American Collections blog

23 posts categorized "#EcclesFellows"

20 March 2020

Dancing in the archives...

In the early 1980s this thing called hip hop suddenly arrived in the UK from North America through videos like Malcolm McLaren's Buffalo Gals (1982) and films such as Wild Style (1983).  It marked the start of a global cultural change and, unbeknown to me, would help develop my future world as a choreographer, researcher and teacher.

In time, my curiosity would take me beyond the South Bronx of the 1970s to '50s jazz dance, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and, eventually, minstrelsy.

An African American woman and man Lindy Hopping; the woman is wearing a long sleeved blouse, a striped skirt and white plimsolls while the man is wearing a long sleeve shirt and dungarees that are tight at the waist and full in the leg
Willa Mae Ricker and Leon James dancing the Lindy Hop, Life Magazine, 23 August 1943; shelfmark P.P.6383.cke

Minstrelsy and blackface was something I was aware of growing up in the 1970s as a mixed race child in the North East of England: The Black and White Minstrel Show was still on TV and racial relics were never far away.  Years later I began looking past the racially charged media of minstrelsy, seeing instead an innovative dance form which laid the foundations not only for hip hop dance but for entertainment as we know it today.  And so I began to ponder on the question: What happened before minstrelsy?  Which is what brought me to the Eccles Centre and the British Library.

My approach at the Library was to explore African diaspora dance practices in the United States from the early 1800s.  My prior knowledge of African based social dances was mostly limited to the 20th century and I knew there was so much more: More threads and meeting points detailing the myriad ways in which the African diaspora experience was carried to the US, became fractured and disrupted through slavery, and morphed into gospel, blues, ragtime, jazz, funk and hip hop.  My research enabled me to understand how African dance, including Gelede and Calenda, were exchanged and disrupted through gatherings such as corn shucking meets, leading in turn to secular dances like the turkey trot and the camel walk. 

An advert for a minstrel show, depicting a group of around 15 people singing and dancing in the moonlight by the side of a river
The Big Black Boom. Her Majesty's Theatre, Westminster c. 1878. Shelfmark: Evan.273 (Image taken from a collection of pamphlets, handbills, and miscellaneous printed matter relating to Victorian entertainment and everyday life. Originally published/produced in London, 1800 - 1895)

The key thing I realised through this research, however, wasn't even about dance.  It was about how information was passed, gathered and coded through slavery.  It was about the interactions between different African practices. I began looking beyond West African traditional dance forms to broader African practices.  This led me to explore the Muslim experience within Africa, the United States and slavery.  One story I came across was that of a 35-year old male Muslim slave in Sierra Leone during the eighteenth century. Waiting in irons for departure, sometimes he would sing a melancholy song and sometimes a Muslim prayer.  The song would eventually arrive in America to be heard by other Africans who may not have understood Arabic. Yet the cadence, experience and emotion enabled an experience of empathy that transcended words.  It was decoded through human consciousness as emotional unity through sound and movement.  It was understood, or misunderstood, and developed identity, social communication and African American culture.  These rhythms and experiences would resurface and be remixed into early blues; a remix that I suggest echoes into the sampling culture of hip hop.

Traces of Muslim practice may also relate to the Ring Shout (ceremonial dance) and the Kaaba and walking anti clockwise as prayer.  These exchanges of different African cultures, through shared experience and slavery, led me to think more about the subtleties and nuances of human exchange, gesture, symbolism and the cadence of both sound and movement: how scales of emotion and the body being read and misread is very much part of human learning, social patterns and coded cultures.

The African diaspora experience of slavery is one of the most heartless in human history and yet people survived, grew and emerged.  Of course, resilience in itself is a built-in human trait but how many times must it be tested and inflicted from one human to another to the degree of slavery and many other forms of violence, where carried trauma and disrupted African experiences seem to be in constant recovery and where culture acts to navigate and find better ways of living.

I think this research more than anything has led me to a deeper understanding of cultural development, human exchange, histories (my own) and the traces of experience that we carry and that are passed through generations.  Which brings me to the present, to my own creative practice and towards Afro futurism and how one can begin to develop African diaspora history(s) through speculation as a way to navigate future possibilities.  My hope is to develop projects embedded in my Eccles Centre research through dance, hip hop, visual art and education, exploring the question: What is hip hop's place in the twenty first century?

Robert Hylton, Eccles Fellow, 2019

Suggested Reading:

Abbott, L and Seroff, D. Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs," and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. (Shelfmark: m07/.15598 DSC)

Austin, A. African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles. New York; London: Routledge, 1997. (Shelfmark: YC.1997.a.3453) 

Diouf, S. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in The Americas. New York University Press, 1998. (Shelfmark: YC.1999.a.80)

Emory, E. Black Dance: From 1619 to Today. London: Dance, 1988. (Shelfmark: YM.1989.a.111) 

Gay, K. African American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations: the History, Customs, and Symbols Associated with Both Traditional and Contemporary Religious and Secular Events Observed by Americans of African Descent. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 2007. (Shelfmark: YD.2007.a.7641)

Glass, B. African American Dance: An Illustrated History. Jefferson, N.C; London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2007. (Shelfmark: m07/.12508 DSC)

Hammer, J. Safi, O. The Cambridge Companion to American Islam. Cambridge University Press, 2013. (Shelfmark: YC.2014.a.828)

Robinson, D. Modern Moves: Dancing Race During the Ragtime and Jazz Eras. (Oxford; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015) (Shelfmark: YC.2015.a.12024)

Thompson, K. Ring Shout, Wheel About: the Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014) (Shelfmark: m14/.11623) 

Visual References:

Ring Shout: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQgrIcCtys0

Buzzard Lope: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dGamWaYcLg

Audio Reference:

Alan Lomax Recordings - Levee Camp Holler: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EH3jsnUo38

 

05 February 2020

Walter Rodney's Enduring Legacy Through Archival Collaboration

Black and white photo of Walter Rodney standing in front of a door or window
Walter Rodney; image courtesy of the Huntley Archives, London Metropolitan Archives, LMA 4463 series

Nearly forty years ago, on 13 June 1980, Guyanese historian, political activist and academic Walter Rodney was assassinated.  Family, friends and fans across the world mourned the loss of Rodney.  This grief expressed itself privately and publicly – through poetry, letters and protest.  Traces can be found in the British Library, particularly in the archive of Andrew Salkey.  P.D. Sharma – a Guyanese comrade – wrote to Salkey shortly after hearing the news.  He wrote of being ‘paralyzed with grief, shock and disbelief’ as expressed in the poem below; such moving remembrances of Rodney’s continue to this day: 

WALTER RODNEY IS DEAD (13th June 1980)
Weep people, cry Jesus
And drown the earth above us
Flood the oceans
Liquidify the mountains
Sink heaven.
The Eastern star is blown
No more the fairest of twinkles
Done the kingdom and the king.
Now the sun will never catch the night
The falcon god soars
And shadows we be
Our world is out.
How infinite was so brief
Too much and only but few
Except that grey men
With infants on their laps
Shall tell to eternity
Of the light that once,
Breathless and bedamned
Questioning the open
But if, what might …

(Letter from P.D. Sharma (LA) to Salkey (Massachusetts), June 1980, Walter Rodney File, Box 21, Andrew Salkey collection, The British Library)

Walter Rodney’s intellectual energy, praxis and commitment lives on.  It lives on through Black liberation struggles across the world and the action and commitment of the Friends of the Huntley Archives at LMA  (FHALMA). Housed at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), the Huntley Archives is made up of Jessica and Eric Huntley’s documents, photographs and recordings.  It also holds the files of Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications (one of Britain’s earliest black publishing houses) that they collectively founded in 1968, following the banning of Walter Rodney from Jamaica.   

On Saturday 22 February, the 15th Annual Huntley Conference: Rodney's Enduring Legacy will offer a space for activists, scholars, students and families to engage with this legacy through a day of discussion, film, lectures and archive tours.  Supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library, the LMA and the Museum of London, it brings together some of London’s key cultural heritage institutions.  It also builds on an ongoing collaboration between the British Library, LMA and FHALMA as part of the mass sound digitisation project Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Volunteering for FHALMA and helping to organise this conference has offered a brilliant opportunity to extend my Collaborative Doctoral Partnership beyond the British Library and UCL by connecting with archives and community groups across London.  Related to ongoing research on Caribbean publishing as activism, the conference provides an important space to discuss the history and legacy of Caribbean intellectual thought.

Black and white photo of Walter Rodney sitting at a typewriter on a table covered with papers; a woman stands behind him
Walter Rodney; image courtesy of the Huntley Archives, London Metropolitan Archives, LMA 4463 series

Notably, the conference will include roundtable sessions called 'Groundings' which are modelled on and inspired by Rodney’s practice of talking plainly about human rights, identity and Black history directly with grassroots communities.  These intergenerational conversations will explore themes of Black liberation, solidarity and class, whilst considering the role of youth, academics, communities and creative producers within historic and contemporary struggles.

Professor Patricia Daley's keynote, 'Walter Rodney: The Black Academic and the Importance of the Study of Africa for Global Black Emancipation', will reflect on Rodney's impressive contribution to radical scholarship on Africa and consider his understanding of ‘groundings’ as a form of academic and political practice, central to black emancipation globally.

The frontispiece of Walter Rodney Speaks - black print on a green cover
Walter Rodney, Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual. Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 1990. (British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.a.9118)

Walter Rodney continues to challenge us through our archives.  You can find Rodney in the British Library’s Andrew Salkey collection, from recordings of memorial lectures to Bogle-L'Ouverture book launches.  Rodney also speaks to us through his many texts - published both when he was alive and posthumously - including: The Groundings with My Brothers (1969), A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800 (1970), How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) and Walter Rodney Speaks: the making of an African Intellectual (1990).

Suggested further reading/listening:

  • Bogle book launch (1985), Andrew Salkey collection, C1839/62.
  • Rupert Lewis, Walter Rodney: 1968 Revisited.  Barbados: Canoe Press, UWI, 1998. (British Library shelfmark: YC.2005.a.8199).
  • Rupert Lewis, Walter Rodney’s Intellectual and Political Thought. Mona: University of the West Indies, 1998. (British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 99/13124). 
  • Manning Marable lecture (1987), Andrew Salkey Collection, C1839/45.
  • Colin Prescod, ‘Guyana’s socialism: an interview with Walter Rodney’, Race & Class, 18 (1976), 109- 128. (British Library shelfmark: Ac.6236.a). 
  • Kate Quinn (eds.), Black Power in the Caribbean. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014.  (British Library shelfmark: YC.2014.a.16051) 
  • Researching Walter Rodney in the Huntley Archives, London Metropolitan Archive.

Works by Walter Rodney:

  • The Groundings with My Brothers. London: Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications, 1970. (British Library shelfmark: X.709/10382) 
  • A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970. (British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 72/14824)
  • How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications, 1976. (British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 82/24897) 
  • Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual. Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 1990. (British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.a.9118) 

Naomi Oppenheim is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library and UCL researching Caribbean print cultures and the politics of history in post-war Britain. Follow her on Twitter @naomioppenheim

 

22 January 2020

One more step along the road I go: Tracking the first three months of my Chevening Fellowship

My first day in the UK saw me meeting with some individuals at the British Library who are integral parts of my one-year journey. I met with Jody Butterworth, curator for Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), Phil Hatfield (Head Eccles Centre for American Studies), James Perkins (Former Research & PG Development Manager British Library), Kola Tubosun (Chevening Fellow from Nigeria) and Mark Ashe (Chevening Programme officer).  I was given a detailed programme overview and a warm welcome to both the British Library and the UK by everyone.

 

Official Chantelle's portrait as Chevening Fellowship awardee. Chantelle Richardson 2019 Chevening Scholar - Jamaica
Official Chevening photo

 

My current role

My journey in libraries began over four year ago. I entered the Library world somewhat by chance. I can safely say that this profession chose me. When I graduated from the University of the West Indies Mona, I was given my first Job at the National Library of Jamaica. I worked as a cataloguer for a year, where I managed serials and legal deposit publications. I later moved up to Special Collections.  

Since working in Special Collections, I have had the great pleasure of expanding my skillsets. I not only catalogue but do reference and research work as well. My daily tasks involves me working with manuscripts, maps, photographs, postcards and newspapers. I also help to interface with researchers from all walks of life, which is the very best part of my job.

 

Why I applied?

I was always looking for ways to make progress both personally and professionally.  During a general staff meeting at the NLJ our CEO, Miss Beverly Lashley spoke about the Chevening British Library Fellowship. She spoke briefly on the requirements and stated that the Library would give support to any staff member who applied. After the announcement I logged into my Chevening application portal and looked on the Fellowship option that was in my profile. Prior to Miss Lashley’s announcement I was well on my way in applying for a Chevening scholarship to study in the UK. Ever since I graduated from the UWI I aspired to continue my studies aboard. I had researched many opportunities for studies, however none was as comprehensive as the Chevening awards.

After many weeks of perfecting my essays I submitted two applications one for a Chevening Scholarship and the other for a Chevening Fellowship. Months passed and my anxiety was high, I was however mindful that whatever was for me would always be at the right time.  After receiving numerous emails, meetings and interviews I got the life changing news. I was selected as one of 19 Chevening awardees from Jamaica and was the only Fellow.

After receiving the good news I began my preparations to live and work in one of the world’s most diverse countries.

 

Selected as one of the 19 Chevening awardees from Jamaica, and as the only Fellow, Chantelle joyfully celebrates her Chevening Fellowship award
Celebrating my award

 

 

Chantelle in a group portrait together with the other Jamaican 2019/2020 Chevening scholars. From an article published by the “Jamaican Observer reporting the success of the nineteen Jamaican awardees
Jamaica Observer article photo of all Jamaican 2019/20 Chevening scholars

 

Fellowship Focus

My Fellowship involves working with the Eccles Centre for American Studies and EAP departments. I will be doing research on digitized archives from Latin America and the Caribbean, engaging with local and international archival partners, organising, and promoting the activities of both departments.

Additionally towards the end or immediately after my fellowship I will Identify and liaise with a local partner institution in the Latin America and or Caribbean region to manage an Eccles funded conference.

 

“26-year-old determined to preserve Jamaica’s cultural heritage”. Chantelle’s Chevening Fellowship project told in an article published by the ‘Jamaica Gleaner’
Newspaper article on the focus of the fellowship

 

EAP and Eccles centre Energetic Synergy

One of the most gratifying experiences about my fellowship is that I get the unique opportunity to work with two of the British Library’s best departments. The Endangered Archives programme (EAP) facilitates the digitisation of archives around the world that are in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration. Funding comes from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. Since its inception, EAP has provided grants to more than 400 projects in 90 countries worldwide, in over 100 languages and scripts (Endangered Archives Programme).

The Eccles Centre connects users to the British Library’s Americas collections.  They facilitate a wide range of programmes and events. Some of which include visiting Fellowships, Writer’s Award and Congress to Campus programme. The centre also compiles study resources designed to help exploration of the British Library's Canadian, American and Caribbean collections. 

Both teams have ensured I have the best experience to date. They have facilitated meetings, talks, internal and external events which add to my personal and professional development. For the first time both departments have a common synergy, me.

 

My work so far

Currently I have two major projects I’m working on. My main project involves an in depth data visualisation of past and present projects in Latin America and the Caribbean undertaken by EAP. I have so far completed the data compilation and will continue to work on the project in the coming year.

The second major project I am working is a Bibliography of Latin America and Caribbean non-book sources before 1950 at the British Library for the centre. This project is enabling me to explore the vast Latin American collections held at the British Library.

While working on the main projects I have also learnt about other gems in the collections. The Cartonera: Latin American cardboard books, the proposition to establish the West India Company in the Stowe manuscript collection and manuscripts related to Texcoco in Mexico are just a few interesting collection items I have explored.  

 

Colourful image of a few Cartonera books, handmade books with hand painted cardboard covers, from the British Library’s Latin American collection.  While working on the project, Chantelle has also the opportunity to learn about various gems in the collection
Cartoneras from the Americas collection at the British Library

 

Chevening experience

Undoubtedly none of this would be possible without the Chevening secretariat. The Chevening team namely my programme office Mark Ashe, have been my constant guide. One of the most memorable moments on my fellowship so far was at the recent Chevening Orientation. The session had 1,750 scholars from 141 countries and territories around the world. It was truly a remarkable event.

 

Chevening Orientation Day. Chantelle in a joyful group portrait with some of the 1,750 scholars from 141 countries and territories cheering each other and showing flags from their countries
Some scholars at the 2019 Chevening orientation

 

Chevening also facilitates smaller networking sessions through its tailored events. I had the privilege of attending one such event in Manchester under the theme Cottonpolis: Fashioning the Future. Myself and over 20 scholars received a guided tour of the city of Manchester and had a very engaging session on sustainable fashion at the University of Manchester

 

Chantelle and other scholars attending the event “Cottonpolis: Fashioning the Future” at Manchester University
Scholars on tour of Manchester city

 

Hopes for 2020

It is my hope that throughout the rest of my fellowship I will produce blog posts, articles and multimedia content that will track and highlight the work I am doing. I am also looking forward to the many people I will meet and new places I will visit.

                                                     

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Chantelle Richardson

                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Chevening Fellowship Awardee - Jamaica 2019/2020

 

 

 

04 December 2019

The American and British Authors of Today’s Secular ‘Traditional Christmas’

Washington Irving is today perhaps best remembered for the stories ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, first published in 1819/20.  They were included in Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, which, in its initial serialisation and then in book form, was a huge and perennial bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.1  However, it is the Sketch Book’s five chapters depicting an English country Christmas at the Yorkshire home of a fictional Squire Bracebridge that have had the greater lasting impact.  For it was in those chapters that Irving was successful in emphasising the importance of both preserving and creating cherished Christmas traditions.  

The quality of Irving’s prose reinforced his evocation of Christmas. His description of the Waits, a musical band of night watchmen, being a prime example: ‘I had scarcely got into bed when a strain of music seemed to break forth in the air just below the window.  I listened, and found it proceeded from a band which I concluded to be the Waits from some neighbouring village.  They went round the house, playing under the windows.  I drew aside the curtains to hear them more distinctly.  The moonbeams fell through the upper part of the casement; partially lighting up the antiquated apartment.  The sounds, as they receded, became more soft and aerial, and seemed to accord with the quiet and moonlight.  I listened and listened—they became more and more tender and remote, and, as they gradually died away, my head sunk upon the pillow and I fell asleep.’2

Group of musical night watchmen playing music in the snow around a lamp on the floor outside a large building.
Cecil Aldin’s illustration of the Waits in Washington Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. London: Cassell & Co., [1910]; shelfmark: 12350.p.25.

Charles Dickens was a great admirer of Irving, writing to the American, ‘I should like to travel with you, outside the last of the coaches, down to Bracebridge Hall.’  There can be no doubt that Mr Pickwick’s Christmas at Dingley Dell was inspired by Irving, as, in spirit, was ‘Christmas Festivities’ in Dickens’ Sketches by Boz.  However, Dickens gave the latter an urban setting, in London and, more narrowly than in Pickwick, centred his account on the family, thus moving it closer to today’s celebrations.  Dickens’s example encouraged the inclusion of all one’s kinfolk: ‘The Christmas family-party that we mean, is not a mere assemblage of relations, got up at a week or two’s notice, originating this year, having no family precedent in the last, and not likely to be repeated in the next.  No.  It is an annual gathering of all the accessible members of the family, young or old, rich or poor.’3

large Christmas dinner in the nineteenth century
‘Christmas Dinner’, illustration by R Seymour from: Thomas Hervey, The Book of Christmas. London: William Spooner, 1836; shelfmark: DRT 1568/2302

 

Title page of Dicken's A Christmas Carol with an illustration on the left hand side of a couple dancing while being watched by others
First Edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with John Leech’s illustration of ‘Mr Fezziwig’s Ball’. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843; shelfmark: C.117.b.67.

Dickens, the writer of one of the greatest Christmas stories in A Christmas Carol, was just one of a number of authors, on both sides of the Atlantic, who did so much to create lasting Christmas traditions during the half century before 1870.  And among them was a succession of imaginative Americans who, between them, produced the phenomenon that, from the end of that period, became modern Christmas’s most popular secular figure on both sides of the Atlantic.  It was then that one of the greatest of Anglo-American mergers began: with Britain’s Father Christmas keeping his name and, mostly, his robe, but for the first time assuming the colour and character of America’s Santa Claus.

Father Christmas is certainly rather older than his American cousin.  He first became the effective personification of the midwinter festival in ‘Christmas, his Masque’, written by Ben Jonson and staged for King James I & VI by Inigo Jones in 1616.  The character of ‘Christmas’, ‘Captain Christmas’, ‘Old Christmas’, ‘Christmas of London’ and Father Christmas, as he finally came to be called, was created as a satirical figure in order to mock the Puritans and their opposition to the concept of celebrating Christmas as a joyous festival.  However, Father Christmas was not a well-defined figure and so he would remain for two-and-a-half centuries.

A Father Christmas figure in a kind of ornate gothic doorway with other much smaller characters around him
Robert Seymour's illustration recreating the original 'Christmas' figure from Ben Jonson's 'Christmas, his Masque' in Thomas Hervey, The Book of Christmas. London, William Spooner, 1836. Shelfmark: DRT 1568/2302.
An early Father Christmas character looking rather wild sitting on a goat with holly flowing from his hair and a steaming wassail bowl in his right hand.
Robert Seymour's illustration of 'Old Christmas' from Thomas Hervey, The Book of Christmas. London, William Spooner, 1836. Shelfmark: DRT 1568/2302.


As for the origin of Santa Claus, we need once again to turn to Washington Irving and, this time, to what began as a joke.  Ten years before his Sketch Book, Irving satirised those New Yorkers who he thought over keen to create false traditions for their fast-expanding metropolis.  In A History of New York he invented a story about the very founding of the city, when the Catholic St Nicholas, known by the Dutch as Sinterklaas, flew over Manhattan ‘in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children’ and directed the elders to site their settlement there. From this unlikely beginning, St Nicholas / Sinterklaas found favour in America.  A dozen years later, Clement Clarke Moore gave him a team of reindeer and a cheery personality in the poem best known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’ and shortly afterwards the figure became generally known as Santa Claus.  Finally, in the 1860s, the political cartoonist Thomas Nast began his creation of the physical image which, with a few minor additions, has remained to this day. 

Jolly looking Santa Claus holding lots of presents and a long thin pipe
'Merry Old Santa Claus', illustration by Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, 1 January 1881; image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
 

By the end of the 1860s, Santa Claus the present-giver was becoming very popular with American children and also, understandably, with the manufacturers of presents.  Improved transatlantic communications enabled Santa to skip quickly across the Atlantic.  His appeal to children was and is obvious: here was someone who brought more presents!  As for the adult British public, a change of name to Father Christmas and an assumption of hundreds of years of British heritage quickly turned this kindly American import into a seemingly timeless British figure.  Whether called Santa Claus or Father Christmas, he has become the happy personification of the modern secular Christmastime.

Notes:

  1. Washington Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. London: Cassell & Co., [1910]; shelfmark 12350.p.25. 
  2. From 'Christmas Eve', in Washington Irving, The Sketch of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996; shelfmark YK.1996.a.13992.
  3. Charles Dickens, 'Christmas Festivities' (1835) republished as 'A Christmas Dinner' in Sketches by Boz: illustrative of every day life and every-day people. London: Chapman & Hall, 1902; shelfmark 012613.g.3.
  4. Washington Irving, A History of New York. London: J Murray, 1820; shelfmark DRT 838.f.8

George Goodwin FRHistS FRSA is a Makin Fellow of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies and the author of Christmas Traditions: A Celebration of Festive Lore (British Library Publishing, £12.99).   There are still a few tickets available for the second of his two fun talks on Christmas Traditions, at the British Library on 10th December.  

07 June 2019

Is ‘America’s National Pastime’ Up for Grabs?

Professional baseball heads to London later this month with its sacred status in American culture once more in the spotlight. While the two-day series between the historic rivals, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, was an instant sell-out in London, back home crowds are declining, television ratings are falling and, despite the best efforts to speed-up play, games are dragging-on for longer than three hours - an eternity in today’s era of instant gratification. Those fans that do attend games or watch on TV are older and whiter than America as a whole. On social media Major League Baseball is dwarfed by the sporting behemoths of the NFL and NBA, the fame of baseball’s elite players a fraction of that enjoyed by the global superstars of professional football and basketball. It’s not surprising that each new season begins with commentators questioning whether the so-called ‘national pastime’ is in irreversible decline.

Baseball blog June I

Ed Linn, The Great Rivalry: The Yankees and the Red Sox, 1901-1990. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1991. British Library Shelfmark: General Reference Collection Mike Ross 281.

And yet this simple contest of pitcher and batter is this year celebrating its 150th anniversary as a professional sport with its role as an emblem for American culture still jealously defended. Indeed, that very longevity is a source of strength:  baseball’s romanticized all-American creation story, which rejects its origins in the English game of rounders, may now be acknowledged as myth, but it provides the bedrock for its many cultural claims.  Ever since 1919, when the philosopher Morris Cohen first declared baseball a ‘national religion’ which offered ‘redemption from the limitations of our petty individual lives and the mystic unity of the larger life of which we are part’, baseball-obsessed scholars and multiple purveyors of cultural output have offered the game as a lens through which to view the complexities of American history. It is a rural game popularized in America’s industrializing cities; a team sport of democratic instincts soiled by its shameful record of racial and gender exclusion. It captures the essence of American capitalism in the endless struggle between owners and players over the division of its revenues. With baseball’s twentieth century expansion south and west, and the suburbanization of its fan base, it mirrors the march of post-war prosperity into new regions of the country; and all the time it demonstrates its capacity to cater simultaneously to two conflicting strains of the national character - unbridled consumerism and anxiety-fueled nostalgia.

Baseball blog june 2019 2

Morris Cohen, 1880-1947. Painted by Joseph Margulies. CCNY Library collection. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Re-enforcing these connections, a lively stream of cultural output still flows – in literature, language, film and music – which celebrates the continuity of American life and the mythical role of fathers in the generational transmission of American values.  Baseball’s story, so the argument goes, is America’s story

Of course, not everyone accepts these sweeping metaphorical claims – the baseball historian Daniel Nathan has lamented the sentimentality, ignorance and nationalism that ‘becloud our sense of baseball history and reality’. In baseball, Nathan asserts, romance has obscured the reality of the commercial and cultural onslaught from America’s other big sporting beasts. Similarly, Edward White has complained of the ‘unfounded assertions, rampant over-generalizations and exercises in wish fulfilment’, made by baseball’s scholarly and media boosters.

So which side is right in this long-running battle over cultural inheritance? Is the label of America’s ‘national pastime’ up for grabs, or was it surrendered long ago? These issues will be debated in a special event at the British Library, Take Me Out to the Ballgame: Baseball and American Culture, on Friday 28 June, 19.00 – 20.15, the eve of the Red Sox-Yankees London series. Taking part in the panel discussion will be distinguished baseball writers, baseball historians and past-practitioners of the game, with the event chaired by Matthew Engel, the eminent cricket writer, now a wholehearted convert to America’s game. If you want to join the conversation, book your tickets here: https://www.bl.uk/events/take-me-out-to-the-ball-game-baseball-and-american-culture

Chris Birkett

The British Library is the home to the Mike Ross Collection of baseball books and memorabilia which contains more than 300 items relating to America’s national pastime.

Chris Birkett is undertaking postgraduate research on the Clinton presidency and baseball at King’s College London, where he is a Professor Sir Richard Trainor Scholar, supported by the Eccles Centre at the British Library

22 May 2019

The Power of Memoir

Where does the personal reside in our understanding of history, social issues and human experience? And what does the form of the memoir distinctively illuminate?

In 2018 novelist Tessa McWatt used her residency as an Eccles British Library Writer’s Award holder to work on a memoir on race and story-telling which traced the hybridity of her genetic make-up and the issues of racism she has faced on both sides of the ‘divide’. Her practice-based research is engaged in issues of colonialism and the historical and structural underpinnings of the creation of race and how her personal experience has been embedded in those structures.

On 3 June, Tessa will be speaking at the British Library in conversation with two historians, Sarah Knott and Norma Clarke, chaired by Erica Wagner, to talk about how embracing their own experiences and investing in the memoir form has enabled them to develop and extend their work as scholars and writers.  In preparation for their event, we asked them to given an example of how an historical item from the archive helped inform their projects: Sarah on maternity, Norma on family and Tessa on race.

Sarah Knott:

An Interesting Condition excerpt

Excerpt from Abigail Lewis [Otis Burger], An Interesting Condition (London: Odhams Press Ltd, 1951), pp. 180-181. Shelfmark 8417.cc.29.

1949 New York. Otis Burger wanted to stop each contraction and see what it felt like. It was odd having an entirely new sensation inside. She had been reading the English doctor Grantly Dick-Read, who thought childbirth should be painless ‒ disliking his determination to reduce women to their biology, but appreciating his tenderness. Her fear was the hospital feeling of being naked, and at the mercy of strangers, like a specimen of some sort. Male doctors were condescending; they seemed to think the difficulty was all in the mother’s mind and that birth was too much of a commonplace for the mother to make such a silly fuss.

Otis Burger wrote her remarkable maternal memoir, An Interesting Condition, some decades before the women’s liberation movement encouraged others to pick up their pens and make maternity properly visible. The book was unusual enough that it was printed not just in her New York but also in London, thus making its way into the hands of ordinary English readers as well as the collections of the British Library. That she published under a pseudonym was some indication of the taboos that needed to be broken.

In writing Mother: An Unconventional History, I plundered personal writings like these to understand past experiences of pregnancy, birth and being with an infant. And I took inspiration, too, from what happens when you think, like Otis Burger, in a memoir form. Blending memoir into history, and history into memoir, I found myself asking questions I might otherwise have overlooked. In bleary sleeplessness and with an infant close at hand, I wondered, what was the history of the maternal night? Or, what were the new sensations of feeling continually interrupted, or hearing the sound of an infant’s cry? I found answers not just in past memoirs but in a host of other kinds of materials to be found in libraries and archives, from leather-bound how-to guides to slave narratives and social scientists’ surveys, to private letters and scribbled diaries.

Sarah Knott, Mother (Penguin Viking, 2019)

***

Norma Clarke:

My Daugter Maria Callas cover

Evangelia Callas, My Daughter – Maria Callas, as told to Lawrence G Blochman (London: Leslie Frewin, 1967) Shelfmark W77/5490

Not Speaking tells the story of a family quarrel and it does so partly through conventional narrative, partly through oral history interviews and partly by means of investigations into literary subjects: Homer’s Iliad with its quarrelling heroes features throughout, Pope’s poem, The Rape of the Lock, has traction (brother hairdressers Nicky and Michael Clarke are at the heart of the story) and Robert Graves and George Sand in Majorca figure because Majorca is one of the settings, along with Athens and London. I had no intention of researching Maria Callas and it was only by accident that she became included. But asking my mother questions about her life as a girl growing up in Athens led me down unexpected byways. The mother of Prince Philip, for example, Princess Alice, had remained in Athens during the war, and spoke very good Greek; my mother admired her. Maria Callas was also in Athens. Maria left Greece in 1945 and turned her back on her mother and sister, declaring that they hated her and she them. The women were no longer on speaking terms. And then I read a quote from Callas that riveted me: ‘I know my mother wrote a book about me, but I never read it.’

Her mother wrote a book about her! Books by daughters about mothers are ten a penny, but books by mothers about daughters? I couldn’t wait to read it. I rushed to the British Library, and within 70 minutes I had in my hands, My Daughter – Maria Callas, by Evangelia Callas (1960). It’s a book that vibrates with fury, and I reflected that Maria was probably right to keep it at a distance, but for me it was revelatory.

Norma Clarke, Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019)

***

Tessa McWatt:

Chinese Oracle Bones

Shang dynasty characters on fragments of an oracle bone dating between 1600 and 1050 BC. British Library, Or. 7694/1516

“What Are You?”

It’s a question I was asked as an eight-year old in a suburban Toronto classroom by my teacher, after the word “Negro” came up in a book the class was reading. It was a word that none of the kids in the room – all ‘white’ except for me -- knew the meaning of.

Shame on Me began as a journey to understand how to answer the question. It looks at all of the strands of my genetic make-up – Scottish, African, English, Irish, Chinese, South Asian -- to find some kind of meaning in biology. But when I began to research the history of race, of the particular ‘miscegenations’ that formed me, it occurred to me that it’s all down to story-telling. I might as well ask an oracle.

Then I came across the Chinese Oracle Bone (dating from between 1600 BC and 1050 BC) in the British Library. I was hooked. I started to frame my book around the idea that ‘knowing’ is storytelling. I saw the Chinese oracle bone as an ancient 23&Me. Diviners used them to answer the elite’s questions about health, birth and death; about crops, the weather; about the outcome of battles or simply whether a particular ancestor was causing a king’s headache. The shoulder blades of ox, sheep, boars, horses and deer, or the shells of tortoises were cleaned of flesh, scraped, polished, and then diviners carved questions into them using a sharp tool. During a divination session, the bone was anointed with blood before questions were posed to ancestors. The diviner then applied such intense heat that the bone or shell cracked, and he interpreted the pattern of the fractures to answer the questions posed.

A bone with the power to provide these kinds of answers would surely provide an answer to ‘What are You?’

If only.

Tessa McWatt, Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging (Scribe UK, forthcoming, October 2019)

***

Mother and Not Speaking covers

To find out more, join Sarah, Norma and Tessa in conversation with Erica Wagner at the British Library on Monday 3 June. More details: https://www.bl.uk/events/memoir-identity-experience

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 July 2018

Call for Applicants: Eccles British Library Writer’s Award

North America (John Rocque)

Above: John Rocque's, 'A General Map of North America' [Maps K.Top.118.32]

The summer marches on and while we are all tempted to kick-back and enjoy this unusual spell of consistent sunshine the writers in our audience may, nonetheless, want to have an eye on their plans for next year. The Eccles Centre’s call for applicants to the 2019 Writer’s Award is currently open and you have until the end of August to apply. For those of you who don’t know, the Award amounts to £20,000 for a twelve month residency at the British Library. Applicants should be working on a non-fiction or fiction full-length book, written in the English Language, the research for which requires that they make substantial use of the British Library’s collections relating to any part of the Americas (North, Central and South America, and the Caribbean). We are very excited to be broadening the horizons of the Award for this year and hope authors using the wider Americas collections will apply.

Wulf ander's choice C12682-03 (lo-res)

Above: Andrea Wulf (bhoto by Ander McIntyre) and an illustration of a monkey created by Humboldt for the account of his voyage (149.h.5.(1), from BL Images Online)

Previous awardees include Benjamin Markovits, Will Atkins, Andrea Wulf and many others. Each of our Award holders has used the Americas collections of the British Library to add extra depth to their research. For example, Will Atkins used the collections to research the history of exploration of deserts in the US as well as the history of events like the Burning Man festival. Meanwhile, Andrea Wulf drew from the Library’s collections, especially our printed book and maps collections, to conduct her research into the life and travels of Alexander von Humbolt. The Americas collections are broad in scope and potentially useful items can be found in the form of printed books, manuscripts, newspapers, government documents, photographs, maps, pamphlets and many more materials types. As a result, a wide world of inspiration awaits our 2019 Award holder.

If this has inspired you to leave the sun lounger and consider putting in an application, we would love to hear from you. For more information about applying for the Award, as well as insights into the work of previous winners, please visit our website. If you have any questions or would like to talk to someone about the award you can also get in touch with us at: eccles-centre@bl.uk.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre

14 June 2018

Call for Applicants: Fulbright-British Library Eccles Centre Scholar Award

Above: Klondiker's buying mining licenses in Victoria, BC. J. W. Jones, 1898 [Picturing Canada project on Wiki Commons]

Summertime is always exciting for the Eccles Centre as we announce new calls for our various awards and fellowships. Keep an eye on the Americas blog for news of our various award schemes over the coming months but today I wanted to write about our US-UK Fulbright Commission Scholarship. This is a relatively new part of our programme and is a partnership with Fulbright to bring a US-based scholar to the Library so they can work on the North American collections held here. Work can be on any area of the collections relating to Canada, the Caribbean and / or the United States and applications connected to the Centre’s research priorities are encouraged.

The Fulbright-Eccles Scholarship is a unique opportunity for a US-based scholar as it provides a significant award (£12,000) to cover a dedicated research trip of twelve months. As well as using the collections of the Library our Scholars are encouraged to take part in our events programme, including our evening lectures and Summer Scholars season, and present about their work with partner institutions outside of the Library, such as the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford. This provides a rich set of opportunities to develop ideas and discuss them with a variety of audiences during the scholarship. We are also happy to facilitate a Scholar in conducting wider work with the Library and helping them get to know other parts of the Library’s operation, such as our innovative Learning Team, British Library Publishing and others.

Our 2018-19 Scholar will be Professor Andrew Hartman who will be using the British Library’s collections to conduct further research on the influence of Karl Marx on American political thought. The research will form part of Professor Hartman’s upcoming book, Karl Marx in America, which is contracted to University of Chicago Press. The Fulbright-Eccles Scholar is one of over 800 U.S. citizens who will teach and conduct research abroad for the 2018-2019 academic year through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program; if you would like to apply to be our Scholar in the 2019-20 academic year please do see our website for further information and get in touch with us.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre

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