Voices of Irish Music & Migration

Voices of Irish Music & Migration

Voices of Irish Music & Migration

Between 1945 and 1970 over 600,000 men and women left Ireland for destinations across the globe. About three-quarters went to Great Britain and one-eighth to the United States. Among them were many traditional musicians and singers who carried their culture with them, giving it continued relevance in their new communities. Voices of Irish Music & Migration presents some of the music and memories that members of the post-war migrant generation shared with me for my research.

As part of several different projects from 2008 to 2014 I conducted over forty original oral histories. These include interviews with first-generation migrant musicians as well as second-generation and non-Irish people who participated in the Irish music scene in the post-war era. The twelve interviews presented as part of this digital archive are those I had permission to put online and for which the audio was of sufficient quality. These appear largely in their original form, though occasionally personal information has been edited out to respect the wishes of the interviewee and their privacy. Some of the interviewees have also generously provided photographs and allowed me to record them singing or playing tunes.

Oral History Metadata Synchronizer

I encourage you to listen to the interviews themselves, and to make it easier, I created time-coded indexes using the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS). Click on the “listen to the interview” link in the item, and it will open the audio player (pictured at right). You can choose to listen to the whole interview from start to finish, navigate to any part identified in the index, or search the index by keyword.

This site was originally created in 2015 as part of my Ph.D. in History / Digital Arts & Humanities at University College Cork. A book based on my research is in progress. In the meantime, I have decided to make the interviews and related materials accessible. They may be used for educational purposes with appropriate attribution; they are not for commercial use. Please contact me with any questions.

Scattered Musics

Scattered Musics

Scattered Musics cover

Scattered Musics, edited by Martha I. Chew Sánchez and David Henderson (University Press of Mississippi, 2021)

“A world tour of the expected yet unexpected transformations of music and musicians on the move”

I am honored to have contributed Chapter 1, “‘An Ireland over There’? Dance Halls and Traditional Music in the Irish Diaspora, 1945-70.”

Among the Irish communities in British and American cities after World War II, dance halls took primacy as social venues that featured a historically rural music alongside more modern, urban forms. Despite their commercial function, they figured prominently in migrants’ lives as key settings for community and identity formation. The fact that so many ethnic venues thrived in the post-war era reflected the recognition that participation in Irish cultural practices – in this case music and dance – served as a mechanism of adjustment in an unfamiliar milieu. They enabled migrants to directly enact a connection to ‘home’, displacing feelings of marginalization, while the adapted settings, style, and format of the music also evinced a new situation and needs. Analysis of the tensions between old roots and new through musical practices reveals how diasporic Irishness was negotiated and contested, interpreted and performed. This chapter argues that both cohesion and diversity emerged from the mix.

Original oral histories collected from Irish traditional musicians who went to the United States and Great Britain between 1945 and 1970 offer a window into the experiences of the post-war migrant generation. Comparative historical analysis of Irish music in three cities across the diaspora – London, New York, and Boston – shows that while similar processes of identity formation occurred, local demographical and geographical trends resulted in different experiences for migrants. Incorporating historical and cultural analysis of Irish traditional music in dance halls highlights the symbiotic relationship between place and diasporic identities.

Order your copy here or ask your library to purchase a copy.

Postcards from the Road

Postcards from the Road

Commonplace artifacts of material culture since the late nineteenth century, postcards are cheap to produce, purchase, and mail, they don’t require much personalization, and sending them to family and friends can make others jealous of the interesting places you visit. Often they depict beautiful landscapes or historic sites, which is why, looking through a collection my mom kept growing up, I was surprised to find several postcards of highways.

Seriously, who sends postcards of highways?

Postcards of highways
Clockwise from top left: “Pennsylvania Turnpike and Approach of Bedford Interchange,” postmarked July 23, 1954; Pennsylvania Turnpike, “World’s Most Scenic Highway,” postmarked Oct. 6, 1965; Ohio Turnpike, postmarked Aug. 1965 (?); and Indiana toll road (US I-90) near Elkhart, Indiana, postmarked Oct. 29, 1959.

To viewers, postcards structure “how and what views were to be taken from a rapidly changing world,” and their publishers often marketed the future those changes represented.[1] In the US after World War II, that included expanding infrastructure and mass consumerism. While highway construction had begun in the 1920s, it took off in the 1950s, characterized by “limited-access roads”: standardized, four (or more) -lane highways with interchanges. The prototype, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, first opened in 1940 and was completed by 1954. Its popularity exceeded expectations, making it a model for the 41,000 miles of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways developed under the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. This massive federal investment in infrastructure represented the largest public works project ever undertaken and spurred economic growth.

Increased highway construction, suburban sprawl, urban redevelopment, and car ownership all intertwined in the prosperous postwar decades. Together they created the car-centric “landscape of mass consumption” most Americans experience today.[2] This has had a profound impact on where we live and work, and spend our free time. In the postwar decades more families purchased cars and traveled further in them, making recreational travel a central part of middle-class culture and an expression of affluence.[3]

Enter the roadtrip. What to Americans in 2020 seems retro was novel to Americans in 1965. Postcards of highways highlight that novelty, and they marketed it. The highways pictured are remarkably empty. These are open roads, an uncommon sight today, and, since traffic rapidly increased after their construction, an uncommon sight at the time too.

Postcards of a shopping center and motel
Left: “New Village Center, economy shopping hub of Ellinor, Florida,” postmarked June 18, 1954. Description on back reads, “Florida’s vacationers shop at home-town prices in the new Village Center – all the convenience and economy of centralized home-town shopping while you vacation!” Right: Quality Courts Motel, Perry Georgia, built 1963, postmarked Oct. 19, 1967. US I-75 and US 41 both pass through Perry.

As the highway system expanded, so did roadside attractions from shopping centers to motels (from “motor hotels”). They boasted ample parking to cater to their customers. Historical sites adapted too, expanding their parking lots and advertising their convenience, as in the postcard from Mount Rushmore below.

Postcards tend to set a positive tone. They leave out a lot: the political and social upheavals of the era; the communities and ecosystems that highway construction destroyed; and the many Americans denied access to prosperity. In some ways these things feature implicitly: the Georgia motel built in 1963 in “plantation revival” style suggests who would, and who would not, be welcome guests. A postmark from 1954 reads “hire the handicapped – it’s good business,” a record of a government campaign in the history of Americans with disabilities.

Gendered histories also surface here: many of the postcards in the collection I’ve drawn from came from female colleagues of my grandmother. They suggest ways women created bonds in male-dominated workplaces. However, the majority of the postcards sent to the whole family were addressed to my grandfather “& family” or “& co.”. A woman’s ambitions in this era – my grandmother left her home in Ohio to take a job three states away – were nonetheless subsumed by her marital and maternal role.

Owning a car and taking to the “open road” represents a peculiarly American sort of individualism. Yet ironically its expression depends upon the interstate highways created with federal funds. Americans celebrated that public infrastructure in images shared via another key public service, the USPS. Perhaps it’s time we remembered that.

Postcard from Mt Rushmore
Mt. Rushmore (front and back), foregrounding the parking lot! The description on the back says, “This famous shrine is visited by over one million people each year and this huge parking area provides ample space for the many thousands of motor cars arriving daily during season.”

[1] John A. Jackle & Keith A. Sculle, Picturing Illinois: Twentieth Century Postcard Art from Chicago to Cairo (University of Illinois Press, 2012), 21, 186.

[2] Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (Knopf, 2003), 13; Christopher Wells, Car Country: An Environmental History (University of Washington Press, 2013).

[3] Susan G. Davis, “Time Out: Leisure and Tourism,” in Jean-Christophe Agnew & Roy Rosenzweig (eds.), A Companion to Post-1945 America (Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 68.

Speaking Through Food

Speaking Through Food

Contribution to Historians Cooking the Past

I know few Turkish words, but most of the words I do know relate to food. I can ask for tea (çay) or coffee (kahve), and name some of my favorite dishes (like baklava, obviously). In the realm of embarrassing stories from childhood, my family never tires of reminding me of when, visiting Turkey as a toddler, I repeatedly asked for “more zeytin, more zeytin” (olives – still a favorite). 

My father is Turkish and my mother American. Most of my father’s family still lives in Turkey and I grew up here in the US. Whenever we visited Turkey, a form of triangular communication would occur: my mom and grandparents would speak German to each other; since my father doesn’t speak German he would talk to his parents in Turkish; and my parents spoke to my sister and me in English, of which my grandparents could not speak more than a few words. Later, I learned some German, but only enough for pretty basic conversation.

Without the language, my primary connection to a Turkish identity is through food. My Babaanne (father’s mother) and I can’t speak much to each other, but we can cook, and eat, together. With the help of my dad, acting as translator, she has taught me how to make some of my favorite dishes. The recipes themselves reflect her own life history: Her fruit preserves call for a few hours sitting in the sun, a simple step in Turkey, but almost impossible for me to accomplish during the years I lived in Ireland. The green beans recipe below calls for two “wooden spoonfuls” of olive oil, a convenient unit of measurement in a Turkish kitchen, if not an international standard. And Babaanne’s signature dessert, Obsttorte (fruit tart), is a recipe she picked up living in Germany in the late 1950s. Many of the recipes, of course, are hardly recipes at all. She knows from experience the quantities and consistency needed at every step in the process. I’m the one who has to write them down to learn and remember.

Cooking the Past
Left: Babaanne talking to a neighbor from her balcony – in the days before COVID-19 quarantines. Right: Breakfast on the balcony, with fresh fruits, cheeses, and bread from the local farmers market and homemade jams.

When returning from trips to Turkey, my suitcase always contains food: olives, olive oil, baklava, halva, homemade preserves, and maybe some cheese or sucuk (sausage) snuck in past customs. My family and I have always most lamented our inability to bring back crates of fresh figs, the equal of which cannot be found on this side of the Atlantic. The foods that do make it back are jealously guarded to make them last. 

As an historian I study music, specifically Irish traditional music and the migrants who carried it with them from Ireland to communities across the diaspora. Like food, music is somewhat ephemeral. Sounds and tastes can’t be so easily packed into a suitcase. Their approximation can be documented through notation or recipes, but the true power lies with the consumer and the associations that those sounds or tastes carry. For migrants and their descendants – including me – that power persists even in new contexts. 

Like many others, I have been cooking and baking more than usual during this pandemic. It provides both entertainment and comfort. Nothing I can cook will replicate the experience of a meal on the balcony of my Babaanne’s summer home overlooking the Aegean. But this weekend as I ate green beans and savored a fruit tart, I thought of her. 

Green Beans with Olive Oil (zeytinyağlı taze fasulye)

green beans
Learning how to cook the green beans recipe below while in Turkey (September 2019).


500g / 1/2lb green beans
1 small onion
7-8 cloves of garlic
3 fresh tomatoes
Olive oil


Use a wide pot, 3-4” deep with a lid. Put round slices of one whole tomato, peeled, on the bottom of the pan. 

Add half the green beans – ends trimmed and broken in half – in a layer. 

Add 3-4 cloves of garlic (whole) and diced onions. 

Peel and chop another tomato and add on top. 

Add the rest of the beans. 

Add another peeled, chopped tomato and 3-4 cloves of garlic. 

Sprinkle with salt. Add olive oil (2 wooden spoonfuls). 

Heat on the stovetop on low with the lid on. After it gets juicy, add some boiling water (if necessary). Cook for about 20 minutes, until the beans are soft.

The beans can be served warm or cold.

green beans
My green beans cooked at home (April 2020).

Writing American Immigration History: Notes on an Essay

Writing American Immigration History: Notes on an Essay

The border wall at Nogales
The border at Nogales, Arizona / Sonora (May 2019). Photo by Sara Goek.

I recently wrote a bibliographic essay titled “Writing American Immigration History” for Choice, a book review publication for academic libraries (read it here for free). I started it while Trump shut down the federal government over funding his border wall and finished when he declared a national emergency to try to get that funding. It’s an interesting time to be an immigration historian.

The task: select about 50 books in the field and write a 5,000-word narrative that cites and connects them all. As many writing or teaching projects do, this prompted me to catch up on the new literature in the field and to extend my familiarity beyond my primary research areas. It proved especially challenging at a time of burgeoning scholarship in the field, with many new academic books as well as articles and op-eds providing historical context for current events.

I knew from the start that I wanted, and needed, to do something different than the excellent #ImmigrationSyllabus. I had to not only select good sources, but to explain why and organize them into a coherent narrative. The Immigration Syllabus is organized chronologically into topical “weeks.” I decided that my primary narrative would be not the history of immigration, but the historiography – in other words, the history of immigration history. The way in which the writing of that history has evolved over time itself constitutes a historical phenomenon.

As I selected texts to include, I sought input from other historians in an open call here and on social media. Most responses came from people I know, but I did get a couple suggestions from others whom I’ve never met. I realized after the fact that my work with academic librarians in a membership association had influenced that decision. In that setting sharing work for feedback is something I do all the time, but I’m not sure it’s something I would’ve done in such a public forum previously. Librarians have many quirks (one of which is a dislike of non-librarians commenting on their quirks, so I won’t specify further!) and among them is a genuine tendency towards collaboration and openness. Coming from a field where work tends more towards the individual and competitive, that attitude has been a welcome revelation.

No doubt there will be historians who criticize this essay for not including the book they think is more important. I can’t please everyone, nor could I include every text in an essay with established parameters. Since completing the essay, I have heard of three more new books that I would have liked to include. As with all the scholarship referenced in the essay, the end result represents my particular perspective and my own time.

I decided after the fact that it would be interesting to analyze the composition of the bibliography. It includes 60 items, 58 of which are discrete publications. Monographs dominate – unsurprisingly – with a few multi-author and multi-editor works. Articles are beyond the scope of this assignment, though I did squeeze one in. The works were published between 1951 and 2019, skewing towards the more recent end of the timeline. (Click on the chart for an interactive version.)

While recognizing that gender binaries are problematic, nonetheless examining the gender breakdown is interesting. History remains a male-dominated field. Approximately 45% of new Ph.D. graduates are women, but that percentage used to be much lower. I don’t know if a standard methodology for analyzing bibliographies by gender exists. For example, if an author appears twice, are they counted twice? How do you count multi-author works? I tried both methods. Counting each author each time they appear in the bibliography led to a breakdown of 53% male to 47% female among these works, while counting each unique author only once means a 55% male / 45% female breakdown.

Chart of works by year and gender

The gender balance has shifted over the last couple decades. Out of the 58 works here, half fall on either side of 2006. Those in the pre-2006 group have approximately a 2:1 male to female authorship ratio while post-2006 the ratio flips. Not only do women know history, but at least from where I sit, they’re engaged in some of the most exciting new work in the field.


Acknowledgments: I would like to thank the friends and colleagues who gave me suggestions based on a draft list of sources (particularly Sophie Cooper, Gráinne McEvoy, Christian Nøkkentved, and Eric Smith). Special thanks to Luke Kirwan for being my go-to editor and proofreader since the good old days in Sheraton Court. And thanks to Bill Mickey and the staff at ACRL and Choice for the opportunity to write this piece.

Input Needed: Key Texts on American Immigration History

Input Needed: Key Texts on American Immigration History

immigration history books

Fellow historians: I would like your input. I am writing a bibliographic essay on American immigration history (mid-nineteenth century to the present) for an audience of academic librarians. The basic assignment is to cover 50 books in 5,000 words. What follows is a draft list of 52 books, organized thematically into three categories. Note that the focus is monographs, not articles (though I may end up including a few of those).

Am I missing a book you consider crucial? What other text(s) would you include and why? If you would include another text, which one(s) from the current list would you leave out? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Historians: Conceptualizing Immigration

This section will outline trends in the historiography of American immigration, from Handlin to the present.

Bodnar, John, The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1985).

Daniels, Roger, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life, 2nd edition (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002).

Dinnerstein, Leonard & David M. Reimers, Ethnic Americans: A History of Immigration, 4th ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

Donato, Katharine M. & Donna Gabaccia, Gender and International Migration from the Slavery Era to the Global Age (Russell Sage, 2015).

Gabaccia, Donna, Foreign Relations: American Immigration in Global Perspective (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).

Handlin, Oscar, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

Jacobson, Matthew Frye, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

Marinari, Maddalena, Madeline Y. Hsu & Maria Cristina Garcia (eds.), A Nation of Immigrants Reconsidered: US Society in an Age of Restriction, 1924-1965 (Urbana, Chicago & Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2019).

Molina, Natalia, How Race Is Made: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014)

Reimers, David, Other Immigrants: The Global Origins of the American People, (New York: New York University Press, 2005).

Roediger, David R., Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White (New York: Basic Books, 2005).

Takaki, Ronald, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1993).

Ueda, Reed (ed.), A Companion to American Immigration (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006).

Yans-McLaughlin, Virginia (ed.), Immigration Reconsidered: History, Sociology, and Politics (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Americans: Controlling Immigration 

This section will focus on law, policy, and ideologies related to immigration and how those have evolved over time. 

Benton-Cohen, Kathleen, Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and Its Legacy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).

Bon Tempo, Carl J., Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees during the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

Brown, Wendy, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (New York: Zone Books, 2010).

Cannato, Vincent. American Passage: The History of Ellis Island (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010).

Daniels, Roger, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005).

Ettinger, Patrick, Imaginary Lines: Border Enforcement and the Origins of Undocumented Immigration (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009).

Haines, David W., Safe Haven?: A History of Refugees in America (Sterling, VA: Kumarian Press, 2010).
Higham, John, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, 2nd ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988).

Hirota, Hidetaka, Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Kang, S. Deborah, The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 1917-1954 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Law, Anna O., The Immigration Battle in American Courts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Lee, Erika & Judy Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Luibhéid, Eithne, Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

Lytle Hernandez, Kelly, Migra!: A History of the US Border Patrol (Oakland: University of California Press, 2010).

Ngai, Mae, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

Schrag, Peter, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism (Berkeley: University of California Press, Berkeley, 2011).

St. John, Rachel, Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2013.

Immigrants: Lives, Cultures & Communities

Of the three sections, I had the most difficulty limiting the number of texts in this one. Overall it is intended to cover a broad range of ethnic and racial groups, geographies, and cultural practices. The texts represented here should be the definitive texts on their subject and/or representative of recent trends in scholarship on that subject. 

Barrett, James R., The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City (New York: Penguin Press, 2012).

Choate, Mark I., Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

Diner, Hasia R., Roads Taken, The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2015).

Gabaccia, Donna R., We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

Gjerde, Jon, The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917 (University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

Gutiérrez, David G., Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

Halter, Marilyn & Violet Showers Johnson, African & American: West Africans in Post-Civil Rights America (New York & London, New York University Press, 2014).

Hansen, Karen V., Encounter on the Great Plains: Scandinavian Settlers and the Dispossession of Dakota Indians, 1890-1930, Oxford University Press, 2013.

Hsu, Madeline Y. The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

Kenny, Kevin, The American Irish: A History (Harlow, UK & New York: Longman, 2000).

Lee, Erika, The Making of Asian America: A History, Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Lee, Joseph & Marion R. Casey (eds.), Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States (New York: New York University Press, New York, 2006).

Lorenzkowski, Barbara, Sounds of Ethnicity: Listening to German North America, 1850-1914 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2010).

McBee, Randy, Dance Hall Days: Intimacy and Leisure among Working-Class Immigrants in the United States (New York & London: New York University Press, 2000).

Miller, Kerby A., Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Minian, Ana Raquel, Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).

Sánchez, George J., Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Showers Johnson, Violet, The Other Black Bostonians: West Indians in Boston, 1900-1950 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).

Takaki, Ronald, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, revised edition (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1998).

Waters, Mary C. & Reed Ueda (eds.), The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration since 1965 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

Young, Elliott, Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

Zahra, Tara, The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016).


Please share your thoughts in the comments below or contact me directly. Thank you!

A House Divided

A House Divided

If this was clickbait, the headline might be “Is America More Polarized Than Ever?” But I dislike clickbait and especially titles with questions in them. Discussions of polarization in American political life seem to be trending. Nonetheless, while our society may feel more polarized now than in recent decades, taking a longer view calls that claim of exceptionalism into question. Since the nation’s founding, Americans have disagreed, at times violently, over political issues. The Civil War, the Gilded Age, the Civil Rights era, the Vietnam War: all come to mind as examples of when society faced intense divisions. The intent here is not to define an objective benchmark against which to measure present polarization. Rather, history can inform our discussion of it, who it includes or excludes, and what we stand to gain or lose by attempting to lessen it.

In Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America, James Campbell defines polarization as “the condition of substantial and intense conflict over political perspectives arrayed along a single dimension — generally along ideological lines”.[1] If that is the case, then oppressed or marginalized people throughout American history must live in another dimension. They have existed, and continue to exist, largely beyond the the poles of power, which concentrates in the hands of the white, male, and wealthy, regardless of political party. The exclusion of women and people of color, despite their centrality to the nation’s history, is inherent in contemporary discussions of political polarization. Only as the poles shift and we see in more than one dimension — a black president, a female presidential candidate — do racism and sexism get described as “polarizing,” because they impinge on the status quo. White men in positions of power have a long history of claiming that they could represent the disenfranchised, from enslaved people under the 3/5ths compromise to women prior to suffrage. Insist otherwise, and suddenly the nation is “polarized”.

Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis - with George McClellan between them - pulling a map of the nation apart.
Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis – with George McClellan between them – pulling a map of the nation apart. Currier & Ives, 1864 (Library of Congress).

The Civil War era stands out as an extreme example of polarization with resonance today. A series of political compromises failed, and in 1858 the then Senate-candidate Abraham Lincoln asserted that “a house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. ” His election prompted southern secession and as president he would oversee a war to reunify the house without the stain of slavery. However, while no one conducted opinion polls of enslaved people, I highly doubt they were polarized over the issue of their freedom. That conception could apply only to those with a modicum of power.

The Civil War’s aftermath also leads to the question of what we may lose by returning to an agreed-upon center. In Race and Reunion, historian David Blight argues that achieving national reconciliation involved a tacit acceptance of white supremacy to bring the South back into the fold. Unity depended on historical amnesia, forgetting the true reason for fighting the war: slavery and emancipation. As Reconstruction failed and segregation deepened, the nation found it more comfortable to believe that the Second American Revolution had completed what the first had not and created a unified nation.

Though Blight focuses on how historical memory evolved in the fifty years after the war, it’s possible to see the later ramifications of this process. Many Americans still seem to think it’s up for debate whether slavery caused the Civil War. It’s not. The historical consensus is well established on that front. The persistence of the myth of the Lost Cause and nobility of “both sides” was the price paid for national reconciliation. The continued ‘debate’ over insidious racism in American society is a price we still pay. As Blight wrote more recently, “not only is the Civil War not over; it can still be lost.

None of this is to say that contemporary divisions do not exist or do not matter. Rather, seeing contemporary America as uniquely divided rests upon a particular vision of history, one that has more in common with myth than reality. The stable world imagined to have existed in the past (presumably back when America was “great”) was built upon silencing and oppression. It was a world more devoted to order than justice. While social media has given more people today a voice, the power to be heard remains unequally distributed along intersecting lines cut by class, race, and gender. The only comfort, perhaps, is that those resisting systems of oppression can tell their own stories, and those stories matter. The poles can only shift if pushed, and they still may shift back again. History is not linear. Progress is not predestined.

Lincoln predicted, “I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” The reality, which he did not live to see, proved more complicated. There are questions we still need to confront: What price will we pay for the perception of unity? Do we want “balance” (in the media, in politics) if that means normalizing extremism? Or, can we move beyond partisan outrage and the politics of resentment? Can we hold our society accountable to the truths of history? How can we ensure that more voices are heard, and valued? Can we foster empathy and build on it to create meaningful change? What might that look like?

Following the recent midterm elections, Nancy Pelosi said “we have an obligation to try to find common ground”. As the 116th Congress prepares to take their seats, it remains to be seen whether they will usher in an era of greater or lesser polarization. What may be the price of unifying our house now?

These questions have no easy answers. We need to ask them regardless, and repeatedly. And we need to insist on answers that may not be answers at all, but that embrace complexity. Any form of reconciliation in the present will depend on reckoning with past wrongs, not on the papering over them. We cannot avoid arguments, because “America is an argument”.[2] What we can do is strive for better conversations and better journalism. Clickbait will not save us now.

[1] James E. Campbell, Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America (Princeton University Press, 2016), p.16.

[2] Liu’s article prompted the development of the Better Arguments Project, which provides one possible model for more meaningful civic engagement.

In spite of the gains

In spite of the gains

The findings of a recent Pew Research survey on gender equality contain this observation: “In spite of the gains women have made in the labor force in recent decades, today’s young women are no less likely than older generations to say the country has more work to do in bringing about gender equality. And Millennial women are significantly more likely than Generation X, Baby Boomer or Silent Generation women to say that men have it easier than women these days.”

Among women, Millennials most likely to see advantages for men

If I’d had to guess in advance, I would have expected different results. 57% of women overall say the country hasn’t gone far enough in giving women equal rights, according to the survey. Why do a higher proportion of younger American women feel the least progress has been made? The recent outings of powerful men as serial sexual harassers and the devastating scale of #MeToo seem to prove how far we have to go. They vindicate the Millennials’ responses to this survey, though that’s far from a good thing. However, it still doesn’t explain the differences in opinion by age. What does? A hypothesis:

We were told it had been solved. We were told we could grow up to be whatever we wanted. We watched as women shattered glass ceilings to become Supreme Court justices, astronauts, and Oscar-winning film directors. We were told that progress was inevitable, that the gender pay gap would disappear, that we would have equal access to healthcare, that we had the right to jurisdiction over our own bodies. We were told we could have relationships based on mutual respect, consent, and shared responsibilities. We were told that within our lifetimes we would see a female president. We believed those things. We still hope one day they will be true.

And yet. Yet when we become artists, engineers, economists, or historians – not to mention hotel housekeepers – we find men who inhibit our advancement or place little value (monetary or otherwise) on our work. Yet we continue to be patronized, interrupted, harassed, assaulted. Yet we continue to be told we are biologically ‘different’ (read: inferior), too emotional, too bossy, too shrill, too ambitious. Yet we are told to smile, to be nice, to accommodate, to soothe men’s fragile egos, to ease their fear at the thought that they (horror of horrors) might have to share housework or defer to a female boss. Yet we do not see ourselves well represented in a popular culture that supposedly includes us. Yet we cannot move through public spaces without fear. Yet we have to argue for our very humanity, over and over and over again.

None of this is new. Many others have said it before, and more eloquently. Read Rebecca Solnit, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Amanda Hess, Roxane Gay. For that matter, it’s been said for centuries. Read historians Mary Beard, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Alice Kessler-Harris.[1] But that’s exactly the point. Women have never been silent; we have been silenced.

At its most extreme silencing takes the form of violence, including rape and murder.[2] It also encompasses threats and trolling on social media. In these instances women who made their voices heard paid a high price for it. On an everyday level silencing tends to take the more mundane forms of comments that reduce women to body parts rather than acknowledging our character or the content of our speech. That speech gets interrupted or ignored entirely, when it’s even considered part of the conversation in the first place (see: ‘manels’). The end result is, as comedian Jo Brand recently spelled out – with admirable patience – to male BBC panelists, “for women, if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down.”

Not wanting to be worn down seems a reasonable request. Feminism is not, and never was, about women ‘replacing’ men or seizing power. It is about equality. That is literally the dictionary definition: belief in and advocacy for “the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” It is called feminism because women have for too long borne the burden of gender inequality. Feminism is about women having seats around the table and our voices being heard. Note that it’s a round table: More people need seats? Get more chairs and a bigger table. No one ends up on the floor.

Do men today have it easier? Yes. Is that an irredeemable privilege? No. But to add seats to the table we need awareness in the place of obliviousness. We, as a society, need to acknowledge the problem. We need to listen to women. We need to believe their stories. We need to do better. And for that we – men and women – need feminism. Bring on the next wave.


[1] There are many, many more fantastic female writers. Those listed here have all written extensively on the subject, far too many to itemize in a footnote: look them up and start reading. Another good place to start is the “Rape Culture Syllabus” put together by Laura Ciolkowski for Public Books: http://www.publicbooks.org/rape-culture-syllabus/

[2] Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions (Haymarket Books, 2017). The essay “A Short History of Silence” addresses many forms of silencing, including the ways in which rigid gender roles silence men – telling them not to express emotion, or only certain emotions, and denigrating any behaviors seen as too feminine.

Ken Burns and the Risks of Reconciliation

Ken Burns and the Risks of Reconciliation

The opening episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War shows a series of iconic moments in film with a twist: they play backwards. As viewers we are asked to rewind our understanding of the war, to start from the beginning. In the process we are supposed to build a new understanding, through which we can all find solace in a shared history. But can we?

Ken Burns likes narrative history. An authoritative voice speaks to connect hours of historical footage and talking heads. The format harks back to earlier periods in historical scholarship when historians presumed their own objectivity. The sort of editorial decisions that go into selecting who to quote, what words to use (calling the Vietnam War a “failure” or “tragedy” rather than a “defeat”, for example), and what images to put behind them, are all acts of interpretation obscured in the guise of fact and marshalled to support an interpretation. Giving the appearance of showing all sides further glosses over the biases. With subject matter as divisive as the Civil War or Vietnam War, this framing of the story ends up flattening out the events’ complexity and decades of debates.

A major challenge of teaching history at college level is that students arrive with an understanding of history not dissimilar to that found in Ken Burns’s documentaries or their school textbooks. The past is presented as a series of facts, while little or nothing is said of how or why those facts were chosen, if indeed they are agreed upon ‘facts’ as opposed to contested issues. Historians understand, and try to communicate to students, that the past is subject to debate and our understanding of it continues to change over time. The danger of narrative history is that it makes an argument and selects evidence to support that argument without acknowledging that it does so. Whether to accept the stories these documentaries tell at face value or probe them further is left to the individual. Too many, I fear, may choose the former. Neither The Civil War nor The Vietnam War ask explicit questions of their viewers. Therein lies their broad appeal and therein lies their danger.

The films are about, in Ken Burns’s words, “ultimate reconciliation”. This may come from a noble impulse to come to terms with history and establish an American canon that bridges partisan divides. Laudable though this optimism may be, reconciliation can create moral equivalence where it may not exist. It leaves us with “a popular narrative of brave soldiers fighting for their respective causes” without sufficient critical analysis of those causes. In the case of the Civil War this very narrative enabled the glorification of the Confederacy, the reimposition of white supremacy, and willful amnesia around emancipation.[1] In the case of Vietnam, the reconciliation narrative depends on mischaracterizing the anti-war movement and apparently explaining the politically-motivated decisions and lies of successive American governments as attempts by “decent people” to “muddle through” (episode 1). The hope for closure may be premature.

This is not an indictment of either film. There are good reasons for watching both and much of value to learn.[2] Rather, it is a call to see them for what they are: particular perspectives on American history. We have a rich past. It is complicated and messy, and its meaning is far from clear-cut. We can and should ask difficult questions and engage in civil debate over how to answer them. Questions – like protests – show not a disdain for the American project, but rather a commitment to bettering it. Reconciliation may be therapeutic, but it is not a cure. Privileging it risks losing a fuller examination of our past and our present.

[1] David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Belknap Press, 2001).

[2] I will leave it to historians of the era to evaluate the content. See, for example, Christian G. Appy’s reviews of the series for the OAH blog Process: Introduction, Episode 1, Episode 2, Episodes 3 & 4, Episodes 5 & 6, Episodes 7 & 8, Episodes 9 & 10.

The Value of the Humanities

The Value of the Humanities

I was asked recently to make an argument for the value of the humanities, a challenge given the amount of ink already spilt on the subject. Some authors frame it in positive terms, articulating the usefulness of the field. Others bemoan its perceived state of crisis. I would like to avoid whining about why no one appreciates us humanists anymore and focus on the positive. For me, the value of the humanities lies in the space they give us for reflection on the human condition.

Being Human

This is part of a larger question: what does it mean to be human? Anytime I visit a new city I make a point of visiting bookstores, particularly used bookstores. On a trip to Kansas City about a month ago I picked up a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone. It comprises a series of vignettes, short prose-poems, on subjects from across world history. One of my favorites is titled “Only Human”:

  Darwin told us we are cousins of the apes, not the angels. Later on, we learned we emerged from Africa’s jungle and that no stork ever carried us from Paris. And not long ago we discovered that our genes are almost identical to those of mice.
Now we can’t tell if we are God’s masterpiece or the devil’s bad joke.   We puny humans:
exterminators of everything,
hunters of our own,
creators of the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb, and the neutron bomb, which is the healthiest of all bombs since it vaporizes people and leaves objects intact,
we, the only animals who invent machines,
the only ones who live at the service of the machines they invent,
the only ones who devour their own home,
the only ones who poison the water they drink and the earth that feeds them,
the only ones capable of renting or selling themselves, or renting or
selling their fellow humans,
the only ones who kill for fun,
the only ones who torture,
the only ones who rape.
And also
the only ones who laugh,
the only ones who daydream,
the ones who make silk from the spit of a worm,
the ones who find beauty in rubbish,
the ones who discover colors beyond the rainbow,
the ones who furnish the voices of the world with new music,
and who create words so that
neither reality nor memory will be mute.[1]

Humans are capable of expressing both extraordinary cruelty and extraordinary beauty. The humanities seek to make sense of that through culture. But it is not only an academic endeavor. It is about finding meaning in our existence.

That act is not limited to the present, nor to a single place. Galeano’s book turns western history on its head, juxtaposing world religions, philosophies, and scientific discoveries. Confronted with these “stories of almost everyone” – like hand stencils in cave paintings – we cannot escape a sense of shared humanity, no matter the distance across space or time.

Cueva de las Manos [Cave of Hands], Argentina (image by Mariano, Wikimedia Commons)


The humanities teach us about being people. They provide context for our lives and societies. History forms a key part of this (though as a historian no doubt I’m biased in this regard). I would like to illustrate it with an example relevant to contemporary discourse: immigration.

Across American history, nativists have targeted different groups of immigrants with the same types of rhetoric. In the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin complained about Germanic peoples and their failure to assimilate to Anglo-American life. From the 1840s fears were directed towards Irish Catholics, the poor huddled masses fleeing famine who, by virtue of their poverty and religion were seen as unintelligent and disloyal.

Thomas Nast, “The American River Ganges”, Harper’s Weekly, 1871. Note the alligator archbishops emerging from the water and the children in fear of being eaten by them. In the background stands a building resembling St. Peter’s Basilica, except it is labeled Tammany Hall and on it flies a flag with an Irish harp. In the back right is a noose, a reference to racial violence in the lynching of African-Americans. A school in the center is in a state of disrepair with an American flag hanging upside down.

In the late nineteenth century the Chinese became the first racial or ethnic group specifically excluded by legislation, while more expansive restrictions in the early twentieth century focused on reducing immigration from eastern and southern Europe. War compounded anti-Asian sentiments and in the 1940s Japanese Americans were rounded up into camps (in the interests of national security, of course) despite no evidence of espionage. More recently the same types of rhetoric have been turned on Mexicans and Muslims.

Dr. Seuss, “Waiting for the Signal from Home…”, PM, Feb. 13, 1942. These racialized caricatures of Japanese Americans being given TNT are typical of their time, little though we want to think that the author of beloved children’s books could be responsible for holding these views (Dr. Seuss Went to War, UC San Diego Library).

The continuity across these examples is their basis in fear: fear of otherness (whether racial, ethnic, or ideological) and fear of people whose locus of loyalty might lie elsewhere.[2] The question of what it means to be American – and, therefore, who qualifies and who decides – is older than the nation itself. In all cases, Americans who are themselves descendants of immigrants are also those arguing against immigration, forgetting or denying the experiences of their own ancestors. This reflects the final lines of the Galeano passage above: we must know this history so that “neither reality nor memory will be mute”. My point here is not about knowing the facts of history, but in recognizing that everything has a history and history itself is contested, subject to both deliberate remembering and forgetting in the service of the present.

Joseph Keppler, "Looking Backward" (1893)
Joseph Keppler, “Looking Backward: They would close to the new-comer the bridge that carried them and their fathers over”, Puck, Jan. 11, 1893 (Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library).


The question then becomes, how do we educate people so that they develop reflective and critical perspectives on our society? Many articles advocating for the humanities in education make utilitarian arguments. They inundate readers with data about the employment or salaries of graduates with humanities degrees or lists of skills they may have learned, whether information literacy, writing, critical thinking, creativity, or empathy.

Without denying the importance of ‘transferable skills’ and the reasons for an evidence-based approach to humanities advocacy, economic arguments alone will not save the day. They form part of a general trend towards neoliberalism in education, particularly higher education, which sees students as consumers. Any aspect of the experience that lacks an obvious connection to a job is called into question.

However, if we understand education in the broadest sense as concerning more than a defined set of knowledge or marketable skills, then the humanities are valuable because they give us perspective. They contribute to an informed, democratic society. In the words of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, “they liberate us from the myopia our media culture and politics impose on us”.[3] This can occur only when we have “the intellectual space to grapple with questions of enduring importance”:[4] questions of why the world is the way it is. As such, the value of the humanities extends beyond school. Education at every level should create learners who can participate in society in an informed way, whether through reading poetry or debating current events.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, c.1818 (Wikimedia Commons)

Around 1818 Caspar David Friedrich painted one of the quintessential images of European romanticism: The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Using it as a metaphor, science (or the enlightenment rationality of the eighteenth century) might lead the wanderer to ask what lies under the fog, why the landscape takes a particular shape, what flora and fauna inhabit it, and what sort of particles hold it all together. Science, at its best, complements the humanities.[5] But if the wanderer is a humanist, then he might ask: what is his place in this landscape and why does it matter? Through the humanities we ask why, despite the short time we spend on this earth – less than the blink of an eye for the universe – we still need it to mean something.

The humanities remind us of our common bonds and give us the space to question their complexity. An education in the humanities is not a sugar-coating of idealism, but the realization that context matters, history stays with us, and there are no easy solutions. Despite 200,000 years of modern human life, we are still trying to figure it all out. No currency can measure the enduring value of that endeavor.


[1] Eduardo Galeano, Mirrors: Stories of almost Everyone, translated by Mark Fried (Portobello Books, London, 2009), pp.227-8.

[2] For more detail, listen to: The BackStory, “On the Outs: Restricting American Immigration” [radio/podcast], Feb. 10, 2017. http://backstoryradio.org/shows/on-the-outs/

[3] Ken Burns, NEH Jefferson Lecture, 2016.

[4] L.D. Burnett, “Holding on to What Makes Us Human: Defending the Humanities in a Skills-Obsessed University,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Aug. 7, 2016

[5] Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2010), p.8.