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By Past@Present

P@P: First, it’s so exciting to see your photo on the cover of the new issue of The Public Historian—Congratulations!  Can you tell us how that came about?

RR: Thank you! I knew The Public Historian was publishing a special issue about childhood, gender, and play, but it was a surprise when the editor contacted me about using one of my photos for the cover. It’s such an honor to have my work recognized by colleagues in the field.

P@P: More than 3000 people follow your Instagram feed, @iamexcessivelydollverted.  When and why did you launch that project?  And how do you use this platform as a public historian?

RR: I began @iamexcessivelydollverted three years ago as a way to discuss and expand upon aspects of history related to American Girl’s historical characters. Over time, the project has transformed into a discussion of the history that is overlooked by American Girl. In recent years, American Girl has introduced more characters from marginalized backgrounds, but the vast majority of the dolls they sell are white and all but two of their historical characters are Christian. I am really interested in the idea of historical fiction as public history and how we can use fiction as an entry into understanding history, so I began creating my own historical characters from time periods and marginalized communities overlooked by American Girl. I use these original historical characters to discuss histories of non-white and non-Christian communities in the United States and elsewhere. I also use this project to connect history to contemporary events. All of American Girl’s canonical historical characters fight for justice and equality in their books, so it makes sense to me to use these historical characters to discuss contemporary issues of justice and equality and to trace how contemporary racism, sexism, and inequality is rooted in history.

As a public historian, this project is an extension of my other work. I typically write history articles for online and print outlets, on topics ranging from suffrage history to environmental history. On @iamexcessivelydollverted, I often discuss topics that I’ve written about for websites and magazines, but I’m able to interact with a different readership—over half of my followers are 18-34 years old and the majority are women. Too often, history writing aimed at a popular audience is synonymous with weighty tomes about men written by men. By using American Girl dolls to discuss history for a popular audience, I’m fighting against that stereotype; writing popular history is and should be a feminist act.

American Girl dolls dressed as early 20th-century suffragists used for the cover of The Public Historian’s February 2021 Issue.

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By Audrey Altstadt

My early summer reading began with three books about women’s lives. One overlapped with my teaching life (Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, about the great codebreaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman and yes, that’s how she spelled her name); another overlapped with my travel life (Kate Harris, Lands of Lost Borders, about her months bicycling the Silk Road, which I never did or would do).  The third book spoke to my writing life, as most books do, but this one resonated in a deeply personal way. Richard White’s Remembering Ahanagran: a History of Stories (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998) is White’s investigation of his Irish mother’s memories and life stories which he scrutinized against the historical record of her birthplace in Ireland and the US where she married and raised her children.

In this book, White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, tackles a problem that all historians face – how do we know what’s true? This book is like none of his others because here he investigates own mother’s stories, at her behest, and with her in tow as he returns to her Irish village to get additional local stories and check state and church records against their memories. With this process, White enters the territory not merely of the biographer, but of the memoirist. White himself is a character is this book. He listens to the stories again and again, but he argues with his mother about his investigations of “truth” in the documentary record. The subtitle “a history of stories” gives us a clue about his intellectual and academic approach to the family lore.

The resonance of this book for me was three-fold. My own mother’s family emigrated to the US from Ireland, from the same county as White’s mother, indeed, from a neighboring village. Like his mother, Sarah Walsh, my mother’s parents settled on Chicago’s south side. But the one forward-looking element of this reading experience was that I am a historian writing a memoir. My memoir is unrelated to my family –that I will save for my golden years – but about my first year in the USSR as a doctoral student in the late Brezhnev era.

Like White and his mother, I have memories of my own experiences of that time and I know the stories of others who shared those years of grad school and of research in the USSR. The year I spent in Baku, the capital of Soviet Azerbaijan, was an adventure academically, politically, and personally. I arrived in September of 1980 on the heels of the US boycott of the summer Olympics in Moscow which was retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous December. US-Soviet relations were at the lowest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. By going to Baku, in the Soviet south near the Iranian border, I was close to the American hostages then being held in the occupied US Embassy in Tehran. And I arrived weeks after the start of the Iran-Iraq War when the US-backed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was bombing the Iranian border just south of Soviet territory. Naturally, I want to get the facts of the time right.

Audrey Altstadt (middle) in Baku, 1992

Although it’s easy to look up the dates of invasions and bombings, or presidential decrees and decisions of the Soviet Communist Party, as White found his mother’s school records, there are a thousand details that cannot be readily verified. Yet those details tell a story of their own.  And so does my memory of them. When I tell my fellow historians that I am writing a memoir, their first question is “do you have diaries, notebooks, letters?” We think about evidence, of course. That’s what we do. And I have those things, which might be considered historical documents and primary sources by some future historian, but they are singularly uninformative. In the Soviet Union in 1980, it would have been foolish for an American to record frankly all the things she did and people she met. Our rooms were searched regularly, our communications monitored. As one of two Americans in Baku, and the only one who spoke the languages, I was followed for months even after I settled into my boring routine of going from dorm to university to market.  Writing about Soviet acquaintances put those people at risk. That was the reality of our lives, it was not some movie fantasy. Memories are my foundation for the memoir – the train across the steppe from Moscow to Baku, my first view of Baku bay in the sunshine, the fragrances of the bazaar, the rickety chairs in the archives and the crooked glass that made car tires look square.  

As White encountered conflicting stories about the family home, Ahanagran, I found disparate memories among old friends.  Wanting to share feelings as well as facts, I tried to lead my reader from the familiar to the new. Take the case of the jetway. When our group arrived in Moscow, we left our Lufthansa flight and spilled out into the new and gleaming Sheremetova-II airport, built for thousands of visitors to the Olympics. How did we get from the plane to the airport corridor? I think we used a jetway as in the US, but I do not clearly recall. I ask friends who were in the group. They say we “must have” deplaned onto the tarmac and walked into the terminal because the USSR had no jetways in 1980.  But I think they are projecting that knowledge backward to our arrival. I had been outside the US only once before and had never deplaned onto the ground. If I had walked down the plane’s stairs onto the cold and, as I recall, snowy ground of the Moscow’s airport, I am confident I would remember. Since I don’t remember such a thing, I think there was a jetway bought and installed specifically for foreign travelers. And that’s what I wrote – we left the familiar jetway behind. We entered a world of novel, even strange, experiences — the airport was empty, the Soviet guards stared us down, the passport control process was intimidating.

White describes reading his mother’s 1936 immigration form with her. She commented, “How much I’m finding out about myself.”  White found out about his mother and Ireland and the immigrant experience in writing this book, but also about himself, and perhaps more from the process than the facts. So it is with all of us who write.

Rebekkah Rubin, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History

Normally, I study history beyond living memory. I feel most comfortable when I am situated firmly in the 19th century. However, this summer, as an intern at Belt Magazine, I have ventured into writing 20th-century history. Belt is an online magazine that publishes long form journalism about the Rust Belt, the region from New York State to eastern Wisconsin that has suffered from economic decline due to the loss of industry, particularly steel. During my internship, my main task is to write a series of popular history pieces about the history of Cleveland.

Although I am originally from a city about sixty miles south of Cleveland, and I did my undergraduate work forty miles west of Cleveland, I am not a Clevelander.

On the first day of my internship, I met the publisher and founder of Belt Magazine at a bar and hot dog joint on the east side of Cleveland to attend a panel discussion about the Hough Riots, an uprising in a Cleveland neighborhood in 1966. I hadn’t even heard of Hough until I learned about the panel. At the event, I quickly realized that I was surrounded by native Clevelanders who lived through the riots.

My assignment was to write a history of Hough for Belt Magazine. How was I to tell the history of something I hadn’t heard about until that week? Something that was so fresh in the minds of Clevelanders that they stood in a stuffy bar for two hours listening to other people’s memories? It was intimidating for me, as an outsider, to assume that I can tell the story of so many people who are still alive to tell it for themselves.

I had stumbled into new territory.

The crowd at The Happy Dog engrossed in a panel discussion about the history of the Hough Riots. Courtesy of the The Happy Dog.

The crowd at The Happy Dog engrossed in a panel discussion about the history of the Hough Riots. Courtesy of the The Happy Dog.

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Susan Kaplan, Senior Reporter and Host of All Things Considered, New England Public Radio

“…Out of order we created chaos. Initially that chaos bred an organization called Al Qaeda in Iraq. But in place of Al Qaeda in Iraq we got this new entity called ISIS. I think it is a fair statement that were the US to have not invaded Iraq in 2003 ISIS simply would not exist today.” —Historian, former Army Colonel and Vietnam War veteran Andrew Bacevich.[1]

I’m a public radio reporter with a passion for covering veterans and the military. Newly acquired knowledge from graduate work in the UMass Amherst history department has woven into my journalism, for the better.

Interviewing authors goes with my job. Andrew Bacevich’s life trajectory has taken him from West Point to Vietnam, Army Colonel to Boston University professor. This storehouse of experience gives his arguments and analysis on war and the military bricks and mortar credence. Bacevich has walked the walk.

Like many other veterans I’ve interviewed, he seldom speaks and never boasts about his service. We spoke on Wednesday, April 13. I was at New England Public Radio in Springfield, Massachusetts. Bacevich, on a book tour, spoke from a hotel room in Atlanta. In our interview Bacevich said, “The US effort to use military power in an effort to somehow fix the greater Middle East pre dates 9/11 by 20 years.” This point is emphatically illustrated at the start of his newest book, America’s War For the Greater Middle East: A Military History.

<img class="wp-image-646 size-large" src="https://umasshistory.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/bacevich-cover.jpg?w=545" alt="Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. New York: Random House, 2016.” width=”545″ height=”812″> Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. New York: Random House, 2016.

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Rebekkah Rubin, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History

Before I came to UMass, I spent a season working as a historical interpreter at a living history museum. Every morning I put on two petticoats, my dress, and a bustle, and drove to work. Throughout the day, I talked with visitors about the temperance movement and women’s rights in the 19th century. During breaks, I took pictures of juneberry pies that I had just baked in the wood stove. I brought out the coffee container in the museum’s collections that came from my hometown, 530 miles away, but visitors rarely saw. After I swept the dust off of the front porch and let the embers die down in the stove, I posted the pictures to Twitter, using the hashtag #ITweetMuseums. On my days off, I visited local historical societies and museums, tweeting all the while. By tagging my tweets with the hashtag #ITweetMuseums, my museum experiences became accessible to people who ordinarily would not have had a chance to visit these museums. When I couldn’t venture out to new museums, I scrolled through my own Twitter feed, searching for #ITweetMuseums tweets that transported me to museum exhibits miles and continents away.

Throughout Professor Marla Miller’s “Writing History Beyond the Academy” seminar, we have discussed the ways in which historians can use Twitter to their best advantage. From a visit by Lee Badgett, professor of economics at UMass and author of The Public Professor, we discovered that being on Twitter can be beneficial in making connections, and those connections can be essential in discovering ways to make your research benefit the greater good. From talking with Rebecca Onion, Slate.com’s history writer and the department’s Writer-in-Residence (whose public lecture “Truth, Lies, Clicks, and Shares: How History is Faring on the World Wide Web” can be viewed here), we’ve learned that people are engaging with history in all sorts of new ways on Twitter and elsewhere on the internet.

Earlier this semester, the department hosted Mark Schlemmer, the founder of I Tweet Museums. I Tweet Museums’ mission is to “encourage and support museum staff to tweet museo-relevant content from their personal Twitter accounts.” Schlemmer, the registrar at the New York Historical Society, is inspired both by his own work and the work other museum professionals do on a daily basis. He created I Tweet Museums as a platform for museum professionals to share what they are naturally impassioned about in their day-to-day work.

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Photo courtesy of Jessica Johnson

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By Peter Blackmer, Ph.D. student, W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass Amherst

My grandmother has a family-famous saying that she utilizes anytime someone is looking for something that is clearly within plain sight. The saying goes, “If it had teeth, it would bite you.” As I sat at my desk a couple of years back digging through massive texts on Reconstruction-era politics in an attempt to develop an analysis of the nature of political violence during this period, I stumbled upon a passage that called my grandmother’s saying to the front of my mind. After having spent countless hours reading through accounts of politically-motivated violence to find patterns in its application, I found a narrative given by Henry Adams, a freedman and astute reporter of Black experiences during Reconstruction, that would have bitten me, if it had teeth.

The original premise of this research endeavor was to determine the validity of a claim made by George Henry White, the last Black Congressman of the post-Reconstruction era, in an address to Congress in 1900 in support of his anti-lynching bill. In this address, White claimed that “since the end of the Civil War, fully fifty thousand of my race have been ignominiously murdered by mobs.” To determine the merits of this claim, I began to tear through book after book on Reconstruction to compile not only numbers, but names and narratives as well. As I read through countless harrowing accounts of individual experiences with racial terror in the post-Civil War South, my objective quickly evolved from merely validating White’s body count to promoting the historical agency of these marginalized histories and utilizing these accounts to develop an analysis of the larger role of racial violence in the political arena.

Within this context, it became my goal to employ the narratives of personal experiences in the Reconstruction-era South to transform numbers and statistics into names and stories in an effort to make this material more accessible and relatable to students and readers. The course that I was developing this project for, Professor Miller’s Writing History (HIS691W), had significant impacts on the ways that I approached and sought to present this material to my intended audiences. With a specific focus on developing historical prose for readers outside of academia, I was drawn to works we read in class, such as Robin D.G. Kelley‘s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, that utilized character-driven narratives to confront more complex historical topics in a manner accessible to popular audiences (Professor Kelley was actually a Writer-in-Residence during this semester and was an incomparable resource to have in class). Having been exposed to how effectively Professor Kelley and others crafted their character-centered approaches to writing history for readers outside of the academy, I felt that this would be an ideal approach to making the complexities of my research more accessible and translating the numbers and statistics I had been compiling into narratives that my audience could identify with. Given that I had come to this decision to center the personal narratives of those most deeply affected by the violence I sought to analyze within my research, it seemed prudent to allow those same narratives to define the terms of my larger analysis of the role of political violence in overthrowing Reconstruction in the South.

In one brief account given before a Senate Committee in 1870, Henry Adams, whom the Senate report referred to as “a man of very unusual natural abilities, and… entirely reliable and truthful,” provided the adept analysis of the formulaic nature of political violence that I had spent the better part of a semester seeking to develop. While I was busy trying to write the story of the systematic violent suppression of would-be Black voters in the post-Civil War South from my desk in Amherst, Massachusetts in 2012, Henry Adams had largely done this aspect of my work nearly 150 years earlier through his work in collecting reports of “the true condition of [his] race” across the South. Through my research of personal narratives from 1865-1876, I had discovered a pattern in the use of violence by white Democrats to first disrupt Black Republican rallies in Southern communities and then continue this style of intimidation throughout the night in the form of roving white hunting parties that would terrorize Black communities, Republican or not. While my research may have led me to the discovery of this pattern, it was the voice of Henry Adams that truly brought it to life. Responding to a question from a member of the Senate Commission on how “white people could bulldoze the Negro and prevent him from voting,” Adams described that:

“They come to a place where there is a kind of little gathering. One will take a drink…then comes out and commences to meddle with one of the colored men. Maybe the colored man will say something sort of rash like. If he does, [the white] will haul out a revolver and strike him and maybe, perhaps, shoot him. Then a passel of them will commence firing on them colored men… Now, if one of them colored men will show fight, if he hurts one of them, his life ain’t no more than a chicken’s. He may go home but he wont stay for a passel will come after him that night.”

What is remarkable about Adams’ narrative for the purposes of writing history is that through his unique experiences travelling throughout the South witnessing and reporting on the conditions experienced by Black individuals during Reconstruction, he was able to distill the narratives that he bore witness to into a contemporary analysis of the use of political violence to subvert Black political agency. Despite the historical significance of Adams’ testimony in challenging the popularly accepted dominant narratives of the failures (or overthrow) of Reconstruction, both contemporarily and historically, his narratives are largely absent from many of the major texts on Reconstruction-era politics.

Beyond merely enhancing my work for this particular writing project, the discovery of Henry Adams’ influential reporting has led me to develop a heightened appreciation of the possibilities that personal narratives can hold for not only writing history, but also for engaging in critical pedagogy and challenging dominant historical narratives in public school settings. Having briefly taught in the New York City public school system, I witnessed the marginalization of historically significant narratives such as Adams’ in the context of Reconstruction’s demise, in favor of dominant narratives centered around the imposition of supposedly “radical” Northern political ideals upon the South in the wake of the Civil War and the folly of exploitative “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags.” Not only was the textbook presentation of this material stale to my students, it was serving to promote and maintain dominant historical narratives that continue to skew the experiences of people of color in the Reconstruction-era South. My long-term hope for the application of this particular narrative-driven research is to develop a framework for cooperative learning projects, through which students will engage in the research process of locating and connecting with individual, micro-histories, and working collaboratively to weave these into a more nuanced analysis to complicate historical meta-narratives.

By utilizing works in our teaching that center the personal narratives of individuals who experienced and were directly impacted by historical events, such as Dorothy Sterling’s The Trouble They Seen, we are able to not only challenge the dominant narratives that continue to be presented in many history texts, but to also promote a more authentic education for our students by utilizing materials that provide personal voices to bring history to life. These “counter-stories,” as defined by scholar-educators Daniel Solorzano and Tara J. Yosso, represent “a tool for exposing, analyzing, and challenging the majoritarian stories of racial privilege. Counter-stories can shatter complacency, challenge the dominant discourse on race, and further the struggle for racial reform.” As broad populations in America seek to understand and analyze contentious current events that have the potential to usher in major political, social, and economic change in the nation, it is essential that we not only listen to the voices of those most directly impacted by the topics we are seeking to understand, but that we demand media outlets to center these voices. For, if these voices continue to be made invisible in favor of artificially-imposed narratives, we will continue to search for the answers to our questions, but will not find them to be without “teeth.”

Peter Blackmer is originally from Syracuse, New York and earned both his B.A. in History and M.S. in Education from Wagner College. His primary research interests center on local studies of the Civil Rights Movement in New York City, with a specific focus on community-based organizing and activism in Harlem preceding the 1964 rebellions.

By Matthew Herrera, M.A. Student, Department of History

Last Tuesday — March 25th — 2014 UMass Writer-in-Residence Adam Hochschild paid a visit to Stephen Platt’s Graduate Writing History Seminar. During this session, students were able to interact with the prolific writer, asking him numerous questions ranging from his writing style, dealing with writer’s block, and advice for developing a thick skin when it comes to reviewers. Adam Hochschild is a writer of journalism and history. He is also a Lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has contributed to numerous magazines, newspapers, and published many well-known works, such as King Leopold’s Ghost, Bury the Chains, and most recently, To End All Wars.

During our seminar we discussed many things, such as technique; his book, To End All Wars; and advice regarding the publication process. However, one of the most important lessons we learned from Hochschild’s visit was his approach of writing history for popular audiences. Hochschild informed us that his job as a writer was to captivate the reader in a subject in which he or she has no interest. To accomplish this, Hochschild presents the material through the eyes of characters and their relationships. In his article “Practicing History without a License,” Hochschild states academic historians often produce works that are obscure and “dry as dust.” One way of avoiding this, he recommends, is by writing history though the utilization of characters. Not only does this approach engage the reader, but it also allows the author to tell the story through the experiences of characters. Additionally, using characters that are connected together will only engage the reader even further. Using films, novels, and plays as examples, Hochschild pointed out most stories involve characters that are connected and encounter each other.

Also discussed was technique and writing style. Hochschild believes in order reach wider audiences, historians need to make use of the classic tools writers have been using for hundreds of years, such as narrative devices of plot and scene setting. Writing that makes use of these techniques appeals to audiences outside of academia, and using these in works that expand the field can only have a positive influence. As Hochschild states in his article, “there is no reason why most history can’t be written in a way that offers thought provoking analysis and, at the same time, reaches well beyond an audience of fellow scholars.”

While pointing out various techniques and ways in which characters can help drive a written history, Hochschild did stress diligence. He warned that one must remain disciplined to not overwhelm the reader with too many characters. Introducing too many could not only lead to a work becoming tedious, but also confuse the reader, causing him or her to lose interest. Furthermore, it could become harder for the author to keep up with everything as the characters start to blend together. After all, every one of us has encountered a book, film, or television show that had so much going on, our interest faded or we were left Lost and confused.

In a field that is looking to expand further into the public consciousness, following the advice Hochschild bestowed upon our history class can be extremely beneficial. There are definitely times that research and analysis-driven works are most appropriate, yet finding a medium that appeals to both academics and popular audiences can only be beneficial. While it seems the “gap” between the two audiences is closing, producing historical works driven by characters, plot, and scene settings can only hasten the process and benefit the field by helping it grow.

Further Reading:

Hochschild, Adam. “Practicing History Without a License.” Historically Speaking XI, no. 4 (March/April 2008): 2-21.

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. New York: Mariner Books, 2011.