uw writing center writer’s handbook (the other uw)
Leslie A. Schwalm’s book, Emancipation’s Diaspora, is a book about slavery; its terrible consequences and lingering effects. Instead of focusing on the usual narrative of postwar freedmen in the South, however, Schwalm turns her attention to the American Midwest. Slavery had existed here before the war in various places and forms. Many former slaves also fled to this area from the South. The Midwest was therefore a unique melting pot of communities, ideas, and prejudices. Many whites held the prominent racist views of the time. Black communities were often isolated and had to be insular to survive, but they were not without aid. In chapter five, Schwalm focuses on the formation of the identity behind these communities.
Virtually all black freed slave towns after the Civil War started with nothing. Many immigrants who came to the upper Mississippi valley were drawn by the promise of economic growth. This was not a simple achievement, though. Blacks continued to occupy only a miniscule part of the skilled labor force after the war, and were last in line for physical labor as well. Work availability was further divided by gender. While black men could find work as day laborers, women were confined to service jobs (like laundry and cleaning). Most black women did “work,” farming and cleaning at home while raising their children, which allowed men to work for white farmers.
Probably the most important factor in building communities were churches, especially the AME (American Methodist Church). The AME had quarterly and yearly meetings, allowing it to build relationships across a wide tract of land. Black women were a major force in the AME, but were often not given due credit. While they were paid lip service and praised in sermons, they were not allowed to hold positions of power within the church. Black men also had more opportunities to form bonds than women did with fraternal organizations such as the masons. In all, newly emerging black societies had to conform or adapt to the already existing gender and racial stereotypes of the time. Despite adversity, however, these former slaves were able to carve an identity for themselves after hundreds of years of oppression.
Schwalm focuses on memories of slavery in chapter seven of the book. Many whites were eager to suppress or alter memories of slavery after the war. Whites who had not fought wanted to remember themselves as heroic crusaders working on the Underground Railroad, and ones who had even supported slavery wanted to remember it as a gentle sort of bondage. In just about any white narrative, black were treated as naive, stupid, villainous, indifferent to their freedom, or even pining for the days of slavery. Former slaves and their children, however, had their own ways of remembering the past. Most celebrated Emancipation Days. These were grand celebrations that brought together the entire town or city (or at least its black residents). Aside from forming a sense of community, these celebrations painted a picture of slavery’s history for the younger generation, and the importance of its termination.
Most critically the Emancipation Day festivities and narratives allowed a remembrance of slavery away from the gaze of whites. How the military history of blacks was remembered in another contention along racial lines. Whites were once again eager to ignore black contributions to the Grand Army of the Republic. Wartime experiences were essentially to black men, however, as it legitimized their claims to veteran-hood. Black women were also part of the war effort, and provided critical support to the troops. African Americans did have their own memoirs, though they were often outside the mainstreams. In them, they show themselves as active agents in their freedom, not crediting their release to President Lincoln or the Union. Former slaves could find an audience amongst newspapers and journals, but their narratives had to conform to the expected “slave narrative” to be read. While much of the history of the Civil War was oppressed and whitewashed, today historians are finding many of the lost gems that are the stories and memories of former slaves.
Once the free community was established, work began, whether conscious or not, to build a historical memory of slavery. The younger generation learned from their elders, who either had been enslaved or were children of slaves. The freed African American population wanted to make sure their version of what of slavery meant was preserved. This went hand in hand with their desire to build communities. By telling and sharing what it meant to be enslaved and to be free, they formed both a common voice and an ideal to build around. Ideals were not all that was important, though. While they were segregated from white (and therefore mainstream) society, African Americans still wanted to be part of postwar America.
To this end, they modeled their towns and societies after white equivalents. The air of respectability was extremely important. Black women especially had to hold this virtue in high regard. They were the keepers of the family, the pillars of the community, and more often than not the educators of youth. Most blacks were drawn together by their desire for a cohesive, correct history, their struggles with what it meant to be free but not equal. They were forced to turn to their own to find an audience for their ideas, but in the end this likely helped strengthen their ties to one another, and allowed them to survive the century of oppression after slavery’s end.
While often romanticized by popular media as the ultimate incarnation of human togetherness and bonding, the subject of sex rarely comes up in regular conversation. Even amongst close friends or lovers, discussing sex openly is often strictly taboo. Today’s culture ardently glamorizes sexuality in all facets of media, yet it would still be considered inappropriate (and in many cases grounds for chastisement) for a public figure to openly discuss sex. Inspired by this bizarre cultural hypocrisy, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s book Rereading Sex aims to explore how sex was viewed and understood throughout the history of the United States.
More specifically, Horowitz focuses on four distinct frameworks, each with its own dissimilar cultural background, which served to shape the way in which Americans learned about and understood sex. She defines these four frameworks as American vernacular, Evangelical Christianity, reform physiology, and finally sex as the center focus of life. Over the course of U.S. history these four frameworks have been in competition with one another, serving to create a wildly variable set of customs and beliefs towards sexuality.
The first of these frameworks, American vernacular is the most rooted in the individual human experience. Referred to by Horowitz as “common wisdom”, this framework is an understanding of sex developed not through education or religious teaching, but instead as the result of a conscious awareness of bodily urges and feelings. The term vernacular is used because this base understanding of human sexuality was believed to be a fact of biology and of universally understood amongst diverse people regardless of cultural background. Often times this understanding focused around sexual pleasure and arousal for men and childbirth or pregnancy for women.
In many ways evangelical Christianity prompted conversations about sexuality which stood in stark contrast to the preexisting vernacular. As opposed to the inherent urges of human nature, Christianity encouraged strict sexual restraint in a struggle to combat the many perceived “sins of the flesh”. Christian evangelists typically spread their teachings verbally, utilizing community establishments such as churches, Sunday schools, and bible study groups. As the 19th century progressed, the struggle to save the easily corrupted human spirit drove evangelicals to expand their oppositions to include such vices as gambling, prostitution, and alcohol. As sexually explicit printed media rose in popularity amongst city-living young men, Christian evangelicals lobbied to introduce laws banning such things as pornography and obscene words.
The third framework came about as a result of freethinkers who encouraged an open and educated conversation about sex. It lead to many of the first conversations related to scientifically grounded methods of contraception and a more modern model to describe the brain and nerves as the root source of sexual desire. As a result of better understanding of the brain’s key role in our affections love and sex, once inseparable in theory, became increasingly disconnected in American culture. In the midst of this frame of thought, the concept arose that some sexual practices were necessary for healthy living while others were deemed destructive. This predisposition towards strict codes of proper conduct coincided with many of the beliefs of the evangelical Christians, leading to a culture which further emphasized “decorum and bodily control”.
Not all Americans were content with the idea that sex should be regulated and limited. Progressive freethinkers continued to push the boundaries of what sexual practices were acceptable. The fourth framework arose from the idea that sex was a fundamental and essential core aspect of life for both men and women. Under this framework, sex became a means of self-expression; something which should not be limited or repressed within a society. This new conversation about sex clashed fundamentally with the conservatives and Christians who adamantly believed that sexual knowledge should be repressed. As support for free sexual expression and understand slowly grew, it lead to what Horowitz refers to as “one of our first national culture wars, a battle between those committed to sexual knowledge and those determined to suppress it.”
Over a hundred years and at least as many major courtroom battles later, progress has been made while many things remain the same. Sexual education began in public schools first in 1913 Chicago, and was quickly shut down again after a protest campaigned and funded by the Catholic Church. Over 80 years later, then Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders when asked about masturbation was forced to resign after saying “I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.” While sexually explicit material is now commonplace in the mainstream media, the taboo surrounding the open discussion of sexuality is still as present as ever. Much of the dialogue that sparked such heated debate and controversy between the four frameworks of sexuality in the 19th century continue nearly unchanged today and are equally as relevant.