Category: American History

Why Aren’t We Celebrating Constitution Day?

Lorri Glover—

Today is Constitution Day, not that you would know it. The anniversary has never sparked the public imagination. Forget rivaling the 4th of July. Constitution Day doesn’t garner the publicity or even the retail sales of Presidents’ Day.

This blasé attitude toward Constitution Day runs counter to Americans’ zealous defense of their Constitutional rights, frequent yearnings for the “original” meaning of the Constitution, and near-sanctification of the Founders. Maybe it’s the fact that the Constitution created the federal government, about which Americans have often felt skittish and occasionally downright hostile. Or maybe two weeks after Labor Day—itself fascinating given America’s fraught history with unions—we’re too busy with work and back-to-school. Whatever the current cause of the indifference to commemorating September 17, we’ve actually gotten the history right. Nothing was settled on September 17, 1787, except that a long and difficult road lay ahead.

In July 1776, when the Revolutionaries finished their mammoth task of justifying the overthrow of imperial rule, they celebrated. John Adams said he hoped that future generations of Americans would always commemorate Independence Day “with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations”—the eighteenth-century word for fireworks—“from one End of this Continent to the other.”

But in September 1787, not even the staunchest advocate for the Constitution felt much like celebrating. The work was not done, not by a long shot. James Madison was the principal architect of the Constitution, and even he saw that on September 17 delegates to the Constitutional Convention only completed a proposal. It was, he said, “nothing but a dead letter, until life and validity were breathed into it, by the voice of the people, speaking through the several state conventions.”

cene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States" by Howard Chandler Christy

“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” by Howard Chandler Christy via Wikimedia Commons

For the Constitution to become law, citizens needed to approve the plan, which required representatives to meet in popularly-elected state ratification conventions, debate every nuance of the design, and decide whether or not to consent to this radical restructuring of the union of states. Only if nine of the thirteen states agreed would the Constitution become law. To find the real meaning of the Constitution, Madison understood, “we must look for it not in the general convention, which proposed, but in the state conventions, which accepted and ratified the constitution.”  That process took nearly a year. James Madison was a thirty-six-year-old bachelor, living with and supported by his wealthy father, so he had the wherewithal to work full-time lobbying for the Constitution. He spent six months campaigning for the federal plan in New York and then continued the fight to his home state of Virginia.

In Virginia, in some of the most dramatic and important political debates in all of American history, James Madison took on Patrick Henry. Henry was the greatest orator of the Revolution and the most powerful man in the largest and most important state in the union. Madison’s national ambitions and continental point of view ran counter to Henry’s state-centered priorities. Henry had sixteen children and was deeply worried about their financial futures as well as about the sovereignty of the state of Virginia. The Constitution, he believed, jeopardized both by giving the federal government boundless authority over long-standing Virginia rights. Not one to mince words, Henry announced: “As this Government stands, I despise and abhor it.”

The deeply-divided Virginians were hardly alone. From fall 1787 to summer 1788 and across the whole country, advocates and critics of the Constitution engaged in fierce debates involving allegations of mendacity, craven self-interestedness, willful ignorance, and outright treason. If they accepted the Constitution, critics insisted, Americans would deservedly find themselves “broiling in a Hell of Slavery.” Without the Constitution, supporters pronounced, they would “sink into contempt and anarchy” and cause “a total dissolution of our short existence as a nation.” The only thing Americans generally agreed on was the stakes: they were deciding “not the fate of an individual, but that of millions.” Their country was counting on them to do the right thing.

So, for ten months citizens interrogated the meaning and implications of every part of the federal design. Fitfully and finally, the Constitution was ratified in June 1788. The exact day is tricky, though. On June 25, Virginia narrowly voted to ratify, 89 in favor, 79 opposed. A mere six votes, then, would have redirected the course of American history. Patrick Henry accepted defeat while vowing to work toward “seeing that Government changed so as to be compatible with the safety, liberty and happiness of the people.” James Madison breathed a sigh of relief and his side briefly celebrated Virginia becoming the 9th and crucial state. What they didn’t know, because information traveled by horse, was that New Hampshire beat them to the punch, voting in favor of the Constitution just a few days before.

Either way, things remained unsettled even after June 1788. Completing the Constitution spilled into the first Congress. In 1789, at the insistence of voters demanding their rights be codified, Congress sent the states a series of proposed revisions, which we today call the Bill of Rights. Usually Americans forget that these after-the-fact changes, which most of the original framers of the Constitution had long dismissed as unnecessary and impractical, transformed the Constitution. Since then (though not too often) we’ve continued to alter the fundamental nature of their plan, to make it our own.

Americans often lament the lost world of the founders. But on this Constitution Day, take heart: we’ve not strayed all that far from our Founding Fathers after all. On closer look, our civic life, like theirs, often seems messy and divisive and sometimes downright vicious. Things never get decided as soon as we’d like, and we often fall into reflexively disparaging the motives and patriotism of those with whom we disagree. But we also publicly proclaim our opinions without fear of governmental reprisal, and we move toward consensus when we can and otherwise reconcile ourselves (often begrudgingly) to peaceful disagreement.

Historically, then, we are right in our non-celebration of a Constitution Day. Creating the Constitution was and remains a work in progress. But we are civically wrong—dangerously so—when we fail to understand the history of the Constitution and its language and meaning. So, forget the forgetting to celebrate today and use the time instead to read the Constitution and weigh in your own mind what it means. Your country is counting on you.


Lorri Glover is John Francis Bannon Endowed Chair, Department of History, Saint Louis University. She is author of four previous books on early American history, including The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown. Her most recent book is Founders as Fathers.


Further Reading:

Founders as Fathers by Lorri Glover

King’s Dream: Civil Rights and the History of Nonviolent Protest

King's Dream CoverOn this day in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave what is widely hailed as the best political speech of the twentieth century. King famously departed from his prepared text to expound upon his dream, a vision of a nation living in racial harmony. Folk history has it that Mahalia Jackson, a singer and activist, prompted the improvisation by calling out “Tell ‘em about the dream Martin!” What followed has become so deeply ingrained in our national consciousness that we might imagine its message to be as clear and obvious as it is powerful and resonant. King’s Dream by Eric J. Sundquist shows how complex and open to interpretation King’s words were and are.

In the decades after King’s death, liberals and conservatives have both gestured towards King to support their stances on affirmative action and reparations for slavery. Apple Computer, the New Republic, and many others have advertised using imagery that evokes the “I Have a Dream” speech. It is at least partially in response to these reductive (and sometimes contradictory) political and popular appropriations that Sundquist gives a fuller and more nuanced sense of the man and his most famous speech.

Sundquist supplies useful context through his account of King’s work in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. The successes and struggles of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sit-ins, in Nashville and elsewhere, the Freedom Rides, and the especially controversial Birmingham campaign all played into the hopes and fears surrounding the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the occasion for King’s speech. King addresses himself not only to segregationists but to Alabama Governor George Wallace, and, implicitly, to those within the movement who doubted the power of nonviolent protest.

King’s Dream also emphasizes two key American texts that preceded the “I Have a Dream” speech. Sundquist shows how King positioned himself in conversation with Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, the writers of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence. The 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech calls for the promise of Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation to be fulfilled, and for the nation to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” Through analysis along these lines, Sundquist arrives at one of his core interpretive claims. He writes:

King’s greatness, as well as the greatness of his speech, lay in his ability to elevate the cause of civil rights and the cause of America at the same time. The nation had failed black Americans, no doubt, but it was not—contrary to the opinions of some raising the fist of Black Power—irredeemably corrupt and ripe for overthrow. Enlisting his audience in a crusade sanctioned equally by the Declaration of Independence and the Bible, King in no way rejected America’s foundational values. Rather, he purified and consolidated those values by insisting that only when the revolutionary rights they guaranteed were shared by Americans of all colors, creeds, and nationalities would they truly be America’s foundational values.

Sundquist addresses the anniversary of King’s speech most directly, but three other authors also critically consider “the cause of civil rights and the cause of America at the same time.” In We Shall Overcome, Alexander Tsesis traces the history of legal efforts to achieve civil rights for all Americans, beginning with the years leading up to the Revolution and continuing to our own times. Tsesis also argues, in opposition to other legal theorists, that the Constitution fundamentally requires the U.S. government to defend individual liberties for the benefit of general welfare.

Civil Disobedience CoverLewis Perry writes from a similarly broad perspective in his book, Civil Disobedience. He considers the history of nonviolent protest and the ways it has been and become an American institution. Perry attends to the subtleties of King’s position, noting that although he eventually abandoned the practice, King carried a pistol for a time and publicly conceded the right to defend home and family.

In Protest at Selma, David J. Garrow closely examines how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came into being. He emphasizes how crucial it was that Martin Luther King Jr. learned to exploit the media, an influential third-party audience. By shifting focus from nonviolent persuasion, intended to win over attackers, to nonviolent provocation, intended to win over the media and its audience, King was able to make dramatic progress.

Each of these books helps us understand the magic of the “I Have a Dream” speech and the courage of the Civil Rights Movement. They consider, sometimes critically, what it meant to be an American fifty years ago and what it means to be an American today. They ask us to look carefully at our laws and culture and they assure us that we need not be satisfied with the status quo. Sundquist, Tsesis, Perry, and Garrow insist that we treat this anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on the complexity of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, and their books remind us to live deliberately so that the nation may honor its promises and fulfill the true meaning of its creed.

 

Five Reads for Father’s Day

Father’s Day is this Sunday, and to celebrate we bring you five books about fathers and family. These are books about American Revolutionaries, innovative photographers, domestic Victorians, virtual currencies, and literary Jews for any family to enjoy.

Founders as Fathers

Founders as Fathers: The Private Lives and Politics of the American Revolutionaries by Lorri Glover

Even if you are an American history buff, you may not know the intimate details of the founders’ home lives. Lorri Glover describes the sacrifices made and the challenges faced by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other Virginians. As the Revolution transformed the country’s political institutions, it profoundly affected family life as well.

Family in the Picture

Family in the Picture, 1958-2013 by Lee Friedlander

Photo enthusiasts might appreciate this chronicle of the family life of one of the most inventive photographers in the U.S.  The book contains over 350 photos, most of them newly released from the artist’s personal archive. Most families try to preserve their memories in one way or another, but, as the New York Times put it, “When your husband or father is the accomplished photographer Lee Friedlander, the family photo album can’t help becoming a work of art.”

A Man's Place

A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England by John Tosh

Fathers taking on a greater share of the domestic load might seem like a 21st century phenomenon, but John Tosh describes how men in the 19th century came to place new value on the home. Case studies on married life and fatherhood from the 1830s and onwards show the domestic trend emerging as men react urbanization and Evangelical Christianity.  By the 1870s, domesticity held less appeal, and Tosh’s gender history explains how that waning interest set the stage for the next century.

Wildcat Currency

Wildcat Currency: How the Virtual Money Revolution is Transforming the Economy by Edward Castronova

The 21st century economy is changing rapidly, and the currency used is changing too. Edward Castronova delves into the world of virtual finance, discussing everything from credit card perks like airline miles to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. The researcher considers how we conceive of money itself, how we relate to it emotionally, and how virtual currencies could affect our legal and political futures.

Jews and Words

Jews and Words by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger

This father/daughter, writer/historian team investigate and describe the profound relationship between Jews and the language they use, arguing that words provide the link from generation to generation. The book traces central Jewish themes through important names, canonical texts, ancient arguments, and memorable quips. The authors ultimately synthesize those words into an essay, a story, a history, and a collaboration.

Have a happy Father’s Day!

Thoreau: Fully Annotated

Walden JacketIn a month, it will have been ten years since Jeffrey S. Cramer published Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition. Cramer has had a prolific and successful decade, editing numerous volumes on Henry David Thoreau and racking up awards and praise. In 2012, radio host Jim Fleming said that Cramer “may know more about the bard at Walden Pond than anyone else alive.” He has earned that reputation, at least in part, on the basis of his annotations.

Cramer has published three fully annotated volumes by Thoreau: Walden (2004), The Maine Woods (2009), and Essays (2013). To begin to understand why these books are “fully annotated” and not merely “edited,” one need only take a quick glance at Walden. Thoreau’s text occupies the half of the page closest to the spine and Cramer’s copious annotations run along the outside. Between the transcendentalist’s prose and the scholar’s commentary, most of the pages are, indeed, completely full. There are only a handful of places where Thoreau’s text proceeds without Cramer’s accompaniment, and rarely for longer than a few paragraphs. Far more commonly, Cramer’s annotations outstrip Thoreau’s chapters.

The fullness of the fully annotated edition comes not only from the volume of the commentary but also from its breadth and depth. Cramer provides the expected historical, philosophical, and geographical contexts for Walden and goes well beyond their bounds. He explains the writer’s puns, calls him on his exaggerations, and knowingly undercuts his more bombastic pronouncements. When Thoreau declares that “Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the language in which they were written must have a very imperfect knowledge of the history of the human race,” Cramer chimes in to say that “Although Thoreau could read Greek, he did not always read the Greek authors in the original, but would use Latin, French, or English translations.”[1]

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Cramer annotates Walden with the care and thoroughness usually reserved for Shakespeare plays or the Bible, and one might ask why the scholar feels compelled to explicate Thoreau so fully. Perhaps it is simply Cramer’s passion that leads him onwards. Most people will expound upon their favorite subject to an attentive audience for hours if given the opportunity. Indeed, some of that spirit comes through in Cramer’s interviews. In 2012, he was asked what three scenes from Thoreau’s life he would include in a biopic. The scholar begins carefully, selecting major life events, but quickly finds himself on a roll, listing scene after scene, finishing with “and— and— how long can we make this movie?”

Benjamin_D._Maxham_-_Henry_David_Thoreau_-_RestoredYet even as Cramer’s interviews imply that his breathless enthusiasm may be the impetus for the full annotations, his introduction hints at a justification rooted in Walden itself. Cramer quotes Thoreau’s claim that “The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have.”[2] Thoreau, Cramer argues, is suggesting a way of approaching Walden. To “seek the meaning of each word and line” is precisely the task of the annotator, who identifies the precise significance of each moment. At the same time, the annotator expands the language beyond its common use, and does so with “wisdom and valor and generosity.” Cramer’s wisdom lies in his paramount knowledge of the bard at Walden Pond, his valor in his perseverant attention, and his generosity in the abundance of his commentary. It is in this sense, in fulfilling a need Thoreau himself seems to recognize, that Cramer’s editions are fully annotated.

 


[1] Thoreau, Henry. Walden. 1854. Ed. Jeffrey Cramer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 101.

[2] Jeffrey S. Cramer. Introduction. Walden. By Henry D. Thoreau. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. xx.

Five Reasons Louisa Catherine Adams Should Make the Top First Ladies List

Louisa_catherine2Abigail Adams’ name often comes up on lists of the top ten First Ladies of all time. She achieved popularity thanks to her political influence, earning the nickname “Mrs. President”. Her success has relegated Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams to that of “The Other Adams” the subtitle of Margery Heffron‘s recently published biography of Louisa. Despite possessing many of the characteristics that brought her mother-in-law and other favorite First Ladies popularity, Louisa Catherine has been an under-appreciated First Lady. Heffron’s biography of Louisa finally does justice to this remarkable woman.

1. Style and Poise: A thus far unavoidable criteria for judging First Ladies, style and poise have earned several First Ladies like Jackie O and Michelle Obama the love of the American public. Raised in London and France, and long experienced in royal courts, Louisa was admired for her grace in political circles. Her success in this area was not merely due to wealth or privilege. On more than one occasion she constructed ball gowns from draperies, lacking the personal funds to purchase appropriate attire for European royal courts.

2. Statesmanship: Hillary Clinton’s political work gained her the respect of the American public; she is widely considered the First Lady they could most imagine serving as President. Louisa was similarly skilled in diplomacy. Though her husband was not as open to discussing politics with her, she played a significant role in his political fortunes. She used her diplomatic talents to help smooth over other’s perception of John Quincy Adams as cold and superior.

3. Feminism: First Ladies have had a unique influence over the history of women’s rights. Abigail Adams earned the esteem of historians for her powerful feminist writing and attempts to build women’s rights into the new government her husband was forming. Louisa continued in her mother-in-law’s footsteps, writing eloquently and assertively on the subject of women’s rights.

4. Human Rights: Eleanor Roosevelt, who regularly tops the lists of popular and influential First Ladies, shaped the role of the First Lady with her outspoken support of civil rights and other social issues. Her active work to further human rights gained her admiration both domestically and internationally. Louisa Catherine was similarly ahead of her time in her stance on social issues. In addition to her early feminist writing, Louisa was an active champion of Native American’s rights years before the issue was debated politically.

5. Personal Resilience: Louisa had perhaps the most personal tragedy of any First Lady to deal with. Her relationship with her husband and his family was extremely challenging. She handled nine miscarriages in addition to the early childhood death of a daughter and the suicide of a son. She escaped from Russia to France in the winter of 1815 following Napoleon’s disastrous retreat with only her son, maid and two servants. Though the challenges she faced lead her to occasional bouts of depression, frustration, and temper, she possessed a strength that enabled her to deal with the continuous struggle of American politics.

Louisa Catherine Adams had all of the qualities that make a great First Lady. Despite her talents, she was constantly self-deprecating. Her diary is full of vented frustrations and personal disappointment that have put off previous biographers. Heffron has drawn a more complete picture of the complex woman in Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams, giving her the credit than she withheld from herself.

Louisa_Catherine

First Ladies of the United States, via firstladies.org

Dispatches from Faith: Radiant Truth and America

Radiant TruthsSome stories are best told in fragments, built like mosaics from pieces brought together. The story of American religion, what belief can look like since the early years of this nation, is one of those complex histories that benefits from a multiplicity of disparate voices. In Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions, and Other Essays on American Belief, Jeff Sharlet compiles works of literary journalism with thoughtful introductions that take us through, if not the full of scope of American religion, a vast swath of it. From Mark Twain to James Baldwin, from wounded soldiers to Christian music festivals, these stories lend insight how belief can function in diverse lives.

Literary journalism is a slippery genre, as Sharlet explains, and as such it is able to cross boundaries fitting for an examination of religion, blending narrative and poetry. “Literary journalism’s only essential truth – the impossibility of perfect representation of reality, visible and otherwise – makes it uniquely suited for the subject of American religion,” he writes, “so often struggling to be one or the other, pious or democratic, communal or individual, rooted or transcendent.”

Below are excerpts from the diverse accounts Sharlet brings together, arranged chronologically.

Walt Whitman from Specimen Days, 1863/1882

I open’d at the close of one of the first books of the evangelists, and read the chapters describing the latter hours of Christ and the scenes at the crucifixion. The poor, wasted young man ask’d me to read the following chapter also, how Christ rose again. I read very slowly, for Oscar was feeble. It pleased him very much, yet the tears were in his eyes. He ask’d me if I enjoy’d religion. I said, “Perhaps not, my dear, in the way you mean, and yet, may-be, it is the same thing. He said, “It is my chief reliance.”  He talk’d of death, and said he did not fear it. I said, “Why, Oscar, don’t you think you will get well?” He said, “I may, but it is not probable.”

Zora Neale Hurston from Hoodoo, 1935

The terrified chickens flopped and fluttered frantically in the dim firelight. I had been told to keep up the chant of the victim’s name in rhythm and to beat the ground with a stick. This I did with fervor and Turner danced on. One by one the chickens were seized and killed by having their heads pulled off. But Turner was in such a condition with his whirling and dancing that he seemed in a hypnotic state. When the last fowl was dead, Turner drank a great draught of wine and sank before the altar. When he arose, we gathered some ashes from the fire and sprinkled the bodies of the dead chickens and I was told to get out the car. We drove out one of the main highways for a mile and threw one of the chickens away. Then another mile and another chicken until the nine dead chickens had been disposed of. The spirits of the dead chickens had been instructed never to let the trouble-maker pass inward to New Orleans again after he had passed them going out.

Mary McCarthy from Artists in Uniform, 1953

This period in his life, in which he had thrown off the claims of the spiritual and adopted a practical approach, was evidently one of those “turning points” to which a man looks back with pride. He lingered over his story of his break with the church and his parents with a curious sort of heat, as though the flames of his old sexual conquests stirred within his body at the memory of those old quarrels.

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, from Arguing with the Pope, 1994

The Church has always been at war with the world, which it simultaneously loves; it is in this coincidence of opposites that the spiritual wealth of the Church lies. I went to Denver to see – I needed to see, in the flesh – the demanding old Pope, a man wedded to the past, a man who calls the earth a “vast planet of tombs,” and the buoyant young people in whom the future lives so vividly. Stasis and energy, the old and the young: perhaps another coincidence of opposites, two halves of the equation meeting and (like the lion and the lamb) providentially joining. One is something immensely grateful to the Church for espousing eternal values and sometimes inclined to regard it as fossilized. One’s equilibrium, such as it is, rests shakily on the apparent dichotomy between spirit and flesh… the instructive flesh.

Video: Ship of Death, A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World

In 1792, a ship set sail from England with the best of intentions. Its tragic journey would change the course of history forever.

Historian Billy Smith uncovered a remarkable story of tragedy unleashed from misguided humanitarianism in his book Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World. The Hankey was engaged to ferry abolitionists seeking to establish a colony free of slavery to West Africa. Lack of understanding and respect for the cultures they encountered doomed the ship’s original mission. The video below, narrated by Smith, traces the far-reaching results—the changes to the fate of the Haitian Slave Rebellion, contributions to the Louisiana Purchase and the death of hundreds of thousands across several continents.

On the Anniversary of the Iraq War

On March 20, 2003, coalition forces led by the United States and the United Kingdom invaded Iraq in what is still seen as a highly controversial decision made by the United States and its allies to “end the regime of Saddam Hussein” and to eliminate what were allegedly weapons of mass destruction in the possession of the Iraqi government.   On May 1 2003, President George W. Bush delivered his “Mission Accomplished” speech proclaiming the end of major combat operations in the war. Instead, it was only the beginning of the insurgency that has lasted to this day.


Read Pete Mansoor’s Reddit AMA


 

Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War

Retired US Army colonel Peter Mansoor, author of Yale University Press titles Baghdad at Sunrise and Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War, formerly served as executive officer to Petraeus, who was commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq from 2007 – 2008.  But Mansoor is an educator, too; currently he holds the position as General Raymond E. Mason, Jr., Chair of Military History at Ohio State University In writing Surge, he observes:

The misinformation and ignorance—among the general public, in the historical community, within the halls of government, and even in the military—about why the surge in Iraq succeeded is somewhat disheartening. Indeed, a number of pundits still refuse to admit that the surge had anything to do with the reduction of violence in Iraq. The American people need a more comprehensive account of the Iraq War during the years of the surge, one written from the inside perspective of a member of General Petraeus’s team.

Using newly declassified documents—including Petraeus’s own papers— unpublished manuscripts, interviews, author notes, and published sources, Mansoor‘s account of the 2007-2008 surge is the first to fully address not only insider events and knowledge alongside journalistic reporting in the media, but also information presented in the body of literature recently published on the topic of the Bush administration’s handling of the war. The results of Mansoor’s “perspective that time alone can provide” are synthesized in the book, and in fascinating detail he tells the on-the-ground story of what might yet become one of the most famous turning points in American military history. Watch our video trailer with the author and get started on the withdrawal from misinformed status.

 

The Urban Singles Comedy and Public Diplomacy

Preview the book and learn more on the Through a Screen Darkly website!

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As a form of light popular entertainment, television sitcoms such as the hugely successful Friends, which depicts the lives of six young, singles Manhattanites, appear to be unlikely candidates for ambassadors of American culture. In Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad, Martha Bayles illustrates the transformation of entertainment and popular culture into the primary form of American public diplomacy after the Cold War and highlights the resulting distortion of the American image abroad. According to Bayles, the television genre of “urban singles comedy” exemplifies the disjunction between the American image and its reality that is created by boundless exportation of American popular culture. In the chapter “The American Way of Sex,” she establishes the far reach and global viewership of American shows like Friends:

When I started my research, Friends was not uppermost in my mind. But the more I traveled, the more I saw the extent of its global appeal. The producer of Friends, Warner Brothers, estimates that the program has been telecast in 135 countries and “key territories,” reaching an average of fourteen million viewers per telecast. And these figures are only for the lucrative markets of Europe, Australia, and East Asia. They do not include a host of other countries where Friends is carried by satellite and terrestrial channels. Nor do they reflect the incalculable distribution of Friends via illegal downloads and pirated VCDs. When pressed, they estimated that the total number of “hits” (individual viewings of a single episode) was in the neighborhood of seventeen billion!

Bayles’s interviewees attribute two reasons for Friends’s (and the urban singles comedy’s) international appeal and staggering popularity. The first reason is “the sheer display of affluence,” or “eye candy,” in the sitcom’s representation of Manhattan as an opulent world consisting only of sophisticated, white individuals and fashionable business establishments. The second reason is “titillation” over the fictional sexual situations enacted onscreen. But Bayles also reveals that the most important reason – and the one most often cited to her by young people overseas – is the urban singles comedy’s portrayal of the seemingly seductive “sweet spot” between living with family and getting married, during which young, single men and women live in “pleasant urban settings with a comfortable income, a huge amount of personal freedom, and little to no contact with their families or communities of origin.” At the same time, she observes, regardless of appearing on Friends, Sex and the City, or Desperate Housewives, the fictional inhabitants of this “sweet spot” are isolated from the rest of society. Even when they venture out, the relationships they form with those outside their own established circles inevitably fail after a number of episodes. Encounters with parents or older characters are rare. Long-term commitment is but a distant possibility. Despite the glamorousness and provocativeness of these characters, they lead profoundly limited lives trapped within this “sweet spot.”

The problem with this, Bayles argues, is that while American viewers probably realize that television comedies offer a skewed version of American life to entertain and make a point, foreign viewers who have met few (if any) Americans are less likely to perceive the distinction between American comedy and reality:

To Americans, the urban singles comedy draws a more or less amusing caricature of life in the sweet spot. To others – not media officials in China, but millions of ordinary men and women – this caricatured aspect is harder to discern. Without a doubt, foreigners enjoy watching the erotic shenanigans of Americans on television. But their enjoyment is tinged with a voyeurism that should give us pause. Are they laughing at Americans as fellow human beings, struggling in all our comic frailty to achieve a more equitable path to commitment and generativity? Or are they laughing at alien, even grotesque creatures who refuse to acknowledge any sexual good beyond pleasure?

Imagining Black America

To begin with, some basic biology. Human beings share fully 99.5 percent of our DNA. In other words, the individual difference between us – in height and weight, in skin color, in hair texture – are shaped by a mere 0.5 percent of our genetic material.

Imagining Black AmericaThis is how Michael Wayne begins Imagining Black America, a text based both in scientific research and cultural ethnography. While race has been proven merely a social construct, much of society is still centered on these manufactured demarcations. Wayne’s text travels the span of Black American history, beginning in 1619, when the first Africans arrived in Jamestown and spanning through the reelection of President Barack Obama.

Wayne is well suited to undertaking this task. In his introduction he speaks of his childhood in Toronto. Growing up in a predominantly white area, he writes, “I did have one occasion to see large numbers of black Americans during these impressionable years, though at a distance.” He recounts traveling into New York City, rolling through Harlem. He writes:

To me, the black people I saw from the window of the train, now they were real Americans. How my pre-teen self arrived at that conclusion I can’t say. Like most boys my age, I was preoccupied with sports, so maybe it was because many of the baseball stars in the 1950s – many stars of “America’s game” – were black: Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe.

Yet, as Wayne grew older he realizes that the topic of race in America is more complicated and nuanced than his childhood self originally realized. Imagining Black America traces Wayne’s work in the field, charting a complicated and fascinating aspect of American culture and history.