AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present

Lecture 1

 - Dawn of Freedom

Overview

Professor Holloway offers an introduction to the course. He explains the organization of the course and summarizes some of the key concepts that will be explored over the course of the semester. Professor Holloway uses the African American experience as a prism to understand American history, because, as he notes, the African American experience speaks to the very heart of what it means to be American. He highlights specific examples of the linkage between freedom, citizenship, and the denial of citizenship, including an ex-slave’s epitaph and Confederate scrip. Finally, Professor Holloway shows how the post-emancipation African American experience is a history of political struggle, social protest, social control, cultural celebration, and a history of powerful relevance today for many of its political and cultural symbols.

Warning: This lecture contains graphic content and/or adult language that some users may find disturbing.

 
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African American History: From Emancipation to the Present

AFAM 162 - Lecture 1 - Dawn of Freedom

Chapter 1. Frederick Douglass’ Speech, Delivered to Abolitionist Friends in 1852 [00:00:00]

Professor Jonathan Holloway

“Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?  Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions. But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today? What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy, a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.  Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”

Welcome to class.  Many of you will have recognized Frederick Douglass’s speech, delivered in Rochester, New York to abolitionist friends on July 5th, 1852.  Douglass is invited by his friends to come to Rochester on July 4th to talk about the meaning of freedom, the meaning of liberty, the meaning of this great country.  These were his friends.  He refused to come on July 4th for the reasons that you certainly heard in this excerpt–and this is a three hour long speech, I spared you two hours and fifty-eight minutes of.  It’s a brilliant speech.  But he refused to come on July 4th, because to talk about independence and liberty to a person who emancipated himself was unkind at best, certainly blind.  But he did come.  He came on July 5th, the next day, and offered and presented one of the great speeches in American letters. Now this course is about the African American experience after emancipation, from emancipation to the present.  Today, however, I’m going to lay the foundation for the course by discussing events prior to the emancipatory moment. 

Now before doing that, telling you some more stories, I want to attend to some course details.  One of the first things some of you may have noticed

[Points at Student]: You can come on down if you want to. 

One of the first things you may have noticed is that there are some people back there, and there’s a camera, and I’m mic’ed.  This course is being filmed for the Open Yale Course Initiative, funded by the Hewlett-Packard foundation, one of six courses being filmed this semester.  You are not on camera, unless you kind of walk right in front of me right during lecture, which I kind of hope you won’t do.  You won’t be on camera, so don’t worry about it–and don’t try to join me on camera, you know, because I got it just at the right angle, you know, and I don’t want them filming my bad side.  Anyway, you just need to know that the camera’s there, and really, it shouldn’t be a factor in the course at all.  They promise to be unobtrusive. 

Now, I’m not the only one teaching this course.  I’m leading it, certainly, but I’m not the only one that’s going to help you understand this experience.  Joining me in this task are seven different teaching assistants, a really quite excellent crew that I’m excited about. I want to introduce them to you rather quickly: Ruthie Gow [ph?] is the head TA. She is getting her PhD in African American Studies and American Studies, working on ethnography, cultural history and school desegregation in the South. Jane Ptolemy [ph?], there’s Jane, is in African American Studies and History as well–excuse me, History, studying race, benevolence and religion in the early national period.  Chris Johnson, African American Studies and History, studying gender, migration and migrant politics and radicalism in black diasporas.  Ruthie, Jane and Chris are leading writing intensive sections, and I’ll explain more about that in a few moments.  So those three are leading the writing intensive sections.  Brian Distalburg [ph?] in History, is studying 20thcentury US culture and politics, specifically anti-defamation activism by historically marginalized groups.  Anastasia Jones, down there as well, is in History, studying gender and sexuality, mid 20th century US culture.  Lauren Perlman [ph?]–that’s like the TA corner.  That’s really cute–is in African American Studies and American Studies, studying social, cultural and political geography of Washington DC, with a focus on local civil rights and the rise of black power.  And Madison Moore, in American Studies, is studying the politics of beauty in the American fashion history, currently writing on Somali supermodel, Iman. 

The books for the course–you should have the syllabus, by the way, that was by both doors–the books for the course are at Labyrinth.  The books are also on closed reserve at Bass Library.  There are movies during Week Three and during Week Eight that are not shown in class.  They’re shown in the evenings, on probably Monday and Tuesday.  Details on that will be forthcoming, of course.  There is a course website that you can find via the class’s server.  In fact, when you go there, that should be the first thing you see.  A note about the website: I will not be talking about it in this class. I will not be referencing it in this class.  The way to make best use of the website–and it’s not mandatory for this class–the way to make the best use of it though is on Sunday night, before you come to class, take the time to look at that week’s overview.  I’m not even going to promise all the links at the bottom of each page of the overview are actually active anymore.  Read the overview.  You will see in that overview the concept, the core of what I’ll be talking about that week.  Also notice at the bottom of that overview page is keywords.  I’ll be talking–I talk often about keywords in lectures.  You’ll see me reference these later on. You’ll find a lot of the same keywords on the webpage, and so you will know coming into class, if you look at this website on Sunday, or on Saturday night, since you’re not going to be doing anything else but preparing for this class, you will come in prepared to understand what I think are the most important things to know for that particular week’s worth of lectures.  So the website’s on the class’s server.  It’s a tool; it’s supplementary. Do take advantage of it.

Course requirements: I mentioned that Ruthie, Chris and Jayne are teaching writing intensive sections.  We have two different types of ways to take this class.  You can take them through writing intensive, and therefore satisfy the distribution requirement in that area, or take them through the, quote, regular route.  They have different sets of obligations, although the course is the same as far as substance.  It’s all outlined in the syllabus, but essentially for writing intensive, you’ll be writing twenty pages of papers, a midterm paper and a term paper, with drafts along the way.  It’s not supposed to be a harder way to do the class.  It’s simply a different way, a way to bolster your writing skills.  For the other, for the regular path, you’ll be taking a midterm and a two-part exam, fairly straightforward survey course set of expectations, as far as that is concerned.  Now, with that little piece of business out of the way, let me get to the actual substance of the bulk of today’s lecture. 

Chapter 2. What does it mean to be American? [00:04:44]

This class is about the post-emancipation African American experience.  It is about American history.  And I hope that point is frankly very obvious, but one never quite understands or can anticipate all of these things. It is about American history fundamentally.  At its course, at its core excuse me, the course is about citizenship, the most important keyword for the entire class.  The course is about citizenship, how one becomes a citizen, what one does to preserve that citizenship.  At its core then, the class asks the question: what does it mean to be American?  Now I will ask this question explicitly a few times in the class, but it implicitly is woven through so much of what I’m going to be talking about. What does it mean to be American? 

Now we started today talking about or listening to an excerpt of Douglass’s famous oration from 1852.  Now I want to move backward even further, another eighty years or so, going from a rather well-known document and a quite famous individual to a rather unknown document and to someone who is essentially lost to history.  I want to talk about events in the 1770s.  One quick tangent though: when I was about four or five years old, living near Concord, Massachusetts, my mother would take me on field trips.  She’d try them out on me before taking her first and second graders.  And one day she took me to Minuteman Park. Has anybody been to Minuteman Park?  It’s beautiful, right?  It’s gorgeous.  Anyway, the site of the start of the Revolutionary War.  So I’m with my four and five year old attention span listening to the tour guides walking through these beautiful fields and meadows.  Afterwards, we were driving around a country road, and I point to these stone walls and said, “Mom, those are like the walls the Minutemen hid behind from those stories.”  She said, “Jonathan, those are the walls.”  Four or five years old, I mean, I was not really thinking in grand, historical terms.  Life did not exist beyond my four or five years as far as I understood it.  But at that moment, I sort of was astonished that these stories, these fun little stories that I’d been hearing for the pas hour or so, whatever it was, in the tour, were actually true, that something existed beyond my own existence on the planet. 

Looking backwards, I like to think that that’s when I became a historian, although I would try to be an orthopedic surgeon and then a lawyer.  That stopped after a couple of weeks of college.  But I can look back and think that I learned something that day, that there was something about–something larger than myself around me.

Chapter 3. The Story of John Jack [00:07:56]

Near the Minuteman Park, there’s also a cemetery.  At that cemetery, there’s a headstone.  My mother didn’t take me on this field trip. I went with other people, and we did charcoal rubbings of headstones in Concord cemeteries.  The story behind this headstone is where I want to start this course, really.  It’s a story about a man named John Jack.  It’s a story about an individual who certainly understood very well about a sense, the existence of forces much larger than himself determining his life.  The epitaph reads, excuse me: “God wills us free.  Man wills us slave.  I will as God wills.  God’s will be done.”  That’s the opening lines.  I know it’s a little bit tough to make out. It’s on the course website, by the way, the first week. 

“God wills us free.  Man wills us slave.  I will as God wills.  God’s will be done.  Here lies the body of John Jack, native of Africa, who died March 1773, aged about 60 years.  Though born in the land of slavery, he was born free.  Though he lived in a land of liberty, he lived a slave, till by his honest though stolen labors, he acquired the source of slavery which gave him his freedom.  Though not long before Death, the grand tyrant, gave him his final emancipation and set him on a footing with kings.  Though a slave to vice, he practiced those virtues without which kings are but slaves.”

It’s a remarkable document.  My mother did this head rubbing–this stone rubbing–a charcoal rubbing of the headstone, had it framed.  It hung in my family’s house. I walked past this image for about fifteen years before I actually read it.  I’m not saying the guy was bright. I look at the opening lines, about nineteen or twenty years old, and I’m floored.  “God wills us free.  Man wills us slave.  I will as God wills.  God’s will be done.”  It’s astonishing.  Couple of years later, I’m heading to grad school, and I look at the headstone again, and I’m thinking grand thoughts about going to study American history.  And I start reading the epitaph all over again, and I start seeing all these connections, these dualisms, God and man, freedom and slavery.  And so I decided to acquire the headstone.  I took it from my parents’ house.  I told them about it once I had it on my wall in my apartment at grad school.  And through my mother’s good graces, I still have it.  It hangs above my computer.  It’s always, it’s always with me.  It is something of a totem. 

Now the story about John Jack I think is even more interesting than the headstone.  So we know that John Jack, certainly not his birth name, a black African, born in the continent somewhere in Africa, a continent with thousands of years history of slavery, still present today of course.  He survives the Middle Passage.  He comes to–and he’s born free in Africa but is enslaved somehow–he comes over to what will become the United States.  It’s not quite the Unite States. John Jack would never see the United States.  He comes to colonial New England.  Now this point’s just important on its surface.  We’re going to hear a lot about the South in this class.  If you think geographically about so many of the freedom struggles, the post-emancipation African American experience, they are southern stories.  But don’t let yourself be fooled.  Slavery was alive and well in New England, and a lot of the freedom struggles that have happened since emancipation certainly happened up in New England as well. 

Anyway, John Jack winds up in Concord, Massachusetts.  He has, as the saying would have been at the time, “a kind master” who teaches him a trade.  He’s a cobbler, works on shoes, and allows him to keep a little bit of every shoe he cobbles.  The amount of money’s immaterial.  It wouldn’t have been much.  Over time, through his stolen labors, his “honest though stolen labors” as the epitaph says, he acquired the source of slavery.  He raised enough money to buy himself.  He secured his own emancipation through his hard work.  He acquires some land on the edge of town, a subsistence farm, nothing much more than that.  And then we discover that he drinks himself to death.  Between the time of his emancipation–his self-emancipation and his death–he tries to become a citizen of Concord.  He couldn’t do it.  He was male, an important criteria.  Check that one off.  He owned property.  Those were usually the two most important criteria.  But because he had been enslaved, he couldn’t become a citizen.

Let’s think of the moment.  We are on the cusp of the Revolutionary War, in Concord, Massachusetts, the start of the Revolutionary War. You have the citizens of Concord, the white, male property owners in Concord, complaining to the British crown about being treated as slaves.  This is literally their language, that they were being treated as slaves, and this wasn’t right.  Somehow these people questing for freedom ignored those people they owned.  The black African slaves in their midst, they were blind to their existence, apparently.  John Jack, though, understood the situation.  He saw what was happening all around him.  He couldn’t help but, and who knows why he became an alcoholic, but that might be a good reason.  Anyway, he’s drinking himself to death and knows it, and he hires an attorney to put his affairs in order.  It’s his attorney who crafts the epitaph here. 

Here’s where the story gets even more interesting, I think.  The person John Jack hires to put his affairs in order is a British sympathizer, a Tory.  John Jack got it.  He was going to hire–almost like he’s thumbing his nose postmortem.  He wasn’t going to be allowed to be a citizen, despite his freedom, in an area that’s fighting for freedom, claiming that they weren’t citizens, they were slaves in fact, and they certainly didn’t know slavery like he knew it.  John Jack understood something fundamental about what would become the United States of America, pretty soon in fact. And the fundamental thing he understood is that you cannot understand freedom, that thing that is at the bedrock of what this country is about, you cannot understand it without understanding slavery.  Freedom and slavery were intertwined, intertwined for the citizens on the ground, intertwined for people like John Jack, Frederick Douglass, of course, and others after.  You could not separate the denial of freedom from the quest of freedom.  That’s why the citizens of Concord knew it was so important.  They may not have wanted to have John Jack be a citizen, but they didn’t want to be like him. 

Chapter 4. The Linkage between Freedom and Citizenship [00:15:43]

Two hundred years later, after John Jack’s attorney produces this epitaph–not quite two hundred  years, let’s say one hundred and eighty or so–Ralph Ellison, one of the great writers of the American past, identifies much of the same phenomenon that John Jack must have identified and that John Jack’s attorney certainly understood.  And he wrote this brilliant passage.  I’ll probably use it again later on in the course.  Ellison wrote,  “Southern whites cannot talk, walk, sing, conceive of laws or justice, think of sex, love, the family, or freedom, without responding to the presence of Negroes.”  They are intertwined, linked fate, as it were. 

Now this course is going to spend a fair amount of time examining this phenomenon, the linkage between freedom–not so much freedom and slavery, but citizenship and the denial of citizenship.  And we’re going to spend time investigating how this challenge, this problem, this tension, can be located in unexpected places.  We’ll turn to primary sources of all types in order to examine this story.  One place is a great example is just in currency, stuff you’re carrying–well, we don’t carry much in terms of dollars and change any more, it’s on credit cards, I suppose, debit cards.  But back in the day, a few years ago, when we all carried cash–the story of a nation’s myth is embodied on its currencies. 

These are two examples of Confederate scrip.  I wish I could make them bigger.  They’re actually JPEG screen captures.  They really aren’t–they pixilate pretty quickly.  But you can see on these dollar bills stories that were important to the Confederate States of America.  A one dollar bill and a ten dollar bill.  And the stories that are important are here, going back one image.  Use my mouse here.  Here, then down here.  What you see is labor and white womanhood, and the laborer you see is a slave.  And I know it doesn’t show it very clearly in this JPEG, but the laborer is happy.  The slave carrying the cotton is smiling.  On the other bill, you have white womanhood. You’re going to see this is quite a fascinating trope in American history, southern American history: the exalted white woman, especially as it pertains to black men, with tropes of violence, and danger, and sexual predation woven throughout that dynamic.  So on the money that Confederates were handing to one another to exchange goods, you have happy labor, you have exalted white womanhood.  Notions of who belongs, the myths that form our nation states, are all around us.  They’re on the money that we carry. 

Chapter 5. The History of the Post-Emancipation African American Experience [00:19:25]

We’re going to look for stories like this in all manner of places, and through looking at these stories, we’re going to see that the post-emancipation African American experience is several different types of histories.  It’s a history of political struggle, no doubt.  An image here of black woman voting, the 1950s I believe, from the same night–and the history behind an image like that is filled with all kinds of political struggle that you certainly have at least a slim awareness of, a glimmer of awareness of.  But on the same night, in the same district, that struggle is embodied by this.  The risk she took in voting were risks that involved her life. 

It’s a history of political struggle in this country.  Certainly a history of social protest as well.  You have here an image of women from a group called the National Association of Colored Women, the “upstanding women of the race,” and I use that in quotation marks for reasons we’ll understand in a few weeks.  Not that they weren’t upstanding, but it’s a very loaded phrase on purpose.  Marching at the White House in this case to protest the lack of an anti lynching law. “Protect life and liberty!” they’re exclaiming.  It’s a history of social struggle. 

It’s a history, certainly, of social control.  There are some images that don’t need much in the way of narration.  I will point out though–I mean actually I don’t know the history of the image, but if you look closely, you’ll see Spanish language up here in the archways.  I think this actually happens in Laredo, Texas, this Klan rally.  It is also a history of cultural celebration.  We’ll spend a few lectures doing occasional close readings of important icons, images, sound clips, movie clips in fact, from the post-emancipation African American experience.  This is one image of a series of paintings by the artist Aaron Douglas.  I’m not going to go into it now, because I will go into it in about a month and a half, I think.  But I will tell you that in this history of cultural celebration, the images that we’ll be seeing are complicated, deeply loaded with many different stories in the same spirit of John Jack’s epitaph.  The stories are in this image here, and I’ll explain it in more detail as we get to it. 

It’s also a history of powerful relevance today.  We are being trained, people are trying to train us, to talk about this moment as being a post-racial moment.  I actually think it couldn’t be anything further from the truth.  The election of Barack Obama–now excuse me, I got ahead of my notes one section here.  History of powerful relevance today for many of its political and cultural symbols.  Prior to the election of Barack Obama, you have battles over flags, state flags.  This is the state flag of Georgia, had been the state flag of Georgia, flying above the Capitol, on license plates, you name it.  The Confederate battle flag, as many of you know, is a powerful symbol of–depending on your perspective, tradition and heritage or violence and degradation.  There’s not much gray area when it comes to the battle flag.  As NAACP organized protests about flying something with the Confederate flag on state property, and southern legislatures refused to back down–Interestingly enough, the NFL, National Football League, has done incredible work in getting rid of the symbols and markers of a segregated past, for fear of threatening boycotts, removing the Super Bowl from say Atlanta, because of the Confederate battle flag.  And. in fact, doing something like this in Arizona over the fact that Arizona did not recognize Martin Luther King Day as a state holiday. The battle ensues over these flags in Georgia, and one option is going to be this flag that incorporates all the different flags from Georgia’s past, and this is the final cleaning up as it were of southern history.  Now it’s a history of powerful relevance today.  This is a handful of years ago. 

Chapter 6. Local Events in History [00:24:26]

Moving to more local events in history, we can think now about the election of Barack Obama.  Two years ago when I was teaching this class, Obama and Clinton were heading into the Democratic primaries, and I’ll confess, I thought Hillary Clinton had this thing locked up.  And then this young senator from Illinois goes on a historic tear.  And as I’m giving the lecture course, I’m like, “Wow, I’ve got to rewrite the end of my class.”  And then during that election campaign, there was the Reverend Wright scandal, and Barack Obama’s famous speech in Philadelphia during spring break, which is when I really had to rewrite the end of my class.  After the class is over, he goes and gets elected.  Some of you were here from that moment. 

This is a screen capture from The Yale Daily the next day, after Obama wins the election. There’s a moment here of the student carrying one of the iconic images in the Obama campaign about hope, and a suggestion of a new day.  Then again, the suggestion of a post-racial day.  Now I don’t want to deny the fact that this is an historical election for all manner of reasons, whether it was Hillary Clinton who won or Barack Obama who won, if a Democrat was to win, it was going to be historic.  I don’t want to minimize that.  But I also don’t want to buy into the fact that simply because the nation has elected a President who is ostensibly black, and I say that very purposefully–if you think about racial coding, as we get later on in this course, you’ll understand better why I say ostensibly black. I don’t put any political meaning in that phrase, by the way.  I’m not trying to either prop up or push down Barack Obama’s racial affiliations.  But electing a President who’s ostensibly black, the nation healed itself.  It found a way to get past its ugly histories and its scars. It was a better place.  It was a more perfect union.  It was post-racial.  But really, was it?  Let’s think more locally.  Let’s go back to Confederate scrip. 

As it happens, I’ve been showing the other Confederate scrip for years.  And about a year ago, I discovered that, somewhere in the last couple of years, Yale bought a huge collection of Confederate scrip.  It now has the largest collection in the world of Confederate scrip.  Just one of these things.  [Professor laughs.]  Actually, they are beautiful documents, I mean, beautifully constructed.  So I went up to the numismatic–numsistatic–it’s one of the words you don’t want to flub, but I just did–collection at Sterling Library and looked at the Confederate scrip.  And I was floored when I saw this image.  I’m like, “Can you scan this for my purposes, please?”  You have happy labor.  You have Lady Liberty.  This is happy labor.  And you have this man. 

Those of you who know the residential college system at Yale, which is all of you, will know that one of them is named Calhoun College.  You will know I’m the Master of Calhoun College, which I think is humorous in just its nomenclature, certainly.  This is John C. Calhoun, one of the great men of Eli, as the Yale Corporation thought through the naming of the residential colleges, the first seven back in 1931 and ‘32.  They wanted to name the colleges after the great–the great sons of Eli, excuse me.  And they wanted, you know, the greatest Yale alum in the world of arts, in the world of letters, in the world of politics, and so on.  And they decided that John C. Calhoun, an important person, there’s no doubt about it: vice-president of the United States, powerful senator from South Carolina–Still revered in that state as one of its great heroes.  They decided that John C. Calhoun was their greatest alum.  There is no financial connection from the name or the family to the college, but this was the logic of 1932, ‘33, Yale Corporation. 

John C. Calhoun was the architect–although he did not live to see the Civil War, he was the intellectual architect for secession.  He believed in states’ rights, an important theme of this course that we’ll be talking much more in detail about later on.  And he certainly did not believe that slaves were fully equipped to handle the rigors of civilization. It may sound like kind of a strange sentence construction.  They weren’t ready to handle the rigors of being civilized, but this is the language of the day.  I wonder, as I look up in the Master’s house living room, or in my office, or in the courtyard–and there’s images of Calhoun all over the dang place in the college, I have to wonder what he thinks.  History’s rather humorous sometimes, and the ironies can be rather beautiful.  But the phenomenon of thinking about race, or not thinking about race, not talking about race, is with us today.  It is all around us. 

Now thinking about Confederate scrip from quite some time ago, you know we aren’t carrying that around in our pockets after all.  How’s that a reminder of today, thinking about a decision that some people made in 1933?  That’s not today’s thinking.  You know, how is this with us today?  Thinking about race is with us today in the astonishing ways that people make their decisions and maintain their blindnesses.  Two years ago, the freshman class at Yale–some of you might be in this room who were in that decision process.  I’m not going to call you out–decided to have for their freshman ball the theme called Gone with the Wind.

Student:  That was last year.

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  Was that last year?

Student:  Last year.

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  Last year.  Well, let’s just say when I heard word of this decision, I thought it was a very curious decision.  I discovered the more sort of immature, sexually prurient reasons for calling it “Gone with the Wind.”  I won’t get into those now.  But I also know that people thought it would be nice.  They’re aware that the movie Gone with the Wind is complicated.  They thought it would be nice to get dressed up in ball gowns and the cotillion style and go to Commons and have a wonderful time.  The blindness though astonished me.  Getting dressed up for a cotillion might sound lovely.  People can–Yalies can make amazing costumes, but was that really Southern history?  Was that really what happened? Was that what it was all about?  You need to understand, as I was telling the students when I was raising my concerns about this, that in many places where you had this plantation society, people dressed up for cotillions, occupying buildings built by slaves, in many of these places, most of the people were black.  Gone with the Wind kind of erases this history, doesn’t talk about it. And the notion that some of the most educated people in the world would fail to understand the connection, or the lack of connection, with Gone with the Wind to our lived experience, is rather breathtaking and rather depressing. 

So I decided, in my next lecture, that as a teaching moment, and read a poem called “Southern History” by the great poet Natasha Trethewey, who was here last semester actually.  Professor Trethewey says this:

“Before the war, they were happy,” he said.
quoting our textbook.  (This was senior-year

history class.)  “The slaves were clothed, fed,
and better off under a master’s care.”

I watched the words blur on the page.  No one
raised a hand, disagreed.  Not even me.

It was late; we still had Reconstruction
to cover before the test, and — luckily –

three hours of watching Gone with the Wind.
“History,” the teacher said, “of the old South –

a true account of how things were back then.
On screen a slave stood big as life: big mouth,

bucked eyes, our textbook’s grinning proof — a lie
my teacher guarded.  Silent, so did I.” 

Now the purpose of my class is not to stand silent, and I hope you will take with you that same determination. This is a local history, after all. You live in it, whether you live in Calhoun, or whether you happen to live in Davenport or Pearson Colleges who, or where, two years ago, this was spray painted on the walls outside the dining hall: “nigger school.” Now I don’t think anybody from Yale spray painted this, or “drama fags” across the way at the school of drama.  I don’t think for a second anybody at Yale spray painted this. But even though we are at Yale does not mean that we are not in New Haven. Even though we are at Yale does not mean that we are being fed by a population that comes from a dramatically different set of resources than we do, in a highly segregated, de facto to be sure, desegregated, workforce. It is around us, we are subsumed in it, and it is our obligation to learn this history, lest we repeat it. Thank you very much, and I’ll see you on Wednesday.

[end of transcript]

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