Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht (or, night of broken glass), which occurred on the night of November 9, 1938. Supposedly as a response to the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, (a German-born Polish Jew), a massive coordinated attack was launched on Jewish businesses and property across Germany. The broken glass reference was to all the windows being broken.
On November 8, Jewish newspapers had been forced to cease publication. The Nazis were moving to deny Jews all rights, and the vom Rath assassination gave them an excuse to move forward, in an outbreak of violence.
Although the Nazis tried to claim that Kristallnacht represented spontaneous rioting on the part of German patriots, it was in fact an organised attack. Stormtroopers (SA) and SS members wearing plain clothes were despatched to create mayhem in Jewish neighbourhoods. They had been ordered not to harm non-Jews.
Two hundred synagogues, more than 7,000 Jewish shops, and 29 department stores were attacked. Some Jews were beaten to death and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Some of these men were later allowed to leave the camps on the condition they left Germany permanently.
Image of damage to a department store in Munich, the morning after Kristallnacht.
The foreign press was horrified, and reports such as this one appeared in papers around the world.
Two Munich synagogues were among those destroyed. In fact, the Nazis had started destroying Munich's synagogues in June of that year: leaving only two to be trashed on Kristallnacht.
A short distance from where the original stood, there is a new Jewish Centre and synagogue. This was not opened until 2006. There is also a Jewish museum as part of the same complex. Its modern architecture and geometric shape make a different approach to a house of worship. And the use of so much glass in the cube on top, surely a historic fuck you to the Nazis.
This week I was in Montreal, where I had the opportunity to present a paper at the Indian Ocean World Centre at McGill. While I was in town, I went to visit the Museum of Fine Arts.
There, I saw The King's Beavers by Kent Monkman, possibly the most disturbing and puzzling painting I have seen in a while. I stared at it for some time, the vividness of the image raising so many questions about its message.
In it, apparently Christian beavers are trapped and attacked by Europeans and Indians. Which king? Are these French beavers being killed by the English and their native allies, or loyal English beavers being butchered by the French?
We see Catholic priests evidently complicit in the massacre. Some beavers are trapped in a floating prison: are these slaves? Are the beavers African? Is this just a general allegory for the violence in all colonial encounters, or a parable on animal rights? (Beaver skin, after all, being a key item of trade in colonial North America). Were the beavers a persecuted minority from the Old World who had fled to the new? There are so many different ways of reading it, and perhaps that is the point.
The museum has hung this painting by the entrance to a gallery of art from colonial Canada, placing this modern piece alongside paintings from the eighteenth century, and the juxtaposition is striking (and deliberate). On researching further, I discovered that this piece is very new, having been completed this year for the museum.
I wonder what effect it has on visitors to the museum, that they are greeted with this allegory of frontier violence before they see the rest of the art in that gallery. I was unable to find any more detailed explanation by Monkman about his intended meaning of the work, and I would be interested to know if any readers have their own conclusions.
Once upon a time (well, two years ago), I asked on twitter "where are all the historians?". The answer became the Twitterstorians.
The 7th September marks the second birthday of the #twitterstorians list. We had a small party last year, and since then the list has continued to grow! We've been mentioned on the American Historical Association blog, and it's interesting to see how use of Twitter is spreading, particularly among more senior academics.
If twitter had existed earlier in my academic career, my dissertation would have been the stronger for it. On the other hand, it might not have been finished...
Twitter (and the #twitterstorians) have been a godsend to me the last couple of years, when I've been working at home. Having the daily water-cooler type chat with colleagues (who happen to be thousands of miles away) has helped me immensely. And being able to turn to such a resource of historical knowledge is at times, mindblowing. I've been introduced to new fields, and some of the best articles I've read. I'm using it more and more, as I get much quicker responses to my tweets than I ever do to email....
I am interested to see how a critical mass of historians on twitter changes other things about the field, from conference organisation to the job market (the wiki, for all its shortcomings, has already had a dramatic effect in how people approach searches; in the past I have been wikijected, and this year I found out that I didn't get a fellowship because I saw the recipient post it on twitter! While that was disappointing, I'd rather find out sooner than be kept hanging for months).
Some twitterstorians (and other people I had originally known online, through the Chronicle of Higher Education fora) became members of the editorial board of Transnational Subjects. We've discussed editorial goals, recruited submissions, and sought advice and expressions of interest from other historians. We even found our publisher, @gylphi! There is no way that without twitter we could have done it at such speed or so successfully.
Some other #twitterstorians who are posting to mark the date are:
Jonathan Dresner - @jondresner
Rachel Herrmann - @raherrmann
Kathryn Tomasek - @kathryntomasek
Wilko Hardenberg - @wilkohardenberg
Suzanne Fischer - @publichistorian
Charlotte Riley - @lottelydia
Mark Cheathem - @markcheathem
Sharon Howard - @sharon_howard
Kelly Hignett - @kellyhignett
Janice Liedl - @jliedl
Brett Holman - @airminded
Kelly Baker - @kelly_j_baker
Heather Prescott - @hmprescott
and from @ministorian in the #historynoir theme:
You can see more #historynoir at his tumblr.
Yesterday I put on google docs an article draft. The piece is called "Landscape Projections" and it is about the presentation of Australia's environment in historical film. You can see it here:
I am interested to gather people's responses to the piece, and any suggestions they may have for improvement. (I was also curious to see how many people actually read it, and I've been pleasantly surprised on that score).
So, take a look, and let me know what you think.
This great short film on wikimedia commons, I was directed to by a twitter link from @berfrois. It demonstrates what a wealth of material there is in wikimedia for historians.
I was struck by something Timothy Burke wrote at Easily Distracted, as a comment on one of his own posts, which was progressively threadjacked.
He was writing in relation to the discussions of rioters in London, vs. the bankers responsible for the economic meltdown. The contrast between those scrambling to make excuses or find cultural explanation for rioting, while not looking at financial practices in the same way, reveals a blind spot in a lot of people's thinking. As Professor Burke wrote:
But you’re singing my song on a point that I frequently harp on (including in classes, to my poor students) which is that for a very long time much qualitative social science has shown very little interest in elites or powerful social groups like soldiers or bureaucrats in the same terms that it takes an interest in many other social groups, e.g., as groups that have “cultures”, that are the products of social conditions, and so on. Lazy or simple versions of the social-conditions-produce-and-justify-practices ought to be just as forgiving of neoconservative bombing of Iraq. Admittedly, part of the reason that there are very few ethnographic studies of military or security force cultures of torture (for one example) is methodological: the powerful have very little interest in welcoming ethnographic inquiry into their habitus, even when that’s not strictly secret in some sense. But part of it is also the assumption by a lot of people on the left that the elite are already fully understood in this sense. Which I don’t really see: if I had to teach a class on the everyday cultural world of the most elite financial capitalists, I would have very few studies to put on the syllabus that would compare with what I can offer in a course on everyday life in rural southern Africa. I’d have to use memoirs, novels, and journalism, which is fine, but it’s still a notable gap. Unless what people mean by assuming that these worlds are already known to inquiry is because academics or leftists typically believe that they themselves are part of or known personally about such elite social contexts or that the self-representations of elites in the public sphere are accurate or useful guides to their everyday practices.
This relates to the kind of problem I bump up against regularly in my research, which involves assessing the cultures of colonialism at different sites. I don't often see scholars finding culturally determinist explanations for European empires. However, at the the high point of European expansion, we could easily say it was a longstanding part of European culture to beat people up and take their land. The defeated either sucked it up and learned to bow to a new king, or they rallied their friends and pushed the invaders out. (see Spain, reconquest of). And pretty well every part of Europe had been on both sides of that equation (conqueror and conquered) at some point in their history.Historians, whether we like it or not, tend to vew the colonialist elites of the past as our equals, to be judged on our terms, while the subaltern groups are condescended to and excuses are made for their culture-bound hopelessness. I'm reminded of this response to the Aztec exhibition at the British Museum, which said a lot of what I was thinking at the time. If an exhibition of the history of the slave trade showed shackles and whips and did not say "look at this evidence of human cruelty" but "look at the fine workmanship on that!" most of us would be horrified and outraged. Why wasn't the Aztec show seen in the same way?
If Europe’s explorers and conquerors are condemned as invaders, pillagers and exploiters (which means judging them by our contemporary standards of morality), then we have to hold other groups to the same standard. Otherwise it’s like saying “oh, those poor benighted tribal people, with their simple understanding of the world, we can’t condemn them for their child sacrifice/cannibalism/cruelty. But those white Europeans, we can condemn them for witch hunts/slavery/torture, because they should have known better.”Evil people and nasty practices have existed everywhere, at all times. So have good people. I am certain there would have been some Aztecs who thought the murder of children was wrong, and who tried to stop it. Diversity of opinion within a group isn’t something we in the educated West have exclusive claim to, either. “People of [group], believed x....”. Really? All of them? Can you think of one thing today that “everyone believes”?
Either we're all trapped by our cultures, or nobody is. I'm frequently annoyed with people who describe themselves as "very spiritual". This irks me because I regard "spirituality"—in the sense of having an interior life, rather than adhering to any particular religion or philosophy—as an essential element of being human. To say one is "very spiritual" is like saying one is "very human".Which brings me back to Professor Burke’s useful point about rioters and bankers: if we’re to excuse the rioters for their culturally determined behaviour, the same excuses have to apply to the bankers. Or conversely, theft is theft. If you expect better from someone because they wear a suit and work on Wall St than you do from a teenager in a hooded sweatshirt, what kind of class snobbery is that?
This is a great film from Mondo Black about the role of African American interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg. Starting with considering what people will do for employment in the recession, this documentary asks: would you be willing to play a slave?
Hat tip to Larry Cebula of Northwest History for posting this video.
As I was idly flicking through one of those "this day in history" sites, I stumbled onto a "factoid": apparently, on this day, July 6, the first photograph was transmitted across the Atlantic by radio, in 1924. How interesting, I thought, and started to dig a little further. I'm not a historian of communication technology, but there is a lot more to the history of the fax than someone sending a radio transmission in 1924.
Alexander Bain patented an early fax machine in 1843. He called it a Recording Telegraph. The Bakewell company had their own version in the 1850s. These machines ran on similar principles, with a tape coated in electrolytic solution, and a stylus in contact with the tape creating a circuit. The transmission resulted in raised lettering traced on the tape.
Meanwhile, in France an alternative technology appeared with the Pantelegraph. It was in commercial use in the 1860s, sending communications between Paris and Lyons.
Text and line drawings could be sent, and it was primarily used to submit signatures for verification in bank transactions. It remained in operation til the 1870s (why it was so quickly abandoned after its introduction, I don't know—perhaps some technology history scholars can weigh in?)
In 1902, Arthur Korn developed telephotography, known as the Bildetelegraph. The ability to transmit photographs makes his invention the direct precursor of the fax machine. On the 18th October, 1906, he managed to transmit a photograph of Crown Prince William over a distance of 1800 km. A brilliant physicist, Korn was dismissed from his university position at the Berlin Institute of Technology in 1935 because of his Jewish background. He emigrated to the United States and went on to teach at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
At the same time as Korn, in France Édouard Belin was working on his own version of image transmission, which he called the Belinographe. By the 1920s, he had developed the method so that they could be sent by radio waves. It was his breakthroughs that went on to form the basis of the commercial fax machines, marketed thirty years later.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic: In 1924, Richard Ranger of RCA developed the transoceanic radiogram. A photograph of President Calvin Coolidge sent from New York to London on November 29, 1924 became the first photo picture reproduced by transoceanic radio facsimile.
So who sent the message on July 6, 1924? What technology did they use? I still don't know. The date is quoted on several sites, but no source is offered.
The "This Day in History" type websites are possibly full of many half-truths, and straws of history to be grasped at (or not). In my own research, I was amused to find in some newspapers from Havana of the 1840s, that they also had such features: telling readers what happened on "this day" in 1512 or 1796. So our desire to find connections with events in the past through even minor anniversaries goes back a long way.
We thought the telephone would be the death of written communication: but we probably write more than previous generations ever have, if you count typing on screens. We write one another messages all the time. With the rise of email, I notice that some people now almost never make phone calls. The telephone has gone from being the "informal" method of communication, to the one only used for something Very Important. I observe that my casual advice to call someone about a work matter is sometimes greeted with an absolute expression of horror, as though I had suggested showing up at someone's house and ringing their doorbell at 2AM. I would prefer it if many people called me than emailed. But perhaps I'm in a minority.
I was thinking this week, about the immediacy of our communication: that early fax transmission must have been a revelation to people, in the same way as the telegraph. Pretty soon photographs were being sent around the world for use by newspapers, so readers thousands of miles away could not only read about but see what was happening in other parts of the world. Of course, we take that for granted today with the internet and television.
In this week's New Yorker, there is a story by Nick Paumgarten, about the origins of online dating. These were dating services of the 1950s and 60s which relied on computer questionnaires to "match" people to potential dates by their common interests. However, the dating candidates still had to go and meet their dates in person. Today's online dating does not require that - it is possible to develop a relationship online before meeting in the real world. There was a discussion following on Paumgarten's story in this week's Slate Culture Gabfest too, in which I discovered it is possible to sign up for Ok Cupid to look for friends. (The gabfest crew were signing up a fake account to see how it worked).
Do people really do that? Go to online dating sites to find friends? I hadn't heard of it (but then I've never used an online dating site either). I guess I'm a cynic, because I always saw those "Platonic" listings on Craigslist and thought "Yeah, right—it's Craigslist, for heaven's sake". Is anyone really looking for a racquetball partner in between all the ads for anonymous sex and tranny hookers?
But the desire to connect remains. I have read through the quaint Lonely Hearts columns in old newspapers, and I marvel at how much easier we have it now. I have met people through the internet, including some people who have become very good friends. It is through reading people's blogs and twitter posts that I get to know them far better than I would, if we simply met at a cocktail party. I have the same experience sometimes in archives, reading the diary or letters of someone long dead - and feeling a pang of sympathy, thinking that I would want this person as a friend. Only with Twitter, that is magnified hundreds of times. The quickly-coined aphorism, that Facebook makes you hate people you already know and Twitter makes you love people you never met, seems very true.
When I was a child the concept of the penpal was quite magic, in its way. (I still marvel at the postal service, that I can scribble a few lines on a piece of card and it can be delivered to a friend thousands of miles away). We would write our nine year old thoughts about school and our families, and talk about our plans for the future with the stilted formality of children. While today I have the same footstamping impatience as the next person (why haven't you replied to my email yet it's been two hours dammit hurry up!), I miss the pace of letters. I would be interested to conduct a friendship only by letter, to see if it would be possible to run at that speed again—to resist the temptation to send an email or text message.
Waiting several weeks for a response put relationships on a different plane. I read a reference this week to a soldier in the American Civil War, saying that he thought the women had had it worse than the men during the war: a soldier knew he was still alive, but his mother or wife could only wait and worry. These days the letters most of us wait for are from institutions, and even then the letter is the bad news, like a bill or a job rejection (good news comes on the phone or by email).
But I wonder what the fax was, in July of 1924. Someone looking for a date, perhaps?
I recently visiting the town of Ruhpolding, which is a pretty place in the alps. It is noted for its church, built between 1738 and 1757. Its rather plain exterior belies the baroque interior.
Being dedicated to St George, there are a number of images of him slaying the dragon.The church is particularly noted for this hochromanischer Madonna. But I was particularly struck by this small plaque, fastened onto the back of one of the pews. There were no others around; any 18th/early 19th centuryists care to weigh in on what it is?
These pictures from the archives of the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney offer another side of women's history. They have been digitised, you can search the archive here. The crime photos span the first half of the 20th century, and include not only mugshots but crime scene pictures.
The portraits of these women are striking. Aside from suggesting that Henri Cartier-Bresson temped there for a while (seriously, stunning portraits), these pictures can tell us a lot more about the society these women lived in. The most obvious is dress: what they are wearing can show us typical attire of the time, in that city, for women of their social position. It might seem obvious that we have plenty of evidence for what people wore in the 1920s, but it's often selective. Newsreel quality limits the ability to pick out details of clothing, and the other evidence we have (theatrical films, fashion magazines, personal photographs, and vintage clothing) are all more likely to be representative of more affluent women.
It's also possible to see the same woman arrested on multiple occasions, and trace her appearance and criminal acts for several years. Each photo is accompanied by brief notes of the crime.
Kate Ellick, 17 February 1919. Age 59. Homeless and arrested for vagrancy, sentenced to three months in prison.
Nellie Cameron, 29 July 1930. Age 21. Reputed to be one of the most desirable prostitutes in the city. According to Lillian Armfield, Australia's first policewoman, Cameron had an 'assured poise that set her apart from all the other women of the Australian underworld'.
Isabella Higgs, 21 February 1924. Higgs was arrested in the company of Thomas Bernard Hooper (39), Harold George Hooper (34), Vera Crichton, (23), and Nancy Cowman (19), the others being charged with "conspiring together to procure a miscarriage" on Higgs. The women in the case were eventually put on good behaviour bonds. The Hooper brothers received gaol sentences of 12 and 18 months hard labour respectively.
This picture is one of a series of around 2500 "special photographs" taken by New South Wales Police Department photographers between 1910 and 1930. These "special photographs" were mostly taken in the cells at the Central Police Station, Sydney and are, as curator Peter Doyle explains, of "men and women recently plucked from the street, often still animated by the dramas surrounding their apprehension". Doyle suggests that, compared with the subjects of prison mug shots, "the subjects of the Special Photographs seem to have been allowed - perhaps invited - to position and compose themselves for the camera as they liked. Their photographic identity thus seems constructed out of a potent alchemy of inborn disposition, personal history, learned habits and idiosyncrasies, chosen personal style (haircut, clothing, accessories) and physical characteristics."
If you're interested in reading more about the policing of women and the use of identificational evidence, such as mug shots and fingerprints, read:
Julia A. Laite "Taking Nellie Johnson’s Fingerprints: Prostitutes and Legal Identity in Early Twentieth-Century London" History Workshop Journal - Issue 65, Spring 2008, pp. 96-116
Anyone who has attempted to trace women through archival history will know how easily they slip through the cracks. Name changes on marriage, vague census entries, can all conspire to make women (particularly low-status women) vanish altogether. These pictures are a fabulous example of the sources that are available, and kudos to the Historic Houses Trust of NSW for making them available online.
This month is the 100th anniversary of the first International Women’s Day. The day was commemorated for the first time on 19 March, 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, following its establishment during the Socialist International meeting the prior year.
Helen Reddy's I Am Woman was the official theme song when the United Nations declared 1975 International Women's Year. Since then, International Women's Day has been celebrated on March 8. (International Men's Day is celebrated the other 364 days).
Susan Travers was born in England in 1909. She grew up in the South of France, playing tennis and going to parties. She also became the only woman to ever serve in the French Foreign Legion.
Her autobiography, published when she was 90, details her experiences during the war. I read it several years ago and it has stuck with me. The descriptions of battle and conditions in North Africa were vivid.
The book was written with the help of Wendy Holden, and obviously some elements were probably polished or sidelined for readability. But the role of a woman in WWII battle experiences is particularly illuminating.
At the start of the war, Travers signed up as a nurse. Later she joined De Gaulle's Free French Forces. She went on to become the driver for a medical officer in the Foreign Legion. With the legion, she continued as a driver of variously cars, trucks and ambulances. She later served in the First Indochina War.
Her adventures are spiced up by her affairs, particularly with the men she served alongside. This made it awkward for her to tell her story; she waited until all the other characters had died before feeling free to publish it.
On the final night of the AHA, I went to the screening of The Conspirator, the following day I travelled to New York to see the final performance of A Free Man of Color. While I very much enjoyed both, I was struck by the comparison of these two examples of narrative history made for an audience.
[possible spoiler alert]
The Conspirator was the first production by the new American Film Company which has a mission to produce historically accurate films. Directed by Robert Redford, this is a lavish historical film. The conspirator of the title is Mary Surratt, a woman charged with involvement in planning the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. She ran a boarding house where several of Booth's associates had stayed, and where meetings planning the attack allegedly took place. A widow of limited means, renting out rooms to earn a living, she seems a victim of circumstance, that her son had fallen in with the wrong crowd and she was being blamed for these young men's activities.
Robin Wright Penn's performance as Mary Surratt is moving, and she is the centre of this movie - although Frederick Aiken (played by James McAvoy) is the figure we follow through the whole story: from his experience of the battlefields to returning to civilian life as a lawyer to finding himself saddled with this unwinnable case - and slowly realising that his client may be falsely accused.
I hadn't been aware of Surratt's story and at the end of the film I was convinced that she had been an innocent woman railroaded by the system. I was very surprised during the panel discussion following the film when Kate Clifford Larson (who has written a book about Mary Surratt) said that the view of most historians today is that Mary Surratt was very much guilty of involvement in the plot.
Historical examination of her life prior to the last 20 years had seen her as a sentimental martyr of the South, or a feminist victim of society - married as a teenager to an abusive drunk, who died and left her in debt; a woman whose son who committed a felony and left her holding the bag, and was finally destroyed by a cruel military legal system.
That rather than a hapless dupe, she was an active politically motivated participant in a dramatic political crime makes her in fact a much more interesting character, than the view of her as a martyr. In the film we see her as deeply devout Catholic: did she truly repent of her crimes? If she was in fact guilty, I feel somehow tricked into feeling so much sympathy for her (and any audience whose only source of information is the film, will come away believing she was the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice).
[In a way, I was reminded of Dead Man Walking: when it was revealed that in fact he was a rapist and killer, I was so angry I would have flipped the switch myself - which I don't think was the director's intention. This sense of being tricked into emotionally backing the wrong horse annoyed me.]
Mary Surratt was a slaveowner, and financially and personally invested in the Confederate cause. These elements of her life are not covered in the film. While the film is supposed to be historically "accurate", we obviously don't know many intimate details of the characters' lives. There is a character, the girlfriend of Frederick Aiken, who seemed like a filmic invention (perhaps he had a girlfriend who had waited for him during the war: many men did). When finally she leaves him because of his work (defending Mary Surratt has destroyed his social reputation), her speech is anachronistic. 1860s women did not break things off with a beau by saying "I can't do this".
Nonetheless, the film takes a less-known historical episode, and explores a number of nuances to do with the nature of guilt and the legal system - and as someone who wants to see more quality historical films, I look forward to their next production.
In A Free Man of Color, John Guare has attempted to create a Restoration comedy exploring the unique currents of history in New Orleans on the brink of the Louisiana purchase. His hero, Jacques Cornet, the son of a white man and a slave mother, was granted freedom and inherited property from his father. Among other things, he is a collector of maps, interested in knowing what is in the "white spaces" to the West. He is also a renowned Don Juan, cuckolding most of the important men of the city.
Through the same actors playing several characters, we see the layers and threads of Caribbean and Atlantic history. Mos, who plays Carnet's personal slave, also plays Toussaint Louverture, the man standing up for African slaves throughout the Americas. The idea of Spanish Louisiana as a "post-racial" idyll is of course idealistic, but the bitter pill that the Lousiana purchase offered to Creoles of color diminishes the idea of benefit coming from incorporation to the "free" United States of America.
Shirley Thompson's Exiles At Home explores precisely this story - of the free African community in New Orleans (and the situation they faced with the Lousiana purchase), and Shannon Dawdy's Building the Devil's Empire offers a wonderful introduction to how this culture came about.
One white character mentions going to Congo Square to learn African dances. The hip-hop dance style she demonstrates draws a laugh from the audience, and the idea of being able to perform such a routine (her cousin initially cannot), also reminds us of the image of miscegenation in twentieth century popular culture, that sexual contact with black men will bring to life white women's full sexual potential, and that this is what white men so fear. That "fear of a black penis" might have been another subtitle to this play is not lost on Guare. He recasts the sexual romp of Restoration comedy in the racial tensions of the colonial Americas.
As well as the characters in New Orleans, we see what is going on in Paris and Washington, in the political discussions of Napoleon, the king of Spain, and Thomas Jefferson - who is discussing what goes on with his secretary, Meriwether Lewis. In these parts, the play also tells us a story we all know, about Jefferson's apparent hypocrisy with regard to slavery. Indeed, the characters of Lewis and Jefferson in these sections seem to belong to a completely different play - some Masterpiece Theatre-type vignette on the ideas of liberty in the early Federal period.
While Guare's play does not claim to be historically accurate (indeed he uses anachronistic references to underscore his themes), he still touches on many of the key, perplexing and tragic points of the multi racial society of colonial Louisiana. Cornet is a poignant figure. Through various misadventures he finds himself re-enslaved in the newly American Louisiana.The final line, that this is a story of a "Free Man of Color, or How one man became an American" - became an American slave. The speech of Meriwether Lewis, that America remains the land of the "white spaces" is an interesting view of the land of opportunity and that such opportunities may be internal to the self - but also that such opportunities opened themselves to those who were "white" or could be legally defined as such.
The theatre was packed for a matinee, and the audience (much more diverse than the usual Whiter Shade of Pale audiences often seen at Broadway shows) loved it. It did explain some things that the average person might not know about Louisiana history, and while Guare's tendency to link current events to those of the past seemed heavy-handed (I expect some editing if/when the play is revived by another production), anything that draws audiences into engagement with cultural history in this way is no bad thing.
have my laptop out ready for scanning, and obediently remove my shoes. I
smile and am polite. But still, my bag is sometimes searched, or wiped with
a cotton swab to check for explosive residue. I also wonder whether due to
the increased rate of bag searches over the last decade, there has been an
increase in arrests for drug trafficking? Surely, in between confiscating
tweezers and Mountain Dew, they must stumble onto the odd reefer or small
bag of white powder? But are the searches effective for what they're actually looking for? When
Random Breath Testing for drink drivers was introduced, people thought they
were more likely to be caught, when in fact statistically they were not.
While conviction rates went up because more people were being stopped, the
average motorist who had had an extra glass of wine in fact benefited from
herd protection and was less likely to be pulled over. Of course, unlike many drivers in the 1980s (before social attitudes to
drunk driving changed), I am not concerned about being "caught" by airport
security. I am not a criminal, I am not carrying contraband. They can search
my bags all they please. But the 10 or 20 people who were waved through
while my bag was being searched, who weren't randomly selected? How do I
know they're not up to something? As with random breathalyzer checks, do
random bag searches actually protect some people through safety in numbers? The TSA have also recently changed their policy for searches, allowing them
to frisk people with the palms of their hands rather than the backs. Having
received the old version, where a female agent barely brushed her knuckles
down my torso and legs, I can see why it was ineffective. And many places
outside the USA have been much more grabby for a long time. While I have yet
to encounter the TSA's new "junk touching" technique, I have had my cleavage
and backside efficiently groped by European agents many times. I have also
been through the "naked" scanner. I'm less concerned about someone seeing an
image of me in my knickers than I am about the dose of radiation I'm getting
from it. [In fact, I feel my privacy much more invaded by creeps who pester and
harass me, proposition me, and ask invasive sexual questions (and, dear
reader, you may be amazed how common such creatures are in the general
population). And I (how stupidly female is such social conditioning!),
I get embarrassed, and stammer, when it is they who should be
embarrassed. But I am intimidated, and lose my assertiveness, and don't tell
them to go straight to hell, which I should, and later wish I had. Now
that's a privacy invasion. When men follow me down the street, yell
things from cars, and I feel exposed: in a way nothing that airport security
does could achieve. When I check in for a flight, I'm prepared for what is
to come. I have my hand cream and lipstick in a little transparent bag, my
passport at the ready, and I know what to expect. Having bought an air
ticket, I signed up for it. Harassment I did not expect, or sign up for
simply by existing in public: that really upsets me.] People used to set off across the Atlantic by ship, at much greater risk of
piracy or shipwreck than hijacking or crashes pose to air travellers today.
In fact, commercial air travel is the safest mode of transport yet invented.
But if they could have, would our 18th century ancestors have taken
TSA-style precautions? I'm sure they wouldn't have been afraid to profile.
Looking for pirates, they wouldn't have bothered searching old ladies and
children. But heavily armed men who looked like they'd been in a few fights?
"Step over here, sir. I need to search your bags. What's the purpose of your
visit? Vacation? Travel much in the Caribbean, sir?" I don't know how much of an expectation of "privacy" in the sense that we
know it they would have felt, either. Eating, sleeping, defecating in close
quarters - as well as possibly giving birth, falling ill, or dying. Perhaps
they would think us all silly for worrying about TSA scanners. I want to be safe when I travel, of course. I'd feel much more safe if I
knew everyone was being searched and questioned rather than a "random
selection". This is the policy in Israel, where instead of x-raying your
shoes, they are looking into your eyes and examining your body language.
Seems to work, too. You must have seen movies where someone is sent to prison or a mental
institution. Stripped naked, cavity searched, forcibly "bathed" with a
power-hose: the purpose of this seemed to be as much about humiliating the
inmate as any real security issues. And with airport security? Is it really
their goal to break passengers psychologically? There have already been
stories of horrific treatment meted out to those who are handicapped,
wearing a catheter, or otherwise "different". Treating random innocent
people as suspects is not the way to get our cooperation in weeding out the
actual problem. But it's not airport security we need to cooperate with. It's each other.
When it comes down to it, we're the ones who are going to be there, not the
guy manning the x-ray machine on the ground. As with last year's underwear
bomber, who was stopped by another passenger: not airport security. Like our shipbound ancestors, for whom precautions meant travelling in
convoy, carrying weapons, and praying for fair weather: they knew, miles
from home, that they had only each other to rely on. Whereas my journey
across the Atlantic takes hours rather than weeks, and I rarely speak to the
passengers around me, I have to have faith that we are all in this together.
It's all we can do.
My research on urban culture also involves looking at the culture of death: graveyards, processions, and other distinctive local practices. Today I went to the Necropolis Colon and took some pictures. This grand park of rest - built in the third quarter of the nineteenth century - is still in use. But many of the old mausoleums belong to families who have left Cuba, and have fallen into disrepair. This gives some of them a picturesque ruin aspect.
There are many fine marble carvings on the graves, demonstrating the various families' wealth and piety: a veritable army of angels watching over the departed of Havana, radiantly white in the equatorial sun.
One grave had a rather interesting inscription: ''¡Ay...!'' (roughly "Ouch! Agh!") - a perhaps honest but rather unusual epitaph. (I'd be interested to know whether anyone else has seen something similar anywhere else).