Monthly Archives: April 2013

I hatch an evil plot

Tonight, in the shower, I was thinking about tests.  Yep.  If I ever try to tell you that I’m not a huge nerd, remind me of the time I was in the shower thinking about the best way to do assessments in history classes.

This train of thought may have been influenced by this article, about a UCLA professor who used an enviably clever strategy in his behavioral ecology exam, making the test itself a learning experience by giving students the option to work together using all of their resources or to go it on their own . . . thus replicating many of the principles in behavioral ecology.  It’s like the Stanford Prison Experiment without the horrible psychological consequences.

It’s also a consequence of having hosted a review session for my students last night.  They have an essay on their final exam (which is tomorrow), and as the logistics of the class have worked out so far, they haven’t yet had to make an argument of this magnitude. I took them through the process of selecting evidence related to the prompt, then asked them to summarize some of the themes that arose from them.  Then, I asked them to come up with a possible thesis statement.

They were stumped.  That, or they were waiting for me just to tell them the answer, which is unusual because this group is pretty talkative and I waited for a brave student to speak for a long time.  (One of my student evaluations in the past said that I “should be quicker to answer my own questions,” because the long silences can get awkward, but it always takes me a long time to gather my thoughts into coherent form, so I try to give them space to do likewise).  I ended up giving them some examples of theses that would encapsulate the trends of the evidence.  And they typed them diligently into their notes.  And I started to think about how much our digital culture — and at times, our university culture — encourages them to be passive recipients of other peoples’ ideas and knowledge.  And then I started thinking about how to change that.

And then I hatched an evil plot.  Tonight, I remembered my AP history courses from high school, and their DBQ component — document-based questions.  Basically, the exam would consist of five or so very short primary documents of various types (diary entries, maps, art, maybe some good old fashioned census data or something) and a question related to them.  You then would have to use the documents to make an argument.

I’m wondering if it would be possible to do such a thing in a 100-level history exam.  Instead of asking students to memorize various keywords, could you have them come in to the classroom with blue books, give them a couple of sheets with excerpts from primary documents, and tell them to answer an essay question using their knowledge from lectures and the documents?  Or would that be an absolute circus?

I seem to recall being the only person who liked DBQs in high school, so I imagine if I did something like this I would instantly become the least popular professor in the world.  On the upside, exams would not require any memorization.

What other assessment techniques can we use that encourage students to use their brains and think critically during the exam itself?



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The best and worst of working in archives

One of the inevitable facets of life as a historian is that at some point, you’re going to end up  spending a lot of time in an archive.  On one hand, this is awesome.  This is the closest to being Indiana Jones that most of us will get, and part of me is always convinced that I’m going to open some folder and discover a lost manuscript tucked between the pages of a musty book, or maybe, if I’m really lucky, a treasure map.  This never actually happens, and I suspect it’s a coping mechanism for dealing with the reality of working in archives, which is often painfully boring, freezing cold, allergy-aggravating, and personally constraining.

But every archive is a little different, and some of them are amazing places to work, staffed by amazing people.  Which archives are the best places to do research?  Here are some of my favorites:


The Margaret Herrick Library

1.  The Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  First, it’s in a beautiful building in downtown L.A. (which means parking is expensive, but I parked at a nearby tennis club).  The cool marble and high ceilings of this place could not be farther from the drafty basement archives I’ve worked in.  Second, the collections here are awesome.  Do you want to read the original letters of famous actors and directors?  Read the original scripts of movies before they were in the form you’ve come to know on the big screen?  See the press kits that the film companies sent out to journalists to promote movies?  This is the place.  Lastly, the staff here is hip and friendly–which makes all the difference to a researcher.

2.  The Special Collections Library at the University of Chicago.  

The Robie House

The Robie House

I enjoyed my walk from the bus stop to this library in Hyde Park every day, since it passed through a gorgeous neighborhood of arts-and-crafts style brownstones, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House.  But the best part of the Special Collections Library is its call system, which is entirely digitized.  You go on their website, browse the collections guide, and order the boxes you want to examine with one click.  It is brilliance.  Their reading room is bright and pleasant, and their staff is amazing.  Amazing-amazing.  They became really interested in my research during the weeks I was there, and went out of their way to find me new things related to my project, including a 1950s comic book which is basically all about a bare-chested Lincoln fighting foes.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library

3. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.  This is a very small library compared to the other two, but I’m including it because of its personal feel.  Not only did the head curator/librarian work with me personally every day I was there, the staff took an interest in me as a young person living by myself in a strange town and invited me to visit the farmer’s market with them during lunch, brought me candy and baked goods, and even gave me a Girl Scout badge for my trek from downtown Springfield to Lincoln’s tomb and back.  Plus they have everything you would ever want related to Abraham Lincoln, including the myriad “relics” that people have saved over the years.

Now, for some gripes.  I’m not going to name any names, here, because the archivists have the documents and I need the documents and therefore I do not wish to anger the archivists.  But here are some of the things I hate when I work in the archives:

1.  Having to sign in and out and take all of my stuff with me and make a huge production of it every time I have to get up to go to the bathroom.  Researchers are not camels; we can’t hold it for eight straight hours.

2. Being treated like a dumb kid whose research on her dissertation is way less important than Fred Q. Muddlypants’s fascinating genealogical study of his great-aunt Irene the metermaid.  I’m 29, not 6.  I’m not about to smear peanut butter and jelly on the documents.

3. On  similar note, being watched like a hawk for every second I am in the archive and immediately reproved should I do something terrible, like letting my flip-flop stop making full contact with my foot for one second (“SHOES MUST BE WORN AT ALL TIMES!” Dude, they’re still on.  They’re flip-flops.  They sometimes flop away from your heel).

4. Having to pay exorbitant amounts for copies.  Luckily, being able to bring a camera into the archives helps defray this cost, mostly, but it seems like highway robbery when an archive wants a dollar or more for a single page.

5.  Not being able to have a camera when there’s no possibility of copyright infringement.  I can see some places not wanting to have cameras, if materials are very delicate or if images are under a strict copyright.  But not letting someone photograph a typed mimeograph from the 1930s is nuts.

What are your best and worst research experiences?


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Truth and fiction

One of the students’ favorite books

As I finish up teaching American Studies 101, I’ve been thinking about how to structure a course on U.S. history after 1865 that integrates the best parts of the American Studies approach with the best parts of the history approach.  On one hand, I loved that the students in AMST 101 read so much fiction that was interesting and challenging — we could have great discussions that included both an examination of the literary form and a meditation on the era.  On the other hand, sometimes I wanted my students to read some good old fashioned historical documents, too.  I feel like we could have had some really great material if we had had time to break down the 14th and 15th Amendments, or NSC-68, or Herbert Hoover’s response to the New Deal. Fiction is great for getting a feel for the prevailing ideas and mood of the period, but sometimes the historian in me wants to dig my claws into the documents.

In the interest of finding out what works, last Friday, I asked my students what they liked about the course they’d been taking and what they would want me to change for next year’s crop of students.

What they loved:

-Reading John Hersey’s HiroshimaTim O’Brien’s The Things They Carriedand Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street

-When I gave them lectures on the origins of American institutions that seemed “inevitable” to them, like slavery — they liked when I did what we grad students would call “restoring contingency” to the historical narrative

-When I connected things across time periods, like following when Native Americans showed up in our course narrative from beginning to end, and how depictions of them changed over time

-Anytime someone showed them a video of something, especially the videos about Emmett Till, Kent State, and Vietnam

What they hated:

-Reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (but only because they had read it too many times before and wanted the point of view of someone different, preferably a woman)

-That everything we read was “depressing”

-Taking reading quizzes (me too, kids, me too)

-That there wasn’t much overlap between the content of the lectures and the recitation sections, where we discussed novels but didn’t have time for much else

Consequently, I’ve been trying to dream up a syllabus that lets students engage with the cultural and literary aspects of reading fiction while giving them some firm ground to stand on in the primary document department (my postmodernist alarm bell is ringing to remind me that ‘historical truth’ is a fiction as well, but for now, we’ll back away from the existentialist cliff).  What books and documents would you assign to try to combine both?


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Creative assignments

So, I’m working on my syllabus for the course on the Civil War in Popular Culture that I’m teaching this summer.  (Or, to be completely accurate, that I will teach if anyone ever signs up for it.  Only 3 so far.  Why doesn’t anyone want to take my awesome class that involves watching lots of movies for credit?  YOU’RE KILLING ME, SMALLS.)

Right.  So, this being the first class over which I have complete topical and pedagogical control, I’m eager to test out some of the theories I’ve been floating around for the last five years, based on my own experiences and observations in the classroom. One of these theories is that people are more motivated to succeed and to engage with the material if they feel they have some choice in what they are going to learn and how they are going to learn it.

One way I’ve tried to let students do this is by telling me what kinds of learning activities most suit them — small group work, talking all together as a class, doing lots of review and making lots of charts on the board of what we’re studying, getting up and out of the classroom to do and see things, making the class competitive, etc.  Sometimes this works very well — I once had a class with a really high proportion of athletes, who had a hard time sitting still.  One beautiful day, talking about the Seven Years’ War, I asked them to design an outdoor game that would teach 5th or 6th graders about the war.  They devised two: one game of “chain tag” where two people acted as “It” — one being the “British” and the other being the “French” — and tried to gather up as many “Native American allies” as they could from the remaining class members.  The other game was a modified Red Rover in which one line represented the Treaty Line of 1763  and the other line was colonists trying to break through across the Appalachians.  Then we went outside and played these games, and a great time was had by all, except I almost twisted my ankle during chain tag and felt very sheepish and old.

Other times, classes will tell you that they like to do one kind of activity but they will be consistently unenthusiastic about actually doing any such thing.  They will instead prop their heads on their desks and look at you with very pained expressions because you dared to suggest such shenanigans at 9 o’clock in the morning when they were out until 3 the night before.  Das Leben ist kein Ponyhof! I say.

The other way I want to get students involved in choosing their own learning adventure is by encouraging them to write on a topic that they love, using their newly-acquired historian skills to analyze it and make an argument about some aspect of it.  You love baseball?  How about writing a final paper about Ty Cobb and racism in baseball?  You love mystery TV shows?  How about a final paper on the evolution of gender roles in TV detective shows?  You feel passionate about the obesity epidemic?  How about a paper on how the Depression shaped food policy?

The point is, I feel that when you care about what you’re researching, and when you’re eager to tell people about it, you’re going to be motivated not only to do a good job, but also to develop the critical thinking skills that are the bread and butter of the bachelor’s degree.  Before you know it you’re going to be thinking about all of your passions in historical context and analyzing them.  [Spoiler alert: this ruins movies for you for all time, and also makes people not want to see movies with you because you can’t stop analyzing them in public.  Personally, I think developing a critique of the gender dynamic between the wizard and witches of The Great and Powerful Oz while you’re watching it adds to the movie-going experience, but I will tell you that when I shared my theories with my mother after the show, she said something like, “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, YOU’RE ON VACATION.”]

Nevertheless, this summer, I am trying to see if I can get my students to “buy in” by letting them do a “choose your own final project” assignment.  I was thinking that I wanted them to be able to come away with something for their portfolios — either a research project for the grad school-bound, a creative work (including painting, music, film, or fiction) with a 4-5 page artist’s statement, a public history/digital project (live-tweeting the Civil War, blogging, something on some platform I’m probably already too old to know about), a design for a historical site/museum exhibition (including wall-text, etc.), or (for the people who just don’t care) a comparative book review.

What do you think?  Is a flexible final project the path to history greatness, or am I crazy and likely to receive several misshapen sculptures made out of cheese, like the one I made for an ill-fated assignment for Brian Curran’s Michelangelo class in 2004?  [Helpful hint: cheese ball is not the best medium for sculpting a replica of the David.  Also, the smell will never really come off your hands.]

What techniques do you use to get students to buy in to your assignments?

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Grief and history

I’m reluctant to begin writing this, because I know that I’m tempting fate — that by investigating my feelings I’m risking turning today from an okay day to a really bad one.  But here goes.

Three years ago today my father died.  My life will forever be divided into before that day and after it, although I’m sure that sometime in my future more of those watershed moments will emerge.  It was a Friday evening, and my friends were in the process of coming over for a game of Risk, and I got a phone call that completely changed my life.

Anyone who has lost someone close to them will be familiar with what I experienced in the aftermath of that trauma.  A sense of surreal shock that followed me for months — and the realization, after the shock finally wore off, that I was just starting to grieve.  The intense gratitude to the people who without being asked just helped and understood.  The sarcastic, bitter anger against people who were thoughtlessly unkind.  And the anguish of trying, and failing, to understand.  What was the point, I asked myself, of the 55 years that my father spent striving to learn things and to make a life for himself and for his family, if it was just going to end one afternoon?

Meanwhile, I was trying to go to graduate school and write a dissertation about dead people.  To say that my enthusiasm for the subject had dimmed would be an understatement.  If anything, my grief had increased my appreciation for the living, and I was anxious to spend my energies on connecting with my friends and family who were still with me, lest I lose a minute with any of them.  Let the dead bury the dead — my mother and sister needed me more than Abraham Lincoln did.

But I also wanted to complete my doctoral degree, if only because I felt that the experience had damn near destroyed me, and — stubborn little mule that I am — I refused to let it.  Oh yeah? I wanted to say to my father, to every person who had been hostile or unhelpful, to Death itself, You thought you could derail my plans?  Turn me into a directionless, mopey twenty-something who was too overcome with grief and frustration to succeed?  Well, how do you like me NOW? 

So I tried to find some renewed sense of purpose in my work.  My adviser said to me, “Use your grief to motivate you to be a better historian,” which I at first found to be the most self-indulgent thing I had ever heard.  Oh, great, my father lived and died so I could be a better historian.  I very much doubt that was the Universe’s plan.  And if it was, I am appalled at the Universe.

But, with some distance, I do feel that having experienced such intense grief has made me into a better historian.  For starters, I feel that I have a better grasp of the full range of human emotion, which makes historical actors much more real to me than they used to be.  I used to find people in the past to be pretty hilarious, with their silly ideas and their unreasonable passions, and so often my forays into history were an exercise in amusing myself.  Now, I find myself much better able to empathize with my subjects, to see them as whole people with intense emotions and desires, to grant them mercy for their follies and to love them better for striving.  Life is hard to live and to figure out, then as now, and while it’s easy to judge the people in the past, it’s much harder to try to understand them.

Second, I’ve learned a lot about memory.  Without going into the sordid details, I will say that after my father died there was a great difference of opinion among those who knew him as to what kind of a man he was.  I was shocked to find that others’ memories of my father differed so much from my own — some were inclined to rewrite history so that he had never so much as uttered a cross word (and let me tell you, my ears are still ringing from some of the cross words he uttered at about 150 decibels, following some misadventure committed by my sister or me), and others took the opposite route, struggling to find a single positive attribute in his character (and there were many, especially his sense of humor and generosity).

Before this, I had had difficulty understanding how historical actors had felt so strongly about defending their version of events–really, the Civil War was over, how important could it really be as to whether the South lost because its cause was unjust or because the North had overwhelming numbers?–but I found myself incredibly infuriated and bewildered when someone else suggested that their understanding of my father trumped my own.  You didn’t know him like I did! I wanted to shout.  You weren’t there!  You didn’t see!  How could you think you knew him better than I did?  I would never have thought that such a struggle over memory would have such an effect on me, that I could be so wounded by someone else claiming my father’s memory.  And so I learned something about what motivated people in the past to fight so hard for their own memory of events to triumph in the public sphere — it just seems impossible to let what feels like a lie persist in the thoughts and words of others.  (I’ve gotten better at letting everyone have his or her own memory of my father since then, but it’s not easy).   

I suppose the last thing I’ve learned from grief as a historian is that no matter how small an event may seem, for someone it was a life-changer.  It’s easy sometimes to say, oh, this little skirmish only had three casualties, what’s the big deal?  But those people were someone’s brothers, fathers, sisters, mothers, children, lovers, friends, acquaintances, even future parents.  An event ripples through relationships like a raindrop spreading across an ocean.  And our job as historians is never to lose sight of that humanity.



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Rape and making women invisible

Rehtaeh Parsons

Rehtaeh Parsons

This week there’s been a lot in the news about the suicides of two young women, Audrie Potts and Rehtaeh Parsons.  Both killed themselves after surviving gang rapes, following which their rapists (in both cases, groups of teenage boys) sent around pictures of them naked and unconscious during the attacks.  In Parsons’s case, the police refused to press charges because, according to them, it was a “he said/she said” situation with no objective evidence — if you don’t count pictures of four men raping an unconscious woman as evidence, that is.  (The police reopened the case yesterday after public outcry.)  All this is following the high-profile rape case against two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, who were convicted last month of raping a teenage girl and taking cell phone pictures and video of the attack.

Kids these days.  Always going around raping unconscious people and documenting it for posterity.  The things they get up to!

Bitter humor aside, how I wish that these young women had not decided to take their own lives.  I wish they had not been driven to feel as though their only option was to disappear.

Thinking about it today, it put me in mind of the culture of self-abnegation that surrounds being female today.  In some ways, women constantly are told to do a disappearing act.  For example, the pressure placed on women to be thin.  Not to be healthy, or fit, or even beautiful (although beauty and slenderness seem interchangeable these days), but thin, skinny, malnourished, sickly-looking, impossibly thin.  Runway models with their sunken, blank eyes and their matchstick legs, who are so thin that magazines airbrush the flesh onto their bones to cover up their protruding ribs, look like stretched-out corpses on parade.  The obsession with skinny women is really an obsession with making women take up less and less space, until they are actually gone.  Models look dead because the most attractive woman is one who doesn’t exist.

Don’t eat.  Don’t laugh too loud.  Don’t talk too loud.  Sit with your legs crossed.  Don’t argue.  Shh.  Don’t take up any space in this room, in this conversation, in this culture, in this world.  Slide the opacity meter on your life ever closer to 0%.  Become translucent, then invisible.  Disappear.

And so while I’m glad that these two girls’ deaths have not passed unnoticed, that the injustice they have suffered has brought public scrutiny to the violence women face, I wish I could talk to every young woman survivor and say, don’t do it.  I know this is awful.  I know they have made you feel powerless. I know they have made you feel like an object that exists only for their pleasure and power and mockery.  But don’t surrender to the message that you are the one who has to disappear.  Don’t do their work for them and make the problem that is you and your pesky determination that you matter go away.  Stick around and see justice done.

Make as much noise as you want.  Take up as much space as you want.  Eat what you want and dress how you want and be who you want to be.  Don’t disappear — be bigger and more visible and live life more fully than ever.   End this obsession with women’s death and replace it instead with a fervor for women’s life — life that is equal, happy, fulfilling, and safe.

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Girls’ education and the myth of “culture”

Lately, the news has been filled with horrifying accounts of the terrorist attacks on girls who are trying to get educations in the Middle East.  Every time I read another story about school wells being poisoned in Afghanistan or girls having to attend school secretly under the guise of taking sewing lessons, I get more anxious about the fate of women in the world today.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai

Most prominent among these attacks is the one on Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for promoting girls’ education in Pakistan.  Malala, who at 15 has more courage and integrity in her little finger than can be found in the entire populations of mid-sized cities, has continued to forge ahead in her fight to secure education for women in the Middle East from her hospital bed in England–despite ongoing threats from the Taliban, which says that Malala is a target because she promotes “Western thinking.”

The slippage there between attacking women’s rights under the guise of attacking “Western thinking” makes me wonder to what extent terrorism is really all about controlling women.  Is the real crime of the West, in the eyes of the Taliban and other Islamist extremist groups, our stubborn insistence that women deserve basic human rights?

Reading about these young women reminded me of an article I read a few years back by Mona Eltahawy called Why Do They Hate Us?.  Eltahawy argued that many Westerners have refused to really interrogate the notion that the culture in the Middle East is violently, destructively, and systematically misogynist.  And so, as dictators in the Middle East have been toppled by religious regimes, it is important not to forget that supporting democracy must always, always include supporting rights for women.  And that means it’s not okay to say that hating women and depriving women of rights is part of their “culture” and so we must accept it.

Think about it.  If these governments supported the systematic deprivation of rights for a minority ethnic group, would the international community support it?  Absolutely not.  But sometimes supporting rights for 50% of the population seems to get lost in the shuffle.

Education and human rights go hand in hand.  Outlawing education for oppressed groups is a favorite strategy of tyrants past and present — thus the ban on educating slaves in the pre-Civil War south and the vicious attacks on African Americans attempting to attend public schools and universities up through the 1960s.  Likewise, the oppressed are keenly aware that the first step toward equality is education.  Heather Williams, a professor at UNC (and member of my dissertation committee), has written a fantastic book about former slaves’ quest for education.

Before the Civil Rights movement, many argued that oppressing African Americans through violence and political disfranchisement was just the South’s “culture.”

Culture is not an excuse for denying anyone human rights, full stop.

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Vocational education

The New York Times Sunday Magazine is my favorite part of the New York Times, for its cool stories and excellent puzzles.  I am a great lover of puzzles, and I am not joking when I say that when I finish the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, I rip it out and put it on the fridge.  Because when you are 29 years old there are precious few honors left worthy of putting on the fridge.  I really should take up fingerpainting again.

Anyway.  This Sunday’s magazine was devoted to food and drink.  Food issues are almost always great, but one story in particular struck me — not because of its musings on  delicacies but because of its possibilities for education.

Nicholas Kulish’s article One Tiny German Town, Seven Big Michelin Stars explores the unlikely culinary success of the Black Forest hamlet of Baiersbronn, which despite being in the middle of nowhere and having a population of only 16,000 manages to boast the same number of 3-star restaurants as London and twice as many as Chicago.

Kulish, and the chefs he interviews, chalk this level of mastery up to the German apprenticeship system, which allows students the ability to spend half of their time working in an establishment in the field of their choice and the other half learning in institutes.  The combination of theory and hands-on experience makes for highly-skilled and highly-employable artisan workers.

I’ve often thought about what the U.S. can do to allow workers some middle ground between a bachelor’s degree and technical school.  It seems to me that many smart kids in the U.S. go to college because they don’t know what else to do, and they end up with a B.A. and a mountain of debt and not much more insight into what they really want to do with their lives.  Meanwhile, technical school is reviled as the training ground for grunt workers who couldn’t hack it in “real college.”

I think we should encourage people both to learn marketable skills and to learn the kind of critical reasoning, writing, and general knowledge skills that comes with a bachelor’s — these two tracks shouldn’t have to be divorced from each other.  Maybe I am trying to harken back to some pre-industrial utopia that never existed, but wouldn’t it be nice if there were people who had great, fulfilling day jobs and liked to read great authors and dissect political commentary at night?

I worry that the classes of education as they exist reproduce class inequalities — that you are either a thinking person or a doing person.  In this economy, those strata are widening farther and farther apart, so much so that a plain B.A. doesn’t get you much anymore.  What can we as a country do to close the gaps in educational equality and create job categories that allow workers to be both productive and mentally stimulated?

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Today in history: Marian Anderson sings on the front steps of the Lincoln Memorial

Before there was Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, there was Marian Anderson.  Anderson was a world-renowned contralto who was not permitted to sing in front of an integrated audience at Washington, D.C.’s Constitutional Hall in 1939.

Eleanor Roosevelt, all-time champion of awesomeness in the First Lady department, with the help of her husband what’s-his-name (just kidding!),

Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial

FDR, arranged for Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  A crowd of 75,000 people gathered to listen to her sing in person, and millions more listened on the radio.

This was one of the first actions that helped to cement the Lincoln Memorial (which was completed in 1922) as a key site of protesting racial inequality in the United States.  One thing that strikes me as a historian interested in memory practices and Lincoln is the implication that going to the Lincoln Memorial is like going to a shrine to ask for the intercession of the god of American equality.  It’s both a symbolic and a spiritual gesture.

Today, the National Museum of American History celebrates Anderson’s historic concert.

And, through the magic of YouTube, you can listen to Marian Anderson sing:



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