Public History for Activists

Although my project began in analysis of the history, tactics, and beliefs of the anti-Vietnam war at Bryn Mawr, it now has a wider focus. I want to illustrate and create connections between activism at Bryn Mawr in the past and present, both through discussing histories of anti-war and anti-racist activism in the late 1960s, and by proposing a teach in type of space where alums could discuss their experiences with current students.

One question I’ve had throughout the class is if public history is activism, but another way of looking at it is to ask, is public history useful for activists. Obviously it can be consciousness raising among the public, and perhaps radicalize some, but there is another question of if it can do movement building work, which requires connecting with actual movements on the ground, their tactics, and goals. I think one way to do this is to have graduates share experiences with undergraduates. This could be far ranging, and has already happened to some extent, such as through Black alumni, but I think a focus on movement building, not just personal and experiential connections, would be helpful.  How have recent anti-racist protests built on those of earlier years? What changes have occurred in movements at Bryn Mawr, and are those, for example, demographic, tactical, or political? How can we use the past to find moments of possibility and also understand our enemies better? I think actual discussion among students and alums would help answer some of these questions.

Decolonization not Diversity

I was very impressed by the article, Mining the Museum, but I think Corrin missed one of its main points by framing it as an issue of “diversity”. Putting silenced voices back into a colonized white supremacist narrative is not always part of the liberal framework of inclusion, but rather should be about decolonizing history. This means looking at it through different eyes, through the “archive of feeling”, and through the archival silences. I thought the project with the busts was particularly impressive for illustrating these silences very literally. I also thought the chair and whipping post exhibit was particularly salient, because it brought in issues of class. The metalwork exhibit also illustrated how American wealth was built on literal shackles of white supremacy.

The article itself did not really discuss class, which I see as a huge problem and part of the liberal focus on “diversity” without actual structural change. True equality requires structural change and anti-capitalism, as illustrated by the exhibits themselves. I am impressed, though, that this exhibit was allowed to appear at all. Other exhibits like the infamous Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian and their art exhibit about the West were cancelled or highly criticized and quickly removed because of their revisionist stance. This exhibit is revisionist in some ways, but I think the over arching narrative doesn’t discuss class and how these objects were founded on white supremacy, like the wealth they embodied, enough.

Historical Photos on Tumblr

I was fascinated by Rebecca Onion’s assessment of historical photos on twitter, mostly because I don’t use twitter very much and have seen almost the opposite look at historical photos on tumblr. I don’t think this has to do as much with the platform as with who is running the account. Onion writes, “Lack of attribution for the artists who took the photos these accounts use is only the beginning of the problem. By failing to provide context, offering a repetitive and restricted view of what “history” is, and never linking to the many real historical resources available on the Web, these accounts strip history of the truly fun parts: curiosity, detective work, and discovery.” Obviously the character limit of twitter limits context to some extent, but tumblrs like the Queer Archive Project and Black History Album illustrate a better take on these “snapshots” of historical moments and movements.

The Queer Archive project has an actual timeline that allows users to look for photos and images from different periods, but also has a larger area of interest than the twitter accounts, including photos of book covers, publications, flyers, and even ads. One post I loved is this collection of lesbian pulp fiction covers. It doesn’t really give context, but might inspire someone to look up more information about lesbian pulp fiction. At least, it gives a great visual of some of the only representations of lesbians from this period. Some posts give actual credit and context, like one on Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial magazine, with amusing erotic photos of muscular men. The post details that it was “first published in 1951, was the first of the “beefcake” or “muscle mags” aimed at homosexuals to appreciate and eroticize the male figure. The magazines also helped to create the homosexual consumer culture beginning to thrive in these decades, with ads for films, clothing, etc.”  The Black History Album is just photo based, but gives great short descriptions, like this one for a photo of an African American woman’s basketball team from 1935. It even cites the academic book the photo came from. Therefore, I think we shouldn’t discount twitter photo blogs, especially since it is a very accessible way for people to find and gain interest in history, especially the histories of marginalized communities.

Space and Gender at Bryn Mawr

Gieseking’s article made me think about the ways space, gender, and queerness operate here. When I first arrived at Bryn Mawr I was shocked by all the nakedness, wether it was on Lantern Night, skinny dipping, or during hell week. I had always thought of colleges as kind of serious intellectual spaces, but here space is intertwined with how we utilize our bodies to express sexuality, have fun, and participate in community. The fountains in particular are important for these rituals, which I don’t know if are unique to Bryn Mawr. These places also create bodily and physical changes in identity and experience. Gieseking writes, “In the interviews, the institution was defined and delimited by the students’ everyday spaces, acts, traditions and rules of the social and physical campus. The scale of the institution also absorbed traditional notions of home as most participants referred to the campus or a dormitory on campus as ‘home’.” (282) I think these “scales” also relate to our experiences at Bryn Mawr, where place informs class and gender as well. The skinny dipping is one example of how the space of the women’s college can create a sexually liberatory environment, but it also relates to creating and imposing white middle class identity on students.

The early Bryn Mawr literally segregated students by class, with students paying different amounts for different size dorms. Here space illustrated and informed class relations. Furthermore, maids lived in smaller corridor rooms, segregating them from campus and the community and imposing an “othered” status on them. Sometimes I think living off campus can function sort of similarly, because many students do it for financial reasons. I know students who live at home, or even work off campus, which separates them from the rest of campus. The experience of work itself creates a different relationship with the institution for students, as they are part of not just the student community but a more hidden community of staff and workers. An upper middle class student might never really interact with these people, or even be polite to other students while they are at work in places like the dining hall.

Institutional Support and Resistance

While browsing the website of the History Truck, I was interested in the contradiction between the truck’s ideology and funding sources, a problem certainly not unique to it that plagues all non-profits. Currently in Philadelphia there is a huge campaign against Temple University’s new stadium which will further gentrify North Philadelphia. Community members and students are coming together to protest this, and I noticed that the truck held an event discussing the issue.

This is interesting because I wonder what the margins of acceptable opinion are for getting funding from Temple, and how the truck interacts with activist campaigns. Does it try to be non-partisan? This is kind of what the title and description suggests, but the free breakfast program folks are Black power activists and are included in this panel. I am curious as to what extent the non profit industrial complex impacts the truck and its actual ability to fulfill the mission of “Connecting neighbors who would have never built a relationship otherwise” and “Empower communities to work together to address issues within neighborhoods.” The truck seems like an inherently activist project according to its mission statement, but how that works in practice is always fraught. Can they directly support and tell the stories of anti-gentrification activists? How has gentrification affected the people who run the truck? A lot of times folks involved in historic preservation are also gentrifiers, as one can see in the history of Eastern State Penitentiary’s preservation. I am also interested in how the fire exhibit deals with the legacy of the MOVE bombing, and why they pick certain neighborhoods and subjects to visit and document.

The most interesting element of the truck for me is that it is a truck. Displaying history in motion is a really fascinating idea, because history moves and changes. In a museum environment it seems sterile and static. I also think the truck shows a real concern for the community, because by necessity it involves outreach and community relationships. It reminds me of library on wheels project, sort of. We talked a lot about the space of the archive, and how it changes the experience, but this is an even more dramatic space than Bob’s archive or the one I worked in. How do you tell stories in such a small space? How many people even fit into the truck? I can’t imagine too many, which makes it personal and intimate. Overall, the project seems really visionary and changes the experience of visiting a museum completely through both space and content, but I am skeptical of most non profits in practice and the truck is no exception.

The Black Campus Movement and Memory

In reading about the Black campus movement, I was immediately struck by how it is absent from our public memory, even in activist spaces. We remember Kent state but not the incredible violence Black students faced, the 13 people who were literally murdered. Colleges don’t want to acknowledge this violent history, which illustrates how as Spade said colleges are political spaces, invested in white supremacy.  I thought about how these schools were similar to and different from Bryn Mawr. It seems like schools with larger Black populations demanded larger programs, while at schools like Bryn Mawr students wanted cultural centers. This makes sense because they kind of needed a bubble within a bubble. I also think schools like Bryn Mawr might have been less violent because of the facade of liberalism, which tries to be more subtle in its exploitation.

I was especially struck by student and staff collaboration, and how little success this had compared to other demands. Universities first care about their own financial interests, and their students as clients. In that way, it is especially important that students were willing to give up their own class status to side with exploited workers of their race. It is only when there is real solidarity between communities that revolution happens. You can also see this in things like the 3rd world student alliances, which allowed for much of the strength of the movement. I wonder how we can create those alliances in the present, when I see a lot of groups at schools like Bryn Mawr working separately. How do we connect Black struggles to BDS for example?

The monument and the passerby

When reading the articles for this week, I immediately thought of an article I read for another class, Patricidal Memory and the Passerby. The article is long and has a very complex argument I won’t try to reiterate here, but one aspect of it is that we ought to focus on is that we should look at the monumental, in this case the memories of great dead men and legacies of slavery and patriarchy, as it works through and around the movement of the small details that make up daily life. By refocusing our energy on the banal details of life we understand better how systems like white supremacy and patriarchy function. This could be easily applied to monuments like the slave table, which dehumanizes enslaved peoples by making them into symbols. A better monument might be enslaved families, or enslaved people performing daily tasks they would have at the college, except without the opportunity to literally use them as a table. As Mason B. Williams says in “The Crumbling Monuments of the Age of Marble”, “Discussing individuals and (where warranted) removing names is good—but it is just a start. The crucial next step is to rethink and reinvent the ways the nation commemorates.” I think this new commemoration must also deal with the problem of the monument itself, and how it is inherently a structure meant to deal with “great men” and “great events” instead of the equally important events which take place in our daily lives. Maybe Bryn Mawr could use a statue of servants in the dorms, with notes from the archives about their lives.


The Neoliberal White Feminist Academy

As I read Wilder’s analysis of how the academy provided the theological and scientific justifications for the genocide of native peoples, settler colonialism, and slavery, I thought about another historic and current way the academy intervenes in favor of white supremacy, by creating white savior narratives which justify neo-colonial intervention, foreign and domestic, supposedly on behalf of oppressed peoples. The reason I was thinking about this is that we recently read an essay entitled Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses in Junior Seminar, which discusses how Western feminists appropriate third world women’s lives and struggles through universalizing analysis that serves the narrow interests of white liberal western feminists while dehumanizing women of color. While Wilder discusses how Ivy league scientists, theologians, and activists helped justify white supremacist racial categories, I do not know how relevant this is to Bryn Mawr, which appeared later. Certainly M Carey Thomas would have endorsed the projects of racial science, because of her well known white supremacist views, but I think the space of a women’s college, indeed populated much by future privileged white women scholars who Mohanty critiques, is more interesting in terms of what types of feminisms it creates.

Thinking back on the Dean Spade lecture, I remember how he critiques the type of feminism currently endorsed by women’s colleges and encourages a gender justice framework which better incorporates indigenous and racialized peoples. Yet the actual feminism in women’s colleges can be the neo colonial Hilary Clinton feminism which endorses “humanitarian intervention” and universalizes the experiences of women, or all women of color. There is a long history, as Spade points out, of feminists excluding certain women from their project and universalizing, something we are certainly historically guilty of here. I think mapping how Bryn Mawr’s feminism discluded or included certain women in their feminist framework would be an interesting project, and the type of history one would write if attempting to write a racial history of women’s colleges. This history would be about race and feminism, and race in feminist scholarship, which is often produced at women’s colleges.

Organizing vs Feel Good Activism at Bryn Mawr

Although I have been a fan of Dean Spade for a while now, and saw him when he spoke at Bryn Mawr a couple years ago, I was touched and emboldened by his insight on the problem’s of women’s colleges. I see a lot of similarities between Bryn Mawr and Barnard, and the way they handle their pasts and present. As Spade touched on all the various institutional changes women’s colleges must make to promote a true gender justice framework, which prioritizes the poor, disabled, and people of color, I thought about my last two years at Bryn Mawr, my failed organizing attempts, and what parts of this message we take in and what we silence.

Although Bryn Mawr history certainly contains legacies of real organizing, in my experience our efforts are more directed towards what feels good than what actually does things. We try to change culture but not structure. When students work on divestment campaigns, as I and others did in the Environmental Justice League until it broke up and others did in Students for Justice in Palestine, there really isn’t that much interest by other students, and there is huge push back by the administration. I think one of the main reasons is that even though we like to promote a progressive image, the powers behind the scenes on the board are much more conservative, so most of the actions we take do not change a lot at the financial level, where a lot of power is held. On the other hand, Bryn Mawr students love “activism” that involves making ourselves feel good, probably partially because of white middle class guilt, like having teach ins, panels, and discussions about issues which seem like they are going to bring about change but in reality do not.  I think the most stark example of this tendency was the huge march on campus against the Confederate flag and racism last year, which included the administration and the least aggressive chants I have ever heard, like “we are one”. I participated, but as an anarchist to be honest I kind of rolled my eyes. Another example was the recent community day of learning on class, which certainly raised up marginalized voices, but I doubt will lead to important institutional changes like the ones Spade advocates. Will we actually make a better effort to distribute college resources to the most needy? Will we raise the wages of students and staff? Will we change the wage system on campus so dining hall workers don’t get paid less than workers in more typically middle class jobs like the library? Will we divest!?!? Organizing is not usually fun when it becomes effective. I think we could organize around these issues, but fewer people would actually be interested. In my experience liberals like to feel like they are “doing something” but as the keynote speaker said, it requires more than that, connection through communities, and most importantly struggle. A day of learning is not struggle. Maybe these actions raise consciousness, but struggle involves conflict and means that not everyone in the administration is our friend and should be included in the march.

If you want to read about this “feel good” trend in the wider left, this article talks about how “the international Left promotes its own image rather than engaging in the bitter reality of resistance against neoliberalism.” Its striking how a global trend can be mirrored in small institutions like Bryn Mawr.

The ideological content of worker’s education

I had previously learned about the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, first when working on a disorientation guide with the Environmental Justice League my freshman year, and next in the biography of Rose Pesotta, an anarchist feminist garment workers organizer, who attended the school. Yet, even after reading the digital exhibit, I had no idea of the politics of the school, or “worker’s education” in general. Was it a creation of liberals attempting to groom women workers to work for reform instead of revolution, a charitable project, or an accidentally or purposefully radicalizing force, or a combination? As Hilda Smith noted, the phrase “worker’s education” scared many conservatives and even liberals. This is probably because it bears a striking resemblance to “political education”, what leftists called education meant to build class consciousness and propel revolutionary action. Some radicals, like the members of the Industrial Workers of the World, even believed that workers had to learn so that they could take over the factories, and the larger society, themselves. The 1930s proved an interesting period for the labor movement and radicals, as the country was pushed to the brink of revolution and the powers that be finally gave into some degree of reform. One can read FDR’s own letters for evidence of the general motivation to save capitalism from itself. With a place at the bargaining table, radical ideas seeped into the mainstream. The Bryn Mawr school seems like a good example of this. Before entering the school, many women were more antagonistic towards bosses and the bourgeoisie, but to their surprise the school incorporated a variety of ideas and values into the curriculum, mitigating some of these antagonisms. For example, Jennie Silverman wanted to start a Marxist study group, and then it became a class, part of a capitalist institution instead of working against it. On the other hand, the school provided women with new knowledge, often focused on labor issues, that propelled their organizing. Some, like Rose Pesotta for instance, did not become liberals and stayed firm revolutionaries. Ultimately the coalition between liberalism and radicalism could not last, as evidenced by Bryn Mawr ending the school after police brutality towards its students observing the 1934 Seabrook Strike.

One interesting aspect of the project was the role of race. M Carey Thomas urged Hilda Worthington Smith not to admit black women while admiring the concept of education women workers, perhaps because she envisioned the working class, and women workers, as white, and saw racial justice and equality for white women as mutually exclusive. This reminds me of the argument that the working class was constructed based on whiteness and through exclusion. This is one reason why the seemingly inclusive environment at the school is especially interesting. The school periodicals even published abolitionist poetry, and one poem in the documentary even addressed racism within labor unions. It seems like the school really represented one related important socialist principle, internationalism. The documentary even discussed how it was organized into multiple sections, each containing workers from different places and industries. This reminds me of the IWW’s idea of “one big union” and a larger trend towards internationalism during this period. This was also relevant to the liberal feminism that surely influenced women like M Carey Thomas and Hilda Smith, as many feminists used the idea of a common bond between women to campaign against everything from child labor to war. Yet, this often discluded women of color, especially black women.