On Favorite Black Authors

I’ve written before about some of the seminal influences on my writing, but I want to focus today on work by black authors I’d consider critical to my understanding of race, culture, class, and narrative. Regular readers know that, as an historian, I consider history to be something of a symphony, where all cultures and voices need to be present in order to make the music.

As a child growing up in a predominantly white area, my first exposure to African-American culture came through my television set. The first book on my list is one I first listened to on PBS’ Reading Rainbow, read by LeVar Burton. The book, Striped Ice Cream by Joan Lexau, was about a little girl who, like me, worried that she wouldn’t get the birthday present she wanted because her family was poor. I related to her on that level, and only peripherally noticed that her skin color was different from mine.

As I grew older, my aunt, who lived in and among the historically black neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul, introduced me to one of my favorite authors: Maya Angelou. The first work I read of hers was I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and I rank it as transformative for me. I inhaled every other book and work I could get my hands on by Ms. Angelou, and I grieved when she passed. Her stories about growing up as a black woman, living as an artist, and working as an activist electrified me.

I already knew I wanted to be a journalist; Angelou’s work made me understand that the stories I told needed to come from all segments of society. She opened my eyes to the assumptions I’d internalized from my limited interactions with people from other backgrounds, colors, creeds, and cultures, and in demonstrating how she found her voice, I learned to find mine.

From there, it was Alice Walker. Toni Morrison. Audre Lorde. Alex Haley. Ralph Ellison. bell hooks. Zora Neale Hurston. It was Oprah, whose rise as a journalist offering space for her viewers to tell their own stories was stunning to witness. I read the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., and I started to read an up-and-coming columnist from the Miami Herald named Leonard Pitts, Jr.

I have been extraordinarily busy in the last five years, personally, but my original passion to find my own voice, and now, as an educator, helping others find theirs, remains. Education doesn’t stop as we get older. On my to-be-read list right now are works by former President Barack Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and novels by Pitts, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2004. His latest novel, The Last Thing You Surrender, is on my e-reader right now.

I can’t honestly say this is a comprehensive list, in any fashion. In thinking about this topic, I Googled “favorite works by black authors,” and my list of new works to read easily tripled. As we move forward in this moment, let’s remember the importance of making our voices heard, and elevating those voices that could otherwise be lost.

On Using White Privilege to Protect; #blacklivesmatter

I wish I could say I was surprised by the breadth and depth of the protests taking place, now internationally, supporting #blacklivesmatter. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I almost expected it.

This is not about me; this is about my children. I am the white parent of black children, and since my oldest children came into my house as teens, I have been required to use my white privilege to fight for them. I didn’t understand the depth of the difference between the institutional challenges they face and the ones I face as a woman until the first time security followed my son and I around a big box store, finally stopping us to ask if he was bothering me.

Bothering. His. Mother.

As the phrase “the first time” implies, however, it was not the last time security took a hard look at us, and it was not the last time I looked a security person or a police officer in the eye and had to say that my son was not bothering me at all. Sometimes, the officer even looked a little chagrined. Mostly not, however.

I instituted a new rule the first time, though. I made sure my teens had phones capable of video recording, that they knew how to use them, and that they knew how to be respectful to police officers even when they had no reason at all to be. Police make assumptions, and I have no desire to see any of my children under one’s knee. George Floyd’s murder proved that even these measures cannot stand as a perfect defense.

I did my best to help equip them with the tools and skills they needed to navigate a world of white privilege while sporting dark skin. I remain angry that it was even necessary to do so. And I will never be certain that it was enough, because we need a world in which people do not have to fear for their lives because of the color of their skin.

On a related note: A tweet this week left me breathless with rage. A white follower on Twitter brought Rose Wilder Lane’s name into the discussion, citing her and Ayn Rand as an inspiration in his quest for “freedom,” presumably at the expense of others.

Rose Wilder Lane would be appalled at the police state that surrounds us. Lane espoused freedom from government interference in the lives of everyday Americans, yes, but she focused on the rights of individuals and the need for all Americans, regardless of color, to take on individual responsibility. She would be marching, too. Or, more likely, using her typewriter to make a point about governmental abuse of power.

Be an ally. Be an anti-racist. Use your own privilege to help others. Do your best to be kind, and to question your own assumptions. Try to walk in the other’s shoes, and see how uncomfortably they fit.

On Fandom

I’ve been mulling over an epiphany I had a couple of weeks ago, about fandom and my place in it.

It will come as no surprise to some that I am, apparently, a professional fan. However, it was a surprise to me when I realized it.

First, it’s no surprise to many to find that I am a lifelong fan of the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder. My first book, in fact, is an edited collection of the literary journalism of Rose Wilder Lane. I subscribed to Little House newsletters from the home sites in Laura’s world when I was old enough to use my babysitting money to do so, and my first independent road trip, the week I turned 18, was to see the Pepin and Walnut Grove sites firsthand.

Like many “bonnetheads,” I made an effort to learn how to do everything Laura did in her books. I learned to sew, to cook over an open fire, to churn butter, and to make bread from ground wheat and sourdough starter. I played “Little House” for endless hours with my cousins and friends, almost always as Mary, the oldest, because I had blond hair. As an adult, I bought each new book that came out about her life, and as a graduate student, I used her life experiences and writings to frame my own historic research.

I’ve even cosplayed as Laura or Rose, on occasion.

But somehow, that didn’t translate into fandom for me. It simply was. The work I’ve done with Laura and Rose has become what I’m best known for as a scholar, and it’s led to a degree of me being recognizable in public. The BBC interview I gave when Pioneer Girl, the annotated edition, came out, contributed some name recognition internationally that was cool and weird at the same time. And yet, I still hadn’t connected the dots.

It’s ironic, because I have actually researched fan culture. For my master’s thesis, I explored fan culture and the emerging communities online that supported various subgroups of it. I was fascinated by the collectives that had decided to take ownership of varied media, particularly Lois and Clark, and “correct” the deficiencies fans had identified in the original work’s plots. I finished and defended my thesis in 2001, just a few years after the World Wide Web had entered homes and before social media became a dominating force.

I spent a long time trying to see the thread that binds that research to the work I’ve done in history, and I realized, finally, and with help from the Michael Sheen fandom, of all things, that what ties everything I’ve ever done as a scholar together is fan culture.

So, there lies the epiphany. I’m still exploring fandom and my place in it. There’s something teasing me with notions of celebrity, familiarity, and cognitive dissonance that I’ve yet to articulate. When I’ve figured it out, I’ll write more about it.

(And yes, I’ve become a big fan of Michael Sheen’s work. Especially in Good Omens. It’s brilliant. You should go check it out.)

(And yes, I really am that clueless about my own significance in some ways, and require metaphorical big slaps in the face to “get it.”)

Reflections on Research, and the Culture War being played out in Media

I’ve been updating the web site today, organizing pages (there’s now a page for Research in the UK and another for Laura Ingalls Wilder posts), and it made me consider the trajectory of my research thus far.

One of my particular early challenges was what appeared to be an inability to settle on a research area. It’s fairly clear by the volume and variety of subjects that I’ve written about that I enjoy a wide variety of interests. It took some time for me to settle on what has become the through-line, however, and that is actually fairly simple:

How do people underserved by traditional media platforms use media to build their own communities, bolster their own political power, and effect change?

“Underserved” is an interesting word. To use it means acknowledging that traditional mainstream media do not serve the same function for particular classes and groups of people that they do for those who are in control of the messages spread by it. It implies that mainstream media reinforce a status quo when it comes to power and control. Thus, people who recognize that they are not served by traditional media turn to other means by which they can get messages into the morass of mediated communication.

Today, this can be achieved through the construction of a relatively cheap web site, the networking of varied social media platforms, and the ability of those who want to get a non-mainstream message out to find like-minded people to help with those networks.

Such sites still face a credibility problem, because, of course, one way to maintain the status quo is to immediately downplay, discredit, and label messages that contradict the status quo as “not credible.” (Or, perhaps, “fake.”)

Originally, I was interested in how new media platforms (when they were new, in the late 1990s) would work alongside their traditional counterparts (newspapers, magazines.)

But as I dug more deeply, I realized that how media platforms are used, and for what purpose, is as important, or more so, than the mere fact that they exist. Local newspapers, for example, exist to provide news and information of local interest to the community, to build communal structures for communication across the area, and to provide common ground for discussion in public spaces.

National and international news platforms are meant to do the same, in a larger sphere, reinforcing public status quo at that level.

But the splintering of media platforms has meant that media consumers can choose, to a greater or lesser degree, which platforms they want to listen to. This has lead to more and more media consumers choosing to “listen” or pay attention to only those platforms that agree with their particular views of what the status quo should be. That has led to general upheaval, because in a world where many voices can be heard, with many ideas about how things should be, people have stopped listening to any voices that might contradict their own.

Thus, a culture war being played out on the public stage.

I mentioned, once, that I view history as music, in a way. Each chord reflects the voices of thousands, at all levels of society in all forms, and each is utterly necessary to create the music that is culture and structure in society.

Suppression of voices will mean instability.

Well. I don’t know that I’ve made any sense in this bit of exploratory writing. It’s tough to boil some of these thoughts down. But what I’m generally thinking, given the work I have done and will continue to do in exploring how underserved populations have found their voices and expressed them, using media platforms to build community and effect change, is that real social and political change can only come when the voices of the underserved are made manifest–and one listens to the stories they can tell.

The Bleak Midwinter and the Joy of Holidays

I’ve had a couple of interesting interactions lately about my use of “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” when I’m not certain about the religious training of the person to whom I am addressing the greeting.

Most people are happy to reciprocate with a “Happy Holidays” of their own.

But there have been a couple who seem to get angry that I’m not using their traditional holiday greeting. One even went so far as to add the reasoning that this holiday season wouldn’t exist without their particular religion.

I want to be clear about this: I am a Christian, and the fundamental tenet of Christ’s teachings remains rooted in love for all people, period. We don’t get to pick and choose whom we share the love with, because we are all deserving of it. One of the bones I have to pick with many evangelical leaders is that their teachings often lead to hate and anger, which directly conflicts with Christ’s word on the subject. And that hypocrisy irritates me to no end.

That said, Christians are actually pretty late to the midwinter celebration parties.

Celebrating light in a season of darkness has a long history. Many pagans in the northern hemisphere celebrated on the Solstice, which marked the shortest day of the year, and the need for light in the darkness was highlighted.

Hanukkah celebrates a Festival of Lights in remembrance of the Maccabean Revolt that took place more than a hundred years before the birth of Christ.

In some years, Ramadan also falls in midwinter, aligning the Islamic tradition of fasting, prayer, and charity in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar with other religious celebrations.

Kwanzaa, celebrated at midwinter, is another latecomer, arising out of the need to connect peoples of the African diaspora in their scattered locations, but it focuses on unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

All of these celebrations, at their heart, look to battle back the dark, to celebrate the light, and to renew faith, in whatever form that takes for the celebrant.

Christians celebrate the birth of Christ, even though historical documentation suggests Christ was actually born in the spring. As an educated Christian, I’m fine with the tradition of celebrating His birth at midwinter, not only because it’s tradition, but because the celebration of His birth does all of these same things.

The celebrations renew our strength in the battle against the dark, and our faith in Christ’s love.

Extending the courtesy of “Merry Christmas” to anyone, of any faith, simply reflects good wishes for the person addressed. “Happy Holidays” does the same thing, with a respect for the beliefs of the person addressed also implied. Either or both are acceptable, because they are meant in good cheer.

Battle back the bleak midwinter, and take no offense from those who would wish you well in the effort.

Lessons learned about politics, media, and women

I spent the end of last week in Salt Lake City, Utah, for the annual convention of the American Journalism Historians Association. I’m a long-time member and past president, and it’s my favorite event each year.

This year, I presented a paper about press coverage of gender and gender violence, specifically during the years the Internet was emerging, 1990-2000. I started that research at the behest of a friend working on a book about social media and gender violence, and the recent usage of social media both for harassment and for political organization made examining the historical context even more important.

I didn’t know, when I started the work, just now relevant it would become in the week I presented it.

Social media, as with any media platform, is a tool. In and of itself, social media platforms are neutral. But the people using them? Those people can use them for whatever they want. In the 1990s, people were both concerned by the level of harassment possible online, and optimistic about the tool’s potential uses for change.

And in the last two weeks, we’ve seen examples of the best and the worst of those frames.

The best: Using social media to connect women, organize, and be voices for change. Alyssa Milano, Elizabeth Warren, and many other women stood up and tried to bring attention to ideological struggle represented by the GOP’s determination to appoint a man with a documented history of harassment toward women to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The worst: Using social media to bully, harass, and intimidate women who were trying to be voices for change. Memes attempting to diminish the work of these women abounded on numerous sites. Women’s struggles were portrayed as meaningless; our body autonomy was undercut; our very real problems with men who think our bodies are their playgrounds were mocked.

I at one point considered writing a post about the multiple times over the years where I faced sexual assault and harassment, but ultimately, I could not bring myself to relive any of it for public consumption. I will only say I didn’t report because I knew nothing would be done. I admire Dr. Ford for her willingness to come forward and face the ridicule, disbelief, and scorn I could not.

I will also say that any woman who attempts a career in a largely male-dominated field can expect a degree of harassment and assault as a norm. We learn to live with it or we get out. And frankly, we shouldn’t have to live with it.

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, one in four women between the ages of 18 and 24 suffer some form of sexual assault, and one in 20 men suffer the same. Why any of us who have suffered would mock the rest escapes me. But that is exactly what I saw on social media.

Conservative friends and family who jumped on that train and shared such mocking? You can unfriend me. I certainly blocked you.

My research about how media platforms are used by people to build and tear down community is ongoing. I won a research grant at AJHA to help continue my work, and I look forward to it.

And on the political front, I’m massively disappointed in the Republican Party. I’ve been an independent voter for years, but the last two weeks have been enough for me. I’m officially declaring myself a Democrat. I’ll be wearing blue on November 6.

As Lincoln said, “A nation divided…

….cannot stand.”

I spent my morning touring Ford’s Theatre and the Lincoln Continuing Education Center in DC.

The site of Abraham Lincoln ‘s assassination, Ford’s Theatre now is run by the National Park Service. A free tour includes admission to an excellent museum featuring the story of Lincoln and his presidency, with vintage photos and artifacts, including the gun used to shoot Lincoln at the theater in 1865.

A tour of the theater itself includes a ranger on stage, telling the story of April 14-15, 1865, from both the perspectives of Lincoln and his killer, John Wilkes Booth. After the talk, the tour continues across the street at the Petersen boarding house, where Lincoln was taken after he was shot, and where he died. An interpretive center next door offers more Lincoln artifacts and exploration of his impact on future generations.

One of his best remembered quotes, which started this post, framed the tour for me. It made me consider the current culture war with different eyes. Is it a continuation of the argument we as a people have been having since the beginning? Who has a right to call themselves American? What does that mean?

In the beginning, only white, male, property owners were considered for citizenship in the fledgling republic that would be come the United States. Fierce debate rang out in the state houses and taverns over who, exactly, should be allowed citizenship. The question of whether the nation’s slaves should be considered a part of the populace for taxation purposes was settled with a compromise, under which each was considered three/fifths of a person.

According to the Lincoln exhibit at Ford’s Theatre, Lincoln, himself, detested slavery, but could see no legal, constitutional way to end it prior to the declaration of war. His Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, and the 14th Amendment passed in 1868 restored full personhood and citizenship to the formerly enslaved. It also invoked penalties for states who disallowed the vote to all their male citizens.

Women did not get the right to vote as citizens in the United States until 1920.

My point is that the current cultural argument over who should be citizens is not a new argument. The vitriol involved isn’t new, either. But the grand experiment of the Republic does require those conversations to be ongoing, and paths to citizenship to be addressed. The only current residents of the United States who are not descended of immigrants are the Native Americans.

The rest of us have to accept that we are citizens by accident of fate and the hard work of our ancestors. Should we deny others the opportunities we take for granted today? Should we deny asylum for those fleeing desperate situations? Can we, in good conscience, deny others the opportunity to become citizens?

As wealthy as the U.S. appears to be, it does not have infinite resources. Most objections to new immigration can be firmly rooted in economics and racism, rather than philosophy.

But it’s worth a second look at the philosophy, too.

In Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he finishes by explicitly stating his resolution for the future of the country. He was speaking on a battlefield that had seen enormous carnage in the deaths of United States citizens from both sides of the divide at the time. He tells the assembled audience this:

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”

Are we building up, or tearing down, by engaging in this cultural war?

News from Washington …

Ah, that’s the iconic line. And as I sit today among my fellow educators of future journalists and media professionals in Washington, D.C., it seems a particularly good title.

The free press, one of the institutions the United States was founded upon, has been under concerted attack by lawmakers in power in the U.S. A little more than a month ago, journalists were killed in their own newsroom. Everyday, voices on all parts of the political spectrum voice anger over views expressed in different media: blog posts, social media feeds, varied news outlets both print and electronic. Each difference of opinion can be paired with an accusation that the other side isn’t presenting facts clearly, or, in some cases, at all. Some, in fact, think “disagreeing” with facts as presented is actually fine.

(It’s not. A verifiable fact is not an opinion, and thus cannot be disagreed with. Acceptance of the facts, of course, is another issue.)

When I talk about training future media professionals, I obviously discuss skill sets. Beyond writing and technical skill, however, media professionals need to think critically. They need to ask good questions, verify the accuracy of the facts they’re presented with through unbiased sources, and present the information they received in a compelling, easy-to-understand story that misleads no one.

This is a skilled profession that requires smart, critical thinkers. The ability to use a camera and a microphone does not make one a journalist.

Thomas Jefferson had his share of problems with the press of his time, too. As president, he faced down numerous scandals in the press. But he also firmly believed that a free press was essential to the maintenance of liberty:

“Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1786.

And he was against any restriction thereof:

“I am… for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.” –Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799.

You might not be a journalist. But if you’re angry about the things you hear through media outlets, blame the source, not the person presenting it. And if you have something to say, well, a free press has literally never been so free as it is today.

Nostalgia for the County Fair

I spent Saturday with my youngest two girls, their paternal biological grandmother, and my husband at the Blue Earth County Fair.

The girls’ bio-grandma, whom we call GG, grew up in the community of Garden City, Minn., where the BE County Fair has been held for more than a hundred years. As we walked the grounds, GG told us about the fair of her childhood, which was always packed with people and amazing food. She had a neighbor who spent the entire three days of the fair making the “world’s best” onion rings, and the general noise and crowds forced her father to put a wire fence around his property, just to keep the fair patrons from parking on his lawn.

This year’s fair seems diminished in comparison, but it was no less fun for our little group. The fair board no longer contracts for carnival rides, but there were bounce houses, renaissance-style fighting tournaments, a fun maze, and a small “train” ride of linked cars behind a mini-tractor. Food, animals, and exhibits also were plentiful, though GG often told stories of days when the buildings were packed to overflowing, something that wasn’t the case this year.

Our first stop at the animal barns made the little girls giggle at the crowing of roosters in breeding pens, coo over freshly shorn sheep, wave at the massive “piggies,” and look on with big eyes at the bulls and cows. They got to pet rabbits and play in a field corn pit with shovels and strainers.

After playing on the bouncy rides for a bit, we made our way through the center of the fair to the food booths to snag a couple of bags of mini-donuts to share, since the smell of the freshly fried treats called us. We ate them while watching the the little train go around the fair. While the girls didn’t want to go on the train at first, they later chose to try it, and enjoyed their rides.

We also tried Okojobi soda, which was handcrafted and tasty, before entering the exhibit halls. We wandered through the vendors, then through the 4-H exhibits. While in the 4-H building, the girls tried to drive the tractor simulators–which were bigger than they were–and I got some cute pictures.

When it was time for lunch, we chose to support the 4-H and headed for their hall, where we settled down with beef commercials (roast beef in gravy, on white bread, with from-scratch mashed potatoes) and refills of our Okojobi pops. The 4-H stand also offered a wide variety of meal options, and home-made pie, but we were pretty full after our “commercial treat”.

Afterwards, we wandered over to watch the horses in the arena, then looked through the competition booths, voted in the peoples’ choice competition for best of show in several categories (sewing, gardening, “trash-to-treasure” crafting, woodworking), and played in a special kids’ area. We continued on to visit with the Blue Earth County Historical Society workers in their big building, taking old-timely pictures and viewing a live demonstration of a lace-maker.

We wrapped up with a trip through the one-room schoolhouse, which was decommissioned in 1965 and moved to the fairgrounds in 1968, and a local family’s log cabin that had been moved to the grounds and restored. We were worn out, but we had to stop at the girls’ great-grandma’s house before we headed home.

When we talk about the rural experience, I think that we sometimes forget these foundational places of gathering, talking, exhibiting, and visiting. To see the fair diminished hurts a little. As we went from exhibit to exhibit, we heard how things “used to be.” I don’t think we ought to dwell on what used to be, but appreciate what we have. Young people in 4-H still thrive, educate, exhibit. And friends and neighbors still gather around pie, fried food, and too much sugar.

The weather was perfect, and so was the day.

The Culture War on Twitter

I’ve been sort of watching the train wreck that is William Shatner’s twitter feed for a while now, and I’m trying to wrap my head around the all out flame-war between Shatner and varied people who want him to take back his opinion on the American Library Association’s removal of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from an award it presents occasionally.

Shatner originally said he thought the removal was bad decision. Later on in the multiple tweets that were exchanged between him and several others, including literary scholars and librarians, he clarified that he appreciated the reasoning behind the decision, but that the execution of it was handled badly. In his words, the ALA could have chosen to simply retire the award, and start a new one under a new name, rather than publicly “shaming” an author whose 19th century perspectives on race didn’t align with 2018 perspectives.

Along the way, he angered more than a few women scholars who were taking him to task.

The whole thing fascinates me because of the convergence of different spheres in my world–the Laura Ingalls Wilder community warring with the Star Trek community warring with the #immodestwomen movement all at once.

I’m fascinated and bothered, because at the core for each group? They’re all saying the same thing.

History shouldn’t be forgotten. The Wilder books should not be read in a vacuum, but with guided discussion on historical context about race and culture. Star Trek did groundbreaking work in countering racism, but didn’t go as far as some in 2018 would prefer. Women scholars deserve their accolades and achievements.

But the sheer inability for any of the parties involved to really “hear” what the others were saying–especially points of agreements–makes me wonder if folks really just like to argue, or if they genuinely don’t understand the commonalities in their arguments.

At any rate, I’m going to continue to watch the train wreck. I’d urge people involved in the culture war to look for commonalities, if they can. But I worry that the sheer cognitive dissonance involved for some may make that impossible.