In high school I felt different, despite having good friends. Only at college did I realize the folk around me felt different too, and in that we were all alike. One classmate said, “Each of us is unique in our own special way.” (How else could one be unique?)
Cultures and subcultures, too, are all different and all alike. Some differences are regional: Does a six o’clock dinner invitation mean arriving about 6:30 or in time to eat at six? Others are racial, religious, or related to gender. Cultural diversity brings many benefits. It enlarges our worlds, exposes us to new perspectives, and challenges our stereotypes.
We less often admit publicly that diversity is hard. We don’t know what an unfamiliar culture expects or takes for granted. We risk giving unintended offense. We may hesitate to speak freely with people whose experience in sensitive areas is very different from our own.
Diversity isn’t a choice but a fact. The question is how to deal with it. Members of the culture that permeates a community routinely rub shoulders with people of similar backgrounds, but may need intentional ways to diversify their connections. People outside the pervading culture may seek out safe spaces with people who get it: women in consciousness raising groups in the 1970s, Black teens sitting together in the lunchroom. Times to broaden horizons and times to feel at home—all of us need both. And in that, we are all alike.
Of Lions and Lambs
Happy equinox! Here at the cusp of winter and spring, day is finally as long as night. It’s a time for balance, whether that means a harmonious center or equal but opposite extremes. Wisconsin tends toward the latter. One March afternoon I watched a man cross frozen Fish Lake with his dog and a woman pass in her convertible with the top down.
Lamb and lion have a long history in religious texts and art, whether contrasting gentleness vs. ferocity or lying peacefully together. Some link them astrologically with the spring equinox, when Aries (ram, sheep) ushers in the new year. In any case, the pair became a vivid image for this month’s changeable weather.
“March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb” goes back at least as far as Gnomologia; Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British by Thomas Fuller (1732). The later “In like a lamb, out like a lion” seems nearly as fitting, at least here in the Upper Midwest, where heavy snow can fall in late March or even April.
May the rest of your March be lamblike, and may sunshine fill your lengthening days.
Image: The lamb and the lion as they appear on a pub signboard in Bath, England. Trish Steel, Wikimedia Commons.
Death and Taxes
The first occurs once in a lifetime. The second rolls around year after year, with tax day 2023 only a month away. The certainty of death and taxes was already a commonplace in the 1700s. From Garson O’Toole’s website Quote Investigator:
“You lye, you are not sure; for I say, Woman, ’tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes—therefore hold your Tongue, or you shall both be soundly whipt.” (Christopher Bullock, The Cobler of Preston, 1716)
“Not the Man in the Moon, . . . not the Inspiration of Mother Shipton, or the Miracles of Dr. Faustus, Things as certain as Death and Taxes, can be more firmly believ’d.” (Daniel Defoe, The Political History of the Devil, 1726)
“I may be mistaken, it’s true; because, as the man says, we can be sure of nothing in this world but death and taxes.” (Joseph Reed, Tom Jones: A Comic Opera, 1769)
“We have often heard, that nothing was to be depended on but taxes and death; but taxation seems to be run hard, when it condescends to take three-pence from a dead person.” (Gentleman’s Magazine, letter to the editor, 1783)
“Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” (Benjamin Franklin, letter to Jean Baptiste Le Roy, 1789)
Bread and Roses
Little girls in the 1950s asked each other, “Do you want a family or a career?” Having both is now common, which isn't to say they never conflict. Mother’s Day celebrates (some) women’s role in the private sphere on the second Sunday in May. With far less fanfare, we celebrate their public “social, economic, cultural, and political achievements” on March 8, International Women’s Day (IWD).
On March 8, 1857, New York City police broke up a demonstration by women textile workers seeking better pay, hours, and working conditions. Half a century later, on March 8, 1908, thousands of women marched through NYC demanding work reforms plus the right to vote. The next year the Socialist Party of America began an annual National Woman’s Day. “Bread and Roses” dates from 1910-12.
Meanwhile women across Europe organized International Women’s Day to rally for suffrage and against the looming war. On March 8, 1917, women in Russia went on strike to demand “bread and peace.” Czar Nicholas II abdicated one week later. After the violence of the Russian Revolution, Americans lost sympathy for anything associated with socialism. IWD, widely observed in Russia and elsewhere, largely fell from view in the U.S.
We give more attention to the relatively recent Women’s History Month. Its overlap with IWD was almost an afterthought. To commemorate ratification of the 19th Amendment suggested August, but late summer was too hot for large demonstrations. Parading in March sounded more attractive.
My weekly yoga class switched from studio to online early in the pandemic. Happily, the class remains small and personalized. Some make yoga a spiritual practice. Our instructor says we’re all building strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance.
Life often reminds me these qualities aren’t just physical. Now, for example. February has been so . . . February. Snowdrops are in bloom; snow is in the forecast. The season calls for strength to do what needs doing; endurance to keep at it; flexibility to change plans as weather and health require; and balance to welcome tiny harbingers of spring while hunkering down for a blizzard.
History as Camerawork #3: Framing
Zoom in or zoom out? How much background or context does a true narrative provide? It’s a question of craft and purpose. In Born in Blackness (2021), Howard French traces the transatlantic slave trade to Portugal’s quest for African gold. As I’ve written before, the story begins where the storyteller begins it. The same holds for the ending: Juneteenth? Jim Crow? This week?
Historians deal in evidence and interpretation. Truth or falsehood rests large on evidence; interpretation is better described as persuasive or weak. Evidence can be mixed. The late Professor Geoff Blodgett recalled serving as ship’s historian during a naval battle in the Korean War. Interviewing sailors the very next day, he found that every one of them recalled the battle differently.
History is neither an art nor a science, Blodgett told us. It is a craft. In the mystery novels of my leisure reading, crime scene photographers document a scene at many scales and angles. In history, the more different angles we can see from, the closer we come to understanding what happened and why.
Image: (left) Cropped by me, from (right) Monarch flying away from a Mexican sunflower. Wikimedia Commons (license).
For years I learned Americans won their Revolution due to such advantages as knowing the terrain. Not until grad school did I hear about dissention in Britain as the war dragged on. “I am persuaded and I will affirm, that it is a most accursed, wicked, barbarous, cruel, unnatural, unjust, and most diabolical war,” William Pitt said in Parament in 1781. “The expense of it has been enormous . . . and yet what has the British nation received in return?” James Boswell wrote in his diary, “Opinion was that those who could understand were against the American war, as is almost every man now.”
Fast forward to America’s loss in Vietnam. I hear more about dissention within the U.S. than Vietnamese factors conducive to victory. Why the difference in emphasis? Hypocrisy? No; win or lose, it is natural that Americans look at wars primarily in terms of happenings in the U.S.
As in photography, the picture necessarily varies with the angle from which one looks. Even attempts to cover multiple angles do so by jumping from one to another, like a series of still photos rather than one that’s all-inclusive. Other terms to describe narrative viewpoint include the lens through which writers look and the focus where they concentrate attention.
Which is true history, the view from Britain or the United States, from the U.S. or Vietnam? Both, if they’re supported by evidence and don’t claim to have a monopoly on truth.
Image: Regnier, Washington the Soldier, 1834. Library of Congress.
Was the rise of the United States built on Enlightenment ideals or slavery? I welcome the current spate of interest in books, lectures, and classes about race-based slavery and its consequences. When friends say they’ve finally learned America’s true story, though, I’m skeptical.
To understand why, imagine you’re an experienced photographer hoping to write a history about a topic of your choice. You know many accurate ways to photograph a single subject. The same holds for recounting the past.
Some photos or narratives, of course, are false. Remember when the University of Wisconsin’s admissions office inserted a Black student’s head into the image of an all-white crowd to indicate diversity? In a story contrived to mislead, we call it lying. If you doctor your story for entertainment or artistic expression, it’s called historical fiction.
Honest nonfiction is far from mechanical. Applying your photographic experience to writing a true history leaves you plenty of scope for creative choices. I’ll write about a few of those choices in the next couple of weeks.
First of a three-part series. Next week: Angle, Lens, and Focus. Image: A.H. Wheeler, photographer, Berlin, Wisconsin, 1893.
Means, Ends, and Memory
I wrote my British history dissertation during the Vietnam War. While I pored over 300-year-old documents in libraries and archives, American men were drafted or fled to Canada. Chaos erupted on the streets. Richard Nixon was elected president. My research topic, how Puritan John Owen’s theology shaped his ties to Oliver Cromwell in England’s civil war, seemed far removed from current events; but my findings changed how I see the world.
The notion that “the end justifies the means” seemed straightforward. Wasn’t a worthy end the only reason to use any means in the first place? Hey, I was young.
On 4”-by-6” note cards, I recorded how Owen defended beheading the King and throwing out one Parliament after another when their actions conflicted with God’s will. In Washington, President Nixon backed a burglary to help him win a second term. In musty archives, I wrote how 17th-century Puritans put England under military rule, and a fed-up nation finally welcomed a Royalist army to restore the monarchy. On the radio over a colleague’s dining room table in 1974, I heard Nixon resign office rather than stay to be impeached.
My take-away from Owen’s biography was that process matters more than winning. It is best in the long run to admit the loss of a free and fair election, to abide by legislation we dislike, to uphold the Constitution even when we work to amend it. Yes, some life-and-death cases must yield to conscience, like the Underground Railroad or water in the desert for parched migrants. But to justify win-at-all-costs methods by framing policy debates as life vs. death, socialism vs. fascism, sets everyone up to lose in the long run.
Whose Story To Tell?
Friends and neighbors used to rave about elegant Southern plantation houses they’d toured on vacation. Plantation weddings are still popular. But Whitney Plantation west of New Orleans won’t touch the wedding business. Opened to the public in 2014 as a museum about slavery, Whitney refuses to romanticize its past.*
Times are changing . . . gradually. Four years ago, I visited the historic San Diego de Alcala mission church in California. As I recall, a brochure described how and why Spaniards built a mission in that spot, how the priests lived, and what challenges beset them. The next year at Mission San José in San Antonio TX, a ranger explained how drought and disease drove native inhabitants of the region to live and work on the mission grounds. In time they and their descendants created a whole new culture, blending indigenous foods and customs with Spanish language and Catholic faith.
The histories we hear depend in part on what questions we ask. If we only ask about the white people in charge of a plantation or mission, we turn to Gone With the Wind for images of suffering. I’m glad there’s a rising interest in asking, researching, and teaching about the forced labor that made plantations and missions possible.** Enslaved people’s sufferings are painful to imagine and, I hope, impossible to romanticize.
* Image: Whitney Plantation slave cabins. For more on how diverse sites and programs portray slavery, read How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith (2021).
** According to the National Park Service, “Tradition has it that the missionaries never forced anyone into a mission, but once there, they could not leave. Those who ran away were often tracked down and returned to the mission.”
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.