American Collections blog

240 posts categorized "USA"

13 August 2020

Mrs. America: Still Unfinished Business

Following on from part one of our Mrs. America-themed blog, we continue to look at the themes and characters featured in the FX mini-series and how they are represented in British Library collections.

The show depicts the parallel efforts between the feminists rallying to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in America during the 1970s, and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly who leads the fight against the Amendment’s passing. While Library collections have limited accessibility at the moment, we hope this blog serves has a welcome reminder of the items available for Readers’ research, inspiration and enjoyment as and when holdings can be made fully available again.

Please note that images in this article have been retrieved from online sources as I have been unable to access and photograph Library collections. Therefore there may be some discrepancy in what the Library’s holdings look like in comparison to the items pictured in this blog.

Betty Friedan 

The name Betty Friedan and her 1963 manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, may be the most well-known of the characters and works featured in Mrs. America. Friedan was the first president of the National Organization for women and co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem.

The Feminine Mystique is widely credited with sparking the second-wave feminism movement that arose in America during the 1960s and 70s. It was whilst having conversations with former members of her Smith College contingent that Friedan realised the level of disillusionment and satisfaction amongst both herself and her former classmates; her research on these suburban housewives led to her coining the term the ‘feminine mystique’ and to the eventual publication of the text. Her description of ‘the problem that has no name’ – that is, the systematic, underlying beliefs and institutions that led to women’s disempowerment and kept them in the home – spoke to the women readers who had, for so long, struggled to articulate the feelings of disenchantment they experienced while quietly occupying their life as mother, wife and homemaker. Inspired by the feeling of possibility invoked by Friedan, women were empowered to see how it wasn’t too late to reclaim their lives.

The Feminine Mystique was first published on 19 February 1963 by the New York-based W. W. Norton and Co. It would quickly become a bestseller, with over one million copies of the paperback being purchased in its first run. The British Library holds a version of the book published later on in 1963 in London by Victor Gollancz (shelfmark: 8418.m.8.), a British publisher and humanitarian known as a supporter of left-wing causes.

The Feminine Mystique, London edition, showing yellow cover and red writing
Cover for The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. [London: Victor Gollancz, 1963.] Image sourced from Maggs Bros. Ltd. Rare Books & Manuscripts 

In Mrs. America, the relationship between Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan is an interesting one to observe; the two trailblazers association has been documented as acrimonious, with Friedan stating in a 1972 speech about Steinem that ‘the media tried to make her a celebrity, but no one should mistake her for a leader.’ This is represented in the TV show, with various comments being flung between the two, although a touching moment occurs between them after Friedan is antagonised by Schlafly during a heated televised debate. Friedan is left publically humiliated having let her emotions seemingly get the better of her on screen, frustratingly, if only momentarily, damaging her professionalism and proficient demeanour in the public eye. Steinem stands in solidarity with Friedan, despite their disagreements, telling her “I have been thinking about the first time I read The Feminine Mystique. ‘Why should women accept this picture of a half-life, instead of share in the whole of human destiny?’ I don’t know if I ever told you. Your book changed my life. Thank you.”

Phyllis Schlafly

Writer and political activist Phyllis Schlafly is at the heart of Mrs. America. Leading the opposing argument to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, she rallies women across America to join her in the fight against the women’s rights movement – representing conservative and traditional family values. The small-screen retelling of Schlafly’s 1960s-70s activities reference her 1952 campaign for the US House of Representatives. Having established her strongly anti-Communist stance and political positioning, Schlafly is frequently pictured as the only women in a room of suited and booted white men in the scenes that take place in Washington. Mrs. America traces Schlafly’s actions as she turns her attention to the ERA and women’s issues.

The Phyllis Schlafly Newsletter was her monthly bulletin used to gather fellow women supporters and inform them of political issues. When the ERA was passed by Congress in 1972, Schlafly used her newsletter to publicly oppose the amendment, fearful that its ratification would undermine traditional US values and among other concerns, lead to women (‘your daughters’ as she emotively refers to them) being drafted into the army. Mrs. America depicts Cate Blanchett as Schlafly, dedicatedly and single-handedly authoring, typing and mailing out copies from her home, taking on the role of both ‘boss’ and assistant. With momentum for her argument gathered, she and her supporters established the Stop ERA lobbying group with factions spread out across the country. And so the plot of Mrs. America unfolds…

Schlafly was a well-organised, powerful and eloquent public speaker, particularly on anti-feminist topics. While this divided audiences (Schlafly infamously received a pie to the face from one of her many opposers), she articulated her position in the 1977 book The Power of the Positive Woman. In it, we are introduced to characters like the White Knight, the Black Demon, and, The Positive Woman. Schlafly attacks what she believes are the false promises of the women’s movements and argues that any further equality for women i.e. the passing of the ERA, would hinder the fabric of American society. The New York Times has an interesting 1977 review on what they call this ‘strange little book’. Strange as it may be, its sentiment was enough to galvanise the support of housewives up and down America, so much so that the ERA eventually failed to be ratified by the required majority of states. The British Library holds a c.1977 copy of the book published by Arlington House in New York (shelfmark: 78/2650). 

Cover for The Power of the Positive Woman by Phyllis Schlafly
Cover for The Power of the Positive Woman by Phyllis Schlafly. [New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, c1977.] Image sourced from Amazon (c) MW Books

Perhaps to show that even her campaigning should never take precedence over role as a housewife, dinner for her family, including six children, was always on the table at 6 o'clock each evening, a point made in Mrs. America. After receiving her phone call of rejection from Ronald Reagan in 1980 (after aiding Reagan in the elections, Schlafly had her sights set on a Cabinet position), she puts down the receiver and affirms to her husband: ‘dinner is always at 6’. Impeded on the way to achieve her political ambition once again, she moves from her desk to the kitchen table to peel apples. A melancholy juxtaposition of a closing scene – a woman driven by political fervour resuming her place as homemaker, just as her campaign would have wanted…

Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem, writer, lecturer, political activist, and feminist organiser, is another key player in Mrs. America. Steinem became a pivotal spokeswoman for the American feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, speaking out for the empowerment of women on topics such as abortion (Steinem was a fervent pro-choice advocate) as well as on issues including children's education where she sought to break down barriers based on sex and race. As this National Geographic article expresses, Steinem’s concerns were global, ‘she understood…race, class, and caste’.

Steinem co-founded Ms. magazine in 1972 and helped found both the Women's Action Alliance and the National Women's Political Caucus, the latter being ‘a group that continues to work to advance the numbers of pro-equality women in elected and appointed office at a national and state level’. Steinem gained attention for her journalism when she published the two-part feature entitled ‘A Bunny’s Tale’ in Show magazine in 1963. In it, Steinem tells of how she was hired as a Bunny Girl and details the conditions in which she, and the other Bunnies, were made to work, including the sexual demands made on them. This 2013 Guardian article explored ‘A Bunny’s Tale’ and its contemporary relevance when the feature turned 50 years old.

The British Library holds a number of copies of Ms. magazine, from 1987 onwards when the magazine switched from monthly to quarterly (shelfmark: ZA.9.a.6674). Ms. was founded by Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, the African American human rights activist, feminist, and child-care advocate. The Spring ’72 issue, featuring a depiction of a version of the Hindu goddess, Kali, using her eight arms to tackle house-wifely duties including cooking, ironing and cleaning, is featured in Mrs. America. It also included the article ‘Women Tell The Truth About Their Abortions’. In one touching scene, a reader stops Steinem in the street and thanks her for publishing the piece; illustrating how this taboo subject was one that many women felt isolated in experiencing and being able to talk about.

Cover for Spring 1972 edition of Ms. showing a version of the Hindu goddess, Kali, using her eight arms to tackle house-wifely duties including cooking, ironing and cleaning
Cover for Spring 1972 edition of Ms. published by Liberty Media for Women, as seen in Mrs. America.

Ms. was a departure from many magazines published at the time that were marketed to women in a bid to help them find a husband, raise children, or wear the right make-up, it “helped to shape contemporary feminism, with…editors and authors translating ‘a movement into a magazine.’”

In a topical twist of fate, when searching editions online, it would seem that the earliest British Library holdings of Ms., from September 1987, feature Tracey Ullman on the front cover – Ullman plays the role of Betty Friedan in Mrs. America.

Comedian and actress Tracey Ullman graces the cover of the September 1987 edition of Ms.
Cover for September 1987 edition of Ms. published by Liberty Media for Women (shelfmark: ZA.9.a.6674). Comedian and actress Tracey Ullman graces the cover. Image sourced from MereMart.com 

A woman with clear journalistic proficiency and activist vehemence, Mrs. America also touches on the media attention that Steinem’s appearance gained her: ‘the real Steinem has expressed exasperation with the way media coverage centered [sic] on her looks and style.’ A frustrating and ironic state of affairs considering the exact points Steinem and her fellow activists were making in their campaigns. This LA Times article examines this point in more detail, and how accurate Mrs. America’s’ portrayal of Gloria Steinem is (or isn’t). Steinem was not involved in the portrayal of herself in the FX series and discusses what Mrs. America gets ‘hopelessly wrong’ in this article. In particular, Steinem notes: ‘I’m very disturbed that people may look at Mrs. America and feel that women are our own worst enemies. Because even when we disagree, we don’t have the power to be our own worst enemies.’

Works by Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm can be seen in part one of this blog pairing. And don’t forget that Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, the next major British Library exhibition, while on hold for now, will be opening later in 2020.

Further reading in the Library collections which speak to the subjects/characters in Mrs. America

Abortion Rap by Diane Schulder and Florynce Kennedy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971). Shelfmark: A71/979

A Feminist in the White House: Midge Costanza, the Carter Years, and America's Culture Wars by Doreen J. Mattingly (Oxford; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016). Shelfmark: YC.2016.a.8330

My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2018). Shelfmark: YK.2019.a.2799

Available as an online resource

National Organization for Women (Washington, D.C.: Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2003)

Journal and journal articles

‘Puerto Rican Women and Work: Bridges in Transnational Labor’ by Carmen Delgado Votaw, found in Inter-American review of bibliography. Vol 47; Number 1/4,; 1997, 234-235. Shelfmark: 4531.894000

Women's Rights Law Reporter (Newark, N.J.: Women's Rights Law Reporter, 1971). Shelfmark: 9343.450000

[Blog by RSC]

11 August 2020

Mrs. America: Unfinished Business

One of the programmes I’ve managed to binge-watch my way through during the past few weeks is Mrs. America: an FX mini-series (currently available on BBC iPlayer) with a blockbuster feel starring Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne, to name a few.

The show depicts the battle between the feminists rallying to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in America during the 1970s, and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly who leads the fight against the Amendment’s passing. This two-part blog looks at some of the characters from the programme and the items they authored which are available in the British Library collections.

The airing of Mrs. America comes at a very timely point for Library colleagues – many of whom have been working tirelessly for months and years before lockdown, and continue to do so, on our next major exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights. The exhibition was due to open in April 2020 but is currently on hold until later in the year. From bodily autonomy and the right to education, to self-expression and protest, the exhibition will examine how feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the complex history of women’s rights. A number of Mrs. America’s themes and conversations speak to those explored in the exhibition. The closing notes of the series bring the conversation to present-day America (Virginia ratified the ERA as recently as January 2020) implying, in the same way as the Library exhibition’s name affirms, that these debates are ongoing and far from settled: the fight for women’s rights is indeed unfinished business.

The nine-part series focuses each episode on key players in the US second-wave feminism movement , and the battles that were waged by the movements’ opposing parties. Tackling issues such as reproductive rights, equal pay and girls’ education, ‘the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the United States was one of the most conflict laden.

Some of the show’s characters I was familiar with, but many names were new to me and I wanted to find out more. Watchers of the programme will know that there are numerous pieces of literature referenced or mentioned throughout. Of course, many of us aren’t in the British Library building at the moment and seeing these foundational pieces of text on screen, or even mentioned, made me miss the office – and the collections – even more. Resources that would normally be at one’s fingertips are now slightly harder to reach. Despite the exercising of patience needed when it comes to accessing collection items at the moment, I wanted to have a root around the catalogue to see what holdings there might be that complement the stories of the main protagonists during this unforgettable moment in US history.

The following discoveries served as a wonderful and relevant reminder to me, as I hope they will for you, of what influential items the Library holds and that will available to easily consult for one’s research, inspiration or enjoyment, once a more recognisable version of reality greets us once again.

Please note that images in this article have been retrieved from online sources as I have been unable to access and photograph Library collections. Therefore there may be some discrepancy in what the Library’s holdings look like in comparison to the items pictured in this blog.

Bella Abzug

‘This woman's place is in the House—the House of Representatives.’ Bella Abzug’s bold 1971 campaign slogan declared that she was a force to be reckoned with. U.S. Representative, attorney, peace activist and gay-rights supporter, Abzug helped to advance the role of women in US politics. In 1961, Abzug co-founded the women's peace activist group, Women Strike for Peace, and during the 60s and 70s she was active in the peace movement, vehemently against the testing of nuclear weapons. Her fighting spirit and passion earnt her the nickname Battling Bella. Abzug was an early supporter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and remained active in feminist issues until her death in 1998.

The Library holds a first edition of Bella! Ms. Abzug goes to Washington (shelfmark: 72/4051X) written by Abzug and edited by Mel Ziegler. The title was published in 1972 by Saturday Review Press – the publishing company branch of Saturday Review, which was, in contrast to this book’s subject, an American weekly men's lifestyle and health magazine, established in 1924. As the name implies, the book traces New York-born Bella Abzug’s journey to politics. The dust jacket shows her signature hat-wearing appearance in silhouette form, with her charismatic grin on the back cover – something Margo Martindale portrays brilliantly, along with Abzug’s ‘pugnacious wit’, in Mrs. America.

Photo of dust jacket for Bella! Ms. Abzug goes to Washington by Bella S. Abzug showing Bella's silhouette on the front cover and her portrait on the back
Dust jacket for Bella! Ms. Abzug goes to Washington by Bella S. Abzug, edited by Mel Ziegler. [New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972.] Image sourced from Biblio.com

Episode 7 focuses on Abzug as she is tasked with organising the National Women’s Conference in Houston following her failed run for Senate in 1977. Abzug would later be dismissed by President Carter as co‐chairman of his National Advisory Committee on Women after a heated discussion on women’s issues at the White House. In the TV show, members of Abzug’s committee resign in solidarity with Bella; making for a powerful and pertinent scene (and one of my favourites). Did this really happen? This article examines the fact vs fiction in Mrs. America and the reality behind this particularly event, one which Gloria Steinem referred to as ‘the Friday afternoon massacre.’

Shirley Chisholm

The first Black woman elected to the United States Congress in 1968, Shirley Chisholm represented New York's 12th congressional district for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. Chisholm was also the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for president of the United States from one of the two major political parties. ‘Unbossed and unbought’ was her motto, showing her outspoken advocacy for both women and minority groups. In this Washington Post article, Vanessa Williams explores how Chisholm “described herself as ‘the people’s politician,’ fighting for higher wages for working people and more money for public education and demanding respect for black Americans and women.”

The Library holds a first edition of Chisholm’s 1970 autobiography, which took its name from her slogan: Unbought and Unbossed (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970, shelfmark: W44/9078). In the book, Chisholm writes about her life, growing up as a young girl in Brooklyn, through her journey into politics, and her experiences of the American political system. It examines her long political struggle and the problems which plagued the American system of government.

Cover for Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm showing Chisholm in various stances
Cover for Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm. [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.] Image sourced from goodreads.com

Episode 3 of Mrs. America focuses on Chisholm as the congresswoman and presidential candidate vows to stay in the race for nomination come the 1972 Democratic National Convention. She is a recurring character and steadfast force, and through her story the series ‘points out how the obstacles Chisholm face[d] as a liberal black woman differ[ed] from those facing the white co-founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus.’ This recent Washington Post article includes a fascinating interview with Uzo Aduba, who plays the iconic role of Chisholm.

The next Mrs. America blog instalment will feature works by Betty Friedan, Phyllis Schlafly and Gloria Steinem.

[Blog by RSC]

04 August 2020

Reactions to HIV in the 1980s and COVID-19 stigma

This post by Carmen Logie is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US  collections.

My work in the field of HIV began in the early 1990s, before we had effective anti-retroviral therapy.  I had just moved from small town Ontario, to a big Canadian city - Toronto.  It was the first semester in my undergraduate degree when a fellow student asked me if I wanted to volunteer with her on what was then called the ‘AIDS’ floor of a local hospital.  Always interested in learning about something new, I agreed.  Little did I know that would change the course of my life.  The floor was sectioned off for only people with HIV, and by the time people reached the stage of being hospitalized, for many they were in the last stages of life.  As a volunteer my job was anything that the patient wanted—to run and grab a newspaper, to escort them to the smoking area (when there was such a thing), or to help the nurses feed someone.  Sometimes I would just sit and hold someone’s hand.  Myself and other volunteers were often the only visitors some patients had, having been abandoned by their friends and family due to HIV-related stigma alongside with homophobia, as many at the time (as today) living with HIV in Canada were gay and bisexual men.  Knowing that people were sick and alone due to stigma sparked my passion on stigma in the field of HIV and sexual health.

Fast forward 26 years and it is my first week at the British Library for my Eccles Fellowship in March 2020.  A new virus—COVID-19—had recently emerged and was stirring global fear and panic.  A few weeks prior to arriving in London I had conducted a media interview on stigma directed toward persons of Asian descent in Toronto, Canada related to COVID-19. I reflected on the roots of this stigma, and its parallels to HIV-related stigma.  While at the British Library I was inspired to re-read books on HIV-related stigma from the beginning of the epidemic.  Classics like Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors led me back to her earlier work, Illness as Metaphor.1 I also revisited D. Crimp’s AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism.2

A photo of Susan Sontag sitting in her own home. Her left arm rests on a table and the right rests on the arm of the chair. Her dark hair is loose. She is wearing an open-necked striped shirt and a dark waistcoat. There are floor to ceiling bookcases in the background.
Susan Sontag, photographed in her own home. 1979. Copyright Lynn Gilbert.  (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Reading these pieces from early in the AIDS pandemic was striking.  I was inspired to write two commentaries on parallels between HIV-related stigma and COVID-19 stigma.  Sontag had warned about using military metaphors to describe the HIV and AIDS pandemic decades ago: “We are not being invaded.  The body is not a battlefield.  The ill are neither unavoidable casualties nor the enemy.  We—medicine, society—are not authorized to fight back by any means whatever.”3  Yet the panic and fear regarding COVID-19 was palpable.  While this fear was understandable, the use of military metaphors in framing COVID-19 exacerbated the xenophobic responses, including hate crimes, toward persons of Asian descent in Canada and other global contexts.  Othering—distinguishing oneself as ‘normal’ in comparison with the ‘abnormal’ other—has been a central part of understanding and approaching illness throughout history.  Crimp reminds us from his discussion of the framing of HIV in the early days as impacting the ‘4-H’s’ (Haitians, haemophiliacs, heroin users, ‘homosexuals’) that illnesses are often blamed on the racial, foreign or otherwise ‘immoral’ other.  Although COVID-19 was named to avoid association with a place of origin, even in July 2020 world leaders continue to refer to it as the ‘China virus’.  People who are not following public health measures have been labelled ‘super spreaders’ and even ‘intentional murderers’.  This blaming of individuals leaves the larger social and structural factors contributing to COVID-19 vulnerabilities—including racism, poverty and insufficient access to PPE—unaddressed.

Yet reading Sontag’s and Crimp’s work more than 30 years after it was written also provides me with hope.  They both underscore the solution to stigmatizing and blaming groups of people for illnesses lies in strengthening communities.  We need to remind one another of our shared humanity in order to build solidarity and caring networks that support one another to engage in COVID-19 preventive practices and care for one another when we are sick.  These networks have already been formed; for instance, across the globe people are sewing hand-made masks to share with others, and some are shopping and checking in on the wellbeing of the elderly.  Sontag powerfully reminds us that we are unified in our vulnerability to acquiring illness:

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship.  Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” (Sontag, 1978, p. 3).

I disappointingly had to leave my Eccles Fellowship early, after the Prime Minister in Canada requested Canadians return home as the border was closing.  Being at the British Library when this pandemic was spreading inspired me to go back to the books on early HIV and AIDS activism, to reach back in history and learn from the way we stigmatize new infections—and from the way we can challenge this stigma and build stronger communities.  My research has now expanded to understanding and tackling COVID-19 stigma across the globe, hoping we can learn from the past to dig out the root causes of stigma and plant seeds of solidarity and care.

Carmen Logie, Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2019, is Associate Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.

For further discussions of stigma, listen to Carmen’s podcast series, ‘Everybody Hates Me: Let’s Talk About Stigma’. This podcast invites a range of weekly guests to talk about all different kinds of stigma. Why does it matter? What does it look like? What can we do about it? https://www.buzzsprout.com/1024792

References:

1.  Susan Sontag, AIDS and its metaphors. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1989. General Reference Collection: YK.1993.a.100;  Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1978. General Reference Collection: X.329/11987.

2.  D. Crimp,  AIDS: cultural analysis/cultural activism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 1987. p. 3–16.  General Reference Collection: YC.1992.b.5679.

3.  Sontag, 1989. p. 180.

Articles supported by this Eccles Fellowship:

C. Logie, 'Lessons learned from HIV can inform our approach to COVID-19 stigma.'  Journal of the International AIDS Society. 2020, 23:e25504

C. Logie and J. Turan, 'How do we balance tensions between COVID-19 public health responses and stigma mitigation? Learning from HIV research.'  AIDS & Behavior. 2020, 24: 2003-3006.

30 July 2020

Exploring Robert Lowell's English years in the Sound Archive

This blog by Grzegorz Kosc is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.

Robert Lowell stands in front of a wall of books, wearing a light jacket, dark tie, striped shirt and glasses.
Robert Lowell at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Harvard Square, 1965, by Elsa Dorfman. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The British Library has a truly unique collection of recorded interviews with friends, associates, and spouses of the celebrated American confessional poet Robert Lowell (1917–1977) (the collection can be most effectively searched through the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue, C939/01–53).  The interviews were conducted and recorded in 1979 by poet and editor Ian Hamilton in preparation, first, for a BBC2 television programme about Lowell in the Lively Arts series, broadcast in February 1980, and, second, for Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982).  The interviewees include, for instance, Frank Bidart, his close friend and assistant who was to become a famous poet himself; his editor at Faber and Faber, Charles Monteith; Jonathan Raban, Frank Parker, William Alfred, and Eugene McCarthy.  The subjects even include Mrs Dignam, a cleaner in Castletown House where he and his third wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, moved shortly before they broke up, and who was the last person to see Lowell before his death.  Two interviews Hamilton conducted with Lowell’s two wives, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Blackwood herself, crown the collection.

The interviews have never been published or transcribed for a print publication.  It’s unclear how their revelations informed or impacted Hamilton’s final narrative for, when one listens to them, they continue to sparkle with surprises.  They can be accessed only by visiting the Library.  Though they are fully digitized from original compact cassettes, they can be heard out only from the Library’s computers and therefore are not easily accessible to Lowell scholars usually swarming on the other side of the Atlantic where all the major Lowell archival collections are housed—that is, at the Houghton, Harvard and the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.  Hamilton’s tapes in London remain largely unexamined.  Lowell scholars make a mental note of their existence but few seem to have made the journey.  Only the most painstaking of researchers—like Saskia Hamilton, the editor of Lowell’s letters, or Kay Redfield Jamison, the author of his psychobiography Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire—got around to listening to them.

Cover of The Dophin including an illustration of a fish-like shape.
The Dolphin by Robert Lowell, 1973. British Library shelfmarks: General Reference Collection X.989/21486; Document Supply 73/5755; Document Supply 73/6262.

The continuing neglect of the recordings by researchers is regrettable because they are rich in more ways than one.  It’s a trove of portraits of people from Lowell’s circle and of revelations about the poet’s late life in England.  One is struck, for instance, by the personality and the peculiar, odd conversational talent of Francis Stanley Parker, one of Lowell’s closest and oldest friends, a Cambridge, Mass.-based artist who did all of the frontispieces for Lowell’s volumes.  One is drawn into Jonathan Raban’s detailed and intimate account of his days he spent with the Lowells at Blackwood’s mansion Milgate Park in Kent.

Robert Lowell, wearing a dark jacket and tie, and Elizabeth Hardwick, wearing a dark summer dress or blouse, sit on wooden chairs in a sunny park.
Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick. Photograph courtesy the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

However, the most haunting are the monologues, of several hours each, by Elizabeth Hardwick and Lady Caroline Blackwood.  Blackwood is very casual, matter-of-fact, dividing her attention between Hamilton and her daughters, very honest about the divorce deal Lowell made with Hardwick and about her growing realisation of the terrors she would have deal with in Lowell’s manic phases.  Convivial and perhaps slightly lubricated with a drink, Elizabeth Hardwick, too, is forthright and unreserved in her conversation with Hamilton.  One wants to listen to the recordings for hours for her personality, her special mood that day, and most importantly, for her complex attitude to “the real [. . .] Aspern Papers”--that is, despairing letters which she was sending to Lowell in the early 1970s when they were breaking up and he was turning his attention to Caroline and which he versified into sonnets for The Dolphin (1973).  The story has recently received a full treatment in The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979 and The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1971–1973, both volumes edited by Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).  And yet Hardwick’s rich monologue continues to be fresh and surprising.  She monologizes at length about the letters, telling Hamilton, among other things, that what really angered her was that her husband had misrepresented her words and tone, making her letter seem “flat and dull.”  She was most irritated by the sonnet “In the Mail” intoning lame decencies, allegedly coming from under her pen, about her daughter being “normal and good because she had normal and good parents.”  She also told Hamilton an unknown story which I think is a research lead, about how one day she and Lowell went over the Selected Poems in hardcover and she made him review the selection and tweak the Dolphin sonnets once again to address her complaints.  How the paperback edition of the Selected differs from the original hardcover will be the next step in my research.

The recordings of Ian Hamilton’s interviews at the British Library remain a rich resource to the students of Lowell’s late career.  They offer memorable portraits of Lowell’s loved ones and of several talented writers and intellectuals from his circle.  Whilst the Hamilton tapes are only accessible in the Reading Rooms, a later interview with Elizabeth Harwick is available on the British Library Sounds webpages, as part of the ICA talks series.  In this interview she discusses her life and works.  Interestingly, she comes across as a little haughty and blasé in this public forum, quite different in her manner from the way she behaved with Hamilton.

Grzegorz Kosc (University of Warsaw) was an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2018. He is co-editing, with Steven G. Axelrod of the University of California Riverside, Robert Lowell’s Memoirs to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2021. He is also a co-editor, with Thomas Austenfeld of the University of Fribourg, of Robert Lowell in Context for Cambridge University Press, slated for 2022. His own research work is focused on the question of how Lowell’s late financial problems affected his poetics.

28 July 2020

Colonial American Theatre

This post by Jeffery Kennedy is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.

As friends and colleagues heard that I had received a Fulbright Scholar Award to the British Library, their first question was to ask what I would be researching.  When I told them a new text on American Theatre history, their puzzled look was typically followed by “At the British Library?”  The reality is that studying British theatre of the 17th and 18th centuries is precisely where one needs to begin as this is the origin from which almost all of Early American theatre springs.  My research goals while a guest of the Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies revolved around three main threads of study: 1) identifying the British ancestry of colonists recorded to have performed the first play in the American colonies; 2) the significant influence the Puritans had on theatre in both Britain and America; and 3) the Restoration plays that were the first to be performed professionally in the colonies.  I want to report here about the first item, which was the ancestral work the resources at the Library allowed me to complete.

A contemporary heritage plaque indicating where 'The Bear and the Cub' was performed.
The Bear and the Cub Marker: This sign is located on Highway 17 in Pungoteague, Virginia, telling of the town’s history of staging the first play in America. Image courtesy of Jeffery Kennedy.

The first recorded play performed in the American colonies took place on 27 August 1665 in Pungoteague, Accomack County, Virginia.  The play was titled “Ye Beare and Ye Cubb,” and we know of the performance because of its entry in the legal record.  After being performed in Fowlkes Tavern, a citizen, Edward Martin, reported his moral objection to the local authorities, though what his protest was specifically is not known.  Likely it sprang as a remnant from the twenty-year ban on theatre in Britain that was a result of Puritan dominance after 1640.  The Puritans, who desired a stricter religious practice than the new Church of England required, believed that theatre was, at its core, evil.  Charles I was beheaded as head of the Church of England by the Puritan rebellion led by Oliver Cromwell and monarch rule was suspended.  Puritan influence led to similar kinds of judgements about theatre in America, particularly in the northeastern colonies of New England.  However, the “Restoration” occurred after Charles II was installed as king in 1660, returning Britain to being led by a monarch.  As a result, theatres reopened in London, most often performing frivolous comedies of manners that featured women on stage for the first time.

A sepia photograph of a tavern with 15 or so people standing in front.
An old photograph of Fowlkes Tavern, courtesy of Jeffery Kennedy.

The local Accomack judges responded to Martin’s charge by bringing before them the play’s likely author, William Darby, and Cornelius Watkinson and Philip Howard, who performed it with him.  After they were “subjected to a rigid cross-examination,” the council ordered them to perform the play at their next session, costumes and all.After the performance, finding the play innocent in content as well as intent, the council released the three men from all charges and instead ordered their accuser, Martin, to pay the expenses incurred.  Sadly, there is no existing script of the play, nor are the plot or characters known.  Some scholars conjecture that the title implies a critique of mother England’s (the Bear) newly imposed restrictions on direct sales to other countries of goods created in the colonies (the Cub).  Also, little has been known about the lives of the three who performed the play, particularly Darby.  One of my goals was to conduct genealogical research to see if I could discover anything, including where in England he had emigrated from, something previously unknown.

I consulted many genealogical records within the Library, most of which were typically kept by the local parishes that recorded births, christenings, marriages, and burials.  One of the most helpful was from the Staffordshire Parish Registers Society, published in 1912.2  The evidence strongly suggests that William Darby was born in Tipton, Staffordshire, in the West Midlands of England.  His family moved to nearby Rowley when he was still a boy, and it is here that he married Elizabeth Heywood.  The last record of the family living in Rowley is the 1650 death of William’s middle daughter, Anne, at the age of nine; all references after this locate them in Virginia.  William had five children, and we gain the most information by tracing the life of his eldest son, Daniel. We know that by 1665, the year the play was performed, William was forty-eight-years-old and that this same year 25 year old Daniel married the 22 year old Dorothy Churchill in Accomack County, Virginia.  Dorothy had come to Accomack in 1664 as a “headright,” the name for those who self-indentured; such individuals were provided with passage via ship and basic necessities in exchange for a fixed period of unwaged labour in the new colony.  Whether the Darbys were freemen or became freedmen is so far not known.  Daniel eventually became a land-owner and served in local civic affairs.  How or why William was involved in presenting and perhaps even writing a play is so far unknown, but I intend to pursue this further.

My research through the Eccles Centre yielded this critical information, which is more than has been able to be confirmed to this degree by other scholars.  Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic required me to return to the U.S. after just a short time, not allowing me to finish more research.  However, I hope to return to the Library’s hallowed halls to pursue even more deeply those Brits involved in the vital launching of theatre in America.

Jeffery Kennedy, Fulbright-British Library Eccles Centre Scholar 2019-20, is an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies at Arizona State University.

References

  1. This comes from J. C. Wise, Ye kingdome of Accawmacke, or, The Eastern Shore of Virginia in the seventeenth century. Richmond, Va: Bell Book and Stationery Co., 1911.  British Library shelfmark: 9602.s.2.
  2. Staffordshire Parish Registers Society. Privately printed for the Society, 1902- .  British Library shelfmarks: Ac.8131 & Document Supply 8426.420000.

23 July 2020

The Perils of Diplomatic Protection in the Early 19th Century

This post by Vanessa Mongey is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.

How far should diplomatic protection extend?  Surely, consul James Buchanan argued, there must be limits to American “humanity.”  In Belize, a British settlement in Central America, Buchanan was trying to understand his responsibilities towards U.S. citizens.  The hurricane season of 1849 had caused a few ships to wreck near the coast and the officers, crew, and passengers had sought refuge in the port of Belize.  They turned to Buchanan for help.  The consul paid for a few destitute sailors to return home, but the situation soon got out of control. Officers demanded he pay for their room and board.  Sailors asked storekeepers to send their bills to him.

When the consul refused to reimburse all these expenses, the crew complained to the local British police and magistrates.  They turned to the Act for the Relief and Protection of American Seamen (1796) that provided certificates for the protection of sailors.  They argued that the U.S. government owed them not only diplomatic but also financial protection. Buchanan was as annoyed as he was confused.  He asked the State Department what to do with U.S. citizens stranded abroad.  He confessed that he had “no legal knowledge of what the consul’s duties are in this matter.”

A page of a handwritten letter from the U.S. Consul in British Honduras to the U.S. State Department.
An example of consular correspondence. Part of a letter from U.S. Consul to State Department, 15 February 1863. The letter mentions white settlers' anxieties around plans by the government of British Honduras (today's Belize) to encourage African American immigration from the U.S.  British Library shelfmark (microfilm): T334 Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Belize, 1847-1906, roll 1, 1847 –1863.

The correspondences of U.S. consular representatives in the British Library abound with this kind of complaints and queries.  Many politicians, jurists, and citizens in the United States embraced the view that individuals had a natural right to leave their country.  Increasing numbers of U.S. Americans traveled abroad during the nineteenth century. Some served in Latin American independent armies and navies.  Many settled in neighbouring foreign territories like Florida, Texas, and California, eventually leading the United States to invade and annex these territories.  Freedom of movement often bolstered U.S continental and commercial ambitions.

Although the nineteenth century saw relatively unregulated movement, the right to travel was racialized.  Freedom of movement was often a privilege of European and Euro-descendants as shown by tensions surrounding Chinese immigration to California and issues around enslaved and free travelers of African descent moving across state and national lines.

Even for free white U.S. Americans, the right to travel freely created new challenges: what happened when citizens crossed international borders and got into trouble abroad? Instrumental in defining and implementing diplomatic protection were consular networks.  Lacking a significant overseas presence in the first half of the nineteenth century, the U.S. government possessed neither the resources nor the capabilities to monitor the activities of their citizens abroad.  With no formal training, consuls were the ones on the ground who assisted Americans when they ended up in jail, aided them in navigating estate and inheritance issues, or represented their legal interests.  They often had to decide whether an individual was really a U.S. citizen, and therefore entitled to consular protection, at a time when no definition of national citizenship existed.

Painting of men gathering in Peshawar. Some are on horseback, others talk together in groups. Buildings and trees surround the square.
Peshawar (in modern-day Pakistan). Chromolithograph from plate 9 of William Simpson's India: Ancient and Modern (1867). British Library shelfmark X108(9). Available in the British Library Online Gallery.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States could not set up permanent consular posts in India.  The British kept tight control over the region, thwarting U.S. consuls in Calcutta (Kolkata) and Bombay (Mumbai).  The India Office Records and Private Papers in the British Library show that tensions frequently erupted between British and U.S. representatives.  British authorities complained about distressed sailors who ended up in their care.  One U.S. consul in Singapore simply refused to help naturalized American citizens, arguing that those who were born British subjects fell under the Common Law doctrine of perpetual allegiance.  In brief, once British, always British—especially if these individuals were potential drains on consular finances.

In addition to uncertainty and confusion expressed by U.S. consuls, these correspondences also reveal how U.S. citizens understood their rights and responsibilities.  When they had the resources or the connections, they sent letters to journal editors in the United States, hoping to put pressure on consuls.

This early phase of diplomatic experimentation came to an end in the middle of the nineteenth century.  As the U.S. consular service expanded outside of Europe and the Americas and into China, Japan, and Siam, the government formalised the diplomatic and consular system in 1856.  A reform legislation introduced salaries for a greater number of consular officials, hoping to reduce corruption and professionalise the service.  The same year, the State Department received sole issuing power over passports and limited their use to U.S. citizens, thus reducing the autonomy of consuls.  The Civil War (1861-1865) prompted a sharp growth of the consular service. At the end of the war, the fourteenth amendment defined national citizenship to include all persons born or naturalized in the United States.  Monitoring international travel served as a testing ground for restrictions of citizenship rights along class, gender, and racial lines.

Dr Vanessa Mongey, Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2019, is on Twitter @VMongey

Resources consulted:

For US Federal Government Publications, the finding aid Diplomatic Records: A select catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications (shelf mark OPL 973.0076) is available in the Social Sciences reading room. It has been annotated to indicate which microfilms are in the British Library and gives their shelfmarks. I made particular use of ‘The correspondences of U.S. ministers at overseas posts’ (shelfmark SPR Mic.B.21) and ‘U.S. consuls at overseas ports’ (shelfmark SPR Mic.B.22). The India Office Records and Private Papers: the general shelfmark is IOR/Z/E/ and this is the collection guide

Further reading:

Fahrmeir, Andreas O. & Patrick Weil (eds.), Migration Control in the North Atlantic World: The Evolution of State Practices in Europe and the United States from the French Revolution to the Inter-War Period. New York: Berghahn Books, 2002. British Library shelfmarks: Document Supply m03/17964; General Reference Collection YC.2003.a.13981; General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.515229.
Glanville, Luke. “The Responsibility to Protect Beyond Borders.” Human Rights Law Review. 12: 1 (2012): 1–32.  British Library shelfmarks: Document Supply 4336.440550; General Reference Collection ZC.9.b.7074.
Green, Nancy L. “The Politics of Exit: Reversing the Immigration Paradigm.” The Journal of Modern History. 77: 2 (2005): 263-289. British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 5020.680000.
Jones, Martha S. Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2018.  British Library shelfmark: YC.2019.a.4852.
Kennedy, Charles Stuart. The American Consul: A History of the United States Consular Service 1776–1924. New York: Greenwood, 1990. British Library shelfmark: YC.1992.b.1026. (Rev. ed. published by New Academia Publishing, 2015). 
Perl-Rosenthal, Nathan. Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015. British Library shelfmark: YC.2017.a.660.
Phelps, Nicole. Researching the U.S. Consular Service https://blog.uvm.edu/nphelps/

 

16 July 2020

Atomic Holiday Snaps? Depictions of ‘normality’ in the official photography of postwar atomic bomb tests

This post by Timothy Peacock is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across the Caribbean, Canadian and US collections. 

A group of women and men sitting together on a tropical beach, wearing beachwear, palm trees some distance behind, looking at the camera. There is also one man off to the right, standing, wearing swimming trunks.
Figure 1: Army nurses stationed at Kwajalein relax with friends [during a nuclear test series]. Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946, p. 71. British Library shelfmark: W67/5211.

Who would ever think of a nuclear test site as a summer holiday camp?

One of the extraordinary holdings of the British Library is the 'Official Pictorial Record' of the aptly named ‘Operation Crossroads’ in 1946, containing over 200 photographs and accompanying text about the first postwar nuclear bomb test series by the United States.1  The tests, at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, used atom bombs against a fleet of decommissioned and captured World War II ships.  These detonations set precedents for the peacetime testing of more than 1,000 nuclear weapons over the following decades, displaced populations from their Pacific Island homes, and had global diplomatic impacts.2

The tests also produced some of the most recognisable images of atomic bomb detonations which not only continue to be staples of film and television but have generated sociocultural responses from mushroom-cloud hairdos to memes and protest movements.  The now ubiquitous swimsuit, the bikini - which was unveiled to the world four days after the first detonation - was immediately equated by its creator with the atom: small but full of explosive potential.  Yet unlike the Atoll itself, the swimsuit appears to have escaped widespread association with nuclear testing and its radioactive legacies!

However, the political, military and cultural histories merge within Operation Crossroads: the Official Pictorial Record in the most unexpected ways.  Alongside images of scientific test preparations, atomic detonations and damage surveys, what is perhaps most remarkable about the Record is the number of images which capture aspects of the everyday lives of those involved in the tests, whether working or off-duty - at rest, exercise or while being entertained.

Some of the images look, at first glance, like historic holiday snapshots, the only indicators to the contrary being an ominous line in the accompanying text or occasional visual clues. Sometimes even these clues do not make it clear as to the overarching situation.

One double page in particular captures the holiday camp vibe, entitled, with unconscious irony, “IS EVERYBODY HAPPY?”.  A large group of sailors are pictured paying close attention to a shirtless speaker (Figure 2), who turns out to be a Congressman observing the tests.  The text explains this to have been part of a “Happy Hour”, including a quiz about nuclear physics.  In perhaps a classic representation of the ‘underdog’ triumphing, it proudly records the ships messboys’ victory over the scientists in their quiz knowledge.

Rows of men sitting together as a crowd, wearing white sailor uniforms, some with hats. To the right, a man wearing a white hat and swimming trunks stands at a microphone, addressing them. 
Congressman W. G. Andrews (R) from Buffalo, New York, acts as master of ceremonies at a “Happy Hour” aboard the AGC 3 “Panamint”. Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946, p. 70. British Library shelfmark: W67/5211.

Alongside this image, the other page displays pictures which continue the seaside resort theme.  One of these (Figure 1) is a close-up photograph of women on a beach, surrounding one man, with another in the background, all wearing what appears to be beachwear, some smiling for the camera.  It is only through the caption that we learn of their affiliation as Army nurses serving with the Task Force, with the explanatory caption “relax with friends”.  The description and framing of the image are notable for reinforcing the vacation motif, and also for blurring the distinction regarding the professional identity of the subjects.

On a tropical beach, a group of men, dressed in swimwear. One sunbathing nearby, others in the distance, swimming in the sea or on a landing craft.
Figure 3: On the beach at Bikini, men of the Task Force try out the swimming facilities. Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946, p. 71. British Library shelfmark: W67/5211.

The other image on the page (Figure 3), a large beach scene, filled with off-duty personnel enjoying themselves through such activities as swimming or sunbathing, features some on a landing craft, but the overall ethos is not dissimilar from the pictorial framing of typical holiday scenes.  The caption does, however, include a final line about banning swimming temporarily because of radiation concerns after the Test Able detonation, quickly following this up by saying it was allowed again once safety was ensured.  The attempt to normalise the tests through juxtaposing the photograph and caption is significantly portentous, given the subsequent history of the radioactive transformation of the landscapes depicted.

A group of sailors inspect the damage aboard a naval vessel, in front of a sign chalked onto the hull.
Figure 4: 'Reboarding Party'. Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946, 2. 171. British Library shelfmark: W67/5211.

The sardonic humour of the photographs, characteristic in 1940s civil and military life, is incongruous with the overarching seriousness of the nuclear test situation. Figure 4 shows a 'reboarding party' surveying a target ship for damage after one of the nuclear detonations.  The message chalked onto the ship’s hull, “Attention visitors, No Smoking, No Souvenirs”, is a seemingly self-conscious pastiche of signs aimed at tourists in hotel resorts, juxtaposed with the military regulations in place surrounding the tests.  Such writing also echoes related traditions of chalking messages onto bombs during the War, or indeed, of naming some individual nuclear weapons after famous figures.  The Bomb dropped in Crossroads Able test, for example, was christened 'Gilda', and adorned with a stencilled name and Rita Hayworth’s photograph, after the title character she played in the 1946 film Gilda – an association which was not appreciated by the film star herself!  The message on the ship was likely written before detonation, a different message being shown in another photo being written by a sailor.  Its presence is an insight into the attitudes of the unnamed author, a working ‘tourist’ in arguably the most exclusive and, at that moment, unappealing resort.

The radioactive seawater which enveloped the target ships during the Crossroads Baker test made most of them too radioactive to be decontaminated. It has been regarded as one of the world’s first nuclear accidents.  Many of the vessels still lie sunk in Bikini Atoll, a popular location in recent years for a very different kind of enthusiast, those diving to explore the wrecks.

The world-changing effects of a seemingly microscopic globule today in some ways resonate remarkably with the transformation surrounding the splitting of the atom. The official photographs from Crossroads serve not only as a scientific and military record of early nuclear testing, but also as a poignant example of the final moments for those individuals involved of the ‘normality’ of the world as it was, and the end of the holiday.

Dr Timothy Peacock, Eccles Fellow 2019, is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Glasgow. He is on Twitter @DrTimPeacock

References: 

1. Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946, p. 71. British Library shelfmark: W67/5211.  This item is also available digitally courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

2. For further information about Operation Crossroads, see Jonathan M. Weisgall, Operation Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1994. British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 94/14429.

NB: Readers may also be interested in a blog about Operation Crossroads by Mark Eastwood, who undertook a PhD placement with the Eccles Centre in 2016.

 

07 July 2020

Dancing in the archives...

This post by Robert Hylton is the first in a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across the Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.

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, 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 Centre Visiting 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

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