Tag Archives: Native Americans

This Day in History 11/21: The Mayflower Compact is signed

The Mayflower Compact, a painting by Jean Leon...

Image via Wikipedia

The Mayflower Compact, signed on November 21 (November 11 in the old calendar), 1620, causes a lot of confusion.

Therefore, before we go any further, let’s get some things clear:

1. The so-called Pilgrims (or Separatists or whatever the fuck they wanted to call themselves) were not interested in creating a democracy.

2. They did not believe in religious freedom for anyone but themselves.

3. No one asked the Wampanoag, the Narragansett, the Patuxet or any of the other indigenous tribes of the region to sign this thing (which they would have happily done with a tomahawk to their pasty white skulls).

The usual line fed to us is that the Pilgrims created the Compact as the first form of government in the Thirteen Colonies of North America.  There goes log of bullshit # 1–sorry, Jesus freaks, but the tobacco-growing, native-wenching planters of Virginia had you beat by one year, creating the House of Burgesses in 1619.

The other old saw follows that the Pilgrims intended to form a democratic form of government among the colonists, thus being the antecedent to the United States Constitution.  Again…this is wrong on so many levels.

The reasons for the Compact were complex, but mostly had to do with the sizeable amount of colonists aboard the Mayflower who were (gasp!) not Pilgrims, Separatists, Puritans or anything else.  They had no illusions about John Winthrop‘s City on a Hill, or creating a New Jerusalem in the wilderness–they came to go to Virginia and join the wenching tobacco planters.  When the ship veered off course and landed at Cape Cod instead, the outsiders, or “strangers” claimed independence from the Pilgrim leaders.  By contract, the voyage was to land in Virginia.  It didn’t, so by law (at least in their mind) the Bible-thumpers had no control over them.

The Pilgrims, rightfully, got nervous.  They understood that if they didn’t stick together, the colony would not survive, be it by starvation, disease, exposure, or the aforementioned tomahawks to the noggin.  So they decided to bargain with the “strangers” and form a haphazard agreement.  It was basically not much of a government at all, but rather a social contract meant to bind the colonists to the rules set forth from that point on.

The following is a modern translation of the Compact:

 “In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, defender of the Faith, etc.

Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, 1620.”

Three things are abundantly clear in reading this modern translation:

1. The Pilgrims had a shitty sense of geography.  They still insisted they were in Virginia–albeit the “northern parts of Virginia.”  This was probably put in to keep the “strangers” from trying any legal funny business.  By that definition, Virginia should extend all the way to fucking Nova Scotia.

2. The Compact did not lay out a single plank for a framework of government.  All it did was establish a “body politic” that would be bound to the rules and regulations of the colony, rules that are supposedly “convenient for the general good of the colony.”  Exactly how these rules would be enacted–and especially who would be involved in government–was left eerily vague.  Looking at the list of 41 white male signers, you can guess who was running things.

3. For a group of people threatened with prison, torture and death by their own home government, the Pilgrims still show a remarkable allegiance to James I of England, Scotland and Ireland–even going so far as to use his full and correct title TWICE (how’s that for filling a page!)  This could lead modern readers to think the Pilgrims either still showed obedience to the sovereign or were real sado-masochists under those doublets and breeches.

Was the Mayflower Compact important?  Sure it was.  It was among the earliest attempts to create a social contract bound by the consent of the governed, albeit imperfectly.  It embodied the social and communal ideals of the Separatist movement, emphasizing rule of law and mutual cooperation.

Yet was the Compact the big thing our teachers made it out to be?  Probably not.  It didn’t establish a government at all.  It didn’t stipulate the rights of colonists.  It didn’t lay a foundation for governance or the creation of laws.

Worst of all, the Pilgrim fathers certainly had selective amnesia about the Compact when it came to women, dissenters and especially Native Americans.  The subsequent wars over New England, particularly the Pequot War of 1637 and especially King Phillip’s War of 1675-1676, demonstrate a concerted effort by the English colonists to marginalize, exclude and ultimately erase any native influence on their culture and their precious Compact.

It would take another 167 years of foundations–and another two centuries of defining those foundations–to actually create the system that lived up to the Pilgrim ideal.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

This Day in History 10/17: Burgoyne Surrenders at Saratoga

"The surrender at Saratoga" shows Ge...

Image via Wikipedia

Everything about the Battle of Saratoga–including its name–has been scrubbed clean by scores of textbooks.

On October 17, 1777, after a punishing four-month campaign, British general John Burgoyne surrendered almost 6,000 British, Hessian and Canadian troops to the Northern Department of the Continental Army, led by General Horatio Gates and (they should get all the credit for victory) Generals Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan.

It was a stunning victory, one that would have widespread effects on the Revolutionary War.  Yet many of the details have been lost to the chest-thumping.

Burgoyne left Canada in June of 1777 with a force that was designed to connect with two other British forces: Barry St. Leger‘s mixed army of British, Hessian and Native troops from the west, and Sir William Howe‘s main British force from New York City.  They were supposed to meet near Albany, dividing the colonies in two and effectively ending the war and the American Revolution.

It didn’t exactly go as planned.

First to punk out was Howe.  It was, on the surface, an easy choice: George Washington’s army was being driven from Pennsylvania, and the rebel capital, Philadelphia was poised for the taking.  To him, it made more sense.  Never mind that the plan to effectively end the war was fucked up from the very beginning–Washington was the bigger prize.  It would be a prize Howe would never get, and would soon be relieved by Sir Henry Clinton.

St. Leger had an even worse time.  He never had any intention of backing out: his mixed force of 2000 Loyalists, British and natives crossed Lake Ontario and landed at Oswego on July 25. The brutal campaigns of Oriskany and Fort Stanwix–where American militiamen and native allies slugged it out with St. Leger’s forces to a stalemate–changed the story.  It drained the morale of St. Leger’s native allies, who took their supplies and took off.  It didn’t help that Benedict Arnold tricked St. Leger into thinking a larger colonial force was coming to relieve Fort Stanwix.  By the time St. Leger shows up at Fort Ticonderoga on September 27, his feeble force was no help to Burgoyne.

Of the three prongs on the British plan, it was Burgoyne, funny enough, who was most successful.  By July he had retaken Fort Ticonderoga, an important strategic and symbolic fortification on the foot of Lake Champlain.  Yet from then on, his campaign slowed to a crawl, as the wagons crating the supplies–including Burgoyne’s luggage, china and furniture–got bogged down in the Hudson highlands.

In the meantime, a quick American victory over Burgoyne’s advance cavalry at Bennington boosted morale to the point that American forces would swell to close to 15,000.  It included Daniel Morgan’s Virginia sharpshooters, Benedict Arnold’s force sent to relieve Fort Stanwix, as well as the main force under Benjamin Lincoln and a new commander, British trained Horatio Gates.

Gates thought he could do a better job than Washington.  Arnold thought he could do a better job than Gates.  Both hated each other.

So how was Saratoga won?

Saratoga was not one battle, but rather a series of maneuvers and two battles over on month.  The first, the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, the British technically won, but at the cost of 600 casualties.  On October 7, the British attacked American fortified positions at Bemis Heights.  In the two actions–the second punctuated by a daring attack by Arnold who was probably drunk–the British suffered a total of 1000 casualties.

Outnumber three to one, with the Americans controlling the high ground and surrounding him at the town of Saratoga itself, Burgoyne was forced to surrender his forces.   When he discussed the terms with General Gates, Burgoyne insisted on calling the surrender a “convention” rather than a “capitulation.”

He fooled no one.

On the final ceremony, after Burgoyne offered his sword to Gates (who refused–a move that further infuriated Arnold), 6000 soldiers laid down their arms as the band played “Yankee Doodle.”

It was very clear to everyone this was no “convention.”

Saratoga would invoke the first day of Thanksgiving, decreed by the Continental Congress on December 18, 1777.  It convinced France and Spain that the Americans could actually win the war–given the right support.  Soon, both countries would sign treaties of alliance with the United States, transforming a colonial rebellion into a world war.

Below is a two-part short documentary about Saratoga narrated by Dan Roberts.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Videos for the Classroom: 1960 Mel-O-Toons Cartoon about Christopher Columbus

Its amazing what used to pass for education in our youth.

A year ago, I wrote about the conflicting personality of Christopher Columbus, his downward spiral in the eyes of historians, and his controversial image among Americans today.  A year later, and I still haven’t found a decent answer to this problem.

So I resorted to the next best thing–making fun of how we celebrated the old myths, through video.

Today’s video is a 1960 Mel-O-Toons classic cartoon about Columbus and his exploits.  The younger kids…and I mean REALLY young…will enjoy the cartoons and songs.  Older students can sit back and laugh at the absurd notions we were taught, such as:

1. All Native Americans looked like Crazy Horse‘s extended family and lived in “huts or wigwams” (I’m not kidding)

2. White people were better because they learned to build houses and large sailing ships. (Again, I’m not kidding)

3. Columbus had doubters who thought the Earth was still flat. (Most educated people of the time understood it was round).

4. Ferdinand and Isabella were decrepit senior citizens.

5. Columbus’ sailers looked like fat gondoliers with handlebar mustaches.

6. The natives Columbus encountered were slack-jawed yokels with no personality.

7. Bad acapella singing can apparently conquer the world.

Have fun ripping this apart as I did.  Enjoy.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Treacherous Rainbow of Identity Politics in History

“The thing is, you cannot judge a race. Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit. You take men one at a time.” ~ Sergeant ‘Buster’ Kilrain, in Gettysburg (1993)

I’m always uneasy when government messes with actual classroom instruction—even when it’s for the best intentions.

The day before I left for California, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 48, an education bill designed to acknowledge the achievements of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) individuals in California and American history. Furthermore, the bill thwarts educators, administrators and school districts from advocating instruction or material that discriminates against said individuals.

It’s a law that really only adds to the current law acknowledging women and minorities—an amendment that, at least in California, is a long time coming. Obviously, more traditional sectors of the state are up in arms over this.

Yet I wouldn’t have thought that a metropolitan newspaper not affiliated with Rupert Murdoch would also be fanning the flames.

The Sunday of the 17th, the Los Angeles Times printed a blistering editorial condemning SB 48 as an affront to free expression. While citing the importance of the gay rights movement—and the dangerous right-wing politicization of education in Texas—the Times nonetheless asserts that

“…politicians shouldn’t be dictating what material appears in textbooks. Besides, do we really want textbooks to include the details of a historical figure’s sexual orientation even when it might have nothing to do with his or her role in history? And does it make sense to require that portrayals of gay people focus on “contributions” and not anything that could be construed as negative? Real history is richer and more complicated than feel-good depictions.” ~ Los Angeles Times editorial, July 17, 2011

I know some gentlemen in West Hollywood that will be cancelling their subscriptions.

However, the folks at the LA Times (shrill as they are) may have a point. Let’s look at the new amended law piece by piece:

“51204.5. Instruction in social sciences shall include the early history of California and a study of the role and contributions of both men and women, Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups, to the economic, political, and social development of California and the United States of America, with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society.”

Not much of a value judgment here, but who’s to say all these groups actually contributed all the time everywhere? Could it be all those Pacific Islanders that threw spears during the Boston Massacre? The disabled regiment that flung their wheelchairs up Marrys’ Heights at Fredericksburg? The enslaved African on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation that kept admiring women’s petticoats and just wouldn’t mate with the girl of the master’s choosing?

Fine, these are extreme, even silly examples. Yet it gets to the concerns many educators have about things like this: Who is the arbiter of what a contribution is, an achievement, the “correct” or “accurate” role of a group or individual in society? The law gives no indication as to who’s responsible—and the state doesn’t seem to step up to the plate with a curriculum or sample units.

“51500. A teacher shall not give instruction and a school district shall not sponsor any activity that promotes a discriminatory bias on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation, or because of a characteristic listed in Section 220.”

Does this include activities that, on the surface, seem divisive, but are meant to prove a point about discrimination and prejudice—activities like role-playing, viewing/analyzing propaganda films from Nazi Germany, scrutinizing literature from hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, etc.? I use lots of material that California would probably throw me in San Quentin for, but that doesn’t make me a bigot.

“51501. The state board and any governing board shall not adopt any textbooks or other instructional materials for use in the public schools that contain any matter reflecting adversely upon persons on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation, or because of a characteristic listed in Section 220.”

Of course, this includes works by Plato, Aristotle, several Biblical authors, Martin Luther, William Shakespeare, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Voltaire, Rousseau, George Orwell, William Faulkner…get my drift?

“60040. When adopting instructional materials for use in the schools, governing boards shall include only instructional materials which, in their determination, accurately portray the cultural and racial diversity of our society, including:

(a) The contributions of both men and women in all types of roles, including professional, vocational, and executive roles.

(b) The role and contributions of Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups to the total development of California and the United States.

(c) The role and contributions of the entrepreneur and labor in the total development of California and the United States.”

Ok, so we have some direction now. “Governing boards,” i.e. district boards or boards of education, will make the determination as to what is offensive or not.

That means the LA County Schools should be following the same guidelines as those in money-loaded Orange County or the rural hinterland of the north, right?

This is a lot of nitpicking, but it serves to show how politicizing these seemingly innocuous laws can be. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the important roles of diverse groups in our great history—GLBT, white, black or otherwise.

Yet shedding light on a darkened past does not always yield positive results.

First, not every group contributed to American history all the time. We’re a big country, a country of regional contrasts and diverse populations that were both mobile and provincial. Sorry, but that’s the facts: some people just didn’t have a huge impact on certain places. The missions of Spanish California would’ve heard about the American Revolution, but scarcely anyone would’ve actually gone to enlist in the Continental Army.

Furthermore, a group or individual’s achievements often have little, if anything, to do with their identity. Their labels may have helped or hindered them in society, such as Blacks and other minorities, but their achievements are often singular, and can also transcend any petty labels foisted on them.

Also, and this is especially true of GLBT studies, there is a tendency to find and pigeonhole people into groups that (a) don’t really belong, or (b) didn’t do anything that important. I worry that historians and textbook authors will scour for evidence of petticoats and makeup amongst the closets of the Founding Fathers to find anyone—ANYONE—that is both GLBT and important. Even worse, the zeal to “out” historical figures could lead to misapplying or even falsifying evidence to prove a point.

Finally, and definitely most importantly, many individuals of “disadvantaged” groups did some not so nice things—a fact often whitewashed in many textbooks. Many of the slave rebellions in the New World involved gruesome violence on the part of the enslaved people themselves. Native American conflicts also involved acts of butchery at times. Were they justified? They certainly had a reason to be so angry.

Yet a burnt house and a bludgeoned infant cannot be erased from memory—nor should it.

History is not just about the good times. The bad times, the bloody times, the gruesome, gory and horrifying times are often more important. It often takes a crappy situation, an act of weakness or a horrible mistake to show the true depths of human character.

To take into account only the accomplishments of a group negates the very real human qualities of the individuals that, in the long run, probably make more of a difference.

While the State of California probably had the best of intentions with SB 48, the law leaves a lot of unanswered questions—questions that may best be left to the educators themselves, with guidance from administrators and academics.

In the pursuit of historical truth, inclusion is almost always preferable to exclusion. Yet the zeal to include everyone should not blind us to the inconvenient facts…

…and the destruction of the truth does no group any good.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Hollywood History: Possible Scripts to Pitch in LA

I’ve heard that everyone in Los Angeles either walks around with a headshot or a screenplay. So, when in Rome… (or West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Malibu, etc.)

Next week, I will be in the sunny confines of southern California, home of the proverbial swimming pools and movie stars. Since Mr. D is just too ravishingly handsome for the screen, he should probably have some sort of treatment with him in case he gets discovered…you never know.

In researching possible script ideas, I’ve noticed that many incredible stories from history have not gotten their proper Hollywood treatment. Some, such as Giuseppe Garibaldi and Enrico Fermi, I’ve discussed before. On this trip, however, let’s look at other stories that have been overlooked—as well as some interesting casting ideas.

1. Andrew Jackson

Why? – The guy, like so many characters in history, is custom-designed for great moviemaking. Orphaned at a young age, wounded in the Revolution as a teenager, taking revenge on the British, the Seminoles, the Creeks, the Cherokee and anyone who slandered his two-timing wife—Jackson can make up a miniseries, let alone a multi-reeler.

The Lead? – tough, but I have in mind Jon Hamm and Nick Nolte: Hamm as the younger Jackson through 1815, and Nolte as the presidential figure. Either of them could take a pistol shot and whip a man into oblivion, a necessary trait for the role.

2. DeWitt Clinton

Why? – Clinton is the complicated hero-politician that has been so overlooked by Hollywood, largely because of location. Clinton is a New York guy, doing New York things that affected the whole country. He also had an outsized reputation: any man called “Magnus Apollo” in his lifetime deserves a treatment.

The Lead? – Colin Firth, no question. Firth has the gravitas to build the Erie Canal, the height that matched Clinton’s stature, and he already did a splendid turn in Regency attire in Pride and Prejudice. He almost matches the paintings.

3. William Johnson

Why?Dances with Wolves meets Last of the Mohicans. There’s something about Europeans going native that drives moviegoers into theaters. Furthermore, Johnson’s exploits with his Iroquois army are legendary, including Crown Point, Fort Niagara and the siege of Montreal. The subplot of his Irishness helping him win friends with the natives can also guarantee an Oscar nod.

The Lead? – At first, I thought Liam Neeson, but in retrospect it doesn’t really work with the historical Johnson. A better choice would be the crazy Irishman from Braveheart, David O’Hara. I’ve seen him in other roles, and he has a toughness and a stature that could make this a breakout role for him. Being Irish also helps.

4. James Michael Curley

Why? – Curley is the kind of outsized, megalomaniacal, controversial political kingpin that audiences love. As mayor of Boston, Congressman, governor of Massachusetts, and convicted felon, Curley was the father of modern ethnic politics. Taking cues from New York’s Tammany Hall, he created a similar apparatus in Massachusetts, mobilizing the Irish—much to the disdain of the Boston Brahmins that dominated the state until that point.

The Lead? – I really wish he got his shit together, because Tom Sizemore would be perfect to play Curley. The guy just oozes Boston tough guy, but with just enough polish that could make him give respectable speeches to demure New England citizens.

5. Victoria Woodhull

Why? – Many forget that Woodhull was the first American woman to run for President in 1872. On top of that, she was incredibly controversial, even among women suffragists—free love, labor reform (of the quasi-Marxist kind), eugenics and spiritualism were also on Woodhull’s agenda. That was enough to make Susan B. Anthony soil her bloomers.

The Lead? – Not really sure, could use some help from the Neighborhood on this one. Most of the actresses in mind are pretty long in the tooth for this role, but any ideas are welcome.

6. Al Smith

Why? – Smith was a run-of-the-mill Tammany hack until March 25, 1911. After the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he became a driving force for workplace and social reform in New York—the true father of the New Deal. The climax could be his 1928 presidential run, where he faced anti-Catholic and anti-Irish prejudice in a humiliating defeat.

The Lead?J. K. Simmons. I first saw him in the HBO series Oz, as the neo-Nazi Vernon Schillinger. Yet even then I saw a command of the screen, coupled with a human touch, that would be just right for the role of the Happy Warrior.

7. The Healys (Patrick, Michael, and James)

Why? – The subplot alone is compelling: an Irish planter takes a mulatto enslaved woman as his common law wife. They have three sons illegally, as interracial marriage is forbidden in antebellum Georgia. To educate them, the three are sent to Catholic schools in the north, as education for blacks is forbidden. Each of the Healys is light enough to pass as white: another conflict as their exploits are shown.

The Lead? – I’m really confused here. Because the Healy boys were so light-skinned, I’m not sure whether to use white talent or Black. I’m not even sure which actors would really fit well. Again, some help from the Neighborhood would help.

8. The Culper Spy Ring

Why? – looking for a great espionage thriller, full of sex, intrigue, double-crossing, violence and plot twists? Look no further than the Culper Ring, a ring of spies in New York and Long Island that spied on the British for George Washington—even as many posed as loyal Tories. They are the ancestors of the modern CIA, and their exploits probably make them more successful, on average.

The Lead? – We have little, if any, information on the true identities, let alone the appearances, of the members of the ring: their identities were not divulged until the 1930s. Casting, then, is wide open to traditional leading men, leading ladies, action heroes, you name it.

9. Robert Moses

Why? – The Power Broker himself: for a half a century, Moses was the most powerful man in New York State without holding a single elected office. He rammed highways, bridges, tunnels, parks, beaches and housing projects all over the state—and didn’t care who got in the way. That is, until Jane Jacobs, Nelson Rockefeller, Joseph Papp and a slew of New Yorkers finally turned their pitchforks on the Master Builder.

The Lead? – If I could find an actor that’s a composite of Michael Gambon’s size and Paul Giamatti’s grit, that would be perfect. Headshots, anyone?

10. H. L. Mencken

Why? – apart from being one of my all-time favorite authors, the Sage of Baltimore’s whit and biting cynicism covered most of the first half of the 20th century. He was cosmopolitan and provincial at the same time: a thinker who fancied himself above the “booboisie” while still able to mix in the dives and gin joints of the Baltimore waterfront. Why Barry Levinson isn’t all over this I have no idea.

The Lead? – It has to be someone intelligent who can play a real asshole. Sam Neill might work, or maybe even Eddie Izzard—I’m leaning more towards the latter.

As always, these ideas are not nearly exhaustive—nor do I really have scripts ready. If anyone has any other ideas, or if they have treatments ready that I can pitch, please let me know.

Don’t worry, you’ll receive due credit—minus my percentage, which we can negotiate later.

This is Hollywood, after all ;)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review of PBS’ “Black in Latin America”: Mexico/Peru

An 18th Century Casta Painting from Mexico, showing different racial combinations.

In my mother’s home country of Ecuador, there’s a province that is unlike any other.

Where the majority of the population is of either pure indigenous or mestizo (mixed white-indigenous) extraction, Esmeraldas appears as a stark contrast to the norm. The province, located on the northern coast abutting Colombia, appears better suited to the Caribbean than to an Andean country. Even with large white and native populations, Esmeraldas is dominated by Africans imported during the Spanish conquest of the 16th Century. Its culture and traditions point farther east than the Andes, towards the coasts of West Africa from which their ancestors were taken.

Athletes from Esmeraldas are especially successful. A glance at Ecuador’s soccer team would have one think they were from Cuba, Trinidad or Jamaica—anything but a South American mountain republic.

There are enclaves like Esmeraldas in many countries in Central and South America. In the last chapter of PBS’ Black in Latin America, Henry Louis Gates looks at two such areas: the black peoples of Veracruz and the Costa Chica in Mexico and the enclave outside Lima, Peru.

Unlike the Caribbean, Central and South America’s native population was too vast and too concentrated to be wiped out. The cultures of these areas, thus, carried a more Amerindian hue. The exception is the Southern Cone, where marginal native populations, as well as Africans, were absorbed into large European immigrant communities.

Yet according to Gates, the African influence is much larger than we realize—especially as African influences were absorbed or subsumed into the larger Hispano-Amerindian community.

More Africans were imported into Mexico and Peru than the United States. Almost half of all enslaved Africans imported to Spanish America came to Mexico. Cities such as Lima and Veracruz contained a distinct African hue, in contrast to the Spanish-native hybrid culture that surrounds them. Many Mexicans and Peruvians contain some African blood, even those that look mestizo. Furthermore, cultural aspects such as music, dance, and food contained as much African influence as from Europe and the Americas.

So apart from a few enclaves, where did all the Africans go?

In Mexico, the slave boom was early and brief, through the 17th century, and emancipation came sooner (in 1829). Blacks intermarried earlier and more vigorously, and by the 1920s it was difficult to even tell who was of African descent. Officially, scholars and politicians extolled the multi-racial “brownness” of Mexico’s people—a homogenization of all cultures that pushed black identity into the background.

A similar pattern occurred in Peru and other South American nations. Although emancipation was more gradual in South America, the overwhelming native and mestizo populations mixed just as vigorously into African families, creating a similar “brownness” to the Mexican experience.

The most dramatic—and tragic—example is on the Rio de la Plata in Argentina, where black populations were almost entirely integrated into either mestizo or, more commonly, European immigrant populations. In effect, this did in fact wipe out the African influence on the Southern Cone, with the exception of Uruguay, where blacks and mulattos from neighboring Brazil buttress their own communities.

So in looking at these groups, and the series in a whole, I’m left with one question: Is racial intermingling and color-blindness necessarily a good thing?

A common theme in this chapter, and in the series, is the mistaken benevolence of color-blindness. For many in Latin America, especially places like the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Brazil, it was thought that the mixing of races would create a new pan-racial harmony that transcended labels and heritage. Gates himself points out that this benevolent “openness” is in itself a form of racism, in that it refuses to deal with the realities of culture and especially domestic social problems.

To be honest, Gates has a point. People are not ingredients in a soup, where different flavors and textures get blended together to make one uniform concoction. There will always be shades of color among us, and whenever there is difference, there is usually some form of discrimination be it overt or subtle. Otherwise, the enclaves of Afro-Latin Americans in Esmeraldas, Veracruz, Lima and the Costa Chica would not exist.

Yet I also get a sense—and I think Gates feels it also—that even though it may be merely a pipe dream, “racial democracy” is something worth striving for. There is hope that in the future there can be a time where all people are treated equally and fairly—while at the same time acknowledging and celebrating the different cultures that have shaped the American continent.

That hope was seen in the universities in Brazil, among young people in the Dominican Republic, in the activists striving in the Costa Chica in Mexico, and even the underground rappers and artists in Cuba that fight for their identity even when official policy condemns them as treasonous.

Whatever the future holds, this much is certain: the cultures of Latin America would not be the same if it weren’t for the millions of Africans kidnapped and brought to these shores. They gave far more than they ever got in return.

In acknowledging their contributions, it goes a small way to repaying that debt.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Videos for the Classroom: “Jerky Turkey” (1945)

The days before a holiday tend to be perfect fodder for videos, at least for killing time.  Yet today’s video combines two things I love: Thanksgiving and the war years in America.

Perhaps the most unsung genius in American animation was Tex Avery.  Starting in Warner Brothers in the 1930s, he moved cartoons away from the sappy, childlike airs of Walt Disney into the mature, sophisticated humor of adults.  He introduced characters like Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, characters with real foibles and charm (and just as thoroughly marketable as Mickey Mouse) as well as fast-paced, rapid-fire dialogue and gags that played to the fears and stresses of adult life.

Avery’s greatest achievements occurred when he moved to MGM in the 1940s.  Through the forties and fifties, Avery produced some of the most groundbreaking, sophisticated and hilarious cartoon shorts in history.  His innovative use of language, sight gags, and modern sensibility created a body of work that still leaves people in stitches–more so adults than children.

Since it is Thanksgiving, the Neighborhood is presenting Tex Avery’s 1945 classic “Jerky Turkey.” In this comic send-up of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621, an unnamed Pilgrim attempts to shoot a wisecracking turkey that bears an uncanny resemblance to Jimmy Durante.

“Jerky Turkey” is packed with discussion points for the social studies classroom.  World War II, and Franksgiving, are deeply referenced throughout the film.  The Mayflower (complete with a gas ration stamp), for example, is shown built by wartime supplier Henry Kaiser and accompanied by a US Naval Squadron.  Plymouth is divided between Democrats and  Republicans, a nod to the Thanksgiving debacle of years past.  Ration lines for cigarettes, billboards warning against unnecessary travel–even the obligatory offensive Native American caricature is included.

(This particular showing is the full version, which has a quite offensive use of the term “Half-breed” that is edited out of TBS and Cartoon Network showings.)

Besides being a hilarious film, “Jerky Turkey” shows how Hollywood used the harsh realities of war in a humorous way, especially during the holidays.  Enjoy!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized