Tag Archives: Race

Member of the Week: Joanna Merwood-Salisbury

joanna-merwood-salisburyProf. Joanna Merwood-Salisbury

Faculty of Architecture and Design

Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I began my career as an historian of late-nineteenth-century American architecture, in particular the culture of the early Chicago skyscraper (roughly 1880 to 1910). My research investigated the broader group of social actors involved in the creation of the skyscraper city, and asked how the appearance of the skyscraper changed ideas about the nature of cities and American society as a whole. From there I moved on to explore the types of public space available to Americans during this period: what was the dominant understanding of public space? How was it incorporated into strategies of urban design and how did different social groups make use of it? These interests lead to my current project on the history of Union Square in New York City.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

My current position as Associate Dean of Research and Innovation means I spend the majority of my time helping other scholars make the most of their own research. When I do teach it is courses in modern Architectural History. Throughout my career I have usually worked with students aiming for careers in architecture practice. I find that students enrolled in a professional program are principally focused on the contemporary issues at stake for design. For this reason I try to situate historical material in relation to those issues. For example, I connect the current concern with sustainability to the long-standing interest in “organicism” in architecture; in courses dealing with the formulation of the industrial city in the nineteenth-century, I relate historical processes of change to contemporary issues in urban design, in particular the impact of globalization and the environmental crisis.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I am excited for the publication next year of Race and Modern Architecture, edited by Irene Cheng, Charles L. Davis II and Mabel O. Wilson. This is a series of essays on the critical role of racial theory in shaping architectural discourse. Redressing a longstanding neglect of racial discourses among architectural scholars, it reveals how the racial has been deployed to organize and conceptualize the spaces of modernity, from the individual building to the city to the nation to the planet. I have an essay in it about racial themes in Civil War-era New York City architecture. I’m also looking forward to the publication of my book-length project on Union Square, Design for the Crowd Patriotism and Protest in Union Square, which investigates the history of the Square since the early-nineteenth-century, understanding it as both a real public space and as the symbol of competing ideas about the operation of democracy in the United States.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Even if it seems unfashionable, obscure, or even over done, find a topic that you are deeply interested in, not just one that seems to tick the right boxes. The many hours you’ll spend in library basements and archival storage will seem even longer if you’re not passionate about what you’re looking at.

In this current moment of political protest, how would you design the optimal protest space? What would it look like and where would it be? Assume no obstacles!

Protest movements today no longer rely on gatherings in physical space to get their message across. Some of the most effective contemporary activism (the “Black Lives Matter” movement, for example) is geographically dispersed with a heavy reliance on social media. However I still believe that physical space has a role to play, principally in giving a visual image to protest movements, as in the Occupy Wall Street protest at Zuccotti Park. The most effective seem to combine occupation of dedicated public spaces (where proximity to symbols of power is key) with dynamic connections to larger groups not present on site, via mainstream and new media.

Seeing Honolulu through A Surfing Life

Until I read Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir of his life as a surfer, I had little desire to visit Hawai’i. Like Ryan, my impression of the islands was drawn largely from Hollywood films and television, and reinforced by friends’ honeymoon photo albums on Facebook. Seen through these lenses, Hawaii seemed like a Disneyland for grown-ups—a façade purposefully constructed to show vacationers the beaches, roasting pigs, and smoking volcanoes that tourism professionals believed they wanted to see.

Barbarian Days shattered my perception of Hawai’i. Finnegan’s description of his two years living in Honolulu, attending a public junior high school and surfing with locals, provides a glimpse into the quotidian lives of Honolulu residents in the late 1960s. Stories about surfing certain waves serve as a starting point to discuss the history and geography of the Hawaiian islands; other stories, of the friendships Finnegan forged through surfing, demonstrate the complex racial and ethnic hierarchies that Honolulu’s diverse residents navigated daily, the class divisions that organized social life, and youth culture.

I picked up Finnegan’s memoir having heard positive reviews and because, after finishing my dissertation, I needed to be transported to another time and place. I had no particular interest in surfing, be it sport, recreation, or aesthetic. Within the first twenty pages of Barbarian Days, I discovered that in fact I was very interested in surfing. Moreover, I had a newfound itch to visit Honolulu.

Unlike more traditional memoirs, Barbarian Days skips around through Finnegan’s life. Rather than beginning with his childhood in Southern California, Finnegan begins the memoir with the formative surfing he did in Honolulu between 1966 and 1967. The memoir then flashes back to his earlier years before returning to Hawai’i (albeit Lahaina, on Maui) and then follows his surfing adventures in the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, Africa, San Francisco, and Madeira.

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Surf Riders, Honolulu, Charles Bartlett, c. 1920-1921, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Although I found the entire book immensely enjoyable, I think the first chapter on Honolulu is my favorite and the one that stands out most clearly in my memory. In it, we follow the young Bill as he evolves from a naïve SoCal teen with a single-minded focus on surfing to a savvy, cosmopolitan young man awakened to the reality of racism and classism. An anecdote about being picked on as the new haole (white) kid in school begins the book, signaling the end of Finnegan’s innocent ignorance. “[M]y parents sent me to the nearest junior high, up in working-class Kaimuki, on the back side of Diamond Head crater,” Finnegan writes, “where they assumed I was getting on with the business of the eighth grade, but where in fact I was occupied almost entirely by the rigors of bullies, loneliness, fights, and finding my way, after a lifetime of unconscious whiteness in the segregated suburbs of California, in a racialized world.”[1]

Through the fistfights and brawls that he found himself in during his first weeks at Kaimuki Intermediate School, Finnegan (and the reader) become increasingly aware of the racial hierarchies operating within Honolulu. As one of the few haole kids in the public junior high—most white parents sent their children to private schools—Finnegan found himself a target for bullying by “the ‘mokes’—which seemed to mean anyone dark and tough.” Seeking protection, he joined “the In Crowd,” a haole gang from whom he “began to learn, first, the broad outlines, and then the minutiae, of the local racial setup.”[2] This alliance insulated Finnegan from further torture, but it was not long before surfing expanded his social circle to include Hawaiian friends.

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Honolulu, Diamond Head and palms, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Near the house his parents rented was a surf spot that the locals called Cliffs, where Finnegan became a regular. There he met a Hawaiian teen named Roddy Kaulukukui, who was his same age and at his same skill level at surfing. Both looked up to Roddy’s older brother, Glenn, a “superb surfer, with a style that was already flowing and beautiful.” It was from the Kaulukukui brothers and their friends that Finnegan learned the ins-and-outs of surfing Diamond Head, and it was with them that he learned local surfing culture. Unlike in Southern California, where surfing was a sport of youthful rebellion, in Hawaii surfing was and remains a family affair; a sport taught by fathers to sons. Roddy and Glenn’s father was accomplished enough to have surfed some of the most advanced waves on Oahu’s North Shore. “I had always assumed that only famous surfers rode Waimea,” Finnegan recalls, but during his year living in Honolulu he “saw that local fathers rode it too, and in time, perhaps, their sons would as well.” “These people never appeared in mainland [surfing] magazines,” and yet in time he realized “there were many families like the Kaulukukuis in Hawaii—multigenerational families, ohanas rich in talent and tradition, known only to one another.”[3]

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Diamond Head, Honolulu, Hawaii, Carol M. Highsmith, December 9, 2006, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Through the Kaulukukuis Finnegan also gained insight into Hawaiian life on the mainland, particularly how Hawaiians navigated the intersections of race and class. In an attempt to join the surfing club the Kaulukukui brothers belonged to, Finnegan found himself knocking on doors in a “posh looking subdivision high in the hills above Honolulu” trying to raise money by selling “a heavy sack of Portuguese sausage” to the affluent white residents. The organizer of the Southern Unit surfing club, Mr. Ching, gave the group “basic instruction in door-to-door salesmanship.” Explaining how the boys were to pitch the sale, Mr. Ching exaggeratedly code-switched from pidgin English: “Mr. Ching said ‘the Southern Unit,’ and the kids laughed, because he pronounced it haole-style, standard English, though it was usually said ‘da Soddun Unit.’”[4] When, a few weeks later, Roddy transferred into one of Finnegan’s classes at school, Finnegan realized his friend could similarly play both the role of Hawaiian surfer and “haole-style” student: “Like Mr. Ching in his fund-raising spiel, Roddy abandoned briefly, his normal pidgin and spoke standard English.”[5]

Boat and Palm tree outline at a Hawaii Beach.
Boat and Palm tree outline at a Hawaiian beach, Carol M. Highsmith, 1980-2006, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Through his parents, Finnegan gained an adult perspective on Honolulu society, particularly its class divisions. His father, a television producer, had moved the family to Oahu to make a TV show. This work regularly brought him into (contentious) contact with the state’s labor unions, and Finnegan observed that although workers—and particularly non-white workers—had benefitted from organized labor, “By the mid-‘60s… Hawaii’s labor movement, like much of its mainland counterpart, had grown complacent, top-heavy, and corrupt, and my father, although he came to personally like some of the union bosses he fought daily, never seemed much edified by the struggle.”[6] His mother, meanwhile, found “the provincialism of Honolulu … suffocating.” Although she hid her distaste from the family and “threw herself into making the most of life in an insular, reactionary town,” in retrospect Finnegan reflects that when she traveled to “the outer islands she found, I think, a Hawaii more to her liking—not the Babbitty boosters and country-club racists of Honolulu.”[7]

Although I can only assume that today Honolulu differs markedly from the city that Finnegan explored with his friends 50 years ago, Barbarian Days nonetheless invites readers to see Hawai’i, and Honolulu more specifically, as a place populated by residents. Tourists hardly appear, overshadowed by descriptions of riding city buses, babysitting siblings, and crushing on girls—indeed, without the social life that surfing provides Finnegan, little about his junior high experience would be remarkably Hawaiian. Yet, it’s this vision of Honolulu and Hawai’i that I appreciated and that opened my mind to a possible visit. My appreciation of surfing, however, will probably remain limited to YouTube videos.

Avigail Oren is co-editor of The Metropole. She recently completed her Ph.D. in History at Carnegie Mellon University. More of her writing can be found here.

[1] William Finnegan, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), 3. Big wave surfer Laird Hamilton also talks about being bullied as a haole in the documentary Riding Giants.

[2] Finnegan, Barbarian Days, 10.

[3] Finnegan, 16.

[4] Ibid., 30.

[5] Ibid., 31.

[6] Ibid., 21.

[7] Ibid., 24-5.

Three Days in Honolulu

There is something undeniably charming about the Honolulu Airport’s late 1950s/early 1960s aesthetic. I’m not sure about smelling “tuberose and plumeria” upon arrival as one writer promised, but that might be because I don’t actually know what either of those scents smell like. I do know that the airport’s baggage claim area has distressingly low ceilings for anyone taller than six foot two.

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I’ll be baldly honest; I had never been to Hawaii and I was wary. Sure, I enjoyed the three part Brady Bunch episode in the 1970s, Hawaii Five-O, Magnum P.I. and movies like North Shore and Blue Crush, but all as ironic entertainment. Actually spending nearly two weeks on the islands that nearly killed the Bradys and launched Tom Selleck’s career seemed daunting in my aging hipsterdom. Well as usual, I was wrong.

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For this travelogue I’ve focused only on my three days and two nights in Honolulu, the “crossroads of the pacific” as Edward Beechert’s book’s subtitle announces. We stayed in Waikiki, at a “hip” hotel. How hip you ask? Like 1950s teddy boy hip. For example, on our last day, the hotel’s pool area hosted the Miss Waikiki Beauty Pageant. In regard to the latter, let me tell you haven’t lived until you’ve instructed those working the event on the proper mechanics of the black and tan, and then watched them shotgun their frothy drinks in an orgy of bad decision making. Gross, but I digress.

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Believe it or not, the Ms. Waikiki beauty pageant was held here; black and tans were inexplicably shotgunned afterwards

During the mid 1800s, Honolulu really came into its own as the whaling industry declined and the sugar industry ascended. If one believes historian Gavan Daws, the city’s expansion occurred rather haphazardly. “Civil carelessness gave the ground plan of the town its shape, and the skyline, seen against the inland mountain ranges was ragged,” he wrote fifty years ago in the Journal of Pacific History. “By the [18]60s the era of thatch and adobe was coming to an end. More and more Honolulu was emerging as a town of wood and stone.” Design was less than innovative, argued Daws, and too many of the architects and builders in the city were “average men, with average imaginations, and frontiermen’s tastes.”[1] Admittedly, one can take some of Daws’s observations with a grain of salt. He often gives too much of a pass to the American missionaries who settled in Honolulu and the other islands in the 1820s and seems to echo some of their fairly racist opinions regarding Native Hawaiians.

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Regardless of Daws’ ideological biases, the city boomed. The consumer demand generated by the California Gold Rush denuded the city of produce and goods, which led to inflation that exceeded the purchasing power of locals. “Well, I will tell you something of how we live – or, rather, how we don’t. We have not bought a bunch of bananas in many months,” missionary Samuel Castle wrote to a friend at the time, “much of the time we have neither Irish nor sweet potatoes … Almost every species of fruit is beyond our means.”[2] As whaling and sugar intersected in their cycle of decline and ascension, America’s economy beckoned. Honolulu stood unrivaled among Pacific ports. The commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet wrote that in fact Honolulu was “more important than ever.” California’s statehood simply cemented the relationship. Americans began decamping for the Golden State, a “wave of immigration” that promised to reach Honolulu—making the islands “the West Indies of the Pacific Coast,” as one editor wrote.[3] In the early part of the twentieth century, California architects like C.W. Dickey and Julia Morgan contributed to local design with a number of buildings that can’t help but remind observers of Progressive-era Southern California. Even today, driving around Honolulu, it evokes a certain SoCal atmosphere but with a Polynesian tinge. Considering much of its development occurred in the post-World War II period, military spending shaped large parts of Oahu, for better and worse. One wonders how much its housing and economic development resembled or paralleled California’s.

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Mixing Asian American culture with American consumerism in Waikiki

 

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Waikiki at night
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Chinatown market
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Indeed, Chinatown’s biggest strawberry shortcake for the taking!

California serves as only one influence on the city. Sugar production brought Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Filipino workers to labor on the islands. Between the native population, the newly arriving haoles, and the sugar cane workers, Hawaii’s demographics transformed into a multicultural stew. Honolulu’s Chinatown, burned entirely to the ground in 1900, stands as just one testament to the globalizing nature of nineteenth century commodities, capital and labor. The neighborhood’s architecture, much of it built after the fire, has a distinct early- twentieth-century feel; more recently constructed buildings – to borrow from the ubiquitous HGTV series House Hunters – have a mid-century modern aesthetic. Dive bars, up and coming restaurants like the Pig and the Lady, and sprouting boutique stores mark Chinatown as perhaps the local gentrifying neighborhood. Of course, our taxi driver cautioned us one evening against venturing out into its streets, noting that there were “a lot of homeless there” and it wasn’t the kind of place you wanted to stay “after dark.” Needless to say, when the sun went down we wallowed in its narrow alleyways and imbibed on mai-tais at the dingiest of watering holes, taxi drivers be damned!

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A taste of Honolulu street art in Chinatown

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One of Chinatown’s “newer buildings”; inside you find a bookstore, art gallery, and coffee shop

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The Hawaii Theater, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and located in downtown Honolulu/Chinatown, remains arguably the “Pride of the Pacific”

Obviously, the military occupies a notable place in the local economy, politics, and layout of Oahu. Manifest Destiny, to paraphrase Dave Chappelle, is a helluva a drug and the United States’s addiction to expansion led it to violate laws and human rights. American interlopers sought control of Pearl Harbor and through negotiations with the kingdom eventually leveraged it over the sugar trade in 1877. Imperialists like Alfred Thayer Mahan felt no guilt in deploying the strong-armed tactics required to secure the port. “In our infancy we bordered on the Atlantic only; our youth carried our boundary to the Gulf of Mexico; to-day maturity sees us upon the Pacific,” wrote Mahan in his famous The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. “Have we no right or no call to progress farther in any direction?” One might answer the Captain’s question today with a studied Lebowskian, “Well, that’s just your opinion man”, but again, I digress.

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The Pearl Harbor Memorial site; the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in the background; pictures above taken aboard the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial

Though it took many years for the U.S. military to dredge the harbor and clear it of coral, Hawaii, and more specifically Pearl Harbor’s, strategic military importance from the late 1800s thorough the current day only increased. It’s here that a visitor begins to think about the morality of Hawaii or, more precisely, the morality of America’s presence in the archipelago. Pearl Harbor stands as a sobering memorial to the Second World War and those who died in the December 7, 1941 attack on the military installation, yet quietly, almost like a whisper, one wonders about the kind of privations and death American imperialism in the Pacific caused in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

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Surfing as resistance and as emblem of heritage; “Kai Pualena” by CJ Kanuha, 2016  at the Honolulu Museum of Art
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The coolest Buddha? Guanyin, The Bodhisattva of Compassion circa 9th/10th century; taken at the Honolulu Museum of Art

During the early twentieth century, Waikiki and Diamond Head emerged as popular tourist destinations for European and American visitors; tourism reshaped the city’s economy and depictions of its native populations. Postcards and stereoscopes of the early 1900s depicted the islands through sexualized images as a means of marketing Honolulu and other Hawaiian destinations to the broader white American public. Native women were Orientalized, presented as sensuous, accessible and sexual while native men were emasculated, portrayed as “insignificant, incapable, and disappearing,” as historians such as Jane Desmond, Ty Kawika Tengan, and Isaiah Helekunihi Walker argue.[4]

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Beach in Waikiki area; Diamond Head in background

Keep in mind, that for all the fun in the sun one discovers in the city, historians have found deeper meaning in recreational activities accessible on Honolulu’s beaches. Sure, today Waikiki is kitted out in corporate chain stores and restaurants, “a concentrated zone of souvenir dealers and luggage dragging hordes that feels like a cultural protectorate of the airport” noted one writer in a recent take on the famous tourist area.[5] However, decades before the unrelenting development of the late twentieth century, during the 1920s the Waikiki Beachboys—native surfers who worked in tourism as guides, instructors, and entertainers, writes Walker—challenged racist norms and gendered hierarchies.

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The board housed at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu references legendary surfer and waterman, Duke Paoa Kahanamoku

The battle between an organization of native surfers known as the Hui Nalu, from which the Waikiki boys later sprung, and their counterparts, the exclusively white Outrigger Canoe Club, worked at several levels. The two groups duked it out over who had greater athletic prowess on the beach, a means by which the Hui Nalu rejected the ethos of colonization. Through these contests, native Hawaiians refuted stereotypes regarding sexuality and masculinity while also benefitting financially through a thriving concessions business. “In ka po’ina nalu [the surf zone] they defied tourist portrayals of Hawaiian men as passive, nearly invisible Natives,” notes surfing historian Isaiah Helekmunihi Walker. “Rather than being exploited, victims of tourism, the Beachboys defied rather than bolstered common stigmas.” Native Hawaiians in Waikiki made money, established businesses, and, perhaps most notoriously considering American racial and sexual attitudes of the day, publicly romanced white women. “Through such interactions, Waikiki Beachboys violated social rules of an American society governed by anti-miscegenation laws and threatened haole hegemony by conquering endangered and privileged property,” writes Walker. “In many ways sexual encounters with white women in the surf became a mark of identity for these men …”[6] Undoubtedly it was an imperfect exercise of agency, one that hinged on sexist notions of gender, but it reveals the Beachboys agency nonetheless. When wandering around Waikiki, it helps to remember that though it might be a tourist trap today, real meaning lies beneath the placid surface.

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Hawaiian state capital building; the open air interiors served as a protest space where SOS held a massive rally in 1971 in an effort to battle environmental degradation and over development

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Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen lived in Honolulu fro 1879 to 1883
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Great and very affordable dim sum can be had here; near the Sun Yat-Sen statue

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Though Hawaiian culture was subsumed by mainland America during and after World War II, in the 1970s a movement that became known as the Hawaiian Renaissance emerged and led to new forms of activism. Hawaiian historian George Kanahele explained its importance to audiences in the late 1970s, writing that “it has created a new kind of Hawaiian consciousness; it has inspired greater pride in being Hawaiian; it has led to bold and imaginative ways of reasserting our identity …” Native protests over the military bombing of Kaho’olawe eventually resulted in the curtailing and later ending of the island’s bombardment. The voyage of the Hōkūle’a which demonstrated that ancient Polynesian sailors had intended to reach the islands and not “accidently” stumbled upon them, reinvigorated Hawaiian pride in their historical roots. Polynesians it turns out, were top notch seaman capable of traversing the treacherous ocean and discovering the most isolated archipelago in the world. The rise of the Save Our Shores (SOS) organization which promoted environmentalism and native pride in the 1960s and 1970s, serves as the final example from these three snapshots of activism from the decade. “The Blacks, Chicanos, American Indians, and others have reasserted their rights and their roots,” Kanahele noted in 1977. “No doubt the Hawaiian cultural and political activism is part of that legacy.”[7]

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King Kamehameha’s statue, across from ‘Iolani Palace is draped in lei’s each year around his holiday
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‘Iolani Palace
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Palace interior; dining room

Today, you can see this pride on display during the Kamehameha Day Parade, held this year on June 10, when Hawaiians gather on Honolulu streets to celebrate the birthday of King Kemehameha, the great unifier of the islands. The ‘Iolani Palace, built by King David Kalakaua, stands as further evidence of this heritage—after decades of restoration, it embodies this cultural pride and awareness. Upon its completion, the palace was completely wired for electricity, well before the White House could claim the same. Ironically the palace is located across from the state capital, which resembles mid-century California architecture. For those interested in Hawaii’s long history, the Bishop Museum in Honolulu provides great insight into its Polynesian roots and pre-European past.

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Ground floor of the Bishop Museum

To be clear, Honolulu and the island of Oahu are but one slice of Hawaii. Each island has its own personality, and its people have their own identity.If you visit, though, don’t sleep on the state capital. While it is easy to be hypnotized by mai-tais on the beach, there is much more there there. In what other American city will you find Sun Yat Sen plaza (where excellent and very affordable dim sum can be had)? Built along the canal on the edge of Chinatown, it memorializes the Chinese revolutionary’s time in the city. If you look past the mid range shopping and chain restaurants, an ocean of culture lies before you. Dive in.

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‘Iolani Palace

[1] Gavan Daws, “Honolulu in the 19th Century: Notes on the Emergence of Urban Society in Hawaii”, The Journal of Pacific History, Vol. 2 (1967): 80-81.

[2] James L. Haley, Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii, (New York: St. Martin’s, 2014), 168.

[3] Harold Whitman Bradley, “California and the Hawaiian Islands, 1846 – 1852,” Pacific Historical Review, 16.1 (February 1947): 27-28.

[4] Isaiah Helekunih Walker, Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth Century Hawaii, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011), 88-89.

[5] Wells Tower, “The Hawaii Cure”, New York Times, March 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/21/magazine/hawaii-travels-escape.html

[6] Walker, Waves of Resistance, 75.

[7] Walker, Waves of Resistance, 106.

Welcome to Hawaii: A Honolulu Bibliography in the Aloha Spirit

“It’s a cosmic irony that the longest, most grueling nonstop in the United States ends in the sweetest arrival of all,” Jocelyn Fujii, Hawaiian native and New York Times writer, wrote in a recent edition of its 36 Hours travel book series. Travelers will inhale the smell of “tuberose and plumeria” in the Hawaiian air, and find countless ethnic restaurants to satiate their taste buds, numerous accomplished art galleries to dazzle the eyes, and “hula dancers at sunset” to nostalgically transport tourists to the past. Such activities represent only a germ of the promise that one discovers in the nation’s most distant state, she pointed out.

Despite the fact that Honolulu and Hawaii date back centuries, most Americans know the city for Pearl Harbor, beaches—notably those on the North Shore and in Waikiki—surfing, tiki drinks such as Mai Tais and Blue Hawaiians, and luaus. Fans of network television might claim to watch the current iteration of Hawaii-Five O meanwhile their more benighted hipster counterparts will proudly attest to only watching the original series.

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Outside the Royal Hawaiian, Honolulu, Hawaii, Ryan Reft, June 2017

Many of us will admit to watching reruns of the 1972 Brady Bunch season opener. Greg discovers a cursed tiki statue at his Dad’s construction site, which predictably results in near disaster by the third episode of the three-episode arc. I will only touch upon Mad Men’s Season 6 opener where creator Matthew Weiner utilizes Honolulu’s mythical properties to comment on the shallowness of mid-century America. Don visits the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu; part business trip and vacation. He attends a luau where a hotel executive denigrates native cuisine; serves as witness to a soldier’s beach front wedding just before the latter ships off for Vietnam; and later alienates his Royal Hawaiian Hotel clients with an ad campaign for their company that appears to equate vacationing in Honolulu with suicide. “History is erased and blocked out with electric-blue cocktails,” Molly Lambert wrote in her cogent review. Hawaii isn’t a place with its own past and culture but instead a setting through which we discover the truth about ourselves. It would seem that these pop culture depictions of the 50th state fail to bring us any closer to grasping the complexity of Hawaii and Honolulu’s cultural, economic, and political importance over the past centuries.

Yet, perhaps these examples implicitly point to underlying issues regarding our knowledge of Hawaii, and Honolulu more specifically. Could Greg’s discovery of the cursed tiki statue, for example, be some sort of metaphorical comment on the unrelenting urban and economic development that has reshaped Hawaii in an Americanized image, thereby negating its longer history? Or is it just another Saidian Orientalist refraction of reality? Did Don Draper’s dreamlike walk through his Honolulu vacation represent his and the state’s own alienation from American society? I’ll leave that for readers to determine. Ultimately, Lambert’s larger point about historical erasure seems loudly evident. Tragically many Americans only know Honolulu through the lens of package vacation deals; the city equated with the number of days one spends lazing on the beach imbibing mixed drinks with umbrellas. Obviously there is so much more.

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Stores on Fort Street, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1910-1915, George Grantham Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Europeans first made contact with Hawaii via Captain James Cooke in 1778. Cooke may not have meant to open the door to disease, which wiped out nearly 90 percent of the native population, nor intended for Americans to usurp the island during the late nineteenth century, but both occurred as a result of his encounter. About three decades after Cooke’s arrival, King Kamehameha unified the islands, utilizing his knowledge European weaponry and iron-making and deploying each in his own violent unification of Hawaii. Europeans and the U.S. would take greater interest in the archipelago due to its burgeoning sandalwood trade from which the King profited. Americans helped introduce Hawaiian sandalwood to the international market.

Kamehameha and other Hawaiian elites grasped the idea of scarcity in capitalism quickly; the sandalwood futures market in Hawaii traded briskly. Honolulu as a port gained importance. Whaling would prove lucrative for the city particularly in the mid 1800s when demand for whale oil was high, whale stocks full, and petroleum not yet a resource. International demand brought sailors and ships to the archipelago and especially its urban center. Honolulu gained official status as the capital of the kingdom in 1850 around the same time sugar took whaling’s place in the local economy; after petroleum was discovered and whale stocks had collapsed. Though Maui would become the chief sugar producer among the eight Hawaiian Islands, Honolulu, situated on the coast of Oahu, would serve as the kingdom’s business center. Soon white haoles came to dominate much of the economy.[1] Nineteenth century historian and advisor to Kamehameha III Davida Malo recognized the danger haoles represented for Hawaii’s continued independence. “The ships of the white men have come … they know our people are few in number and living in a small country; they will eat us up, such has always been the case with large countries, the small ones have been gobbled up.”[2]

 

 

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Statue of Kamehameha in the Palace grounds, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1919, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Economics further influenced Honolulu. Undoubtedly lucrative, sugar reshaped Hawaiian society in nearly every manner. The crop had a halting start in the archipelago, but by 1866 fortunes had turned and Hawaii had achieved its first “positive balance of payments,” notes James L. Haley in Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii. U.S. economic interference and corporate consolidation of the land eventually followed. Yet, even on the eve of Pearl Harbor, it remained a colonial territory rather than the tourist paradise it is today.

Sugar introduced immigration flows that previously had been minimal. Chinese, Portuguese, and Japanese workers flocked to the island. By 1884, the Chinese accounted for nearly one fourth of Hawaii’s population; around the same time, Honolulu’s Chinatown bulged to nearly 8,000 residents, “such a tightly packed warren of houses, shops, shacks, and lean-tos that a fire [in 1866] could not be extinguished before devastating most of it.”[1] The sugar cane that drew Chinese labors and others to Honolulu would persist as a cash crop into the late 20th century, the ethnic diversity needed to harvest it continued as well; in 2010, over 50 percent of the city’s population was Asian (Japanese, Filipinos, and Chinese nearly half), 18 percent white, nine percent Native Hawaiian, five percent Latino, and just over one percent African American.

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Patsy Mink campaign ephemera, circa 1956-1960, Patsy Mink Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Honolulu’s multiculturalism has had national implications in producing two ground-breaking politicians. Patsy Mink, champion of Title IX, became the first woman of color and first Asian American woman elected to Congress in 1965; Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president in 2008. More recently, its federal courts challenged President Trump’s travel bans and forced a showdown that will occur during the Supreme Court’s 2017 October Term.

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The first Christian Church built in Hawaii, Honolulu, H.I, photograph from 1902, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

One should not overstate the economic forces that shaped Honolulu; other cultural influences worked in parallel and imposed political and financial costs. Beginning in the 1820s, missionaries brought Calvinism; other forms of Christianity followed, all of which had myriad affects on Hawaiian society. At the risk of oversimplifying, Christianity became the state religion; the children of missionaries came to dominate sugar and other industries and their parents influenced the kingdom’s politics. In an era of imperial intrigue, religion gave the U.S. a cultural and economic advantage over British and French competitors, which the Yankees fully exploited to annex the kingdom at the end of the nineteenth century.

Later when, pineapple and sugar began their long decline—today each is mostly gone from the archipelago’s economy—tourism and the military took their place. While the implications of a military presence seem obvious and would seem to highlight the imperial aspects of Honolulu’s past, as Beth Baily and David Farber noted in The First Strange Place, WWII ushered in a wave of black, white, Latino, and Asian Americans who encountered the multiracial island during the era of Jim Crow. A conservative institution, the military regularly produces situations that challenge that very conservatism; the racial logic of mainland America faced a direct assault in the multicultural tropical setting of Honolulu. Sexual and racial boundaries would be crossed, violated, reinforced, and rethought. During the Second World War, Honoluluans of “different backgrounds were brought together in a common cause. This contact—collision, even—of cultures led to struggle and contestation, and sometimes to negotiation, improved understanding, or change,” noted Bailey and Farber.[1]

If the military presence, arguably problematic, demonstrates complexity, so too does tourism and one of Honolulu’s premier symbols of this tourism, its beaches. “The beach was historically a place where hoale and Hawaiian worlds collided,” writes historian Isaiah Helekunih Walker in Waves of Resistance. Culture was not unidirectional. On Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach, Hawaiian and haole relationships “were redefined and reconstituted … the ocean was not simply a place from which haole, on the decks of their ships, transposed their image of the islands onto Hawaiians.”[1]

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Two natives with outrigger canoes at shoreline, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1922, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In the water that rolled onto its beaches, argues Walker, native Hawaiian surfers subverted hegemonies. “[I]n the early twentieth century Hawaiian surfers in Waikiki successfully combated elite haole annexationists, had sex with elite white women, ran lucrative beach concessions businesses, and beat up American and European soldiers, and dictated what haole could and could not do in the surf.”[1] Figures like Olympic gold medalist and surfer guru Duke Kahanamoku carried the sport to California where its history and bloodlines were whitewashed, but ultimately exploded into international acclaim after WWII.

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Duke Kahanamoku at Huntington Beach (though admittedly it looks like Diamond Head in the background), 1965, Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Honolulu played a central role throughout this history. Since the 1970s, there has been a resurgence in capturing Hawaii’s native past and pushing past staid narratives. We hope you see this reflected in the bibliography below and, if not, fill in our blind spots in the comments.

Thanks to H. M. Gelfand, Scott Laderman, and William Chapman for their help in compiling our bibliography.

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Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Hawaii: View from beach showing the Moana Hotel at right and portion of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel at left, between 1930 and 1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congresss

Honolulu Bibliography

Jennifer Allen, Mālama Honua: Hōkūle’a, A Voyage Of Hope, (Ventura: Patagonia Books, 2017).

Noelani Arista, Histories of Unequal Measure: Euro-American Encounters with Hawaiian Governance and Law, 1796-1827. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) (forthcoming)

Nancy Bannick, Scott Cheever, and Dave Cheever, A Close Call: Saving Honolulu’s Chinatown, (Honolulu: Little Percent Press, 2005) – Honolulu weekly article highlighting the book.

Beth Bailey and David Farber, The First Strange Place: Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994) – Videri review

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Honolulu business district and harbor, from top of the Punchbowl, 1930-1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Edward D. Beechert, Honolulu: Crossroads of the Pacific, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991).

Robert Cabin, Restoring Paradise: Rethinking And Rebuilding Nature In Hawaii, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013).

Gaye Chan and Andrea Freeser, Waikiki: A History Of Forgetting And Remembering, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006) – Review Marata Tamaira via academia.edu

Joyce Chinen, Kathleen Kane, and Ida Yoshinaga, eds., Women In Hawai’i: Sites, Identities, And Voices, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i at Mānoa Department of Sociology, 1997).

Tom Coffman, Nation Within: The History of The American Occupation Of Hawai’i, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016) – Review by David “Keanu” Sai

Gavin Daws, Honolulu the First Century: The Story of Town to 1876, (Honolulu: Mutual Publishing Company, 2006).

Gavin Daws, Shoal in Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974) – lightpalimpsest.blogspot review

Grove Day, Hawai’i and Its People, (Honolulu: Mutual Publishing Company, 1993).

Heather Diamond, American Aloha: Cultural Tourism And The Negotiation Of Tradition, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008) – Review via SJSU Scholarworks

Masayo Duus, Unlikely Liberators: The Men Of The 100th And 442nd, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006).

Suzanne Falgout and Linda Nishigaya, Breaking The Silence: Lessons Of Democracy And Social Justice From The World War II Honouliuli Internment And POW Camp in Hawai’i, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i at Mānoa Department of Sociology, 2014).

Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head, Oahu, Hawaii
Skyline, Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii, Carol M. Highsmith, December 2005, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Ben Finney, Sailing In The Wake Of The Ancestors: Reviving Polynesian Voyaging, (Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 2003) – Review in Asian Perspectives (via project muse)

Ben Finney, Voyage Of Rediscovery: A Cultural Odyssey Through Polynesia, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

Lawrence A. Fuchs, Hawaii: A Social History, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984).

Clifford Gessler, Tropical Landfall: The Port of Honolulu, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, and Company, 1943).

Ariel J. Gross, What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

James L. Haley, Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii, (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014) – Kirkus review.

Leilani Holmes, Ancestry of Experience: A Journey In To Hawaiian Ways Of Knowing, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2012) – Review Oral History Review

Robert Hommon, The Ancient Hawaiian State: Origins Of A Political Society, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) – Review hawaiianhistory.org.

Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua, Ikaikia Hussey, and Erin Wright, eds., A Nation Rising: Hawaiian Movements For Life, Land, and Sovereignty, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014) – Review JAH

Ralph S. Kuykendall and A. Grove Day, Hawaii: A History, From Polynesian Kingdom to American State, Revised edition, (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976) .

Edward Joesting, Hawaii: An Uncommon History, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1978).

Edward Joesting, Kaua’i: The Separate Kingdom, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1984).

Donald D. Johnson and Phyllis Turnball, The City and County of Honolulu: A Government Chronicle, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991).

Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005) – Short review in Foreign Affairs

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‘Iolani Palace, in the capitol district of downtown Honolulu, Hawaii, Carol M. Highsmith, 1980-2006, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Kehaulini Kauanui, Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

Gerald Kinro, A Cup Of Aloha: The Kona Coffee Epic, (Honolulu: University of HawaiI Press, 2003).

Scott Laderman, Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014) – H-Net review

Rachel Laudan, The Food Of Paradise: Exploring Hawai’i’s Culinary Heritage, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996) – Review in Isis

Queen Lili’uokalani, Hawai’i’s Story By Hawaii’s Queen Lili’uokalani, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2014)

John McDermott and Naleen Andrade, People And Cultures Of Hawai’i: The Evolution Of Culture And Ethnicity, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011).

Davianna McGregor, Nā Kua’āina: Living Hawaiian Culture, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009) – Review The Contemporary Pacific (via Jstor)

James C. Mohr, The Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Chinatown, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) – Review by Brian Ireland at Americansc.org.uk

Susan A. Moore, Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii, (New York: Farar, Straus & Giroux, 2015) – NYT review

Gary Okihiro, Island World: A History Of Hawai’i And The United States, (Berkeley: University Of California Press, 2008) – Review PHR (via jstor)

Michael M. Okihiro, A’ala: The Story of a Japanese Community in Hawaii, (Honolulu: Japanese Cultural Center, 2003) – Not really a review, but this article from the.honoluladvertiser.com provides some useful description on the book.

Koohan Paik and Jerry Mander, The Superferry Chronicles: Hawaii’s Uprising Against Commercialism and the Desecration of the Earth, (Honolulu: Koa Books, 2007).

Pi’ilani, The True Story Of Kaluaikoolau, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001).

John P. Rosa, Local Story: The Massie/Kahahawai Case and the Culture of History, (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2014).

Rob Sandler and Julie Mehta, Architecture in Hawaii: A Chronological Survey, (Honolulu: Mutual Publishing, 1993) – Brief 2008 review of revised edition in Honolulu Weekly

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The Surf rider, 1929, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Allan Seiden, The Hawaiian Monarchy, (Honolulu: Mutual Publishing, 2005).

Julia Flynn Siler, Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar King, and America’s First Imperial Adventure, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012) – NYT review

David Stanndard, Race, Rape and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case, (New York: Penguin Books, 2006) – H-Net review

Ty Kāwika Tengan, Native Men Remade: Gender And Nation In Contemporary Hawai’i. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008) – Review Men and Masculinities (via Sage)

James Tayman, The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai, (New York: Scribner, 2007) – NYT article on the book’s supporters and critics

Haunani-Kay Trask, From A Native Daughter: Colonialism And Sovereignty In Hawai’i, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999).

Mark Twain, Mark Twain in Hawaii: Roughing it in the Sandwich Islands (Honolulu: Mutual Publishing, 1994) and Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1975)– NYT article on Twain in Hawaii

Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth-Century Hawai’i, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011) – Hawaii Book Blog review

Fiction

Alan Brennert, Honolulu, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009) – WAPO review

Kiana Davenport, House of Many Gods, (New York: Ballatine Publishing, 2006) – SFGate review

James Michener, Hawaii, (New York: Random House, 2002).

Paul Theroux, Hotel Honolulu, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001) – NYT review

 

[1] Haoles, according to historian James Haley it means literally “without breath, unable to speak the language”, is general term for non-native residents of Hawaii, initially white missionaries occupied this status later it came to include plantation workers and others.

[2] James L. Haley, Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014), 90.

[3] James L. Haley, Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014), 48-49, 263.

[4] Beth Bailey and David Farber, The First Strange Place: Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii, (New York: Free Press, 1992), 18.

[5] Isaiah Helekunih Walker, Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth Century Hawaii, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011), 11.

[6] Walker, Waves of Resistance, 10.

Member of the Week: Rebecca Scofield

faculty picture scofieldRebecca Scofield

Assistant Professor of American History

University of Idaho

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I am currently completing my book project, tentatively titled Outriders: Rodeo at the Fringe of the American West, which investigates various marginalized rodeo communities over the course of the twentieth century. My project asks how people who have been largely imagined outside the mythological West, including female immigrants, incarcerated men, African Americans, and gay people, have used rodeo to contest their historical erasure. Particularly, I argue that these communities often deploy complex and problematic notions of authenticity, tradition, and heritage as a way to assert national belonging.  For me, rodeo is interesting because it is a space where all our collective ideas about what it means to be masculine, western, or American are performed in violent, painful theater. It also contests simple delineations between the East and the West, the real and the imagined, and the urban and the rural.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

Along with my more general American history courses, next semester I will be teaching a course on Gender and Race in the American West. This course focuses on both the regional West and the mythological West. Through memoirs, diaries, and novels, my students learn not only how diverse peoples shaped the region’s history, but also how that history became re-imagined as a rural, white, masculine space over the twentieth century. By looking at urban history in particular, my students can move beyond a definition of “the West” as having only existed in the nineteenth century or only located on the cattle range. My research on gay rodeo, for instance, contributes to how I teach this course as many of members of the International Gay Rodeo Association live in LA, Houston, or Denver. Teaching students from Idaho about the American West is fantastic. Most have grown up in the rural West and have been immersed in the mythology from childhood, it is wonderful to watch their ideas about their home change.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I will be starting a new project in the coming years on the imagined relationship between women and beasts in American culture. With this new focus, I am excited to read works on bestiality, like Doron Ben-Atar and Richard Brown’s Taming Lust: Crimes Against Nature in the Early Republic, and human/animal folklore like Maria Tartar’s new collection Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales About Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World. As a cultural historian, I am particularly interested in the anxieties that accompany women’s too-close relationship with animals. I am eager to read more about characters like King Kong in Leo Braudy’s new Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, and Zombies and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds, as I shift away from our cultural dreams and towards our collective nightmares. After working on various forms of rodeo for so many years, I look forward to reading in new fields.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Don’t be afraid to pursue what interests you. As an MA student, I studied the racial dynamics of the Tokyo acrylic nail industry. As a PhD student, I completely shifted focus to western wear, rodeo, and the imagined American West. Don’t be afraid to change with your interests.   

What book, movie, tv show, or other media would you recommend as a primer or introduction to rodeo?

Vera McGinnis’s 1974 memoir Rodeo Road is an amazing account of her time on the professional rodeo circuit as a bronc-rider and trick-rider in the 1920s. McGinnis captured the time before rodeo associations had forced women out of rough stock riding, describing the excruciating injuries, the broken marriages, and the grinding financial uncertainty that came with being a rodeo performer. She also illustrates the violence of the lifestyle—from her fear of sexual assault to punching an opponent in the face for implying she slept with the judges. Not only is this book an entertaining read, it demonstrates the expansiveness of women’s lives and the complex racial, sexual, and gendered meanings behind their performances.

Reckoning with Seattle: Race, Class, and Community in the Emerald City

The historiography of Seattle evades simple classification. Urban historians might ask, why Seattle? What does the city’s history contribute to our understanding of urban planning, housing policy, and the urgent questions surrounding race and policing? Where to locate Seattle within regional and cartographic taxonomies, and their attendant historiographies, is similarly fraught. Indeed Seattle features prominently in scholarship coming out of the fields of Western History, Pacific Northwest History, and Urban History. Similarly, the transnational turn in U.S. history and American Studies has led to new insights that situate Seattle within the larger Asia-Pacific world. Finally, the city offers scholars in the fields of Ethnic Studies, Asian American Studies, Indigenous Studies, African American Studies, and Latina/o and Chicana/o Studies a rich text to examine multiracial an multiethnic solidarities as well as comparative and relational processes of racial formation.

It would be wrong to say my work is firmly grounded in, and ultimately about, Seattle. It would be more accurate, perhaps, to describe my scholarly relationship to the city as Seattle-adjacent. I began graduate school intending to write about the relationship between the city’s Black and Asian residents in the second half of the twentieth century. Some of that research will appear in a forthcoming article for the Pacific Historical Review entitled “Politics in Other Ways: Negotiating Black Power, Radical Politics, and Multiracial Solidarities in Seattle’s Asian American Community.” The article examines the terrain of Black, Asian, and Latino community activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I excavate the ways in which a cadre of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino Americans joined with radical activists from the city’s Black and Latino communities, claiming solidarity across difference to articulate an inclusive, anti-racist politics in a city that had long heralded its exceptional commitment to racial harmony.

The article opens with Japanese American resident Mike Tagawa’s decision to join the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968. Tagawa was not the only Asian American to join the Panthers; he was soon joined by Japanese American teenager Guy Kurose and Filipino musician Mike Gillespie.[1] To be sure, Seattle was not the only city in which Asian Americans were either official members of, or close collaborators with, the Black Panther Party.[2] But thanks to the incredible digital repository of documents, oral history interviews, and historical newspapers created by the University of Washington historian James Gregory and his students, robust, granular research of these multiracial and multiethnic encounters is possible. The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project is a model for digital humanities projects on its own. It is a collaboration between faculty, archivists and librarians, students, and members of the local community, allowing for first-person narratives from the city’s activist grassroots.

 

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Mike Tagawa, Garfield High School, 1969. Photo credit Eugene Tagawa,
http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/tagawa.htm

 

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Richard Aoki via http://www.eugenelim.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/yellow-peril-Black-Power-sign.jpg

At the center of this story is the area in and around the Central District, a four square mile section of the city sitting between downtown Seattle to the west and Lake Washington at its eastern border. In addition to being the center of the Black community, it also sat directly adjacent to the Asian American International District. As was the case with Black neighborhoods and “ethnic enclaves” in cities across the nation, the composition of the region was the result of decades of legal and informal forms of racial housing segregation.[3] But the shared experiences caused by this spatial proximity created the very possibilities for a grassroots multiracial activism poised to challenge both the structures of racial inequality and the limits of racial liberalism. Seattle was not the only city in which residents built multiracial solidarities, of course. But the fact that Black and Asian residents were largely integrated in segregated Central District created opportunities not so easily realized in other cities. Tagawa said of growing up in in the Central District: “It was all good. We all got along. I guess I kind of thought that it was kind of like that every place” and “it was almost like paradise because all the races got along.”[4]

Seattle-as-place is fundamental to this research in another way. In the second half of the 1960s—marked by urban rebellion, the rising influence of Black Power direct-action tactics, and municipal debates about the War on Poverty—cities were at the epicenter of many of the nation’s most urgent debates. Within the national discourse about the so-called “urban crisis,” Seattle leaders made a case for its unique regional identity, couched in a celebratory historical narrative of multiracial and multicultural harmony.[5] In many ways—at least in the public pronouncements of officials and community leaders—it exemplified the post-World War II ideology of racial liberalism, which held that the problems of racial inequality and subjugation were not systemic and could be solved through the palliative effects of political inclusion.[6]

Seattle, Washington Roosevelt Hotel sign
Roosevelt Hotel sign, Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith, September 22, 2009, Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

In a 1967 address to the city council, Mayor J.D. Braman stated that the “social and related problems we have are far, far less critical than those in many other cities.”[7] Edwin Pratt, the Executive Director of the Seattle Urban League (SUL) and a celebrated leader of the city’s Black community also weighed in, telling a Seattle Times reporter in 1966, “Seattle, like San Francisco, has been given a reputation of a cosmopolitan, color-blind racially progressive city.”[8] Such pronouncements from city officials were especially meaningful at a moment of such turbulence in urban centers throughout the nation. In an era of widespread urban rebellion, conflict between municipal officials and residents over the appropriation of War on Poverty funds and programmatic leadership, the rise of Black Power and other radical grassroots formations, and growing national discontent with the Vietnam War, city leaders counted themselves lucky.[9] Indeed in 1967 alone, just one year after Braman and Pratt praised Seattle’s “progressive” racial politics, of the 164 collective disorders between police and urban residents reported by the National Advisory Council on Civil Disorders, Seattle was conspicuously absent.[10]

My analysis seeks to explicate the possibilities and limits of radical politics under hegemonic conditions of racial liberalism. And here again the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project as well as the records housed at University of Washington Special Collections provide a rich repository of documents, audio recordings, and images that illuminate a multiplicity of voices and disrupt establishment narratives.

In the wake of increasing tension and violence between Central District residents and the police following a number of police shootings of African American men and the arrest of Black Panther chapter head Aaron Dixon and member Curtis Harris ostensibly over stolen office supplies, the response from the established leadership of conservative organizations like the Japanese American Citizens League was often tepid at best. Nevertheless, a growing cadre of younger Black and Asian residents similarly committed to radical anti-racist, anti-capitalist exploitation politics continued to work—purposeful, intentioned dialogue based on an ethic of listening and hearing before speaking—to find common ground. As such, my analysis privileges complexity and contradiction, attending to the process of grassroots activism and politics.

One example in particular shows how these multiracial configurations of community and identity were put into practice. Between 1965 and 1969, local residents organized a monthly community meeting series. The Grass Roots Forum, as it was called, brought together a panel of “experts” and residents to discuss the chosen topic for the month. Crucially however, the largest portion of time was allotted for audience participation. Unlike community meetings initiated by city officials to introduce and discuss municipal programs, the purpose of the Grass Roots series was not immediate policy-making and implementation. Rather, it was meant to be an inclusionary, multiracial, and autonomous space in which the community decided for itself the issues it found most pressing. Topics, which included “The World Revolution of Color” and “Seattle’s Scheduled Race Riot,” offered a snapshot of the most urgent concerns and interests in the Central District area. By creating a space for creative and spontaneous engagement, Grass Roots offered alternatives to the often-stifling political process, and represented what the historian Anthony Macias calls “multicultural urban civility.”[11]

Unlike the frenzied bureaucratic efficiency of City Hall, characterized by cutthroat competition, deadlines, and funding constraints, and in which success and failure was measured strictly by legislation passed and government funds awarded, Grass Roots created space for alternative temporal rhythms and means of participation. At the same time, however, panelists and invited speakers often came from the leadership ranks of established civil rights and civic organizations. Rather than evaluate it according to moderate/radical or establishment/outsider binaries, I consider the Grass Roots Forum series as a contested terrain, one upon which panelists and audience members made competing claims to ownership over the space and its messaging. Inasmuch as the panelists’ words provide insight into the multiple identities and ideologies of Central District residents, the spontaneous disruptions of audience members and the debate they elicited revealed the tangled, nuanced relationship between established leadership and the alternative imaginaries of residents at the grassroots level. At different moments, and in unexpected ways, panelists either quarreled with audience members or departed from the organizational frameworks they represented, claiming solidarity with the radical demands of audience members.

On December 14th 1965 residents convened for a Grass Roots panel entitled, “Should Orientals Become Involved in the Civil Rights Movement?” The urgency of questions surrounding Black and Asian civil rights collaborations was evinced by the large turnout, with the Seattle Times noting over 100 people in attendance,[12] The six-person panel made up a cross-section of prominent members of the Chinese and Japanese community establishment: it included attorneys, architects, business owners, and leaders in Asian civic organizations.[13] While the panel certainly tended towards a middle-class orientation, the discussion that followed evinced the presence of genuine grassroots critique and alternative configurations based on more explicitly anti-racist and working-class orientations.

The panelists all acknowledged a collective hesitancy in the Asian American community to fully embrace and participate in movements for racial justice. They argued however, that their inaction did not reflect a lack of concerns; rather, they blamed the “particular cultural background of Orientals,” which discouraged “demonstrative acts like walking on picket lines or carrying signs.”[14] But Benjamin Woo, a prominent architect and member of a number of local civic organizations stated that this was no longer an acceptable justification for political inaction, and the time had come for leadership and active participation in the civil rights struggle in order to “arouse the citizenry, including the White population, to the same degree of indignation over racial discrimination as would ensue if the city decided to put a garbage dump next door.”[15] Chinese American attorney and active member of the Chinese American civic organization, the Cathay Post, Warren Chan echoed many of the same sentiments when he said in response to the forum’s central question: “Is it possible for a member of a minority group to not be involved?” when they were already involved each time they “walke[d] out into the street, climb[ed] on a bus, or sat down in a restaurant.”[16]

In the discussion that followed, audience members challenged the panelists in spirited and contentious debate. Walter Hundley, the director of the Seattle CORE chapter and who would later become director of the city’s Model Cities Program, argued that complaints from Asian American leaders about the challenges in political organizing were nothing more than a “red herring” meant to “divide and disrupt popular action.”[17] This was met with audible agreement from African Americans in the audience, with one noting the same tensions existed within the Black community between working-class residents of the Central District and middle-class Blacks who they believed to be “too well satisfied with the status quo.”[18] A Seattle Times article about the forum reported that the general sentiments among African American audience members was that the spirit of “defeatism” in the struggle to organize the Asian American community was the real obstacle to multiracial harmony.

Just when it seemed as though the debate had reached an impasse, the respected Japanese American community leader, Reverend Mineo Katagiri, rose to speak. As one of the elder statesmen in the Japanese American community, Katagiri elicited respect from middle-class members of the JACL to the younger generation of activists, many of whom aligned themselves with the working-class orientation of Black Power activists in spite of their own middle-class upbringing. Drawing perhaps the loudest applause of the night, Katagiri addressed Asian Americans in attendance, asking “Are we willing to recognize the leadership of the Negro in the civil rights movement and join with him?”[19] Local Japanese American architect Calvin Takagi followed with his own address to the Nisei. “Recognizing that tomorrow it may be our turn—again,” they had two options: either “play it cool or get in the fight.” The only possible decision, he said, was to get in the fight and build solidarity based not on direct equivalence of experience and circumstance, but on a shared commitment to racial and economic justice.

Public Market Center, Seattle, Washington
Public Market Center, Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith, August 4, 2009, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

The Grass Roots Forum series revealed two often-conflicting political trajectories in the Central District, both of which are central to my broader analysis. On the one hand, their very existence was a testament to the commitment among the established leaders of the area’s Black and Asian communities to build bridges and lines of communication across racial and ethnic lines. Conversely the largely middle-class and integrationist orientation of the panelists exposed the increasing ideological chasm between proponents of liberal integration and those who imagined radical alternatives and resisted co-option by the state.

The extant scholarship on Seattle has made crucial interventions in topics ranging from immigration, working class life and labor, race, gender and sexuality, environmental studies, urban studies, globalization, and popular culture (please see accompanying bibliography here). And yet important and interesting questions and problems remain. The changes to the landscape and the city’s demographic wrought by gentrification and expansion of the tech-economy are certainly worthy of study. The study of sport should also look to Seattle. As American professional sporting leagues increasingly become global commodities explicitly targeting Asian markets, the Seattle Mariners franchise has been a leader in actively scouting and signing Japanese and Korean players, notably the Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. There were also a number of ethnic and racial community sports leagues throughout the twentieth century that may be useful for scholars of sport, Asian American history, and African American history.

Inasmuch as Seattle’s national profile is often based on pithy images of rain-soaked, outdoorsy coffee addicts listening to 1990s alt-rock, scholars have long made a compelling case for the significance and uniqueness of the city and its history. Indeed, Seattle may be uniquely positioned for relevance in the age of globalization, transnational mobilities and identities, and multiracial configurations of urban communities.

Maki Smith is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Global and Intercultural Studies (Asian/Asian American Studies) at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Smith received his PhD in US History from the University of California, San Diego in 2015, and is currently preparing the manuscript for his first book, Unruly Democracy: Global Movements and the Crisis of Cold War Governance

[1] Aaron Dixon, My People are Rising: Memoirs of a Black Panther Party Captain (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 104.

[2] Diane C. Fujino, Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

[3] Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994); Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Steven Gregory, Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Craig Wilder, A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Scott Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[4] Mike Tagawa, interview by Janet Jones, 6 June 2005, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/tagawa.htm.

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[5] See Shelley Sang-Hee Lee, Claiming the Oriental Gateway: Prewar Seattle and Japanese America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011) and Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District From 1870 Through the Civil Rights Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994).

[6] Racism, according to this framework was not structural and deeply embedded in the nation’s institutions and society, but was rather a problem of individual prejudice. As such, racial liberalism brought with it a kind of optimism about the capacity of individuals to overcome their own prejudices through increased understanding and familiarity. Since racism was simply the “bad ideology” of individuals and was contradictory to the fundamental tenets of equality and justice at the heart of national exceptionalist mythology, eradicating it would not require massive structural and institutional readjustments. See Daniel Martinez HoSang, Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives in the Making of Postwar California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 13-14; Mark Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Peggy Pasco, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 313.

[7] Marshall Kaplan, Gans, and Kahn, The Model Cities Program: The Planning Process in Atlanta, Seattle, and Dayton (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 44-47.

[8] Lane Smith, “Potential Here, Say Rights Leaders: Seattle Not Immune From Race Disturbances,” Seattle Times, 12 October 1966, Box 13, Folder 31, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[9] Indeed, disputes over the degree to which the War on Poverty’s requirement of “maximum feasible participation” granted individual communities autonomy and programmatic authority was one of the principle sources of conflict between government officials and city residents throughout the country. In cities from Oakland, to Detroit, to New York, residents and officials clashed—at times to the point of violence and collective rebellion—over the boundaries between the government’s conception of permissible levels of participation and local demands for community control. See for example Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Donna Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Daniel Widener, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); Alyosha Goldstein, Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action During the American Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

[10] See National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (New York: Bantam Books, 1968), 113.

[11] Anthony Macias, “Bringing Music to the People: Race, Urban Culture, and Municipal Politics in Postwar Los Angeles,” American Quarterly 56, no. 3 (September 2004), 694.

[12] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[13] They included: Midori Thiel of the JACL; prominent attorney and active member of the Cathay Post, Warren Chan; University of Washington professor of Social Work, Calvin Takagi; architect and active member of the JSCC the Seattle China Club, Benjamin Woo; attorney and member of the Seattle Housing Advisory and JACL, Toru Sakahara; and moderator and JACL chapter vice-president, Fran Wada.

[14] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[15] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[16] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[17] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[18] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[19] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

Member of the Week: Barry Goldberg

BG PicBarry Goldberg, Ph.D. (2017)

Department of History, CUNY Graduate Center

@bpg269

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

My project examines Jewish politics on the Lower East Side since the 1960s. I utilize congressional and municipal papers, court records, articles from the ethnic press, and quantitative voting data to examine how an influential network of Jewish elected leaders, civic institutions, and voters – residing on Grand Street and largely Orthodox — shaped the trajectory of civil rights activism, new education and antipoverty policy, and urban renewal on the Lower East Side during the last third of the twentieth century. In all, I make three central claims: first, that the Lower East Side remained an important site for the development of, and ideological fissures within, American Jewish politics after World War II; second, that Jewish-Puerto Rican relations became a central feature of both local and citywide politics at this time; and third, that Orthodox Jews helped shape American conservatism in the postwar period.

I am broadly interested in questions of race, political power, and neighborhood change. I became interested in my specific topic after researching a longtime Jewish congressional representative on the Lower East Side. Though he was not the original subject of my research, he provided a gateway into looking at the neighborhood’s larger Jewish community. I was surprised to learn that no one had written a postwar history of this community, or Lower East Side politics more generally, despite several factors that set it apart from other urban neighborhoods. Recent high-profile stories on the neighborhood have also spurred my research, and, as the descendant of a Lower East Sider, I feel a certain emotional connection to the area.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I teach the second half of the U.S. history survey at Queens College. My research has led me to cover more local (primarily New York City) history in the survey. Earlier in the semester, my students learned about redlining by perusing the Mapping Inequality online database. We also talked about the 1964 Harlem Riots and debates over police brutality (I blogged briefly on this here).

At the same time, my dissertation has also made me more attuned to congressional history. In my dissertation, I examine Lower East Side redistricting and judicial debates over enforcing the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). As a result, I devote more time to discussing the VRA in class.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

Three in particular: Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics by Kim Phillips-Fein; In the Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime by Michael Flamm; Radical Imagination, Radical Humanity: Puerto Rican Political Activism in New York by Rose Muzio

What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies?

I have two connected suggestions. First, keep an open mind. I had broad interests at the start of graduate school and did not expect to research the Lower East Side, or urban history more broadly. But here I am. Trial and error is OK. Be patient, and keep working. My second suggestion is to prioritize archival research. Obviously, you need to know what others have said about your topic (or potential topic), but the archives will lead you in new and exciting directions.

Describe your most exciting archival find!

One of my favorite archival finds was the Board of Election reports and assembly district maps from the New York Public Library. Using these in combination allowed me to trace how people voted in different sections of the Lower East Side and break those sections down by a number of social factors. This quantitative data allowed me to show how political divisions, primarily around race and ethnicity, unfolded on the ground in the neighborhood and provided a needed element of social history to my work.

Au revoir New Orleans, Hola Mexico City

On February 3, 2013, New Orleans became the American capitol for the day while the city hosted Super Bowl XLVII. The 2013 Super Bowl is most remembered for two events unrelated to the football game: the blackout and the halftime show. Beyoncé Carter-Knowles headlined, garnering praise for her performance of hits like “Run the World (Girls)” and “Independent Women Part I” with the backing of an all-female band and crew of dancers. It became, at the time, the second most-watched halftime show ever. Beyoncé returned to the Super Bowl in 2016, dominating the show (and eclipsing headliner Coldplay) with an explosive performance of her brand new single, “Formation.” Although the game occurred in the San Francisco Bay area—and the performance alluded to the Black Panthers, which originated in nearby Oakland—“Formation” also represented Beyonce’s return to the Crescent City; the track is laden with lyrical, sampled, and visual references to New Orleans.

beyonce-formation-halftimeLemonade, the subsequently released visual album which includes “Formation”, became the most significant artistic and cultural production of the year (if not the decade). Much of the album was filmed in New Orleans and Southern Louisiana, and the artist and her collaborators use images of black life and black residents of the Crescent City to explore the album’s overarching themes of race, gender, feminism, marriage, southern identity, power, wealth, and status. “Formation,” in particular, resonated with fans for its revolutionary sound and lyrics.

Dr. Zandria Robinson at New South Negress argues that New Orleans is a character in Beyonce’s story, essential to understanding both the historical formation of blackness and black lives, and, more importantly, the potential for black re-formation and revolution. In Robinson’s analysis:

“[T]he visuals for ‘Formation’ offer up New Orleans as convergence place for a blackness that slays through dreams, work, ownership, legacy, and the audacity of bodies that dare move and live in the face of death. As an actual and imagined site of black southern ecstasy, tragedy, remembrance, and revolutionary possibility, NOLA is the pendulum on which Beyoncé rides a southern genealogy that traverses the Deep South from Alabama to Louisiana to Texas, back and through, with stops in between.”

Like a true boss, in “Formation” Beyoncé manages to bridge centuries of history and to offer a compelling and complicated critique of racism and misogyny in under five minutes.

In re-reading the past month’s coverage of New Orleans for The Metropole’s first Metropolis of the Month series, I was struck by the similarities between how urban historians and Beyoncé have examined the city. Indeed, historians are inherently interested in formation, and many of our posts spoke of creation, evolution, and revolution in the city. Lawrence Powell’s The Accidental City surveys New Orleans’ development in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to demonstrate how “the city’s collective attitude toward planning, culture, and economics emerged from a combination of human endeavor and environmental reality.” On a smaller scale, Emily Landau’s Spectacular Wickedness examines a single neighborhood in the Big Easy, the red-light district of Storyville, to demonstrate how “both its creation and its closing down were pushed by ‘progressive’ reformers.” In his essay contrasting masks and memorialization in New Orleans, Craig Colten describes how the city’s destruction by three major hurricanes in the twentieth century inspired the construction of the levee system that eventually failed during Hurricane Katrina—further perpetuating the cycle.

Beyonce FormationThe “Formation” video begins with two allusions to Hurricane Katrina—the artist sitting on top of a submerged police car, amidst flooded homes, over which is layered a sample of late comedian Messy Mya asking, “What happened at the New Wil’ins?” “Beyoncé encourages us to hear [it] as a question about the comedian’s unsolved murder,” Robinson argues, “as well as a question about the city and black folks and the South: ‘What happened after New Orleans?’” Beyoncé plays with the ambiguity of Messy Mya’s question, using “What happened” as a way to look back at the city’s history of oppression against its black citizens, and to critique the present perception that black New Orleans has recovered from Katrina.

This longer chronological perspective also characterized our posts on The Metropole. Although references to the hurricane appeared in Colten’s essay and in our roundup of articles on New Orleans published in the Journal of Urban History, it served as an entry point to a broader examination of the city rather than the subject itself. As we wrote in our introduction to the JUH article roundup, “rather than rubbernecking at disaster, [scholars] have tried to use the hurricane to situate the city’s longer history; Katrina as organizing principle rather than a principle unto itself.”

In our discussions of urban histories of New Orleans, just as in Lemonade, the city’s legacy of slavery appeared as a consistent theme. While The Accidental City described how infrastructure built by slaves pulled “New Orleans out of the mud,” in her interview with with The Metropole, Landau explained how Storyville’s red-light district perpetuated the Southern sexual hierarchy whereby white men had ownership over black women’s bodies. And both Colten and Moira Donegan, whose piece on New Orleans in n+1 we featured in the introduction to the JUH article roundup, discussed how a certain form of hurricane tourism has emerged that privileges the desires of white, wealthy visitors over those of the city’s many communities of color.

Finally, if nothing else our coverage on The Metropole encouraged readers to “get information” on the city’s fascinating history. Beginning next week, we head southwest to Mexico City. We have some exciting posts planned, and hope you will enjoy reading essays by several scholars, including one by Professor Pablo Piccato on his new book, a bibliography, and some travelogues about visiting the Distrito Federal.

Thank you to Craig Colten, Emily Landau,  Brenda SantosSteve PerazaStephen K. Prince, and Andy Horowitz for their various efforts in bringing New Orleans to life this month.

10 Questions for Emily Landau, author of Spectacular Wickedness

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In the process of building a bibliography for New Orleans, fellow scholars repeatedly recommended Emily Landau’s Spectacular Wickedness: Race, Sex, and Memory in Storyville, New OrleansIn Spectacular Wickedness, Landau provides a window in the the Progressive Era politics that dominated the nation during the first two decades using the notorious Storyville neighborhood of New Orleans. Landau was kind enough to discuss with The Metropole: New Orleans, her work, and the value of sexuality as a historical lens for politics, culture, and economics.

What drew you to New Orleans as a topic of study?

To be honest, when I began the project I knew very little about New Orleans; I was drawn to the city through Storyville. What began as an investigation into the discursive construction of “the octoroon” became a history of New Orleans as I sorted through the various myths surrounding that figure in the city. It was important to me to understand and to show the historical background(s) and political contexts of the creation of the sexualized “light-skinned,” female slave, and her continued circulation, if you will, as a type through the nineteenth century, in Storyville, and, frankly, even today.

How would you describe your work, Spectacular Wickedness to someone unfamiliar with New Orleans?

First of all, the book is a history of Storyville, the red-light district, which opened in 1897 and closed in 1917. Thus, the book explores those twenty years in the history of New Orleans. It is hard to imagine someone unfamiliar with New Orleans’s reputation for sybaritic excess, but I suppose I would outline the broad contours of that reputation (and the history behind it) and then explain that Storyville was actually an attempt to curb rampant prostitution in the city, contrary to popular understanding.

Second, the book puts that history into a broader national narrative about the establishment of strict racial segregation. Storyville offered a wide array of entertainments for its visitors, but its most notorious attraction was the easy (and advertised) availability of women of color to white men. The book describes the goings-on in Storyville and analyzes them in the larger contexts of increasingly rigid racial segregation and contemporaneous sexual purity campaigns, both of which denounced sex across the color line. The argument, at its most simple and general, is that one cannot properly understand racial politics in that (or any) era without also understanding the social construction of gender and the politics of sex and sexuality. Storyville becomes a kind of case study, an extreme one, to be sure, of national attitudes toward race and sex, and therefore also about power.

Because I knew so little myself about New Orleans when I began, I felt compelled to include a fair amount of history in the book, going back to the earliest days of settlement, if you can call it that, in the area. This was partly to provide some historical background, and partly to show how Storyville’s promoters used the long history of “spectacular wickedness” in their city to promote more of it!

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Spectacular Wickedness uses the Storyville district of New Orleans to touch on a number of key subjects: Progressive Era politics, sexuality, race, and the economics of the New South. In many ways, it explores the tensions that exist between these forces/issues and the contradictions that emerge as a result. How did you begin to understand and sketch these connections through Storyville in your research and writing?

One of the first artifacts I saw from Storyville was a little guidebook to the district. As if this was not stunning enough on its own (a tour guide to a commercial sex district!!), the contents of the booklet were astonishing and dictated the direction my research would take. The book listed the women of Storyville according to “race,” so that there were women listed as “c” for “colored,” “w” for “white,” and “oct.” for “octoroon.” There was a rubric explaining all this at the beginning of the booklet, too. I was surprised that the district so blatantly advertised sex with women of color; I was also perplexed by the booklet’s use of the term, “octoroon” to describe women working there. I knew that the Plessy v. Ferguson case had sanctioned state segregation-by-race laws just the year before Storyville opened, so I was intrigued by what seemed a clear flaunting of racial proscriptions in the South. Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in that famous case, was himself a New Orleanian; his lawyer, Albion Tourgée, made much of his light skin, referring to him as an “octoroon” in his arguments. After the decision, that designation seemed entirely moot, atavistic. But Storyville’s promoters made much of that same category, in a modern way. It was important to me to show that Storyville was very much a product of its time and place—and not a throwback to an earlier New Orleans, on the one hand, or an exemplar of New Orleans’s “devil-may-care” attitudes about race-mixing and morality, on the other. The latter is most certainly part of New Orleans’s mythology, but it is not true. So, in order to pierce that mythology, I had to make the connections you mention in your question and show how Storyville fit into the larger web those connections create.

In recent years, historians have produced a number of works that use sexuality as a means to draw larger conclusions about politics: Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles, Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides and Stranger Intimacy, and Margot Canaday’s The Straight State serve as just a few examples (not all of which are urban history). Why is sexuality such a useful lens from which to study politics and economic trends, particularly in an urban setting?

While I can’t speak to the motivations of these other authors, I can say that social attitudes toward sex and sexuality more broadly are useful cultural barometers, worth probing. Anxiety about who is having sex with whom—and how society as a whole must deal with those relationships—reveals fundamental anxieties about the ordering of society; social hierarchies are inherently about power and powerlessness. Re-ordering society requires political access and clout. Urban spaces are both anonymous and intimate (sometimes at the same time). Looking at cities through the lens of sexual politics often can reveal the more subtle contours of those spaces and how they are mapped culturally, socially, and, of course, economically. Which urban spaces become “safe” spaces for what dominant society considers transgressive? (And how safe are they, really—and for whom?) Why are they where they are? Who is trying to find them and eradicate them? Again, why? Answering these types of questions requires some deep probing into the politics of space and representation, which revolve around questions of electoral politics and economics.

Contradictions abound in Storyville. For example, the district simultaneously celebrated the Old South while mocking the new acquisitive, model of the New South, yet it depended on the latter for a large chunk of its business. Interracial sex was celebrated openly but also still seen as inappropriate. One could go on. What does this tell us about New Orleans? What might this tell us about the United States during this period?

I would say that Storyville developed a marketing niche. The district celebrated a very particular aspect of the Old South: the sexual power of white men over women of all shades. This sexual power over women also translated into raw power over black men. (And, let’s be frank, white men had sexual power over black men as well; I am waiting for the scholarly work on that. Maybe it is out there or in progress, but I am not, as yet, aware of it.) By suggesting that Storyville could provide white men with that kind of sexual access and power, for a fee, Storyville’s entrepreneurs implied that all white men shared in the plantation legacy of absolute power and the sexual prerogatives that went along with it, at a time when that legacy was not so secure. The fantasy was aspirational, as slave-holding had been for many in the antebellum years. Storyville was a commercial enterprise, and its promoters availed themselves of modern advertising techniques, mostly in the blue books. It was a transgressive space, so the mocking of contemporary society must be seen in that context. Nobody thought of Storyville as legitimate or moral, obviously, and so there was a fair amount of winking in the ads for it.

In the foreword I wrote for Pamela Arceneaux’s study of the blue books I make this point, perhaps more explicitly than in my book. (See Guidebooks to Sin: The Blue Books of Storyville, New Orleans). The point is that the mocking is part of the transgressive fun—the customer is in on the joke and thus off the hook for the moral and social (and racial) transgression he is about to commit. Storyville was popular with locals and tourists alike. Nostalgia for the antebellum south was a national phenomenon, and this included a desire for a return to what seemed to many (white men) to have been a simpler and clearer race-and-gender order. One of my favorite books on this subject is Nina Silber’s wonderful The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900.

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Terminal Station, New Orleans, LA” between 1910-1920; its completion in 1908 contributed to Storyville’s decline as city leaders worried about the station’s proximity to the notorious neighborhood; Detroit Free Press Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

By the same token, Storyville seems almost a transitional space during its existence. It is created as a means to control vice, in a way, as an expression of Progressivism’s impulse to regulate all manner of social interactions (admittedly, I’m using Progressivism here broadly since it’s a fairly imprecise term considering the big tent nature of its beliefs). However, by the end this vice is what gets it targeted for elimination. Similarly, you use Storyville to encapsulate other shifts: the shift from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, from a nation divided regionally to a more national identity (consolidated arguably by WWI and the consumer culture of the 1920s that followed), from a rural population to an urban one, and from interracial sex as an expression of white male power and supremacy to a representation of the same as a weakness. To what extent do you think such developments were unique to New Orleans? Was this an aspect of the book you recognized early on or one that developed as you dug deeper into research?

One of the funniest things about Storyville is that both its creation and its closing down were pushed by “progressive” reformers. In the late 1890s their idea was to map the city according to morality. This was never about the women who worked as prostitutes, or even, really, the men who patronized them. The rationale was to preserve areas of the city for “legitimate” business. In this way, the creation of red-light districts might be seen in a similar light to the most significant urban mapping program of the day: segregation by race. I write about this in the book as well. By 1917, reformers who sought an end to any kind of tolerated vice had gained the upper hand, not least because of the war. There was a newly urgent imperative to keep young men “fit to fight” both morally and physically, and so the era of tolerated (or grudgingly acknowledged) red light districts came to a close.

Tracking the transitions within the Progressive Era through Storyville shows some of the shifts in the nation during those twenty years. Among the most important is the ascendancy of Woodrow Wilson and the southern progressives in his circle. Wilson’s progressivism included segregating the federal government and removing, where possible, African Americans from the civil service, or relegating them to inferior positions. By the time New Orleans “closed” the district, racial segregation was more or less complete, either de jure or de facto. It is a very dynamic period, containing not only the changes you list above, but the vigorous efforts of American citizens to combat them or move them more swiftly along. Storyville is an unlikely microcosm, but because it is so extreme an example, because, that is, its very transgressive nature meant it showcased a kind of underside of modern life that most reformers sought to hide, it is potentially very revelatory. Storyville was unique in many ways, to be sure, but it was not a secret. Its international reputation certainly had national implications.

Lulu White embodies the complexities of Storyville well. On one hand, the district offered her a level of agency, yet an agency that explicitly depended on a level of racialized subservience that bounded her and other women like her to a system of Jim Crow inequality. By the end of the book, she seems undone by the requirements of this limited agency, while her counterpart Willie Piazza, who to some degree took a different strategy in regard to race than White did during Storyville’s final years, appears to have done markedly better. How did your views of White evolve over the course of your research? Did you find any explanation as to why Willie Piazza seemed to do better in the aftermath of Storyville’s demise than her competitor/peer White?

I am not sure that I would juxtapose their different post-Storyville lives in terms of decisions regarding race. Willie Piazza seems to have been a much better money manager. She saved and made good investments. White, on the other hand, died poor, not having saved or invested. There is also a rumor that White was robbed or cheated out of whatever savings she did have. What I learned about Lulu White over the course of my research and writing was that I would never really know her as a person, and that there was always going to be more about her that I did not know, and never would know.

What promising trends do you see in future works on New Orleans? 

Historians are taking New Orleans seriously as a subject of scholarship. At the recent Organization of American Historians conference—in New Orleans—a scholar described her experience of being told NOT to write about New Orleans because no one would take such work seriously. I don’t think that would happen today. I can’t really speak to trends in urban history, sorry to say.

Do you have any favorite works of pop culture on New Orleans that you love or would recommend to others?

I am among the few who loved the HBO series, “Treme.”

What are you working on now or hoping to begin working on?

My next project will be a study of murder ballads and the culture that produced them. So, I will move away from New Orleans and into Appalachia, but continue to focus on gender, sexuality, race, and politics.