Summer Reading: On the Great Lakes and Gibson Guitars

The blog has been on hiatus for the summer. Most of the department faculty have been away on research trips or vacation, or buried deep in research. Summer is also a good time to catch up on reading, though; over the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring brief recommendations on great books and articles that we’ve recently enjoyed. 

book coverThe Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas by Jerry Dennis

Recommended by Bruce Berglund: I binge-read this book while on vacation at the Lake Michigan shore last summer. The main thread of the book is the author’s journey, as a deck-hand, on a small schooner making its way from Traverse City to Maine, via the Great Lakes, the Erie Canal, and Hudson River. The ship’s voyage makes for a great sea story, with tensions between crew members, tense battles against storms, and near-misses with larger ships playing the seaway. Interspersed in this story are other episodes from Dennis’ life on the Great Lakes: his childhood visits to the Leelanau Peninsula, his first outing as a deck-hand on the Chicago-to-Mackinac sailing race, and a trip aboard a voyageurs’ canoe along the northern shore of Lake Superior. These anecdotes are openings to lessons about the geography and history of the Great Lakes. Having grown up on the shores of Lake Superior, I knew something about the maritime history of the lakes and its unique climate (the phrase “colder by the lake” is a fact of life in Duluth). But in reading Dennis’ book, the Great Lakes opened up in a whole new way. Yes, there are accounts of shipwrecks, but I also learned about water chemistry, fish life, pollution, weather patterns, history and folklore. The book was engaging throughout, and I reacted audibly is several places at some new nugget I discovered.


book coverKalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s “Banner” Guitars of WWII by John Thomas

Recommended by William Van Vugt: This is an amazing book about Gibson acoustic guitars made during WWII by women. When the men went off to fight, women replaced them as the luthiers, and made all the guitars (25,000) from 1942 to 1945 (the famous “Banner” J45s–I now have one from 1943, and it blows me away–maybe the finest guitar I have ever played. It’s enough to make a serious guitar player like me weep for joy.) Gibson later said they stopped making guitars from 1942-1945; they disavowed the Banners made by women–said they made no guitars during those years! They said this never happened! And now I’m learning from this new book that the women made the guitars differently, “more refined”, better, more delicate, responsive….And when the troops returned after the war, and shoved out the women from Gibson, the men started to make them different again–and not nearly as good: they lost what the women luthiers had accomplished. Women were superior luthiers. This book is just incredible–not just about American guitars, which is more important than anything, with the possible exception of cats–but of American women’s history. This is far more interesting than Rosie the Riveter.


Check back in two weeks for our next summer reading installment. What are you reading right now? Drop us a line in the comments to recommend.

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I, Too, Am a Southerner

by Eric M. Washington.
People walk past a bunch of flowers left in memorial on the ground as they take part in a "Black Lives Matter" march past Emanuel AME Church on June 20, 2015

People walk past a bunch of flowers left in memorial on the ground as they take part in a “Black Lives Matter” march past Emanuel AME Church on June 20, 2015 (Image source: Reuters)

I, too, am a Son of the South, but of a different sort than Dylann Roof, the accused murderer of nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to an op-ed published in The Chicago Tribune, one of Roof’s classmates stated that Roof “had that kind of Southern pride.” I, too, have Southern pride. I’m proud of my deep roots in southeast Louisiana. I have learned that my maternal grandmother’s family were slaves in Ascension Parish, Louisiana as far back as the 1830s. On my father’s side, my slave great-great grandparents migrated from Virginia after emancipation to settle in the bayous and cane fields of Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. I’m proud of my Afro-Creole heritage. I will identify myself as a Louisianian quicker than I would an American. I, too, am a Southerner.

As an Afro-Creole Southerner, there are some things I distance myself from in the broader stream of Southern identity. I distance myself from the “fried-in-wool” racism that has pervaded Southern society historically. Though I hate Southern racism, and American racism for that matter, I have no inclination to destroy racists. My purpose is to help in their repentance through my vocation as a historian. This is the difference a Christian mind makes in this. Allegedly owing to his Southern pride, Dylann Roof decided to snuff out the lives of innocent people who welcomed him into their church. Christians. African-American Christians. Southerners, like him, but African-American Southerners; therefore, not like him. In his mind, he had to kill them. If we accept the story line that has emerged about what motivated Roof, he killed nine African Americans to uphold Southern pride. This is sinful pride. It is idolatry.

This horrific incident is just the latest in the history of violence against African Americans in the South. We historians of African Americans have long labeled such violence as terrorism.

At the end of the Civil War, white Southerners re-shaped their narrative of African Americans. During the days of antebellum slavery, pro-slavery apologists in the South exclaimed slavery’s moral good. It taught untutored Africans the virtues of hard work and industry, they claimed. With the advent of the plantation missions movement during the 1830s and 1840s, proponents of that movement asserted that slavery brought pagan Africans into the bosom of the Church. By becoming Christians, slaves would become better slaves, obeying their masters in all things.

artist depiction of buildings burning and lynchings

Memphis Riot, May 1866

With slavery’s end, unreconstructed Southerners began to sing another tune. The happy slave who labored hard while becoming more virtuous had become “idle and shiftless.” This prompted the passing of Black Codes throughout the South in order to control African-American labor. In my home state of Louisiana, St. Landry parish in the southern part of the state west of Baton Rouge, passed the following code in 1866: “Every negro is required to be in the regular service of some white person, or former owner, who shall be held responsible for the conduct of said negro.” In another code passed the same year: “No negro shall sell, barter, or exchange any articles of merchandise or traffic within said parish without the special written permission of his employer, specifying the article of sale, barter or traffic.” This was just one way white Southerners dealt with newly freed African Americans. In May 1866, former Confederates went on a rampage in Memphis that culminated in the killing of forty-six African Americans. The white men who perpetrated the murders targeted Union soldiers. Not only did these men kill African American men, but, in at least one case, they raped an African American woman. Mrs. Lucy Tubbs testified to the House of Representatives that a group of white men burst into her house looking for her husband, who had left. Asked by one House representative if she had been raped, she said, “Yes, sir.” As one man raped her, others stole money.

Compare this testimony with what Roof is claimed to have said to the lone survivor of the massacre at Emanuel AME: that blacks were “taking over” and “have raped our women.” This statement rings familiar. White terrorist groups that sprouted during Reconstruction apologized for their existence, in part, to preserve the virtue of white Southern women. That language indicated the white Southern men desired to protect white Southern women from the perceived sexual deviance of African-American men. This was a pretext for white Southern terrorism. During the 1890s, renowned African-American journalist Ida B. Wells wrote that lynchings and other forms of terrorism in the South perpetrated against African Americans were to preserve white Southern economic dominance and political supremacy. According to Wells, out of the 1,115 African Americans lynched between 1892-1894, there were only 348 charges of rape. These charges of rape were dubious at best with no shred of evidence. According to the reports about Roof’s ideological motivations, it is clear that he accepted an Unreconstructed Southern view of Southern society, which included the use of violence to suppress African-American rights and upward mobility. Like those of the 1890s, Roof used the protection of white Southern women’s honor as motivation of his murderous actions, which is an unsubstantiated claim that objectifies both African-American men and white women.

I, too, am a Southerner. Yet a different kind of Southerner than Roof. In Roof’s mind, I cannot lay claim to being Southern. If Roof believed everyone born or reared in the South could claim Southern identity, then he would have never entered Emanuel AME Church on the evening of June 17. His conception of Southerness excludes over 21 million African Americans who call the South home. For Afro-Southerners, they will always refuse to identify with Southerners who persist in waving the Confederate Battle flag as a badge of “heritage.” Afro-Southern identity includes musical traditions like the Blues, and Jazz. Food like Greens and Black-eyed peas. Most importantly it includes a cherished Protestant faith, even Methodism. It will never, ever include hoisting the Confederate flag as a symbol of their heritage.

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

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Princess Mononoke and History

by Jonathan Hielkema.

No. When you talk about plants, or an ecological system or forest, things are very easy if you decide that bad people ruined it. But that’s not what humans have been doing. It’s not bad people who are destroying forests.

–Hayao Miyazaki

Title art of Princess Mononoke film featuring girl on a white wolf and prince on an ox.

Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke follows a young native Japanese (Emishi) prince named Ashitaka. In the opening sequence, a dying boar demon curses him, leaving him exiled from his dwindling tribe and seeking the source of his affliction. He discovers that the demon was in fact a transformed boar god, shot by a bullet made in Iron Town, a new industrial city in the midst of Muromachi Japan run by Lady Eboshi.

Eboshi is a proto-bourgeois revolutionary who provides dignified labour for lepers and prostitutes while laying waste to nearby forests to feed the forges and waging a war of attrition against the nature gods guarding the trees. These gods––gigantic wolves and boars with the gift of speech––are joined by a human raised by wolves named San, AKA Princess Mononoke, who tries to assassinate Eboshi. By the end of the film, Eboshi’s town is wrecked but the nature gods are dead for good, lying in heaps of corpses or dissolving into the ether. Nature, the film implies, is now open season for exploitation by humans who no longer have anything to fear from forests.

All that said, what does this have to do with history?

For our final session in HIST 356 (US Social and Cultural History) this year, coincidentally my last-ever Calvin class period, Professor Du Mez asked us to participate in some intellectual show-and-tell. Our assignment: present a text that contained meaningful commentary on “Christian history.” I chose a different tack, presenting the film Princess Mononoke because it embodies my core historical commitments. Because it’s a film, and animated at that, it’s not a manual about the mechanics of writing history––I read plenty of those at Calvin––but it gave me an ethos.

Translated to sturdy English, Princess Mononoke taught me the emotions and ethics of my chosen discipline. And those two are rarely ever apart because emotions are always at the core of ethical motivations, for better and for worse.

Very well, but what kind of ethos does Princess Mononoke have to teach the eager history student? Luckily, Hayao Miyazaki himself, the director and writer of the film who also drew thousands of images for its animation, provides it in the epigraph at the top of this post. “It’s not bad people who are destroying forests.”

Lady Eboshi accompanied by armed soldiersWhat makes Princess Mononoke a great piece of historical fantasy is that it studies interlocking systems in motion without a transcendent moral reference point. Ashitaka, the forest gods, and Lady Eboshi act rationally according to their flawed perceptions, with their bodies being the pivot points of their motivations. Eboshi is motivated by saving lepers and prostitutes, but whole natural systems suffer immense pain and degradation because of her actions.

Ashitaka wants to heal a poison in his body, to purge the mark of death on his arm. The forest gods are likewise attempting to purge, in a suicidal last charge, the smoke-belching tumor eating away at their forest. Humanity under capitalism, with its unquenchable growth imperative and heedlessness about the health of the natural body it lives on, is animalkind gone cancerous.

But then again: Eboshi gives her people a better life. She is not a tyrant, neither duplicitous nor rapacious. She values life––but only human life, which she believes to be separate from nature. Princess Mononoke dramatizes the real struggles that drive history. I dare not say drive it forward, but the forces of class struggle, of gender struggle, and of struggle against depredation and land theft by indigenous movements are what is foundational. These are not moral struggles in the simple sense we see in Captain Planet. “Ordinary” people destroy forests all the time.

Ashitaka on his mount fleeing an angry demon.What is true in history is systems in motion, hungry systems that need energy to stop themselves from disintegrating into pure entropy, not to mention space to export all the waste and chaos they produce. And, at this moment in time, it’s capitalism in particular that lacks the parasitic smarts to not actively destroy its food source, literally and figuratively.

When I was writing my honor’s thesis on American-Iranian relations, this point came home to me more strongly than before. The Americans, Iranians, and Russians were not, individually, more or less moral than their antagonists. They were all members of state systems and an international system, all in ruts of their own making, predisposed to believing convenient illusions, or what Spinoza calls inadequate ideas.

But because of the specific structures in the world system, the way that benefits and suffering are distributed, the Iranian people suffered far more than anyone else. Their own bodily autonomy, their right to self-preservation as a nation, was compromised by invading Russian soldiers and well-paid diplomats just following the rules. Not by accident, of course, but not because of outright villainy either. To say that “evil” or “bad people” was responsible for destroying Iran’s democracy would be what theorist Robert Biel calls “bagging the mess,” drawing a line around what we don’t understand, labeling it “Here be Dragons.”

Princess Mononoke teaches that historical ethics start with, in Brian Massumi’s words, “the real monism of matter…one world, one nature…one unified field.” (A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1992). If historians’ words are to be the light of (partial) truth, and not the whispers of modern court magicians, we cannot pretend we have charmed spectacles that tell us Good from Evil. We need to be physicians, understanding that our patient, the totality of human society through time, is a body with its own dynamics that needs to be understood on its own terms. For my part, the broad and straight road to transcendent moral judgment is closed, leaving open only the winding and arduous work of investigation and often uneasy political judgments. Princess Mononoke teaches this viscerally by giving us characters so organic that they short-circuit simplified moral questions of Good and Evil and force us to ask: but what is good for nature and for humans?

Jonathan Hielkema graduated with honors in history in 2015.

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