Towards a Better History…

Pardon me while I climb up on my soap box…

Pardon me while I climb on my soapbox…

Okie dokie, now….Who watched the Bloomberg TV broadcast of the Boston Pops concert and fireworks last night?

Do you remember the montage of Boston that they’d played right at the beginning of the night?  Right after Brian Stokes Mitchell sang a stunning rendition of “American the Beautiful”, and added “sisterhood” after the line about “brotherhood”?

I know I did.  So did my cat.  And what we both noticed was that after a performance that honored not only the humanitarian goals of America (symbolized by “brotherhood”), but the determination and activism that is trying to bring us closer to that goal (symbolized by the “sisterhood”), as well as the recognition that America is made up of lots of different peoples…

…We get a montage about Boston that features images of men.

And I, along with my cat, who is himself a keen student of history, let out a huge sigh.  Not only because this kind of stuff happens all the time, because it does.  All the time.

You don’t have to take my word for it, either.  A Slate.com article last year pointed out that popular history books are not only largely about men, but are also largely written by men.  Click on the above link for more information, as well as a truly eye-opening graph about the state of the history publishing industry.   The problem with this isn’t the books themselves, or their authors (as long as they use good research practices and conscientious citations).  The problem is that these books, together, have the effect of a bullhorn–it makes it that much harder to hear any other stories being told around them.  And there are so many more stories that still need to be told.  Not only about Boston.

A painting recreating the Battle of Lexington and Concord

But Boston (and Massachusetts in general) is a phenomenal place to start telling those stories!  From the opening shots of the American Revolution fired in Concord and the riot that was the Boston Tea Party to the The Combahee River Collective in the 1970s to the being the first state to legalize gay marriage, Massachusetts has a history of producing and remembering people who change the status quo.  And to overlook that is to do a great disservice to its history, as well as upholding a troubling precedent of overlooking their contributions to history.

So let’s put together a list, shall we, of histories and people who weren’t discussed on Bloomberg TV last night, and celebrate all the people who make this area, this country, and this species we call humanity, so fascinating….

The Poems of Phyllis Wheatley:  The woman we know today as Phyllis Wheatley was born in West Africa around 1753, and was sold into slavery around the age of seven.   She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, and named after the ship that brought her to North America.  The Wheatley children taught her to read and write, and their parents, John and Susanna Wheatley encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent.  Phyllis was emancipated in 1773, and became the first published female African-American poet the same year.  She corresponded with George Washington and the King George III, and wrote movingly about the rights of slaves in the emerging United States.  Phyllis Wheatley died at the age of 31, while working as a scullery maid in order to pay back her husbands’ debts.

Improper Bostonians : lesbian and gay history from the Puritans to Playland: Drawing on sources ranging from newspaper accounts to private archives, and incorporating more than 200 images, this book is one of, if not the most comprehensive LGBT city history around. Showcasing an extraordinary variety of perspectives and periods, subjects and sources, from Prohibition to World War II to  urban development to the AIDS epidemic, to tell a new and vitally important history of Boston.  The History Project is a volunteer-based organization that works to collect and preserve the history of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people in and of Massachusetts, and have a pretty remarkable digital archives on their website, which you can check out here.

Louisa May Alcott: A Biography: One of the faces that Bloomberg TV showed was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was, by far, the most well-known of the Transcendentalists living in Concord, Massachusetts in the 19th century.  But, nothing against Emerson at all, he was famous because he was the most mainstream of all the Transcendentalists.  He didn’t go build himself a cabin in the woods like his buddy, Henry David Thoreau.  He didn’t create a big scandal by implying that children had minds of their own and should be encouraged to think and contradict their elders, like Bronson Alcott.  And he wasn’t a rabble-rouser like Bronson’s daughter, my friend Louisa May Alcott.   Did you know that Louisa was the first woman in Concord to register to vote?  The state legislature passed a bill in 1879 permitting women to vote in town elections dealing with children and education, and Louisa knew that this was the first, critical step, to women gaining a voice in politics.  You can read all about Louisa’s remarkable life, and her unique family, including her mother, who worked at a shelter for abused women in Boston in the mid-nineteenth century, in this phenomenal biography by Madeline Stern.

The Trouble Between Us : An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement: Inspired by the idealism of the civil rights movement, the women who launched the radical second wave of the feminist movement believed fundamentally in universal sisterhood and a color-blind democracy. Their goals, however, remain unrecognized to this day.  Winifred Breines explores why a racially integrated women’s liberation movement did not develop in the United States, using sources as diverse as protest posters, pamphlets, newspapers, speeches, and oral histories with some of the most influential and active of the second-wave feminists.  Of particular focus in her work is the Combahee River Collective, a Boston-based organization of Black women whose published statement (which you can read here) is considered a bedrock of the Black feminist movement to this day.  This isn’t an easy read, but it is a vitally important one for those seeking for ways to improve the dialogue still taking place about race and feminism today.

Interesting in reading some more of Boston’s–and Massachusetts’–fascinating, diverse, and revolutionary history?  Come into the Library and we’ll be happy to help you find just want you’re looking for!

 

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