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.
Jordyn May, a PhD student in the History Department, has her research on the visual culture of the women’s suffrage movement featured on Fordham University’s home page. Check it out: WOMEN’S HISTORY: HOW SUFFRAGETTES SOLD THEIR MESSAGE
Fordham History’s Professor Kirsten Swinth was quoted in a recent article at The Wrap on youth culture, feminism, and the response to the Manchester suicide bombing attack at an Ariana Grande concert on May 22. The article, which you can read here, was written by Ashley Boucher and published on May 25.
A Reflection on the 2016 Presidential Election from W. David Myers, Chair of History at Fordham University.
So it is Election Day, 8 November—Fordham and the history department are closed, and the department chair is in El Paso, Texas, to watch the scene and celebrate his mother’s 98th birthday—more on that later. For now, while everyone votes, watches, and waits, it is a good moment to note that members of the Fordham history department have been and are involved in this election, both practically and intellectually. Nick Paul and family went to Pennsylvania in October to register voters. Recently, Kirsten Swinth gave a scintillating lecture and program on the history of sexual harassment in America—not just the fact of harassment, which sadly seems not about to end, but the reaction to it and attempts to define, control, and eliminate it. The tale that emerged from Kirsten’s discussion was a century-old set of disparate campaigns with different angles and motives leading to today’s intense efforts. It’s a messy history, but what Kirsten’s presentation demonstrated is that the fight isn’t new, and sexual harassment isn’t a distraction from more important issues this election year—it IS an important contemporary political matter, one that this ugliest of campaigns has brought to the forefront.
Others have been just as active—Saul Cornell’s tireless efforts politically and academically on the Second Amendment have taken him from Cambridge, England, to Palo Alto California. For me, though, one of the most enlightening moments from my colleagues was Sal Acosta’s discussion last February of voter restriction efforts in states with a long history of discrimination against African Americans—this time targeting a rising Latino population and using the same language of fear and criminality that disfranchised the black population. As I watch from El Paso, surrounded by my Latino friends and relatives, I note that those same states in the southeast and southwest are witnessing a surge in voting from a determined Latino population infected with the “audacity of hope,” as President Obama has described it. Sal Acosta has proven to be an astute observer and analyst of American politics.
And then there is a personal note–Catherine, my mother, about to celebrate her 98th birthday. While presenting her with a rosary chosen by my students on the Camino de Santiago last June, I was struck by a number—1918. That was the year of her birth during a devastating worldwide influenza epidemic and at the very end of World War I. Focus on the year–in 1918, women could not vote, nor could they fight for their country. In 1918, patriotic African Americans could not fight alongside their white comrades in the U.S. Army. In 1918, African Americans could not play in the major leagues. And in 1918, the Chicago Cubs had already been without a World Series victory for a decade . . .
So as I celebrate my courageous mother with my equally courageous (and Hillary-deranged sisters, I must add!), I realize that in the last decade, she has proudly voted for and seen an African American man become the President of the United States. She has seen gay marriage legalized and thus been able to greet and welcome her granddaughter’s spouse. Last Tuesday she voted for a woman to become the President of the United States. And on Wednesday, the Cubs took the series—with an African American leadoff hitter.
In all of these events, the “arc of history” didn’t necessarily bend gradually toward justice in some inevitable way. None of this seemed likely just a decade ago, at least not for the near term. But human beings seized the opportunities presented to them by accident, or disaster, or just dumb luck. The audacity of hope is the element that disrupts our theoretical and scientific thinking and we frequently overlook it. But our best moments as people, and as a people, must surely depend on it. That is one lesson for history and historians today.