jose. Maria. Since August 17, one hurricane has chased the tail winds of its predecessor without pause. Three of these have made landfall in the United States, making the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season a record-breaker in number and intensity. We are getting used to having each season push the previous one out of our awareness—out of that space we leave in our brains to house the images and statistics of environmental disasters. Can you who live outside Louisiana remember the interminable, flooding rains of August 2016? This season, though, the attention obliteration rate has sped up. In our minds, we hold maps of damage, YouTube clips of world-bending wind, or aerial shots of inundated neighborhoods for but one week, when the mind needs to clear out room for the newer data. If you or your loved ones have not been directly in harm’s way, what will it take to help you remember Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria?

This is where well-crafted works of art can make a difference. Here I am using a broad definition of “art” to include documentary and feature films, books of nonfiction and fiction, collage and painting, drama, in-depth podcasts and so on. Part of why we will long remember Katrina is because of the catastrophic human error at play. Another reason is the artists who fashioned durable cultural markers in its aftermath. From Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke to Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun to Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina to Kara Walker’s “Post Katrina, Adrift,” each artist put significant attention into choices about representation: Lee’s ironic or plangent juxtaposition of sound and image, Eggers’s tight point-of-view narrative focus, Trethewey’s alternation of memoir and lyric poetry, and Walker’s careful reworking of a Theodore Gericault monumental history painting. Their attention to aesthetics, to making meaning and form coalesce, calls us to give our attention to an event long after its apparent end.

Let us go back before 2005, then, and think about art’s relationship to a much older hurricane and flood, a disaster that might have slipped from history were it not for a remarkable work of fiction. I want to think about Zora Neale Huston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and how it has kept awareness of the Okeechobee hurricane and flood of 1928 alive all these years—and how it was virtually alone in doing so until historians and journalists told its story in nonfiction form in the early 21st century.

Located west of Palm Peach, Lake Okeechobee covers over seven hundred and twenty square miles, making it the third largest freshwater lake within U.S. borders. Okeechobee used to release its waters in a slow cascade southward through saw-grass prairies all the way down to the Bay of Florida. Beginning in the 1880s, entrepreneurs from the northern U.S. and Britain dug massive canals west, east, and south of the lake to drain off the vast and now arable acreage to its south. What had been the Everglades became nine foot-deep rich earth—“the muck”—which came to yield large crops of vegetables and, most of all, sugar cane. Knowing that flooding was a possibility in a hurricane-prone region, the state built, between 1923 and 1925, a five-foot-high mud dike along forty-seven miles of the lake’s southern border. Housing for the agricultural laborers, who had emigrated there from throughout the South and Caribbean, stood right up against the presumably contained lake.

On September 16, 1928, a hurricane touched land on the eastern coast of Florida at Lake Worth with 130mph winds. With an eye 25 to 30 miles across, the winds pummeled Palm Beach around 6:45pm and then, moving as a counter-clockwise whirl in the darkness, came at Lake Okeechobee from the northwest corner, pushing a ten-foot wall of water over its bottom rim, and breaking down the paltry dike across a twenty-one mile expanse. Between 2,500 and 3,000 people died that night, almost half of the local population. More than three-quarters of the dead were African-American and Afro-Caribbean. According to one historian, more people of African descent died on that day than any other single day in U.S. history. While sixty-nine white bodies were placed in a marked burial ground at Woodlawn Cemetery in Palm Beach, six hundred and seventy-four black bodies were placed in a mass grave at the pauper’s field in West Palm Beach; another sixteen hundred were interred in Port Mayaca, on high ground to the east of Okeechobee—sites which remained unmarked until 2003. Scores of corpses were lost in the Everglades, and scores more were burned in funeral pyres. African-Americans were conscripted at gunpoint to do all of this work of gruesome clean up, including the putative separation of bodies by race, something the bodies’ decay made unintelligible.

Because Florida leaders were trying to develop the state as a holiday oasis, and a sure real estate investment, they didn’t want news of the disaster to travel. Most of the deaths had taken place quickly, in the middle of the night, fifty miles west of Palm Beach, in a rural locale full of migrant workers. The powerful who had access to national media to broadcast the disaster chose to remain quiet. The powerless did not seem to have a storyteller of note. At least not right away.

Zora Neale Hurston was not in harm’s way during the September 16th hurricane and flood, but she heard oral accounts when in Florida the following spring. In 1935, she then spent time in Belle Glade, a town on Lake Okeechobee’s southeastern edge, when she was gathering music for the Library of Congress, at which point she surely gathered more oral testimony of the flood and its aftermath. In late 1936, while in Haiti, Hurston wrote what would become one of the great American novels of the century, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

It tells the story of Janie Crawford, her search for a natural-feeling and play-filled love, an adventure as big as the horizon, and a way to shed the plantation legacies of her family and region. Hurston the ethnographer included many scenes of tale-telling, believing that how a community amuses itself was as deep a truth as how it withstands assaults. Because of its humor, contemporaneous reviewers—like Richard Wright and Alain Locke—dismissed the novel for its “minstrel” echoes and its lack of “sharp” social analysis. When the novel was revived by black feminists in the 1970s, it was as a story that empowered black women—to seek their desires and to speak when and how they wanted. The 80s and 90s saw critical appreciation of how finely Hurston intertwined the oral black vernacular with standard written English. Since Katrina and the levee disaster of 2005, Hurston’s deep engagement with the overlapping histories of race and environment in the U.S. has become increasingly evident. In other words, people are now paying more attention to the hurricane and flood toward whose crescendo and violent denouement the entire novel moves.

About three-quarters of the way into the novel, Janie is finally married to someone, Tea Cake, whose sensitivity to the green world seems to match her own. They are “natural” together, more aware of fish and trees and bees than social propriety or acquiring property. Picking beans just southeast of Lake Okeechobee, the pair lives in low-lying company quarters pushed up against the massive lake. It is mid-September, 1928. As signs appear of the approaching hurricane, Tea Cake wagers that they should stay behind. He forgets his own environmental knowledge and puts trust in the white bosses who haven’t evacuated. Hurston’s narrator bitingly comments on the weakness of this decision: “if the castles thought themselves secure, the cabins needn’t worry. Their decision was already made as always.” Trusting white authority and distrusting one’s own affiliation with nature turns out to be a dismal mistake. The lake bursts through the feeble mud dike and reclaims its old wetlands sovereignty: Okeechobee “seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters.” All in all, “the sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.”

Evacuating too late from the ‘Glades, Tea Cake and Janie make their harrowing way eastward to Palm Beach. During the journey, Janie tries to cover them with debris but is instead carried aloft over and into water. While saving her, Tea Cake is bitten on the cheek by a rabid dog. They finally reach what they believe to be the “city of refuge,” Palm Beach. It turns out, though, that the violence of the storm has here turned into human-on-human violence. Two white guards force Tea Cake at gunpoint to join a “small army” to clear wreckage and separate dead bodies Jim Crow-style. Tea Cake soon goes mad from the rabies and becomes homicidal with his wife. Janie shoots and kills him in self-defense.

When the novel was first published in 1937, its cover featured a woodcut image of a harrowed landscape. A Jehovah-like figure is hurling bolts and winds at the earth; trees bow in response and a house squats in flood waters up to its roof. Clearly, Hurston saw the hurricane and flood, which provided the book’s climax, and brought about the death of its male hero, as central to the story. Though contemporaneous reviewers were distracted by what they took to be the novel’s “quaint” humor, they missed the storm and the fact that Hurston buries prophecies about the storm to come in that very humor. Later critics who focused exclusively on the romantic odyssey also missed the fact that Hurston, through the flood, judges the apparently fitting third husband, and finds him wanting. That he failed to listen to his own environmental experience and defers instead to his white boss indicates the limits of the potential for their love. Finally, the exposé of Jim Crow, deferred through so much of the novel to make space for a study of the southern black community on its own terms, finally arrives with—and in the shape of—the man-made disaster. Hurston carefully included historic details from the ’28 flood that she had gathered through oral research so that the flood would not be simply a dramatic device but also act as a memorial structure to the officially unmarked disaster.

Every time Their Eyes Were Watching God is read, there is the potential for a profound encounter with this almost ninety-year-old event. Though Florida boosters at the time did not want the story broadcast, Hurston slowly transformed its obscured details and hidden remains into a meaningful story to withstand the decades. This September, Florida officials have been transparent about the vulnerability of their state. And Florida mayors have been some of the first to prepare in advance for how climate change will change their coastal cities. Even in this condition of open-eyed avowal, artists continue to have a role. Artists’ capacities to summon human care for strangers encountered through narratives and representations and to invest them with meaning is a crucial part of our world.

Susan Scott Parrish is Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. She is the author of American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World and The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.

 

The Expanding Blaze: Moderate vs Radical Enlightenment

IsraelIn The Expanding Blaze, Jonathan Israel argues that the American Revolution, the first of a series of revolutionary upheavals in the West during the period of 1775 to 1859, exerted a massive impact on the rest of the world that was ultimately central to the shaping of democratic modernity. According to Israel, the Atlantic revolutions were all linked pragmatically and philosophically, and were propelled forward in part by a tension between moderate Enlightenment ideas and radical Enlightenment ideas.

Israel argues that all “national” enlightenments were characterized by a struggle between moderate and radical Enlightenment streams. More specifically, the Atlantic revolutions all involved debate between democratic and aristocratic republicanism including support for, versus rejection of, universal rights, citizenship for all versus limited suffrage, and disagreement over the place of religious authority in society. On one side of the debate were individuals including Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, who admired such philosophers as Locke and Montesquieu. They argued for a more conservative, aristocratic system. On the other side of the debate were people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, who became icons for the Atlantic revolutions for their universalizing, secularizing, and egalitarian beliefs.

The tension between moderate and radical Enlightenment beliefs was particularly felt in the debate about slavery. In the late eighteenth century, European colonial territories in the Caribbean were very prosperous, importing valuable goods back to Europe. The large plantations were headed by white planters and run by hundreds of thousands of slaves. In fact, slaves outnumbered the rest of the population by a huge margin. In order to counter claims that slavery was morally unjustifiable, the Caribbean aristocracy invoked the ideas of moderate Enlightenment philosophers, including Montesquieu’s moral, social and political relativism. Conversely, the anti-colonialism espoused in radical Enlightenment texts of the mid-eighteenth century based their arguments on the basic unity of mankind, the equality of races, and universal human rights. These ideas called into question the prevailing notion that white people possessed an innate superiority and authority over other groups and, therefore, the notion that black slavery was defensible.

To learn more about how moderate and radical Enlightenment ideas influenced the Atlantic revolutions between 1775 and 1848, pick up a copy of Jonathan Israel’s The Expanding Blaze.

Sarah Binder & Mark Spindel on The Myth of Independence

Born out of crisis a century ago, the Federal Reserve has become the most powerful macroeconomic policymaker and financial regulator in the world. The Myth of Independence traces the Fed’s transformation from a weak, secretive, and decentralized institution in 1913 to a remarkably transparent central bank a century later. Offering a unique account of Congress’s role in steering this evolution, Sarah Binder and Mark Spindel explore the Fed’s past, present, and future and challenge the myth of its independence.

Why did you write this book?

We were intrigued by the relationship of two powerful institutions that are typically studied in isolation: Congress, overtly political and increasingly polarized, and the Federal Reserve, allegedly independent, born of an earlier financial panic and the world’s most powerful economic policy maker. The economic conditions that created and sustain America’s century old central bank have been well studied. Scholars and market participants have spent considerably less time analyzing the complex political forces that drove the Fed’s genesis and its rise to prominence. Our research challenges widely accepted notions of Fed independence, instead arguing that the Fed sets policy subject to political constraints. Its autonomy is conditioned on economic outcomes and robust political support. In the long shadow of the global financial crisis, our research pinpoints the interdependence of two powerful policy-making institutions and their impact on contemporary monetary politics.

What does history teach us about contemporary monetary politics?

Probing the Fed’s history affords us a window onto the political and economic constraints under which the Fed makes monetary policy today. We draw two key conclusions about contemporary monetary policy from our study of the Fed’s development.

First, the history of the relationship between Congress and the Fed reveals a recurring cycle of economic crisis, political blame, and institutional reform. When the economy is performing well, Congress tends to look the other way, leaving the Fed to pursue its statutory mandate to boost jobs and limit inflation. When the economy sours, lawmakers react by blaming the Fed and then counter-intuitively often giving the Fed more power. Legislative and central bank reactions in the wake of the most recent financial crisis fit this recurring theme. Even after blaming them, Congress further concentrated financial regulation in the Fed’s Board of Governors. Understanding the electoral dynamics that shape Congressional reactions helps to explain the puzzling decision to empower the Fed in the wake of crisis.

Second, economists and central bankers often argue that the Fed has instrument, but not goal, independence: Congress stipulates the Fed’s mandate but leaves the central bank to choose the tools necessary to achieve it. Our historical analysis suggests instead that Congress shapes both the monetary goals and tools. Creating and clipping emergency lending power, imposing greater transparency, influencing adoption of an inflation target—these and other legislative efforts directly shape the Fed’s conduct. Even today, monetary policy remains under siege, as lawmakers on the left and right remain dissatisfied with the Fed’s performance in driving the nation’s economic recovery from the Great Recession.

What new light do you shed on the notion of central bank independence?

Placing the Fed within the broader political system changes our understanding of the nature and primacy of central bank independence.

First, economists prize central bank independence on grounds that it keeps inflation low and stable. However, we show that ever since the Great Depression, Congressional majorities have typically demanded the Fed place equal weight on generating growth and controlling inflation—diminishing the importance of central bank autonomy to lawmakers. Moreover, we demonstrate that the seminal Treasury-Fed Accord of 1951—a deal that most argue cemented the Fed’s independence—tethered the Fed more closely to Congress even as it broke the Fed’s subordination to the Treasury.

Second, prescriptions for central bank independence notwithstanding, fully separating fiscal and monetary policy is complicated. During the Fed’s first half-century, fiscal policy was monetary policy. The Fed underwrote U.S. government borrowing, either willingly or unwillingly enabling the spending objectives of the executive and legislative branches. Even after the 1951 Fed-Treasury Accord, macro-economic outcomes have played a determinative role in shaping U.S. fiscal policy. And most recently, the Fed’s adoption of unconventional monetary policy in the wake of the financial crisis pushed interest rates to zero and ballooned the Fed’s balance sheet—leading many Fed critics to argue that the Fed had crossed the line into Congress’s fiscal domain. Importantly, even strict proponents of monetary independence recognize that exigent conditions often demand collaboration between the central bank and government, complicating monetary politics.

Third, the myth of Fed independence is convenient for elected officials eager to blame the Fed for poor economic outcomes. In fact, Congress and the Fed are interdependent: the Fed operates very much within the political structure in Washington. The Federal Reserve Act—the governing law—has been consistently reopened and revised, particularly after extraordinary economic challenges. Each time, Congress centralizes more control in the Fed’s Washington-based Board of Governors, in exchange for more central bank transparency and congressional accountability. Because Fed “independence” rests with Congress’s tolerance of the Fed’s policy performance, we argue that the Fed earns partial and contingent independence from Congress, and thus hardly any independence at all.

How does intense partisan polarization in Washington today affect the Fed?

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, like most national institutions, the Federal Reserve has been caught in the cross hairs of contemporary partisan polarization. Politicians of both stripes call for changes to the governance and powers of the Fed. Most prominently, we see bipartisan efforts to audit Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) decisions. On the right, a vocal GOP cohort demands an unwinding of the Fed’s big balance sheet and a more formulaic approach to monetary policy. On the left, Democrats want greater diversity on the rosters of the Fed’s regional reserve banks. With the 2016 elections delivering government control to Republicans, prospects for reopening the Federal Reserve Act are heightened.

Several vacancies on the Board of Governors give President Trump and Republican senators another opportunity to air grievances and exert control. Trump inherits a rare opportunity to nominate a majority of members to the FOMC, including the power to appoint a new chair in early 2018 should he wish to replace Janet Yellen. Will he turn to more traditional monetary “hawks,” who seek to rollback crisis-era policies, thus tightening monetary policy? Or will Trump bend towards a more ideologically dovish chair, trading some inflation for a pro-growth agenda?

Washington leaves a large—and politicized—mark on the Federal Reserve. The Myth of Independence seeks to place these overtly political decisions into broader, historical perspective, exploring how the interdependence of Congress and the Federal Reserve shapes politics, the economy and financial markets. As Ben Bernanke expressed, “absent the support of some future White House, although it might be difficult to get passed and signed legislation that poses a serious challenge to the basic powers of the Fed, it unfortunately would not be impossible.”

BinderSarah Binder is professor of political science at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her books include Advice and Dissent and Stalemate. Mark Spindel has spent his entire career in investment management at such organizations as Salomon Brothers, the World Bank, and Potomac River Capital, a Washington D.C.–based hedge fund he started in 2007.

Landon R. Y. Storrs: What McCarthyism Can Teach Us about Trumpism

Since the election of President Donald Trump, public interest in “McCarthyism” has surged, and the focus has shifted from identifying individual casualties to understanding the structural factors that enable the rise of demagogues.

After The Second Red Scare was published in 2012, most responses I received from general readers were about the cases of individuals who had been investigated, or whom the inquirer guessed might have been investigated, under the federal employee loyalty program. That program, created by President Truman in 1947 in response to congressional conservatives’ charges that his administration harbored communist sympathizers, was the engine of the anticommunist crusade that became known as McCarthyism, and it was the central subject of my book. I was the first scholar to gain access to newly declassified records related to the loyalty program and thus the first to write a comprehensive history. The book argues that the program not only destroyed careers, it profoundly affected public policy in many fields.

Some queries came from relatives of civil servants whose lives had been damaged by charges of disloyalty. A typical example was the person who wanted to understand why, in the early 1950s, his parents abruptly moved the family away from Washington D.C. and until their deaths refused to explain why. Another interesting inquiry came from a New York Times reporter covering Bill de Blasio’s campaign for New York City mayor. My book referenced the loyalty case of Warren Wilhelm Sr., a World War II veteran and economist who left government service in 1953, became an alcoholic, was divorced by his wife, and eventually committed suicide. He never told his children about the excruciating loyalty investigation. His estranged son, born Warren Wilhelm Jr., legally adopted his childhood nickname, Bill, and his mother’s surname, de Blasio. I didn’t connect the case I’d found years earlier to the mayoral candidate until the journalist contacted me, at which point I shared my research. At that moment de Blasio’s opponents were attacking him for his own youthful leftism, so it was a powerful story, as I tried to convey in The Nation.

With Trump’s ascendance, media references to McCarthyism have proliferated, as commentators struggle to make sense of Trump’s tactics and supporters. Opinion writers note that Trump shares McCarthy’s predilections for bluffing and for fear-mongering—with terrorists, Muslims, and immigrants taking the place of communist spies. They also note that both men were deeply influenced by the disreputable lawyer Roy Cohn. Meanwhile, the president has tweeted that he himself is a victim of McCarthyism, and that the current investigations of him are “witch hunts”—leaving observers flummoxed, yet again, as to whether he is astonishingly ignorant or shamelessly misleading.

But the parallels between McCarthy’s era and our own run deeper than personalities. Although The Second Red Scare is about McCarthyism, it devotes little attention to McCarthy himself. The book is about how opponents of the New Deal exploited Americans’ fear of Soviet espionage in order to roll back public policies whose regulatory and redistributive effects conservatives abhorred. It shows that the federal employee loyalty program took shape long before the junior senator from Wisconsin seized the limelight in 1950 by charging that the State Department was riddled with communists.

By the late 1930s congressional conservatives of both parties were claiming that communists held influential jobs in key New Deal agencies—particularly those that most strongly challenged corporate prerogatives regarding labor and prices. The chair of the new Special House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, Martin Dies (a Texas Democrat who detested labor unions, immigrants, and black civil rights as much as communism), demanded that the U.S. Civil Service Commission (CSC) investigate employees at several agencies. When the CSC found little evidence to corroborate Dies’s allegations, he accused the CSC itself of harboring subversives. Similarly, when in 1950 the Tydings Committee found no evidence to support McCarthy’s claims about the State Department, McCarthy said the committee conducted a “whitewash.” President Trump too insists that anyone who disproves his claims is part of a conspiracy. One important difference is that Dies and McCarthy alleged a conspiracy against the United States, whereas Trump chiefly complains of conspiracies against himself—whether perpetrated by a “deep state” soft on terrorism and immigration or by a biased “liberal media.” The Roosevelt administration dismissed Dies as a crackpot, and during the Second World War, attacks on the loyalty of federal workers got little traction.

That changed in the face of postwar Soviet conduct, the nuclear threat, and revelations of Soviet espionage. In a futile effort to counter right-wing charges that he was “soft” on communism, President Truman expanded procedures for screening government employees, creating a loyalty program that greatly enhanced the power of the FBI and the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations. State, local, and private employers followed suit. As a result, the threat of long-term unemployment forced much of the American workforce not only to avoid political dissent, but to shun any association that an anonymous informant might find suspect. Careers and families were destroyed. With regard to the U.S. civil service, the damage to morale and to effective policymaking lasted much longer than the loyalty program itself.

Public employees long have been vulnerable to political attacks. Proponents of limited government by definition dislike them, casting them as an affront to the (loaded) American ideals of rugged individualism and free markets. But hostility to government employees has been more broad-based at moments when severe national security threats come on top of widespread economic and social insecurity. The post-WWII decade represented such a moment. In the shadow of the Soviet and nuclear threats, women and African-Americans struggled to maintain the toeholds they had gained during the war, and some Americans resented new federal initiatives against employment discrimination. Resentment of the government’s expanding role was fanned by right-wing portrayals of government experts as condescending, morally degenerate “eggheads” who avoided the competitive marketplace by living off taxpayers.

Today, widespread insecurity in the face of terrorism, globalization, multiculturalism, and gender fluidity have made many Americans susceptible to the same sorts of reactionary populist rhetoric heard in McCarthy’s day. And again that rhetoric serves the objectives of those who would gut government, or redirect it to serve private rather than public interests.

The Trump administration calls for shrinking the federal workforce, but the real goal is a more friendly and pliable bureaucracy. Trump advisers complain that Washington agencies are filled with leftists. Trump transition teams requested names of employees who worked on gender equality at State and climate change initiatives at the EPA. Trump media allies such as Breitbart demanded the dismissal of Obama “holdovers.” Trump selected appointees based on their personal loyalty rather than qualifications and, when challenged, suggested that policy expertise hinders fresh thinking. In firing Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for declining to enforce his first “travel ban,” Trump said she was “weak” and had “betrayed” her department. Such statements, like Trump’s earlier claims that President Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim, fit the textbook definition of McCarthyism: undermining political opponents by making unsubstantiated attacks on their loyalty to the United States. Even more alarming is Trump’s pattern of equating disloyalty to himself with disloyalty to the nation—the textbook definition of autocracy.

Might the demise of McCarthyism hold lessons about how Trumpism will end? The Second Red Scare wound down thanks to the courage of independent journalists, the decision after four long years of McCarthy’s fellow Republican senators to put country above party, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions in cases brought by brave defendants and lawyers. The power of each of those forces was contingent, of course, on the abilities of Americans to sort fact from fiction, to resist the politics of fear and resentment, and to vote.

StorrsLandon R. Y. Storrs is professor of history at the University of Iowa. She is the author of Civilizing Capitalism: The National Consumers’ League, Women’s Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era and The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left.

Happy birthday to Henry David Thoreau

by Jeffrey Cramer

Cramer“You would find him well worth knowing.” These are the words Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about “a man of thought and originality,” Henry David Thoreau.

July 12th marks the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth in Concord, Massachusetts. Although at the time of his death in 1862 he was little more than a Ralph Waldo Emerson wannabe, today he is known around the world for his thoughtful writings on our place in the world. His writings on social reform inspired Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and protesters against the war in Vietnam. His natural history writings were a great impetus to John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Bill McKibben, and he is considered by many to be the father of the American environmental movement. His words in support of John Brown or against the Fugitive Slave Law are as courageous and as forthright as any written by our founding fathers. And as the man who “hears a different drummer” he has emboldened many readers to pursue their own unique paths with independence and confidence.

The world in which Thoreau lived was not so very different from ours. It was a time in which everything he believed and everything for which his country stood was being challenged. We live in hard times of a different character, when our country, when the world, is being divided politically, morally, and ethically. It is a time of deep personal reflection, deliberate and attentive questioning, and perhaps the most necessary thing of all, open dialogue and conversation. “We are all schoolmasters,” Thoreau wrote, showing us that we all have something to share. But he also said that we should “seek to be fellow students,” reminding us that we all have something to learn.

Thoreau can teach and inspire and antagonize and outrage, but ultimately give us something against which to try our own lives and that is what great writing offers the reader. In reading Thoreau we may not always find the answer to our questions, but we find the question. We may find words we agree with or we may find words we cannot agree with, in part or at all, but we do find a challenge to our complacency.

When George Eliot reviewed Walden, she said she would “Let Mr. Thoreau speak for himself.” Following Eliot’s advice, here are a few phrases in which Thoreau speaks for himself.

 

Nothing is so much to be feared but fear.

It costs us nothing to be just.

How insufficient is all wisdom without love.

What does education often do! It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free meandering brook.

I have sometimes heard a conversation beginning again when it should have ceased for lack of fuel.

A government which deliberately enacts injustice, and persists in it, will at length ever become the laughingstock of the world.

Any truth is better than make-believe.

 

 

Francisco Bethencourt: Exhibition ‘Racism and Citizenship’

Exhibition ‘Racism and Citizenship’, Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Lisbon
6th May to 3rd September 2017
Curator: Francisco Bethencourt, Charles Boxer Professor, King’s College London,
and author of Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century

When Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century was translated into Portuguese I was invited by the director of Padrão dos Descobrimentos to organize an exhibition on that subject there. The monument had been created in 1960 by the Salazar regime to commemorate Portuguese overseas exploration and colonialism, obviously ignoring the suffering inflicted on other people. I immediately accepted the challenge to transform a comprehensive book into an exhibition naturally based on images and focusing on the Portuguese case. I needed an argument, a narrative, and a structure.

I decided to focus this exhibition on two interlinked realities: racism, understood as prejudice against those of different ethnic origins, combined with discriminatory actions; and citizenship, seen as the right to live, work, and participate in the political life of a country, equally involving duties and responsibilities. The tension between exclusion and integration lies at the heart of this exhibition. I invite viewers to reflect on various historical realities and recent developments, with the help of objects—paintings, sculptures, engravings, shackles, manillas, ceramics, posters, photographs, and videos. Images are presented in a crude way, but they also reveal subtle contradictions, hinting at what lies beyond outward appearances.

The exhibition is arranged into two parts, early modern and modern, and six sections: a) the hostility towards Jews and Moors living in medieval Portugal, which was renewed after forced conversions; b) a focus on people of African origin who were enslaved and transported to Portugal, Brazil, and Asia; c) the representations of native peoples of the New World and Asia, which led to the first European conception of a hierarchy of the world’s people; d) the Portuguese colonies, where slave labor was replaced by forced labor; e) the contradictory realities of the 20th century, in the colonies and Portugal alike; f) the dynamics involved in the attempt to repair the fractures in the contemporary and post-colonial period.

Racism was always confronted with informal forms of integration, which became predominant in the postcolonial period. The assertion of citizenship followed the Revolution of April 1974 and the independence of the colonies in 1975. It is a new period, still under the shadow of informal racism, but in which new values of legal equality have been supported by the state. The anti-racist norm became a reality, still to be systematically implemented. The last section of the exhibition shows the recent work of Portuguese and African artists, who use colonial memory to reflect on new issues of collective identity.

During the period under consideration, Muslim expulsion took place, as did the forced conversion of Jewish people, the slave trade, the colonization of territories in Africa, America and Asia, the abolition of slavery, decolonization, and immigration.

The exhibition aims to encourage the public to question past and present relations between peoples, combining emigration with immigration, exclusion and integration, lack of rights and access to citizenship.

BethencourtFrancisco Bethencourt is the Charles Boxer Professor of History at King’s College London, and the author of The Inquisition: A Global History, 1478–1834.

Kathryn Watterson on I Hear My People Singing

WattersonIn I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African-American Princeton, Kathryn ‘Kitsi’ Watterson illuminates the resilience and ingenuity of the historic black neighborhood, just outside the gates of Princeton University, through the words of its residents. Watterson recently answered some questions from writer Kristin Cashioli, providing insight into this extraordinary labor of love that began nearly two decades ago.

What does this project mean to you?  Why is it so special?

KW: Wow, that question gave me goosebumps. When this book began, it was a simple effort to collect the life stories of the elders in the Witherspoon neighborhood.  This was thrilling work, and was second nature to me as a writer and journalist. Since I was a child, I’ve seen African Americans as national heroes. Imagine yourself living in the heat of laws and efforts to thwart you, keep you in poverty, to punish, demean, and often kill you; imagine that every single day, you encounter negative stereotypes because of the shade of your skin or the shape of your nose. Racism and segregation are so cruel and invasive, and it’s just amazing how black people live with some form of violence against them at all times. Even though Princeton wasn’t as bad as many places, it still had these patterns. Most white people never experience something so crushing on a daily basis. To see the great strength that dealt with this assault, rose above it, and created from within it, makes this project special. The humanity in these residents’ lives, the richness of their vision, and the way they came together made working on this project an honor. Turning this project into a book as a way to preserve these vital stories has been a gift to me.

What sets your book apart from others about race and justice issues?

KW: It’s the speakers’ voices that make this so powerful and intimate. There is such a panorama of diverse, complex individuals and their experiences. They are the heart of the book. I’ve been told that historians have done a lot of writing about racial issues in the North during the 18th and 19th centuries, but that this book will add to the scholarship of northern segregation in the 20th century. This is not a traditional oral history–it is its own creation, one that’s highly accessible and allows readers to imagine the inside experience as if they’d been there themselves.

What aspects of your research most inspired and surprised you?

KW: I was most surprised to discover the continuity of prejudice that this community has dealt with and addressed nonstop for more than three and a half centuries.  Its origins began with slavery, long before the village of Prince Town or the university existed. The designs of racism were established when slavery was an accepted practice, and have continued in other forms through America’s and the neighborhood’s history. In my research, I felt I kept uncovering the deep roots of racism. To see something that disrupts families and the lives of children so blatantly encouraged and accepted by fellow human beings is unnerving.  It’s very similar to the way we accept the prison system today. We act like it’s normal.

The most inspirational parts of this research were definitely the stories of individuals who blossomed throughout their lives in their service to others. I fell in love with Rev. William Robeson (Paul Robeson’s father) who, after escaping from slavery, went to Lincoln University, studied Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, earned two degrees in Theology, and then moved seamlessly into his ministerial leadership and family life in Princeton. His wisdom and grace are extraordinary. I also was enthralled by Betsy Stockton, formerly enslaved as well, who started schools in the 1830s for a people who had been forbidden to learn how to read or write. She founded the Witherspoon School for Colored Children and engaged the entire community in growing a school system that deeply understood the importance of education.

What do you hope your readers will take away from your book?

KW: So often in my own urban neighborhood, I see young black men crossing the street or walking with their heads down so as to deflect the fear they have learned to expect from white people passing by who clutch their bags or glance away. I especially want white readers to understand the impact of this diminishment and to recognize why black lives matter—just as it’s taken for granted that white lives do. I want to open readers’ minds, let them in on another level, and allow them to know how it feels. I want them to realize the courage it takes for an individual to live with hope and with the belief that the human experience we share is sacred.

How did you arrive at the title?

KW: Paul Robeson, the great orator, singer, and social justice advocate, wrote, “I heard my people singing,” when he was describing the beloved Witherspoon neighborhood where he was born. Back when we were conducting interviews in 2000, one of my students, Lauren Miller, suggested it as the title. One of the things we did during that time was to hold several public presentations at the library, the community center, and the university. Students read excerpts from the interviews we had, and residents in the audience heard their own words spoken back to them. It was like hearing singing—all of these different voices blending together. It was exhilarating and was exactly what I wanted people to hear—this fantastic chorus of voices. For me, in their stories, I hear America singing. I hear what this country could be. I feel lifted up, and I think everyone who has been involved with this book feels the same.

What is the greatest thing you have learned from writing this book?

KW: That magic happens. It all started with Hank Pannell’s love for the community and his urgency about saving these unique stories. When he told me that what he and his other Witherspoon neighbors really wanted was an oral history, I thought, how could I possibly do this? What seemed like an impossibility became a reality because it was built on love. I got swept up by the beautiful spirit of this neighborhood, and so did my students. It was contagious. This book shows what can happen when people come together, caring for and honoring one another.

What has been the greatest compliment and toughest criticism given to you as an author?  How have these helped you?

KW: The greatest compliments I’ve been given as an author are from people who’ve told me after reading one of my books, “This changed my life.” It’s been a moment or an emotional connection or a story that opened up the world for them somehow and moved them to new insights and a deeper understanding of our human experience. I’m humbled by this, as well as encouraged, because I, too, have been transformed by doing this work.

The toughest criticism that stands out is when someone wise tells me I’ve gotten something wrong, missed a point, or missed the bigger picture. These incidents act as a vehicle for learning. They sharpen my thinking and help me immensely with revisions. For this book, critical feedback that I received from three historians opened up my perspective and helped me discover more about the centuries of segregation and slavery in the North.

What is your next project?

KW: Before I found out that Princeton University Press wanted to publish I Hear My People Singing, I was immersed in a novel about a Philadelphia-based newspaper reporter at odds with the police in the 1970s. I’m eager to get back to work on it, as well as on several short stories that are treading water, waiting to get to the shore.

Kathryn ‘Kitsi’ Watterson is an award-winning journalist and writer, as well as a beloved teacher of writing. The author of nine books, including Women in Prison, Not by the Sword, You Must Be Dreaming, and Growing Into Love, she’s drawn to issues of justice and to expressing the full range of human experience. Her creative writing classes at the University of Pennsylvania, as they were at Princeton, are known for their close sense of community and personal empowerment, engagement with the world, and a great deal of fun and laughter. In addition, she sings, drums and plays percussion with an improvisational band, The Unity. She lives in the City of Philadelphia.

 

Jerald Podair on the building of Dodger Stadium

PodairThis April marks the 55th anniversary of Dodger Stadium’s grand opening. The stadium is well-known in the world of professional sports for its beauty as well as its history, but when Walter O’Malley moved his Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1957 with plans to construct a new ballpark next to downtown, he ignited a bitter argument over the future of a rapidly changing city. For the first time, City of Dreams by Jerald Podair tells the full story of the controversial building of Dodger Stadium—and how it helped create modern Los Angeles by transforming its downtown into a vibrant cultural and entertainment center. Podair recently took some time to answer a few questions about the book, and how Dodger Stadium came to serve as the field of battle between two visions of Los Angeles’s future.

What drew you to Los Angeles as a historical subject?

JP: I’ve always had the native New Yorker’s outsized pride in his home city, but if New York was America’s city of the twentieth century, Los Angeles may well be its city of the twenty-first. Our national multicultural experiment—one the rest of the world is watching closely—will, for better or worse, play out in Los Angeles. So I became fascinated by the ways in which Los Angeles grew and developed during the twentieth century, especially during the years following World War II, when it began to turn outward toward the nation and world.

I also came to study Los Angeles through the equally fascinating historical figure of Walter O’Malley, who altered the historical trajectories of America’s two most important cities when he moved his Brooklyn Dodgers west in 1957. The New York portion of O’Malley’s story is well documented, the Los Angeles period much less so. O’Malley was strikingly unfamiliar with Los Angeles when he moved there—his total time spent in the city amounted to less than ten days—and he had not anticipated the serious obstacles he would face in building his new stadium. There is a myth, especially prevalent in New York, that O’Malley enjoyed smooth sailing once he arrived in Los Angeles and that the road to Dodger Stadium was an easy one. This, as I discovered, was emphatically not the case. I was drawn to writing about O’Malley and his struggles in Los Angeles as a way to understand the larger story of that city’s journey to power and status in postwar America.

And why Dodger Stadium?

JP: No American sports venue epitomizes its home city as does Dodger Stadium. It would be out of place anywhere else. Dodger Stadium serves as a form of civic glue for a fractured, transient city. The people of Los Angeles disagree about many things, but not about Dodger Stadium. To them, it is an object of pride and fascination. So it seemed to me that Dodger Stadium would be the perfect vehicle through which to tell the story of the emergence of Los Angeles as a modern city through its signature sports venue. I’m always telling my students at Lawrence University to take a smaller (but not small) story and use it to tell a larger one.  This book is an instance of taking my own advice.

You argue in your book that the battle over building Dodger Stadium was really a battle over the modern identity of Los Angeles. What do you mean by that?

JP: The battle over Dodger Stadium divided the city of Los Angeles in half. Two clashing visions of the city’s future lay at stake. A revitalized downtown—which Dodger Stadium would anchor—was essential to the first of those visions, championed by business interests such as the Chandler family, publishers of the Los Angeles Times, and political elites led by Mayor Norris Poulson. Their Los Angeles was an ambitious city of “no little plans,” with civic institutions that matched its growing economic and cultural power. They wanted a downtown comparable to those in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles’s rival to the north, San Francisco.

But Los Angeles was also a city of what the historian Kenneth Starr has called the “Folks,” white middle class property owners with Midwestern roots who had settled in peripheral areas and who felt little connection to downtown and what it represented. To them, Dodger Stadium was a diversion of taxpayer resources—and the Folks identified very strongly as “taxpayers”—from the basic, everyday functions of government in their neighborhoods: schools, roads, policing, and sanitation. So their more circumscribed understanding of what Los Angeles should be and the purposes it should serve clashed with the vision of those who were identified, both geographically and philosophically, with downtown.

Between 1957 and 1962, Dodger Stadium served as the field of battle between these two visions of Los Angeles’s future. We know of course that the stadium was built, so the advocates of “no little plans” won that round. But even today, the argument over the city’s identity continues. Downtown Los Angeles is a much more vibrant place than it was when the Dodgers arrived in 1957, if you measure by institutions and edifices—museums, concert halls, sports arenas, restaurants, high-end apartments, and office towers—but it still lacks the coherency and depth, the soul, if you will, of more historically established downtowns. It remains a work in progress. And there are still those who, like the Folks who opposed Dodger Stadium in the 1950s and 1960s, view downtown as a drain of resources from their own communities. In many ways, they continue to see downtown Los Angeles as irrelevant to their lives. So in that sense, the argument over Dodger Stadium and the city’s modern identity continues today.

In your book, you discuss the political cultures of New York and Los Angeles in the years following World War II. How did they differ?

JP: I think the very different political cultures of New York and Los Angeles determined that Walter O’Malley would get what he needed—affordable land on which to build his privately financed ballpark—from one city but not from the other. New York’s municipal politics in the 1950s featured a strong orientation toward the public sector and organized labor that, while not necessarily anti-capitalist in nature, did not offer an entrepreneur like O’Malley a particularly sympathetic atmosphere.  This meant that when he asked for assistance from New York City officials in acquiring land parcels in Brooklyn that were beyond his individual financial means in order to construct a stadium with his own funds, he was branded—unfairly, in my view—as seeking a “giveaway.” But in Los Angeles, publicly owned land at Chavez Ravine overlooking downtown was made available to O’Malley in exchange for property he owned elsewhere in the city. Los Angeles officials were thus willing to do what their counterparts in New York were not.

In my view, this was because the political culture of Los Angeles—where the statist reforms of the New Deal had less staying power than in New York—was more hospitable to businessmen, especially one like O’Malley whose private undertaking promised to advance the public good. In New York, the focus was almost obsessively on O’Malley’s profits; that the city would benefit from a new Dodger ballpark was deemed of lesser importance. In Los Angeles, the weight accorded these considerations was reversed. In deciding a taxpayer suit seeking to void the Dodger Stadium contract in favor of O’Malley, the California Supreme Court said as much. The Dodgers were permitted to make money on the deal, the court ruled in 1959, as long as there were tangible benefits accruing to the people of Los Angeles. Those benefits—a world-class stadium, not to mention millions of dollars in property taxes paid by the privately held stadium—were enough to justify state assistance to a private entrepreneur. O’Malley moved to Los Angeles for this very reason. Although O’Malley was a businessman and not a philosopher and probably would not have used the term “political culture” to explain his decision to leave New York, this is clearly what he had in mind. Had New York’s political culture been different, he undoubtedly would have remained there. And that would have been Los Angeles’s loss, since along with Walter’s son and successor Peter, the O’Malleys are widely regarded as the best sports ownership group in the city’s history.

Why are Los Angeles politics so difficult to untangle?

JP: One my previous books examined the byzantine politics of New York City, but I can tell you, my hometown has nothing on Los Angeles. For one thing, New York has party identifications. Los Angeles’s nonpartisan system makes it difficult to identify who belongs where. Yes, I knew that say, Mayor Norris Poulson was a Republican (he had served as a GOP congressman) and that Edward Roybal, a Mexican American city councilman who opposed the Dodger Stadium contract, was a Democrat, but there was nonetheless a disorienting quality to the political landscape that made it hard to follow.

Also unlike New York, there were few ethnoreligious identifying markers to guide me. Los Angeles had racial divides, of course, but during the 1950s it was a largely white Protestant city that lacked the deep-seated tribalism of New York. Beyond the Melting Pot, the classic book about the resilience of ethnic and racial politics in New York, could not have been written about Los Angeles. Los Angeles did not have a political machine like New York’s Tammany Hall or even a “power broker” like Robert Moses, who determined what got built in New York during the postwar years. I’m not saying that bosses and dictatorial bureaucrats are good things, of course, but they certainly make a city’s political terrain easier to “read.” Los Angeles’s politics were also relatively decentered, with media taking the place of strong party organizations and referenda (such as the 1958 vote on the Dodger Stadium contract that determined its fate) devolving power to the grassroots.

Approaching Los Angeles, I felt a bit like Walter O’Malley himself, who stepped off the plane from New York in October 1957 to encounter a Los Angeles political landscape with no parties, no machines, no power brokers, no white ethnics, and no center. Disconcerting, to say the least. But like O’Malley, once I got my bearings, I found Los Angeles a fascinating place to be. I feel that the surface of this city’s history has barely been scratched.

How does your book speak to current issues involving public financing for stadiums and arenas in cities seeking to attract or retain sports teams?

JP: When it was completed in 1962, Dodger Stadium was the first privately funded sports venue since Yankee Stadium forty years earlier. Over the past half-century, it has earned a great deal of money for both Dodger ownership and—since it is on the tax rolls—the city and county of Los Angeles. In contrast, municipally financed stadiums invariably fail to recoup their costs in line with their projected timetables. San Francisco’s city-built Candlestick Park, which when it opened in 1960 was compared favorably with the yet-to-be-completed Dodger Stadium, took over 30 years to pay itself off, far longer than expected.

While the costs of private stadium construction are almost prohibitively high today, Dodger Stadium offers a lesson for cities seeking to build sports arenas without saddling themselves with debt or blowing up their budgets: get as much private money as you can. That is easier said than done, of course, because the threat of ownership to leave town or to reject an offer from a suitor city is omnipresent. But private financing beats public spending every time. Walter O’Malley had a personal stake in making Dodger Stadium the cleanest, most welcoming, most efficiently run and most attractive sports venue in America, because it belonged to him. He was responsible for it, good or bad. Around the same time Dodger Stadium went up, the municipally owned Shea Stadium opened in New York to house the National League’s new franchise, the Mets. Arriving well over budget, Shea Stadium was charmless and hulking, with dirty corridors and bathrooms and surly employees. The city of New York maintained it poorly. Unlike Dodger Stadium, no single individual was accountable when things went wrong at Shea Stadium, as they often did. The contrast between private and public ownership could not have been starker.

Another lesson of the Dodger Stadium story is one that many sports economists will dispute, but which I hold to nonetheless: these teams are worth keeping. Something goes out of a city’s soul when a sports franchise leaves. Certainly that was the case in New York, where aging Brooklyn Dodger fans still lament their team’s departure. For all the brave talk about “not needing” a team, after it goes there is an emptiness that even improved municipal bottom lines cannot fill. This is a distinctly non-empirical view I’m propounding, and I’m sure that “the numbers” argue against me, but to cite one example, the last time I was in Seattle I saw “bring back the Sonics” signs in windows, years after their NBA team left for Oklahoma City. Ask Seattle fans—and the city ardently pursued a replacement team a while back—how the money they saved when the Sonics left town feels jingling around in their pockets. It’s cold comfort. They want their team back. Similarly, ask Brooklyn fans what they’d do if they could do it all over again in 1957. The “let them leave” bravado would vanish. They’d want their Dodgers back. They’re baseball fans, not accountants.

Are you a Dodgers fan?

JP: No, I’m actually a lifelong (and long-suffering) fan of the New York Mets, who are the spiritual successors of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a team I am too young to remember personally. But studying and writing about Dodger Stadium—for my money, America’s most beautiful ballpark—has certainly pulled me in the direction of its featured attraction. When you’re sitting in the upper deck at Dodger Stadium at dusk on a summer night in LA with the organ music playing and the San Gabriel Mountains beckoning in the distance, it’s hard not to root for the home team.

Jerald Podair is professor of history and the Robert S. French Professor of American Studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He is the author of The Strike That Changed New York and Bayard Rustin: American Dreamer and City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles.

Jerald Podair: The story of Dodger Stadium

Dodger Stadium, which opened in Los Angeles on April 10, 1962, was the single most controversial building project in the city’s modern history. It was constructed in Chavez Ravine, a neighborhood overlooking downtown, whose Mexican American residents had been dispersed for a public housing project that was never built. In 1957, the city of Los Angeles attracted the Brooklyn Dodgers by promising team owner Walter O’Malley Chavez Ravine for his new stadium on favorable terms. O’Malley agreed to build Dodger Stadium at his own expense.

Critics of the contract between the city and the Dodgers under which the land was transferred labeled it a “giveaway.” Over the next five years they fought a multi-front battle to have the contract voided. They initiated a ballot referendum challenging the contract’s validity that failed by a razor-thin margin and brought a series of taxpayer lawsuits that were initially successful but eventually reversed by the Supreme Court of California. There was also a racially charged eviction of Mexican American homeowners from the Chavez Ravine land by city authorities.

The battle over Dodger Stadium was a civic war that divided Los Angeles in half. But it did not divide the city along the lines we might expect, especially if we adopt the essentialist view of race and class that seems to be in vogue today. It is tempting to view the Dodger Stadium story as a simple one of rich white people on one side and poor people of color on the other. But the truth is more complicated. There is no question that the city’s Latino community was deeply wounded by the Chavez Ravine removals. The evictions have been the subject of plays, films, and songs, and are credited with inspiring the Chicano movement in Los Angeles. They remain a subject of bitter memory today. But a majority of residents of the city’s heavily Latino East Los Angeles council district defied their own anti-contract councilman to vote in favor of the Dodger Stadium deal in the closely contested ballot referendum. Latinos have also constituted the Dodgers’ most loyal and enduring fan base through the years. Fair-weather fans come and go, but the Latino community remains Dodger Blue. The divided character of the Latino response to the Dodger Stadium controversy thus defeats attempts to cast it solely in racial terms.

The most vociferous and passionate opponents of the Dodger Stadium deal, in fact, were white. They were the people the late California historian Kenneth Starr has called the “Folks”: middle-class homeowners, often with Midwestern or Southern roots, who lived in the peripheral areas of the city and harbored conservative cultural and economic sensibilities. Fearful of resources in their outlying communities being siphoned off for the benefit of large-scale undertakings downtown, the Folks were fiercely opposed to the Dodger Stadium project. Their campaign to keep it from being built allied them with the evicted residents of Chavez Ravine and their supporters in the city’s Latino community. Both groups united around the rights of property owners, no matter how humble, to keep what was rightfully theirs.

The coalition in favor of the stadium contract also defied simplistic race-and-class based expectations. Conservative downtown commercial and financial leaders lined up behind the stadium project, as did more liberal representatives of the city’s “Westside,” a center of the building-and-loan, construction, and entertainment sectors with a substantial Jewish population. Both shared an interest in revitalizing a downtown core whose civic and cultural amenities lagged significantly behind those of Los Angeles’s chief rival cities, New York and San Francisco.

These elites were joined by a crucial ally: the city’s African American community, which backed the stadium project overwhelmingly. The Dodgers, were, of course, closely associated with civil rights, having brought Jackie Robinson to the major leagues in 1947. Robinson was a Los Angeles-area native and his endorsement of the Dodger Stadium project was critical in gaining African American support for it.

The battle over Dodger Stadium thus produced interracial, cross-class alliances on both sides of the partisan divide. We can, of course, interpret these alignments as counterintuitive and even aberrational. But this view implies that identity is destiny, and that our political configurations can always be explained by the simple binaries of race and class. At Dodger Stadium, interest politics overcame identity politics. And that may not be a bad thing. In an identity-obsessed contemporary political environment, Dodger Stadium’s example of boundary-crossing allegiances is one we should take to heart.

PodairJerald Podair is professor of history and the Robert S. French Professor of American Studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He is a recipient of the Allan Nevins Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians for “literary distinction in the writing of history.” He is the author of City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles.