esse quam videri

Ava DuVernay’s 13th: It’s About Hope, Not History

02-13th-netflix-documentary“The 13th Amendment’s loophole gave license to a system that has brutalized black and brown men and women in the United States. DuVernay’s 13th responds by asserting a fierce, relentless humanity that neither law nor the systems it has set in place can extinguish.”

I watched Ava Duvernay’s stunning 13th with the student-led Criminal Law Society at Michigan Law. Our discussion was so provocative, I penned this review of the film, taking off my historian’s hat and trying to understand what DuVernay hoped to achieve, and why the film is moving so many people.  You can read the entire review here.

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Birthright Citizenship: A Close Look at a Federalist Society Debate

fedsoclogotagrgbgrayThe debate over birthright citizenship is alive, well, and still happening in polite circles. At least this is true in Federalist Society circles, here with Gerald Walpin on one side and David B. Rivkin, Jr. and John C. Yoo on the other. This debate turns on readings of the 14th Amendment, but history undergirds the analyses. And no one gets it quite right. You can read the full exchange here.

I’m sympathetic to the story that Rivkin and Woo tell, one that brands Dred Scott an exception and an error. But they overlook the degree to which in Congress, constitutional conventions, and state high courts, disagreement surrounded the matter of birthright. They posit:

“With the exception of a few years before the Civil War, the United States followed the British rule of jus solis (citizenship defined by birthplace), rather than the rule of jus sanguinis (citizenship defined by that of parents) that prevails in much of continental Europe.37 As the 18th century English jurist William Blackstone explained: “The children of aliens, born here in England, are generally speaking, natural-born subjects, and entitled to all the privileges of such.”After the Civil War, congressional Republicans drafted the 14th Amendment to correct one of slavery’s grave distortions of our law. In Dred Scott v. Sanford, Chief Justice Roger Taney found that slaves, even though born in the United States, could never become citizens.”

This analysis does not get us very far because it mistakenly limits the reach of Taney’s decision in Dred Scott to slaves. The Chief Justice’s primary target was not slaves at all — it was instead free people of color. When we remember that free African Americans were the subjects of Taney’s ruling, it points us to the long and complex debate about whether free black Americans were citizens by virtue of birthright. The story of birthright citizenship is not then a seamless path between the Constitution and the 14th Amendment. Instead, it is a story of mis-steps, conflicts, and dead ends.

I agree with Rivkin and Woo that the 14th Amendment did not invent birthright even as it constitutionalized it. But how the nation arrived there requires a closer examination of how free black Americans troubled the question for the preceding half-century.

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Me, as Performer?

cageI blame my colleague, curator Amanda Krugliak, for persuading me to put my thoughts out there in a new form — performance. Not just any performance, mind you. I’m taking part in a production of John Cage’s “How to Get Started,” in a collaboration between the Cage Foundation and Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities.

It works like this (they tell me.) I’ll give 10 talks, three minutes each. A recording of the first talk will be played underneath a reading of the second, and so forth, until my words become what I think of as more of a soundscape (and less of a talk.) It’s turning out to be a semester for exploring my ideas through creative outlets. I’ll post the result and you’ll tell me what you think!

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“Visiting” the Smithsonian’s new Museum of African American History and Culture

coleMy friend, historian Emily Clark, posted this image of Johnnetta Cole’s Bennett College inauguration robe during her visit to the NMAAHC. I was moved because I was at Bennett College when I saw the post, getting ready to deliver the Founders’ Day address, marking Bennett’s 90th anniversary. I’m a booster for Bennett because my own grandfather, David Jones, was president there for 30 years, and because it is one of only two remaining HBCUs for women.

When Muster (the blog of the Journal of the Civil War Era) invited me to pen a review of the Museum, I jumped. You can read more about my virtual visit, the history of HBCUs told there, and why you should make the visit to Washington to see for yourself here.

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Reading L.D. Burnett’s “In Conclusion.”

gates-and-paradiseI’m reading L.D. Burnett, from her recent paper at the USIH meeting. I most often encounter her via a quick quip on Facebook or Twitter. So I was all the more moved to find her here, in long form, thinking out loud about the meaning of our life’s work as academics. I am always eager to link arms against cynicism and its related world view. Thanks for L.D. for sharing this:

“Because we don’t live in the abstract. We are alive for one another, concretely, completely, complicatedly, in the round – friend and foe, enemy and ally, adjunct and administrator, student and professor. Yes, the battles and skirmishes of academic politics have always been about ideas, about the life of the mind. But they have also been about the very means – our very means – of living. Academic politics matter, just as ideas matter. They matter because we do.”

You can read the full text on the USIH blog site here.

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The Mixed Experience

The Mixed Experience is hosted by novelist and activist Heidi Durrow. I joined Heidi, along with colleagues Karen Downing, Mark Kamimura, and Ed West, to talk about multiracial identity at the University of Michigan, and beyond. Listen in here.

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Landmark Cases: Dred Scott v. Sandford, for C-SPAN

CSPANI joined GWU Law’s Chris Bracey and C-SPAN’s Susan Swain for an episode of C-SPAN’s Landmark Cases on Dred Scott v. Sandford. The show runs 90 minutes, but you can also find highlight here.

 

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Julian Bond’s Great-Grandmother a Slave Mistress? How the New York Times Got it Wrong

When the New York Times termed the late Julian Bond’s great-grandmother, Jane Bond, a “slave mistress,” social media fired back, enumerating all the ways in which this phrase mis-characterized the terms of a sexual exchange between an enslaved woman and her owner. Historian Emily Owens captured the Twitter exchange here. In this essay, I ask how the Times could have gotten this so wrong. It turns out that historians, 19th century usage, and the Times own practice all contributed to the use of a phrase that the paper’s own public editor finally admitted was regrettable. Read more here.

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We Are the Intellectuals

BIWCHNo question posed here spoke to me more than that asked by Kientz Anderson in her Introduction to this roundtable: “Who are intellectuals?” This question was that which guided our work from the outset. I hope it isn’t revealing too much to say that, one important sense, crafting a response was not very difficult. Yes, we searched, probed, rethought, and reimagined women of the past as thinkers and producers of ideas. Of course we stretched understandings of genre, and overthrew conventions of sites for and means of production. We looked hard to find black women and their ideas in new and unexpected places. It was work. But it was also easy in that the women about whom we wrote had always been there, waiting for us to hold them up to the light. They were intellectuals even before we set out to write their histories, of that I am certain. Read more here.

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On The Cherokee Rose, Historical Fiction, and Silences in the Archives

TheCherokeeRose-coverThe Cherokee Rose, the debut novel by historian Tiya Miles, caught me in the middle of a longstanding argument. I had pre-ordered the book from its publisher John F. Blair, and so it arrived unexpectedly, as if unsummoned. It was March, a busy moment in the term. Still, I stole time that Saturday, reading it nearly cover-to-cover in one sitting. I left the last chapter until the next day, just to savor the experience. Miles is my colleague at the University of Michigan, and that hints at why I’d let my email pile up just to read a work of fiction. Generally, I’m the sort that lets a stack of books accumulate for later summer reading. But there was more. As I said, I was trying to settle an argument and thought The Cherokee Rose might help. Continued here.

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