Presenting my own research, and finding place in world history

Started off my spring break last weekend with a visit to Savannah, to attend my first history conference. It was a fairly small assembly, the Georgia Association of Historians annual conference, but I was fairly nervous because I was presenting my paper on Young J. Allen and his mission and education work in China. This was my debut  as a historian, more or less, since this is what we do, talk about our research with each other. In a way, this was what I most worried about--concerned that I wouldn't be able to answer a question, or someone would grill me or point out a gaping hole I had somehow missed. It was unnecessary worrying. I've spent awhile on this paper, had the luxury of more time with it than other busy historians and professors have with newer ideas and less structured research topics, so I need not have worried over any hypothetical holes. That is not to say my work on Allen is done--it probably never will be. And my fellow panelists had several very interesting thoughts on avenues to pursue to further develop my paper and argument about the life and times of the Methodist educator. My voice never quavered, and I went away feeling satisfied and more confident. I sometimes have inklings that perhaps I am a fraud, undeserved to have my name down next to PhDs and seasoned professors and professional historians. I feel a little less so each day, and this was a big step in the right direction.

My panel fell in the last session out of five over the weekend. I attended a couple of the ones before it, the highlight being a panel of authors and editors of an upcoming history text for the survey-level world history course at the college level. The collaborators are all professors at University of West Georgia, and what they are creating is inspiring: a textbook, in two volumes, that tells the larger themes and histories of the world using place as the vehicle. Following a roughly chronological order, the author of each chapter takes the history of a specific city in the world that has larger significance in the scope of world history, and, because that author has been selected for their own connection to and expertise on the city, they can convey some of that personal connection to the student. If the work is as successful as the three chapters that were presented, world history will come across in a more personal way than any survey class textbook or method or pedagogy that I ever had--in high school or college.

I have personal beef with world history classes, as I always feel they have failed me. Somehow getting to all the political, social, cultural, linguistic, religious, technological, and other aspects of the human past across in any sort of order is our goal, and I've never felt I got all I could have from them. I get mixed up, twisted around, many important parts fall by the wayside in an effort to cram the "important" stuff. Ironic that I really do enjoy history, but have never done well in my own world history classes--literally I have poor grades to show for them.

My master's program so far has facilitated an ongoing conversation (with myself, but also with professors and classmates) about place, about what it means to residents and foreigners and immigrants and displaced people. About what it means to have a place or to be without one, about the literal and also figurative meaning and position of place in American history and world history, in family history, and local and regional history. Hearing that there will soon be a survey class textbook based on place, that conveys the complexity and drama of our global past via Xian, Crete, Mecca, Samarkand, Cape Town, Paris, Berlin, Dubai--it truly gives me hope for a course that I have had a lot of issues with in my own experience.

(The person who conceived the concept for this book is Elaine MacKinnon, who chaired the panel I attended. The book's working title is Places of Encounter: Time, Place and Connectivity in World History, slated to be published by CQ Press. Couldn't find much on this book online yet, but let's hope it gets more exposure soon.)

A city, not a blank slate. More like "an empty and brightly lit stage with lots of directors, scripts, auditions, designers, audiences, and reviewers."

I haven't written recently, but it has not been for lack of compelling ideas and discussion in my classes and reading. It has been in fact because of too much of it, alongside a new, second job that I have taken on, and the regularly hefty amount of school work. But I just finished another book for class, that has again drawn me into contemplating a few other compelling books and themes, and alas, this is the place where I can put those thoughts concretely.

Historian Alison Isenberg's 2004 book Downtown America: A history of the place and the people who made it is in fact a testament to the people, more than anything, who are responsible for the good and bad and the complicated personality of U.S. cities today. Oftentimes the city holds a nostalgic identity for people, a loss of something bygone, a sort of deflated self that holds some sort of hard-to-define sadness. Isenberg reminds us however, that in considering our efforts today at defining our downtown economic areas and "Main Streets," we must recognize that "the democratic, melting-pot downtown has been an evolving ideal, not a past accomplished reality from which Americans have strayed." Certainly there was never a democratic reality in the segregated shopping districts of the early and mid twentieth century, yet it is oftentimes portrayed or revered in memoriam as having been a free-wheeling, glorious environment. That may have been so, but for a very selective group of individuals; for everyone else, it has a much more complex definition, a much less rosy spot in memory.

She also sheds light on the criticism of some of today's shopping centers that hark back to historic facades or utilize (some might say exploit) nostalgia in the creation of their urban commercial centers. This is not a new desire, this image of a tidy, historical ideal. In the early twentieth century, there was an entire industry around artists' renditions of American cities, which the book's images show to be very much tidy clean-ups of what the actual cityscapes looked like.

This is not a criticism of either the 1920s-50s, nor of the most recent efforts, either by Isenberg or myself. Rather it is part of her argument that it has been and will continue to be the people who construct the cityscape, both literally in physical development, and ideally in how they invision their city and its image.

It got me thinking of another study on the American city, or one in particular--the public history project that has resulted Lowell, Massachusetts as the subject of an entire National Park, and the recent book on its history. One of the questions at the core of Cathy Stanton's whole study of the city is whether or not economic development and interest is compatible with public historians' goals of preserving and interpreting a city's past and its meaning in American history. Both sides can be argued, I am not here to answer this, but this same thought came back many times while I read about the larger developments of the economy of "downtown America" over the years, and the many vested interests that laid at the heart of each decision within a city's planning. Most often, it was businessmen, investors, retailers, and real estate appraisers who were making the biggest decisions, but in the wake of urban renewal projects and other controversial methods of "cleaning up the downtown," historians and preservationists had their say as well, spanning much of the city's recent past (1980s to the present).

Most compelling to me is the way in which every vested party uses the past to their own ends, and how many of the symbols of the past appear very differently depending on who is looking at them. This was most explicit in Isenberg's description of the 1997-98 exhibit "Main Street Five-and-Dimes," which was on display in Washington, D.C. at the National Building Museum. The exhibit's interpretation says nothing about the enormous effects of integration of the downtown, and how many of the department stores had not been serving African American urban citizens. She uses the comment book to show just how much people really did want to talk about the effects of a separated society on the downtown, even if the curators only wanted to show nostalgic "thingamabobs" and enlist positive images of the way things used to be.

Some of those are truly thought-provoking, so much so that I will post the entire excerpt a little later on. But it reminded me again of how much specific images and symbols from the past are used to many different ends. To investors and retailers, symbols of the past utilize memories, or perceived memories, to add significance to their project. To some white citizens, like this guestbook commentators, it was a vision of a "happier, kinder world," while to other less-than-subtle commentators, it was a positive memory of "'whites only' drinking fountains--the way it should be." To black visitors, it was that "some change is good," and that these old department store must be considered in the wider context of the times they were in, including the fact that while they no longer exist, life itself has in fact gotten better for many people who live around the same places the stores were located. One guest book writer agreed that yes, it was a look back on a simpler time. "Simpler perhaps but was it better?" Indeed, a more complex interpretation that gives us more to consider.

Surely I have gone past making a concise point. But my intention was just to unite the discussion in the Lowell Experiment about what history means to certain people while having wholly different definitions to others, and trying to reconcile every group and perspective when your goal is to consider the larger narrative of an entire community, or city, or even a larger metro area. In Lowell as well, part of the complicated story was often the notion of history on an upward ride, that we have surely improved our lives from those of our grandparents, that we no longer suffer in factories. And in the case of Lowell, residents could tout its more recent past as having also given this same improvement to new immigrant groups. One of the corkscrews thrown into its cohesive interpretive plan has been that complicated truth that this reality has really only moved to another part of the world, and that there are people in other countries who would like this to someday be their story too. That is something that Lowell has recently included in their story, making it altogether more complicated and global, but also reflecting much more accurately the world we live in, as one that is connected to the past, rather than separate and removed from it.

This trajectory is indeed a labyrinth of complicated stories, controversies, diverse groups with specific vested interests both in their past and present lives or portrayals, and when it comes down to it, questionable whether it truly is an upward climb of improvement at all points in time. Almost certainly it is not.

But that doesn't get Isenberg down. "It remains to be seen which constellation of values and participants will chart the course of downtown real estate and urban commerce in the twenty-first century," she says, bringing it back around to her book's economic focus. But, during the twentieth century, "Main Street [was] a place to teach, debate, exclude, fantasize, argue,  include, make new dreams, and visit old ones." Maybe we start there to find the best way to write inclusive, thoughtful histories of our city spaces, and of the communities that live in them. Lowell is certainly one prickly example of this, are there will surely be more.

(The colorful quotation that is the title of this post is by Isenberg, found on page 313 of her book.)

"History is a giant stone that lies on top of us"

Americans don't tend to see the past in their everyday lives. If they do, it might be because of a personal or ethnic connection, or maybe they hear the president harken back to Sputnik and the Space Race, and greatness of our past. But the average person tends not to feel overly connected to their area's past, nor do they see how history could be valuable in their own lives. Disengagement, you might call it. We have, after all, spent our existence as a nation on a purposeful mission to be constantly reinventing ourselves, getting away from the demons that held down the European ancestors of those early settlers (and with the notion that we were claiming empty land, preordained for us, but that's beside this point). No time for the past.

In an excellent essay (in this book), public historian Michael Frisch talks about this relationship we have with history, using his 1980s perspective to talk about the Vietnam War in our national memory. First, talking about the war was out of bounds because it was current, still present. Then, you couldn't look at the war or its roots because it was the past, an episode that needed to be "put behind us." But what happens then, he points out, is that while we have the living memories, those memories themselves get warbled, people block things out, or chose not to remember. Even films about the war, while providing heroic characters for audiences and poignant stories, keep these figures pointedly isolated from the history of the event, from what it means historically. This puts us at a disadvantage in analyzing our past.

I don't have an answer, nor even a suggestion, about the state of this relationship, or about possible implementations to bring the two, American and American history, closer together. I do hope that some of the projects I want to work on help to bring people closer to their past in ways that are meaningful for their present, for the daily lives now.

Frisch quotes a Nigerian friend who has this to say about Americans and our disconnection from what's behind us:

"What's so mysterious?" he observed.

"Why bother with history when you're rich and powerful? All it can do is tell you how you climbed to the top, which is a story its probably best not to examine too closely. No, you don't need history. What you need is something more like a pretty carpet that can be rolled out on ceremonial occasions to cover all those bloodstains on the stairs. And, in fact, that's what you usually get from your historians."

Then he went on solemnly:

"For the rest of us, its a lot different. We don't have the luxury of ignoring history. History is a giant stone that lies on top of us; for us, history is something we have to struggle to get out from under."

To say that most of American history has been seen through the eyes of the powerful is a familiar criticism, but we rarely acknowledge, as my friend suggests, how profoundly power, privilege, and freedom from historical constraint have conditioned our basic relation to the past.

There was a sense of liberation from the toils of the European past that early Americans felt, and to a large extent, we still run from it today. It is hard to think about bad things in our history. But it is obtuse to ignore them and never face unpleasant truths or critical interpretations of what happened before us (or, more difficultly, during our lifetimes). Taking a deep, contemplative look at the American past does not make anyone unpatriotic. That bloody stairway we climbed? We better know it well, for all its good and bad.

The city and the country

The semester has shifted into full swing, even though I have yet to attend a class. I've been doing so much reading though, and already have so many dog-eared pages and underlined sentences and bracketed paragraphs, I can tell it's going to be a theme here for awhile: the public and history, the relationship, the interaction, the communication challenges, the chasm between public memory and historical awareness and the world of academic scholarship. Readings for two of my classes have overlapped to a freakish degree, meaning I have read literally dozens of articles and chapters in the last week and every single one has been on this subject: the public and history, and public historians.

I do love when class readings overlap with similar themes, authors, and topics, as it creates an even deeper dialogue for my own thinking on whatever it is I'm focused on. It almost always surprises me too, when it happens, because it has often been in seemingly unrelated classes. These aren't as surprising. One is Museum Studies, the other is Intro to Public History.

There are so many juicy subjects that I have been pondering this week, most of which I don't have time to develop into larger posts, and quite honestly, my extended writings on some of these things might rehash or drive into the ground the words and arguments the historians have already composed. But because some of it is so juicy, so thought-provoking to me, I have to share, if for nothing else than to have some of these tidbits in one place.

So here:

This quotation is from William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, from the prologue, in which he dissects his childhood notions of the city as compared to the country, and how those contain such specific constructs in our minds. His thoughts absolutely resonated with me, with some of my own childhood perceptions, and with those moments of revelation when you discover something so stunningly simple that still took you years to figure out.

Never having lived in a great city, I had no idea how little I understood it, but my continuing instinct was to mistrust and dislike it. Loving the rural landscape--and later, as I discovered the West, loving still wilder land as well--I felt quite certain that I could never call the city home. Like many who came to adult consciousness during the environmentalist awakening of the late sixties, I wished to live close to "nature." If asked to choose between city and country, I'd have felt no hesitation about my answer. More important, I'd have thought it perfectly reasonable--perfectly natural--to pose the choice in just these stark terms. Chicago represented all that was most unnautral about human life. Crowded and artificial, it was a cancer on an otherwise beautiful landscape.

One of the pleasures of childhood and adolescence is that one can experience emotions of this sort without worrying too much about their possible contradictions. These feelings came easily--my love of nature and the pastoral countryside, my dislike for the city, and beneath them, the romanticism which had schooled me in such perceptions. It took me a long time to realize that I had learned them from a venerable tradition in American and European culture, and an even longer time to suspect that they were distorting my sense of city and country alike. I can't pinpoint when it happened, but I gradually began to sense that my own life (including my affection for things natural) was not so free of the city and its institutions as I had once believed.

Reflecting on the various expeditions I made between my parents' Madison home and assorted rural retreats around Wisconsin, I became troubled by what seemed a paradox in my easy use of the word "natural." The more I learned the history of my home state, the more I realized that the human hand lay nearly as heavily on rural Wisconsin as on Chicago. By what peculiar twist of perception, I wondered, had I managed to see  the plowed fields and second-growth forests of southern Wisconsin--a landscape of former prairies now long vanished--as somehow more "natural" than the streets, buildings, and parks of Chicago? All represented drastic human alterations of earlier landscapes. Why had I seen some human changes as "natural"--the farm, the woodlot, the agricultural countryside--but not the other changes that had made "nature" into "city"? How could one human community be "natural" and another not?

Why I love what I do:

Finishing up the semester next week, and I've got one major paper left. The class is Issues and Interpretations in American History, and without being to prosaic, the professor has decreed that our final assignment is to consider and reflect on the twelve books and three articles we've read during the last fourteen weeks and use them to consider the issues and interpretations we face as future historians. So easy, it's hard.

I'm writing on the meaning of race and class in American history and the relationships of those social constructs to the notion of republicanism--which has been a foundational theme in our class. This is the opening to my paper, and the reason I love what I am doing:

Since the advent of history as a profession in the Unites States, beginning around the time Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier closed and discussed the effects this would have on "the American,” the historian has essentially waged an ongoing battle against a teleological past. That is, we have spent several hundred years constructing a history along a singular line, often blatantly leaving out many of its complications, in an attempt to tell a clean narrative. Then, around midcentury last, we realized our error: the din of missing voices was to loud to ignore, and we began again, reinterpreting our past, doing all we could to stave off that urge to make the past into one nice, clean history. Our natural compulsion leans toward a teleological storyline, and so we continue to teach schoolchildren—and sometimes, even undergraduates—from textbooks that grandly sum things up, so that they can walk away with a set of “the facts.” But the best thing about history is the din of all those voices, every interpretation and perspective, and the elementary truth that in order to tell the whole story, history can neither be simple nor short, nor known by any one person—ever.

So to embark upon a discussion of the issues and interpretations in American history is to admit that there is inherently no crisply-drawn right and wrong in the art of argument, and that all we can attempt to do is add to the historiographical conversation that began long before, hopefully in a constructive way, and come out with a better understanding of our past and the historians who have collected it.

And I plunge from here boldly into the complexities of those stubborn demons we like to muddle, misinterpret, reinterpret, deconstruct, reconstruct, and at times, ignore or pretend do not exist. Race, class, America.


Turks in Germany, calling nationalilty into question again

It is a complicates issue, as I wrote recently, identifying oneself in the hyphenation-happy categorization rampant in within the notion of modern American nationality. But as has long been touted, this is not an all bad phenomenon. Yes, it puts people in oftentimes artificial categories, Chinese-Americans born here still caught awkwardly between a culture they have grown up in and the culture of their ancestors, which collide in their homes and schools and jobs. Japanese-Americans taking desperate measures in WWII to ensure to their neighbors that they, too, are Americans in this--and Arab-Americans who have spent the last decade being reminded of that 1940s episode. Hispanic Americans who today get stuck in the middle of an immigration battle and animosity towards an ever-larger Spanish speaking minority and the threat of linguistic heterogeneity.

Yet there is enough of a belief among Americans to have ensured that through everything, we have made ourselves more multicultural today, even if it surely provides plenty of demons for us to face in our public lives (battles over where to build a mosque, for instance, or absurdly, the President's ethnic origins).

The United States is not alone, for certain. Consider the xenophobia that just as often plagues European nations, like Germany's fifty-year troubled relationship with its Turkish immigrants, beginning with the Recruitment Treaty of 1961, when Turkish people moved to Germany as workers in building West Germany's "economic miracle"--its massive growth at this time. Many stayed, much to the chagrin of Germany nationals. Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel came out and said recently that multiculturalism in Germany had "utterly failed." This clash of nationals against immigrants was the subject of a recent story on The World, where correspondent Matthew Brunwasser quotes a gentleman named Cerel, who says the problem at the core of the relationship today is that "Germans expect Turks in assimilate, not integrate. In other words, to be indistinguishable from Germans."

Says Cerel: "There was always xenophobia in Germany, but right now it's mainstream, it's uttered in a situation where Turks are so integrated as they have never been before. That's not a good sign." Turks have been deemed a scapegoat for German woes, but Turks are beginning to look back towards their native Turkey, as their homeland is booming, while Germany is not looking nearly as rosy. The economy of Turkey is expected to grow 7 percent this year, more than twice that of Germany's, according to the news story.

Yet Brunwasser goes on to say, such a tormented relationship has created the feeling among some Turks of being an outcast in both countries--being in one long enough to no longer identify as strongly with your native culture, but clearly still looking like a foreigner in your adopted land. This is a very nearly universal phenomenon in immigrant groups (indeed, very often even if you are relocating within your own country, but far enough removed from your cultural roots). What often happens as well, is that the citizens of the adopted country often know little about their immigrant populations' cultures and traditions for quite some time, engendering misunderstandings and racial prejudices based on stereotypes for far too long.

Brunwasser concludes: "The mono-ethnic countries of Europe don't have hyphenated identities, like America. You're either a German, or a foreigner. Though if today's demographic and economic trends continue, Germany, and Europe as a whole, could be forced to change."

I say with confidence, that line "could be forced to change" most surely hides the larger truth: will be forced to change. Or even, simply, (hopefully,) will change. The U.S. has its own immense multicultural shortcomings and the hyphenated nationality is arguably one of them; but I appreciate and value it compared to the alternative.


America and nationality, a troubled love story

For a long time, leaders (and many citizens) saw the United States as a country of, and for, white people. This is clear in our treatment of Native Americans and our trampling of many of the contracts we drew with them, and obviously, in our treatment of African slaves who then developed an African-American identity long before they were seen as legal citizens. With the powerful, nearly mythological construct of their "Manifest Destiny" backing expansion, Americans blazed across the continent, reaching the West coast and declaring nearly all that land, save for a small portion for Natives, as theirs.

But when it came time to seek other pieces of the Americas, there was a marked reluctance and not nearly the same sense of a God-given right to any land. We like to think that this was our sensible side taking charge, smartly avoiding the mishaps of other more established imperial powers, like England and Spain, whose empires were waning, and we saw the utter hassle of maintaining that much territory. There is a bit of truth in that.

More compelling, however, is this uninterrupted notion of America as a republic for white citizens. The colonization of African Americans back to Africa lay on the table long enough in American policy history to stand as a solid example of just how incompatible some saw a United States that contained large minority groups; need we even mention the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants for twenty years upon its signing in 1882? (Asian immigrants weren't even allowed to earn citizenship until the 1940s.) We've had a treacherous, scarred, love-hate relationship with our immigrants, even while we became known as "the Melting Pot," but this relationship was especially acute when it came to annexing territories not contiguous to the North American continent.

Historian Eric Love argues that racism in the era of American imperialism was not used to support imperial annexation, harking on the "white man's burden," but was actually what anti-imperialists used against that cause. In the cases of Santo Domingo (today the Dominican Republic) and the Philippines, large populations of non-white natives was a large deterrent in making these islands part of the United States. Alaska had no such trouble, as Americans could more easily see it as assimilating with the nation as it was. In the case of Hawaii, that far-flung acquisition, the islands were annexed after enough convincing was done in showing that a large number of whites already lived there, the natives were docile, and populations like the Portuguese were, for all intents and purposes, white already. Plus, they argued, we need to protect those whites already living there.

So whether the Unites States has sought the land that happens to be occupied by non-whites, or whether non-whites have showed up at our doorstep and requested residency here, determining the fine line between citizenship and race has never been easy.

I would like to take this further and consider this fickle, slippery past in terms of the notion of nationality and self-identity. As the twentieth century developed around what started a bit earlier, with the world's structure as all land drawn up and broken into nation-states, we added another layer of personal identification: nationality. Before that the world operated on a more local level, and people's lives were far more contingent on what township you were from than anything else. Also significant was the language you spoke.

Fast forward a hundred years past Americans' fixation with non-whites standing as majorities in any hypothetical new states, and we are still discussing the issue of assimilation and "American" identity, though with far less racist undertones and with more modern logic. (Check into Love's book for some juicy stuff on our imperial era and his argument, which breaks the conventional historical narrative. He backs up his gutsy point with solid research.)

Case in point: the controversy surrounding the hypothetical admittance of Puerto Rico as a state, which, with its current school system and organization, would be a Spanish-speaking state. Seem like we have the same qualms with this concept that we did a hundred years ago--not along the lines of race, but along the lines of cultural assimilation and American nationality; really, we're still very much talking about what it means to be American and what things you must inherently give up from your old country when you chose to reside in another.

Tim Schultz, a lobbyist with the group U.S. English, spoke to PRI corespondent Patrick Cox recently on this subject, in Cox's World in Words podcast (which shows up regularly here). He made some interesting points throughout the interview, but on the subject of Puerto Rico, all I kept thinking about was how much his statements harked back to the rationale of more than a century ago, when we could not fathom the idea of having non-whites and non-English speakers as a majority in any state in the United States. It would mean a completely new voice added to our national congress, which was abominable back then. But in 2010, Congress looks a bit different; so the issue today is not ethnicity as it is language--that hugely significant linguistic identity, and the problem of citizens whose primary language is Spanish as somehow bad for our country, and certainly bad for our national unity. Both of those notions are fraught with cracks, as the country's past can attest to: it's not had an easy relationship with its immigrants, but it need not be said that the immigrants who've fought their way in over the centuries have benefited our larger "identity."

To Schultz, it in unconscionable to have any American kids going through school never learning English, which he feels would be the case in Puerto Rico if it became a state. Under the current federal education laws, children have to take standardized tests in English within three years of entering into a public school in this country; this is an incentive for students from non-English family backgrounds to learn the language quickly. As a territory, Puerto Rico is exempt from that law, he points out, and he argues that this sets an unhealthy precedent were it to become a state. I have to pause here to wonder, if it did become a state, wouldn't that exemption be called into question? If Puerto Rico became a state, there would be many things about their now-standing status that would change--tax exemptions for one--and it is a bit premature to suggest that we would just overlook this language issue upon seriously admitting Puerto Rico as a state.

He cites their economic troubles as an incentive for Puerto Ricans to learn English if admitted. "They're going to fall completely behind economically," if they do become a Spanish-speaking state, he says. He argues this based on the fact that if incorporated now, it would be the poorest state by far. Again, these are far-reaching hypothetical issues, and I think many Puerto Ricans could argue against him on this, while still others would agree, and would certainly expand their English language skills. After all, as Schultz also says, there are immigrants and Hispanics who agree wholeheartedly in English as the language of the U.S.

The main resolution his organization seeks is ensuring that the incentives exist for immigrants to learn English. As he said to Cox: "English is more important for American now than it ever has been, because we live in a globalized, information-age economy. And we're all connected more than we ever [have been]," Schultz says. I would agree, and add that the incentives are quite similar no matter what country you're educated in.

If Spanish rises to a sort of co-official status with English, Schultz says later on, "It's not that everybody would suddenly become bilingual; it's that Spanish speakers would less and less need to learn English to survive in the United States, and that creates a sort of second mainstream, if you will, a sort of second linguistic mainstream, in which Spanish speakers would become, you know, doing worse economically, and frankly, probably a lot less likely to self identify as Americans."

There it is again, this pernicious, pervasive tendency to define things in terms of nationality, and national identity; the reality is, without veering too far into postmodernism here, that there are millions of Americans who identify themselves as such while also holding Chinese heritage, Mexican heritage, Indian heritage-- and for many, their appearances and family languages will ensure that those identities remain with them as well. The hyphenated nationality (Chinese-American, Italian-American, even African-American) is synonymous with being American, even when we're born and raised in the U.S. So it is a funny thing, nationality, and our preoccupation with it.

"Come see Tribes of Genuine Ubangi Savages: From Africa's Darkest Depths!" and how National Geographic is like the circus

The boobies in National Geographic have always bothered me. The magazine's founding creed is based on "the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge," and has certainly aimed to share the world with its readers since the National Geographic Society was founded in 1888. (Its more recognized creed is to share "the world and all that is in it.") The magazine is a cultural icon whose logo is widely recognized, and the organization has expanded to include the television channel, magazines specifically for travelers and children, and a film production company, in addition to the society-funded projects by scientists and explorers that it has supported for decades.

But in many popular culture references, what people associate with the magazine are tribal women, scantily clad in natural clothing, with sagging breasts fully exposed. It is nudity, meaning people tend to look closely out of a combination of fascination with the human body and intrigue over this person so unlike ourselves. What has bothered me for years, ever since I began to read the magazine regularly and every time I have a conversation about the organization's work, is that most people don't even know the immense diversity in the reporting that is published in NGM. I remember a conversation with one of my classmates several years ago: when I told her I thought it would be an awesome job to write for the magazine, she advised me to learn "some African languages, like South African [Afrikaans]," so that I would be prepared for the kinds of assignments they fund. Beyond the obvious ignorance in thinking that this is the most important region or language in Africa, it infuriated me that this is still the perception of the publication.

The documentary film that accompanies the book Guns, Germs, and Steel is another educational victim of this exposure. I've had to watch it in two different classes (one a sociology and the other a historiography class), and both times I have been driven nearly mad by the amount of time in which Papua New Guinean women are chopping trees, breasts flopping all about. It distracts the viewer from the narration in the film, since it is such a cultural difference that it is still foreign and somewhat strange to watch these women do their daily work, enough so that it comes across as a distasteful amount of female nudity-- even if they are foreign to us, and in their natural environment.

And this week I had a significant revelation about these boobies, these irksome stays of cultural difference. For one of my classes, we read The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top, and it is worth buying for the historical images of circus advertisements and performers alone; however, it is also an amazing exploration of the societal underpinnings that were both reinforced and challenged by the rise (and then decline) of the Circus Age--including gender norms for men and women, human-animal relationships, industrialization and the railroads, and--most critically--imperialism and the creation of an American (read: white) identity.

You cannot talk about the circus in history without facing the sideshow tendency of finding "weird," "Oriental" and "savage" men and women to put on display, for the very fact that they had distinct physical or ethnic differences. The author, Janet Davis, actually has a background in South Asian studies, and is familiar (to my delight!) with Edward Said's theory of Orientalism (click that link, please--it's a video), which argues the simple point that they way we acquire knowledge about other people and cultures is not objective and is the result of larger realms of influence--like political or national interests, for example. We assume things about people in a certain country or region without ever having been there, or indeed, perhaps never having met anyone from there. Whole cultural identities can be created from several bits of information or by the skin color or appearance of a foreign person, and this built up notion of the "Other" has its foundations in an unconscious formation of "Us" as well. (I spent time with these theories while studying South Asia and India in particular-- see this post.)

This is the most important part of Davis's work on the circus to me, as the danger of putting "Oriental girls" on display, or making a showcase of the African women who practice the custom of stretching their necks, is that we "essentialize" entire cultures and civilizations into the one or two strange or mystifying things we know about them--and rarely are these representative of the larger culture. "Chinese people eat dogs": essentializing. "Hindu women are sexually overt": essentializing. "Muslims are religious fundamentalists": essentializing. Even the clothing worn by other people is enough to create an essentialized version of India, or of Vietnam, or Sudan. It blocks our ability to see beyond any of these sometimes obscure, usually misinformed "traits."

Never had I put the two things together: "native" breasts and Orientalism. Never, and it seems so obvious now, had I thought about the fact that the National Geographic Society began its study of the world in 1888, during the very era when Americans were embracing the notion of the "white man's burden," that the world was full of savages who, through a "proper" education could be "civilized" and made (willingly, of course) into modern men and women, like those in the United States. But the Society was very much a product of this larger interest in all that is foreign and curious outside our borders.

Just like the circus shows, National Geographic used the appearance of foreign--often tribal--women as spectacles for the expanding American consumer society. From Davis's book:

World's fair organizers, the publishers of National Geographic, and circus impresarios alike used nonwhite women's bodies to make educational claims. Racial "color" defined the degree of nudity that was deemed appropriate for display. National Geographic, for one, in 1896 first published photographs of bare-breasted black women. Euroamericans easily accepted such photographs of women of color as edifying, while topless white women were found only at seedy carnival cooch shows and nascent strip joints ... National Geographic first photographed topless white women in the 1980s--and then only from behind! (92-93)

I turned to my own copy of the tiny book of NG Society history that I purchased at their store back in '07 during a visit to Washington, D.C., and low and behold, there was the picture, from November 1896, of a Zulu bride and groom on their wedding day, the bride with fully-exposed breasts. The caption reads: "Flouting prudish conventions of the day, National Geographic dared to publish photos of cultures 'as they are.'"

I am not condemning the National Geographic Society and its efforts towards the "diffusion of geographic knowledge." While not perfect, it has also allowed millions of readers to experience a world beyond their armchair that they never would have seen otherwise; curiosity continues to draw readers, like myself, and has been a vital part of its success. So I am not denouncing its merit, nor will I cancel my subscription. I am simply finding an answer, in the social norms of the era of its inception--as well as the normative values that have continued through the twentieth century--to the question of the tribal boobies that have haunted my relationship with this piece of American popular media over the last seven-or-so years. The editors' decision to publish Zulu nudity was as much influenced by their desire to break social norms and push the envelope as it was by the desire to spread knowledge and educate their readers. But their decision was also fueled by the up-and-coming position of Americans in a world that was suddenly shrinking, where elephants might pass by your home as the circus came to town, and everyday families were faced with "Tribes of Genuine Ubangi Savages: From Africa's Darkest Depths" and "Oriental India: Living Groups of Strange and Curious People" and "The Most Startling Discovery of the Century: Princess Mu Kaun, Royal Padaung Giraffe-Neck Woman from Burma."

In a very significant way, topless tribal women in the magazine are still part educational, part human of "Other" who we gawk at. The way our world has continued to shrink, such groups are no longer as strange to our eyes, nor as numerous in disbursement, as the modernized world has crept into these civilizations, for better or worse. The point we've reached now, the publication's leaders will have to make a decision soon about whether it is the color of the skin that permits them to publish breasts; that is, if tribal people can be published topless because it is educational, at what point is the line drawn? Many women who look very like those in the pages of the magazine live in the modern world, yet at what point do they become modern enough to be removed from the "educational" list? It is not that I am a prude; rather, it bothers me that outdated essentialized views of permissible nudity have continued to be the standard long after racist ideologies of nationality have been condemned for their ignorance--at least on the surface. Those Papua New Guinean women are still considered foreign enough, and in their natural atmosphere, to fare on the side of education. But both times I've watched the documentary, I didn't agree.

Atlanta needs a song.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5W73HaVQBg[/youtube]

No, the one by Jermaine Dupri and Ludacris ("Welcome to Atlanta") just won't cut it; there is much beyond the parties "'til 8 in the morning." The remix version is also not quite good enough to fully represent us. (But, they are crunk, I suppose.)

This crossed my mind as I was driving home from school, from a class period devoted to the Civil War, specifically the Atlanta Campaign, Sherman's larger campaign through Georgia in 1864, and Lee Kennett's book Marching Through Georgia: The Story of the Soldiers and Civilians During Sherman's Campaign. I felt a very specific connection to this history, as we talked about the areas where many of the battles occurred, as well as spots north of the city that saw Union soldiers that summer and fall--like Ezra Church, Allatoona, Big Shanty, Cassville, Ringgold--and south of Atlanta, like Jonesboro, and on down to the coast, Fort McAllister, and Savannah. There was a strange jolt in feeling personally connected to the places I was learning about. Is this what everyone else gets in their stomachs when they learn about the history of their hometowns, or through discovering their genealogical history or researching old inhabitants and stories of their homes? I have clearly been missing out.

Suddenly I have a personal, vested interest in learning about Union General James McPherson and his efforts during the battles for Atlanta that resulted in a street named after him, as well as one of the few memorials to a Union soldier that stands in the South. All these things that happened, that Kennett talks about, culminating in the burning of Atlanta, happened where I live, and suddenly I see the use in having a real hometown. Not that I am really only just understanding this concept, but I did decide that perhaps Atlanta is fast becoming my hometown, if for no other reason than I will certainly know more about it than any other place very soon-- if I don't already. I am considering for my spring classes U.S. Cities and Metropolitan Atlanta both, which means a healthy dose of cities, and of this city. Not to mention, feeling a part of a city is most of what makes it your hometown anyway.

I also shall boldly say that Kennett's book is far and beyond one of the very best I've read on Georgia history, and especially on the Civil War. The sheer number of firsthand accounts he uses, while keeping the story readable and downright interesting is a true feat. His stories of General William T. Sherman, his soldiers, the Confederate generals (especially General John Bell Hood) and soldiers, and civilians--slave and free--who were affected told the story of the iconic Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea in a way that brought it to life.

I was most impressed with the way he portrays the experiences of the men on the battlefield, pointing out that the very lack of objectivity we sometimes dislike in war stories is in fact also quite useful in learning how battle was: "to anyone trying to construct battle as men experienced it, the way things seemed is in fact as important as the way they were."

Reading Kennett has given greater depth to a Civil War I have long known about, but have not seen in as many shades of gray. The “Civil War” quickly becomes a crystallized, invariable part of the American past to the average person, albeit an enormous piece of the narrative; Kennett’s foray beyond that hardened image adds those intricate shades, a contribution that proves helpful to every Georgian or interested reader who picks up the book. I definitely recommend it.

He also makes clear to me the immense accomplishment of Sherman and his men just making it to Atlanta, what with the rugged terrain and lack of useful maps; then again, the terrain across the country during their time is far beyond what I could conceive, and Atlanta hard to imagine then compared to my view today. All the more reason for me to keep learning about it. All the more reason it's time for another song about it, more reminiscent of what "Empire State of Mind" stirs in the heart about New York City's inspire power.

P.S. I'll start by visiting the Cyclorama. Never been.

On loss, the human experience

I've been thinking a lot about loss today, about sorrow, and grief, and the things that can tear our lives apart. My Uncle Rick died last night, at the age of 52, of complications from a pulmonary embolism. Not only was it very unexpected, but he is the first of my aunts and uncles to pass away, of my father's siblings and their spouses; everyone is trying to come to terms with it, especially my uncle's children and his wife, my dad's sister, Sally.

On top of that, I have just finished reading Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic by Erskine Clarke, a book whose massive chronology of white and black plantation families in Liberty County, Georgia, contains a century's worth of deaths, from every imaginable cause, during the nineteenth century.

What's more, I was reviewing the Boston Globe's photography page, The Big Picture, which had an extremely touching and heart-wrenching photo report on Afghanistan; it never fails to overwhelm me when I think of the soldiers and civilians who live everyday in the war zone and endure danger, injuries, and deaths of their loved ones and friends on a daily basis, in fact never knowing if they will be the next victim. War punches me in the gut if it catches me in the right moment and I'm feeling emotional.

Just in case I wasn't already at the edge of my emotional capacity and about to topple over the edge, one of my e-mails from the State Department tonight was on the recent conference that was held in Washington, D.C., the Historical Conference on the American Experience in Southeast Asia. Seemingly harmless, you'd think, right? As I listened to Hilary Clinton talk about the legacy of the war in Vietnam, and the tragedies that struck thousands on both sides, I was reminded again of the fragility of human life; the only resolution, to my mind, is empathy  and consideration for one another--we are all going through the same cycles of joy and grief, love and heartbreak, gain and loss in our lives, and what is life if we cannot comfort each other and share our burdens when they grow to heavy?

Secretary Clinton was also announcing that the historians of the State Department had completed processing "an exhaustive record of United States policy regarding Southeast Asia from 1946 until 1975," meaning these records are now available for scholars, students, families, and parties interested in continuing the dialogue we must have with ourselves, with that era of our recent military and diplomatic past. "They have compiled more than 24,000 pages of official documents, many thousands of messages, memoranda, intelligence reports, military assessments, and transcripts of meetings and telephone conversations among key policymakers," she reported. Who knows what will be made of all these documents, but it is one more step in coming to terms with, as Ms. Clinton said, "the lessons of that era," for both Americans and Vietnamese.

I leave you with a bit more from her remarks at the conference; she is optimistic to say the least, idealistic to say the most, and I embrace her words  for both of those characteristics:

I also hope that our commitment to a shared future, despite our shared history, can serve as an inspiration and even a model to others, because there are so many countries who are being held back because they cannot overcome their past, who refuse to search for common ground because the ground behind them is littered with the bodies and the blood of previous generations. In today’s world, it is more imperative than ever that we seek to end conflict and to look for ways that we can connect based on our common humanity. We will not agree on everything. We will have different political systems. But we have to look for a way to find that common ground and to work toward common aspirations that fulfill the potential for peace, progress, and prosperity.


"Let us begin by discussing the weather"

So spoke the southern historian U. B. Phillips at the start of his book Life and Labor in the Old South, which was published in 1929, and in which he argued the environment as having a very existent role in cultural development. Several generations of historians later, and the field of environmental history has expanded considerably in scope and range of topics and sources involved. Not to mention, we are slightly more aware as a society (and planet) of our responsibility to the earth and the of the frivolity of some of our past business with it.

In a very significant way, much of the discipline of history focuses on the human story: human relationships, triumphs, failures, innovations, war, spirit, and, occasionally, growth. It becomes quite easy to forget the very scene on which this all takes place; but as it likes to remind us from time to time, nature trumps human power when it wants to. Man wields great machines to change the shape of it, but he cannot invent enough devices to fully manipulate the land as he wants.

This week we focused on environmental history in my Georgia history class, and we read Mart A. Stewart's "What Nature Suffers to Groe:" Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680-1920, and it struck a chord with almost every person in my class. Besides the author's obvious mastery of prose, he told the story of the Georgia coastal plane where nature itself becomes a character in the narrative. I can honestly say no one had ever presented history to me this way before, with such a significant role being played by something that is always there, yet essentially absent--unless it is in relation to its interaction with man. We certainly learn about landscape, and we can identify geological traits of specific areas of the globe, and we hopefully learn a fair bit of geography so as to give the world spatial organization; but through Stewart's eye, the land itself is center stage, in a shockingly exciting way.

The most striking and significant fact to take away from Stewart’s work on low country history is that there were three main characters in the drama of the low country: the natural landscape, which had been there thousands of years prior and forced its inhabitants to cooperate and adapt, African American slaves, who worked the land to the point that they developed an immensely intimate connection to it, and the white men, who tried in earnest to manipulate and coerce these other players, both of which were in fact much too powerful to ever completely defer to the European plan.

The importance of place in understanding history cannot be diminished; landscape--that is, latitude, weather, soil, water, tide, flora and fauna--is inextricably entangled with every cultural era and social episode in our past. Yet it rarely plays as large a role in the history of a region, beyond a brief geography lesson as a primer. I risk sounding hyperbolic in my description, but it was a profound thought, for many of us in my class, and one that we discussed in earnest earlier tonight. Let us not separate the very material that creates our world from the existence it has allowed us to assemble. Let us begin with the weather, indeed.

On travelogues, and the winding road to ending up where you intended

There was a time, several years ago, when I rarely left the travel essay section of a bookstore. I suspect it began around the time I starting subscribing to National Geographic, and I discovered the art of writing about travel. Reporting on what you ate every day or which monuments you visited is not of value to anyone but yourself really, but telling a story--perhaps the story of a place, or person, or group of people, added depth to your own experience and created a product you could present to others. This is what the journalists who report on culture and history do in that magazine, combining things we inherently find exciting with stories and movements in the modern day that we would not otherwise know about; indeed, this is what makes all great journalism. But somehow this magazine does it best. (Oh and, they occasionally have pretty pictures alongside the stories. Only the most enigmatic produced by any news outlet in the world. That helps too.) I was hooked.

I felt a rush knowing that there are people whose job this is. There are people who get sent off to report on what's happening in some country or another. Sometimes these people wrote other things, and they usually wound up in the "travel essays" section of any bookstore; so that's where I wound up as well, for about two years. I read maybe a dozen or two of the books on those shelves, not picky about where they took me: France, Vietnam, the Inca Road, India, China, Indonesia, Russia, Cuba. After that though, I began to notice that there were hardly any new books added; the section hardly changed at all, month after month. Not only did I have it memorized, I think I still recognize many of the authors and titles just the same today. The shelf was sufficiently exhausted--it's not a very large section, after all. And beyond the titles I'd already read, the rest kind of bored me: not enough adventure or history, too much "we went here, then here" kind of writing. Or, in fact, too much history or adventure; the trick with good travel writing lies in the perfect balance between all three parts.

This is exactly around the time I was beginning to realize I hated being a Spanish major in college, and that I did not love learning Spanish. (I want to learn it, and intend to pick it up again, but to devote thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours and earn my degree in it overwhelmingly seemed like a bad choice for me.) And my reading interests were forced beyond the travel section. Towards history, and the same wondrous exploration of the world, but through a different outlet and with a few more analytical, argumentative, and research skills.

Travelogues are plagued with weak writing and sometimes less than accurate historical information and context; however, some of the very best travelogues I've read were written by people who also happen to be historians. (One is Rory Stewart.) It's funny how I saw that elusive job--vaguely that of a person who knows a few things and took a trip and wrote about what they saw there, and then turn that into either an article, a book, or both--and then took several direction changes in my interests, studies, and career path, and wound up arguably in a better position to someday write that article or travelogue than I ever would have achieved trying to "make it as a writer." Looking at it from this end, the things that intrigued me most about cultural diversity, interaction across cultures, linguistics, history, fashion and textiles, political issues, and geography are all still there, and are far more useful to me now than I could have conceived when I first sat on the floor in the corner of a bookstore and read a Karin Muller book.

The things we carry

Stuffed animals, out-grown shoes, hand-me-down mugs; aged television sets, dog-eared romance novels, and garish gold picture frames...

Secondhand stores can be a treasure trove or a purgatory between home and landfill, and quite often, it is both simultaneously. My mother is renowned for her ability to walk into a Goodwill and find the two designer items amongst the overwhelming array of clothing, which has been sorted by color into a rainbow of pinks, greens, blacks, creams. She finds great things far more often than I do. The secondhand hunt can sometimes seem like more work than its worth: picking through sweaters hoping to find a nice material in a size that may or may not fit, all the while hoping you'll be able to get the previous owners' smell out of it in the wash.

And that doesn't even include the millions of items, like the teddy bears and picture frames, that get passed over entirely (and usually for good reason; do we really need a section for hand-me-down underwear? Is anyone buying those?).

But the things we buy, keep, donate, throw away, and create tell one of the most interesting stories that exists. What do we think we need, and what makes us happy? What transcends our childhood, and what gets tossed out? What did they use one hundred years ago instead of a replacement product today, and what created the need for a different device? And when something is so foreign that we can't tell its use by looking at it, we get to use our best judgment to give it a context, a story, and a purpose; and we get to marvel in the fact that it has survived centuries past the expiration of its usefulness, which is a stunning fact in itself, the way we dispose of things in modern society.

I was supposed to be taking a class on material culture this fall as part of my graduate studies; I am still very excited to dig into this rich realm of human history, I'll just be doing it in the spring semester instead. Material things offer an entirely different form of historical evidence from documents like letters, diaries, and speeches, and give us perhaps a more nuanced glance into an era and a society than oral histories, which filter through the strange realms of memory, time, and maturation. Each person has a limited amount of money, and what they spend it on shapes the lives each person leads. Do they buy a car or a bicycle, a house in the city or the country, a collection of books or a collection of baseball cards? All are noble pursuits, neither better than the other at the surface, but something tips the scales towards one or the other for each individual. How amazing that we leave behind this trail of purchases and, over our lifetimes, determine what stays with us for decades and what was really never worth the money (and what falls somewhere in between).

As all this was in my head, I heard a story on The World recently that brought material culture history and the secondhand industry a bit closer together; after all, considering their essentially working with the same items, they are strangely separate entities. Most people will never know (or care to know) the stories behind the things they buy in secondhand stores, even if they always know there has been at least one previous owner and life before them.

Oxfam, a charity organization in the United Kingdom, raises money through stores across the country much like Goodwill or Salvation Army in the U.S. One of their stores recently took a brilliant step towards shrinking the disconnect between secondhand goods and the stories they silently carry through the world. Emma Cooney, who runs an Oxfam in Manchester, teamed up with Chris Speed, a digital artist, to begin recording brief stories told by the owners as they come in to donate their now-unwanted things. In thirty seconds, a woman can share the story of her old handbag, which she purchased on a cold Sunday morning in the middle of winter, in a "small, dark shop" owned by a women who gave the woman a hot cup of cocoa. As she donates the bag, she says she's always reminded of hot chocolate when she used the purse.

People who come into the shop to browse the items can listen to the stories on their cell phones by scanning a bar code, or they can broadcast it over the store's intercom so everyone else can listen as well.

In the interview, Chris Speed said, "It was a very public story as though suddenly someone touched an object and a whole store was woken up by this tale about where these objects had come from. What was amazing was that people wanted the damn objects. You could see them holding almost something as though it was in someone’s living room, and it changed the entire atmosphere of the shop. Everyone was fascinated, and they really didn’t want to let go of the stories, which meant they bought them. So as fast as we could get stories in, they were going out of the store like hotcakes."

Which meant that the items became more valuable to people upon hearing the little stories behind them, the tales--big or little--about their previous lives and owners. A simple, remarkable idea. In the immediate, it is a great way to market used goods and turn a bit of profit for their charity. And in the long-term, those items continue to collect new stories, this time never losing some of their earlier ones. It's a little like that dollar bill tracking thing, where people can find their bill online and see where it's "checked in" around the world. But on a smaller, more intimate scale, and with items that people cherish and build more meaningful relationships with--for however brief a time--before they move on.

(Several of the recorded stories are in sound-clip form at the story's main page.)

Make sure you've had your tetanus shot, and other important things I learned as an archives intern

For six weeks this summer, I worked as an intern in the archives department of the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in downtown Kennesaw, Georgia. When I told people this, they undoubtedly replied, "The museum with The General, right? I went there all the time as a kid!"

Yes, it is the home of The General, the locomotive that was stolen by the Union in the famed Great Locomotive Chase in 1862, an event that gives the Southern Museum a wonderful spot in the arena of American museums focused on the Civil War. The Southern Museum tells the story of the role of Marietta, Kennesaw, and the Cobb County area, as well as the role of the locomotive, in the Civil War. It is much more today than it was even a decade ago, when it was only the home of The General. Its staff has since made it into a wonderful, ever-expanding museum with several permanent exhibits. In addition to The General and "Railroads: Lifelines of the Civil War," the Southern Museum also houses an exhibit on the history of Glover Machine Works, a local steam engine manufacturer, and the modernization of southern industries like it.

For someone who wanted to learn more about developing effective interpretive programs in museums, it was a wonderful opportunity to work with the staff--many of whom were founding members of its team, as the museum was officially founded as the Southern Museum (and expanded from 4,000 square feet to over 40,000) in 2003.

Over the course of my time there, I cataloged an entire collection from start to finish, including creating a finding aid for it (so researchers can find what they need easily); I helped install a traveling exhibit (the museum is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, and the exhibit was one of theirs--"The Working White House"); I helped out at an evening fund-raiser, cocktail party, of sorts; I learned more about the education programs held weekly at the museum; and I did a bit of research on legal issues in the museum world. Throughout, I kept a little list of the truths of the whole world that exists inside the museum.

Things I learned during my internship:

The budget is tight. This is the mantra that all museum business must work within—and around. Do what you can with donated items, such as slightly incorrect—albeit free—file folders for archival materials. In the curatorial department, donations are not always as welcome, as they are oftentimes community members’ old things dropped off at our doors, and are added into the museum’s already stretched storage. The tight budget can often slow or even stop the curatorial and archival goals of a museum, and the mere freezing of a project is in itself a lesson in museum patience. The not processing is part of the experience.



It’s all for the documents and artifacts. This means anything we do must be in an effort to sustain the items we’re working with and keep them as close to their present condition as possible. As Mike the curator told me, our job is to slow their inevitable deterioration. This means removing metals from documents, using pencil only, using acid-free folders, boxes, and tape to hold the materials, and ensuring that our own skin oils and food products do not spoil the items around us. For an intern, it meant pulling out (with an appropriately gentle tool) hundreds of rusty, stubborn staples each day, cursing the use of this office essential while organizing all the staple-free pages into their acid-free folders.

But it’s really all for the community. For, if there is no community for the museum to serve, there is no purpose in its work, no reason to preserve the documents, artifacts, and history it contains. The best way to engage the community is to foster relationships with the children and adults who walk in the door, to keep them coming back; this is done by continually offering new learning experiences in the form of programs and exhibits that expand their knowledge and keep them curious.

And it’s also for your donors. When your museum makes the news and the archivist is interviewed for the radio, it is important that the largest supporters’ projects also get mentioned. Because of news editing, this part was left out at one point during my internship, and we heard about it just a few hours after it was broadcast. When we get press, its important that our patrons are included—rightly so. We also sometimes bend the rules to suit the benefactors’ requests, like allowing them to climb up onto The General, the locomotive that, large as it is, is still an artifact, threatened by its age and the wear and tear of human use. There are simply times when the donors’ satisfaction is paramount.


A man cannot be a museum (however, sometimes he must be). The museum functions only with the contribution and partnership of all of its employees, and the community that arises among them when they come together to complete a project. The director, curator, accountant, volunteer, intern, and janitor are all equally important components of the success and progress of a growing, working museum. After all, with tight budgets, it needs people who are willing to work for free. It also needs people with museum expertise, and people who are good with numbers, and people who care about children. And it requires that they frequently come together and pool their talents. And thus, when working in a very small museum or house museum, the small number of employees must embody many of these skills and be able to perform many of these tasks. The museum world involves wearing many hats.

You must be willing to ask for money. It can be done in very classy or creative ways, absolutely, but the fact remains: the budget is small and the goals are huge. You don’t have to be great with numbers to figure out that equation.

Patience is a virtue. Partly because of the budget, partly because of the red tape involved when doing anything with public money or in a non-profit capacity, things sometimes take longer than planned. Projects wait in the background for years sometimes, waiting for the right grant to complete them, or else for the museum itself to come up with the money. When dealing with third parties, perhaps for outside consultant work, projects are no longer only in the hands of the museum staff, and sometimes you must take a breath, and wait.

Exhibit set-up is mostly planned chaos. While I was at the Southern Museum, we received a traveling exhibit that belonged to the Smithsonian, titled "The Working White House." The installation of it was a whirlwind of unloading, floor planning, conditions reporting (where you record the nicks and scratches of any of the items you've received so that the museum who owns the items can track the wear and tear of their artifacts and display cases), and actual construction of the hardware that holds up the panels and artifacts. I never even considered the importance of lighting in creating an effective exhibit experience, but it makes all the difference. We walked through the whole thing, panel by panel, with the curator wheeling around on a giant ladder to focus the spotlights at precisely the right angle for maximum ambiance and effect. I also learned a lot about properly cleaning Plexiglas and how to avoid artifact theft (hint, no two screws have the same bit).

Always use a pencil. After recording and numbering an entire collection of boxes, someone might be out in storage and discover another box of random documents that belong with my collection. So, I dig in, I organize them by date, and then place each file into its chronological spot among the rest, thereby renumbering every single document that falls after the new entry (or entries). The folders we use to hold and store each file cost about $1 each, and considering the other axioms of museum life, on budget and limited resources, you can assume that use of a pencil is highly endorsed by all parties. But don’t use the eraser on top that #2—it’s not acid free. Use one of those nice, pink stand-alones.

Your work is never done. I finished cataloging an entire collection, from removing the staples all the way down to writing its entire finding aid (i.e. descriptions, so it’s easy for people who want to use this collection for research to find what they want quickly), on my last day at the Southern Museum. Unless, that is, you count the extra box of documents someone found in storage, which had been separated from the others. We found this so late, and it involved so much backtracking (as I hinted at before, with the renumbering and the reprinting of all the box labels), that we decided to keep the collection, as it was then, complete and finished for now. I had tackled a project that some of the other volunteers would not touch, due to its dull nature (the accounting files for various southern railroad companies when they chose to retire anything in its ownership, from tracks to work vehicles to store houses), and since I had so nearly completed it, we left it at that. The finding aid is posted on the museum’s website for anyone who wishes to do research in this collection. But the fact of the matter is, there is still one more box of documents to add it to it, someday.

The museum is a big, kooky family. My boss, the director of archives, is a motorcycle enthusiast who also collects historical guns and sometimes uses them for demonstrations. She used to be a nurse. One of the interpreters does Civil War reenactments and works with cattle-riders and other novelty odd-job folk in Wisconsin; he’s also appeared as an extra in several Robert Redford films. Everyone on the staff was enthusiastic, even, most notably, when dealing with the parts of their jobs that were not always as much fun. The whole staff I worked with was full of creativity, ingenuity, laughter, and kindness, and certainly an array of quirks. I hope their attitudes and teamwork are a sampling of the kind of people who work in the museum world not for its lucrative benefits (joke, there), but for the personal satisfaction it awards them, and for the effects of their work in the larger community--both that of Cobb County and of comparable museums.

Tamil Tiger warfare via... Rambo: thoughts on the complexity of South Asia

Location: Woodstock, Georgia

Subject: the subcontinent; South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh)

Reading material: William Dalrymple's The Age of Kali: Indian Travels and Encounters (Oakland: Lonely Planet Publication, 2005)

Impetus: Class, History of Modern India and South Asia

The strange thing about getting my book list for this class back in January was that not only did I already know the book, I had bought it in high school off Amazon.com, after reading many positive reviews. Something had tickled me about India, and I was obsessed with the "travel essays" section of bookstores at this time (which, I should add, rarely carry Dalrymple's book). When the material I was grabbing seemed mostly dull, and the enormous Lonely Planet country and traveling guides were mostly just a tease--with their lists of hostels, restaurants, and sites--I turned to the internet, and found The Age of Kali.

Back in 2004-05 though, I don't think I had the background knowledge or the sensitivity to appreciate his collection of essays on various people, customs, and locations across the subcontinent. I was a teenager; one who had enough curiosity to buy the book, but perhaps not yet enough to read through the whole thing. I think I read the first two essays.

So upon seeing this book on the list of requirements alongside six others, I saw this as an unexpected chance to try again, nearly six years later. This time around it's a breezy read, filled with tiny insights and often conundrums that only India could present to the outsider's brain. How do we reconcile the actions of an eighteen-year-old young woman, married for less than a year, who jumps atop the funeral pyre of her deceased husband, therefore martyring herself in the classical Brahman practice sati? One such case embroiled all of India in a highly publicized legal debate from 1987, when Roop Kanwar walked calmly to her own death, to 1996, when the villagers involved in the funeral were acquitted. Was it devotion to her husband and to her religion that led her willingly to death by fire, or, in the easiest to rationalize theory, was she drugged by the villagers and her husband's family (therefore, basically complacent)? Or, as some anonymous village sources told newspapers in the flood of reporting that came from their Rajastani village in the wake of the death, did she actually try to escape the flames, and was pushed back upon them by village men? As there was no evidence, and no witnesses who would argue the latter in court, all involved men were let off in 1996 when the case ended. And rightly so; there is no evidence against them, and though womens' rights groups and western media might find it uproarious, we cannot assume she did not do it of her own accord and imprison men for crimes which they may never have committed. There is no easy answer; on one hand we must consider the alternative life Roop would have had if she did not perform the sati: she would have been condemned to shave her head, don a white sari, and beg for food for the rest of her life. She was only eighteen; that is an equally frightening prospect. The flip side is that she was relatively educated for the rural region where she lived, and she had lived in the city Jaipur for awhile. Dalrymple tells of the many urban Indians who abhor the idea of her decision being anything other than forced, for, what educated woman willingly does such a thing? (We must keep in mind that sati is an exceedingly rare practice, and in the several dozen of cases since 1947, occurs in rural India.) The point is, Roop could have been at once a devout wife, a scared widow, an educated and religious young woman, and a little bit on-edge--as most teenagers are. The combination may just have produced the event that occurred on September 4, 1987. There is neither easy answer, nor simple resolution. When Dalrymple visits the Roop's village, nearly all the people he talks to claim they weren't even there on the day of the sati.

And this is India through Dalrymple's eyes and made vivid through his stories and reporting. Messy, multi-faceted, in-your-face, with plenty of moral dilemmas thrown at you...

In fact, one of the most intriguing, and possibly disturbing, revelations in Dalrymple's tales is not in India, but in Sri Lanka; and then, specifically, the northern occupied region of Tamil Eelam. In 1990, when he visits, the country remains embroiled in the brutal civil war, between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil's brutal homegrown army, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The decades-long war ended, as far as we can tell now, in 2009 with a treaty and the vague promise of some sort of federal representation for long-disenfranchised Tamils. The linguistic and nationalistic origins of this war are a fascinating a sad subject, as the Tamils had been the favorite of the colonial British government, learned in English and given opportunities for more education (classic move by colonizing power, favoring the minority). Sri Lanka (Ceylon) enjoyed quite high levels of growth, literacy and education, and wealth in the aftermath of WWII, far greater than their neighbors to the north (India and Pakistan). In 1956, Prime Minister Soloman Bandaranaike would deal his country a blow (hindsight's 20/20) with the Sinhala Only Act, which effectively removed the Tamil and English languages from governmental and all public sector jobs. In a single move, which was carried on by his widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, millions of Tamils were out of jobs, and a generation of Tamil youth were disenfranchised. Marginalized by their own government and left with no say in national policy, the LTTE grew out of a natural vacuum of opportunity.

Dalrymple visits the terrorized city of Jaffna, on the northern Sri Lankan coast, which has been caught in the particular violence that raged from 1983-1990. After a particularly humorous bit on the utterly poor conditions of the hotel where he stays (which hasn't seen a non-Tamil in eighteen months), he has the opportunity to talk to some of the gun-toting teenagers who compose the ground forces of the Tamil Tigers.

Up til now, we might write all this off as civil war, bloody and ruthless, but not posing any specific moral dilemmas to an outsider. Then Dalrymple meets Castro, a man similarly aged and the mastermind behind some brutal LTTE moves. And then he discovers a very strange source of their warfare inspiration:

I asked him to tell me more about the attack, and he happily compiled. He described the preparations, the spying and the intelligence work. He told me of the long, wet fifty-mile march through the monsoon jungle, the moonlit crossing of the lagoon and the silent belly-crawling as the guerrillas surrounded the camp and cut the wire. As he talked, I was aware of a growing sense of deja-vu. It all sounded a bit familiar, I said. Hadn't I seen a film of this somewhere? He smiled.

'You're right. Our camps are all equipped with televisions and videos. War films are shown three times a week, and are compulsory viewing. We often consult videos like The Predator and Rambo before planning our ambushes. None of us are trained soldiers. We've learned all we know from these films.'

So, I thought: video-guerrillas. To Sri Lanka from Hanoi via Hollywood. It was an arresting idea: real-life freedom fighters earnestly studying Sylvester Stallone and Arnie Schwarzenegger to see how it was done.

Later I saw the camp's video library: complete sets of Rambo, Rocky, and James Bond; all the Schwarzeneggers, including Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, and Commando; most of the recent Vietnam films; and, touchingly, no fewer than three copies of The Magnificent Seven. Moralists have often speculated the much of today's violence is inspired by violent movies. If only they knew. Here in Sri Lanka the tactics of an entire civil war--tens of thousands killed, maimed and wounded--seem to be largely inspired by imported videos.

I'm not an advocate for ending violence in movies, and I don't think if that was attempted it would even prove effective in the least; we live in a very violent world. I also do not think that thirty years of the LTTE's military tactics were guided entirely by Hollywood; Dalrymple is just reporting what he's witnessed and making a strong point for his readers. But with the grain of salt, I still find a bit of horror in the idea of Rambo inspiring an actual rebel army of merciless killers. Kids, teenagers, adults in the western world understand the violence in these movies as not only staged, but to some extent, unrealistic. I've never seen a James Bond movie without that over-dramatized, glitzy, glamorous murder--all while wearing a great suit and with accompanying witty dialogue. To my eye it is so clearly imaginary. And so the idea of Tamil Tigers watching with rapt attention and invoking the ideas of battle choreographers is a lesson in my own morality--or at least that of my society's.

Part curious, part shocking, this is a real case to consider when we think of the world that exists around us. I've read of plenty of the terrible violence, deaths of innocent people, and refugees who live around the world whose lives have been destroyed or forever changed by this civil war. And it jabs at precisely Dalrymple's point, that we cannot take this region at face value, nor can we easily label it. We cannot lump South Asia's innumerably diverse people into one large group, nor can we simply define what "Indian" means. Most importantly, we cannot transplant our own moral codes atop the functioning of thousands of years of history and define the subcontinent in our own terms; it does not translate that way. The reality is much, much more complex.

A hybrid port city on the coast of China: Shanghai, good and bad

Rev. Young John Allen, the man I spent last semester studying, was a foreigner living in Shanghai in the second half of the nineteenth century. In his day, the city was the only port open to the outside, although more would open as time went on. It was through Shanghai, then, that the world's collection of people came to see and trade with China, creating the "hybrid that confounds the very idea of East and West," as Brook Larmer writes in "Shanghai Dreams," in this month's National Geographic.

I felt that hybridity when I stayed there. I had been in other far more Chinese cities for nearly two months, and by the time I arrived in Shanghai at the end of my journey, it almost felt like I had already landed back in the West: Raisin Bran was for sale in the grocer's, stores accepted credit cards, and there was an H&M. My hotel charged inordinate daily prices on wifi, which I found insulting given the amount I had been paying in other dormitories and hotels across the country.

As the meeting place between East and West though, Shanghai is not the sell-out I considered it when I arrived three years ago coming off a wave of what I then saw as "real China"--the interior cities and Beijing. For the other places were certainly modern, and had their western influences, and contained millions of people, years of history, and Chinese culture in each of them. But they seemed to me to contain something less obstructed by the outside than Shanghai. But that is not the right way to approach it.

In this city, when immigrants were coming, like Young J. Allen, from abroad, they were bringing to the city their own background, creating something altogether unlike the rest of China, and which would forever alter its make-up. It is an oft-seen geographical trend, a city growing into something quite unlike its surroundings, as New York City is entirely separate in culture from its New York state, and is a place quite its own compared to the United States. The "exotic stew of British bankers and Russian dancing girls, American missionaries and French socialites, Jewish refugees and turbaned Sikh security guards" that Larmer describes all contributed quite disparate pieces of a larger patchwork that would become its own Babylon. But atop these imports was the huge amount of Chinese migrants joining the mixture in the city; everyone contributed to what has since been dubbed haipai (Shanghai style).

Initially I dismissed Shanghai for some of those very reasons, that intermingling of a century of foreign visitors with Shanghai natives and migrant workers, combined with the struggle the city faced during the crack-down on culture and foreign influences during the communist era-- I found it translated into pseudo-Chinese buildings that had obviously been constructed within the last ten years and street markets that catered almost entirely to tourists and visitors seeking Chinese intrigue. But looking at this in a positive light, the city really does stand alone against the country in which it lies, even given its tourist facade and foreign cereals.

Young J. Allen spent his entire adult life working towards educating Chinese citizens in and around Shanghai about western ideas and religion. He used the schools he built, the sermons he preached, and the journals he published as outlets for this goal, and earned respect and criticisms throughout his life for these methods. He was a missionary, after all, and most Chinese were not receptive to his Christian message at the time. Today, however, Jinlin Church in Shanghai stands in his honor. When rethinking the city, Allen's mission contributed to the Shanghai of today. There is valuable culture in each layer that has been added to the port city's personality.

Shanghai resident Shen Hongfei, interviewed in Larmer's story, may have hit the nail on the head: "We're always accused of worshiping foreigners. But taking foreign ideas and making them our own has made us the most advanced place in China." Allen may have felt frustrated trying to spread his message in his Shanghai, but the citizens living there were equally frustrated by the pushy foreigners. And coming from that exchange is a city culture all its own, blending some of those imported ideas with Confucian ones, every side compromising a little to create the place we know today.

I'd like to buy the world a Coke...

"What the world wants today" is both that elusive peace, and a Coke, as the commercial famously puts it. Buying a Coke is one form of peace, I guess; but how else do we define it?

War, in the name of peace...

The thought is bewildering, paradoxical, and also quite present in our world, both now and in the past--even if it has been defined differently throughout time. Recently, Patrick Cox mused over the meaning of the word "peace" in his podcast, The World in Words (which I've cited several times before--great listening), starting with President Obama's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In itself, this oratory does a number on the definition of the easily-rattled-off but elusive-to-conceive word.

Here's a segment from President Obama's speech:

"We must begin by acknowledging a hard truth: we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations, acting individually or on concert, will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: 'Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem, it merely creates new and more complicated ones.' As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive, in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King; but as a head of state, sworn to protect and defend my nation, and I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake, evil does exist in the world."

Maybe it's a side-effect of my historiographical debates class, where we examine the words of great orators of the past, and where we're reading and arguing weekly about Hegelian and Marxist views of history as an up-hill march towards perfect societies, but President Obama's speech incited several things in my mind: as Patrick Cox says in the podcast, these things, phrases like "evil exists," and "morally justified use of force," are all things we have heard before in political speeches. Joseph Stalin defended force and violence many times, as a means of improving the Soviet state; Mao Zedong incited suspicion and approved violence amongst his Red Guard youth devotees. These are keywords used by politicians that justify a nation's actions, and also ensure that the people are enthralled and uplifted by the leader's response to evil. This means of inspiration, that we are improving, that we see our goal in sight and so violence is justified, appears throughout political oratory, and indeed nearly every leader in every country in the post-Enlightenment modern world harks back to the idea that we are improving, moving towards something better. Classic, and proven to be effective.

The remarkable thing about this speech, which makes it quite unique among political addresses, is that he is accepting the peace prize; he is not rallying his countrymen, but is speaking to a large crowd of educated people, many of them not Americans. But the President readily admits that he is no Martin Luther King, Jr., nor can he defend a nation using only the practices of history's peacekeepers. His speech certainly adds another meaning to the word peace, Cox argues, making it "a bit more slippery" than it had been. Obama: "So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace." Pause, and consider.

One may write the whole thing off to being a political speech written to speak to both sides, the peacekeeping America and the two-wars America, and indeed the sentiments somehow seek to provide both at once. And that is not such a terrible thing, for nothing exists in a vacuum and nation-states tend to be bundles of juxtapositions.

So how do we define peace, within ongoing global disunity and war? What is its nature? Does it in fact, contain war, as has been argued? "The word 'peace' is either taken as a given or used very lightly," said Dennis Ross, a U. S. diplomat and author. Can you have a commitment to peace but never come through, or in fact, consistently perform opposite to such peaceful notions? And on a larger scale, is progress the ability to reduce both good and bad in the world?

Listen to the entire discussion and hear the speech in the World in Words podcast #79 (the peace discussion begins around 11:30 minutes in). Then tell me what you think.

Discovering, India

There are many places in the world counted as historically valuable and culturally rich, places that inspire, bewilder, and enchant every generation who discovers them in their own way. And the experience is different for each person, different for the native resident, different for the generation-removed--who is visiting a place their grandparents lived-- different yet for the expat who has long-departed and again different for both first-time and long-visiting guests. And there is sometimes no rhyme or reason to explain why certain places have become such rich locales in history and in culture; sometimes, it seems, cities or regions were just lucky (or unlucky) enough to be a hot spot in the narrative of the world. Rome is one such place, an ancient capital that has accumulated layers of tradition and intrigue in its thousands of years, a place that inspires my father among millions of others (and next month, March 2010, he will visit it for the first time). Others are dotted all across the globe.

India encompasses several of those significant place-names, spots which have incurred a more colorful past and have somehow not only survived, but have continually accumulated layers of traditions, histories, and cultural idiosyncrasies. The Indian subcontinent in particular has somehow managed to retain aspects of its thousands of years and numerous empires, layering all the traditions of countless ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups to reach the diversity and density of its existence today. "India" today is also a relatively vague term, as Pakistan and Bangladesh share the same heritage and history as the nation-state that we think of as India in 2010. These three countries together form the subcontinent, and it really is just that, a continent, with the same linguistic and cultural boundaries as more dissected regions like Europe or the Middle East. A Bengali and a Rajput are as different culturally as a Russian and an Italian, but modern history has placed them in the same country. We must think of India as a continent when we approach its past and present.

I am a bit of an expert in Indian geography, relative to the average person, as this spring I am taking two classes on the Indian subcontinent: Modern India and South Asia and the Politics of South Asia. By expert, I do not mean I can identify all the rivers, but I do mean I can tell you a bit about the physical features and people who populate each of the states. This has given me additional interest in the stories of Indian people I meet, as just being "Indian" is about the most vague answer there is (may as well just say you're from Asia). Me new spatial concept of the region only deepens a love affair I've had for many years with all things India. At this point, I don't even recall the origins of my interest; but by high school I was reading books on the country from the travel essay section at the bookstore and being invited over to my friend Karn's house to drink chai and borrow Bollywood movies.

Many before me from western societies have also shared this sense of wonderment with its people, religions, textiles, history, and the interaction of them all; men were fascinated during British economic and later political influence, and many-a-hippie or Beatles fan may also have found themselves seeking enlightenment or finding a guru in their own relationship with India. Since classes began in January, I have rekindled my former addiction to chai, India's sweet, milky tea. I have been writing journal entries for class that have me thinking about the place all the time. I'm listening to Bhangra music and my Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack more. I'm trying to grapple with the narrative of Pakistani politics since 1947's partition, when the Muslim nation was left independent and without the structural foundation of government that India had; I'm trying to keep straight who pulled a coup d’état on whom.

A wonderful treat has been given to me, in this, my last semester of undergraduate studies: a whole sixteen-week period where books I've had on my list of "must-reads" for years are finally required for class. We are reading two books by William Dalrymple, a British historian and writer who has spent his career learning about India's past and present. I bought The Age of Kali: Indian Travels and Encounters in high school after learning about it then, but will finally have the maturity and time to finish reading it. And I am currently in the middle of The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857, which grippingly recounts the chaos the erupted when sepoys (Indian native who were soldiers for the British East India Company) revolted and the slowly-dying Mughal Empire came to its final demise, ushering in the era of British rule in India. His use of sources and the perspective of the many characters involved in the event make for a spectacular view inside Delhi during the event known neutrally as the "Indian Rebellion of 1857."

Out of this book I have learned the Indian term "wallah," which comes at the end of a word, such as "Delhiwallah," and roughly means "person who is from..." or "person who does..." So if the cable guy is coming to your home in Hyderabad, you may tell you friend something like "The cablewallah is coming to install a satellite dish." It's little gems like this that only increase my respect and adoration of the culture. I would, personally, much rather be a retailwallah than a "sales associate." Incidentally, if you have seen Slumdog Millionaire, you may recall the show host referring to Jamal as a chaiwallah, because he got the tea for people at the call center where he worked.

On the subject of taste buds, one class assignment is to go and eat Indian food. After the primer our professor gave us, I was itching to visit the restaurant he recommended (Swapna), and went the very next evening. I went for the lamb tikki masala, wanting to try out the more interesting flavors of meat (rather than mostly-bland chicken) and keeping it in range for my first (official) time by keeping with a popular dish. With the appetizers and sauces and naan and the spices and flavors in each one, I tasted more than enough to have me coming back-- very soon.

This fall, my Mom, does custom sewing, created a wedding dress for a young woman out of vintage saris, which were given to her upon the death of a close relative to their family. Though the bride is not Indian, she was wed on December 19, 2009 wearing a wonderful custom-built dress made from pieces of some gorgeous saris, in rich reds, oranges, and creams. I sometimes have the wish that I could wear a sari, as an American blonde girl in Atlanta, Georgia, and not draw any strange looks. Or even that I owned one just to wear anyway. Someday, I hope.

Although some of these things are part of a class, they transcend the classroom. For me, it is learning on a very personal level, as I find so many beautiful things buried in India's varied culture. India, even while it is a place I've never seen, inspires and bewilders me. Delhi, Bombay, Hyderabad, the coasts of Kerala, are all very different from each other and steeped in layers of history and tradition that a native of a relatively new-born country cannot naturally conceive of.

There are many spots in India that are rich with history, layered with thousands of years of traditions, and they have long-served as the meeting points between ethnicity, language, religion. Today they also serve as representatives to the outside world; some in history have looked disdainfully at the country, seen it as a place unworthy of respect, as the British had been increasingly doing in the years before the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. But there were generations of men before and after that saw much more than this. Perhaps they saw what we recognize today, those of us who have such great admiration and respect for a land that holds such an ancient, colorful past: India as a continent, an immense, aching, breathing, enlightened, beautiful place.


(Visit "More Ink" to check out some of my recommended books and films in or about the subcontinent.)

Adventures in an undergrad history thesis, or, four months with Young John Allen

The fall semester has ended, and with it, the largest writing project of my life (so far). The function of a senior seminar in history is to prove that you've acquired the skills to read and analyze scholarly work, do research in primary and secondary sources, and develop your own historical argument-- one that contributes to a larger body of work. The final written product needed to be around the 6000-word ballpark; we had four months to become semi-experts on the subjects we were researching, enough time to hopefully learn enough that our own thesis could grow out of the discoveries we made while reading. We read.

For two months we read an array of articles from the Georgia Historical Quarterly, on various topics in Georgia history from the Civil War to the early 1970s. During this time, we were each seeking to become well-read in our respective areas of interest, often guided through the sources by our professor, Dr. David Parker. Then around the end of September, we stopped meeting to discuss articles and hypothetical topics and started using that class time to scour the archives, the library, and the research databases we'd used to much less extent in previous classes: we had to come up with a thesis and flesh it out into a contextual and well-argued history thesis by Dec. 7.

No pressure.

Young J. Allen in his early twenties; he mentions in a letter to his aunt and uncle (who raised him) that he stopped shaving his beard at the outset of the American Civil War. It is apparent that he never picked up the habit again.

I had arrived in this class at the eleventh hour, signing up about two weeks before the start of fall semester-- and without one last prerequisite class I needed. And in fact it was quite surprising to some of my history major friends that I would end up in a Georgia History senior seminar after spending college studying Asia. But several weeks earlier, in mid-July, Dr. Parker and I had found a way to combine these two seemingly unrelated regions: Young John Allen.

Young J. Allen (yes, Young is his first name, not a kindly prefix) graduated from Emory College when it was just a newly-founded school in Oxford, Georgia, and spent his life as a Methodist missionary in Shanghai, China. He left the United States in Dec. 1859 and remained in the Far East until his death there in 1907. His manuscript collection as well as a large library of his own books reside at Emory University in Atlanta, deeming Allen the subject of a day's trek over to the archives at their Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL). What started as a fun mini-project for my summer class (which I also took with Dr. Parker) would have to become my senior thesis topic; when else was I going to find a subject that would so perfectly blend documents in Georgia and three years' worth of my knowledge about Chinese culture, language, politics, and religion? Plus, I was raised Methodist, so I would get to know a little more about that history to boot.

What I would discover was much more than the life, failures, and triumphs of Young J. Allen and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South in China, but simply how enthralling it is to pour over documents that he poured over more than a century earlier. Call me a dork, or a call me a historian, but it felt utterly like touching history. Thankfully, he had somewhat legible handwriting, so I read what I could of his hand-written letters, journals, sermons, and notes for the books he wrote. It felt romantic in the way it seems when you read The Historian and follow a generation of historians across Cold War Europe in search of Vlad Tepes (the prince who inspired tales of Dracula) but also monotonous in the way that you feel work must inevitably be. The result is a happy medium, a wholly rewarding experience and with any luck, worthwhile when you sit down to write.

What did I find?

Allen would spend his life devoted to not only evangelism but the added social goals of education, journalism, writing, and translating.

I found a man inspired by God, baffled by Confucius, and bound to pragmatism. The state of the young Methodist mission was sad when he arrived, and much as he tried to expand it, the American Civil War stole any hope of support or funding from abroad. Allen and his fellow missionary J. W. Lambuth spent nearly a decade working odd jobs to keep themselves afloat. Their families were present in Shanghai too; in fact, Allen had six children with his wife Mary Houston Allen, but only three survived past toddlerhood. By the time funding returned in any sense, Allen had made his own revelation about Chinese society. The non-receptive citizens he'd been preaching to had been anything but successful; but the young men he taught while working at a government school seemed just the type, the upper class families, who may have more influence in a hierarchical Confucian society. Maybe, he decided, reaching these people first and educating them in western subjects (including but not exclusively Christianity) could later influence more people through the top-down formation of their citizenship. These people would not only receive the accompanying western education that Allen considered paramount, but might have more success at reaching the laypeople with whom he'd become so disenchanted.

Allen spent the rest of his life working to varying degrees in education in Shanghai. The Anglo-Chinese College, Shanghai would eventually merge with two others to become Suzhou University in 1901, which had been one of his life's goals. He would also play his hand in journalism and publishing, using his Wan-kuo kung-pao magazine to propel a combination of world and national news, essays on religion, and attacks on Confucian lifestyle. He contributed many translations of tomes on politics and religion, including The Relations Between East and West that was popular among his colleagues and governmental gentry. He wrote several books of his own as well, including one that you can find on Google Books today (by the way, it's in Chinese!). While he did not abandon his evangelistic goals, he expanded those initial plans by adding his social missions to his ambitious strategy to win converts. He wound up somewhere in between fully accepting Confucian society and fully condemning it, and allowed students to learn about Christianity in a non-pressured way. At the end of the day, he saw both mental and spiritual parts of man to be significant.

My thesis touches on this and other aspects of what made Allen a combination of the two worlds of missionary work that grew out of that late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as Americans and other missionaries encountered reluctant natives in the field; a strong camp of traditional strictly evangelical missionaries would go forth alongside the newer social progress proponents. It wound up being around 8000 words (thirty pages double-spaced). I had an embarrassing number of library books checked out from mine and other university libraries across Georgia.

It was an incredible exercise in being a historian. Almost every person in my ten-student class ended up spending at least a few days in an archive somewhere in Georgia, from Emory to Koinonia Farm and in between. What any of these theses will become in the future remains to be seen, but I think we all felt like historians during those months. I am one of the only living experts on Young J. Allen, and I think that's pretty darn cool.