President Obama's Second Inaugural Address electrified American audiences by referring to Stonewall, Seneca Falls, and Selma as central sagas in the making of American equality. As a history professor who often reads references to the past with a red pen in hand, I gave Obama an A+ for incorporating the history of the oppressed in a landmark speech that will certainly be read by generations to come. Yet, I realized that many Americans probably never learned about black history, women's history, or gay history when they were in high school or college. Those subjects were not part of my high school curriculum in the 1990s. With the exception of black history, women's history and especially gay history remained virtually absent from my graduate training at Columbia in the 2000s. So, I decided to use this blog as a chance to highlight the publication of a number of new books by a group of brilliant historians who are telling moving stories about how marginalized people redefined American equality.
Stonewall: Gay and Lesbian History
Documenting Intimate Matters: Primary Sources for a History of Sexuality in American (Thomas A. Foster)
While it has become a cliché to argue that the "past becomes alive," it actually does in Documenting Intimate Matters -- an anthology of primary sources that detail the history of sexuality from the 17th century to the present. Unlike most history books, this volume enables the reader to become an historian and interpret the evidence. The editor of the volume, Thomas Foster, a prodigious historian, complied over 75 documents from the last four centuries for this book. If you are not interested in reading a lengthy tome, this book enables you to read short historical anecdotes one at a time. Read, for example, a letter that Abraham Lincoln wrote to Joshua Speed (the man who many consider had a romantic relationship with Honest Abe) or read a short selection by Blues singer Bessie Smith, whose music reflected the changing sexual mores of the 1920s.
Interested in more about this topic? The title might sound familiar -- as Foster's collection grew out of the groundbreaking study that John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedmen wrote many years ago on the history of sexuality. Therefore, if your cup of tea is more of a narrative history, check out their authoritative book, Intimate Matters.
Sexual Injustice: Supreme Court Decisions from Griswold to Roe (Marc Stein)
With the upcoming Supreme Court cases on gay marriage, Marc Stein's descriptive history of sexuality and the courts is a must read. Stein, a leading historian of gay history, breaks down the legal jargon and minutia of six important Supreme Court cases that redefined the nation's understanding of sexuality and freedom. Extra bonus: This riveting history was just released in paperback.
Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (Regina Kunzel)
In this award-winning book, the brilliant Regina Kunzel goes inside the history of American prisons to tell the unknown stories of how sex behind bars challenged understandings of homosexuality. Did you ever hear the old adage often applied to cowboys or prisoners that when women were not around, men had sex with each other? Kunzel shows that this adage originated as a theory actually developed by early 20th century sexologists, and then later became naturalized into popular maxims that sought to rationalize sex between men. Kunzel examines both the discourse that surrounds sexuality in prison and the actual sex lives of prisoners. This is a truly smart and theoretical book that interrogates the history of sexuality from the perspective of prison superintendents, gay activists, psychologists, and the prisoners themselves. This book also contributes to the growing literature on mass incarceration.
Seneca Falls: Women's History
The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present (Christine Stansell)
In this dazzling history of feminism, University of Chicago scholar Christine Stansell evocatively tells of the history of women's struggle for equality in the U.S from the colonial period to the present. Her book highlights the fateful Seneca Falls meeting of 19th century women reformers and expands across time and place to show how various enclaves of women have believed in the promise of equality. As Stansell explains in the opening pages, she wrote this history because she realized that many Americans have forgotten or did not know about women's struggle before the 1970s. The Feminist Promise is quite simply a great read -- accessible, smart, and written with elegance and great verve.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life (Lori D. Ginzberg)
If you would prefer to learn about the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 by reading about one of the women who organized it, then Lori Ginzberg's masterful biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton should be your choice. Ginzberg, one of the foremost authorities of 19th-century women's history, tells the story of Stanton's life and in the process also tells the history of 19th-century America. This is an eloquent narrative about one of the "forebears" who President Obama claimed paved the way for equality.
Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (Catherine Clinton)
While Harriet Tubman did not attend the Seneca Falls rally, she nevertheless ranks as one of the leading Americans in the 19th century who fought for equality. In this page-turning biography, Catherine Clinton, who has written biographies on Mary Todd Lincoln and the 19th-century actress-turned-plantation mistress Fannie Kemble, pieces together the heroic story of Harriet Tubman, the famed leader of the Underground Railroad. Tubman is often the subject of children's books and black history month celebrations, but as Clinton reminds us, no one has written a comprehensive account of her life until now. Cobbling together evidence from newspapers, letters, and even at one point climbing through a dumpster to uncover a scrap of evidence, Clinton has written a fantastic biography about a woman who risked it all in the name of American freedom.
Selma: Civil Rights
At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance -- A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (Danielle L.McGuire)
While Harriet Tubman ranks as the most well-known African-American woman activist in the 19th century, Rosa Parks remains the most well-known black female activist in the 20th century. But in this compelling history, Danielle L. McGuire tells a brand new history of Parks that will leave you breathless. McGuire shatters the popular representation of Parks as a gentile, quiet librarian and uncovers her radical roots. Without giving away this fascinating history, McGuire reveals how Parks and other black women activists turned to civil disobedience as an alternative strategy to fight against the large number of black women who were raped in their communities. These women knew that the courts and police would not listen to their cries for help after being raped, so they adopted other forms of resistance, such as sit-ins and bus boycotts, in order to protest the violence committed against them. Not only does this book redefine how we think about Selma and civil rights, but it also punctures a devastating blow in the prevailing image of black women during the 1950s as simply "The Help."
More than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in the White Republic, 1829-1889 (Stephen Kantrowitz)
The history of civil rights is often told as a story that unfolds in the 20th century, but historians have uncovered earlier roots of black activism during the 1800s. Tracing the history of civil rights to a century earlier, Stephen Kantrowtiz further expands the view of black activism in his collective biography of African-American activists in nineteenth-century Boston. Kantrowitz explains how emancipation and the war inspired black activists to imagine not just equal citizenship but to press white society to recognize them as "brothers and equals" in More than Freedom. This is an impressively researched and well-written book.
Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves Civil War (David Cecelski)
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in the Confederacy during the Civil War. This celebratory year brings new ways of thinking about the history of civil rights. One new book that encapsulates this new direction is David Cecelski's thrilling biography of Abraham Galloway. Piecing together fragments of evidence, Cecelski charts Galloway's rise from a former slave to a leader in the Union military in The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves' Civil War.
Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery (Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer)
This is a stunning book of recently discovered photographs of African Americans from the 19th century. This book challenges the predominant image of African Americans during this period as downtrodden and hopeless, and beautifully reveals rarely seen before photographs of African Americans before, during, and after the Civil War. The images range from studio shots of the black elite to daguerreotypes of newly emancipated slaves to photos of black Union soldiers. Cultural historians Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer discovered some of these extraordinary images locked away in archives, and located others in private collections. The authors have also included informative historical narratives that accompany each image.
President Obama's speech evoked the past, but it is now time to more fully uncover these crucial historical turning points.
Jim Downs is the author of Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction. He is an Associate Professor of History and American Studies at Connecticut College.