Tag Archives: american history

Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson 2010)

Rating: 4/5

In The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson describes the migration of African Americans from the south to northern cities from World War I through 1970. She follows Ida Mae Gladney’s journey from Mississippi to Chicago in the 30’s, George Starling’s journey from Florida to New York in the 40s, and Dr. Robert Foster’s journey from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the 50s. With these three stories (and some shorter accounts of others), Wilkerson describes the larger movements of a massive and yet relatively-little discussed movement of people.

Five million African-Americans moved north during the Great Migration; the 1850s California Gold Rush drew 100,000 west and the 30s Dust Bowl migration brought 300,000 west. African Americans across the south moved north, drawn by jobs and hope, pushed by discrimination and fear. Detroit went from 1.4% black to 44%; the Great Migration reshaped the racial and cultural landscape of the country, north and south.

WHY THIS BOOK?

I haven’t read a lot of black history. Between the prominent racial stories of St. Louis (my hometown) and the nation in the last few years, it felt like time to do some catch-up. Most of my friends and family have read less black history than me. It’s strange that race relations, a topic that garners so much discussion, is understood with so little depth by so many.

THE GOOD

The Great Migration is a massive amorphous movement of 5 million people from one large region of the country to another across two generations. Wilkerson captures much of the diversity of this movement in her three subjects. They have different education levels and travel to and from different places at different times. The Warmth of Other Suns is a story of people that made tough choice to leave what they knew hoping to improve their lives and their children’s lives. We follow Ida Mae, George, and Robert from childhood to death, and we get to see their successes and failures. Wilkerson augments these anecdotes with the statistics of the other millions.

The Warmth of Other Suns relates the depravity of the Jim Crow south in a way that many histories tend to avoid. Ida Mae describes how young men dangled her over a well when she was five; she knew that, if dropped, she would never have been found. George Starling fled Florida after a friend overheard plans of his murder when he organized the orange pickers. Arrington High was institutionalized in an insane asylum for exposing white politicians that patronized a colored brothel; after two years he was smuggled north in a coffin. Separate but equal was a blatant sham; a Louisiana superintendent said, “the money allocated to the colored children is spent on the education of the white children. We have twice as many colored children… as we have white… Colored children are mighty profitable to us.” Wilkerson compares blacks moving north to those that fled the Soviet Union. She notes how the migration ebbed after the Civil Rights movement dismantled the worst of Jim Crow.

Blacks continued to face hardships after moving north. In Chicago, blacks were restricted to tiny portions of the city, whose sub-standard housing grew crowded and expensive. Race riots erupted in many of the northern cities. This passage about Jesse Owens lays bare the hypocrisy quietly hiding in the north:

It made headlines throughout the United Staes that Adolf Hitler, who had watched the races, had refused to shake hands with Owens, as he had with white medalists. But Owens found that in Nazi Germany, he had been able to stay in the same quarters and eat with his white teammates, something he could not do in his home country. Upon his return, there was a ticker-tape parade in New York. Afterward, he was forced to ride the freight elevator to his own reception at the Waldorf-Astoria.

I grew up in one of the most segregated cities in the country. We still had bussing to enforce desegregation when I attended school. St. Louis went from 6.4% black in the 1910 census to 40.9% in the 1970 census. I never realized that the white flight that created my suburbs was driven by migration. After all, Missouri was a slave state, I assumed blacks had always been a part of the city. Reading about the Great Migration led me to look at my own community differently. Who hasn’t heard political discussion of the ghetto, of black poverty, of wealth inequality and racially disparate criminal justice outcomes? These discussions usually center on northern cities, and the Great Migration and the forces that drove it created those communities. It’s tempting to view black history as separate history, but it obviously isn’t.

When we understand what happened 50 years ago, we are better able to understand what happens today. A black boy was tortured to death in front of his father for sending a girl a Christmas card. The man who publicized this murder, Harry T. Moore, was murdered when his home was bombed in 1951. This is not ancient history. And yet, by the reaction to Black Lives Matters, there are many who bristle at the idea that blacks still face systematic obstacles.

THE BAD

The last hundred pages were weaker. The first part told me about a movement with a scope I didn’t know, driven by evil I hadn’t fully realized. The last hundred pages narrow to cover the last decades of the three subjects. Wilkerson makes fewer connections to the larger world here. Ida Mae, George, and Robert felt so grounded, the representatives of millions in the first 400 pages of the book. In the last 100 pages, they float unconnected from demographics and national forces. As people, well, they’re not that interesting. It felt like a missed opportunity to connect the past and the present.

OVERALL

The Warmth of Other Suns is an American story. It’s the fight for the American Dream; African Americans trekked north in their own country instead of crossing an ocean to a new country. Unlike my Czech ancestors, they couldn’t shed their otherness, either in the north or the south. They weren’t allowed to. This shapes our cities and communities.

The Warmth of Other Suns relates a huge demographic shift through individuals. The Great Migration stirred our national culture. Michelle Obama, Miles Davis, Toni Morrison, Spike Lee and Denzel Washington were all children of the Great Migration. It deserves its place in the American legend along with the Oregon Trail, Route 66, pioneers, and other tales of self-determinism and bravery. The Warmth of Other Suns does a good job toward that end.

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Book review: Forty-Seventh Star: New Mexico’s Struggle for Statehood (David V. Holtby 2012)

Rating: 3.5/5

David V. Holtby’s Forty-Seventh Star is about New Mexico’s struggle for statehood. The land of New Mexico (mostly) entered the United States with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. (The southernmost chunk of the state was acquired in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase.) New Mexico petitioned for statehood in 1848 and 1850, but waited until 1912 to be admitted into the union. In the intervening 64 years, 15 states joined the union. By contrast, California, also obtained at the end of the Mexican-American War, became a state in 1850 (gold helped); Colorado became a state in 1876. So why was New Mexico’s wait for statehood among the longest?

After reading about the Mexican-American War, I would have guessed racial issues. Even by the time of statehood, New Mexico was not majority Euro-American. Forty-Seventh Star argues for a variety of causes—petty politics at the national level, bad luck, local corruption, incompetent petitioners, and racial and religious issues all contribute.

Forty-Seventh Star is rife with scoundrels of New Mexico. There’s Thomas B. Catron, member of the powerful and corrupt Santa Fe Ring. Catron, “the largest individual landholder in the history of the United States,” fought for statehood on the theory that it would raise land prices; highly indebted, he needed that land to grow in value. Republican Catron was long suspected in the death of Francisco Chávez, the former sherif of Santa Fe and powerful Democrat. Albert B. Fall is another jerk from New Mexico. Most famously, Fall was Warren Harding’s secretary of the interior responsible for the Teapot Dome Scandal, which concerned the corrupt leasing of federal land for oil extraction. Before Teapot Dome, Fall busied himself with shenanigans in New Mexico; for three months, he was the state attorney general until President Roosevelt insisted upon his removal. He also served as a judge, a state representative, and another stint as attorney general. When New Mexico became a state in 1912, the august persons of Catron and Fall became its first two senators.

President Taft and his Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock deserve the most credit at the federal level for bringing statehood to New Mexico. Taft was willing to cajole and convince senators to see his point of view. Roosevelt, who wished for statehood,  didn’t confront senators who opposed admission for political reasons. Taft is not particularly well-remembered today, but the more I read of him, the more interesting he sounds. Taft went on to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which was his true passion. His passion for the law shows in his handling of New Mexican statehood.

WHY THIS BOOK?

As a new resident of New Mexico, I want to learn more of the history of my new home. I read Amy Greenberg’s A Wicked War about the Mexican-American War and Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, about the history of water in the west.

THE GOOD

Holtby is the former editor in chief of the University of New Mexico Press. Forty-Seventh Star is a meticulously researched and well-sourced book, relying on primary documents in both English and Spanish. Holtby takes pains to include the Nuevomexicano perspective on statehood, and addresses the lives of natives, blacks, and asians in the territory as well.

There’s a ton of interesting tidbits in Forty-Seventh Star. As I mentioned, there are plenty of 19th century schemers and scoundrels. The role of various federal figures in the fight is interesting as well; there’s McKinley and Roosevelt, each with New Mexican counties named for them, and Taft, who despite bringing statehood has no namesakes in the state. There are senators like Albert Beveridge of Indiana, who hammered against New Mexican corruption not for ethical reasons but for partisan gain. There’s Nelson Aldrich, grandfather of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, Republican Rhode Island senator who had grown tired of his political power being diluted by the admission of often-Democratic western states.

I particularly enjoyed the section of the book devoted to nuevomexicano and minority interests in the territory. We learn about Chinese workers who are smuggled across the border at El Paso in violation of the Chinese Exclusion Act. We learn about the ghost town of Blackdom, founded by Francis Boyer, as a town for black people in southeastern New Mexico; it’s so lost to history that it doesn’t even appear on my 2 foot by 3 foot map of New Mexican ghost towns. We learn about nuevomexicano settlements in the Rio Puerco Valley, which fulfill McKinley’s exhortation for more people and more irrigation, but probably not with the people he’d imagined.

We also get a peek into turn-of-the-century partisan squabbling. The more American political history I read, the more I understand its ubiquity. The tools and individuals vary, but the goals and motivations are essentially the same.

THE BAD

There is one tremendous flaw in Forty-Seventh Star—it’s hard to read. The timeline is a veritable zig-zag, following one story for three years, then jumping back two years, then following that for 15 years then jumping back 12 years. If I were more familiar with the players of the story, I might not have minded this so much. But one contentious senator in 1894 is much like a contentious senator in 1905 to me. Keeping track of senators and New Mexicans and newspapers and litigants as the narrative zig-zagged across the decades was frustrating. When it came time to summarize this book, I had to review pretty extensively; I ended up having to make a narrative for myself because the author didn’t provide one, he provided several dozen. Holtby is clearly a knowledgable editor and historian; perhaps this is closer to historical academic writing. As a casual reader, it was not a plus.

Contributing to the first flaw, Holtby’s characterizations of the players in his story could be stronger. Scoundrels like Catron and Fall are memorable because Holtby gives them time on the page. I remember little about the more neutral individuals such as Miguel Otero, Solomon Luna, George Curry, and others. Many of Holtby’s quotes come from local newspapers, but again, I had trouble remembering which was which and what they stood for, and thus they blended together.

OVERALL

Forty-Seventh Star is a worthwhile read if you have an interest in statehood, New Mexican history, or historical politics. For these topics, it’s excellent and meticulously researched. Otherwise, it probably isn’t worth reading. I’m glad to have read it, but I’m very glad to be done; it took me over four weeks. This is not a poorly written book, it just lacks a narrative for the novice reader and it covers a variety of really challenging topics.

Book review: The Bank War- Andrew Jackson, Nicholas Biddle, and the Fight for American Finance (Paul Kahan 2016)

Rating: 5/5

Paul Kahan’s The Bank War is about President Andrew Jackson’s (1829-1837) battle to destroy the Second Bank of the United States. The First Bank of the US was founded in 1791  under Alexander Hamilton’s guidance and dissolved in 1811. The second was chartered in 1816. The banks were founded to try to stabilize currency and establish a good fiscal reputation for the fledgling US with other countries. The banks’ opponents, including Jackson, thought they were an overreach of federal power.

WHY THIS BOOK?

I have no particular interest in banking or finance. I chose to read The Bank War out of curiosity about the era and the fact that Bank War was recently published. After the recent discussions about whether Jackson should be removed from the $20, I knew a little about Jackson’s animosity to the bank—just enough to be curious. (Personally, a century of depiction on currency seems like plenty. We have such a rich history, but always the same five-or-so dudes on our money.)

THE GOOD

The Bank War details the battle between President Andrew Jackson and the president of the US Bank, Nicholas Biddle. It did what good non-fiction should do: it introduces the reader to the people and the era with enough background but not too much. Nonfiction, especially about topics like policy and finance, can be long and intimidating, and this book is neither. It’s academic but approachable.

The Bank War has some evaluations of Jackson’s and Biddle’s characters, but these evaluations arise from specific events and discussion of other historians evaluations. Jackson was and remains controversial. A lack of commentary on his tempestuousness would stand out. This is the man that drove the creation of the two political parties during his presidency as basically For Jackson and Against Jackson. I found him fascinating and repulsive.

This book distilled unfamiliar and complex topics into a compelling narrative. In 160 concise pages, I learned about the early monetary policy of the country (without too much jargon), about Jackson, about the development of a two party system, and more.  The early history of paper money was great and surprising. Having read about metallism policy such as in the election of 1896 with William Jennings Bryan, I had believed that our money was based on bullion until the 20th century.

THE BAD

Two small criticisms:

  • A few times, the brevity of the book is a little unsatisfying, for example where Kahan introduces the faction of the Democrats called the locofocos without any explanation as to the meaning of the name (a self-lighting cigar, wikipedia informs me). What a charming detail to omit!
  • The introduction details his motivation to write the book— the financial crisis of 2008 bringing attention to the role of the Federal Reserve. I hoped the epilogue would contain some synthesis of the two topics but it did not. Perhaps as a historian he left that to others but I would have been curious as to his views, seeing as it was his motivation.

Style: University of Virginia Lawn

There are three manmade UNESCO world heritage sites in the United States: The Liberty Bell, The Statue of Liberty, and The University of Virginia Lawn with Monticello. The UNESCO designation basically means there is something noteworthy of distinctive about the site. I happen to live near to the University of Virginia, so I get to take a lot of photos. (As of this post, I just discovered that all the modern photos on the lawn Wikipedia page are mine. I love to see where the creative commons take my works. Side note: check out my very large Flickr collection of mostly creative commons images.)

Many years ago, Benoit Mandelbrot, the creator of fractal geometry, visited the university to give a talk. He said it was like walking into the lion’s den of Euclidean geometry. I always liked this description; everything about the university is columns and arches and perspective points. Monticello and the University were laid out by Thomas Jefferson, who one gets the feeling never actually died living around here. He was the ambassador to France for a while, and greatly admired the architecture. He came back to the states with those architectural inspirations.

The UVA lawn, shown below, has the rotunda at one end (the second one… the first one burned down and blew up when a professor tried to save it with TNT) and is lined by ten pavilions. Between the pavilions are dorm rooms that distinguished fourth year students still live in. Each of the ten pavilions is architecturally different, and behind each is a garden in a different style which no doubt will be the topic of a future post. Pavilion 2 is pictured below. Professors still live in the pavilions. The pavilions were built in a strange order, to ensure that diminished funds would not diminish the scope of the project.

It’s very easy to find plenty of reading material on Jefferson and the University if you are interested, so I won’t try to write a tome here. However I’ll include a few of my pictures that may hopefully spark your interest.

SONY DSC DSC03036 SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSCpavilion 2

Monticello, i.e. the back of a nickel