Reflections on Reflections on The Notion Of Family


By Omar H. Ali, Ph.D.

I first saw images of Latoya Ruby Frazier’s riveting book of photographs, The Notion Of Family, in an NPR article about six months ago entitled “A Rust Belt Story Retold…” I wasn’t sure what to make of the images, as they felt a little distant at the time, despite my being familiar–as a historian of black labor and politics–with some of the history of those communities living “in the shadow” of Carnegie steel mills.

And then, this week, after receiving and reading through Latoya’s book, I read the reviews and commentaries by Michelle McCleary and Dr. Jessie Fields, among others, on P4P.

I’m not sure which impacted me more–the book or the commentaries. This is not to detract from Latoya’s truly extraordinary book (few artists capture, which such honest detail, poor people’s lives by poor and working people themselves–making their stories their own). But reading through the snippets of Michelle and Jessie’s lives as part of their reflections made the images in the book feel closer.

You see, I know Michelle and Jessie. They are two of my long-time political colleagues–extraordinary women–who have spent many years building an independent political movement in the United States to empower ordinary people, poor people, the outsiders, the forgotten, the survivors. I don’t know Latoya. But Michelle and Jessie are helping me to better understand her work.

While each of their experiences are different from the other’s, there are similarities in their experiences and the roles that women played in each of their lives–their mom’s, grandmothers, aunts, or great aunts–in helping each of them thrive.

Michelle writes, “I had come to realize that the feelings of pain and shame that I and millions of people experienced were manufactured and NOT in our heads nor were our fault.  Those manufactured feelings were designed to keep us in our place.”

I then see one of Latoya’s photographs …

The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier Pg 131, Aunt Midgie and Grandma Ruby, 2007

The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier Pg 131, Aunt Midgie and Grandma Ruby, 2007

And I hear (read) Jessie’s words “Ordinary people, though poor and abused are leading and fighting.” Part of that leading is giving expression to the plight of the voiceless, nameless, and unseen–here voiced, named, and seen through new performances.

Thank you, LaToya, for your book of photographs; thank you Michelle and Jessie, for your beautiful, painful, and moving words; thank you, Cathy, for giving us P4P and a space to reflect and support those who “stand in the rubble and fight,” as Jessie poetically writes, as Michelle explains, and as Latoya photographs.

Omar H. Ali, Ph.D., selected as the 2016 Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year in North Carolina, is a historian and community organizer who teaches black labor and political history at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. E-mail: 
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Politics for the People Conference Call

With LaToya Ruby Frazier

Sunday, December 6th at 7 pm EST


641 715-3605

Code 767775#

Into the Forest, Out of the Woods

Thoughts on Eric Foner’s

Gateway to Freedom

By Omar H. Ali

As I write these words, having just put my two small children to bed, I think about the privilege that my little family and I have of simply being together, safely, with shelter, without fear of being separated from each other. Less than twenty yards from where I type these words–in the warm and loving comfort of our home–begins the backside of Guilford Forest, a wide sheltering space used during the 19th century by fugitive slaves to find safety, at least temporarily, in what was the southern terminus of the Underground Railroad.

Here, in the very space carved out on the edge of the 250 acres of remaining forest of once anti-slavery Quaker-held land in Greensboro, North Carolina, enslaved African Americans made the decision to run for their lives. Many sought protection in these woods–maroons digging caves for shelter, foraging to sustain themselves–in order not to be separated from loved ones upon hearing news that they themselves were going to be sold away, sometimes into the deep South, where escape was even more difficult. Others, meanwhile, ran into the woods with the hopes of gaining their liberty by starting on their long and arduous journey northwards, towards freedom.

It is with the background of the trees that cast their shadows under the moonlit sky behind me that I think about the ways in which we, as people, have connected with each other during some of the most difficult times, under some of the most difficult circumstances, and over some of the greatest distances. One of those times was the mid-19th century when legalized slavery existed in the nation and nearly four million African Americans were enslaved across the land. How people connected with each other to survive enslavement, escaped it, or worked together with others to undermine it, is a story of epic proportions.

While there have been many books written about the Underground Railroad and its great abolitionist heroes and heroines–Maryland’s Harriet Tubman, North Carolina’s Levi Coffin, and New York’s Jermain Loguen, among others far more courageous than I can only begin to imagine–the discovery of a new primary source, a manuscript entitled “Record of Fugitives,” a first-hand account of events in 1855 and 1856 by the New York City-based journalist and railroad operative Sydney Howard Gay, offers critical new insight.

Based on this document, and many others, Pulitizer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner reveals the ‘hidden history’ of the people–black and white–who created and used the series of local networks along the eastern seaboard of the United States stretching from the Upper South through Upstate New York in his latest book Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.


As Foner notes in an excellent interview on NPR much of the information we have about the Underground Railroad (specifically, the Eastern Underground Railroad) comes from accounts that took place decades after the events–by which time many details were forgotten and possible embellishments were infused into memoirs. By contrast, Gay’s document gives us the voices of the men and women who came through his office and described in detail the things they had just been through, the people they met, and who they were themselves.

 Among the people Foner helps to reveal in his book (via Gay but in conjunction with a Baltimore Sun escaped slave advertisement)–and who I can’t stop thinking about as I check on my little ones near me–is Emiline Chaplin, a twenty-six year old fugitive slave, a slender woman of dark complexion, a mother and a daughter, with a slight stammer, perhaps still shaken, who, with extraordinary courage, grit, and determination, managed to escape with her two small children …


There is much to be said about the rich and evocative history that Foner presents to us–the ways in which people escaped by carriage, by boat, by foot, and sometimes by train, under the most difficult conditions, the important role of the New York Vigilance Committee in helping fugitive slaves in the 1830s, the fears and joys that people expressed about their journeys, such as the elation of Henry “Box” Brown upon his dramatic emergence from the wooden crate he had daringly placed himself into, and the tenacity of both those who escaped and those who helped them escape, from black sailors and dockworkers to white Quakers and other anti-slavery activists.

For me, the story of the Underground Railroad somehow became much more personal in reading Gateway to Freedom. On many levels the book is personal, as its author, Foner, is one of my dearest professors, who supervised my doctoral dissertation on the Black Populists over a dozen years ago at Columbia University and taught me not only the historian’s craft but, as importantly, the craft of teaching. But the book is also personal in that Foner brings out that which is hidden and helps to connect many voices, people, and their efforts into a seamless whole–even acknowledging how so much of the Underground Railroad networks were disparate. Lastly, the book is personal in that it connects me to the efforts of people, then and now, who tried and try to make social change in the best ways we know how–with courage, compassion, and creativity, knowing that we are part of a much larger history.


In reading this book, I feel close to all of these extraordinary women and men, to Professor Foner, Emiline Chaplin and her children, and to the great woods that connect me to all of us.

Dr. Omar Ali was recently appointed the Interim Dean of the Lloyd International Honors College at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  He serves on the Board of Directors of

Omar Ali touring the Guilford Forest with students from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Quaker scholar Max Carter.  November 2014

Omar Ali touring the Guilford Forest with students from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Quaker scholar Max Carter. November 2014

On Becoming and I Am Abraham

Omar H. Ali

It seems to me that we are always becoming something other than who we are. Sometimes our transformations are infinitesimal, unnoticeable, unremarkable; sometimes they are large, upsetting, dramatic, and bold–to ourselves and others.

Abraham Lincoln, like so many ordinary-people-made-extraordinary by the circumstances into which they came and the multiple actions they and others took, became different things to different peoplejust as you who are reading this are becoming different things to different people.

In the complex, public, and private, mix-of-things during mid-nineteenth century America, Lincoln grew–and continues to grow (as our understanding of the ‘past’ and people in the past is shaped by what we’ve done since and do now).

We know of Lincoln’s political development from historical works, such as Eric Foner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which documents Lincoln’s transformation in part through the pressures (viz. leadership) of African Americans who pressed him to move in the direction of Emancipation.

Dr. Omar Ali (l) and North Carolina Independents on Primary Day 2014

Dr. Omar Ali (l) and North Carolina Independents on Primary Day 2014

While the larger contours of Lincoln’s political development from his earliest to final days are generally known–some, like the historian Paul Finkelman, might argue that Lincoln’s anti-slavery sentiments were always there but were simply revealed over time–the subjectivity of his transformations are less known (he did not keep a personal diary of his reflections). In other words, the ways in which he thought about the things he was creating and going through, the emotional part of his life, are less known from what documentary evidence exists. This is where novels–here, historical fiction–help.

Even as novels entertain and help us create other spaces and emotions, some familiar, others less so, they also have a functional purpose that can, I believe, help us all better understand not necessarily them, but us. In novels, where expressed subjectivity is essential, the voices of authors come through, becoming revealed with turns of phrases, pages, and the intimate subjects that they choose to explore.

This is what we have in what is an exquisitely written fictional account of Lincoln (in the first person) over the course of three and a half decades: I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War by Jerome Charyn, a master wordsmith, a poet of prose.

As I wrote in an earlier post for P4P, the line between History (i.e. Fact) and Fiction, is often not clear; I argue that the lines between each genre are perhaps best understood as blurred–that to think of a sharp distinction between one and the other takes away from what each gives us.

Charyn’s novel is a literary feast, giving us insight (perhaps, or perhaps not) into Lincoln’s subjective experience of surviving and becoming. As much as it is about Lincoln, it is about the author, but by extension, by our reading it, it is about us.

Omar H. Ali, Ph.D., is a historian and community organizer in Greensboro, North Carolina, who is helping to lead the Southern regional delegation of independents to the 2015 national conference of independents by in New York City on March 14th. E-mail:


P4P Conference Call

With Jerome Charyn

 Sunday, February 15th, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#

Collective Meaning Making, A Review by Dr. Omar Ali

Words mean different things depending upon their context. That’s why it’s perfectly ok for someone to say “fire!” on stage as part of a theater production, but a crime if it’s done while sitting in the audience (that is, if there really isn’t a fire!). The question of context is important in understanding historical documents, and yet philosopher Danielle Allen boldly asserts through her new book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality that the Declaration of Independence may be understood by anyone–that is, if read slowly and with a little help, as with her adult students who were riveted by the text. No experts required.

The ‘little help’ is the key, and gets at a larger question about who owns what and for what purpose. What if ideas are not to be thought of as being any one person’s but something to played and created with? What if Thomas Jefferson’s words, or your friend, or your aunt’s, are as much yours as theirs to play, to have, to make and re-make what we will? That is, what if there wasn’t owning of anything but rather, and simply, activities that we do together?

This is what strikes me about Our Declaration–that is, beyond the wonderful explanations and anecdotes: the invitation to collectively make meaning of the long-cherished document.

Dr. Omar Ali

Dr. Omar Ali

One of the many things we human beings do together is create meaning. We create meaning in social ways; sometimes this is done to liberate; at other times, it is done to control. An obvious case of words used for control is the word ‘race,’ a preoccupation of the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, the Virginian slave master whose words we continue to read and repeat today.

Prior to the eighteenth century the word ‘race’ was used as ‘lineage’ or ‘tribe’ to distinguish between different people’s cultures, locations, or other learned characteristics (for instance, religion or language–the Romans had ‘citizens’ versus ‘barbarians,’ the Zuni had ‘winter’ versus ‘summer’ people). But starting in the eighteenth century ‘race’ began to serve a political function, to rationalize the enslavement of Africans in the face of ‘natural rights’ (individual liberty), including Jefferson’s own words.

With the advent of scientific racism, started in no small part in the U.S. by Jefferson, as articulated in his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1785, it became something to be viewed as innate (not learned)–that there were some people who were innately superior over others. As Jefferson wrote in his Notes: “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made” [emphasis added].

In recent decades genetics has shown that there are no biologically distinct races among humans; we are a single species, and yet, race continues to be viewed as something fundamental–a biological category (as if there actually are, for instance, ‘Caucasians’ in some scientific sense). Race is a social and political construct.

One need only point to the fact that racial classification has officially changed no less than twenty-four times since 1790, when the first U.S. census was taken. Moreover, race was variable at any single point of time across the nation. What constituted ‘black’ in one state changed when entering another state. For instance, Virginia defined someone as black if they were ‘one-sixteenth’ African ancestry; Florida defined black as someone with ‘one-eighth’ African ancestry; while Alabama law made anyone ‘black’ who had any known African ancestry. In this way, and so clearly, race, like other words–slavery, freedom, and Allen’s favorite, equality–is a function of power.

Allen is philosophical in her articulation of the accessibility of the Declaration of Independence; and it is the very thing that The New York Times book reviewer and Yale political science professor Steven Smith objects to (the question of whose interpretation of the document is being made) that I appreciate most about her book–her embracing of collective meaning-making by ordinary people, among others. Hers is a movingly egalitarian, democratic interpretation. Smith, however, disparagingly writes:

“Whose Declaration is being described here — Jefferson’s, Allen’s or, as the title suggests, that of our collectivity as a people? Allen’s passion for each of the Declaration‘s 1,337 words is admirable. Yet when she writes that its equality clause stands at the foundation of an ‘egalitarian cultivation of collective intelligence’ and a ‘co-ownership of a shared world,’ her analysis veers away from careful reading into the domain of wishful thinking … Allen’s case for a more robustly egalitarian Declaration makes her book timely, but that doesn’t make it true.”

Jefferson, like Allen, was a philosopher. Another philosopher, the late Fred Newman, whose democratic sensibilities I think Allen would have appreciated, used to talk about the destructiveness of truth-claims (as in assertions by those with authority) in terms of human development. Related to this, Newman also spoke of our ability to change the past–that is, to change the meaning of the past. He used the analogy of a rope as history: holding a rope on one end and gently moving it up and down, one changes what’s down the line–that is, what’s in ‘the past.’

The same rope, it seems, can bind us, and it can also free us. Like any other tool it can be used in countless ways. What we do with it, as a tool, as a metaphor, depends on … what we do with it–the ‘we’ being both what we’ve learned is possible, but also what we create together.

The Declaration of Independence, the quintessential tool/ expression/document of Americans (and others who draw upon its powerful language across the world), is subject to interpretation (a form of meaning-making).  As Allen writes, “The achievement of political equality requires, among other things, the empowerment of human beings as language-using creatures.” We, too, can (and do), in our own ways, make meaning of the Declaration of Independence, just as we can (and do) make meaning of everything else.

Allen’s book is a way into this collective meaning-making of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” in our own times, and in our own contexts; it is also, through the activity of P4P, fuel for the independent movement-becoming. Fire! my friends. Fire!

Omar H. Ali, a co-founder of North Carolina Independents, is a historian at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Director of Community Play!/All Stars Project Greensboro. He may be reached at



Book Club Conference Call with Danielle Allen

Sunday, October 19th at 7 pm EST

Call in number 805 399-1200, access code 767775#

Highlights from Book Club Conversation with Isabel Wilkerson

Many thanks to Isabel Wilkerson for joining us on the Politics for the People conference call this past Sunday!  We had an energizing, rich and thought provoking conversation about The Warmth of Other Suns.  You can listen to the full call at the end of this post.  (Note: if the links do not appear in the email version of this post, just click on the email to come to the blog.)

I wanted to share three sections of our conversation.  I hope they will inspire you to listen to the full call.  The first clip is my introduction of Isabel and our opening conversation.

Isabel Wilkerson (l) and Cathy Stewart

Isabel Wilkerson (l) and Cathy Stewart


In my opening question to Isabel, I asked her to talk some about her 15 year process and how she selected Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster to be the central characters through which we experience the Great Migration.

She conducted an extensive interview process, meeting people at AARP meetings, senior centers, clubs, etc and shared that she selected these three people

“…who together compliment one another so well.  You get a sense of the socioeconomic differences between them, you get a sense of the different circumstances under which they left and more importantly you get a chance to, hopefully fall in love with people, or get to know these people who were flawed in human, deeply human ways but did a very brave thing. In that way, I think they are people anyone can relate to.”


Jessie Fields

Dr. Jessie Fields

As Politics for the People blog readers know, Dr. Jessie Fields has been keeping copies of The Warmth of Other Suns at her office in Harlem to share with her patients, as many of them were participants in the Great Migration.  Below is Jessie and Isabel’s back and forth from the call.



Jessie asked Isabel the following question– “It seems to me that entrenched poverty and social isolation in the inner city have become the new Jim Crow. And that there are still great journeys for the country as a whole to make for African Americans to fully enter the mainstream of America and your book, the Warmth of Other Suns, can help us all to make those new journeys together.  What do you hope people will discover and take away from the book that can be of help for the challenges that we face today?”

In her response Isabel said,

“…one of the things that I had hoped would come out of this book is that people would discover by experiencing both the hardships, the heartbreak, the courage and the fortitude of the people in the Great Migration, they would also see and connect with the fortitude and the heartbreak and all that went before them that their ancestors may have experienced if they came from other migration streams.  And that they would also see that ultimately we all have so much more in common that we have been led to believe.  That means that if you can cut through the divisions and the socioeconomic larger forces that have torn people apart in this country…all of these forces, the larger caste system as I describe it in the South and also a caste system that formed in the North, particularly after the migration was underway.  These divisions separated us in ways that we have yet to recover from.  In fact, maybe never have actually truly dealt with.  I would hope that people could see one another in these stories….”


Dr. Omar Ali

Dr. Omar Ali

Dr. Omar Ali joined the call from Columbia in South America, where he is vacationing with his family.  Give a listen to his exchange with Isabel exploring the similar experiences of participants in the Great Migration and other immigrants to the United States and also the unique experience of the African American community.

Two comments Isabel made in this part of our conversation stand out for me:

“The common experience that all poor and underprivileged migrants experience is first arriving and being seen as the other, arriving adn being resented and feared upon arrival.  Also coming in with the same desires, hopes and dreams of making it it in this new alien place….Around the world there is a turning against, a fear of people who are immigrating….” On the unique experience of the African American community and the Great Migration: This was “…the only group of people who actually had to act like immigrants to be recognized as citizens in their own country…. These were not people relocating from one job to another.  These people were actually seeking political asylum within the borders of their own country….”

For those of you who would like to pull up a chair and listen to our full conversation with Isabel, here it is!  Enjoy.

In closing, I want to share what the judges of the Lynton History prize wrote about The Warmth of Other Suns:

“Wilkerson has created a brilliant and innovative paradox: the intimate epic…. In powerful, lyrical prose that combines the historian’s rigor with the novelist’s empathy, Wilkerson’s book changes our understanding of the Great Migration and indeed of the modern United States”

The Politics for the People book club certainly agree!


STAY TUNED, I will be announcing our next selection soon!    


Great Migrations and the African Diaspora

Great Migrations and the African Diaspora:

Thoughts on The Warmth of Other Suns

Dr. Omar Ali

Dr. Omar Ali

Omar H. Ali

The Warmth of Other Suns by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson explores the lives of three African-Americans to reveal the larger phenomenon of the decades-long Great (Black) Migration out of the South during the 20th century. In her own snapshot account, “the book is about the migration experiences of three people who become representative of the larger whole which was essentially the defection of six million African Americans from the South to the North, to the Midwest, and the West from 1915 to 1970.” (C-SPAN Q&A, September 26, 2010)

In the interview from which the quote is taken, Wilkerson also alludes to the larger migration across the Atlantic to the ‘New World’ (of course not ‘new’ to the tens of millions of people already here–from the Taino and Mixtec of the Caribbean and Central America to the Lenape and Aymara of North and South America).
Although the term ‘migrant’ is usually thought of as a voluntary act, the fact is that most of the migration across the Atlantic to the Americas up until the early nineteenth century was forced. At least 80% of the total 12.5 million migrants to the Americas from Europe and Africa between 1502 and 1820 were black captives, with many of the white migrants having come as indentured servants–often indistinguishable in practice from the lives of those who were enslaved.
Of the 10.5 million African migrants that were part of the transatlantic slave trade, about 4% went to what would become the U.S. The vast majority went to different parts of Latin America–nearly 40% (or about 5 million people) to Brazil alone.
What were the experiences of those migrants? Much can and has been written about on the topic of the African Diaspora in the Americas but let’s pan out even wider. What of the migration of Africans within Africa itself (the first migratory experiences)? And into the Mediterranean world (approximately two million)? And what about the Indian Ocean world (at least four million)?
What were the experiences of those African migrants and their descendants? In the Indian Ocean world, for instance, theirs was a combination of free and forced migration; many went on their own volition searching for better economic opportunities, as merchants and sailors; many migrated as soldiers, as in the case of “Abyssinians” in India during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some of whom rose to significant levels of power as chief ministers (Malik Ambar from Ethiopia being among the most prominent in India).
Migrations, be they of whatever people, African, European, or Asian (and the thousands of ways that one can break each of these categories down or apart) has been part of the human experience ever since we, as a species, began to explore and search for better lives somewhere beyond what we knew … or taken forcibly to places beyond the horizon.
The degree to which one migrated ‘free’ or ‘forced’ is a matter of historical and geographical context.
In the case of African Americans in the Great Migration of the 20th century moving from the rural South to the cities and then North, to the Midwest, and the West, there were ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors: violence, Jim Crow (the legal disfranchisement and segregation of African Americans), and lack of economic opportunities, were among the ‘push’ factors to migrate out of the South; social, economic, and political opportunities were ‘pull’ factors in the migration. To be sure, those who left were looking for greater freedom, but, really, how free were they in their choice and what they came to encounter outside of the rural South? Wilkerson’s book answers this in moving prose.
Richard Wright, from whose own prose the title of Wilkerson’s book is borrowed, is one of the six million testaments of the black migration experience during the Great Migration. The son of Mississippi sharecroppers, he set out on his journey in 1927 to Chicago, then New York, and eventually Paris … forever searching. A little over a century earlier, the enslaved Senegalese Abdul Rahman, whose story as the “Prince Among Slaves” has been well-documented, landed in Natchez, Mississippi, not far from where Wright was born, as part of the transatlantic slave trade.
Rahman was among the few who participated in a reverse migration, back to Africa–in his case back to Futa Jallon, West Africa, after being in America for nearly half a century. A kind of precursor to the reverse migration to the South among African Americans …
In some ways, we are all on the move. Perhaps not in our individual lives, but collectively, historically, and for as many reasons as there are stars that we can see as we search for the warmth of other suns.
Omar H. Ali, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Comparative African Diaspora History in the African American & African Diaspora Studies Program at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. E-mail
The Politics for the People conference call with Isabel Wilkerson is on Sunday, July 13th at 7 pm.
The call in number is (805) 399-1200 and the passcode is 767775#.

Questioning the line between history and historical fiction

Dr. Omar Ali

Dr. Omar Ali

Revolutionary by Alex Myers: A Non-Book Review

Omar H. Ali, Ph.D.

Revolutionary by Alex Myers is a gem of a historical novel. It’s the story of a revolutionary woman, Deborah Sampson, an impoverished weaver who sought her independence by pretending to be a man in order to fight in the Revolutionary War (avoiding the plight of most young indentured female servants who after completing the duration of their ‘bond’ were promptly married). In essence, the book is a fictionalized account of the American historical figure, Sampson, who, in disguise and using the name ‘Robert Shurtliff,’ fought for a year and a half in the war. After being given an honorable discharge after she was discovered to be a woman, Sampson married, had children, and continued to live in poverty.

This latest and gripping account of her life is beautifully-written by Myers, a distant relative of Sampson, and who happens to have been the first openly-transgender student at Harvard University. Anyone who is interested in American History, with a particular interest in the Revolutionary era, ought to read this book for an intimate portrayal of the human struggles of the average soldier during the Revolution.

A number of stellar book reviews of Revolutionary have already appeared in print (including in The New York Times), so instead of re-hashing more of the details of the story here, I’d like to take a slightly different approach to doing this book review (a kind of non-book review). I’d like to—very briefly—consider the related questions of What is history? Who determines it? And … Who cares?!

Ok, so I’m a fan of historical novels (among my favorites is the classic Segu by Maryse Condée set on the West African side of the Atlantic in the generation following Sampson’s soldiering in America). Such novels help bring to life what is often undocumented but perhaps experienced and lived. But because such authors take creative license in telling their stories, they are not considered proper History by Historians—thus the term “historical novel.”

Allow me to elaborate. There is a sharp distinction made among most Historians (those who are officially trained as such) between ‘History’ and … everything else! For most Historians, what is considered ‘History’ is that which can be documented based on written records (archival records, such as letters, diaries, travel accounts, business records, legal testimony, and newspaper articles of the period at hand). But what if the written records hardly exist?

This is where historical novels are sooooooo helpful. Such novels fill in the gaps—the emotional-social gaps that are inextricably part of who we are as people, but fleeting when it comes to documentary evidence. As any Historian will say, documents are subject to interpretation. Yes, of course. Such interpretations are based on ‘a close reading’ of primary sources. But as a postmodern H/historian, I question the line between ‘History’ and ‘historical fiction.’

Did Sampson bear a finger injury from cutting wood (as Myers fictitiously writes)? Or did she actually get the injury from a weaving accident? Myers contends that he creates the fictional account of the finger injury by wood-cutting (see his Harvard Book Store talk) in order to paint a scene that speaks to the limitations that Sampson experienced as a woman—that when trying to cut wood, she injured her finger, and was then reprimanded for doing ‘men’s work.’

To be sure, Myers skillfully builds on the scholarship of the late Alfred Young, in his book Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson (published in 2004), which parses Sampson’s own brief account of her life (which apparently has many tall tales) with what ‘really’ happened. Myers also draws on a number of primary sources beyond Sampson’s own account, including letters and journals of soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War.

So, what is history? If we are to understand history as the seamless process of ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary) collective human activity in creating and re-creating culture and society, then there is much (a very big understatement) left out of textbooks, monographs, and academic journal articles of our libraries, bookstores, and available online. History (without the capital ‘H’) is indeed the stuff of ordinary people (you and me); it is also about the non-ordinary among us (the generals, kings, and presidents). But to be more precise, history—as in, discernible historical change (social and political revolutions)—is the interplay of the powerless and the powerful.

This is one way of thinking about history. There are other ways … indeed many other ways, if we are to follow postmodernism and its commitment to multiple (indeed limitless) perspectives and ways of seeing and being.

Until the last several decades, much of what has been regarded as History in the United States in our K-12 public education system, at universities, in the media, and society at large has been based on the perspectives of those in power. Since the 1960s, however, with the transformative power of the Civil Rights movement and other related social and political movements, there has been a shift towards what is called ‘social history’—the history of those ‘below’: ordinary people, poor and working-class people, women, and people of color. Such approaches to historical writing, which more fully embrace oral histories and the use of material culture, for instance, in writing histories, has given us a wealth of insight into the past. Ultimately, however, such histories are written by people who are living in a particular moment in history, and view ‘the past’ through those lenses. Black History, Women’s History, Labor History, and all other kinds of sub-genres of history, complicate the traditional white, male, heteronormative (a fancy word for ‘straight’), and middle to upper-class perspective of our nation’s history. But they remain human accounts, subject to interpretation … subject to history.

This is where the why we should care about history comes in. We make it. So as you read this, and as we discuss the book, let’s think about how we’re making history together. We’ll let the historians and historical-fiction writers of the future play with our words and come up with their own stories.


Omar H. Ali is an independent political movement-builder and historian. He received his Ph.D. in History from Columbia University and is an Associate Professor at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he received the 2014 Teaching Excellence Award for his unconventional approach to teaching history—which involves much philosophizing and plenty of play!

What an Independent History Scholar has to say…

I asked Dr. Omar Ali for a preview of this throughts on The Cause.  Dr. Ali is an independent activist and one of the  founders of  North Carolina Independents.  He is a professor of African American studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  Along with attorney Harry Kresky,  Dr. Ali will be discussing The Cause with us on Sunday.

Here is what Dr. Ali wanted to share with all of you on the way to our discussion on Sunday.

The Cause contains a lot of history. But history, as the philosopher Fred Newman once said, also includes ways of understanding history. On pages 461 and 462 of the Conclusion of the book, the framing of American liberalism having transformed from the time of Roosevelt to the time of Obama, offers some interesting food for thought.

Alterman writes, “UnderRoosevelt’s presidency, liberalism became a political movement focused on improving the lives of working people and those who needed a helping hand from government. In Obama’sAmerica…, however, liberalism was primarily a movement designed to increase social and cultural freedoms for those who could afford to enjoy them. Cultural liberalism [of the 21st century], while not without political risk, did not cost the wealthy anything …”

True, the kind of liberalism that Obama has advocated does not fundamentally challenge the wealthy, but one can argue thatRoosevelt’s policies were in fact designed to protect the wealthy. Another reading of the history that Alterman describes, specifically the period of the New Deal, might suggest thatRoosevelt, though a progressive, did not want a fundamental economic or political restructuring of the nation. Yes, he massively increased the power of the Executive Office (not since the days of Lincoln’s cabinet), and yes he helped to oversee the rise of the modern welfare state, but it was the rise of independent and working-class organizations in the 1930s that profoundly challenged the liberal establishment that compelled Roosevelt to protect his own class interests. New Deal programs undoubtedly helped millions of Americans, however, it also reinforced a class-based, racially hierarchical society (for instance, New Deal policies mostly hurt black farmers in the South with government subsidies going to white farmers, thus increasing disparities that already existed among black and white farmers and agrarian workers).

The New Deal was not simply the result of mass action taken in the 1930s, it was the result of decades of mass organizing, and certainly not just the good-will of one man:Roosevelt. Despite Alterman noting the ‘political movement’ that led to the New Deal, the Cause tends to glorify individuals as the engines of historical change.

The Conclusion of the book is most fascinating in that it reveals the way in which Alterman thinks about history (his lens): ideas and individuals change history. Yes, ideas and individual people do help to change history, but it’s ultimately been mass pressure from outsiders that have brought about the policy changes that liberals lay claim to. This is how I read and understand the history presented in The Cause.

As you read the book, you might keep in mind, two things (1) for whom is this book being written, and (2) why?  Do you feel connected to the way in which this history is being presented? And if so, how? And if not, why not?

It’s not an easy read, but it’s an important read, from the vantage point of exploring the ways in which political ideology shapes one’s understanding of history.”

It will be great to further explore Dr. Ali’s comments and The Cause on our call this Sunday.  Our discussion is at 6 pm and the call in information is below.  Talk to you soon!

Call 712 432-3066       Passcode:  636053

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