Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890. By Rani-Henrik Andersson.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, November 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8032-1073-8, $50. 462 pages.
Review by John T. “Jack” Becker, Texas Tech University
In The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890, Rani-Henrik Andersson takes the “Great Story” approach (as defined by Robert F. Berkhofer of the University of California, Santa Cruz) to write his history of the Lakota Ghost Dance. The Great Story calls for a multicultural approach using the “conflicting voices of gender, race, and class” (xiv). Andersson arranges the book into six chapters, each designed to tell the story of the Ghost Dance from a different group’s point of view; they include, in order, the Lakota, Indian agents, U.S. Army, missionaries, the press, and U.S. Congress. He seeks through this method to write a more realistic history providing a sound reconstruction of events. To a remarkable extent Andersson has achieved the goals he has set for himself.
The Great Story approach to history helps the reader understand the points of view of each group, the relationships between all the groups, and the ways misunderstandings occurred, interests collided, and points of view changed over time (xv).
In the first chapter, Andersson starts with a brief history of the Lakota. He explains how the Lakota ended up on a reservation on the northern plains of the United States as a poor and demoralized people. The psychological and economic condition of the Lakota set the stage for their eventual acceptance of the “new religion.” Andersson writes that the Lakota changed some aspects of the Ghost Dance to fit their specific needs or world view. As the Ghost Dance traveled east, from the west coast, it changed as it was passed on from one Indian group to another; so the Lakota were not the first people to change the Ghost Dance. The Lakota added new features and meanings to the dance, although, at first, the Lakota were slow to adopt it. By September 1890, however, Indian Agent Hugh D. Gallagher wrote that the dancing interfered with reservation life (48).
Andersson brings to light how the Indian agents were split about what to do concerning the Ghost Dance. Some agents, obviously scared and or inexperienced, wanted military assistance almost from the start of the troubles, but more experienced agents did not. The agents were also split as to the cause of the dancing. Only a few realized correctly that the Lakota’s sense of desperation created a climate for the Ghost Dance to flourish. James McLaughlin, Agent at Standing Rock Reservation, realized that if the military came, it would effectively end the agents’ control over the reservations. Events proved McLaughlin correct, as the military was called, and Indian Agents lost control of the reservations.
The Lakota saw the military with a mixture of hate and respect caused by years of warfare between the two groups. Although summoned to protect settlers, some military leaders knew the Indians had good reasons for Ghost Dancing. In a very insightful letter dated November 28, 1890, General Nelson Miles listed the reasons for the problems on the Lakota Reservations. He stated that reduction in the size of their reservation, crop failures, reduction of beef rations, delays in dispersion of rations, and starvation created wide-spread and deep-seated problems. All these problems, and more, lead to increased tensions on the reservations. His letter demonstrates, in some ways, that the military had a deeper understanding of the problems confronting the Lakota than did Indian Agents.
It is hard to comprehend, now, the extent of the control the Government and missionaries had on the reservation. The Lakota had little personal freedom, needing permission to move or visit relatives on other reservations and little freedom to practice their ancient religious rites and customs, much less the “new” Ghost Dance. Many Lakota religious practices, old or new, were actively discouraged or even suppressed by missionaries. In order to stamp out Lakota religion, Christian missionaries sought out Lakota children and taught them Christian stories and songs, which upset many Lakota parents.
According to Andersson, newspapers did little more than trade in rumors, publish alarmist headlines, knowingly print wrong or misleading statements, and in some cases spread outright lies. Many reporters came to the Dakotas to report on another “uprising” and most all of the large eastern newspapers had reporters on the scene. The reporting is described by Andersson as “up to date but wrong” (220-22). Reporters gathered every night, during the crisis, to compare notes and telegraph their stories to their respective newspapers. The tones of stories and editorials changed almost simultaneously, proving to Andersson, collusion between newspapers and reporters (225).
Congress took no notice of the Lakota Ghost Dance until December 3, 1890 and even then, thought the problems manageable and the reports of starvation exaggerated. When Congress finally acted they took the side, quite naturally, of the white settlers, Senator Daniel W. Voorhees being about the only Congressmen who took the Lakota’s side. He warned that the troubles steamed from the Indians’ poor standard of living, not the Ghost Dance. Senator Henry L. Dawes, believed by many to be the “Indian expert” in Congress, believed otherwise and stated that Congress had every right to reduce the Lakota’s annual appropriations.
Andersson believed Senator Voorhees had the correct interpretation of the problems on the reservations. He states tensions were created by the division of the Reservation, recent crop failures, and the fact that few full-bloods were farming (and thus becoming “civilized”). But Congress continued to blame Indian leaders, especially Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Indian officials, and rank-and-file Indians themselves for their plight.
Andersson claims that the Congressional debates of December 1890 show a Congress out of touch with reality and a body depending on too few “experts.” As a body, Congress viewed the Ghost Dance with suspicion, uncertainty, and downright fear. Andersson makes the reasonable claim that the Ghost Dance fighting started December 15, 1890 with the attempted arrest of Sitting Bull, which directly lead to his death (as well as the death of several other Indians). This fact is often left out of other Western History books.
The book is aided by the inclusion of five appendices, one of which is a timeline of events. Although Andersson used numerous secondary sources, their use does not harm the final product. His analysis of events is forthright and his writing clear, although, in a few cases, redundant. But make no mistake, this is a fine work, and Andersson brings much new knowledge to this well-known historical event. Andersson’s use of Berkhofer’s “Great Story” approach to writing history is challenging but rewarding to the reader. Using a wide variety of voices and covering a wide area of time and space can make it difficult for a historian to write a coherent and interesting history. But Andersson has successfully risen to the challenge and written a well-researched and interesting history in The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States.

By Ari Kelman.

Berkeley: University of California Press, May 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-520-25573-9, $39.95. 304 pages.

Review by Elizabeth Whittenburg Ozment, University of Georgia

An important contribution to the study of radio and Jewish-American culture, Ari Kelman’s publication is the first detailed study of Yiddish Radio history in the United States. Kelman’s attention to the impact of media regulations on immigrant radio, and to the use of language as a powerful tool for cultural identification, is valuable. In particular, Kelman demonstrates how American Jews shared a common desire to connect with other Jews. Radio became their virtual community, using the Yiddish language as a boundary to separate insiders from outsiders.Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States not only traces the rise of Yiddish radio, but also follows patterns of Jewish immigration, stratification of power among radio stations, twentieth-century American nationalism’s effect on the use of Yiddish in the United States, and the transformation of media outlets during times of war. The book is organized chronologically spanning the period from 1920 to 1980, and each chapter concentrates on a particular theme. The first theme is Jewish culture in the margin of the larger American culture. Religious traditions made Jewish radio different from mainstream American radio from the onset. Jewish customs and holidays impacted the days and times Yiddish radio could be broadcast, and what advertisements were appropriate for Jewish audiences. English language programming remained important to these stations, and broadcasters were constantly challenged by the English-Yiddish balancing act. The radio created a space for Jewish immigrants to maintain their religious cultural identity, while assimilating into English-American culture.

The second theme is the relationship between American nationalism and radio regulation. Although Yiddish radio communicated to a relatively small portion of the American population, immigration restrictions in the 1920s led to a push for English homogenization, causing Yiddish radio to appear as a threat to the national agenda. Broadcasters reacted to these threats by creating shows that encouraged assimilation. This prepares the book’s third theme: Jewish-American representation. Who were the Yiddish radio personalities? How did they describe themselves, what techniques did they use to connect with listeners, and how did their audiences respond? How did these radio personalities represent a Jewish-American identity? Yiddish radio listeners desired to hear people on the radio whom they could relate to, and who exhibited qualities they found in themselves. Kelman argues that Yiddish radio provided a framework from which American Jews could reflect upon and make choices about their identities.

Perhaps the most engaging theme in the book is the effect of World War II on Yiddish radio and the Jewish-American population. The Yiddish language allowed Jewish radio broadcasters to comment on World War II with more freedom than their English radio counterparts. Yiddish was especially symbolic during this time, aurally connecting American Jews to European Jews. These radio stations vigorously encouraged the purchase of war-bonds, which were equally symbolic as expressions of American patriotism with the intention of supporting European Jews. Radio personalities transformed listeners from passive audiences into activists who supported American efforts for Jewish causes.

Station Identification is a well-written product of intense archival research, and a significant addition to the history of Yiddish culture; however, for the ethnomusicologist and indeed for the general reader, something is lacking. The reader only experiences this history through Kelman’s voice. There are no transcriptions, and quotes from broadcasters or audiences are few, making the voices of Yiddish radio seem suppressed. For a book concerned with the verbal communication of a specific community, and their important linguistic codes, the absence of these texts is troubling. To the author’s credit, he does include the web addresses of the American Jewish Congress and the Yiddish Radio Project in the bibliography. Yiddish radio sound files from these sites truly complement Kelman’s book. In the endnotes, the author does reference recordings of radio shows, and directs the reader to audio streaming sites when available. But as the book stands, the reader must have an outward interest in searching for these sources in order to experience Yiddish radio in sound or text. Regardless of these criticisms, the book is an important contribution to Yiddish studies. The main themes will easily translate to pop-culture studies involving other immigrant communities, and ought to interest readers from a variety of disciplines.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Music in German Immigrant Theater: New York City, 1840-1940.

By John Koegel.

Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, June 2009. Cloth with CD: ISBN 9781580462150, $80.00. 620 pages.

Review by Reba Wissner, Brandeis University

Of all of the academic treatment in the area of cultural and immigration studies, one area that has largely been ignored is musical theater during the height of immigration to the United States. Although recently this has been remedied somewhat in the form of conferences and articles on related topics regarding various immigrant groups, there is still a large gap in this area of study. John Koegel’s book, Music in German Immigrant Theater: New York City, 1840-1940, chronicles the performances of German-language theater in New York City’s Klein Deutschland (Little Germany) at the height of German immigration, when New York City was a hub for the newly-immigrated gentry from Germany.

The book forms an inventory of the musical plays, farces, operas, and operettas performed in New York’s Kleine Deutschland, as well as the different theaters in which they were performed. It allows us to examine this output in the context of the larger history of the American musical theater. The scope of this study is broad, as much as it focuses on specific case studies. Koegel did a fantastic job with this study, considering the abundance of primary public source material and lack of private documents of the actors, musicians, composers, authors, and impresarios of the German American stage. Much of the discussion focuses on the background of the various musical plays, often with a synopsis, and paired with primary source reviews of the performances. The book abounds with statistical data, both performance-wise and monetary. A variety of photographs and reproduced programs and advertisements allow the reader to contextualize these performances into the time and environment in which they occurred.

Koegel’s study is divided into eleven chapters with thirteen appendices representing the core of the author’s thorough research. The book is further divided into three parts. Part I presents a chronological history of the German American theater from its inception in 1840 to 1918, examining the various performance spaces, impresarios, repertory, and audiences. Part II closely examines the careers of some of the principal performers on the German immigrant stage, as well as the portrayal of German Americans in literary, theatrical, and popular musical culture and how these portrayals affected the German American immigrant stage. Part III is almost solely dedicated to Adolf Philipp, his career and his contributions to German American musical theater. The book’s conclusion discusses the German American Musical Stage of the 1920s and 1930s, post-Adolf Philipp, and its subsequent decline. Koegel’s copious translations allow the non-German speaker to understand the titles and texts. A CD accompanies the book and is filled with much of the music described in the book.

The author’s main goal is to depict the German American theater in the United States as a method of acculturation for immigrants. More than 80 American cities and towns had German stages, and many of these were of a professional or semi-professional nature. While his study focuses on New York, he peripherally discusses equivalent examples from German American theater in other cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, and Milwaukee, which is helpful for putting the performances in New York City into a larger cultural context. The book shows the versatility of each of the theater companies, each having the ability to stage operas, operettas, farces, and musical plays, all within the same season. Copious reconstruction of extant archival sources and documents allow the reader to see the bigger picture. Additionally, the book contains biographical profiles of the various theater owners relevant to the study, but the main biography that the book contains is that of Adolf Philipp.

Some of the songs are described using musical terminology, but for those who have had no musical training, this method is not detrimental to understanding the author’s point since it is these pieces that are found on the book’s accompanying CD. Koegel includes musical examples beginning in Chapter 8 (Part III), when he delves specifically into the works related to Adolf Philipp. These examples printed in piano and vocal transcription would be handy for the musicologist or music theorist intending on performing an in-depth analytical examination of the songs, but are not necessary for the non-music reader to understand the author’s point. They are also all included on the CD.

My main critique of the book is that it is almost exclusively about Adolf Philipp and his German American theatrical career, so much so that nearly half the book focuses on this subject. It is almost as if Parts I and II combined and Part III could have formed two separate books since there is virtually no overlap between the former two parts and the latter part. Additionally, the author spends most of his time on the historical and contextual elements of the plays rather than on the actual music; the music then almost seems a minimal component of the book and disproportionate to the discussion in the rest of the book, besides contrary to the title. The only music discussed is that of Philipp, and it is only found in Part III of the book. John Koegel’s book fills the gap in studies of music, theater, and immigration. This book will be of interest to readers interested in music and theater history and cultural studies. Scholars exploring the significance of turn-of-the-century immigration from Europe to the United States, its implications, and its resulting cultural creations will find much of interest in this study. Koegel’s study is as comprehensive a treatment as you’ll find on this little-studied subject and is a starting point for more involved and focused work on the subject. Hopefully it will form a gateway to similar studies of the contributions to musical theater of other immigrant groups.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The War in Words: Reading the Dakota Conflict through the Captivity Literature
By Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, May 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8032-1370-8, 2009, $60. 398 pages.
Review by Wendy Lucas Castro, University of Central Arkansas
In The War in Words, Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola uses twenty-four captivity narratives in what she describes as “part literary history, part textual analysis, part historiography, and part cultural contextualization” (1) to examine the Dakota War of 1862. Not only does she utilize these narratives to discuss a single war, an innovative approach which could easily be used to study other Euro-Indian wars; Derounian-Stodola also draws on Anglo, German, and Indian (including mixed-blood) narratives who were either eyewitnesses or participants. These narratives are supplemented with biographical and archival evidence, including unpublished letters and coverage of the war in local newspapers to supplement details from the narratives and use them to corroborate each other’s memories. What these accounts reveal is a deeply divided community. Dakotas were split on whether to participate in the war or support friends and white relatives who lived in the area. Anglos characterized the Dakota involved as both evil murderers and benevolent saviors who kept them from being harmed by others. Interestingly, some of these Anglo captives understood that whites had been partly responsible for the violence, and attributed hunger and the Civil War as contributing factors as well. Germans tended to blame both Indians and Anglos, taking the opportunity in their narratives to lash out against both groups.
Mindful of the captivity genre, some of the most compelling moments are when Derounian-Stodola analyzes deviations from the standard captivity narrative, as these moments often reveal personal insights the author had tried to veil in the safety of the narratives’ formulaic nature. By bringing together a variety of voices—Anglo, German, and Indian—and broadening captivity to include Indians captured by other Indians, as well as Indians who were cultural captives to Christianity and physically confined captives in the aftermath of the violence, we get a truer sense of what this war meant to the individuals who experienced it and to the community that tried to make sense of it after the war was over. The result is an impressive reconstruction not only of the war, but of how these individuals (taking into account gender, race, and class) remembered and interpreted this experience. A chronology and summary paragraph on each of the captivity narratives used are particularly helpful, as is the division of the book into white and Indian narratives. Everyone teaching the Dakota War or captivity narratives, or seeking a cultural lens into a microcosm of nineteenth-century Indian Wars, will find this an essential addition to their library. Historians will wish for more regard for the causes, effects, and details of the war itself, but as this is not the author’s purpose it should not be considered a weakness. Rather, Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola has given us an interesting and effective way to think about this complicated moment in Minnesota history—a moment many groups are still struggling to come to terms with.

Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class, and Success in Silicon Valley
By Shalini Shankar. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, November 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8223-4300-4, $79.95; paper: ISBN 978-0-8223-4315-8, $22.95. 264 pages.
Review by Rupa Pillai, University of Oregon, Eugene
From pop stars chanting Sanskrit to individuals practicing yoga, the American public has had a fascination with South Asian culture since the Sixties. However, the exotic cachet of the subcontinent does not translate into public understanding of the growing South Asian community residing stateside. In some ways, this fascination spurs the stereotypes that simplify a diverse group of individuals. Images of engineers, doctors, and over-achieving children conjured by the label “South Asian” feed the myth of the model minority, thus silencing portions that do not adhere. And while the increasingly visibility of brown faces in the public sphere, such as Gov. Bobby Jindal and Kal Penn, are shattering these myopic perceptions, more scholarship is needed to examine the cultural, historical, and political baggage that affects the South Asian diaspora in America.
In her ethnography Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class, and Success in Silicon Valley, Shalini Shankar unpacks this baggage in connection to the South Asian teen experience. Growing up in America, South Asian teens negotiate the polarized spaces of home and school to form an identity that is informed by their heritage and the white, hegemonic reality they reside in.Over eight chapters, Shankar dissects the hyphenated identities of these teens in pre-9/11, America. She explores how race, gender, and class affect these experiences and how language, culture, and immigration history influence one’s identity and community. With her playful use of slang, Desi Land is an insightful addition to the growing diaspora scholarship that grants the reader access to the exclusive networks inherent to all high school environments.
Inspired by the promise of the Silicon Valley, Desi Land denotes the imagined space “[which] is inflected both with a spirit of wonder and enthusiasm as well as immense obstacles of class and race for those who are not well positioned to realize their dreams” (2). Utilizing her own experience as a Desi (another term for the South Asian diaspora), Shankar navigates between the different cliques that compose the South Asian student population of three local high schools. The Desi teens in this study come from different economic backgrounds, practice different religions, aspire to different futures, but share similar experiences as members of the diaspora.
Each chapter begins with a brief profile of a Desi teen that introduces the focus of the chapter and provides a window into the student’s life. Chapter 1 briefly introduces the history of Desis in the Silicon Valley, including an account of the struggle for citizenship and the ambiguous definition of “Asian.” The author quickly dispels the stereotypes of the South Asian diaspora by discussing the waves of immigration. Shankar also discusses the transition “from being undesirable, racially non-White immigrants to sought after residents whose ambiguous racial status skews closer to White” (26). Chapter 2 describes Desi youth culture. While these youths are aware of the wider, social definition of Desi, they develop their own social categories to define themselves and their peers in high school that are influenced by race and class. Chapter 3 explores how consumption and material culture define success and the emergent practice akin to “Keeping up with the Jones,” which could be described as “Keeping up with the Patels.” Chapter 4 and 5 explore language use and the relationship between Desi youths and other racial groups in high school. Chapter 6 and 7 consider how the family and community affect the Desi teens’ actions and ability to succeed.
A key strength of this text is Shankar’s use of the inventive slang that composes the everyday lingo of the Desi teen. Instead of simply considering whether these teens speak another language, she provides informative examples of how language is used and how terms are re-appropriated. Borrowing from African-American culture and re-imagining Hindi words, these teens’ ability to code-switch and create their unique slang mirrors their hyphenated existence. For example, the acronym “FOB” meaning “fresh off the boat” is reworked to mean both cool, “FOBulous,” and its original meaning, “FOBby.” By integrating this slang into her writing, the teens’ voices reverberate off the text.
Though she addresses a spectrum of issues from community gossip to views on dating and arranged marriage, Shankar’s efforts are weakened by its silence on how non-South Asian students perceive Desis. Certain episodes provide the reader a glimpse of other racial groups’ frustrations in this context and demonstrate how this perspective could have improved Shankar’s analysis. In particular, the discussion of “Cultural Days” held in the schools to promote multiculturalism introduces the reader to the racial dynamics of the high school. The failure of these events to include and represent the student body reflects the failed concept of multiculturalism, but also alludes to underlying animosities between racial groups. Additionally, the appropriation of African-American and Latino culture poses questions for further inquiry. In particularly, how does the use of “Brown” in the Desi community challenge Latino political identity? Do Desis actually claim “Brownness,” or is this term confined to her analysis? This superb text would have been strengthened further if she explored such issues, but it does present Shankar future avenues for research.
Shankar concludes her book by briefly recounting her recent visits to the Silicon Valley. Not only providing updates of the whereabouts of participating teens, the final chapter and post-script introduces how conceptions of race, gender, and class have changed in post-9/11 America. Revisiting the teens again in this less optimistic time where economic security is fleeting and xenophobia is on the rise, Shankar is met with new issues for future investigation. This bleak conclusion serves as a call for further inquiry, which the reader, now well informed of the history and context, will be well positioned to pursue. With Desi Land, Shankar has succeeded in presenting a well-researched, well-executed ethnography that captures an American experience that will benefit Asian American Studies and beyond.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Description of New Netherland
Original text by Adriaen van der Donck. New translation by Trans. Diederik Willem Goedhuys. Edited by Charles T. Gehring and William A. Starna
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, October 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8032-1088-2, $40.00. 208 pages.
Review by Wendy Lewis Castro, University of Central Arkansas
Historians of early America have long lamented that so little extensive scholarly work has been done on the middle colonies, due mainly to language issues. This is particularly the case for New Netherlands, whose Dutch sources have limited American scholars of those texts that have been translated into English. One such invaluable source is Adriaen van der Donck’s A Description of New Netherland, which had been originally translated in 1841 by Jeremiah Johnson. Unfortunately, Johnson’s translation was riddled with errors, which the editors note in the preface, giving the following example: “Johnson translates this passage thus: ‘Their men on the breast and about the mouth were bare, and their women like ours, hairy.’ Diederick Goedhuys correctly translates the same passage: ‘The Indian men are entirely bald on the chest and around the mouth like women; ours, quite hairy’” (xviii). However, it is not only this accurate translation that makes this new edition invaluable, but also its detailed notes made possible by the translator’s access to the Woordenboek der Netherlandsche Taal (1889-1998), a massive Dutch dictionary, New York State Library’s reference collection, and the New Netherland Project’s seventeenth-century collection. The result is an annotated edition with new insight into the text, from natural history to linguistics, that had been lost in the previous translation. The addition of a brief biography of van der Donck and the original page numbers in the margin provide modern readers with an informative and user-friendly version of a much-overlooked guide to New Netherlands before it became the English colony New York.
Van der Donck dedicates the first half of the book to a physical description of the colony. Typical for this genre, Van der Donck describes geographic boundaries, rivers, soil, trees, vegetation, animals, and seasons among others that Dutch settlers encountered when they disembarked the Halve Maen in 1609. This section also describes how imported crops and animals fared in the new climate.The second section focuses on detailed ethnographic descriptions of Indians, whom the Dutch called wilden. It is this information that has provided ethnohistorians with a lens into the food, dress, housing, religion, rituals, medicines, warfare, agriculture, hunting, and laws of the group of tribes collectively known as the Iroquois. At the end of this section are two short pieces: the first on beavers (their habitat, medicines that can be made out of their testicles and urine, body structure, behaviors, homes, gestation, and how to capture), the second a conversation between a Dutch man and a Dutch colonist of New Netherland, which answers some questions the Dutch man had after reading van der Donck’s Description: for example, Is there danger being surrounded by both English colonists and Indians? Finally, an appendix with a list and identification of Latinized plant names found in the text completes the work.
Geographers, historians, and anthropologists will find this edition an invaluable authority for their own work on New Netherland, in addition to its use for undergraduates who would find the work both interesting and accessible. Its one weakness is the use of endnotes rather than footnotes, which, as the notes often contain critical pieces of information, makes it cumbersome to flip back and forth between them and the text. Long underutilized, this edition will place A Description of New Netherland alongside Thomas Harriot’s A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, John Smith’s A Description of New England, and William Wood’s New England's Prospect as essential primary-source narratives of the early days of the New World.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Lynching to Belong: Claiming Whiteness through Racial Violence. By Cynthia Skove Nevels. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, October 2007. Cloth: ISBN 978-1585445899, $24.95. 208 pages.
Review by John Barnhill, Ph. D.

Whiteness was so valued by immigrants in east central Texas and, perhaps, elsewhere, that during the nineteenth century they threw over the civilization they had brought with them in order to escape from subordinate status and gain admission into the white over-class, even though that class was built on racism and racial violence. So contends Cynthia Skove Nevels in a short but well-argued examination of three instances of immigrant involvement in lynching during the late nineteenth century.For some time a fashionable approach to understanding the incorporation of immigrants into the dominant society has been “whiteness studies.” The emphasis is on the ways in which immigrants adapt to make themselves palatable to white society, to lighten themselves into acceptability. One argument is that the white population initially classifies newcomers as non-white, and in a black-white society the only non-white is black. Asians, South Europeans, Irish, Germans—all were initially black to the dominant “white” society that rejected or marginalized them. And black was not a color that anyone wanted to be, for black meant bottom of the pile, mudsill, convenient scapegoat, marginally human perhaps. Definitely, black was bad, and immigrants were quick to realize that if they wanted to move out of the “black” category into some sort of whiteness they had to take on traits of the dominant society. Germans and Irish have been for a long time fully white, while Asians still stand somewhat outside the door but safely away from the black mudsill. Nevels uses a whiteness studies approach in her study of immigrants and lynching in east central Texas during the late nineteenth century.Before dealing with the lynchings themselves, she has to develop the context, and she does so at relative length, devoting several chapters to discussing the economic and social development of the region, particularly the rise of a black-white culture that had no place for those of uncertain color. She discusses the founding of various towns, their economic progress or lack of same, the black towns and the white with black neighborhoods. And she notes, accurately, that lynching, particularly of blacks by whites, was common (as it was to continue to be after the period in question, when there was no longer an issue of the status of immigrants with unfamiliar background.) Thus, lynching became a component of white culture that immigrant groups assumed to acquire whiteness—as well as a sign on the part of the white majority that the immigrant group had moved into whiteness or at least a step away from blackness.In one case the victim was an Italian immigrant. Her attacker was lynched, but only in conjunction with those accused in a later attack on a white girl. Her attacker languished in jail, and her retribution remained irrelevant for months, Nevels says, because Italians had not yet crossed the line into whiteness, a line that separated inviolate white women from other females, who were considered less honorable and were thus less likely to be avenged for having their honor besmirched. In another instance, an Irish man provided the key evidence against an accused black man, becoming white by helping the white community in a critical time. And, of course, there were the immigrant communities that accepted if not abetted the necessary lynching that their white neighbors performed against black malefactors.Nevels notes the newspaper coverage of immigrant groups, pointing out the tendency to hyphenate descriptions of foreigners: Italian-American, Bohemian-American, and Irish-American, for instance. This classification by ethnicity, she contends, is comparable to the practice of identifying blacks but not whites by race. A more benign interpretation is that the editors and the readership were mostly “American,” with no knowledge of what hyphen might apply to their ancestry. Perhaps they added the prefix to make a distinction between newcomer ethnic and old settler. A hyphen is not necessarily offensive anyway. There were more than enough really offensive slang terms in common use, had the editors truly intended to degrade the Czech- or Irish-Americans in the community.Nevels writes well, and she provides solid context for the examples she uses to argue her position. Her documentation is solid, and illustrations help to clarify what is a relatively brief work. However well-documented and argued, Lynching to Belong is not by any means a final answer to a difficult and controversial question. One case study, no matter how thoroughly documented, cannot be definitive, particularly one that addresses only a handful of cases out of the hundreds of available lynchings.The field of whiteness studies has its critics. Aside from having difficulty with establishing what whiteness might be and who owns it, whiteness studies seems to offer glib answers to a complex set of issues. And it slights class, religion, and other differences that separate groups. Rednecks are not considered white in some circles because they lack the dominant culture. To some critics the whiteness interpretation boils down to “to get along, go along.” That seems a bit light to account for acceptance or participation in an act of violence that flies in the face of most ethical and moral constraints that in theory apply to civilized behavior.Nevels makes a valiant effort but falls slightly short, as have other practitioners of whiteness studies. Still, she brings a fresh perspective to the perplexing issue of what causes virulent crowd behavior such as lynching. When she and other young scholars find additional examples that substantiate her argument and that have no effective alternative explanation, then she will earn the distinction of originating a new interpretation. In the meantime, she has created a solid work that the scholarly community should not ignore.