Raise a glass to history.

Tag: Black America

Black Historians

Have a drink with: Black Historians

Ask them about: Maybe just listen.

Here’s something I found while I was researching this week. It’s a column from a September 1863 issue of Scientific American:


Part of the process of researching a subject is looking at all the adjacent issues that you encounter along the way, building a sense of daily consciousness and public culture in a given era. And I was still shocked – and absolutely should not have been – at the clinical distance with which the authors talk about black soldiers in the Civil War, and the suggestion that even the Union army thought of black men as such commodities that they’d rather send them in than risk white soldiers dying of malaria.

So it’s time to sit in that discomfort, and recommend that we all do more to understand America’s history of inequality. There are a lot of titles here, and this is just a small selection. I’m not going to link them – you can choose where you’d like to purchase (but bookshop.org and indiebound.org are cool because they help you support your favorite local bookstores).

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P.G. Lowery

Have a drink with: P.G. Lowery
The best under canvas.

Ask him about: Hustle.

If I say the words “circus music,” you probably have a certain type of music in your mind straight away – something loud, fast and slightly drunk – like this 1902 Sousa band recording of a typical “galop.” And that’s certainly on point, but it doesn’t clue you in to the fact that during the early 20th century, while largely white bands played under the big top, some of the most exciting circus music was happening over in the sideshow, where bands made up of black musicians not only played fast marches and brassy trombone “smears,” but innovated in ragtime, jazz and blues years before they would come into full public popularity. And perhaps the most impressive figure in these groups was the bandleader P.G. Lowery, a classically-trained cornet player who boiled down his many successes into a simple motto: “Good things cometh to he who waiteth as long as he hustleth while he waiteth.”

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John C. Calhoun

Have a drink with: John C. Calhoun
The “cast-iron man,” nullifier, racist.

Ask him about: getting into college

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Yale University recently announced that it would retain the name of 19th century politician and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun on one of its twelve undergraduate residential colleges. The decision has been broadly condemned: on Twitter, #FormerlyKnownAsCalhoun quickly topped the trends list, and singer Janelle Monae used Yale’s Spring Fling stage to lead protest chants, calling Calhoun a “white supremacist.”

In a note to the Yale community, university president Peter Salovey justified the decision with the statement that removing Calhoun’s name “obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it.”

But was John Calhoun history’s intolerant yet benign uncle, whom we harmlessly leave at the dinner table to rant, and should we care that his name’s on an Ivy League building?

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