Drafting the First US Nomination to the UNESCO Slave Route Project: Nashville’s Fort Negley

The other day, I did something terrifying.  I gave my professional opinion as a historian in front of an overflowing room at a televised Parks Board Meeting. I had the honor of speaking about one of the most rewarding and illuminating things I have done for history in a while: completing the involved research for the nomination of a local landmark, the Union Civil War Fort Negley, to the UNESCO Slave Route Project. If accepted, Fort Negley will become the first US site, ever, to earn this monumental designation.

…which is a big deal, because the park that the Fort sits on is slated for a controversial development that has consumed local and state news for months. This meeting drew a huge crowd of people concerned about the sale of city land to private developers at the expense of this fort and its history.

My relationship with this fort is as long as my relationship to Nashville itself. When I first moved here in 2007, I lived in a house with a few others in the neighborhood of historic Edgehill. When grad school got stressful, I would climb up to the ruins of Fort Negley, and sit under one of the trees there, soaking up the peace and quiet. To be able to see Nashville’s skyline but not hear many of the city’s noises felt like a luxury.  I would daydream and doze and if I let my brain relax and I squinted just right, I could see the way the fort looked when it was first built.

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Interpretive marker for the African American Laborers who built Fort Negley, at the Fort Negley Visitors Center, sponsored by the Robert Penn Warren Center at Vanderbilt University.

The tree behind me would have still been a sapling. I pictured the soldiers, in sweat-stained blue union uniforms, pulling cannons up the hills, and the laborers digging ditches in the hot sun. I could imagine the charge of the Confederate army’s attempt to storm the hill, smell the burning gunpowder, and hear the scrambling of people and horses as they moved defenses into place. Before moving to the US, the Civil War was just a series of films for me, but at Fort Negley, it felt real for the first time. I felt a special sense of wonder about this secret jewel of a place hidden in plain sight.

At the time I was only 23. I had an undergraduate degree in history and religious studies, and a year of museum work under my belt. With even that limited experience in public history, it struck me as odd that the city had not made more of such an important place. Where were the historical interpreters? The tours? Merchandise? Displays for all the artifacts found? Why wasn’t there a twice-daily reenactment for tourists?

It wasn’t until I completed my PhD in history at Vanderbilt in 2014 that I understood how Fort Negley, a union stronghold built by conscripted and escaped slaves, and defended by the US Colored Troops, had been allowed to purposely languish by the same people in this city who continue to try to rewrite history.
Continue reading “Drafting the First US Nomination to the UNESCO Slave Route Project: Nashville’s Fort Negley”

Revisiting those New Year’s Resolutions

Now that we are three-fourths of the way through the year, I thought it might be a good time to revisit my resolutions for 2017 – or rather, as I wrote back in January, my New Year’s “themes.” Every January, I pick a few words to focus on that year. This time around, I decided that one of my main theme would be joy.

Why Joy? As Lisa Munro writes in her own post on the topic, there’s a risk to joy. It seems dangerous to submit to joy in a world of broken things. Yet practicing joy can be a pathway towards a more authentic self. As she writes, “JOY requires letting go of what we want people to see in favor of experiencing something genuine and being real about it.” In my original post (which was written right around the inauguration), I also wrote about the energizing power of joy and how it can operate as a strategy for building resilience.

How am I doing now? I’d say pretty well. I still get stressed and get grumpy like anyone else. But compared to last year around this time, I feel far more at peace and far more energized.

I’ve learned that joy is a practice that you have to work on consciously. It is closely tied to both gratitude and vulnerability. It feeds on faith, and it falls apart when there’s too much fear. There are many many things in this world that make it hard to practice joy, and so I’ve had to learn to tune some of it out. A more forgiving attitude also helps – both towards others and towards myself.

Here are some other things I’ve done in my pursuit of joy this year, in no particular order.

1. I’ve spent more time looking at the smaller things in nature, especially those things that only appear briefly, like spring flowers, or the caterpillars of early summer that will later transform into butterflies.

2. I’ve focused my energy on kids. I’ve started a business that puts them first.

3. I’ve reduced my time on twitter, dropped all political and news feeds on my Facebook account, made a good faith effort to avoid talking about politics online anymore. Even with people I know well, I find that conversations can go in unexpected direction – and not necessarily because of different opinions so much as tonal misunderstandings.

4. I try to use my social media Facebook to talk about positive things in my life. 

5. I’m learning to recognize my limits and step back when the stress gets too high. It’s still a process, I still find myself comfort eating like crazy when I’m sad about something (you should have seen me after the Eagle Creek fire in our region broke out hear last week).

6. I practice yoga. It feels really good.

There’s much more, which I will address in more detail in another progress report when the year ends.

Flirting with Equality, Flirting with Rejections

It’s been awhile, but earlier this year I mentioned my book project in passing – and it turns out I’ve never said much more about it than that. With more than a year of querying and rejections under my belt, I’ve decided it’s time to say a little more.

A year ago, I finished the first round revisions of turning my dissertation into a book. It was a process that took me almost a year, including nights after work, spring break, and most of the summer of 2016, and I’m proud of that work. Dissertations are always just that – a dissertation, never great, but always something that gets you the degree. I’ve known since I finished mine that it could never go forward in the shape it was in.

But time – that’s the factor. I spent several years ignoring the dissertation, then began playing with it again in the fall of 2015. I ripped it apart, tore it into new pieces, made big cuts, restructured it, and even came up with a new title: Flirting with Equality: American Women in the Cold War Military.

It’s a project that I was obsessed with for years in grad school. I visited around a dozen archives, interviewed more than 20 women, and put my heart and soul into it. Flirting with Equality starts with the 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which made women’s service permanent, and carries through to the end of the Cold War. To understand why women’s military service functions the way it does today – and by extension, policies relating to gay, lesbian, and transgender servicemen and women – my book is a must-read.

Well, at least in theory.

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Continue reading “Flirting with Equality, Flirting with Rejections”

We Create the Disasters, Not Nature

I have a million things I have to write,  but I can’t stop thinking about a photo from Houston I saw on social media over the weekend. It was the sitting room of a nursing home for the elderly, with water that was waist-deep. The dark water was filthy, with what looked like cigarette butts floating in it. Everything sat in the water: a popcorn machine, lamps, recliners, wheelchairs, articles of clothing. Also sitting in the water:  people.

Old people. Frail people. People who need wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches to get around. People not sure-footed enough to be able to wade through water, with eyesight too poor to see obstacles in the water even if it were clear. People whose papery skin had been sitting in contact with that water for hours, making it more easily tear-able. People with bandages hiding wounds that shouldn’t be in contact with the filthy water. People whose sweaters and blankets are soaked.

Time Magazine reported that someone in the home texted this photo to a resident’s family, who posted it to social media asking for help. After it received thousands of shaming retweets, the city of Houston redirected some strained resources to airlift the seniors out of their center to shelter.

I’m grateful that this part of Hurricane Harvey’s story has a happy ending. I’m glad no one was hurt during evacuation.

But I’m so incredibly angry, still.

Continue reading “We Create the Disasters, Not Nature”

Lost and Found: A Post-ac’s Book List

In this week’s blog post I want to share some of the books that have helped me through the 2-year transition between receiving my PhD in art history and now, when I more fully identify myself as PostAc, and more specifically as someone starting a new business on my own.   If this list seems a bit idiosyncratic, that’s because it reflects an evolution in my interests as I edged closer to figuring out what I wanted to do next.

I think documenting various aspects of this kind of transition can be helpful to others who are just starting out as new doctorates. Two years ago I had no inkling that I’d be interested in working on a business that focuses on connecting kids to the outdoors (though I could have probably told you back then that I feel more comfortable being my own boss than working for someone else). Part of my processing involved becoming okay and comfortable with the reality that there are points in our lives that are filled with uncertainty. We just have to have faith that eventually something will work itself out. So you’ll find books in this list about the idea of processing, and the concept of uncertainty, as well as books that are more specific to my current interests.

A side note before I begin. Although I have not yet read Kelly Baker’s new e-book, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, I had been following her essay reflections on a life post-ac when they were first coming out in blog form a couple years back. Her work dives deep into what it feels like to have to start fresh after the dreams of an academic career disappear. Based on what I’ve read of her essays, I’d definitely recommend it to any recent doctorate.

Now without further ado, here are some of the books that I have found especially useful over the last couple years.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.

Strayed’s memoir was one of the first books I picked up after graduating with my PhD. At the time, I had chosen it as a purposeful break from the heavy political content that I had been wading through for my dissertation topic (which was related to political satire and the grotesque during between WWI-WWII). What Wild ended up providing was a validation for my lifelong desire to get outdoors as a form of self care. Strayed’s memoir was also helpful because it is grounded in the thesis that uncertainty, mistakes, pain – all of these are okay and are a profoundly vital part of what it is to just be a human. Anyone who has read it knows the book is specifically about working through loss; the book is also about moving past regret for any choices you might make when you are grappling with that loss.  I found both her physical journey through the PCT and spiritual journey of processing useful models for navigating through the uncertainty of finding a career after the doctorate.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit.

It’s hard to explain the value of this book except to say that if you are feeling uncertain about yourself or your place at this moment, you’ll find solace in Solnit’s celebration of what can be gained from feeling and being lost. Her work demonstrates that the state of confusion is an essential component of discovery and change. The essays meditate on this concept through a variety of frameworks – from the idea of longing during uncertain times in one’s life, to the transformative effect of experience the unknown.

Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott.

Bird by Bird is not a book about writing – or I should say, it’s not just about writing. It’s a compassionate, gentle, hilarious, guide for getting through just about anything in life that’s tough. It’s a book about the acts of faith required to take new steps. It’s a recognition that no one ever really knows what they are doing when they start out on something new. Of all the books I’ve read since graduating, this is one that I wish I had read earlier in career, before the toiling period of dissertation work.

The Artists’s Way, by Julia Cameron.

Regular readers know I love this book, so I’ll spare the details, instead just say that I found the exercises throughout this book extraordinarily useful as I spent time trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. The book has sections that help with the “gremlins” and Imposter Syndrome. It has sections about procrastination, perfectionism, and fear. And as I’ve noted before, Cameron’s concept of the Morning Pages continues to use.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey.

Confession: I’m a bit of a self-help book junkie. After years of reading  dense critical texts about the history and theory of art, this genre of writing feels like such a breath of fresh air. But some can get a little too breezy. Behind the “you can do it” spirit is mostly just fluff. One of the reasons I like Covey’s book so much is treats the subject of “self” with a degree of compassion and seriousness lacking in many newer books. Covey’s book is informed by his Christianity, but is not religious. Rather, it is grounded in the idea that one must have a clear sense of their own values and priorities in order to be effective in the world.

The Hundred Dollar Start-Up, by Chris Guillebeau.

I bought this book on a whim last summer  when I was sifting through the self-help section of Powell’s bookstore. At the time, I was only starting to wrap my brain around the idea of maybe starting some kind of business. I didn’t know yet what kind of business it would be. This book ended up helping me narrow my focus (and also come up with a few back up ideas too). The book is not a comprehensive look at the ends and outs of business, but it is useful to make the concept of self-employment seem less terrifying and more possible.

Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv.

I picked up Louv’s book after deciding to start a business related to kids and nature, thinking it would be a useful framework for thinking about the value of the nature in family life. Having read it, I think it has a broader value to anyone feeling out of balance in their life. It’s not perfect; for example, I’m not fond of the way Louv uses ableist language (specifically his term “nature-deficit disorder”) to frame his concerns. But I do like his explorations of the ways that technologies and a culture of business impact us negatively, and his research on what is gained by breaks outdoors. Although his chief concern is children, his ideas apply to any generation.

*****

There are other books and essays out there that have been useful in other ways – from Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist to the numerous essays out there on higher ed. But these are a few that continue to stick out. What about you? If you have a PhD and are post-ac, are there any books that you’ve found especially useful?

Writing a Trade History Book, Part 1: The Introduction

I’m the kind of person who writes introductions last for pretty much everything. I always have, and I always will advise my students to do the same. It just makes sense- most of us who write, do so in order to figure out how we think about something. Only once we’ve written do we find out what our writing was about.

However, when you are trying to sell a nonfiction history book to the big four publishers, the introduction is one of the main deciding factors in whether or not it gets bought. Generally, just like with an academic book, you sell your nonfiction book based on a proposal that includes an outline and sample chapters. For a nonfiction history book, the introduction is probably the most important thing, because it does so much in so little space, therefore showcasing your skill as both a historian and a popular history writer.

A good trade history introduction will entertain, inform, and make promises, usually in equal amounts. Now, I’m lucky- my book is about pirates, and spoiler: one of them gets crucified. That practically writes itself, right?

Wrong.

Well, right and wrong.

You’d be surprised (I was) at how difficult it is to use documents created for one set of purposes (a criminal investigation, international diplomacy, taxation, etc.) and pull a narrative story that reads almost like fiction out of them.

It’s easy to summarize the documents “Well, here was the court case of the main witness against the pirate who said he bludgeoned his sloop’s entire crew. Here are the pirate’s last words before his execution.  Here are some random court documents that mention how he stole the captain’s wigs before killing him so that he could disguise his own distinctive hair. Here are some newspaper articles about other crimes that were attributed to him too.”

But that’s only really entertaining to other historians who see and immediately understand the value in having all of those documents together. See, historians tend to unconsciously process documents to get directly to the “so what?” moment. It’s rarely an explicit process, because we will read a collection of related primary sources and immediately understand why those sources are interesting and important, and how they affect what other types of things were going on at the time. Because of our training and instincts, we tend to skip the most important step of reconstructing the story, and instead link everything in our heads. So we analyze the documents, then explain how they fit into, alter, or corroborate our current understanding of history. One might argue that for academia and other related professions, that’s more than sufficient.

For a trade history audience, however, that does not work in the same way. A trade audience wants to be entertained. They don’t care how brilliant I am, and they don’t want to watch me solve the historical puzzle and explain how it affects our understanding of history. They want me to show them the puzzle, and introduce the contemporary people on the ground who were part of it. They don’t want a lecture on the 18th century Atlantic economy, they want me to drop details and pieces of the historical context only as necessary and when they first appear in the narrative arc of the story, and only as necessary to their understanding of what’s going on.  These readers are smart, and they don’t want me to explain to them, they want me to show them so that they themselves can figure it out. The whole purpose of my training as a historian is to re-arrange the evidence and the context and to figure out which historic information is relevant to the story and which isn’t, and accompany the reader along a journey like a guide who allows them to discover the historic relevance for themselves.

In other words, the entertaining part of a trade history book that many academic history books lack, is consideration for the reader’s enjoyment. My job isn’t to bombard the reader with every bit of information related to those primary sources I’m writing about. This isn’t a competition to see how much knowledge a reader can absorb. Rather, my job is to carefully curate this information into an enjoyable experience that allows the reader to become an active detective figuring out things as they go along, rather than being told these things outright. Just like in fiction, I’m showing, and not telling.

So back to the introduction of the book. It needs to promise this type of entertaining historical experience to the reader, while also assuring those who know a bit more about the business, that I know what I’m doing, and am doing it purposefully. In my book proposal, the chapter outline is where I get to show off to publishers what I know and how I’m planning on piecing it together, but my introduction is the first taste of how well I am going to do that. So it’s written like a piece of fiction, introducing characters only when they become relevant, and explaining only what needs to be explained at that moment to keep the story going. In this way, you have equal amounts of entertainment and information- the best of both worlds, at least in my opinion. Then later towards the end, you get a few pages to make some promises. Now that you’ve told the beginning of what will amount to a really bloody and captivating story, you get a very small amount of space to convince the reader that they badly want to find out what happens next.

This is similar to a film trailer- you show the highlights, and allude to how the reader will be changed at the end. For me, that means hinting at ways in which this pirate case will help illuminate a part of history (the American Revolution) that they thought they knew everything about already. I am promising that in reading this book, the reader will make some discoveries that enrich their understanding of our shared past, all while being entertained by pirates. It’s a tall order, and it takes a lot more skill to pull off than I initially thought.  Three rewrites in, and I think I’m finally beginning to get it.