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Check out my latest on NOTCHES, problematizing the Euro/Americentrism of global "queer" histories.
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Today marks the 150th anniversary of the term ‘homosexual.' Please share this article and join me in affirming the legacy of the activist who coined it - Karl Maria Kertbeny.
Peter James Hudson’s Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean traces the occupation of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti by the United States through banking institutions. Much Like LaFeber’s The New Empire, Hudson finds economic conquest grew up in tandem with American imperial interests between 1890 and 1930, as bankers sought to acquire new overseas markets and investment opportunities free from the constraints and responsibilities of total administrative dominion. Reading “along the archival grain,” Hudson interweaves the stories of various white male actors whose politics and self-interest, losses and successes gave way to a “staggered incursion” – rather than an “inevitable hegemony of the United States in the Caribbean” (152).
Indeed, the United States government did not consistently wield capitalism as a tool of domination, as the agendas of Washington and Wall Street did not always align (65). As Hudson describes, what “was meant to be a systematic and rational approach to internationalization was prone to poor judgment, human error, vanity, and the frissons of cultural difference” (137). As William Leuchtenburg points out in “Progressivism and Imperialism: The Progressive Movement and American Foreign Policy, 1898-1916,” Progressive ideals and actions were seemingly at odds – “a concern for democratic processes at home and a disregard of them abroad … antagonism to financial empires in America and encouragement of them overseas” (497). While the Spanish-American War was viewed as a dual battle against Spanish tyranny and Wall Street’s greed, Leuchtenburg finds that “imperialism and progressivism flourished together … since the United States was the land of free institutions, any extension of its domain was per se an extension of freedom and democracy” (500). This confluence of humanism and nationalism (503) mirrors Immerman’s discussion of ethnocentric American freedoms in Empire for Liberty. Even still, Hudson describes how protests on the ground against the presence of American economic institutions signified a larger struggle against American imperialism as a whole (266). This presents the fatal flaw of reading “along the archival grain” – the absence of subaltern experiences, perceptions and reactions. How could a "bottom-up" history of this same topic counter Hudson's "top-down" approach?
I am interested in what Hudson calls “racial capitalism”* throughout the book. Much like Beckert’s “war capitalism” in Empire of Cotton, the phrase (while useful in emphasizing a particular facet of capitalism itself) risks detracting from a holistic conception of capitalism as inherently racist and violent. However, Hudson defines his term as a way of acknowledging the mutuality of racism and capitalism (13). In that sense, what differentiates “racial capitalism” from “economic racism” or “capitalistic racism?” Is there a way of writing these histories without rendering one or the other identity politic a secondary narrative? We also find that notions of race and racism are complicated by the dual exploitation and (de)valuation of Black labor, as foreign domination was critiqued because of “the presence of the black labor brought in by foreign capital” – “the fight against imperialism in Cuba [was] a fight against both foreign banks and foreign workers” (274). Blackness was cast as oppositional to Caribbean sovereignty and indigeneity. Did this detract from an overarching class-racial consciousness that could upend white supremacist forces? Does this run parallel to the scapegoating of Blackness in the United States when white laborers turned against enslaved people in lieu of uniting against white planters?
Lastly, I am also interested in the notion of “gentlemanly” bankers that Hudson borrows from Cain and Hopkins’ British Imperialism and Pak’s Gentleman Bankers (283). He uses descriptors like “elegant, discreet” (207), “ethereal” (255), “effete and gentlemanly” when describing “the international financial elite” (182) and the “world of high finance” (207). He also describes the” brash and vulgar hucksterism of the barker, the salesman, and the bond retailer” (207), as well as the “roguish, Rooseveltian self-fashioning of the frontier banker” who engaged in sport, went on daring adventures, and braved inhospitable environments (182). How much is gender related to the “on the ground” politics of race and class? The role of space – proximity to and engagement with the rabble, hard labor, and Otherness – seems important.
* Below, some passages that allude to or mention this phrase. In what ways can we extrapolate how racism and capitalism (constructions of racial categories and typologies, and the allocation of labor and means, in addition to class, social and political status) are interwoven in these examples?
In Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski), Michael Frisch incisively parses the notion of "shared authority," arguing that public history has no sole interpreter – "the interpretive and meaning-making process is in fact shared by definition" (127). Ideally, oral histories are dialogues, while exhibits structure exchanges of information and memory. The illusion that the institution has the power to bestow or benevolently transfer authority is largely a myth born of historiographic paternalism. Dialogue-driven interpretation opens up questions of trust between institutions and communities, scholars and "laypeople." As Kathleen McLean points out, public history engages the power differentials of knowledge transfer – "museums, conceived and perceived as sites of authority, still embody the 'information transmission' model of learning" (70).
Monologues are a top-down interpretive approach, while docent Q&A is a quasi-top-down approach in that it necessitates audience engagement but still prioritizes the word of an "expert." Meanwhile, audience feedback is a quasi-bottom-up approach in that it provides a forum for audience response/interpretation, but doesn't require follow-up from the institution. Only true grassroots work can be bottom-up; it's ultimately impossible for institution-driven projects to truly be bottom-up. Dialogues could be a happy medium, depending on who's mediating/hosting/driving them, who's attending/in the space, whose work gets recognized, and whose ideas get incorporated into the set narrative. To that end, does bottom-up history demand dynamic, ever-changing narratives – pliant, permeable, and impermanent as opposed to static, overarching narratives crafted through exhibit labels and the like?
Still, this top/bottom spectrum would suggest an inherent imbalance. Doesn't everyone have agency? It's the structural factors, the predominance of certain methods and narratives, that stymie community-driven projects. McLean advises against replacing "curator expertise with public chat" (77). We exist perpetually in this "tension between curation and participation," as Steve Zeitlin describes it (34). Yet even with attempts to reverse these power differentials by casting "communities as experts" (74), we can't allow ourselves to fall into the trap of token "advisory committees." As I've previously and repeatedly articulated, we need to differentiate between the value of consultation and leadership – who has a hand in commentary versus content. Too often, POC are brought in as "experts" to clean up a preexisting history, disregarding our own interpretation and testimony. Rather than asking POC to correct/supplement white people's work, why can't white people take the backseat by supporting independent, POC-led/driven projects – using their privilege to amplify our voices rather than drowning us out or trying to speak for us?
Two questions from this book struck me. On trust and power exchange – Jack Tchen asks, "How can we trust what's being written by a historian? What are the sources? Are the sources based in archives that are truly resonant with the lives of people who are victimized by some of these laws or on the other side of power?" (89). On new technology and museums as mediating spaces – Tom Satwicz and Kris Morrissey ask, "How does this growth in 'public curation' advance, hinder, or change a museum's public mission?" (203). I conclude with this admission – I hate that seemingly everything I write falls back on critiquing white folks. It's exhausting. But it needs to be done. There's no reason that my unrelenting cynicism towards whites should be any more or less cringey for readers than work that enumerates issues with men. Yet, naming whiteness – white people, rather – is still taboo, so I will continue "calling it out." My rhetoric is intentionally aggressive; my aim is deconstruction.
Each section establishes a thematic bent for discussion. Some (but not all) of these topics emphasize historical context, comparing and contrasting contemporary facts with the past: “Today, about one-third of doctors are women. Over 150 years ago this was not the case.” (“Eliza Grier and Matilda Evans”). Video narration over primary source images and text clarifies the points being discussed (e.g., short definitions of the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Amendments in “Early African-American Woman Physicians”). While use of both text and video benefit different types of learners, their intermittent informational overlaps are repetitive, but still effective in reinforcing recurrent points. For example, both the text and video in “Women’s Hospitals in World War I France” state that “Women physicians were not permitted by the Allied countries” — stressing the prejudices women faced. Little elaboration is offered, however, leaving the audience with unanswered questions: What were the reasons behind these rules? Why weren’t exceptions made for wartime? One might argue that physical exhibits, with the benefit of docents and tour guides, allow for more user interaction and explanation. Conversely, online exhibits encourage online follow-up research, and might even include direct access to good primary and secondary source materials (i.e., portals).
Each section also includes questions for reflection that outline the information (making it digestible and useful for educators and students), while social media tools encourage viewers to actively engage with the resources (especially younger audiences). The exhibit successfully illustrates contextual relationships; the timeline places each topic in its temporal setting, while maps provide geographic setting for the sites discussed in each story. “Essential Evidence” acts as a catalog of historical documents relevant to the discussion, providing background for each item and a discussion of its significance within a larger thematic scheme. This analysis is accompanied by high quality scans of sources, their transcriptions, and audio recordings that resolve issues of accessibility. Additionally, document details hyperlink out to specific, cited sources; the transparency of the evidence lends credibility to the historical perspectives offered.
“Related Primary Sources” furnish additional points of interest that, while relevant to the overall topic, aren’t necessary to its understanding. However, the selection of what is most pertinent to each topic seems variable. For example, an article from The Medical Woman’s Journal describing refugee conditions is used as “Essential Evidence” in “WWI France,” yet another article from the Journal describing both race and gender discrimination in school and the workplace is a “Related Primary Source” in “Grier and Evans.” Additionally, the scans of both these journals are bulky, containing the entirety of the publications, potentially making it difficult to scroll through and find the articles being discussed. Luckily, there are bookmarks within the scans that block off specific segments that the curators likely found most significant.
Questions for a panel of public history professionals: