Listening to What Workers Say

This week in North Philly Notes, Roberta Iversen, author of What Workers Say, provides stories and voices from the labor market on the chronic lack of advancement.

A common question when meeting someone new is asking them, “What do you do?”

People’s work, and the labor market more broadly, occupy millions of people’s lives in the U.S. and around the globe. But why is “What do you do?” often the first question? Of course it’s partly because most people need the money that work provides—and often need more money than their particular labor market job offers. It’s also because what we “do” is often shorthand to others for “who we are.”

Yet “who we are” does not begin to touch the lack of opportunity in many of today’s labor market jobs, whether in manufacturing, printing, construction, healthcare, clerical work, retail, real estate, architecture, or automotive services. These are occupations and industries that have employed nearly two-thirds of the U.S. workforce since 1980, as workers in these areas since the 1980s until today vividly describe in What Workers Say. I talked to 1,200-plus people at length for this book since the early 1980s, some of them repeatedly, regardless of what occupation they hold or industry their job is in. They have all recognized that there’s little to no opportunity for promotion or advancement in their jobs, despite the fact that people, their communities, their families, and their country as a whole, need what these workers do. At the same time, too many of them are also not paid a living wage.

The workers in the above-mentioned occupations and industries—regardless of socioeconomic characteristics—typify the types of struggles, discouragement, and on-the-job injuries that continue to affect millions of workers in the U.S. and elsewhere. Just as Studs Terkel’s Working (1972) valuably introduced the populace to what many jobs and occupations were like across the U.S. up to the early 1970s, the workers in What Workers Say describe their jobs and occupations from 1980 to today—a period of rapid and tumultuous labor market change. For example, Tisha [a chosen pseudonym, like all of the worker’s names] in manufacturing, Joseph and Randy in construction work, and Kevin in a printing job, are among those workers who vividly illustrate the shift to service occupations from the earlier, higher-paying manufacturing occupations.

In one of the most dramatic examples of this shift, 40-year-old, African American, Hard Working Blessed, experienced multiple eye injuries on his manufacturing job, which resulted in demotion and severe wage reduction. He ended up as a Fast Food Manager, with lower pay and a job that did not make use of his extensive work experience in manufacturing. Clerical workers, such as Roselyn, Wendy, Ayesha, Susan and others similarly describe struggling with frequent recessions and layoffs over the period. Others, including Noel, Tom, and Shanquitta (for a period), describe frequent job disruptions and store closures from the increase in offshoring jobs to countries that pay workers even less than the U.S. does. And many healthcare workers, such as Laquita, Tasha, Martina, and Annie and others experience “credential creep,” where higher-level education became a hiring requirement, even though the demands of the job were suited perfectly to these applicants’ current credentials. This, of course, resulted in new forms of inequities in hiring.

In short, the workers tell the real story about today’s jobs so others can know what these jobs are really like. The richness and depth of the workers’ words help readers to understand that the formal definition of “unemployment” is very strict and does not cover many people who have been laid off or who aren’t able to look for work. Their words also illustrate the fact that since the 1980s there often haven’t been enough jobs for all who want labor market work, and that the default social policy response to low pay has been person-oriented: that more education and more skills are what is needed for greater equity in the labor market. In some cases, the coronavirus pandemic has illuminated the low-pay issue, to the benefit of current workers, but not in all cases and not necessarily to the level of a living wage. These workers also vividly describe what they’d really like to be doing, which leads in the final chapter to a solution that I call “compensated civil labor.” 

Drawing on German sociologist, Ulrich Beck’s idea of civil labor, I add “compensated” to the idea of civil labor. Compensated civil labor expands what we think of as work, how we do work, and particularly, how we do paid work. Compensated civil labor would allow the many people like Teresa to work at her rental car company part-time and satisfy her “heart-string” (aka her passion) of part-time food catering to her church, children’s school, and community and also be compensated for doing it. Compensated civil labor could also enable expansion of the notion of “work” well beyond the labor market in ways that can tap into today’s workers’ desire to engage in environmental protection activities, broader family participation, community contribution, and the like. In short, compensated civil labor would mean compensating people for their non-labor-market work, whether by actual money, exchange, or other forms of compensation. Data in the 2000s from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Employment Statistics Survey and the Current Population Survey, together with numerous existing civic examples, aim to stimulate civic leaders, philanthropic foundations, educators and others to consider compensated civil labor, which could benefit workers, families, communities, and countries alike.

Listen Up! Temple University Press Podcast, Episode 6: Billy Brown on Exploring Philly Nature

This week in North Philly Notes, we debut the latest episode of the Temple University Press Podcast. Host Sam Cohn interviews author Bernard “Billy” Brown about his book, Exploring Philly Nature: A Guide for All Four Seasons, which provides a handy guide for all ages to Philly’s urban plants, animals, fungi, and—yes—even slime molds.

The Temple University Press Podcast is where you can hear about all the books you’ll want to read next.

Click here to listen

The Temple University Press Podcast is available wherever you find your podcasts, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Overcast, among other outlets.

About this episode

Bernard “Billy” Brown is a nature writer and urban herper—that’s someone who recreationally seeks out reptiles and amphibians. In this episode, he talks with podcaster Sam Cohn about his new book, Exploring Philly Nature, a guide to experiencing the flora and fauna in Philly.

This compact illustrated volume contains 52 activities from birding, (squirrel) fishing, and basement bug-hunting to joining a frog call survey and visiting a mussel hatchery. Brown encourages kids (as well as their parents) to connect with the natural world close to home. Each entry contains information on where and when to participate, what you will need (even if it is only patience), and tips on clubs and organizations to contact for access.

The city and its environs contain a multitude of species from the lichen that grows on gravestones or trees to nocturnal animals like opossums, bats, and raccoons. Exploring Philly Nature is designed to get readers eager to discover, observe, and learn more about the concrete jungle that is Philadelphia.

Celebrating 14 notable Black Philadelphians of the Twentieth Century

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase BLAM! Black Lives Always Mattered, a graphic novel project coordinated by the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University and distributed by Temple University Press.

BLAM! Black Lives Always Mattered! Hidden African American Philadelphians of the Twentieth Century is a graphic novel that combines vivid illustrations and compelling text to create a groundbreaking, exciting, and accessible book. BLAM! highlights the lives of fourteen prominent African Americans.  They are: Julian Abele, Dr. Ethel Allen, Marian Anderson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Crystal Bird Fauset, Ruth Wright Hayre, Alain Locke, Walter Lomax, Frederick Massiah, Cecil B. Moore, John W. Mosley, Christopher Perry, Reverend Leon Sullivan, and Father Paul Washington.

With a Foreword by Lonnie G, Bunch, III, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, BLAM! contains an Introduction by the Curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Dr. Diane Turner, and the Collection’s Librarian, Aslaku Berhanu, as well as statements by the writer, Dr. Sheena C. Howard, Associate Professor of Rider University, and by Art Director, Eric Battle, a renowned artist and illustrator.  Published by the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, BLAM! was created through the efforts and input of many people. It is a striking and powerful graphic novel which has the potential to have great educational impact on students, teachers, administrators, and on all those who read it.

BLAM! can be used as an important teaching tool in and of itself, yet also can be utilized in combination with other educational methods by educators in their classrooms. At the end of the graphic novel, there are pages of Assignments and Activities for Students, as well as Ideas for Research Projects that individual students or a whole classroom of students can pursue. Moreover, many teachers will want to develop their own lesson plans and assignments around each chapter of this graphic novel. BLAM! will engage and excite students, setting them on a path to a deeper understanding of African American history. BLAM! also encourages its readers to use critical thinking and analytical skills. All levels of students, as well as the general public, can benefit from BLAM! For those students with limited reading abilities, the book will help them develop and strengthen literacy skills. All readers of BLAM! will be able to expand their ability to discover and continue to learn about African American history in terms of the lives and experiences of the individuals profiled in its pages. BLAM! also has the potential to inspire readers to learn about other individuals and ethnic groups who have been hidden from history. BLAM! will also pique the interest of readers to learn more about the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection and its vast holdings on African American history and culture. They will find added value in visiting the collection and accessing the materials.

In this time of systemic racism, discord, disharmony, and racial misunderstanding, there are now efforts underway and laws enacted in some states to suppress the teaching of the difficult racial history of the United States. BLAM! is able to serve as a beacon of enlightenment, casting a light on the struggles and triumphs of the fourteen, prominent African Americans of the last century that are profiled in the book.  In its beautifully illustrated pages one learns about how these individuals contributed greatly to their communities, to their nation, and in some cases to the world. These individuals, whose legacies continue now and into the future, serve as sterling examples for all readers of BLAM! Their stories will inspire generations to come.

Temple University Press’ Fall 2022 Catalog

This week in North Philly Notes, we announce our forthcoming Fall 2022 titles.

Are All Politics Nationalized?: Evidence from the 2020 Campaigns in Pennsylvania, Edited by Stephen K. Medvic, Matthew M. Schousen, and Berwood A. Yost

Do local concerns still play a significant role in campaigns up and down the ballot?

Beauty and Brutality: Manila and Its Global Discontents, Edited by Martin F. Manalansan IV, Robert Diaz, and Roland B. Tolentino
Diverse perspectives on Manila that suggest the city’s exhilarating sights and sounds broaden how Philippine histories are defined and understood

BLAM! Black Lives Always Mattered!: Hidden African American Philadelphia of the Twentieth Century, by the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection

The historic accomplishments of 14 notable Black Philadelphians from the twentieth-century—in graphic novel form

Blue-State Republican: How Larry Hogan Won Where Republicans Lose and Lessons for a Future GOP, by Mileah K. Kromer

What the story of Maryland’s two-term Republican governor can teach us about winning elections

Bringing the Civic Back In: Zane L. Miller and American Urban History, Edited by Larry Bennett, John D. Fairfield, and Patricia Mooney-Melvin

A critical appraisal of the career of Zane L. Miller, one of the founders of the new urban history

Cultures Colliding: American Missionaries, Chinese Resistance, and the Rise of Modern Institutions in China, John R. Haddad

Why American missionaries started building schools, colleges, medical schools, hospitals, and YMCA chapters in China before 1900

Divide & Conquer: Race, Gangs, Identity, and Conflict, by Robert D. Weide

Argues that contemporary identity politics divides gang members and their communities across racial lines

Engaging Place, Engaging Practices: Urban History and Campus-Community Partnerships, Edited by Robin F. Bachin and Amy L. Howard

How public history can be a catalyst for stronger relationships between universities and their communities

An Epidemic among My People: Religion, Politics, and COVID-19 in the United States, Edited by Paul A. Djupe and Amanda Friesen

Did religion make the pandemic worse or help keep it contained?

Gendered Places: The Landscape of Local Gender Norms across the United States, by William J. Scarborough

Reveals how distinct cultural environments shape the patterns of gender inequality

A Good Place to Do Business: The Politics of Downtown Renewal since 1945, by Roger Biles and Mark H. Rose

How six industrial cities in the American Rust Belt reacted to deindustrialization in the years after World War II

Justice Outsourced: The Therapeutic Jurisprudence Implications of Judicial Decision-Making by Nonjudicial Officers, Edited by Michael L. Perlin and Kelly Frailing

Examines the hidden use of nonjudicial officers in the criminal justice system

Memory Passages: Holocaust Memorials in the United States and Germany, by Natasha Goldman

Now in Paperback—Considers Holocaust memorials in the United States and Germany, postwar to the present

The Mouse Who Played Football, Written by Brian Westbrook Sr. and Lesley Van Arsdall; Illustrated by Mr. Tom

Who would ever think that a mouse could play football?

Never Ask “Why”: Football Players’ Fight for Freedom in the NFL, By Ed Garvey; Edited by Chuck Cascio

An inside look at the struggles Ed Garvey faced in bringing true professionalism to football players

The Real Philadelphia Book 2nd Edition, by Jazz Bridge

An anthology of compositions by popular Philadelphia jazz and blues artists accessible for every musician

Reforming Philadelphia, 1682⁠–⁠2022, by Richardson Dilworth

A short but comprehensive political history of the city, from its founding in 1682 to the present day

Refugee Lifeworlds: The Afterlife of the Cold War in Cambodia, by Y-Dang Troeung

Explores key works that have emerged out of the Cambodian refugee archive

A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service, by Leth Oun with Joe Samuel Starnes

The remarkable story of Leth Oun, from overcoming tragedy and forced labor in Cambodia to realizing dreams he never could have imagined in America

Richard III’s Bodies from Medieval England to Modernity: Shakespeare and Disability History, by Jeffrey R. Wilson

How is Richard III always both so historical and so current?

The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Law: Civil Liberties Debates from the Internment to McCarthyism and the Radical 1960s, by Masumi Izumi

Now in Paperback—Dissecting the complex relationship among race, national security, and civil liberties in “the age of American concentration camps”

The Spires Still Point to Heaven: Cincinnati’s Religious Landscape, 1788–1873, by Matthew Smith 

How nineteenth-century Cincinnati tested the boundaries of nativism, toleration, and freedom

Teaching Fear: How We Learn to Fear Crime and Why It Matters, Nicole E. Rader

How rules about safety and the fear of crime are learned and crystalized into crime myths— especially for women

Toward a Framework for Vietnamese American Studies: History, Community, and Memory, Edited by Linda Ho Peché, Alex-Thai Dinh Vo, and Tuong Vu

A multi-disciplinary examination of Vietnamese American history and experience

Understanding Crime and Place: A Methods Handbook, Edited by Elizabeth R. Groff and Cory P. Haberman

A hands-on introduction to the fundamental techniques and methods used for understanding geography of crime

The Pitfalls of an All-Charter School District

This week in North Philly Notes, J. Celeste Lay, author of Public Schools, Private Governance, writes about how school choice in New Orleans hurt more than it helped.

The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on our lives in so many ways, but for children, one of its most important and potentially lasting effects has been in public education. The pandemic has been a boon for school choice advocates, who see in this disaster a means to push legislation that eases restrictions on charter schools, voucher programs, homeschooling, and more.

The parents and teachers of public school students in New Orleans know all too well how advocates can take advantage of a disaster to achieve long-term political goals. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Louisiana’s state legislature voted to strip the city’s school board of its authority over nearly all its public schools. In Public Schools, Private Governance, I examine the path that has led the city to become the nation’s first all-charter district, and its consequences on democratic values like representation, accountability, and participation.

Although many scholars and advocates place Katrina as the starting point for education reform in New Orleans, I contend that the hurricane merely sped along and expanded the scope of the already existing reform movement in the city. The book spotlights the decade prior to Katrina to reveal and examine the incremental policy changes that made it possible for the state to seize control of the city’s schools. In this period, state legislators—including many of New Orleans’s representatives—passed a school grading system, mandated annual standardized tests, eased the pathways to alternative teacher certification, created multiple types of charter schools, approved a state “recovery” district that could take over “failing schools,” and ultimately, in the year before Katrina, stripped the elected board in New Orleans (and only New Orleans) of most of its authority. By the time the city was draining the floodwaters in Fall 2005, all the state had to do was change the definition of a failing school for it to seize all but a handful of the city’s schools.

This movement largely excluded those who worked in the schools, as well as the parents of school children. This exclusion continued in the wake of Katrina and I show that it continues to the present day. In the all-charter system, parents theoretically have choices about where their children enroll in school. They must rank preferences in a Common Application and there are no neighborhood schools to which kids are assigned. They can go anywhere—in theory. However, in reality, as shown in my book many parents are confused by the system and do not believe it is fair. In particular, they see that the racial disparities that have long been a hallmark of New Orleans public schools continue in this new, supposedly better system. The few white children who attend public schools are enrolled in selective admission schools that require admission tests and other barriers to entry. Meanwhile, the Black children who make up most of the public school district  continue to attend low-performing schools that are predominantly Black institutions.

Although a generation of children have now gone through the new system, the district’s scores have remained well below the state average and only a small minority of schools are rated as “A” or “B” on the state’s A-F scale. Though overall test scores have improved slightly, Black parents do not believe their children are getting a great education and they believe they have little recourse to do anything about it. The elected school board is essentially a mere charter authorizer, and while it has opened and closed dozens of schools over the last 17 years, parents long for high-quality, neighborhood schools staffed by experienced teachers who understand and appreciate New Orleans culture and history. This elected board has almost no authority over school operations. Rather, privately selected charter boards govern school finances, select school leaders, and establish policies. My research shows that these boards are not representative of the city; they cannot be held accountable by voters, they display disdain for parents, and they do not comply with state laws about public bodies. They routinely withhold information they are required to disclose and yet the elected board never sanctions schools or networks for these violations.

For states that are considering an expansion of school choice due to the Covid-19 pandemic, my book offers a warning about the effects of considering schools as consumer goods. There is little improvement in overall school quality, but there is devastation to the local democratic character of public education.

Making a case for the “power” of theory

This week in North Philly Notes, Grant Farred, editor of Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures, writes about the precarity of Black life.

The precarity of Black life. In the U.S. we are reminded of this every day. At least that is how it seems. Police shootings are the worst of it, but not the whole truth of it by any means. In the Black diaspora at large, a similar situation obtains. Unseaworthy vessels sink and African migrants drown as they go in search of a better life in Europe. If they survive, new modes of hostility await them. The stranger is not welcome.

To think a theoretical future for Africana Studies under these conditions seems, if not pyrrhic, then Wordsworthian in tenor. It would be dissembling to suggest that Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures was not conceived against precisely this backdrop, one which recalls the Romantic poet’s lament. Wordsworth writes:

The world is too much with us; late and soon

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers

Against just such a world, where everything mitigates against Black life, Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures makes a case for the “power” of theory. That is because in this collection, theory is not understood as an abstraction or as a rarefied mode of thought. Instead, theory is mobilized in this collection as the work of imagining—of thinking for—a future for Global Black life where precarity is not the order of the day. Africana theory is providing, if not a blueprint, then a first sounding board for how combat the violence that so threatens Black life; a platform for not only resisting the onslaught against Black life, but for ensuring a future that can sustain and nurture Black life. Where Black life might even thrive.

The work of theory is thus to harness the “power” of Black thought in all its manifestations. This collection includes poetic reflection, philosophical contemplation, geo-political analysis and quasi-memoiristic recollection. The work that this collection assigns itself is to think for the futures of Black life. Futures rather than the singular future. That is, in order to create the conditions under which Black life might be sustainably lived there can be no one, single future that will speak to and address all Black needs. It is therefore necessary to think for the plurality of futures. To propose the logic of plurality rather than singularity is, a priori, to anticipate a series of new challenges in those futures. That is, the work of making a future(s) in which Black life can be sustained is, by its very nature, an incomplete project. Every new imagining of Black life, to say nothing of every new making of that life, will generate its own set of possibilities and difficulties.

It will thus always be necessary to develop new theoretical tools, to hone new philosophical skills, to produce new poetic insights, to imagine new geo-political formations and configurations, in order to sustain Black life. In this way Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures recognizes its historical location. It speaks out of, and for, a particular historical conjuncture. It understands its speaking as emerging out of the institutional facticity that is the 50th anniversary of Africana Studies in the American academy.

Rather than being declarative, then, the book offers itself as an invitation. The invitation to think for new theoretical futures, to produce new modes for Black being, to create new poetic articulations. The future of Africana Studies as a discipline is charged with always addressing the challenges that confront Black life, which history has shown to always be a condition overwritten by precarity—a way of being in the world that has always been “too much with us.”

Because Black life in the present is lived as an existential threat, the effect of such precarity is to lend urgency to thinking for theoretical futures. If nothing else, however, Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures reveals the many modes, the multiple registers, the variegated disciplines, in which this thinking might take place. And in this multiplicity, this collection makes evident, there is the imaginings of how Black lives might be lived.


Celebrating Pride Month

As Pride Month comes to a close North Philly Notes showcases three recent books by LGBTQ authors. You can check out all of our Sexuality Studies series titles here and all of our Sexuality Studies/Sexual Identity titles here.

Charles Upchurch, author of “Beyond the Law,”: The Politics of Ending the Death Penalty for Sodomy in Britain

PRIDE is about continuing, celebrating, and securing the work of past generations that has led to greater LGBTQ equality and inclusion within society. That work is sometimes advanced by those with access to political, economic, and cultural power, but this is of secondary importance to the work done by everyone who lives an authentic life, influencing those around them by their example. I have the privilege of being an academic historian, and my new book, “Beyond the Law,”: The Politics of Ending the Death Penalty for Sodomy in Britain, documents the first ever political effort to reform the laws that punished sex between men, which occurred in the early nineteenth century in Britain. At its core, it is a story about those who refused to go along with the vilification of individuals for engaging in private consensual acts. It’s a hopeful story, and while theoretically informed, it is also one that is written in accessible language to reach more people with an account of their rich past, perhaps inspiring them as they make a better future for us all. Happy PRIDE.

Martin Manalansan, coeditor of Q & A: Voices from Queer Asian North America

Q & A: Voices from Queer Asian North America is a forum of vibrant queer voices from Asian North America. At a moment of xenophobic anti-Asian violence and major anti-LGBTQ legislations, the essays, poems, and other creative works in this collection are offering experiences of struggle, exuberance, and survival. Q & A is a testament to the resilience of this  group of scholars, writers, poets and cultural workers whose works are forging hope and viable futures beyond the precarious present.  

Susan Krieger, author of Are You Two Sisters?: The Journey of a Lesbian Couple

During this Pride month, a great array of alternative identities and lifestyles are honored. The “L” word comes first in the list of LGBTQ+, but it is often an invisible identity, as the title of my book Are You Two Sisters? suggests. Particularly for that reason, I think, this new ethnography makes an important contribution.

Since the publication of Are You Two Sisters?: The Journey of a Lesbian Couple, I have been overwhelmed by the appreciation I have felt from readers and potential readers of the book. Studies of lesbian life are rare. As women, much of how we live and feel is invisible to others, and even invisible to ourselves. Aware of that invisibility, lesbian and queer women readers have been especially grateful for this account. I value their praise for the authenticity of the story and for the narrative as a contribution to “our lesbian herstory.”

I am also pleased to have reached a broader audience of Psychology Today online readers. My articles there draw from chapters in the book concerning lesbian invisibility in the larger world and dilemmas of identity within a lesbian couple. I am proud that the insights presented in Are You Two Sisters? may be of value for readers from a range of life experiences.

Honoring Juneteenth

This week in North Philly Notes, we honor Juneteenth with a look at Beverly Tomek’s Slavery and Abolition in Pennsylvania, and other African American titles.

Slavery and Abolition in Pennsylvania by Beverly C. Tomek, tells the complex story of the role of slavery in the founding and growth of the Commonwealth. 

Tomek corrects the long-held notion that slavery in the North was “not so bad” as, or somehow “more humane” than, in the South due to the presence of abolitionists. The book begins with the story of slavery in colonial Pennsylvania and then traces efforts to end human bondage in the state. It then explores the efforts of Pennsylvania reformers to reconstruct the state in a way that would make room for the newly freed persons. Finally, it traces Pennsylvania’s role in the national antislavery movement, debunking the myth that Pennsylvania faded into the background in the 1830s as Massachusetts abolitionists took center stage. The story Tomek offers is one of a state that was built upon enslaved labor but had a large enough reform community to challenge that system within the state’s borders by passing the nation’s first abolition law and then to try to spread antislavery throughout the country.  

Slavery and Abolition in Pennsylvania traces this movement from its beginning to the years immediately following the American Civil War. Discussions of the complexities of the state’s antislavery movement illustrate how different groups of Pennsylvanians followed different paths in an effort to achieve their goal. Tomek also examines the backlash abolitionists and Black Americans faced. In addition, she considers the civil rights movement from the period of state reconstruction through the national reconstruction that occurred after the Civil War, and she concludes by analyzing what Pennsylvania’s history of race relations means for the state today. 

While the past few decades have shed light on enslavement and slavery in the South, much of the story of northern slavery remains hidden. Slavery and Abolition in Pennsylvania tells the full and inclusive story of this history, bringing the realities of slavery, abolition, and Pennsylvania’s attempt to reconstruct its post-emancipation society. 

Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery, by Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer, illustrates what freedom looked like for black Americans in the Civil War era
Winner of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work—Non-Fiction, 2014
One of the Top 25 Outstanding Academic Titles, Choice, 2013

In their pioneering book, Envisioning Emancipation, renowned photographic historian Deborah Willis and historian of slavery Barbara Krauthamer have amassed 150 photographs—some never before published—from the antebellum days of the 1850s through the New Deal era of the 1930s. The authors vividly display the seismic impact of emancipation on African Americans born before and after the Proclamation, providing a perspective on freedom and slavery and a way to understand the photos as documents of engagement, action, struggle, and aspiration.

Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public Memory, by Roger C. Aden, provides a behind-the-scenes look at the development of the memorial to slavery in Independence Mall.

Upon the Ruins of Liberty chronicles the politically charged efforts to create a fitting tribute to the place where George Washington (and later John Adams) shaped the presidency as he denied freedom to the nine enslaved Africans in his household. From design to execution, the plans prompted advocates to embrace stories informed by race and address such difficulties as how to handle the results of the site excavation. Consequently, this landmark project raised concerns and provided lessons about the role of public memory in shaping the nation’s identity.


Tattered Archives: On Stories That Tell Too Much–and Never Enough

This week in North Philly Notes, George Uba, author of Water Thicker Than Blood, reflects on his memoir.

My mother, were she still alive, would feel humiliated, and deeply hurt, to see it in print. I’m speaking of my memoir Water Thicker Than Blood. Even after all the years spent drafting, revising, compacting, and completing it, I cannot escape that hard fact.

That the book also offers an unflattering portrayal of me makes no difference. A cringeworthy childhood, what’s new about that? But the other depiction, she was in certain respects awful, my mom. Explosive, resentful, vindictive. Relentlessly critical. Violent in words, even in actions. And now I am pulling secrets from the family vault. To what end? Even more, at a time when the figure portrayed, the one who did soften over time and was genuinely liked by many, cannot possibly mount a defense.

The glimpse my book provides is partial, fragmented, incommensurate with the complex, wounded, charitable being that constituted my mother as a whole. This is a point I shall return to.   

But first I’d like to comment on a recent Zoom meeting in which I was asked to discuss Water Thicker Than Blood in relation to Saidiya Hartman’s concept of critical fabulation.

In writing my memoir, I was not thinking of Hartman’s groundbreaking call for a reckoning with the starkly limited archive devoted to African women in the Middle Passage—for a different kind of engagement with history, one amenable to narrative and storytelling, to imagining what cannot be verified even while respecting the limits of the knowable. I was not thinking of Hartman, but I sensed a harmony in our thinking.

One small example is that at various junctures in my book I issue a declarative statement, which I afterwards revise or correct. I use this device in part because I am stating something I may once have believed to be true (“The body is over 90% water”), but in part because I wish, like Hartman, to unsettle the authority of the “author-ized” account, whose command of the truth and of the past should be contested. I am reminded of how in Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts,” the very act of quoting from a slave ship captain’s trial transcript uncovers the gaps, omissions, and questions latent within the official record.

My forays into Japanese folklore, myth, and legend constitute efforts to introduce cultural elements largely suppressed under Japanese America’s postwar imperative to mimic white Americans and downplay differences. This strategy works in concert, I think, with Hartman’s championing of counter-histories to amplify and disrupt the conventional protocols of history.    

My epilogue contains references to Emmett Till and to a racist, anti-Japanese sign appearing in a store window shortly after the attack at Pearl Harbor. While my book’s general trajectory follows my awkward climb toward political awareness and a more complex understanding of myself and others, I wanted to end by reminding readers that racial hatred, as well as racial violence, was the underlying driver behind the damaging postwar ideology of belonging, just as it was the immediate driver behind the concentration camps themselves.

The epilogue doubles back to the book’s first chapter, wherein I describe the impact of Pearl Harbor on Japanese American communities in Southern California, but also to the book’s Acknowledgments pages, wherein I decry the upsurge in anti-Asian hate crimes and hate acts since the start of the pandemic. For Hartman, writing the past is inseparable from writing the present, as well as the condition for envisioning a free future. By violating the presumed boundaries of the memoir as enclosed historical artifact, I attempt to convey a similar idea. My hope all along has been to add something original to the historical archive and to negotiate with it at the same time.         

I mentioned above that my mother could be awful. Would it be a stretch to believe that she saw herself as the exact opposite? That she saw herself as the best possible—because of her unrelenting vigilance—Nisei mother? That the ideology of belonging produced her? At least as I, in my limited capacities as a child, came to understand her?

Being accepted, being accepted specifically by white Americans, even if it meant accepting a second-class citizenship, was an idea familiar to multiple generations of Japanese in America following the war. Sometimes, as in my mother’s case, it became the foundation of their childrearing philosophy, a bedrock principle only heightened by midcentury disciplinary practices, educational formations, and harrowing life circumstances.

But what of my mother’s full story? There was more to it than the anxiety, bitterness, and rage that I dwell on in my memoir of childhood. Saidiyah Hartman tells how, on the slave ship, Venus was one of two doomed girls permanently denied a voice and a full accounting. Their stories were forever cut short, partial, unrealized.

Of my mother, Florence, her story becomes in some ways the same.

Going snake hunting in Philly—and finding snails

This week in North Philly Notes, urban herper Billy Brown, author of Exploring Philadelphia Nature, recounts his adventures in the concrete jungle and how enjoying the beauty of the natural world can be full of delights and surprises.

I couldn’t find a brown snake (Storeria dekayi) right away, and it was starting to stress me out. The railroad embankment by the Northeast Water Pollution Control Plant looked perfect: waist-high mugwort and other weeds with the usual assortment of trash that gets dumped in out-of-mind corners of the city. I was planning to return later in the day with a group that had signed up for a nature-themed bike ride. My M.O. for guiding nature excursions is to capture common critters like brown snakes (small, tan, harmless snakes that eat worms and slugs) along the route ahead of time. If the participants don’t manage to find anything themselves, at least I can show them the one I found and then release it. Brown snakes are the most widespread and abundant snake in urban Philadelphia, easily found in gardens, vacant lots, cemeteries—basically anywhere you’ve got more than a couple square yards of vegetation. Everywhere, that was, except where I needed to find them that morning.

I waded through the weeds and lifted everything I could find—old boards, chunks of concrete, parts of furniture. What I was finding, instead of brown snakes, were beautiful yellow and brown snails.

I didn’t recognize them. As far as their shape, there were as basic a snail as you could imagine: a round spiral shell about as wide as a quarter, but what dazzled me was their patterns. No one was like another. Some were plain brown. Others were yellow with one or more dark stripes following the spiral of the shell all the way in.

Eventually, I did find a brown snake under part of a discarded file cabinet and tucked it into a jar for later, but I made a mental note to look up the snails.

It turns out they were grove snails (a.k.a. brown lipped snails or Cepaea nemoralis), a European species that humans have spread to North America. iNaturalist records show they are not uncommon in Philadelphia, yet, somehow I had missed them. Had I just simply not crossed paths with them before? Or, had I ignored them when they weren’t what I was looking for?

The grove snails were a hit for the cyclists and a great launching point for discussing the nature of waste spaces. Too often we ignore weedy railroad embankments as sites to connect with nature the way we might in proper parks. With a little attention, though, they can become outdoor classrooms as well as places to enjoy the beauty of the natural world.

Learning about the natural world can be stimulating in a purely intellectual or academic sense, but it can also open doors to visceral experience. You learn about a new creature, like the grove snail, and you feel something special when you find it. The world isn’t just a background to the routines of your life. It becomes a little more joyful, a little more wonderful, little by little, snail by snail.

A couple years later, I dragged my daughter along on a trip to check out some five-lined skinks that had been reported on an old stone wall in a park in Northeast Philadelphia. Although five-lined skinks are native to the area, these days they seem to only live in old, overgrown industrial sites along the Delaware River. My daughter was not thrilled to be there as her dad did something boring. I told her it would just take a minute to look for the lizards.

We didn’t find any skinks, but grove snails were everywhere. We found them in damp crevices between the stones or under rocks at the base of the wall, and each one was new and beautiful in its own way. We spent much longer than the promised minute, but I wasn’t complaining.

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