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In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love

Wilma Tay, One Book Ambassador

November 10, 2022

On Friday, philosopher, author, and Williams College professor Joy James joined us at Northwestern University’s Guild Lounge to discuss revolutionary love. 

James spoke to us about “captive maternals” — individuals tied to the state's violence through their non-transferable agency such that they have to care for another — and she gave the example of how the incarcerated take care of each other despite the hardships each of them face. The project, which began in 2016, was inspired by her observation of parents trying to get services for their families. Through this, James explained the concept of "captivity through family,” and the stages of the captive parent: Conflicted Parent, Protestant, Progress maker, and Rebel. 

James also encouraged us to reflect on one of James Baldwin’s famous statements: that “we are more integrated than we want to.” By examining the contradictions between the legalism that protects us, and aspects of betrayal wrapped in it, she explained how aspects of the Constitution that appear to confer rights and freedoms can actually be trojan horses. James further explained the ways in which the United States qualifies as an empire, and how the system prevents individuals from reclaiming their stolen wombs and identity. There’s a need for more accountability, especially regarding our involvement with other nations, she explained. At a community level, she also talked about how culture and race have been used as props, and how the narratives of culture have been flipped against us. 

James concluded by urging us to think about what it would mean to acknowledge decorum, but still move beyond it. She also reminded us about the need for an emotional register, and she invited us to think about what kind of intellectuals we can become as guerrilla theorists. 

This talk was followed by a reception where attendees continued to discuss some of the issues raised in the talk. 

I sincerely enjoyed this event, as well as the call to think more critically about our identities and how to be more accountable.

Deering Library's New "Freedom for Everyone" Exhibit Explores Slavery and Abolition

Izzy Nielsen, One Book Fellow

November 3, 2022

This Wednesday, Northwestern History PhD student Marquis Taylor presented “Freedom for Everyone: Slavery & Abolition in 19th Century America”, an exhibit that he researched and curated for Northwestern Libraries, which is now on view in the Deering Library lobby. The exhibit, a collection of documents highlighting the work of 19th century abolitionists, was inspired by Northwestern’s first observance of Juneteenth.

Taylor, along with McCormick Library staff Jill Waycie and Charla Wilson, started the project as part of Northwestern library’s efforts to revise the outdated and often harmful language used to describe historical collections. Work began by curating a collection of Frederick Douglass-related materials and renaming the previously titled “African American Documents Collection” to the “Slavery, Enslaved Persons, and Free Blacks in the Americas Collection.” Taylor’s final exhibit is made up of historical documents from these two collections, including items like preserved letters written by Helen Douglass (Frederick Douglass’s second wife), to original copies of abolitionist autobiographies, to historical copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The exhibit’s various themes are framed by its title “Freedom for Everyone”, which are words taken from activist and teacher Opal Lee who fought tirelessly for Juneteenth’s place as a federally recognized holiday. Juneteenth represents “freedom for everyone” and a necessary moment of reflection for all of America, Taylor said, in many of the same ways this exhibit is intended to be.

After giving visitors some time to explore the collection, Taylor hosted a Q&A where attendees asked questions about his work and research process. The goal for the exhibit, Taylor explained, was to help people “understand slavery as something more complex” and show how the North and South in the 19th century were not as binary as one might have been taught; they all “lived in a slave society.” 

The physical exhibit will remain behind glass in the Deering Lobby until the end of fall quarter. In the meantime, Taylor and the library staff will continue updating the digitized version of the exhibit on the library’s website, their suggested relevant reading list, and an extensive spreadsheet compiling enslaved people’s histories.

Understanding the Historic Evanston Black Community

Diana Deng, One Book Ambassador

October 31, 2022

Community members had a chance to learn about the history of Black Evanston on Saturday through a bus tour jointly organized by One Book One Northwestern, the Evanston Community Foundation, and the Shorefront Legacy Center (SLC). 

The tour started on the lakefront and moved west towards Skokie. At various stops, Dino Robinson, the founder of SLC, pointed out locations that were once Black churches, schools, and Black-owned businesses. These locations were sites of a violent racial history that had remained buried until recent years, Robinson said. As we learned on the tour, the story of each site’s destruction in the early twentieth-century was wrapped in threads of city redlining, Jim Crow policies, and racist housing standards. All of which forced Black residents who were unable to afford city-mandated home improvements to sell their homes and move out of the region. 

One of the first stops was the Masonic temple on Emerson street, where Robinson pointed out spots that many in the Black community had stopped at to socialize, ask for help, and receive vocational training. It was incredible how despite segregation, Black businesses and cultural traditions not only developed but thrived, Robinson said.

Upon arriving at Evanston’s western border with Skokie, Robinson explained that land around the city’s canal had been dug-up in the 20th century as a way to physically isolate and demobilize black populations. The impact on Black communities from actions like these was further exacerbated by legal decrees like the Land Clear Ordinance.

Our tour ended in the library of the SLC. There, Robinson showed us the SLC's 25 years of history as a museum and research center dedicated to recording, studying and preserving the experiences of African Americans living in the North Shore communities of Chicago. This showcase made me particularly grateful; if not for the efforts of organizations like the SLC, the chance to learn about this history would have been lost forever! 

The one-hour tour of Black Evanston blew my mind. In particular, I was struck by how the buildings I see everyday belie such a tragic history of a violently uprooted community. The tour left every one of us thinking about how a present appearance of peace and prosperity might have subtly influenced us to turn a blind over difficult histories—and our responsibility to reckon with the truth lying beneath our communities as we know them. 


Author Clint Smith in Conversation with History Professor Leslie Harris

See a full gallery of the photos from the October 18 event here. 

Vivian Bui, One Book Fellow

October 25, 2022

Clint Smith joined the Northwestern community in Galvin Hall last Tuesday to share the inspirations, hopes, and journey around his recent book, How the Word is Passed. In discussion with Professor Leslie Harris, Smith began by introducing how he wished that his education had given him a more holistic understanding of slavery. The experience of slavery, and its legacy, is more than just extraordinary outlier biographies of folks like Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks and stodgy textbook chapters on the various jobs of plantation slaves, Smith said. It’s the hopes, dreams, relationships, and everyday experiences of what it means to try and live life as a fully realized person in an institution that oppresses that person’s very existence. 

Smith said that this more complete, situated narrative is what he hopes his readers will take away from the visits to various historical sites that he documents in his book. Challenging how these narratives are told in the monuments and street names that we pass by everyday is important to understand how our current institutions, and ourselves as individuals, fit into the stories of people that happened centuries ago.

As much as the book is a call-to-action to think critically about the way histories around us are preserved, it’s also an intellectual toolkit for individuals like his own young self to understand the context of their present lived experiences, Smith said. It’s hard to work through difficult pasts especially when the stories in question aren’t part of popular discourse and education, Smith acknowledged. But that makes it all the more important for each one of us to stay vigilant in interrogating the answers we’re given, and to reach constantly for better ones.

Dittmar Gallery Dinner: A Night of Remembering Illinois's Early Black History

Izzy Nielsen, One Book Fellow

October 24, 2022

Northwestern History Professor Kate Masur’s lively dinner discussion on Illinois’s early Black history filled the Dittmar Gallery with a mix of students, faculty, and alumni on Thursday night. The evening centered around stories of Black Illinois residents told in the online gallery Black Organizing in Pre-Civil War Illinois: Creating Community, Demanding Justice, a Northwestern History Department research project spanning over two years.

Masur set the historical backdrop with a lecture highlighting Illinois’s repressive legal history and the subsequent networks of Black residents that formed to organize against it. This history, she explained, led to the organization of some of Illinois’s first statewide conventions. Following the lecture was a buffet dinner where undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, alumni, and local residents engaged in discussion over food at each table. The evening concluded with a share-out. Each table summarized key takeaways from their conversations, expanding on Masur’s initial lecture with a range of personal experiences and perspectives.

Overall, I thought it was a very educational and greatly eye-opening evening!

Ready to Rethink

Leslie M. Harris, Professor, History; Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
2022-23 One Book One Northwestern faculty chair

October 3, 2022

When I first arrived at Northwestern as a faculty member in Fall 2016, I would not  have thought there was a need to rename streets or remove statues.  As someone who had grown up in New Orleans, Louisiana, and taught for 21 years at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, I had been surrounded by statues and street names celebrating pro-slavery white southerners: Robert E. Lee Circle near the Museum of the Confederacy, and Jefferson Davis Parkway, in New Orleans. Confederate and East Confederate Avenue in Atlanta, as well as Memorial Drive leading to the Confederate Memorial in Stone Mountain, Georgia. In Evanston and Chicago, I was stunned by the repetition of Abraham Lincoln’s name: on schools, streets, and not least the “Land of Lincoln” phrase on my car’s new license plate.  It was a relief to see the widespread celebration of someone I associated, even imperfectly, with the emancipation of my enslaved ancestors.

But I had to learn to look with new eyes, and to place what seemed initially positive in new contexts.  I arrived at Northwestern amid the university’s reckoning with its relationship to Native American history.  Northwestern had just completed an important and at times controversial and contentious effort to revisit the role of one of its founders, John Evans, in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, an event in which the U.S. Army murdered 200 mostly unarmed Cheyenne and Arapahoe men, women and children who believed they were under the protection of the U.S. government.  Evans was governor of the Colorado Territory when the massacre occurred and bore responsibility for it. 

Learning about the historical context of my new home university reminded me of some parts of my past I had previously been less engaged with. As I learned more about the history of relationships between the United States and numerous Native American nations during the Civil War, I also learned that President Abraham Lincoln had presided over the largest public execution in U.S. history: the hanging of 38 Dakota Sioux men, just one week before he signed the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. In New Orleans and Atlanta, there were streets named for Native peoples from whom land had been stolen decades before, and who had been forced onto reservations.  Many Black and white southerners like to claim Cherokee ancestry, but in reality most of us have benefited from the land theft, relocation and murder of former inhabitants who we now know only via street and place names.

As an historian of the United States, I also confronted again the fact that the development of “freedom” for some was often rooted in the oppression of others.  Historians have written for decades of the central contradiction of U.S. history: The land and wealth that led to the possibility of the “Founding Fathers” envisioning independence from Great Britain and democracy for themselves was made possible by the enslavement of people of African descent and the theft of land from Native peoples.

What happens when we confront these stark realities? What do we do with the knowledge that our own wealth—intellectual, political, economic, and more—occurred because of enormous losses, if not crimes, inflicted upon others? What is our responsibility to the legacies of these difficult histories? 

Clint Smith’s book takes us one small step in the right direction by inviting us to join him in an honest engagement with our complex histories. How the Word is Passed gives specific examples of difficult histories, but it also provides examples of how to engage thoughtfully with those histories, and with those who might disagree with us about their meaning.  Whether in a classroom, in an art installation, at a museum, or on a walking tour, we have the ability—indeed the responsibility—to seek honest engagement with “hard histories.” The ethical questions we face in our lives don’t necessarily become easier, but we become more adept at recognizing their importance, and at doing our part to work towards greater justice for all in our own time.

--with thanks to Kate Masur and Nancy Cunniff for their helpful edits.

Exploring Our History and Our World in Community—and In Person!

Leslie M. Harris, Professor, History; Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
2022-23 One Book One Northwestern faculty chair

September 12, 2022 

We enter a new academic year at Northwestern with a renewed commitment to in-person learning, which includes learning how to live, learn and work together in community. This year’s book selection and programming for One Book One Northwestern is an opportunity to take a closer look at the various ways that different groups of people encounter and understand history in our Northwestern community, the Evanston and Chicago area, our nation and our world. 

In How the Word is Passed, Clint Smith charts his personal journey to historic sites of enslavement, imprisonment and war in the U.S. and West Africa.  In doing so, he engages with experts at these sites and with other visitors, and he examines books and other materials to come to a deeper understanding of the role of slavery and race in our common history.  His goal is to understand what we can learn from different historic sites, scholars, and each other about these complex histories. Smith also models how to have conversations on difficult topics with people with whom you may disagree.  Finally, Smith champions, I think, the possibility that learning can happen in any situation—not just in the classroom, and not just in books. We can engage physical spaces and each other to reach a deeper understanding of the world around us.           

There’s probably been no better time to encounter How the Word is Passed than today.  The United States has been roiled by events that have led to deep questioning of the meaning of race, the history of slavery, and the fairness of our justice system.  Ongoing controversies over teaching “Critical Race Theory” and the New York Times’ “1619 Project” in K-12 schools are just the latest a series of conflicts over the meaning of freedom and justice in our world.  In fact, we could write the history of the United States as a long series of battles about the meaning of freedom: What is it? Should everyone have the same freedoms? Where does my and your freedom begin and end?

Specific, recent events have turned our attention to the history of race and slavery. In 2015, the June murder of nine African American worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina’s historic African Methodist Episcopal Church by a white supremacist led the state of South Carolina to remove from statehouse grounds the Confederate battle flag, a symbol of the pro-slavery states who seceded from the United States and sparked the Civil War.  White southerners had brought the flag into prominence in the South in the 1950s, making it a symbol of their opposition to the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, and to other federal policies designed to end segregation and protect Black Americans’ right to vote. Many southern communities also had statues, street names, and other markers that honored the Confederacy.

But when South Carolina lowered its Confederate flag, other states, cities, schools, and institutions began to reconsider symbols of the Confederacy that remained part of their landscapes and sought to remove them. In Fall 2015, students at schools from Yale to the University of North Carolina and beyond urged that buildings named for leaders of the Confederacy be renamed and that imagery of the Confederacy—flags, statues, and other symbols—be removed from campuses.  The inquiry extended beyond the Confederacy as people in communities across the country questioned monuments honoring slaveowners of earlier generations, segregationists, and people who had participated in the dispossession and murder of Native peoples—including at Northwestern. Communities asked that street and school names be changed and statues removed.  These efforts continue down to today, as communities decide what to preserve, what to remove, and what to commemorate today and in the future. 

Some have argued that removing statues and other markers is erasing history. In How the Word is Passed, Smith visits locations—Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Blandford Cemetery in Virginia; New Orleans and the Whitney Plantation in Virginia, to name just a few—where these histories have been preserved and reinterpreted, and where they have not been. As Smith exemplifies in his journeys, we all have the power to witness and interrogate the history presented to us in monuments, landscapes, and museums—and yes, even in classrooms.  But as Smith also makes clear, witnessing and interrogating also carries the responsibility of constructive engagement, civic exchange—and perhaps, even doing your own research! 

--Thank you to Kate Masur and Nancy Cunniff.