Historical Hypochondria

I have begun to wonder if historians, or at least history students, don’t suffer from a similar problem to that experienced by medical students. Medical students often start to self-diagnose with various ailments during the course of their studies, especially when confronted with list after list of symptoms. They find themselves ticking off symptoms and suddenly thinking they have this or that strange disorder. (( But never lupus ))

Sometimes as I am reading about historical groups or events, I find myself thinking “Gee, that’s awfully similar to X or Y.” Occasionally these are happy similarites, but often they are not. This semester I’m taking a course on the South since 1865, with an emphasis on race and gender, which means I’m reading accounts of voter suppression and white supremacists’ efforts to control the public lives of women, white and black.

Continue reading “Historical Hypochondria”

Heard on the radio

As I was running errands today, I had my radio tuned to the local NPR station, listening to This American Life. Today’s program was about the new Alabama immigration laws and how they have, in addition to whatever else, increased the racism experienced by/targeted at the Latino population.

An instance mention by the reporter involved a group of Hispanic kids at a peprally who were all sitting on the front bleachers. Their peers, the other students, started yelling “Mexicans to the back!” until the Hispanic kids moved.  I was shocked, and wondered if the kids yelling had any sense of the historical echo of their words, of the history of racial segregation in this country (codified and/or cultural).  Whether they are or they are not aware of the history, the act is unsettlingly reminiscent of an era which I hope we are not about to repeat.

Organizing the revolution

My alarm clock wakes me with the voices of the BBC World Service every weekday morning. These past few days, the news has been full of the tumult in Egypt, Tunis, and elsewhere in their region.

This morning I heard that the Egyptian government had shut down the phone and internet networks; a reporter or interviewee said that the protest could no longer be organized, without twitter, facebook, and texting. I understand that the movement started on the internet, but the statement made me laugh a little. Are pen and paper, or word of mouth, so useless now that we have mobile phones? How many rebellions, revolutions, marches and movements were organized before the telephone, much less the internet? It is amazing how much we have come to rely on something we didn’t even have 5 years ago.

No WalMart at the Wilderness

Today, the news came that WalMart had decided not to build on the disputed spot on the Wilderness Battlefield. I am cautiously optimistic.

Back in May, 2009, I attended the hearing regarding the WalMart held by the County board of supervisors. I apparently didn’t blog about the meeting afterwards, for which I apologize. Two statements by citizens of the county really caught my attention.

One was from a gentleman who studied the history of the Battle of Wilderness; I believe he was a professional historian. The Board of Supervisors, WalMart, and their supporters repeatedly said that the site “wasn’t on the battlefield” – what they meant was that it wasn’t in the bounds of the state and national parks. According to the historian who spoke, the spot where the WalMart wanted to build was where units from the United States Colored Troops had been stationed, and nearby was where wounded soldiers had been taken for aid. Not active battlefield, to some people’s minds, but an important part of the landscape of the battle.

The other memorable points came from a former Law Enforcement Officer. He had lived and worked in a county much like Orange, which had seen the construction of a big box store, heralded as a bringer of jobs and income. What it brought, he said, was an increase in petty crime and thereby an increased need for police. He pointed out that there is only one jail in Orange County – in the city of Orange. There is only one road from the battlefield area to the county seat, a two-lane country road, and the drive from one to the other is about half an hour to 45 minutes (I speak from experience). He was concerned about the location and the potential negative drain on the county’s resources. Continue reading “No WalMart at the Wilderness”

11 September

This day had a huge impact on my undergraduate life.

2001 was the beginning of my sophomore year of college, in New York State, only about 2 hours by train from New York City. My parents and sister were in northern Virginia. When I finally understood the scale of what had happened, I knew it was going to be one of those events my children would ask me about, decades in the future.

This date, 11 September, was also the basis of my undergraduate thesis. 11 September 1973, the day the Chilean tradition of democracy was dealt a blow from which it took seventeen years (or more) to recover.  I wrote about the coverage of the coup by US newspapers; partly because my Spanish is limited to what most Americans pick up, and partly because the events of the two intervening years had made me curious about how openly critical newspapers had been of our own government in the past.

(In January 2003 my mother and I attended a celebration of the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hosted by the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and attended by people from all religions and backgrounds. Following the service we walked down Massachusetts Avenue, intending to gather in a prayerful vigil for peace in Lafayette Square – but due to “security concerns” the police stood on horseback, preventing this crowd celebrating nonviolent protest from getting too close to the White House. Later that year, friends at William and Mary who were also studying in the UK were told that they would lose all credits and might be expelled if they joined in anti-war protests in Britain).

I spent the fall of my senior year of college reading book after book on the coup in 1973, the imprisonment of thousands in the National Stadium, the torture and killings – and all this in a nation which had been very proud of its democratic process. It was disturbing reading, and I only got through it because of the breaks imposed by college life, and by self-imposed breaks with a box of 96 Crayola crayons and a coloring book. Still, I’m glad  that I know about that tragedy in the history of a nation not my own.

September 11 is a day, for me, to remember the power of democracy, the importance of human rights, and that the power of fear and anger and hatred can be overcome.

One man’s past is another man’s present

The last two days I have heard things on the local NPR station which very clearly brought to my attention how things I consider to be very much The Past are still The Present for others.

The first was not a full story, but the lead for a story later on (which I didn’t hear). It was about politicians in some state running for office and in the sound clip one of the Republican candidates was railing against the evils of Socialism. The second was about a group of people of faith, Pastors for Peace, who go to Cuba in violation of and protest against the ban on travel. The reporter mentioned that there is legislation to try and soften the embargoes, but that an Anti-Communist lobby group is fighting to keep things as they are.

From a purely logical standpoint, I understand that the reasons behind the concerns. I know that the Baby Boomers and those before them, who make up a great deal of the “Powers That Be,” still carry the emotional weight of the Cold War. For me, however, that war is history, the past, something to be learned from, not something to be continued. Continue reading “One man’s past is another man’s present”

Wilderness Update

Nothing from the courts, I’m afraid, but the NTHP has named Wilderness Battlefield as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2010.

It’s also worth noting that the #1 most endangered historic place is America’s State Parks and State-Owned Historic Sites. If you have a State-owned historic site or park that you enjoy, please think about donating some money to help them out. We’re all in tight spots financially, but it these places close, they’re likely gone forever.

Citizenship and National Identity

This morning on NPR I heard a story about the push for immigration reform, and a rally in Washington to happen this weekend. Senator Russell Pearce of Arizona, who apparently opposes reform, said of the pro-reform marchers “They’re as treasonous and as un-American as anyone I know.” The quote came on the heels of a conversation with woman who works with teenage children of illegal immigrants, trying to keep them out of gangs. The teenagers feel that no opportunity is open to them because of their uncertain immigrant status.

Now, the history of the South-West and Central America are not my area of expertise. What I know has been gathered haphazardly through media and the occasional lecture. However, the question of who is an American (or rather, what makes someone an American) has resonance. As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, how a person is identified as a citizen or subject of one nation or another was a part of what led to the War of 1812.

I know that there is scholarship on how Americans resident in the (present) US came to conceptualize themselves as a new nation. What this NPR story has me wondering about, in addition to that, is how quickly or slowly did new immigrants become “Americans”? What was the process, social or political, through which a person who moved to the US after 1783 came to be regarded by their neighbors as an American and not a Brit or Frenchman or Italian, or what have you? I am given to understand that slaves, not being thought of exactly as people, were probably not thought of as citizens either. What of indentured servants?

I have no answers to these questions. I know that at the local university there are papers from numerous families from this period, including a family whose children were all born in England to an American father and English mother, but who apparently considered themselves American citizens. Maybe some small part of the answers lie there?

Disappointed but not surprised

The Board of Supervisors for Orange County, VA,  has approved at WalMart on the Wilderness Battlefield; see the coverage from the Associated Press and the NTHP’s blog entry.

One of the comments on the NTHP blog states a “fact” which was circulated by the pro-WalMart groups, but in fact parts of the battle were fought on the parcel of land being used by WalMart; according to one historian who spoke at the Planning Commission meeting back in May, that was where the African-American unit from the Union was stationed, and also where the wounded were taken to be treated. Historically, neither of these groups might have been seen as important enough to comemmorate, but surely in the 21st century they are?

I am disappointed and somewhat angry at the decision, but not all that surprised by it. Even before the first hearing by the Planning Commission, before the reports were in, two of the Board had said they would support WalMart at all costs. Orange County could use some help with its economy, but as many people have said, that location is not the best. The store might stimulate the economy a little, but how much is it going to cost the county in terms of law enforcement, traffic accidents, and national image?