Monday, February 27, 2017

The Black History of Thomas Jefferson


Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemings of Monticello, her exploration of the enslaved and freed Hemings family members and of Sally Hemings' long relationship with Thomas Jefferson, struck me as a masterful and almost unanswerable work of history, though indeed one requiring a good deal of judgment and interpretation of sources that were intentionally ambiguous from the start.

Not everyone is not yet ready to concede Gordon-Reed's case. History News Network, the American aggregator of history-related items (often politically related, too) publishes William G. Hyland Jr. defence of Jefferson. But Gordon-Reed has not much to worry about. The money 'graf of the defence:
Thomas Jefferson was raised as the perfect Virginia gentleman. The personality of the man who figures in the Hemings soap opera would be preposterously out of character for him.
Because it's understood no Virginia gentleman would never have laid a finger on a slave.

In other Black History month news, the Star reports on Measha Brueggergosman's encounter with the Book of Negroes, the 1783 register of black Americans, slave and free, embarking for Nova Scotia, including her ancestors. She's making an album on the subject.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Globe on confederation: blogger scoops mainstream media again

The Globe has a Chris Hannay story this weekend on how New Brunswick is claiming its place as a starting point for confederation.

Sound familiar?  It's the story we had here on January 5th. And even my piece was riffing on one Jacques Poitras did for the CBC.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

History of loner MPs

Eric Grénier and the CBC have done an elaborate quantitative analysis to determine which MPs dissent from the party line most.  And find out what you already knew, that none of them do very often.  The "most free" of MPs votes with the leadership 87% of the time.

But they are asking the wrong questions, and encouraging the wrong behaviour.  Parliament doesn't need a bigger gaggle of cranky lone wolf individualists who will cast one lonely vote against the party consensus once in a while. There are always a few cranky egomaniacs in the House of Commons.

What parliament needs is backbenchers with influence. What Grénier's team ought to be looking for is the MP who, when the party leadership is about to do something dumb -- or evil -- can rally the caucus to stand up against the direction being given by the leader's office (or when necessary against the tenure of the leader him or herself). A backbencher who votes against a party motion is just someone who loses a vote.  A backbencher who can work a change in the party consensus? Now he or she is performing a useful service for the country.

Sadly, that sort of behaviour is not even a category that Grénier or the CBC acknowledge as existing, let alone try to measure. True, if they could and did measure, they would probably come up with a number close to zero.  But reporting it might actually start to change it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Outing History

Among the recent new entries in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography is one for Robert Home Smith, d.1935, the Toronto lawyer, financier, real estate entrepreneur.

Smith has a park named for him not far from where I live, because he was the developer of the large, rather exclusive residential tract along Toronto's Humber River known as The Kingsway. He also established the Old Mill tea room (now conference centre) on the river, partly to draw traffic to his then rather remote neighbourhood.

The entry has a word-sketch of the man:
A tall figure, Home Smith was a “veritable Adonis,” one contemporary said, deliciously funny and charismatic, and, whatever his hearing disability, intensely sociable....
Though outgoing, Smith could be an extremely private man, one who left tantalizing anecdotal trails. Business and recreational trips to Britain, Mexico, Washington, New York, the Caribbean, and resorts in Tennessee and the Carolinas were undertaken quietly; his friendships, mainly with building and engineering types, were never ostentatious; invariably he explained his bachelorhood with dismissive good humour....  He left his entire estate to an associate, lifelong bachelor Godfrey Stanley Pettit.
I had come across Home Smith in some legal history research years ago. Having seen essentially the same info covered in the DCB excerpts above, I informally put him in my (imaginary) file: Historic Canadians Who were Probably Gay.

I think that is what the DCB is hinting, too, with the "lifelong bachelor" and "tantalizing anecdotal trails."

Which raises a nice question of historical practice: how discreet or forthcoming should historians be about the possible sexual orientation of historical figures who were not forthcoming on the subject in their lifetimes? To put it another way, consider how hard it would be for a historian of sexuality to go through the DCB and find the gay or possibly gay Canadians, even when there are hints and suggestions.

Friday, February 17, 2017

History of fascism

Like a lot of people, I think, I've been a little cautious about the easy "Trump/Fascist" equation.  It becomes too easily an "We don't like him/he 's on the Right, therefore...." statement.

But worth reading is this Lawyers Guns & Money appreciation of some recent comments by two very solid historians, Timothy Snyder and Richard Evans, both of whom know a lot about those ur-fascists of the 1930s.  Some of the very specific details they offer are, ah, thought-provoking. Evans:
Hitler … did not rule, for example, through a Cabinet. He didn’t use the accepted institutions of government. He had a clique of people around him, Goebbels, Hermann Göring, and so on: a whole group of top Nazis who were his cheerleaders, really. They’re the ones who do the work. Within just a few years, the Cabinet didn’t meet at all. It’s just a very informal way of ruling that of course leads to a lot of chaos, because competencies are not clearly defined and there are a lot of rivalries within Hitler’s group of leading Nazis that prove often counterproductive. It’s interesting there again to see how the civil service, that’s the administration at every level, really, did not provide a very serious resistance to the orders that came down from above.
Image:  from LGM

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

History of Deep Roots

When I saw an image of Tyrone Tootoosis, the Cree cultural leader who died recently, I thought, "Gee, that guy looks like Poundmaker."

Then they put up this photo of Poundmaker, and explained that Tootoosis actually is of his family.  It actually is not that long ago.

Star-Phoenix has a story about Tyrone Tootoosis's life and work.  Cree Literacy Network has more.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Hans Rosling 1948-2017 RIP: data guy

Hans Rosling died the other day.

He was just the best presenter of data ever. We should all aspire to this.  I never regret not working in some big organization, except just once in a while when I see the toys like these available to be played with. How come nobody but Hans Rosling does!

Black History Month: Joe Fortes

Today's Dictionary of Canadian Biography feature is Sherry Edmunds-Flett's biography of Joe Fortes (b 9 February 1863), the man who once taught most of Vancouver to swim -- and who today is remembered by a waterfront fountain and a Vancouver steak and seafood restaurant
Known to be clean, sober, and an expert mixer of cocktails, he was most famous, however, for his volunteer work as a swimming instructor and lifeguard. He was a common sight at English Bay beach, where he taught thousands of children to swim. It was not until around 1897 that the city, in recognition of his services, put him on its payroll as a lifeguard; at some point he was also made a special police constable. He reputedly saved more than 100 people from drowning, including many children and several adults, among them John Hugo Ross, who would die in the sinking of the Titanic.

History of peacekeeping

Fear not, mon ami. Justice and freedom will come to North Carolina.
Media outlets are reporting that the Canadian government is delaying sending a peacekeeping contingent to the embattled African nation of Mali,

But in this insecure world, peacekeeping remains important. Canada needs to consider its responsibility to protect when a country to which we have long had ties of amity and trade is plagued by:
  • constant street violence, often provoked by police forces out of control
  • a Muslim minority targeted by a Christianist government that accuses it of disloyalty;
  • a politicized judiciary, many of whose members are unapologetically loyal to the ideology of the governing party.
  • endemic ethnocultural strife and semi-official discrimination based on skin colour and/or linguistic background.
  • women denied basic healthcare, kept out of high office, and frequently demeaned by the head of state and senior officials.
  • government officials complicit in illegal detention and rendition of immigrants, even in the face of valid court orders. 
  • voters' lists that have been manipulated and legislative seats ruthlessly gerrymandered for partisan advantage by the governing party.
  • a head of state dubiously elected but supported by a compliant legislature, and intent on wielding personal authority unrestricted by traditional political norms or the rule of law.  
In light of such circumstances, does Canada have a responsibility to at least consider inserting a peacekeeping force, simply to restore order, re-establish the rule of law, and prepare the way for free and fair elections?

I'm not talking about Mali.  I'm talking about the United States of America.

Hey, you know they would do the same for us whenever they thought it necessary.

Monday, February 06, 2017

What's the view from your window today?

In one of my favourite rooms in the world: the third floor reading room at Library and Archives Canada, with the magnificent view across the mighty Ottawa to ... well, to some pretty ugly federal office buildings and a paper plant, but still...

They have not digitized everything yet, but this online research thing must be taking hold. Total attendance in the room this morning: five.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Historians against heritage?

Tear down these walls?

At Active History, urban historian Richard White argues that it is because he is a historian that he opposes most forms of heritage preservation regulation in cities.
Why then do we want to preserve and inhabit the homes that Edwardians built?
First of all, we do not, really. Owners of these charming old houses knock out walls to create fewer bedrooms (for smaller households), build bathrooms on every floor, increase the size of water-supply pipes, park (multiple) cars on front and back yards, build decks for al fresco dining, punch holes in walls for windows, insulate like mad, re-wire to permit greater electricity consumption, and so on – all of which is permissible because Heritage Conservation District designation, according to provincial law, prohibits the alteration of “any part of the property, other than the interior.” So the truth is that we want our houses to look like, but certainly not to function as, they did a hundred years ago. As a historian who knows and cares about the past this all seems a little dishonest.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

History of electoral systems

Gotta say the Trudeau government looked good on electoral reform yesterday. Surely breaking a dumb promise is better than going ahead with it.

The blog Routine Proceedings has links to a lot of commentary.  Here is part of one I liked, which reminds us that proportional representation is not proportional to us, it's proportional for the political parties, which achieve proportionality by getting to appoint their own representatives to the legislatures:
PR generally weakens the connection between elected officials and local ridings (in some cases, doing away with the concept of ridings altogether) and so serves to consolidate power in the PMO, especially at election time, when ranked candidate lists are compiled in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms.
My own view is that the best kind of electoral reform would come from within the parties themselves: democratizing the nomination process so that grandees no longer can block impassioned activists and iconoclasts who challenge the party line.
Some of the Liberals' other promises could use some attention, however: reforming Bill C-51, for instance, or developing a Home Care plan.

Black History Month: Tales from the 2.9

Apparently 2.9 is the percentage of Black people in the Canadian population-- whether their origins and identity are Caribbean, African-American, Afro-Canadian, Nigerian, Somali, South African, the whole diasporic range.

Last year Casey Palmer launched a website called Tales from the 2.9 to post daily during February, which is Black History Month here  Tales is not really focussed on history, more on Black Canadian achievement and experience in general.  But it's a lively site, based on a lot of interviewing, and looks to be active throughout .

Here's one response from last year's daily tales,when a standard question to his interviewees was about Black History Month:
Black history to me when I was younger was all about the culture. I grew up in the 80’s RnB and soul, 90’s hip-hop era. Hip-hop was conscious. Artists like Public Enemy, KRS 1 and the Boogie Down Bronx, X Clan, Brand Nubian; and great female artists like MC Lyte and Queen Latifah were the teachers of black history.
And another:
Anytime I think about Black History Month, I tend to think about why schools don’t teach about Canadian Black History. I can’t believe that all this time, everyone was having tea meetings or skipping rope. Why isn’t Canadian Black History taught here or mentioned? We only learn about the major stories, from Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Mandela or slaves escaping to the North.
Take a look or 2 (.9) during February.
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