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Chester Nez as a Marine

Chester Nez as a Marine

Sunday, August 18, 2013 was a very special day for me. Veterans Count, a unit of New Hampshire Easter Seals, sponsored a fund raising event at the Portsmouth (NH) Repertory Theatre featuring Chester Nez. Although normally accompanied by his grandson Latham, I recall that on this trip it was his grandson Mike who provided aid and support for his disabled but mentally very sharp 92 year old grandfather. Judith Scheiss Avila, who helped turn Chester’s stories into the book, Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII, also participated in the moderated panel discussion of Chester’s life.

The audience included a number of veterans and civilian supporters of Veterans Count. Also present were members of a number of local Native American tribes. One woman even sang The Star Spangled Banner in Navajo. During the intermission, the tribes – complete with authentic drums, rattles and Native American dress performed and sang Native American songs. Chester and Judith told tales I later learned came mostly from their book. I purchased the hard cover version of the book before attending. Both the live event and the book are a fascinating juxtaposition of a Marine’s devotion to country and mission cast against the discrimination the European white immigrants practiced against the peoples they dominated, overwhelmed and conquered.

Since there is no written Navajo language, theirs is an oral history – passed through stories from generation to generation. Chester’s grandmother experienced and remembered “The Long Walk” of 1864. Kit Carson, the hero of many dime novels and a ground-breaking frontiersman, organized The Long Walk. Read on…

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” – Edmund Burke

State Rep Dan Ryan with ACHLS classmates

State Rep Dan Ryan with ACHLS classmates

When ACHLS was founded in 2010 one of our main goals was to help our country’s future leaders more fully understand our nation’s history so that, as a country, we can legislate forward rather than repeat the mistakes of our past .  The ACHLS family is therefor  doubly thrilled to congratulate Dan Ryan’13 - a graduate of our very first class, on his election as  Massachusetts State Representive for the second Suffolk District (Charlestown and parts of Chelsea).

Although still a small school, Dan is the second ACHLS family member to officially join the rank of “The Honorables”,  ACHLS Associate Dean Maureen Mooney served three terms in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

We look forward to congratulating Dan in person – perhaps at the State House – and to watching future ACHLS grads as they, in turn, take on leadership roles in our country’s  continuing evolution.

The ACHLS family could could not be more proud!

The Great Depression began with Black Tuesday, the now-famous stock market crash of 29 October 1929.   It followed nearly a decade of optimism and prosperity, wherein banks made significant investments of clients’ money in the stock market.  With the money gone, some banks were forced to close.   (The FDIC was created in 1933, as part of the New Deal‘s recovery programs, to insure consumer accounts.)  In turn, many Americans panicked, rushing to withdraw their money from banks before they lost their savings.  While understandable, the rush to withdraw funds undoubtedly perpetuated the problem of widespread bank failures.

Bank failures, mass unemployment, and the Dust Bowl were all features of the ensuing Great Depression, a global economic crisis.  It was not the first financial crisis faced by the US (see also, the panics of 1819, 18371857, 1873,  1893, and 1907), but it was the most long lasting and severe.  It was documented in the songs of Woody Guthrie, the photography of Dorothea Lange, and novels of John Steinbeck, and now, in a newly digitized collection of interviews of those who lived it.

This collection of interviews was originally filmed for an Emmy-winning 1993 PBS special on the Great Depression.  It has now been preserved by the Washington University Libraries’ Visual Media Research Lab and Digital Library Services, a repository known for its talented team of media and film archivists.   The searchable digital repository features interviews by famous Americans, including writer Maya Angelou, actor-author Ossie Davis, historian John Hope Franklin, and novelist Gore Vidal.  Other names will be less familiar to many of the site’s visitors.  In total, there are 148 interviews, which cover topics like race, economics, politics, and culture during the 1930s.  This collection is sure to be a treasure trove not only for course material for educators and students, but also for anyone curious about the Depression era.

The first installment of our digital history series is a project I am involved in – More than a Map(p).  More than a Map(p) is an application for smartphones that allows the user to explore African American History wherever they are.   It began with a cross country campaign by filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman, to end Black History Month.  Black History Month has both its supporters and its critics among African Americans.  As a critic, Tilghman believes that Black History Month marginalizes the contributions of African Americans to History.  (Similarly, Halle Berry fought to keep her 1999 film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge from being released during Black History Month, arguing that it would trivialize Dandridge‘s accomplishments.)  Tilghman’s efforts to have a dialog on history and race are documented in his thought-provoking film, More than a Month.

The app functions like a self-guided tour.  It finds the user’s location on a map, and provides pins with sites of African American History that are nearby.  Most of the points of interest have been provided by professional historians, but the app has a feature where users can create an account and contribute suggestions.  Once approved, the contribution is added to the application.

App points include graves of prominent African-Americans, birth places, museums, and other cultural sites.  Users can click on the site in their phone to learn a little bit more about what happened right where they are standing.  This design allows them to experience history.  Currently, the app is limited to sites in the United States, but there are plans to expand into other parts of North America.

Cost: Free  Availability: iPhone and Android

Tacitus (56-119 AD).  Roman Senator. Historian.  Image Source: Wiki Images

Tacitus (56-119 AD). Roman Senator. Historian. Image Source: Wiki Images

When people find out what I do for a living, usually, one of two things happen.  The first is that their eyes glaze over as they monotonically mumble about not being very good with names and dates.  The second is that their faces light up, as they recall their enjoyment of favorite historical narratives.

The chroniclers of antiquity – Herodotus, Tacitus – wrote in narrative form.  Over a millennium later, in the 1960s, some modern historians promoted a return to the idea of history-as-narrative. [1]  Many African, Caribbean, and other cultures use oral narratives both to convey knowledge of the past, and often to pass along sophisticated lessons to future generations.

In current (western, anyway) historiography, most professional historical analysis differs from historical narrative.  My own forthcoming book, for example, discusses facets of George Whitefield‘s life, but it is not, strictly speaking, a biographical treatment or narrative of his life.  Nonetheless, it must be recognized that narrative – that thing that gets non-scholars to engage with the past – remains a powerful teaching tool.   When I underwent pedagogical training as an apprentice historian, one of the mentors who taught me how to lecture told me to “pull students in with drama, tension, vivid human interest, or powerful explanations.”  And, then to “elaborate it with facts, stories and statistics and change-over-time.”  Good lecturing always has a higher academic purpose, but it inevitably involves good storytelling.  Lecturing is verboten at ACHLS, but the production of any sort of meaningful and memorable engagement with history – be it through lecture, discussion, or other medium – requires capturing the attention of the audience.  If you cannot engage your audience, you cannot hope to teach them.

As technology has evolved, the tools used to engage with audiences have necessarily followed.  A rise in digital humanities, a field that marries technology and humanities research methodologies, have resulted in some new tools to help bring history to audiences that might otherwise have given it a pass.  My next couple of blog posts will discuss merits of some of the better digital history apps, websites, and other tools.  To whet your appetites, we have posted a wonderful Smartphone app created by the British Museum on ACHLS’s Facebook page.  This interactive app is based on the Museum’s recent Pompeii exhibit.



[1] An idea that Maurice Mandelbaum emphatically challenged: Maurice Mandelbaum, “A Note on History as Narrative,” History and Theory, Vo. 6, No. 3 (1967): 413-419.

Ernest Hemingway was the consummate American hero.  He was brave.  He was a manly gentleman.  He was a devoted husband, a good father and a good friend.  He was all these things…except when he wasn’t.  I neither praise nor condemn the man; if you love his work, I shall not try to dissuade you; if you detest it, I won’t try to convince you.

I’m remembering Hemingway today as we stand on the threshold of a new year.  Resolution-list makers like Jonathan Swift and Benjamin Franklin—as marvelous as they are—are often cited around this time of year as cynical sages. For once, we hold their wisdom in abeyance.

Most folks don’t think of Hemingway when they consider profundity—Papa, that blunt talking master of understatement, that fellow from just outside of Chicago (or Paris, or Pamplona, or Nairobi) with wine on his breath and blood on his hands. Perhaps we should think seriously about him.  His vigorous life spanned almost three quarters of the twentieth century; he chronicled two world wars, changing social mores, and human virtue and vice.

Here, for your consideration, are Ten Thoughts by Hemingway…capriciously numbered. And by the way—I doubt that Hemingway would have given anything up as a resolution. He may have vowed to do something, or to see something….but to give something up?


  1. There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at your typewrite and bleed.
  2. Courage is grace under pressure.
  3. A man may be destroyed but not defeated.
  4. Every day above earth is a good day.
  5. You know what makes a good loser? Practice.
  6. Being against evil doesn’t make you good.
  7. The shortest answer is just doing the thing.
  8. The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof bullshit detector.
  9. For what are we born, if not to aid one another?
  10. There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.


Happy, Healthy New Year to you and yours from the American College!

Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

Nelson Mandela in 2008.  Image Source: Wiki Commons

Nelson Mandela in 2008. Image Source: Wiki Commons

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela-Madiba died at his home in Johannesburg, South Africa today.  The Anti-Apartheid leader and former South African President was 95.  Mandela was born into the Thembu Royal Family in Mvezo, a small village on the eastern cape of South Africa.  His father, Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, the principal counsellor to the King of the Thembu people, died when Mandela was eight.  He became a ward of the King, whose stories about his ancestor’s resistance to colonial rule inspired the young boy.  The sharing of such stories – commonly intended to convey lessons about conduct and character from elder to younger members of a kinship – are customary among the Xhosa people.

Mandela became politically active in college, and was expelled from the University College of Fort Hare for his part in a student protest. Read On….

Michael Kammen, 1937-2013

Image: Answers.com

Image: Answers.com

The history profession has lost a number of giants in the field this past year.  This past weekend, news spread about the passing of Michael Kammen, an influential historian of American cultural, social, and intellectual history.  Kammen, who received his PhD from Harvard University in 1964, was a member of the Cornell University History Department’s faculty from 1965 through his retirement in 2008.  He was the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture.  He is considered by at least some in the profession, to be one of the most prolific intellectual historians since Richard Hofstader.

Over the course of his distinguished career, he was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for History, a Francis Parkman Prize, and the Henry Adams Prize.  Kammen produced at least nine books, the most recent of which was Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials (2010).  The book expands on his past work in memory studies, shedding light on new ways in which the memories of historic figures survive, and even continue to evolve after they are gone. His scholarship was complex, insightful, and always worth the challenge to read.  In the introduction to his opus, That Noble Dream, historian Peter Novak (a fellow intellectual historian) quipped that writing intellectual history was like “nailing jelly to the wall.”  Kammen found a way to secure that jelly.

Like the figures he studied, Kammen’s legacy is sure to live on.

When you are an academic, it is inevitable that you will discuss your reading habits with someone – be it your colleagues, or your students.   These conversations often occur during the waning weeks of a term.  For most academics, the intersessions between terms are a time to catch up on scholarly reading, research, and writing.  Reading is a great way to find inspiration for future projects and to expand your knowledge of your own field.  For those who teach, reading and conference attendances are ways to ensure that we are presenting our students with current material in our classes, and also a means to develop new courses.

My first goal is to “keep current” on the scholarship in my teaching fields – United States History, Caribbean History and African History. My reading goals for this “winter break,” include Esperanza Brizeula-Garcia Read On….

Image Source: Wiki Commons

Image Source: Wiki Commons

One of my undergraduate mentors once described Thanksgiving as an “onion.”  The onion metaphor is most commonly associated with social penetration theory.  In essence, it is used by psychologists to describe relationships between individuals.  With apologies to Altman and Taylor, we are going to co-opt the term here to analyze the complex meanings of Thanksgiving.

While it may seem odd to compare the history of a national holiday to a pungent vegetable, it is an apt descriptor not only of Thanksgiving, but history in general. Most histories are layered.  It is why the work of historians examines change, context, complexity and causality.  Historical writing and research is not unlike peeling back the layers to get at the deeper meaning.  And the history of Thanksgiving is layered with memory, politics, religion, and conflict. Read On….