Tag Archive for History Department

Assisted by Fellowship, Wright Reveals Black Agendas in GOP

Leah Wright, assistant professor of African American studies, assistant professor of history, received a grant worth $31,500 from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. The award is supporting her her current book project.

Leah Wright, assistant professor of African American studies, assistant professor of history, received a grant from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. The award is supporting her current book project.

On a chilly January morning in 1978, Jesse Jackson delivered a rousing keynote address to a large group of political leaders. Energized from a recent meeting with President Jimmy Carter at the White House, the civil rights activist dazzled his audience with nearly an hour of political “gospel rock.” At the end of Jackson’s fiery speech, his audience launched a five-minute standing ovation. Oddly, his audience was a group of white Republicans.

Why would a liberal civil rights activist – with ties to the Democratic Party – engage a political party that had a reputation for turning its back on the black interests? Jackson wasn’t alone. Throughout the modern postwar period, a number of black Americans worked with and within the GOP to influence the direction of the party. And in the past two decades, America has witnessed a surprising number of high-profile black Republicans including Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Michael Steele, Clarence Thomas, J.C. Watts and Herman Cain.

“The extensive literature on the histories of civil rights and American politics suggests, in no uncertain terms, that African Americans have no business being conservative,” says Leah Wright, assistant professor of African American studies, assistant professor of history.

As a recent recipient of a Career Enhancement Fellowship for Junior Faculty, Wright, assistant professor of African American studies, assistant professor of history, is working to revise a historical blind spot by demonstrating that black Americans have worked consistently with Republicans to pursue an agenda of racial uplift.

The Career Enhancement Fellowships for Junior Faculty Program, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, supports junior faculty who have a demonstrated commitment to eradicating racial disparities,

Kleinberg’s Article in American Historical Association Publication

An article by Ethan Kleinberg, director of the Center for the Humanities, professor of history, professor of letters, is featured in the 50th anniversary issue of Perspectives on History, the monthly publication of the American Historical Association. The article, titled “Academic Journals in the Digital Era”  is part of a forum on “The Future of the Discipline” edited by Lynn Hunt. View the full list of contributors online.

Battle for the Future: Smolkin-Rothrock on the Spiritual Life of Soviet Atheism

(Story contributed by Jim H. Smith)

Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock

Its official name was the Century 21 Exhibition, but it was better known as the Seattle World Fair, and it seemed to be an unambiguous statement about America’s aspirations for its future. Boasting a futuristic monorail and an iconic Space Needle whose elevators were piloted by female attendants wearing excessive blue eye shadow and costumes out of a Hollywood sci-fi feature, it came to hold totemic significance for a nation whose philosophical differences with the Soviet Union were being sorted out against the majestic backdrop of outer space.

One of the first visitors to the 1962 fair was Soviet cosmonaut German Titov, the second Soviet man in space after Yuri Gagarin, the youngest spaceman (a record that stands to this day), and the first to orbit the Earth repeatedly. In his homeland Titov was nothing less than a demi-God.

During a news conference in Seattle, Titov was asked whether his adventures in the cosmos had altered his worldview. “Up to our first orbital flight by Yuri Gagarin no God helped build our rocket,” said the cosmonaut, who perceived the subtext of the question. “The rocket was made by our people. I don’t believe in God. I believe in man, his strength, his possibilities and his reason.”

It was, says Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of Russian and Eastern European studies, a statement that bespoke the essence of the Soviet Union’s long, strange struggle to supplant traditional religions throughout the empire with “scientific atheism.” If it provoked an outcry across America, well, that was Titov’s intent.

During the 1960s, as Smolkin-Rothrock notes, Titov and his fellow cosmonauts “were the public face of Communism on the world stage, and their triumphs and charisma put forward a confident image of a Communist state that could solve all problems and answer all questions, material and spiritual.”

On Oct. 18, Smolkin-Rothrock delivered this year’s prestigious Sherman Emerging Scholar Lecture at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Her address, which began with the Titov story, offered an analysis of Communism’s little-known efforts to manage the collective spiritual life of the Soviet people.

5 Questions With … Rick Elphick on Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa

This semester, Rick Elphick is teaching a sophomore history tutorial on "The Emergence of Modern Europe" and "The History of Southern Africa."

This semester, Rick Elphick is teaching a sophomore history tutorial on “The Emergence of Modern Europe” and “The History of Southern Africa.”

In this edition of The Wesleyan Connection, we ask “5 Questions” of Richard “Rick” Elphick, professor of history and co-chair of the College of Social Studies. Elphick is the author of The Equality of Believers: Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa, published by the University of Virginia Press in September 2012.

Q: What do you think is the main message, or the main achievement, of your new book?

A: For decades, historians of South Africa have struggled to trace how a white minority, starting in the 1650s, established a system of stark inequality among the races in the region. My book attempts to reconfigure the history of South Africa by interweaving the pressures toward inequality, which are now fairly well understood, with an account of the pressures toward racial equality. These pressures, I argue, were rooted chiefly in the proclamation of the equality of all persons before God, a message brought to South Africa by Christian missionaries. My story begins with the first missionary in 1737, and ends in 1960.

Q: Do you give the missionaries credit for the eventual overthrow of white rule and apartheid in the 1990s?

A: Not really. I do give credit to the mission schools, where black leaders, almost all of them devout Christians, acquired a belief in racial equality that inspired their resistance to oppression. I also emphasize how Christian doctrine ate away at the conscience of some white South Africans. But, as for the missionaries themselves, many appear in my book as deeply conflicted between their theoretical ideals and their fear of confronting the white power structure. And many showed a lack of confidence in blacks that bordered on racism.

Q: You also say that missionaries helped create the apartheid ideology?

A: Many writers have tried to find a link between religion and the doctrine of radical racial separation known as apartheid. In my view, however, they have looked in the wrong places. I trace the origins of the doctrine to missionary leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church.

Smolkin-Rothrock Delivers Lecture on Soviet Atheism

Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock

Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock

Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of Russian and Eastern European studies, tutor in the College of Social Studies, delivered the Sherman Emerging Scholar Lecture titled “A Sacred Space: The Spiritual Life of Soviet Atheism” Oct. 18 at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.

Paul Townsend, chairman of the History Department at N.C. Wilmington, said Smolkin-Rothrock was chosen because her work “explored the connections between art, culture and history.”

A native of Ukraine, Smolkin-Rothrock studied at Sarah Lawrence College and received her master’s and Ph.D. degrees from the University of California at Berkeley. She has published articles on “scientific atheism” and the Soviet space program.

 More information on her talk appeared in the Oct. 15 StarNews. Read more about Smolkin-Rothrock in this December 2010 Wesleyan Connection article.

Tucker to Serve as Interim Director of Allbritton Center

Jennifer Tucker is chair and associate professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, associate professor of history, associate professor of science in society.

Jennifer Tucker is chair and associate professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, associate professor of history, associate professor of science in society.

Jennifer Tucker will serve as interim director of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life, beginning immediately through the end of the fall 2013 semester. Tucker has accepted this position in order to enable the faculty and the university to formulate a vision for the Allbritton Center that will engage the curriculum and faculty scholarship, and enhance the intellectual life of the university. Her work this year will provide a framework for strategic planning and guide the search for a new director.

Tucker is chair and associate professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, associate professor of history, associate professor of science in society.

Tucker received her M.A. in history and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge, and her Ph.D. in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests at Wesleyan include the history of science and technology, Victorian visual culture, photographic truth and evidence, early science film history and spectatorship, gender and science, and the links between art and the popularization of science in the British Empire.

She is the author of Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science (Johns Hopkins University, 2006), editor of a special theme issue of History and Theory on “Photography and Historical Interpretation” (Dec. 2009), and author of more than 15 articles and book chapters on topics including scientific ballooning, visual history and the archive, photographic evidence in Victorian law, and the relationship between gender and genre in 19th Century European scientific illustration. Her research and teaching have been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Social Science Research Council, Marshall Scholarship Foundation, American Council of Learned Societies, and National Science Foundation, among others.

Her current project, “The Art and Visual Politics of the Tichborne Claimant Affair,” excavates hundreds of photographs, engravings, and other visual materials that circulated around the time of the high-profile trial in order to show how the physical movement of photographs and other visual materials through time and space shaped the public meaning of the case from the beginning. She is the image editor for History and Technology journal and a member of the Radical History Review editorial collective.

“Please join me in thanking Jennifer for accepting this position; and please join her in conversation as she begins to work with departments and programs and other colleagues to begin the transformation of the Allbritton Center into the leading regional center for the study of public life,” said Rob Rosenthal, provost and vice president for academic affairs, the John E. Andrus Professor of Sociology.

Read a “5 Questions With . . .” piece on Tucker in this past Wesleyan Connection article.

Two Professors Receive Prestigious Guggenheim Fellowships

Magda Teter

Magda Teter, Chair of Medieval Studies, Jeremy Zwelling Professor of Jewish Studies, professor of history, professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, and Elizabeth Willis, the Shapiro-Silverberg Professor of Creative Writing, professor of English, have been awarded 2012 fellowships by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

According to the Guggenheim Foundation, the prestigious academic honor is presented to scholars “who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.” This year, the 87th annual competition recognized 180 scholars, artists and scientists from across the U.S. and Canada. They were selected from a pool of almost 3,000 applicants, range in age from 27 to 84, and represent 62 disciplines and 74 different academic institutions. Through their fellowship projects, they will travel to all parts of the globe.

Teter also was recently awarded a Harry Frank Guggenheim fellowship. Both fellowships will allow her to take a full year sabbatical and support her travel and research expenses to the Vatican and Poland as she works on a new book, The Pope’s Dilemma: Blood Libel and the Boundaries of Papal Power.

The Pope’s Dilemma takes the familiar story of blood libel against Jews to tell a much broader story of religion and politics in Europe, demonstrating that the persistence of the ‘blood libel’ illuminates the reach, and also the limits, of papal authority in coping with local powers – a topic of significant interest even today, in light of the sex abuse scandals,” Teter says.

According to her biography on the Foundation web site, Teter specializes in early modern religious and cultural history, with an emphasis on Jewish-Christian relations in Eastern Europe, the politics of religion, and the transmission of culture among Jews and Christians across Europe in the early modern period. She is the author of Jews and Heretics in Catholic Poland (Cambridge University Press, 2006), Sinners on Trial (Harvard University Press, 2011), and a co-editor of and contributor to Social and Cultural Boundaries in Pre-modern Poland (Littman, 2010). She has also published numerous articles in English, Polish and Hebrew. Teter serves on the editorial boards of Polin, the Sixteenth Century Journal, and the AJS Review, and is co-founder and editor of the Early Modern Workshop, an open source site with historical texts and videos of scholars discussing them.

Elizabeth Willis

Willis, who specializes in poetry, is the author of Address (Wesleyan University Press, 2011), which won the PEN New England Winship Award for Poetry. Her other books include Meteoric Flowers (Wesleyan University Press, 2006), Turneresque (Burning Deck, 2003), and The Human Abstract (Penguin, 1995), which won the National Poetry Series. Her biography on the Foundation web site notes: “Her most recent projects are investigative in spirit, shifting increasingly toward hybrid genres and explicitly questioning the boundaries of literary representation.” Willis has been awarded fellowships in poetry from the California Arts Council and the Howard Foundation. She has held residencies at Brown University, University of Denver, Naropa University, the MacDowell Colony, and the Centre International de Poésie, Marseille, and was a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Mills College.

With her Guggenheim fellowship, Willis will travel to Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Idaho, New York and California to conduct research for a new project. She explains, “I’ll be working on a new project that involves American religious, cultural and political history. It’s a book-length poem, not a history, but along the way it is thinking about theater, film and improvised family structures. I’m interested in what constitutes a sovereign body within America’s evolving concept of itself as a nation. And for me, poetry always brings up interesting questions about representation and voice.”

Willis adds, “I’m thrilled. The fellowship is a once-in-a-lifetime honor, and the timing couldn’t be better for me. The work I’m doing now involves a good deal of research and travel, so I’m immensely grateful that I’ll have the chance to focus on it more completely.”

The Riddle of Black Republicans: More Than Meets the Eye

Leah Wright

“When one surfaces on the national stage, most people tend to view the event as a sort of political phenomenon,” Leah Wright says. “They look at it with nearly the same disbelief and surprise as they would do with a unicorn sighting.”

The phenomenon Wright is referring to? Why black Republicans, of course.

“When we see a Herman Cain, Colin Powell, Condolezza Rice or Allen West appear on the national scene, the news media and many people tend to view these individuals as extreme outliers. In reality they are much more common than we are led to believe,” says Wright, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of African-American studies.

The presence of black Republicans is also much more long-standing than most reporters or commentators often lead people to believe. In fact, for several decades after the Civil War, blacks were almost exclusively Republican. After all, that was the “Party of Lincoln” and emancipation while southern Democrats were the party of oppression, Jim Crow and the KKK.

However, allegiances began to change significantly in the 1930s with the Great Depression and the rise of the New Deal. The move to the Democratic Party solidified with the civil rights movement and President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and advancing his great society programs. Still, in 1966, Edward Brooke from Massachusetts, a Republican, became the first popularly-elected black U.S. Senator.

Brooke’s rise through the Republican Party was not an anomaly. In fact, Wright argues, the ascension of Brooke and other black Republicans is in part a design drawn up by moderate and independent civil rights-era leaders, including Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunche.

“Bunche’s strategy, at times, was to advance civil rights and issues confronting black communities through both parties,” Wright says. “He was a mentor to Brooke and to others. There was, and continues to be, a segment of the black community to whom the Republican Party presents a reasonable political choice.”

Wright is quick to add that the choice is not purely mercenary, that the individual’s values must line up with at least most of the party’s values.

“Most politicians are not ideologues; they do not subscribe to rigid dogma,” she says. “As a result, both parties offer a certain flexibility. What is forgotten is that many of the values embraced by Republicans and conservatives were also embraced by the civil rights movement, and continue to be embraced by many in the black community.”

These include beliefs in personal accountability, respectability, preference for small government and the free market, embracing of “family values,” and an acceptance of a brand of social justice that focuses more on judicial equality than on redistribution of wealth. These are all areas openly embraced by some conservatives and Republicans, as well.

For black people who strongly believe in these values, the Republican Party feels like more of a home than the Democratic Party.

“This falls exactly in line with the thinking of those in the Civil Rights movement who openly advocated for black people to become involved in both parties,” Wright says. “They argued that being involved with both parties means no party can take you for granted. That creates leverage for minority groups. It also affords different paths to expand party flexibility and access to genuine political power.”

Wright says that there are also black conservatives in non-elected policy positions, think tanks and other areas where they often affect large party perspectives and work toward policy changes.

“Black Republicans are out there and well-established,” she says. “They shouldn’t continue to be seen as the equivalent of unicorns.”

Wright is currently completing her book manuscript, The Loneliness of the Black Conservative: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power.