“Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office”

An article in the New York Times a few weeks ago detailed the re-creation of a 1920s “eugenics office” from New York’s Cold Spring Laboratory

“An old stucco house stands atop a grassy hill overlooking the Long Island Sound. Less than a mile down the road, the renowned Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory bustles with more than 600 researchers and technicians, regularly producing breakthroughs in genetics, cancer and neuroscience.

But that old house, now a private residence on the outskirts of town, once held a facility whose very name evokes dark memories: the Eugenics Record Office.

In its heyday, the office was the premier scientific enterprise at Cold Spring Harbor. There, bigoted scientists applied rudimentary genetics to singling out supposedly superior races and degrading minorities. By the mid-1920s, the office had become the center of the eugenics movement in America.

Today, all that remains of it are files and photographs — reams of discredited research that once shaped anti-immigration laws, spurred forced-sterilization campaigns and barred refugees from entering Ellis Island. Now, historians and artists at New York University are bringing the eugenics office back into the public eye.”


‘Nation to Nation,’ at Museum of the American Indian – NYTimes.com

An important review of an even more important exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian.


Edward Rothstein has been highly critical of history museums in general and this one in specific– he even links to his own review from 10 years ago of the opening of the museum, referring to the first exhibitions there as an “intellectual catastrophe.”  He has calmed down a bit for this review, but still has some critical things to say.

“In many respects, the exhibition, like the museum itself, is so focused on a broad account of injustice that it slights nuance, detail and qualification. But it also leaves hope that in time, the museum will make peace with the past so that past can be more fully explored.”



‘Nation to Nation,’ at Museum of the American Indian – NYTimes.com.




Ask a Slave


‘Ask a Slave’ is a comedy web series by Azie Dungey, a former ‘living history actor’ at Mount Vernon just outside of Washington, D.C. The series is based on real questions she was asked by tourists while working at the site. ‘Ask a Slave’ is getting a lot of media attention – it makes fun of public ignorance about history and makes some subtle references to sociopolitical conversations about race and equality that are very relevant to today. In one episode her character, Lizzie Mae, makes an underhand connection between the legality of slave marriage to how gay marriage is viewed legally in several states today. In another episode she has an interview with an abolitionist that does not portray abolitionists favorably. It’s definitely worth watching an episode or two. Or six.

‘12 Years a Slave’


A provocative panel discussion on the new movie, Twelve Years a Slave— part of a wave of recent films dealing with slavery and its legacy.

“I think this movie is much more real, to choose a word like that, than most of the history you see in the cinema. It gets you into the real world of slavery. That’s not easy to do. Also, there are little touches that are very revealing, like a flashback where a slave walks into a shop in Saratoga. Yes, absolutely, Southerners brought slaves into New York State. People went on vacation, and they brought a slave.”


A Discussion of Steve McQueen’s Film ‘12 Years a Slave’ – NYTimes.com.

Comparing the Affordable Care Act to the Fugitive Slave Law

Here’s perhaps the most egregious “uses of the past” yet in the ongoing insanity of the “debate” over the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare– the comparison of the Act to the 1850s Fugitive Slave Law.  Read — and learn– a little history here:


In what may be the party’s lowest moment throughout this debacle, Republican State Representative William O’Brien of New Hampshire said Obamacare is every bit as bad as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. President Obama naturally scoffed at the very idea, but O’Brien defended the analogy. “Just as the Fugitive Slave Act was an overreach by the federal government,” he told the Manchester Union Leader, “so too we understand that Obamacare is an assault on the rights of individuals.” That claim explains a lot about right wing thinking, where callousness toward universal health care is exceeded only by ignorance of slavery.

‘Conversation About Race’ in American movies

A sweeping, thoughtful article on race and racism as reflected in American movies from Birth of a Nation to Django Unchained and the new 12 Years a Slave:

Such stories, of course, do not stay told. The moral, economic and human realities of slavery — to keep the narrative there for a moment — have a way of getting buried and swept aside. For a long time this was because, at the movies as in the political and scholarly mainstream, slavery was something of a dead letter, an inconvenient detail in a narrative of national triumph, a sin that had been expiated in the blood of Northern and Southern whites.

D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” filmed in 1914.D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” may look now like a work of reactionary racism, but it is very much an artifact of the Progressive Era, embraced by President Woodrow Wilson and consistent with what were then understood to be liberal ideas about destiny and character of the American republic. In Griffith’s film (adapted from “The Clansman,” a best-selling novel by Thomas Dixon), the great crime of slavery had been its divisive and corrupting effect on whites. After Reconstruction, the nation was re-founded on the twin pillars of abolition and white supremacy.



A historic TV moment: the “That’s My Boy!” episode from the Dick Van Dyke Show

This is not really a story about history ON television, but it does highlight a historic moment on American television from 1963– the year of the March on Washington, a year in which many white Americans were finally waking up to the existence of racial issues and racial discrimination in their communities.  And it comes in a most unlikely place:  an episode of the popular “Dick Van Dyke Show,” set in the white suburban town of New Rochelle, New York.


It’s worth noting how radical this must have felt 50 years ago:  As the article says:

It’s worth revisiting as a then-and-now study in how television effects transformation.

Today TV seems to push various envelopes with a vengeance, often clumsily so, trying for shock value in a world that is increasingly hard to shock. You have to admire the bravery and the unwillingness to tolerate any barrier, whether it be the one against gay characters or characters with disabilities or unsettling subjects like rape and child abuse. But you also sometimes are left mourning the lack of subtlety and art.