Family, Race, Class, and Assimilation in Chinese America

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Mae Ngai, The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Mae Ngai’s history of the Tape family is a microhistory, focusing on a singular family in order to explore wider transformations in American life during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. While not grounded in argument per se, Ngai’s exploration of several decades of this family nonetheless takes readers through several significant chapters in U.S. history such as the industrialization of California, the Supreme Court case Tape v. Hurley, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 in St. Louis, the destruction of San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1906 by earthquake, and the experience of Chinese immigrants in the wake of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The Tape family was impacted by and navigated these events in ways that illustrate the significance of race and class in American life at the turn of the 20th century.

From the very first, the Tapes were unique Chinese Americans in that Joseph (originally Jeu) and Mary had come to the United States as individuals instead of with a family. Chinese families that immigrated to the U.S. were much more likely to settle in ethnic towns (hence San Francisco’s China Town) than immigrants who came alone. Ngai writes that their paths of assimilation into American ways of life were facilitated by the fact that they largely had to forge their own paths from adolescence upon arrival to the U.S. In his early years in the states, Joseph performed domestic work and drove a milk cart, which allowed him to learn English and interact with many more American people than other young boys his age. Mary was raised in a young girls’ home largely made up of white children, which was where she learned English and became accustomed to American ways of life.

Ngai performs a great deal of speculation in attempting to figure out how Mary came to be placed in such a home. A variety of hypothetical scenarios explore where she came from in China, what ship she disembarked from, her potential for being solicited by brothel-keepers, and her final “rescue” into an orphanage created by the Ladies’ Relief and Protection Society. This is not the only place Ngai speculates throughout the book. In attempting to place the Tape family within the larger context of Chinese America, Ngai becomes distracted from sources specifically pertaining to the Tape family. While the goal itself is admirable and indeed interesting, this piecing together of various aspects of the Chinese immigrant experience often seems forced. Because there is so much available information on the Tape family, the hypothetical seems unnecessary and distracts from the most interesting aspects of the Tapes’ lives.

Throughout the book, Ngai comes back to the idea that “the Tape family was exceptional, yet it was also archetypal of the first Chinese middle class” (223). Their exceptionality is explained within the context that this Chinese middle class, the first one according to Ngai, was very limited in the number of families who achieved it. Perhaps the most interesting exploration of the book is the means by which the Tape family was able to become middle class. Joseph, the patriarch of the family, and his son Frank, balanced their assimilated American identity with their Chinese heritage in order to make a profit. For Joseph, this meant acting as a teamster and broker for Chinese immigrants come to shore in California. For Frank, this meant working with the federal government in exposing Chinese immigrants who had smuggled themselves into the U.S. While Joseph was perhaps more successful in this venture, Frank’s crazy life (Frank is indeed a fascinating character to follow) is very much informed, according to Ngai, by the pressures placed on Frank to be as successful, as American, as his father. This is what connects this book to the study of gender in American society; at its center is the family and the various roles and expectations of different members of the Tape family. Frank’s success was dependent upon making a respectable, middle class living like his father, while the success of his sisters (Mamie, Gertrude, and Emily) was dependent upon them marrying a respectable, middle class man. As Ngai points out, these expectations rarely played out as Joseph and Mary had intended.

What Ngai essentially presents to the public is the story of one family’s journey navigating American life at the turn of the 20th century. Like other families, the Tapes experienced successes, failures, marriage, divorce, vacations, disappointment, and a variety of experiences general to the American middle class. However, the Tapes also combated racial discrimination and stereotypes in a way that most other middle class Americans did not. While a couple of Joseph and Mary’s children became involved in Chinese culture in California, Joseph and Mary themselves were not. They made deliberate decisions not to live in Chinatown and wanted their children to go to an American public school and faced challenges because of these decisions.

As a work of factual history, this book is somewhat ineffective. As a work of story-telling, however, it is compelling while also illuminating some crucial moments in America’s past.

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The Tape family, 1884 (from left to right: Joseph, Emily, Mamie, Frank, and Mary).



Disability and Authorship: Reflecting on a Talk by Susan Schweik

Last week, my colleagues and I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Susan Schweik, Professor of English at UC Berkeley. Titled “Here the Diaries End: or, a Basic Kit to Confront the Human Disposal Authority,” Professor Schweik led us through a brief history of writing about people with disabilities, as well as writing from people with disabilities, since the mid 20th century. As Sarah has already noted, Schweik’s central focus was on May V. Segoe’s publication of the diaries of a man with down syndrome named Paul Scott, which was published in 1964. As Schweik explained, this book was revolutionary in a movement beginning to push for rights for people with disabilities. However, what remained problematic even up through the 1990s was the topic of authorship.

Before delving into the words of Paul Scott, Schweik briefly mentioned several other works by people with disabilities, including Nigel Hunt’s The World of Nigel Hunt: the diary of a Mongoloid Youth (1967); Jason Kingsley and Mitchell Levitz’s Count Us In: Growing up with Down Syndrome (1994); a collection of poems by Gretchen Josephson entitled Bus Girl (1997); and Roland Johnson’s Lost in a Desert World: An Autobiography (1999). Many of these works are problematic in that, in many cases, the actual author’s agency as author has been erased or devalued in various ways. In the case of Nigel Hunt, a foreward written by Lionel Sharples Penrose uses racist and derogatory language that emphasizes Hunt’s disability. In the case of Jason Kingsley and Mitchell Levitz, their authorship becomes erased on the back cover of another book, and I believe it was Bus Girl, which uses a quotation by Kingsley’s mother and gives credit to her as the author of Kingsley and Levitz’s book. Tracing these problems of authorship from the 1990s backward, Schweik brought us back to the publication of Paul Scott’s journals entitled Yesterday was Tuesday, All Day & All Night: The Story of a Unique Education, released in 1964, which only gives credit to May Segoe on its front cover.

For Schweik, and I found for myself as well, the entire framing of this book is problematic. Firstly, it was published more than likely without Scott’s permission after his death. Secondly, he is nowhere on the front cover. Secondly, the title is somewhat misleading, as much of Scott’s diaries concerned his travels with his dad, rather than his educational experiences. Thirdly, the word “unique” in the context of the title is offensive, as it much of Segoe’s introductory remarks and psychoanalysis throughout the book. Much of Schweik’s talk aims to give Scott back his credit as an artist. In her presentation, Schweik related instances of narrative experimentation throughout the book, as well as some excerpts that demonstrate true emotion and deep thought. After being briefly institutionalized at the age of 6, Scott remained in the custody of his father after his parents separated, who brought Scott along for a life of world travel. This is what constitutes the majority of Scott’s writings: reflections on these experiences. After his father’s death, however, Scott was institutionalized again at the age of 43. It is at this point in the book that Segoe writes, “Here the diaries end,” when, in fact, Scott continued to write and create until his death several years after.

For me, one of the best ways to connect this talk with the topic of women or gender studies, is broadening this context to examine issues of authorship for minorities throughout history. As Schweik mentions, not only has authorship been erased for people with disabilities in many cases, but their capabilities as authors have needed to be explained for their audiences through forewards and introductions, even well into the 20th century. I was instantly reminded of works from the 18th and 19th centuries which embraced very similar tactics for the publication of works by women or black authors. White men had been writing prefaces for minorities for centuries. For example, the Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682) contains a lengthy preface explaining that Rowlandson’s desire to publish is not for selfish gain but rather to further the purpose of God. This preface is largely attributed to Puritan minister and political leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Increase Mather, with the intentional purpose of explaining that a woman did indeed write this narrative, and she is not breaking conventional gender norms in the publishing of her narrative. Similarly, many slave narratives published in the 19th century also contain introductions written to prove the merit of the author. This was the case for a preface written by Theodore Pringle (a white man) to The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave. Related By Herself (1831) which aims to verify the factual nature of Prince’s narrative. Even the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself (1845) contains a preface by William Lloyd Garrison (a white man) and letter from Wendell Phillips (another white man) to demonstrate to the public the worth and merit of Douglass as an author specifically, and person more generally. These 20th century narratives from people with disabilities follow a sadly similar line of logic. While women such as May Segoe were now writing prefaces, these prefaces are premised on prejudices that prefaces are necessary for certain people because of who they are.

Schweik’s talk was sad, riveting, and insightful. She demonstrates that academia can have a significant place in advocacy and alliance. For more information on her work, visit her page using this link.


Violent Manifestations of Manliness

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Gail Bederman, Manliness and CivilizationA Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). 

Bederman’s central point throughout Manliness and Civilization is that ideologies about racial hierarchies at the turn of the twentieth century, directly related to hierarchies of civilization, helped shape conceptions of manliness and masculinity in this period. As Bederman explains, Victorian conceptions of what it meant to be a man transformed as the United States became increasingly interested in what it meant to be a civilized versus uncivilized nation. As notions and practices of imperialism began circulating the globe, rationalized by discourse such as Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden,” the U.S. increasingly became interested how it was to stake its claim as a powerful, exemplary civilization. As Bederman explains in her first chapter, a variety of other factors influenced these transformations in definition at the turn of the century: Immigration, industrialization, women in the workforce, and early pushes for women’s suffrage led American men to forge new images of manliness that were meant to reinforce traditional racial and gender social orders. The powerful and strong male body became idealized in contrast to lean, male figures of the Victorian period. These changes were manifested in the emergence of sporting culture (particularly prize fighting), fraternal organizations, boy scouts, and the YMCA. While used fairly interchangeably today, Bederman helpfully defines “manliness” and “masculine” as they would have been conceived of prior to 1900; “manliness” encompassed the good traits of being a man, a person being worthy of being a man, while “masculine” largely referred to all traits, both good and bad, that defined a man’s character and actions.

Applying discourse theory to the writings of Ida B. Wells, G. Stanley Hall, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Theodore Roosevelt, Bederman examines how, for various purposes,  each of these people defined manliness and civilization around the turn of the century. For the sake of this series of blog posts, each of us will tackle a different person. I will be starting off with Ida B. Wells, an African American investigative journalist, anti-lynching activist, founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and women’s rights activist.

Bederman writes that Wells “manipulated dominant middle-class ideas about race, manhood, and civilization in order to force white Americans to address lynching” as a strategy for bringing about reform (46). Wells invoked Victorian notions of manhood that emphasized self-restraint over emotional and violent passions which contrasted sharply with the highly emotional nature of the mob violence that resulted in lynchings. Bederman explains that the prominent myth of the “negro rapist,” which stated that most black men were savages unable to restrain lustful passions, emphasized a fear of black men raping white women. White men, particularly in the south, saw lynchings (the punishing of these passions) as a means of defending their masculinity through their protection of white women’s virtue. While most  sexual relationships between white women and black men that resulted in the lynching of  black men were consensual, these relationships were commandeered by white supremacists to make a larger point about race and the nature of black people.

Wells emphasized that mob violence and lynchings were quite unmanly and quite uncivilized. Her words falling on deaf ears in the U.S., Wells traveled to Britain in the attempt to shame Americans into the punishment and prevention of lynchings. Britain, who welcomed and printed Wells’s arguments about the appalling nature of lynching in the U.S., represented to many Americans the peak of white civilization and thus carried substantial weight for Wells’s points. Her anti-lynching campaign gaining traction in Britain, word began to circulate that various Christian sects in Britain would send missionaries over to the U.S. South that preached against the barbaric practice of lynching. “Missionary,” in this sense, was a loaded term. In this period, missionaries were often sent to more remote, “barbaric,” places of the world to spread the word of God. 

While British influence did influence some states to enact stricter anti-lynching laws, they were largely unenforced, and five years after the British campaign, the U.S. South had moved on to create its own definition of masculinity: if lynching resembled barbarism, that was only because the most manly of men possessed an inner barbarism which manifested itself in sexual and violent urges. Thus, the civilized man still possessed these latent natural, primitive characteristics that were allowed to emerge in extreme and necessary cases. Bederman explains that this ideal of the “natural man” whose breast swelled with power and virility became the masculine norm in the 1890s, in part owing to Wells’ invocation of the primitive as unmanly and uncivilized. This transformation illustrates Bederman’s point that manliness and masculinity were framed in terms of society’s needs. The “natural man” emerged out of justification for the violence of lynchings, and so the practice continued on well into the 20th century.

After this transformation, Wells changed tactics and became much more focused on building systems of support for black men who, fleeing the dangers of the south, found themselves excluded from many white organizations (such as the YMCA and settlement houses) and were therefore more prone to residing in areas with higher crime rates and sites of vice (such as gambling and prostitution). Bederman explains that while Wells continued her involvement in women’s rights efforts, Wells saw this this support system as important in changing white notions of black inferiority and incompetence.

Bederman’s discussion on Ida B. Wells is refreshing for those who have heard of or studied Wells before. Emphasizing Wells’s strategic discourse on manliness and civilization to combat lynching, Bederman highlights Wells’s keen understanding of race and gender politics at the turn of the century.

A Woman’s Life in Progressive Times

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Kathryn Kish Sklar, Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work: The Rise of Women’s Political Culture, 1830-1900 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

My first reaction to reading Kathryn Kish Sklar’s Florence Kelley & the Nation’s Work was to question why I had not come across her name before as a significant participant in women’s contributions to Progressive Era reforms. I was quite shocked that Florence Kelley was an acquaintance of some of the most famous names of the nineteenth into twentieth centuries: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Engels, Jane Addams, Samuel Gompers, Lucretia Mott, and others. Not only had Kelley worked among these people, but Kelley herself, as argued by Sklar, was instrumental to emergent labor protections for the working class, protections that helped shape the world we live in today. While mainly focused on the welfare of children and women, Kelley’s fight for shorter working hours and better working conditions also affected men in the working class as well. Furthermore, she was one of the first women on a state government’s payroll as chief factory inspector under radical Illinois governor John P. Altgeld.

This book, and therefore Sklar herself, clearly celebrates Kelley’s work as instrumental to these larger movements of the Progressive Era, raising Kelley out of obscurity. Because of Kelley’s participation in these much larger societal and political movements, she is an excellent figure around which to chronologically explore this time period of increasing industrialization, urbanization, and capitalist exploitation. Kelley’s life provides the frame for Sklar’s exploration of the years from 1830 to 1900. Covering this span of time, Sklar traces Kelley’s life from childhood into adulthood. Owing, in part, to her father’s status as a congressman and her aunt’s role in the early women’s rights and abolition movements, Kelley found herself more exposed at a young age to social injustices than many other middle class women of her time. Having traveled with her father, William Kelley, all over the country and see the daily lives of America’s working class, Kelley grew into an impassioned young woman, ready to make a difference.

Throughout her life, Kelley held onto these early influences. Kelley used her privileged upbringing to earn an undergraduate degree at Cornell, her senior thesis an early contribution to the emerging field of Social Studies and Social Sciences. Continuing her education in Europe, Kelley found herself converted to socialism and married a Jewish medical student named Lazare Wischnewetzky. After returning to New York a couple children later, Kelley encountered little work or marriage happiness. After separating from Lazare, who became abusive, Kelley uprooted to Chicago, where she became increasingly involved in Jane Addams’ Hull House and the city’s labor politics, which led her to her prominent inspector position under Altgeld. Sklar concludes this volume right before Kelley’s momentous move back to New York where she was offered the position of secretary for the recently-formed National Consumers’ League, headquartered in New York.

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Above: Hull House Settlement, c. 1920,

Covering seventy years of social and political movements for reform in the U.S., this book is quite dense for a biography (especially when considering this is only Part One). However, the benefit in this approach is that Sklar is able to not only demonstrate the significance of a single person, but place that person occupies within the context of major changes to American society in this time. Furthermore, by tracing Kelley’s experiences in Europe, Sklar is also able to examine labor reform and class ideologies within a more global context. In order to argue for Kelley’s significance for American history, Sklar places Kelley at the center of her narrative as a woman who not only surrounded herself with prominent Progressives, but helped enact quite significant Progressive reforms herself.

Buying Love in the Early Twentieth Century

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Elizabeth Alice Clement, Love for Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City, 1900-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

While most definitely a book for the academic community, Clement’s exposition of the fine lines between courting, prostitution, and dating culture that emerges in the first half of the twentieth century is a subject that could definitely appeal to a much wider audience. With superb organization and narrative structure, Clement provides a convincing argument for the rise and fall of prostitution and the transformation of sexual norms in the United States, using New York City as a case study. For Clement, World Wars I and II were instrumental to shaping our modern conceptions and experiences of the dating world.

Building on the work of Kathy Peiss and other historians, Clement expands her exploration of NYC’s sex scene to delve deeper into the economic and social implications of prostitution and “treating,” a practice that emerged in the 1890s as a means for young, working class women to involve themselves in the expanding consumer and entertainment market. Clement argues that because working class women were paid less than working class men their age, and most of their earnings contributed to their families’ incomes, these “treating” or “charity” girls formulated acknowledged understandings with young men that the men would take young women out to dance halls, the theater, dinner, or other newly-emerging activities; pay for the night’s amusements; and the young women would repay with a wide variety of sexual acts ranging from kissing to actual intercourse. What distinguished these women from prostitutes, in both their own minds and that of the public, was that charity girls did not accept cash. Thus, through this distinction, they maintained a sense of social respectability while still having economic access to an explosion of “cheap amusements” (borrowed from the title of Kathy Peiss’s book) that emerged in this period.

Clement demonstrates that the U.S. Military Department’s attempts to curtail prostitution in both World Wars, as well as the exploding, legal industry in sex entertainment, led to a significant decrease in prostitution and rise in treating. During the span of WWI alone, 30,000 prostitutes were arrested and sentenced for longer jail times (up to years) in order for them to be treated for STDs such as syphilis and gonorrhea, the main culprits in damaging the productivity of American troops. Treating became more popular as an expression of patriotism in which young women boosted the morale of young soldiers being sent off to both wars. This expansion of treating among the working class, particularly after WWI, became subsumed into the language of “dating,” a new term that described couples going out in public with someone who was only a potential candidate for marriage. Treating also transitioned into the world of dating, as more young men and women began engaging in sexual activity prior not only to marriage, but engagement as well; Clement claims, based on surveys from the time, that by the start of WWII, 50% of American women were having premarital sex. Clement writes that through their observations of treating culture in dance halls, middle class men began to adopt the practice, and the concept of dating expanded into middle class relationships as well. In this period, Clement further argues, sexual power dynamics shifted in favor of young men; though the terminology of treating had faded, the expectations for women to repay their dates with sexual favors was still perpetuated for newer generations of young people.

For me, the narrative described above was the most enlightening and relevant for understanding dating culture and sexual norms today. However, she makes so many other fascinating points about the transformation of prostitution, as well as interplay of race and ethnicity. She describes the rise of pimping coinciding with organized crime, and the revival of brothels in connection with WWI and prohibition. As independent prostitutes were being jailed more and more frequently after WWI, they felt the need to seek protection from the police and legal repercussions. Another fascinating aspect of Clement’s study is her analysis that children of immigrants and African Americans were were likely to engage in treating or prostitution simply because their economic opportunities were much more limited that those of poor whites in the city. Increasingly concerned with “American” norms for courting outside of the home, many immigrants were concerned with their children marrying across ethnic and religious lines.

While there is so much more I would like to say about this book, I will simply just have to recommend it as a fascinating read with so much significance for our lives today, particularly as Americans navigate the dating world of assumptions and confusion. Why are men expected to pay at least for the first date or few? Clement provides important historical context for that question.


Covertly to Overtly Political Women for the Lost Cause

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Caroline E. Janney, Burying the Dead but not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations & the Lost Cause (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

Caroline E. Janney’s study on women’s Memorial Associations in the nineteenth century is an eye-opening and intriguing perspective on the origins of the American South’s Lost Cause. Fundamentally, Janney argues that the Lost Cause was initially orchestrated and perpetuated by upper middle class and elite southern women’s volunteer associations in the wake of the Civil War. Janney explores the chronological transformation of Ladies Memorial Associations (LMAS) across the South in their struggle to honor their dead, safeguard the memory of the Confederacy, and maintain their own political autonomy. In Janney’s view, these women’s struggles to reinter Confederate bodies, as well as erect monuments, memorials, and museums to Confederate soldiers and culture, are representative of larger women’s movements across the country. While the LMAS were not as progressive as many of their northern contemporaries, they nonetheless were fighting to be respected as crucial citizens of southern society. While not commending them for their motivations and ideologies, Janney gives these southern women credit where credit is due: Elite, white supremacist women helped promote the Lost Cause of the Confederate south, a movement which has repercussions into today.

Janney argues that the origins of LMAS lie in women’s dedication to, and support of, the Confederate cause during the Civil War. Their organizational efforts and help of all sorts (sewing clothing and uniforms, boycotting northern goods, and aiding wounded soldiers as nurses) gave elite, white women a purpose that extended from the larger development of women’s volunteer associations across the country. After the war, LMAS developed as a means for women to continue to prove their importance in society. In Virginia alone, the main focus of Janney’s study, women of LMAS reinterred 28 percent of the Confederate dead who were reburied in Confederate cemeteries. Building networks across all southern states and appealing to state legislatures to raise funds and support, LMAS were initially concerned with bringing the bodies and remains of dead Confederates back down south for reburial in Confederate cemeteries, as well as honoring the dead. LMAS built for themselves a reputation for holding Memorial Day celebrations of massive turnouts to recognize the sacrifices of Confederate men who had died for the cause. Janney makes the crucial point that these celebrations were promoted during Radical Reconstruction as women’s work, as emotional celebrations and mourning for lost loved ones, rather than masculine acts of political defiance. Women took up the cry of the Confederate cause, and were supported by men, to help disguise the continuation of Confederate feeling circulating in the south.

The goals of LMAS shifted after the end of Reconstruction to include the commemoration of the Confederacy at large as white women faced opposition from male and veterans’ associations who were aiming to take over the space that LMAS had carved for themselves in southern society. No longer under threat of federal military occupation, more men were willing to take up the Lost Cause and commemorative responsibilities. LMAS women remained determined not to fall to the wayside and promoted themselves as the original and crucial protectors of Confederate memory, angered over “Northern aggression” and their new problem of freedmen in the south. Women ran into struggles with men, and ex-general Jubal Early in particular, over where certain generals should be buried and where monuments in their honor should be erected. Janney relates that gender differences factored strongly in these arguments as women were struggling for political clout in a world where their men were reunifying with northern veterans over shared experiences of war, and the women feared losing their influence. Of particular significance to these women was ensuring that the Lost Cause was to be remembered by future generations. For this purpose, the Hollywood Memorial Association of Virginia saved the Confederate White House from being demolished, repaired it, and transformed it into the Confederate Museum at the end of the nineteenth century. This museum, as well control over school curriculum and the founding of youth associations, gave LMAS a hold over the continuing memory of the Confederacy.

Janney explains that LMAS women maintained significance into the twentieth century, though waned in mid twentieth century due to the influence and national, hierarchical structure of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) founded in 1894. Eventually, many local LMAS groups gathered together to form the Confederated Southern Memorial Association. While the two organizations worked together on many projects, LMAS simply could not keep membership up compared to the UDC who continued to promote Memorial Day celebrations, youth programs, and ideologies of white supremacy and the Lost Cause.

Janney’s epilogue serves to remind readers that the work of the LMAS lives on today, both in living memory of the American South, and in its physical structures. The Confederate Museum is currently in operation as part of the American Civil War Museum. Now called the Museum and White House of the Confederacy, the museum’s original goals of memorializing the Old South and ideals of the Confederacy have transformed to become more educational and inclusive of all southern people’s experiences during the war. Janney mentions that there has even been talk about dropping the word “Confederacy” from the museum’s name due to the racist connotations of the term.

Overall, this book is important and thoroughly enlightening. Janney’s purpose is not to bash or celebrate the Lost Cause, but rather explain that its origins are far more specific than many historians have previously discussed. Furthermore, while women are the central characters of Janney’s book, they are certainly not its heroes. Women of the LMAS were racist, privileged, and have helped perpetuate the idea the Civil War was not fought over the issue of slavery. Despite this, Janney explains that these women were important because they stretched the political boundaries in their confined spheres of influence. While they did not help earn the vote for women, they helped expand the public roles of women in the south dramatically.

Racial and Sexual sins in Antebellum New Orleans

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Fundamentally, The Strange History of the American Quadroon  aims to debunk the mythological, hyper-sexualized representations of female quadroons of popular historical sources. In doing so, she explains how the attraction of the quadroon transformed New Orleans into a place of the exotic “other,” resulting in the tourist-centered culture that the city is today. Cementing Clark’s arguments is the newly-formed black republic of Haiti, whose refugees introduced over 1,000 free blacks to the city and caused a demographic imbalance of free black men and women for the city’s marriage market. Clark argues that these free women of color, who emigrated from Haiti with few resources, informed the stereotype of quadroons as fortune hunters who were inspired by their mothers to become the concubines of rich, white men. This book, finally recovering the lives of free black women in New Orleans from their pervasive literary exploitation, powerfully changes the ways in which the general public and academics conceptualize issues of race and sex in American history.

Clark first traces the origins of the quadroon to early national Philadelphia. Political concerns reflected conflicting ideologies between merchant and elite classes, influenced by the city’s commercial ties to Saint-Domingue. Philadelphia, the largest port city at the end of the eighteenth century, saw an influx of around 2,000 refugees from Saint-Domingue in the 1790s as a result of the French and Haitian Revolutions. The term quadroon became an epithet of promiscuity intertwined with political and social anxieties over commercial interests and racial equality. Clark’s connection between Philadelphia and New Orleans rests upon her argument that fears of interracial violence and black rebellion, expressed most potently in the political and commercial capital of Philadelphia, became assuaged with the emigration of 9,000 Haitian refugees from Cuba to New Orleans in 1809. The Haitian quadroon abated fears of black insurrection because she was socially and sexually conquered by white masculinity. This argument, though backed by the fact that free black male refugees were not allowed into the city, is not satisfactory in light of the preventative laws passed in the United States in order to curb slave rebellions, which continued to occur throughout the early nineteenth century.

Clark’s most striking arguments describe the varied experiences of quadroon women of New Orleans, proposing that economic disadvantages upon arrival to New Orleans, as well as civil codes barring interracial marriage, led many emigrant quadroons to become the ménagère, or housewife, of white men of middling business and elite classes. This Haitian practice allowed free black and mixed race women to exercise autonomy of self and household; in public depictions, this practice became equated to the plaçage complex (a 20th century term) in which quadroons “were imagined as romantically tragic kept women” who were “dependent and defenseless” in their largely transient relationships with men who would go on to marry white women instead (66). In reality, Clark explains, many white men (whom she terms “bachelor patriarchs”) established long-lasting and exclusive relationships with quadroons, acknowledged parentage of their children, and lived with them as almost-normal families. However, many other free black women of mixed parentage became prostitutes or were sold as sex slaves in markets that helped romanticize quadroons as exotic and sexually alluring as New Orleans became increasingly marketed as a site of sex tourism.

Though her chapters are organized thematically, Clark traces the transformation of the quadroon, and therefore the culture of New Orleans, from the late eighteenth century through the nineteenth century. The quadroon ball, in particular, and its depictions in literature demonstrate the degradation and exploitation of mixed race women for the pleasure and entertainment of white men from all over the country. Women who once publicly courted the upper class in the antebellum period were increasingly put on show for the rabble and sold as tourist attractions in the postbellum period. Fundamental to this transformation were the popularized accounts, often hearsay, of the quadroon as an orientalized, seductive, lavish, or tragic character particular to the scapegoated city of New Orleans, a site that represented the racial and sexual sins of the rest of the country. Clark explores the travel narratives, abolition literatures, novels, and sociological discourses published by Karl Bernhard, Lydia Maria Child, Joseph Holt Ingraham, and Harriet Martineau, respectively, which perpetuated these mythologies. However, Clark also brings forward letters, baptismal records, marriage licenses, and wills from the New Orleans archives which alter this strange history of the American quadroon and the Crescent City. Contrasting these sources, Clark’s book powerfully proves the consequences of shifting the nastier bits of America’s past onto certain people and certain places.