A few months ago, I was lucky enough to go to New Orleans. It’s a city I have always wanted to visit, and it more than lived up to my expectations. It is a vibrant city, full of excellent music, good food, and wonderful people. New Orleans is not without its problems however; the city has become increasingly segregated since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and it has an uneasy relationship with one of its most important industries, tourism (I wrote about the problems with AirBnB in New Orleans here). However, it doesn’t seem to be a city that shies away from it’s problems. The protest stickers I found suggest that New Orleans is a city with a healthy political culture, and I’m certain it’s people will never stop trying to make it a better place.
Daniel Rasmussen. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. RRP $15.99 paperback.
Earlier this year, I visited New Orleans. It is a wonderful city, but it’s history of race relations is troubled, to put it mildly. An area called the German Coast sits just a few miles north-west of the city, on the banks of the Mississippi River. In the nineteenth century, it was some of the richest and most fertile agricultural land in America. The most common crop was sugar, and the owners of the plantations along the river grew incredibly rich from it. But it was a system built on slavery. By 1810, 75% of the local population were slaves. Faced with a daily assault of cruel, dehumanising, and violent treatment, it is no surprise that slaves found subtle ways to resist the system. Occasionally, this resistance took the form of armed rebellion. In January 1811, between 200 and 500 enslaved men undertook an armed uprising on the German Coast. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt tells the story of this revolt, and makes a convincing argument for its significance in the development of the modern United States of America.
This is a story about slave revolutionaries: their lives, their politics, and their fight to the death against the planters and their militia. Above all, this is a story about America: who we are, where we came from, and how our ideals have at times been twisted and cast aside for the sake of greed and power.
Rasmussen, 2011, p. 3
As author Daniel Rasmussen himself argues, the German Coast Uprising has received limited attention from historians over the years. In addition, because the participants were slaves, archival documents relating to the uprising are scarce–accounts from the perspective of the slaves themselves are almost non-existent. Even the names of most of the participants are unknown to us. As a result, Rasmussen has to be creative in the way that he reconstructs the story of the revolt. For example, he uses the accounts of other enslaved people, such as Olaudah Equiano and Solomon Northup (who’s story of slavery formed the basis for the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave), to give the reader an idea of what life would have been like for the slaves who participated in the revolt.
American Uprising does a good job of telling the story of the revolt in an engaging and accessible way. But Rasmussen also goes beyond this narrative, to explore how the uprising was represented and interpreted, both immediately afterwards, and later by historians. The uprising was quickly depoliticised by those in authority, its participants portrayed as animalistic and violent criminals in a narrative that is still frequently used in relation to riots and other violent protests.
As the map at the beginning of the book demonstrates, the United States of America was still very much a work-in-progress in 1811; Louisiana had only been part of the Union since 1803, and it didn’t obtain statehood until 1812. Rasmussen explains how the uprising played an important role in justifying the necessity of statehood for Louisiana, and helped pave the way for further American expansionism over the next few decades. This is one of the key points in Rasmussen’s argument that the uprising deserves much more attention than it currently gets.
I bought American Uprising whilst I was in Louisiana in order to learn more about the state’s history of dissent. I got much more than that; the book explores the significance of the uprising far beyond the local area, putting it in the context of the development of a nation. American Uprising is well-written and enjoyable, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of protest, slavery, race relations, or imperial expansionism.
On my trips to New York City (in 2015 and 2016), I have scoured bookshops looking for a history of protest in the city, assuming that there must be one. After all, there are at least two books about London’s turbulent past. Whilst there is lots of great research about dissent in New York, there has not been an overarching survey–until now. Next year, a book will be published not just about the history of protest in New York, but about the historical geography of protest in the city. Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Revolt, Uprising, and Revolution Shaped a City began as a project by Neil Smith with some of his post-graduate students at the City University of New York. When he passed away in 2012, Professor Don Mitchell took over the task of editing the collection, and it is finally being published next year. As you can imagine, I’m quite excited about it, whilst also being a bit frustrated that I didn’t get there first!
Last week, Professor Mitchell gave a lecture about the project at Queen Mary, University of London. I went along to find about more about the project. Mitchell used various examples to demonstrate the strength of the relationship between dissent and the material landscape. We tend to view demonstrations, riots, and other expressions of dissent as unusual events, but they are actually very common, particularly in large cities like London and New York. It is actually more uncommon to have a peaceful period.
Mitchell started the lecture with an in-depth look at a decade of bombings in New York, culminating in anarchist Mario Buda’s attack on Wall Street on the 16th of September 1920 (I have written a review of Mike Davis’ excellent book about this bombing’s part in the early history of the car bomb here.) The bombings contributed to the deindustrialization of New York, as the small-scale manufacturing and transport networks that produced and planted the bombs were driven out of the city. Finance, insurance, and real estate came to dominate the city’s economy. In attempting to strike a devastating blow against the bankers of Wall Street, Buda inadvertently helped them tighten their grip on New York.
Mitchell used this narrative, and others, to argue that “landscape is power materialised.” Whilst this is not a new argument, Revolting New York applies it in a new context. Space is produced through social struggle, the result of constant negotiation and conflict between groups with different visions for that space. Protest is just one form that this process takes. As such, protest shapes and reshapes the city you see when you look out the window (apologies to those of you who are not currently in a city!)
The lecture was an introduction to the Revolting New York project, outlining it’s history, structure, and key arguments. It is particularly exciting for me because of its parallels with my own work on London. The book will be affordable too, less than £25 for the paperback, so hopefully it will help bring historical geography to a wider audience. I for one can’t wait to read it!
In April 2015, I went to the annual conference of the American Association of Geographers, which this year was held in Chicago, Illinois. Seeing as I was flying almost 4000 miles, I also took some time to look around the city. There are plenty of protest stickers to be found in Chicago, just like in New York and London. As in other cities, protest stickers in Chicago give us a clue as to what social movements and subversive political campaigns are striking a chord in the city. These movements reflect multiple scales, from the local to the international. Below are some of my favourite pictures from the Windy City.
Special thanks to Llinos Brown, who put up with my odd habit of taking close-up pictures of random bits of street furniture and also helped me find a few stickers whilst we were in Chicago.
A few weeks ago I went to the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Chicago. Amongst all the geography-ing I had some time to look around the city, and I spent a really enjoyable morning in the Chicago History Museum. Like any other city, Chicago has a history of riots and protest, and some of this history is represented in the museum. There are two main areas in which protest is represented in the museum’s permanent exhibits. The first is Facing Freedom, which explores the concept of freedom and how it has been negotiated, fought for and denied in America’s recent history. The second is Chicago: Crossroads of America, which narrates the city’s history through a series of themed galleries.
The Facing Freedom exhibition examines the relationship between the United States of America and freedom, which has been patchy to say the least. Slavery, Japanese internment camps during WW2 and the treatment of Native Americans are all covered, but of course what interests me most are the protests and social movements. The exhibition features the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porter’s in the 1920s-30s, the United Farm Workers in the 1960s, the Chicago school boycott in 1963, and the Illinois suffragists movement in the early 1900s. All of these movements and groups were successful to a greater or lesser extent; nothing was featured that didn’t achieve at least some of their goals. In this way these social movements, people who fought and won for freedom, are counter posed with those who had their freedom taken from them, the Japanese-Americans, slaves and Native Americans. The general message of the gallery is that freedom must be fought for and protected, and protest is positioned as a necessary part of that process.
In contrast, protest is represented in a more negative light in the Chicago: Crossroads of America exhibition. 3 protests are depicted in the Chicago in Crisis gallery: the Haymarket Affair, the 1919 Race Riots, and the Democratic National Convention riots in 1968. Along with the 1871 Great Fire that destroyed huge swathes of the city, the Gangland Era, and the sinking of the passenger ship the SS Eastland in which 844 people died, these protests are represented as turning points in the history of Chicago; negative experiences which the city dealt with with varying degrees of success. In this gallery, protest is not viewed as a positive, or even a necessary evil. The understanding of protest represented here is fundamentally at odds with that of the Facing Freedom exhibition.
In Chicago’s complex urban environment, powerful economic, social and political forces converge and collide, creating tensions that periodically explode into crisis. Chicago’s greatest crises include the Great Fire of 1871, the Haymarket Affair, the 1919 Race Riot, the Gangland Era, and the West Side and Democratic National Convention riots in 1968.
Chicago’s response to each crisis shaped its identity. A triumphant recovery from fire earned Chicago the “I Will” motto, but its failure to heal racial divisions following the 1919 and 1968 riots fostered segregation that plagued the city. Likewise, Chicago’s reputation for gangland violence continues, despite the bootlegger’s demise.
Text from the Chicago in Crisis gallery, Chicago History Museum
These 2 exhibitions demonstrate how protests can be interpreted in different ways. In this age of mass media and instant news, the way that a protest is viewed by people removed from the event itself is crucial. The presence of positive and negative representations of protest within the same museum illustrate the richness involved in thinking about how protests are perceived, and hints at the complexity of museum geographies. Next time you see a protest represented in a museum, trying thinking about some of these issues. And if you’ve ever in Chicago, the Chicago History Museum is well worth a visit (it is also close to Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the oldest zoo’s in America, and free to get in, although a little dreary on a cold April day!)