Review of: Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, by Kevin M. Levin
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
Review of: Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, by Kevin M. Levin
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
In March 1865, just weeks before the fall of Richmond that was to be the last act ahead of Appomattox, curious onlookers gathered in that city’s Capitol Square to take in a sight not only never before seen but hardly ever even
In Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth (2019), historian Kevin M. Levin brings thorough research and outstanding analytical skills to an engaging and very well-written study of how an entirely fictional, ahistorical notion not only found life, but also the oxygen to gain traction and somehow spawn an increasingly large if misguided audience. For those committed to history, Levin’s effort arrived not a moment too soon, as so many legitimate Civil War groups—on and off social networking—have come under assault by “Lost Cause” adherents who have weaponized debate with fantastical claims that lack evidence in the scholarship but are cleverly packaged and aggressively peddled to the uninformed. The aim is to sanitize history in an attempt to defend the Confederacy, shift the cause of secession from slavery to states’ rights, refashion their brand of slavery as benevolent, and reveal purported long suppressed “facts” allegedly erased by today’s “woke” mob eager to cast the south’s doomed quest to defend their liberty from northern aggression in a negative light. In this process, the concept of “Black Confederates” has turned into their most prominent and powerful meme, winning converts of not only the uninitiated but sometimes, unexpectedly, of those who should know better.
What has been dubbed the “Myth of the Lost Cause” was born of the smoldering ashes of the Confederacy. The south had been defeated; slavery not only outlawed but widely discredited. Many of the elite southern politicians who back in 1861 had proclaimed the Confederate States of America a “proud slave republic” after fostering secession because Lincoln’s Republicans would block their peculiar institution from the territories, now rewrote history to erase slavery as their chief grievance. Attention was instead refocused on “states’ rights,” which in prior decades had mostly served as euphemism for the right to own human beings as property. Still, the scholarly consensus has established that slavery was indeed the central cause of the war. As Gary Gallagher, one of today’s foremost Civil War historians, has urged: pay attention to what they said at the dawn of the war, not what they said when it was over. Of course, for those who promote the Lost Cause, it is just the opposite.
There are multiple prongs to the Lost Cause strategy. One holds slavery as a generally benign practice with deep roots to biblical times, along with a whiff of the popular antebellum trope that juxtaposed the enslaved with beleaguered New England mill workers, maintaining that the former lived better, more secure lives as property—and that they were content, even pleased, by their station in life. This theme was later exploited with much fanfare in the fiction and film of Gone with the Wind, with such memorable episodes as the enslaved Prissy screeching in terror that “De Yankees is comin!”—a cry that in real life would far more likely have been in celebration than distress.
But, as Levin reveals through careful research, the myth of black men in uniform fighting to defend the Confederacy did not emerge until the 1970s, as the actual treatment of African Americans—in slavery, in Jim Crow, as second-class citizens—became widely known to a much larger audience. This motivated Lost Cause proponents to not only further distance the southern cause from slavery, but to invent the idea that blacks actually laid down their lives to preserve it. In the internet age, this most conspicuously translated into memes featuring out-of-context photographs of black men clutching muskets and garbed in gray … the “Black Confederates” who bravely served to defend Dixie against marauding Yankees.
All of this seems counterintuitive, which is why it is remarkable that the belief not only caught on but has grown in popularity. In fact, some half million of the enslaved fled to Union lines over the course of the war. Two hundred thousand black men formed the ranks of the United States Colored Troops (USCT); ultimately a full ten percent of the Union Army was comprised of African Americans. If captured, blacks were returned to slavery or—all too frequently—murdered as they attempted to surrender at Fort Pillow, the Battle of the Crater, and elsewhere. That idea that African Americans would willingly fight for the Confederacy seems not only unlikely, but insane.
So what about those photographs of blacks in rebel uniforms? What is their provenance? To find out, Levin begins by exploring what life was like for white Confederates. In the process, he builds upon Colin Woodward’s brilliant 2014 study, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War. Woodward challenged the popular assumption that while most rebels fought for southern independence, they remained largely agnostic about the politics of slavery, especially since only a minority were slaveowners themselves. Disputing this premise, Woodward argued that the peculiar institution was never some kind of abstract notion to the soldier in the ranks, since tens of thousands of blacks accompanied Confederate armies as “camp slaves” throughout the course of the war! (Many Civil War buffs are shocked to learn that Lee brought as many as six to ten thousand camp slaves with him on the Gettysburg campaign—this while indiscriminately scooping up any blacks encountered along the way, both fugitive and free.)
Levin skips the ideological debate at the heart of Woodward’s thesis while bringing focus to the omnipresence of the enslaved, whose role was entirely non-military, devoted instead to perform every kind of labor that would be part of the duties of soldiers on the other side. This included digging entrenchments, tending to sanitation, serving as teamsters, cooks, etc. Many were subject to impressment by the Confederate government to support the war effort, while others were the personal property of officers or enlisted men, body servants who accompanied their masters to the front. According to Levin, it turns out that some of the famous photographs of so-called Black Confederates were of these enslaved servants whom their owners dressed up for dramatic effect in the studio, decked out in a matching uniform with musket and sword—before even marching off to war. Once in camp, of course, these men would no longer be in costume: they were slaves, not soldiers.
After the war, legends persisted of loyal camp slaves who risked their lives under fire to tend to a wounded master or brought their bodies home for burial. While likely based upon actual events, the number of such occurrences was certainly overstated in Lost Cause lore that portrayed the enslaved as not only content to be chattel but even eager to assist those who held them as property. Also, as Reconstruction fell to Redemption, blacks in states of the former Confederacy who sought to enjoy rights guaranteed to them by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were routinely terrorized and frequently murdered. For African Americans who faced potentially hostile circumstances, championing their roles as loyal camp slaves, real or imagined, translated into a survival mechanism. Meanwhile, whites who desperately wanted to remember that which was contrived or exaggerated zealously hawked such tales, later came to embrace them, and then finally enshrined them as incontrovertible truth, celebrated for decades hence at reunions where former camp slaves dutifully made appearances to act the part.
Still later, there was an intersection of such celebrity with financial reward, when southern states began to offer pensions for veterans and some provision was made for the most meritorious camp slaves. But, at the end of the day, these men remained slaves, not soldiers. Nevertheless, more than a full century hence, many of these pensioners were transformed into Black Confederates. And some of them people the memes of a now resurgent Lost Cause often inextricably entwined with today’s right-wing politics.
It is certainly likely that handfuls of camp slaves may have, on rare occasions, taken up a weapon alongside their masters and fired at soldiers in blue charging their positions. Such reports exist, even if these cannot always be corroborated. In the scheme of things, these numbers are certainly miniscule. And, of course, in every conflict there are collaborators. But the idea that African Americans served as organized, uniformed forces fighting for the south not only lacks evidence but rationality.
Yet, how can we really know for certain? For that, we turn to a point Levin makes repeatedly in the narrative: there are simply no contemporaneous accounts of such a thing. It has elsewhere been estimated that soldiers in the Civil War, north and south, collectively wrote several million letters. Tens of thousands of these survive, and touch on just about every imaginable topic. Not a one refers Black Confederate troops in the field.
On the other hand, quite a few letters home reference the sometimes-brutal discipline inflicted upon disobedient camp slaves. In one, a Georgia Lieutenant informed his wife that he whipped his enslaved servant Joe “about four hundred lashes … I tore his back and legs all to pieces. I was mad enough to kill him.” Another officer actually did beat a recalcitrant slave to death [p26-27]. Such acts went unpunished, of course, and that they were so frankly and unremarkably reported in letters to loved ones speaks volumes about the routine cruelty of chattel slavery while also contradicting modern fantasies that black men would willingly fight for such an ignoble cause. The white ex-Confederates who later hailed the heroic and loyal camp slave no doubt willingly erased from memory the harsh beatings that could characterize camp life; the formerly enslaved who survived likely never forgot.
Searching for Black Confederates is as much about disproving their existence as it is about the reasons some insist against all evidence that they did. With feet placed firmly in the past as well as the present, Levin—who has both a talent for scholarship as well as a gifted pen—has written what is unquestionably the definitive treatment of this controversy, and along the way has made a significant contribution to the historiography. The next time somebody tries to sell you on “Black Confederates,” advise them to read this book first, and then get back to you!
I reviewed the Woodward book here: Review of: Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War, by Colin Edward Woodward
Review of: Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. II, 1849-1856, and All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. III, 1856-1860, by Sidney Blumenthal
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
On November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States, although his name did not appear on the ballot in ten southern states. Just about six weeks later, South Carolina seceded. This
When I was in school, in the standard textbooks Lincoln seems to come out of nowhere. A homespun, prairie lawyer who served a single, unremarkable term in the House of Representatives, he is thrust into national prominence when he debates Stephen A. Douglas in his ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate, then somehow rebounds just two years later by skipping past Congress and into the White House. Douglas, once one of the most well-known and consequential figures of his day, slips into historical obscurity. Meanwhile, long-simmering sectional disputes between white men on both sides roar to life with Lincoln’s election, sparking secession by a south convinced that their constitutional rights and privileges are under assault. Slavery looms just vaguely on the periphery. Civil War ensues, an outgunned Confederacy falls, Lincoln is assassinated, slavery is abolished, national reconciliation follows, and African Americans are even more thoroughly erased from history than Stephen Douglas.
Of course, the historiography has come a long way since then. While fringe “Lost Cause” adherents still speak of states’ rights, the scholarly consensus has unequivocally established human chattel slavery as the central cause for the conflict, as well as resurrected the essential role of African Americans—who comprised a full ten percent of the Union army—in putting down the rebellion. In recent decades, this has motivated historians to reexamine the prewar and postwar years through a more polished lens. That has enabled a more thorough exploration of the antebellum period that had been too long cluttered with grievances of far less significance such as the frictions in rural vs. urban, agriculture vs. industry, and tariffs vs. free trade. Such elements may indeed have exacerbated tensions, but without slavery there could have been no Civil War.
And yet … and yet with all the literature that has resulted from this more recent scholarship, much of it certainly superlative, students of the era cannot help but detect the shadows of missing bits and pieces, like the dark matter in the universe we know exists but struggle to identify. This is at least partially due to timelines that fail to properly chart root causes that far precede traditional antebellum chronologies that sometimes look back no further than the Mexican War—which at the same time serves as a bold underscore to the lack of agreement on even a consistent “start date” for the antebellum. Not surprisingly perhaps, this murkiness has also crept into the realm of Lincoln studies, to the disfavor of genres that should be complementary rather than competing.
In fact, the trajectory of Lincoln’s life and the antebellum are inextricably conjoined, a reality that Sidney Blumenthal brilliantly captures with a revolutionary tactic that chronicles these as a single, intertwined narrative that begins with A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809–1849 (which I reviewed elsewhere). It is evident that at Lincoln’s birth the slave south already effectively controlled the government, not only by way of a string of chief executives who also happened to be Virginia plantation dynasts, but—of even greater consequence—outsize representation obtained via the Constitution’s “Three-Fifth’s Clause.” But even then, there were signs that the slave power—pregnant with an exaggerated sense of their own self-importance, a conviction of moral superiority, as well as a ruthless will to dominate—possessed an unquenchable appetite to enlarge their extraordinary political power to steer the ship of state—frequently enabled by the northern men of southern sympathies then disparaged as “doughfaces.” Lincoln was eleven at the time of the Missouri Compromise, twenty-three during the Nullification Crisis so closely identified with John C. Calhoun, twenty-seven when the first elements of the “gag rule” in the House so ardently opposed by John Quincy Adams were instituted, thirty-seven at the start of both the Mexican War and his sole term as an Illinois Congressman, where he questioned the legitimacy of that conflict. That same year, Stephen A. Douglas, also of Illinois, was elected U.S. Senator.
Through it all, the author proves as adept as historian of the United States as he is biographer of Lincoln—who sometimes goes missing for a chapter or more, only summoned when the account calls for him to make an appearance. Some critics have voiced their frustration at Lincoln’s own absence for extended portions in what is after all his own biography, but they seem to be missing the point. As Blumenthal demonstrates in this and subsequent volumes, it is not only impossible to study Lincoln without surveying the age that he walked the earth, but it turns out that it is equally impossible to analyze the causes of the Civil War absent an analysis of Lincoln, because he was such a critical figure along the way.
Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. II, 1849-1856, picks up where A Self-Made Man leaves off, and that in turn is followed by All the Powers of Earth. All form a single unbroken narrative of politics and power, something that happens to fit with my growing affinity for political biography, as distinguished by David O. Stewart’s George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father, Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, by Robert Dallek. Blumenthal, of course, takes this not only to a whole new level, but to an entirely new dimension.
For more recent times, the best of the best in this genre appears in works by historian Rick Perlstein (author of Nixonland and Reaganland) who also happens to be the guy who recommended Blumenthal to me. In the pages of Perlstein’s Reaganland, Jimmy Carter occupies center-stage far more so than Ronald Reagan, since without Carter’s failed presidency there never could have been a President Reagan. Similarly, Blumenthal cedes a good deal of Lincoln’s spotlight to Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s longtime rival and the most influential doughface of his time. Many have dubbed John C. Calhoun the true instigator in the process that led to Civil War a decade after his death. And while that reputation may not be undeserved, it might be overstated. Calhoun, a southerner who celebrated slavery, championed nullification, and normalized notions of secession, could indeed be credited with paving the road to disunion. But, as Blumenthal skillfully reveals, maniacally gripping the reins of the wagon that in a confluence of unintended consequences was to hurtle towards both secession and war was the under-sized, racist, alcoholic, bombastic, narcissistic, ambitious, pro-slavery but pro-union northerner Stephen A. Douglas, the so-called “Little Giant.”
Like Calhoun, Douglas was self-serving and opportunistic, with a talent for constructing an ideological framework for issues that suited his purposes. But unlike Calhoun, while he often served their interests Douglas was a northern man never accepted nor entirely trusted by the southern elite that he toadied to in his cyclical unrequited hopes they would back his presidential ambitions. Such support never materialized.
It may not have been clear at the time, and the history books tend to overlook it, but Blumenthal demonstrates that it was the rivalry between Douglas and Lincoln that truly defined the struggles and outcomes of the age. It was Douglas who—undeterred by the failed efforts of Henry Clay—shepherded through the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act that was such an anathema to the north. More significantly, the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act that repealed the Missouri Compromise was Douglas’s brainchild, and Douglas was to continue to champion his doctrine of “popular sovereignty” even after Taney’s ruling in Dred Scott invalidated it. It was Douglas’s fantasy that he alone could unite the states of north and south, even as the process of fragmentation was well underway, a course he himself surely if inadvertently set in motion. Douglas tried to be everyone’s man, and in the end he was to be no one’s. Throughout all of this, over many years, Blumenthal argues, Lincoln—out of elective office but hardly a bystander—followed Douglas. Lincoln’s election brought secession, but if a sole agent was to be named for fashioning the circumstances that ignited the Civil War, that discredit would surely go to Douglas, not Lincoln.
These two volumes combined well exceed a thousand pages, not including copious notes and back matter, so no review can appropriately capture it all except to say that collectively it represents a magnificent achievement that succeeds in treating the reader to what the living Lincoln was like while recreating the era that defined him. Indeed, including his first book, I have thus far read nearly sixteen hundred pages of Blumenthal’s Lincoln and my attention has never wavered. Only Robert Caro—with his Shakespearian multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson—has managed to keep my interest as long as Blumenthal. And I can’t wait for the next two in the series to hit the press! To date, more than fifteen thousand books have been published about Abraham Lincoln, so there are many to choose from. Still, these from Blumenthal are absolutely required reading.
I reviewed Blumenthal’s first volume, A Self-Made Man, here: Review of: A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809–1849, by Sidney Blumenthal
I reviewed Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland here: Review of: Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980, by Rick Perlstein
Review of: The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality, by Angela Saini
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
“Down With the Patriarchy” is a both a powerful rallying cry and a fashionable emblem broadcast in memes, coffee mugs, tee shirts—and even, paired with an expletive, sung aloud in a popular Taylor Swift anthem.
A consideration of these and other related questions, both practical and existential, form the basis for The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality, an extraordinary tour de force by Angela Saini marked by both a brilliant gift for analysis and an extremely talented pen. Saini, a science journalist and author of the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed Superior: The Return of Race Science, one-ups her own prior achievements by widening the lens on entrenched inequalities in human societies to look beyond race as a factor, a somewhat recent phenomenon in the greater scheme of things, to that of gender, which—at least on the face of it—seems far more ancient and deep-seated.
To that end, in The Patriarchs Saini takes the reader on a fascinating expedition to explore male-female relationships—then and now—ranging as far back as the nearly ten-thousand-year-old proto-city Çatalhöyük in present-day Turkey, where some have suggested that female deities were worshipped and matriarchy may have been the status quo, and flashing forward to the still ongoing protests in Iran, sparked by the death in custody of a 22-year-old woman detained for wearing an “improper” hijab. There are many stops in between, including the city-states of Classical Greece, which saw women controlled and even confined by their husbands in democratic Athens, but yet celebrated for their strength and independence (of a sorts) in the rigidly structured autocracy that defined the Spartan polis.
But most of the journey is contemporary and global in scope, from Seneca Falls, New York, where many Onondaga Native American women continue to enjoy a kind of gender equality that white American women could hardly imagine when they launched their bid for women’s rights in that locale in 1848, to the modern-day states of Kerala and Meghalaya in India, which still retain deeply-rooted traditions of the matrilinear and the matriarchal, respectively, in a nation where arranged marriages remain surprisingly common. And to Afghanistan, where the recently reinstalled Taliban regime prohibits the education of girls and mandates the wearing of a Burqa in public, and Ethiopia, where in many parts of the country female genital mutilation is the rule, not the exception. There are even interviews with European women who grew up in the formerly socialist eastern bloc, some who look back wistfully to a time marked by better economic security and far greater opportunities for women, despite the repression that otherwise characterized the state.
I’m a big fan of Saini’s previous work, but still I cracked the cover of her latest book with some degree of trepidation. This is, after all, such a loaded topic that it could, if mishandled, too easily turn to polemic. So I carefully sniffed around for manifesto-disguised-as-thesis, for axes cleverly cloaked from grinding, for cherry-picked data, and for broad brushes. (Metaphors gleefully mixed!) Thankfully, there was none of that. Instead, she approaches this effort throughout as a scientist, digging deep, asking questions, and reporting answers that sometimes are not to her liking. You have to respect that. My background is history, a study that emphasizes complexity and nuance, and mandates both careful research and an analytical evaluation of relevant data. Both science and history demand critical thinking skills. In The Patriarchs, Saini demonstrates that she walks with great competence in each of these disciplines.
A case in point is her discussion of Çatalhöyük, an astonishing neolithic site first excavated by English archaeologist James Mellaart in the late 1950s that revealed notable hallmarks of settled civilization uncommon for its era. Based on what he identified as figurines of female deities,
I squirmed a bit in my seat as I read this, knowing that the respective conclusions of both Mellaart and Gimbutas have since been, based upon more rigorous studies, largely discredited as wildly overdrawn. But there was no need for such concerns, for in subsequent pages Saini herself points to current experts and the scholarly consensus to rebut at least some of the bolder assertions of these earlier archaeologists. It turns out that in both Çatalhöyük and Old Europe, while society was probably not hierarchal, it was likely more gender-neutral than matriarchal. It is clear that the author should be commended for her exhaustive research. While reading of Indo-European invaders—something Gimbutas got right—my thoughts instantly went to David Anthony’s magnificent study, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, which I read some years back. When I thumbed ahead to the “Notes,” I was delighted to find a citation for the Anthony book!
It is soon clear that in her search for the origins of inequality, Saini’s goal is to ask more questions than insist upon answers. Also increasingly evident is that even if it seems to have become more common in the past centuries, patriarchy is not the norm. No, it doesn’t have to be this way. Perhaps matriarchy did not characterize Çatalhöyük—and we really can’t be certain—but there is evidence for matriarchal societies elsewhere; some still flourish to this day. History and events in the current millennium demonstrate that there are choices, and societies can—and we can—choose equality rather than a condition where one group is dominated by another based upon race, caste, or gender.
With all of the author’s questions and her search for answers, however, it is the journey that is most enjoyable. In such an expansive work of science, history, and philosophy, the narrative never bogs down. And while the scope is vast, it is only a couple of hundred pages. I actually found myself wanting more.
If there is one area where I would caution Saini, it was in her treatment of ancient Greece. Yes, based upon the literature, Athenian women seem to have been stifled and Spartan women less inhibited, but of the hundreds of poleis that existed in the Classical period, we really only have relevant information for a few, surviving data is weighted heavily towards the elites of Athens and Sparta, and much of it is tarnished by editorializing on both sides that reflected the antipathy between these two bitter rivals. There is more to the story. Aspasia, the mistress of the Athenian statesman Pericles, was a powerful figure in her own right. Lysistrata, the splendid political satire created by the Athenian Aristophanes, smacks of a kind of ancient feminism as it has women on both sides of the Peloponnesian War denying sex to their men until a truce is called. This play could never have resonated if the female characters were wholly imagined. And while we can perhaps admire the status of a Spartan woman when juxtaposed with her Athenian counterpart, we must remember that their primary role in that rigid, militaristic society was to bear the sons of warriors.
But the station of a Spartan woman raises an interesting counterintuitive that I had hoped Saini would explore. Why was it—and does it remain the case—that women seem to gain greater freedom in autocratic states than democratic ones? It is certainly anachronistic to style fifth century Sparta as totalitarian, but the structure of the state seems to have far more in common with the twentieth century Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China, where despite repression women achieved far greater equality than they did in Athens or, at least until very recently, in Europe and the United States. And I really wanted a chapter on China, where the crippling horror of foot-binding for girls was not abolished until 1912, and still lingered in places until the communist takeover mid-century. Mao was responsible for the wanton slaughter of millions, yet women attained a greater equality under his brutal regime than they had for the thousands of years that preceded him.
While she touches upon it, I also looked for a wider discussion of how conservative women can sometimes come to not only represent the greatest obstacle for women’s rights but to advance rather than impede the patriarchy. As an American, there are many painful reminders of that here, where in decades past the antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly nearly single-handedly derailed passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Most recently, it was a coalition of Republican and Christian evangelical women who led the crusade that eventually succeeded in curbing abortion rights. But then, as I wished for another hundred pages to go over all this, Saini summed up the incongruity succinctly in a discussion of female genital mutilation in Africa, citing the resistance to change by an Ethiopian girl who asserted: “If our mothers should refuse to continue cutting us, we will cut ourselves.” [p191]
In the end, Saini’s strategy was sound. The Patriarchs boasts a manageable size and the kind of readability that might be sacrificed in a bulkier treatise. The author doesn’t try to say it all: only what is most significant. Also, both the length and the presentation lend appeal to a popular audience, while the research and extensive notes will suit an academic one, as well. That is an especially rare accomplishment these days!
Whatever preconceived notions the reader might have, based upon the title and its implications, Saini demonstrates again and again that it’s not her intention to prove a point, but rather to make you think. Here she succeeds wonderfully. And you get the impression that it is her intellectual curiosity that guides her life. Born in London of ethnic Indian parents and now residing in New York City, she is a highly educated woman with brown skin, feet that can step comfortably into milieus west and east, and an insightful mind that fully embraces the possibilities of the modern world. Thus, Saini is in so many ways ideally suited to address issues of racism and sexism. She is still quite young, and this is her fourth book. I suspect there will be many more. In the meantime, read this one. It will be well worth your time.
Note: This review was based upon an Uncorrected Page Proof edition
Note: I reviewed Saini’s previous book here: Review of: Superior: The Return of Race Science, by Angela Saini
Review of: Yippie Girl: Exploits in Protest and Defeating the FBI, by Judy Gumbo
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
The typical American family of 1968 sitting back to watch the nightly news on their nineteen-inch televisions could be excused for sometimes gripping their armrests as events unfolded before them—for most in living color, but for plenty of others still on the familiar black-and-white sets rapidly going extinct. (I was eleven: we had a color TV!) The first seven months of that year was especially tumultuous.
There was January’s spectacular Tet Offensive across South Vietnam, which while ultimately unsuccessful yet stunned a nation still mostly deluded by assurances from Lyndon Johnson’s
In August, just days before the streets outside the arena hosting the Democratic National Convention deteriorated into violent battles between police and demonstrators that later set the stage for the famous trial of the “Chicago Seven,” a group of Yippies—members of the Youth International Party that specialized in pranks and street theatre— were placed under arrest by the Chicago police while in the process of nominating a pig named “Pigasus” for president. In addition to Pigasus, those taken into custody included Yippie organizer Jerry Rubin, folk singer Phil Ochs, and activist Stew Albert. Present but not detained was Judy Gumbo, Stew’s girlfriend and a feminist activist in her own right.
Known for their playful anarchy, many leaders of the New Left dismissed Yippies as “Groucho Marxists,” but for some reason the FBI, convinced they were violent insurrectionists intent on the overthrow of the United States government, became obsessed with the group, placing them on an intensive surveillance that lasted for years to come. A 1972 notation in Gumbo’s FBI files declared, without evidence, that she was “the most vicious, the most anti-American, the most anti-establishment, and the most dangerous to the internal security of the United States.” She was later to obtain copies of these files, which served as an enormously valuable diary of events of sorts for her (2022) memoir, Yippie Girl: Exploits in Protest and Defeating the FBI, a well-written if sometimes uneven account of her role in and around an organization at the vanguard of the potent political radicalism that swept the country in the late-sixties and early-seventies.
Born Judy Clavir in Toronto, Canada, she grew up a so-called “red diaper baby,” the child of rigidly ideological pro-Soviet communists. She married young and briefly to actor David Hemblen and then fled his unfaithfulness to start a new life in Berkeley, California in the fall of 1967, in the heyday of the emerging counterculture, and soon fell in with activists who ran in the same circles with new boyfriend Stew Albert. Albert’s best friends were Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver and Yippie founder Jerry Rubin. She squirmed when Cleaver referred to her as “Mrs. Stew,” insisting upon her own identity, until one day Eldridge playfully dubbed her “Gumbo”—since “gumbo goes with stew.” Ever after she was known as Judy Gumbo.
Gumbo took a job writing copy for a local newspaper, while becoming more deeply immersed in activism as a full-fledged member of the Yippies. As such, those in her immediate orbit were some of the most consequential members of the antiwar and Black Power movements, which sometimes overlapped, including Abbie and Anita Hoffman, Nancy Kurshan, Paul Krassner, Phil Ochs, William Kunstler, David Dellinger, Timothy Leary, Kathleen Cleaver, and Bobby Seale. She describes the often-immature jockeying for leadership that occurred between rivals Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, which also underscored her frustration in general with ostensibly enlightened left-wing radicals who nevertheless casually asserted male dominance in every arena—and fueled her increasingly more strident brand of feminism. She personalized the Yippie exhortation to “rise up and abandon the creeping meatball”—which means to conquer fear by turning it into an act of defiance and deliberately doing exactly what you most fear—by leaving her insecurities behind, as well as her reliance on other people, to grow into an assertive take-no-prisoners independent feminist woman with no regrets. How she achieves this is the journey motif of her life and this memoir.
Gumbo’s behind-the-scenes anecdotes culled from years of close contact with such a wide assortment of sixties notables is the most valuable part of Yippie Girl. There is no doubt that her ability to consult her FBI files—even if these contained wild exaggerations about her character and her activities—refreshed her memories of those days, more than a half century past, which lends authenticity to the book as a kind of primary source for life among Yippies, Panthers, and fellow revolutionaries of the time. And she successfully puts you in the front seat, with her, as she takes you on a tour of significant moments in the movement and in its immediate periphery in Berkeley, Chicago, and New York. Her style, if not elegant, is highly readable, which is an accomplishment for any author that merits mention in a review of their work.
The weakest part of the book is her unstated insistence on making herself the main character in every situation, which betrays an uncomfortable narcissism that the reader suspects had negative consequences in virtually all of her relationships with both allies and adversaries. Yes, it is her memoir. Yes, her significance in the movement deserves—and has to some degree been denied by history—the kind of notoriety accorded to what after all became household names like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. But the reality is that she was never in a top leadership role. She was not arrested with Pigasus. She was not put on trial with the Chicago 7. You can detect in the narrative that she wishes she was.
This aspect of her personality makes her a less sympathetic figure than she should be as a committed activist tirelessly promoting peace and equality while being unfairly hounded by the FBI. But she carries something else unpleasant around with her that is unnerving: an allegiance to her cause and herself that boasts a kind of ruthless naïveté that rejects correction when challenged either by reality or morality. She condemns Cleaver’s infidelity to his wife, but abandons Stew for a series of random affairs, most notably with a North Vietnamese diplomat who happens to be married. She personally eschews violence, but cheers the Capitol bombing by the Weathermen, domestic terrorists who splintered from the former (SDS) Students for a Democratic Society.
To oppose the unjust U.S. intervention in Vietnam and decry the millions of lives lost across Southeast Asia was certainly an honorable cause, worthy of respect, then and now. But this red diaper baby never grew up: her vision of the just and righteous was distinguished by her admiration of oppressive, totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba—and North Vietnam. Like too many in the antiwar movement, opposition to Washington’s involvement in the Vietnam War strangely morphed into a distorted veneration for Hanoi. There may indeed have been much to condemn about the America of that era in the realm of militarism, imperialism, and inequality, but that hardly justified—then or now—championing communist dictatorships on the other side known for regimes marked by repression and sometimes even terror.
Gumbo visited most of these repressive states that she supported, including North Vietnam. She reveals that while there she settled into the seat of a Russian anti-antiaircraft machine gun much like the one Jane Fonda later sat in. Fonda, branded a traitor by the right, later lamented that move, and publicly admitted it. Gumbo will have none of it: “I have never regretted looking through those gun sights,” she proudly asserts [p203]. She still celebrates the reunification of Vietnam, while ignoring its aftermath. Her stubborn allegiance to ideology over humanity, and her utter inability to evolve as a person further points to her inherent narcissism. She is never wrong. She is always right. Just ask her, she’ll tell you so.
Yippie Girl also lacks a greater context that would make it more accessible to a wider audience. The author assumes the reader is well aware of the climate of extremism that often characterized the United States in the sixties and seventies—like the litany of news events of the first half of 1968 that opened this review—when in fact for most Americans today those days likely seem like accounts from another planet in another dimension. I would have loved to see Gumbo write a bigger book that wasn’t just about her and her community. At the same time, if you are a junkie for American political life back in the day when today’s polarization seems tame by comparison, and youth activism ruled, I would recommend you read Gumbo’s book. I suspect that whether you end up liking or detesting her in the end, she will still crave the attention.
NOTE: This book was obtained as part of an Early Reviewers program
Review of: The Reopening of the Western Mind: The Resurgence of Intellectual Life from the End of Antiquity to the Dawn of the Enlightenment, by Charles Freeman
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
Nearly two decades have passed since Charles Freeman published The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, a brilliant if controversial examination of the intellectual totalitarianism of Christianity that dated to the dawn
Now the renowned classical historian has returned with a follow-up epic, The Reopening of the Western Mind: The Resurgence of Intellectual Life from the End of Antiquity to the Dawn of the Enlightenment, (a revised and repolished version of The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700, previously published in the UK), which recounts the slow—some might brand it glacial—evolution of Western thought that restored legitimacy to independent examination and analysis, and that eventually led to a celebration, albeit a cautious one, of reason over blind faith. In the process, Freeman reminds us that quality, engaging narrative history has not gone extinct, while demonstrating that it is possible to produce a work that is so well-written it is readable by a general audience while meeting the rigorous standards of scholarship demanded by academia. That this is no small achievement will be evident to anyone who—as I do—reads both popular and scholarly history and is struck by the stultifying prose that often typifies the academic. In contrast, here Freeman takes a skillful pen to reveal people, events, and occasionally obscure concepts, much of which may be unfamiliar to those who are not well versed in the medieval period.
Full disclosure: Charles Freeman and I began a long correspondence via email following my review of Closing. I was honored when he selected me as one of his readers for his drafts of Awakening, the earlier UK edition of this work, which he shared with me in 2018—but at the same time I approached this responsibility with some trepidation: given Freeman’s credentials and reputation, what if I found the work to be sub-standard? What if it was simply not a good book? How would I address that? As it was, these worries turned out to be misplaced. It is a magnificent book, and I am grateful to have read much of it as a work in progress, and then again after publication. I did submit several pages of critical commentary to assist the author, to the best of my limited abilities, hone a better final product, and to that end I am proud see my name appear in the “Acknowledgments.” But to be clear: I am an independent reviewer and did not receive compensation for this review.
The fall of Rome remains a subject of debate for historians. While traditional notions of sudden collapse given to pillaging Vandals leaping over city walls and fora engulfed in flames have long been revised, competing visions of a more gradual transition that better reflect the scholarship sometimes distort the historiography to minimize both the fall and what was actually lost. And what was lost was indeed dramatic and incalculable. If, to take just one example, sanitation can be said to be a mark of civilization, the Roman aqueducts and complex network of sewers that fell into disuse and disrepair meant that fresh water was no longer reliable, and sewage that bred pestilence was to be the norm for fifteen centuries to follow. It was not until the late nineteenth century that sanitation in Europe even approached Roman standards. So, whatever the timeline—rapid or gradual—there was indeed a marked collapse. Causes are far more elusive. But Gibbon’s largely discredited casting of Christianity as the villain that brought the empire down tends to raise hackles in those who suspect someone like Freeman attempting to point those fingers once more. But Freeman has nothing to say about why Rome fell, only what followed. The loss of the pursuit of reason was to be as devastating for the intellectual health of the post-Roman world in the West as sanitation was to prove for its physical health. And here Freeman does squarely take aim at the institutional Christian church as the proximate cause for the subsequent consequences for Western thought. This is well-underscored in the bleak assessment that follows in one of the final chapters in The Closing of the Western Mind:
Christian thought that emerged in the early centuries often gave irrationality the status of a universal “truth” to the exclusion of those truths to be found through reason. So the uneducated was preferred to the educated and the miracle to the operation of natural laws … This reversal of traditional values became embedded in the Christian tradition … Intellectual self-confidence and curiosity, which lay at the heart of the Greek achievement, were recast as the dreaded sin of pride. Faith and obedience to the institutional authority of the church were more highly rated than the use of reasoned thought. The inevitable result was intellectual stagnation …
Reopening picks up where Closing leaves off, but the new work is marked by far greater optimism. Rather than dwell on what has been lost, Freeman puts focus not only upon the recovery of concepts long forgotten but how rediscovery eventually sparked new, original thought, as the spiritual and later increasingly secular world danced warily around one another—with a burning heretic all too often staked between them on Europe’s fraught intellectual ballroom. Because the timeline is so long—encompassing twelve centuries—the author sidesteps what could have been a dull chronological recounting of this slow progression to narrow his lens upon select people, events and ideas that collectively marked milestones on the way, which comprise thematic chapters to broaden the scope. This approach thus transcends what might have been otherwise parochial to brilliantly convey the panoramic.
There are many superlative chapters in Reopening, including the very first one, entitled “The Saving of the Texts 500-750.” Freeman seems to delight in detecting the bits and pieces of the classical universe that managed to survive not only vigorous attempts by early Christians to erase pagan thought but the unintended ravages of deterioration that is every archivist’s nightmare. Ironically, the sacking of cities in ancient Mesopotamia begat conflagrations that baked inscribed clay tablets, preserving them for millennia. No such luck for the Mediterranean world, where papyrus scrolls, the favored medium for texts, fell to war, natural disasters, deliberate destruction, as well as to entropy—a familiar byproduct of the second law of thermodynamics—which was not kind in prevailing environmental conditions. We are happily still discovering papyri preserved by the dry conditions in parts of Egypt—the oldest dating back to 2500 BCE—but it seems that the European climate doomed papyrus to a scant two hundred years before it was no more.
Absent printing presses or digital scans, texts were preserved by painstakingly copying them by hand, typically onto vellum, a kind of parchment made from animal skins with a long shelf life, most frequently in monasteries by monks for whom literacy was deemed essential. But what to save? The two giants of ancient Greek philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, were preserved, but the latter far more grudgingly. Fledgling concepts of empiricism in Aristotle made the medieval mind uncomfortable. Plato, on the other hand, who pioneered notions of imaginary higher powers and perfect forms, could be (albeit somewhat awkwardly) adapted to the prevailing faith in the Trinity, and thus elements of Plato were syncretized into Christian orthodoxy. Of course, as we celebrate what was saved it is difficult not to likewise mourn what was lost to us forever. Fortunately, the Arab world put a much higher premium on the preservation of classical texts—an especially eclectic collection that included not only metaphysics but geography, medicine, and mathematics. When centuries later—as Freeman highlights in Reopening —these works reached Europe, they were to be instrumental as tinder to the embers that were to spark first a revival and then a revolution in science and discovery.
My favorite chapter in Reopening is “Abelard and the Battle for Reason,” which chronicles the extraordinary story of scholastic scholar Peter Abelard (1079-1142)—who flirted with the secular and attempted to connect rationalism with theology—told against the flamboyant backdrop of Abelard’s tragic love affair with Héloïse, a tale that yet remains the stuff of popular culture. In a fit of pique, Héloïse’s father was to have Abelard castrated. The church attempted something similar, metaphorically, with Abelard’s teachings, which led to an order of excommunication (later lifted), but despite official condemnation Abelard left a dramatic mark on European thought that long lingered.
There is too much material in a volume this thick to cover competently in a review, but the reader will find much of it well worth the time. Of course, some will be drawn to certain chapters more than others. Art historians will no doubt be taken with the one entitled “The Flowering of the Florentine Renaissance,” which for me hearkened back to the best elements of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, showcasing not only the evolution of European architecture but the author’s own adulation for both the art and the engineering feat demonstrated by Brunelleschi’s dome, the extraordinary fifteenth century adornment that crowns the Florence Cathedral. Of course, Freeman does temper his praise for such achievements with juxtaposition to what once had been, as in a later chapter that recounts the process of relocating an ancient Egyptian obelisk weighing 331 tons that had been placed on the Vatican Hill by the Emperor Caligula, which was seen as remarkable at the time. In a footnote, Freeman reminds us that: “One might talk of sixteenth-century technological miracles, but the obelisk had been successfully erected by the Egyptians, taken down by the Romans, brought by sea to Rome and then re-erected there—all the while remaining intact!”
If I was to find a fault with Reopening, it is that it does not, in my opinion, go far enough to emphasize the impact of the Columbian Experience on the reopening of the Western mind. There is a terrific chapter devoted to the topic, which explores how the discovery of the Americas and its exotic inhabitants compelled the European mind to examine other human societies whose existence had never before even been contemplated. While that is a valid avenue for analysis, it yet hardly takes into account just how earth-shattering 1492 turned out to be—arguably the most consequential milestone for human civilization (and the biosphere!) since the first cities appeared in Sumer—in a myriad of ways, not least the exchange of flora and fauna (and microbes) that accompanied it. But this significance was perhaps greatest for Europe, which had been a backwater, long eclipsed by China and the Arab middle east. It was the Columbian Experience that reoriented the center of the world, so to speak, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, which was exploited to the fullest by the Europeans who prowled those seas and first bridged the continents. It is difficult to imagine the subsequent accomplishments—intellectual and otherwise—had Columbus not landed at San Salvador. But this remains just a quibble that does not detract from Freeman’s overall accomplishment.
Interest in the medieval world has perhaps waned over time, but that is, of course, a mistake: how we got from point A to point B is an important story, even it has never been told before as well as Freeman has told it in Reopening. And it is not an easy story to tell. As the author acknowledges in a concluding chapter: “Bringing together the many different elements that led to the ‘reopening of the western mind’ is a challenge. It is important to stress just how bereft Europe was, economically and culturally, after the fall of the Roman empire compared to what it had been before …”
Those of us given to dystopian fiction, concerned with the fragility of republics and civilization, and perhaps wondering aloud in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic and the rise of authoritarianism what our descendants might recall of us if it all fell to collapse tomorrow, cannot help but be intrigued by how our ancestors coped—for better or for worse—after Rome was no more. If you want to learn more about that, there might be no better covers to crack than Freeman’s The Reopening of the Western Mind. I highly recommend it.
NOTE: Portions of this review also appear in my review of The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700, by Charles Freeman, previously published in the UK, here: Review of: The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700, by Charles Freeman
NOTE: My review of The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, by Charles Freeman, is here: Review of: The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman