Westenley Alcenat, an assistant professor of History, Urban & American Studies at Fordham University, says black history curriculums in all schools are either “inadequate, inaccurate, or simply non-existent.”
“I went to high school in Minneapolis, actually, exactly in the same areas that were deeply affected by the George Floyd incident,” Alcenat told CBS News. “I can confidently tell you that much of what I know regarding American history within the context of what contributions or roles black people made to it… was not something that I really learned as much about in high school as something I learned in adulthood.”
Alcenat said African American history is often sequestered from the larger narrative of American history. Instead, children at all education levels should be learning about the contributions African Americans made throughout history.
“We are not taught enough about how black men and women put their lives on the line to create what we know today as the multiracial vision of American democracy,” Alcenat said.
“Given the type of society we’re striving towards, the type of society we’d like to be, let’s let our kids know very early on what [African Americans’] particular contributions really are,” he said.
In the wake of nationwide protests against racial injustice, new efforts are being made by many American institutions to advance diversity and equality and address longstanding biases. Companies are suddenly recognizing the need to rebrand products like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s due to their racist imagery, the country band Lady Antebellumchanged its name, and NASCAR banned the Confederate flag.
While these changes may be welcome, some believe real progress can only be made if a fuller version of history is taught in schools.
“Without knowledge of history, how do you put together an empathetic, humane response to horrible situations like the George Floyd murder, which we know is a symptom of the larger historical forces of racism in this country?” Alcenat said. “It’s incredibly important that we try to provide a correctness to how it’s all being taught at the moment. Or else we risk not necessarily repeating history, we risk not knowing how to deal with ourselves when these moments of history come upon us.”
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We would like to congratulate Dr. James Smith on passing his dissertation defense on April 29, 2020. He becomes only the second person in the history of the Fordham’s History Department to pass his dissertation virtually.
Dr. Smith’s dissertation is titled, “A Clash of Ideals: Human Rights and Non-Intervention in U.S. Foreign Policy, 1977-1988.”
Below is his dissertation abstract:
The dissertation argues that Carter, Reagan, and other domestic and international actors deployed the ideals of universal human rights and state sovereignty as a political language. The protean meanings they assigned to the terms of that language were contingent upon calculations of political and strategic interests. The discourse of rights and sovereignty in domestic and international politics served as a means to justify or check political change, rather than as nonideological, moral, and legal imperatives. In short, Carter, Reagan, and others used morality and law as political strategy. The study proceeds from an analysis of records from the Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan presidential libraries. The personal papers of Patricia Derian, Barry Goldwater, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, and Donald Fraser provide additional context for the political uses of rights and sovereignty. So too, the papers of William Casey, Warren Christopher, and many of their contemporaries archived at the Hoover Institute enriched this analysis. The author also analyzed digital and other published collections of primary documents, interviewed and corresponded with former public officials, and reviewed memoirs, diaries, interview transcripts, and Congressional hearings and reports. While the dissertation probes the official mind of Washington in the manner of traditional diplomatic history, it also broadens that perspective by assessing how competing domestic and international actors deployed the conflicting ideals of rights and sovereignty. The dissertation builds upon the secondary literature by examining how Carter and others deployed human rights and non-intervention in the 1970s and 1980s. It connects that discourse to the history of U.S. foreign relations, domestic politics, international law, and the movement for economic decolonization. Then, after examining Carter’s embrace of rights and non-intervention as a campaign strategy and the contentious transformation of that rhetoric into policy, the dissertation employs as case studies U.S. relations with Panama, Nicaragua, and Iran. Finally, the dissertation assesses continuity and change in Reagan’s use of the ideals of rights and sovereignty in a foreign policy marked by anti-communism and democracy promotion.
You can reach Dr. James Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in learning more about this fabulous dissertation.
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In The New Republic, Fordham Historian Prof. Saul Cornell argues that “Liberal legal scholars are at risk of falling into a right-wing trap.” Cornell continues to argue: “In the pending congressional impeachment inquiry, the House Judiciary Committee is charged with (among other things) taking up the question of what the constitutional process of impeachment means. To aid them in this solemn task, committee Chairman Jerry Nadler and his colleagues on Wednesday summoned an impressive list of constitutional scholars to offer authoritative interpretations of the Constitution’s impeachment clauses.”
He continues: “The present debate over Donald Trump’s impeachment has largely been framed in originalist terms. But for all of this doctrine’s supposed appeal as a settled form of legal interpretation, it would be prudent to recognize that originalism now comes in about as many flavors as the Ben and Jerry’s product line. The dominant model, for the moment, is what’s known as public meaning originalism. Champions of this approach contend that the goal of interpreting the Constitution is to identify what a competent and reasonably well-informed speaker of American English in 1788 would have thought the words of the text meant. For Republicans and many movement conservatives, public meaning originalism is the default mode of inquiry for virtually every constitutional question. The Federalist Society, the influential right-wing legal group that now effectively issues the union card for entry into right-wing politics and law, has made public meaning originalism its unofficial philosophy, arguing in essence that originalism is not simply the best, but is indeed the only legitimate mode of interpreting the Constitution.”
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is an exploratory, experimental history of the lives of young black women in northern cities in the early twentieth century. Its author, Saidiya Hartmann, had just won a MacArthur “genius” grant for her innovative scholarship when we sat down to discuss the book earlier this month. I think that it was at this moment that the seven students in History 5410 Race and Gender in Modern America really gelled. The day’s student seminar-leaders guided us through a provocative, wide-ranging discussion about how Hartmann’s method beautifully evoked the inner worlds of women largely invisible in the historical record where they mostly appear as statistics in sociologies of the ghetto, names on police blotters, or case files of detention centers. We considered what Hartmann taught us about these young women’s lives with her method that we might not have understood otherwise and discussed whether or not this was a method that graduate students in history might want to embrace.
Hartmann’s book is
among a set of histories of race and gender in the U.S. since 1877 that the
course includes. We have read about miscegenation, farmworkers and migrants, and
women’s employment and “economic citizenship” and are moving on to
civil rights, conservative politics of the family, and mass incarceration. Katie,
a first-year doctoral student in the department, comments that “I have
never explored race and gender exclusively in a course and the well-selected
readings and discussions have forced me to re-evaluate my preconceived notions
of both of these concepts. This class has challenged me to really understand
how race and gender construct one another in today’s world.” Grace
Campagna, a senior history major, echoes the point, observing that “The
biggest takeaway from the class so far has been seeing the range of ways that
those in power have used race and gender to construct and uphold social,
political, and economic systems.”
The seminar is
based in a student-centered pedagogy. Will Hogue, a second-year doctoral
student, says that “Dr. Swinth’s commitment to experimenting with new and
more democratic pedagogical methods has been very rewarding.” He adds, “The
collaborative syllabus model gives the students not only the chance to tailor
the course to their personal needs and goals, but also the chance to practice
some lesson planning and course construction. In all, it has been helpful for
our development both as scholars and teachers.” In fact, the class just
completed a collaborative process to set the topics for the last four weeks of
the seminar, all chosen by students to reflect their interests and to pursue
questions that have arisen in the first part of the course.
At its most basic, this course investigates the ways that race and gender have shaped what it is like to live in the United States today. It draws upon the field of history and the skills, talents, and creativity of committed graduate students (and an accompanying professor) to explore the key categories and mechanisms that have made race and gender “tick” in American culture and society since Reconstruction. In many it is a traditional graduate readings seminar. Course readings analyze how these key, intersecting categories shaped American politics, economy, culture, state, and criminal justice system. But beyond that, the seminar’s deeper goal is to follow the class’s collective interests. What do class members, as individuals, and the class, as a group, want to understand better and more deeply about the history of race and gender in the U.S.? This course is as an opportunity to figure out why learning about this topic matters to comprehending U.S. history, why it matters to students (personally, professionally, as citizens/contributors), and why it matters to the larger world, future students, and other audiences we have yet to identify.
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Christine Kelly, a PhD candidate in History, recently published an article titled “Folk as the Sound of Self-Liberation: The Career and Performance Identity of Odetta,” based on her dissertation research. Christine shared with us the abstract for the article:
Odetta Felious Gordon Holmes – commonly known by her stage name, “Odetta” – played an instrumental role in the rise of American folk music as a mouthpiece for dissent during the social movements of the post-war era. She abandoned a life she planned in opera and oratorio for a career as an interpreter of African American slave songs and spirituals, material originally recorded by song collectors John and Alan Lomax in travels through the Mississippi Delta region. Odetta has claimed that while a life in oratorio would have enriched her vocally, its musical lineage had “nothing to do” with her experience. In contrast, a new repertoire of songs she gathered – songs derived from slave laborers, prison chain gangs, longshoremen, and church congregations – allowed her to shape her identity as a performing artist in crucial ways throughout her fifty year career. As a folk singer, Odetta co-constructed a cultural movement which drew inspiration from song writers of the past – composers of “freedom hymns” – to seek liberation in the present. For Odetta, such liberation was, at first, primarily for herself. As an African American woman who suffered the indignities of segregation, she felt she carried a “dragon” inside, one that hated herself and others. With a broad, black body of which she was ashamed, on stage Odetta tried to conceal and neutralize herself as a racial and gendered subject as she donned long, dark clothing, and threw herself fully into the material she performed. Through an act of self-abnegation, she performed the music, often of black men, who insisted on affirming their existence, the validity of their subjectivity, despite the oppressions that came with circumstances they faced involving humiliation and forced confinement. As an arbiter of the folk tradition, Odetta offered her body as bridge to connect a new generation of listeners with marginalized experiences of the past. As such, Odetta became a cultural broker of a folk tradition of dissent. She relied on a common method among performing artists – benefit concerts – to raise substantial funds for civil rights causes. Odetta’s life in music became a site of self-emancipation as she transformed from a suffering artist who often behaved subserviently to one who invented an identity which insisted on her own personal dignity. Furthermore, the exposure she gave her listeners to a nearly forgotten black cultural heritage enabled them to empathize with the experience of past singer-songwriters, seeing injustice in the present as more pressing than before. Odetta’s appeal to the idiom of folk and the benefit concerts she held directly supported the civil rights movement and related social mobilizations through the 1960s and 1970s as she helped to inspire not only political and legal change, but freedom in the arena of culture and emotion.
Dr. Noël Wolfe (PhD, Fordham, 2015) recently accepted a tenure-track position at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York as an Assistant Professor of History and the Program Director for the Legal Studies Program. Dr. Wolfe completed her dissertation, “A Community at War: the Bronx and Crack Cocaine” in 2015.
For the past two years, Dr. Wolfe has been the Helen and Agnes Ainsworth Visiting Assistant Professor of American Culture at Randolph College. In this position, she designed a 12-credit semester-long experiential program that examines the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class and law through the lens of drug cultures in America. Through course work, discussion, travel and guest lectures, students explored the racialization and ethnicization of narcotics in the U.S. and investigated how racial and ethnic bias influenced popular opinion and drug-related public policy and law. You can find more information about Dr. Wolfe’s program at https://rcamericancultureprogram.wordpress.com. Dr. Wolfe also taught courses on incarceration, African-American history, and law while at Randolph.
Dr. Wolfe is very excited to begin her new position at Nazareth College, which will allow her to explore her research and teaching interests in history and law, as well as put to use her practical experience as a trial attorney. At Nazareth, Dr. Wolfe will teach courses in U.S. and African-American history, as well as courses on law, drugs, and incarceration.
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