Review of History of the Upper Guinea Coast by Walter Rodney

WALTER RODNEY. History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800 (Oxford Studies in African Affairs)New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Pp. ix, 283. $7.00.

History of the Upper Guinea Coast is the refurbished dissertation of the late Guyanese historian and political activist, Walter Rodney. Originally written in 1966 for a PhD in African History at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, the text is a chronological/conceptual history of a section of the West African coast (between the Gambia and Cape Mount) from its first contact with Hispano-Portuguese sailors in the mid-fifteenth century until approximately 1800. The book was a response to contemporary scholarship—which Rodney criticized as too scarce and projecting colonial boundaries onto the precolonial past—and a formative work in the “New Orthodoxy” of African History, dedicated to writing the history of Africa for its own merit, “not as an appendage to anything else.” As a work that traces a complex web of coastal African societies from pre-European contact through the early-modern era, History has no rival; it dispels popular misconceptions while offering a nuanced critique of both developing Afro-European commerce and inherent African social hierarchies.

Rodney focuses on a cultural and geographical region known as the “Rivers of Guinea.” This area is much like the Upper Guinea Coast described by John Thornton, except that it excludes the northern region of Senegambia. For sources, Rodney consults archival material in England, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. Although the Dutch and French were significant presences on the coast, Rodney presents them as secondary to Hispano-Portuguese and English activities. These activities are mainly derived from two archives—the Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino in Lisbon and the Public Record Office in London. Rodney combines these with charts [roteiros],registers [registros], and writings from a diverse cast of contemporary Europeans: admirals, explorers, traders, printers, physicians, and missionaries. Among these, Álvares de Almada, Lemos Coelho, Jean-Baptiste Labat, and Nicholas Owen are a few of the most cited.

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Review of The Black Middle by Matthew Restall

MATTHEW RESTALL. The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatan. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. Pp. xviii, 456. $29.95.

cover for The Black Middle

The Black Middle is the twelfth book by the colonial Latin Americanist and current Professor of History, Anthropology, and Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University, Matthew Restall. It is the first work to undertake the history of Africans and people of African descent in Yucatán—a peninsular province of New Spain—during its colonial era, approximately 1541-1829. Borrowing the “black middle” thesis from historians like Philip Morgan, Restall positions “Afro-Yucatecans” as social, economic, and political intermediaries between Mayas and Spaniards. Organized in thematic chapters with engaging historical anecdotes, drawn from extensive research, and packed with tables, maps, notes, and sources, The Black Middle is a path-breaking regional work with profound implications for the greater history of the Caribbean.

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Review of The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness by Paul Gilroy

PAUL GILROY. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992. Pp. xi, 261. $29.50.

The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness CoverThe Black Atlantic is the third book written by the Afro-English sociologist, scholar of literary and cultural studies, and current professor at the University of London, Paul Gilroy. By taking the “Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis,” Gilroy charts the existence of a counterculture to modernity among black intellectuals, activists, writers, speakers, poets, and artists between approximately 1845 and the 1980s. Gilroy positions the hybrid and transnational nature of these figures as a “changing same” that challenges notions of ethnic essentialism, ethnic pluralism, nationalism, and racial purity based in the logic of the Enlightenment and still embedded in the structure of academia.

Although overwritten, far from definitive, and largely subjective in its choice of subjects, The Black Atlantic is a significant theoretical text that recaptures the diasporic multiplicity and the ambivalent perspectives that once stood at the center of the black Atlantic experience.

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Are you Smart Enough for High School History?

As the spring 2014 semester winds down for us Loyola history majors over the course of the next week, I thought that it would be nice to celebrate with something fun, light and easy. For that reason, I am posting on our blog to share with you an interactive website that one of my students at the Howard Area Community Center has recently introduced me to. The site is an online companion to the world history textbook Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources; and it was created by the author and global historian Robert William Strayer.

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Manufacturing Sustainability in the Postindustrial Age

Image of Meiji-Jingu forest on the outskirts of Tokyo

 Ninety years ago, citizens of Tokyo, Japan, asked their government for permission to honor the passing of their imperial leaders by cultivating a sustainable, forest shrine on the outskirts of town. The result was Meiji-jingu, an “eternal forest” of 120,000 trees, planted on 700,000 square meters of previous “marshland, farms, and grassland.” Based upon the Shinto religious belief that natural deities, called Kami, reside within the wood of sacred forests, the shrine was designed to be a paragon of sustainability. But, while the model of Meiji-jingu proves to be sustainable, it is also anything but natural. An examination of literature in the sub-fields of environmental and urban history reinforces this relationship, suggesting that sustainable environments have indeed existed in the past, but that they have suffered as a consequence of failed stewardship during the industrial era.

It is no coincidence that the forest shrine of Meiji-jingu was planned on the outskirts of the most populated city in the world. While the historian David Owen lamented the analogous Central Park because he believed that it constituted an inaccessible border zone where human activity was generally absent, Patricia Garside has argued that sustainable, urban parks serve necessary functions in relation to their respective cities. In examining the Green Belt on the outskirts of London, Garside has claimed that the parks were “above all a strategic planning instrument to limit, or where necessary shape, the expansion of London at a regional scale.” In this sense, urban parks recreated the natural restraints that geography once placed upon island and coastal cities like Venice, Boston, Manhattan, or Miami. As the American historian Michael Rawson contends, scholars cannot understand the development of Boston without first understanding these initial, geographic limitations.

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Situating the WPA, Ex-Slave Narratives in the Historiography of American Slavery

Between 1936 and 1938, approximately 2,194 ex-slaves living in the American south were interviewed by writers and journalists under the auspices of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), one of five “artistic” branches of the greater Works Project Administration (WPA). As historians well know, both of these initiatives were part of the New Deal, a series of domestic programs first enacted in 1933 by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help the United States recover from the Great Depression. Specifically, these five “artistic” programs were called Federal Project Number One, and they were initiated in 1936, during the second phase of the New Deal.

This blog post will situate the WPA ex-slave narratives within the historiography of American slavery, showing how they have been both used and challenged in the past, and suggesting what roles they might play in the future.

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Highlights from the Chicago Metro History Fair, Suburban Regionals

history fair

Official image for the American, academic competition of National History Day, 2014.

On Saturday, March 1, 2014, Niles North High School in the village of Skokie, Illinois, hosted the Suburban Regional Competition for the Chicago Metro History Fair. The top 300 students from nineteen suburban secondary schools came to Niles North in order to present 150 historical projects in the format of poster-board exhibit, research paper, performance, documentary, or website. Emelie and I decided to attend the event as first-time, volunteer judges. After two orientations, the event organizers paired us with a veteran judge and assigned us to Room 2030, where we were tasked with judging a panel of 5 group documentaries. The following blog post is a reflection on that experience.

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Conquering the Organic in Filthy Cities

In 2012, the final episode of the BBC-documentary series Filthy Cities, hosted by the English television presenter Dan Snow, took viewers back “to a seething Manhattan in the throes of the industrial revolution.” Among other things, the only American episode of this three-part series argued that New York was a “nightmare” for the millions of poor emigrants who settled in the Lower Manhattan slum of Five Points in the late nineteenth century.

As Snow recites, New York was one of “the most disgusting and filthy places on earth;” it was a corrupt and frontier city, where immigrants were ruthlessly exploited by plutocratic barons and avaricious landlords, residents were hemmed in by claustrophobic and unhygienic tenement conditions—without access to central heating, running water, or public sewers—and parasitic diseases like typhus and cholera were permitted to reign unabated.

Although the smell, muck, and filth of industrial Manhattan might offend our modern sensibilities, recent scholarship on what American historian Ted Steinberg has called ‘the organic city’ suggests there were some benefits to these nineteenth-century urban environments that Filthy Cities does not explore. By extension, the triumphalist conquest of the unclean city did not come without significant environmental and social consequences.

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