World War II Series (Part Three): Emperor Hirohito

The Impotent Emperor: Hirohito

Content warning: explicit descriptions of mutilations, sexual assault, violence, and death. (However, there are no images displaying this content.) No one said WWII was a walk in the park.


One of the primary reasons Mussolini was able to exert so much power over Italy was its meek king. The diminutive in size Victor Emmanuel III was also diminutive in power. Japan would become victim to the same problem.

Emperor Hirohito was born in 1901. His grandfather, the great Emperor Meiji, dictated how he was raised and educated. Throughout his life, he was taught stoicism and the isolation his royal birth had created. The young emperor ascended to power in 1926. He was entering into a changing world - a world that had seen World War I. Japan had previously had an alliance with Britain during World War I. But Britain allowed their alliance to expire in 1923. The League of Nations (specifically the U.K. and the U.S.) exacerbated global relations with Japan by quashing a racial equality law proposed by Japan. The U.S. followed up with this injustice by enacting the Exclusionary Act. This Act barred Japanese citizens from immigrating to the United States. This embittered Japan to the Western nations. 

The worldwide Great Depression hit Japan, which responded with increased imperial militarism. Japan sought a reason for invading China and decided upon a covert operation to attack its own railway. A weak explosive detonated, and though it did little damage, Japan used it as an excuse to invade. Japan invaded Manchuria (a resource-rich part of China) in 1931, apparently without authorization. But the emperor did nothing. Japan instituted a puppet regime in Manchuria and these events would eventually escalate into the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. 

The slow crawl towards WWII involved a number of blows against any Japanese inclinations towards neutrality. A communist assassination attempt on the emperor’s life led to a lifelong fear of communism. Prime Minister Tsuyoshi, a moderate politician, was murdered by a national extremist. This effectively ended any civilian control of the military. Hirohito's paranoia was further exacerbated by an internal rebellion against the crown. Sympathizers within the Japanese government meant efforts to quash the rebellion were slow. After the war, Hirohito would claim the only direct intervention he made in politics was announcing he would lead the royal guard himself to stop the rebellion. However, there was no need to follow through with his promise as the government quickly mobilized after his proclamation. 

Succumbing to the global fear of communism, Japan signed the anti-communist agreement with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It is important to note, however, that while Japan was nationalist, it was never fascist. (Despite having fascist organizations.) Hirohito was also never a dictator or an authoritarian monarch. He was a constitutional monarch and held a more ceremonial role in politics. He had the power and influence to intervene, but it was unlikely he made any of the decisions outline below. His worst crime was his decision not to stop them. 

 Bloody Saturday - an image of an infant on the train tracks (the body of his dead mother was nearby) in Shanghai after a Japanese bomb attack. August 1937.

Bloody Saturday - an image of an infant on the train tracks (the body of his dead mother was nearby) in Shanghai after a Japanese bomb attack. August 1937.

In 1937, Japan went to war with China. When they came upon Nanking, a city of 500,000, the Japanese military decided to make an example of them. By the time of Japanese arrival, the Chinese military and political leaders had fled. Many within the city hoped the Japanese Army would leave a city of half a million defenseless civilians alone. They did not. What followed came to be called The Rape of Nanking. Over half of the population was murdered. Women were gang-raped and sexually mutilated by the thousands. (You can read more about this atrocity and personal accounts from victims and witnesses here.)

"The seventh and last person in the first row was a pregnant woman. The soldier thought he might as well rape her before killing her, so he pulled her out of the group to a spot about ten meters away. As he was trying to rape her, the woman resisted fiercely . . . The soldier abruptly stabbed her in the belly with a bayonet. She gave a final scream as her intestines spilled out. Then the solder stabbed the fetus, with its umbilical cord clearly visible, and tossed it aside." - Tang Junshan (survivor/witness of Nanking)

I felt like [I was] killing pigs.
— Kozo Tadokoro (former Japanese soldier, recalling Nanking)

It was this sort of ideology that led to human experimentation that would make Dr. Mengele balk. In Unit 731, the Japanese military and scientists tortured civilians and POWs (discussed in more detail here.) 

The Imperial General Headquarters, responsible only to the Emperor, were the ones to order the attack on Nanking.

 The men responsible for the Rape of Nanking. Top row, left to right: Sugiyama Hajime - Minister of War, Hiroyasu Fushimi - Chief of Navy, Kan'in Kotohito - Chief of Army. Second row, left to right: Yonai Mitsumasa - Minister of Navy, Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaru

The men responsible for the Rape of Nanking. Top row, left to right: Sugiyama Hajime - Minister of War, Hiroyasu Fushimi - Chief of Navy, Kan'in Kotohito - Chief of Army. Second row, left to right: Yonai Mitsumasa - Minister of Navy, Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaru

Did the Emperor order these attacks? No. Did he know about them? Unlikely in any detail. But in his apathy, he allowed such atrocities to happen. His only concern and the only question he asked HQ was: how long will the war against China take?


Emperor Hirohito was initially against going to war alongside Italy and Germany. He broke his Imperial Silence to speak at the Imperial Conference, reciting a poem from his grandfather, Emperor Meiji.

The seas of the four directions—
all are born of one womb:
why, then, do the wind and waves rise in discord?

The attack on Pearl Harbor was opposed by the Emperor, who did not want to bring the U.S. into the war. However, he believed that stopping the attack would have led to a coup d'etat, resulting in his own death. It was his belief that the war was inevitable and without his unifying presence, Japan would have collapsed. 

Over the course of the war, Hirohito refused to intervene, even when it became clear he could not win. He allowed the militants to dictate the actions of the country, including the creation of the kamikaze pilots, who flew suicide missions against the enemy. Eventually, a series of losses caused the Prime Minister Konoe to eventually resign after Hirohito rebuked his urgings to surrender.

Of course His Majesty is a pacifist, and there is no doubt he wished to avoid war. When I told him that to initiate war was a mistake, he agreed. But the next day, he would tell me: “You were worried about it yesterday, but you do not have to worry so much.” Thus, gradually, he began to lean toward war. And the next time I met him, he leaned even more toward. In short, I felt the Emperor was telling me: my prime minister does not understand military matters, I know much more. In short, the Emperor had absorbed the view of the army and navy high commands.

The Emperor desired one final victory. But his hesitation was lethal. Under the misguided hope that the next battle would turn the tide of the war, he was responsible for the deaths of thousands more people. 1945 signaled the death throes of the war. With the USSR declaring war on Japan and the atomic bombs dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan was left little choice but to surrender in August of 1945. 

While many of the ministers and government officials were tried and convicted of war crimes, Hirohito was granted immunity. The U.S., too, believed he was a unifying force for the Japanese people. The Japanese military was disbanded and the Emperor had to repudiate to the public the semi-divine power of the Emperor and Japanese ideas of racial superiority, which had been cultivated leading up to the war.

Emperor Hirohito continued to rule until his death from complications from cancer in 1989. He was and is still regarded as a great emperor and an honorable hero in Japan. He was given the posthumous name Showa, after the era over which he ruled. Showa means "period of enlightened peace/harmony." An irony, if there ever was one.

World War II Series (Part Two): Mussolini

Subordinate Machismo: Mussolini

Content warning: imagery of dead bodies.

Oft cited alongside Hitler and Nazi Germany are his counterparts in Japan and Italy. The three nations – and their leaders – created the Axis Powers. Benito Mussolini of Italy and Emperor Hirohito of Japan have been cast into the shadow of Hitler’s atrocities in the Holocaust. These leaders have become a footnote in history books. But, if they are to be a footnote, they should read: 

1. Benito Mussolini was the founder of Fascism, which gave rise to Hitler’s Nazi Party.

2. Emperor Hirohito’s ambivalence enabled some of the worst human experimentation and torture of innocent civilians of WWII.

Benito Mussolini


From bully to schoolteacher, from a pacifist to a soldier, from a socialist to a fascist, Benito Mussolini underwent many transformations in his life. Mussolini was born in Italy in 1883 to a Catholic schoolteacher and a socialist blacksmith. Young Mussolini was a bully. He stabbed another student when he was 11 years old. He later followed in the footsteps of both his mother and his father by becoming a socialist and a schoolteacher. His beliefs were vented through a socialist newspaper. His paper was filled with  his anti-government, anti-war, anti-Catholic, and anti-monarchy ideologies.

 Mugshot from Switzerland ca. 1913. 

Mugshot from Switzerland ca. 1913. 

The creator of Fascism was described as “a revolutionary socialist with deep anarchic roots and a highly developed affinity for revolutionary labor-unionism.” (If you have read the mini-blog on fascism, you'll understand why this is so baffling.) He became one of Italy’s most prominent socialists, denouncing Italy’s “imperialist war” in Libya. (Remember this when we talk about later incursions into Abyssinia ordered by Mussolini.)

That is, until WWI. Italy’s socialists split between neutralists and interventionalists. The official stance of the Italian Socialist Party was to remain neutral. Mussolini himself initially supported this idea. However, as the socialists appeared to continually fail Italy and its soldiers, Mussolini became more supportive of the idea of intervention. He became critical of the weakness of the Italian Socialist Party. To Mussolini, the Central Powers (which included Germany) were the aggressors. Italy could benefit from intervening and reclaiming Italian-majority lands from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Mussolini was kicked out of the socialist newspaper and ousted from the Italian Socialist Party, so he began his own newspaper. The once neutral, socialist Mussolini began taking money from English industrialists. The British Secret Service also gave him funding in exchange for printing anti-pacifist propaganda.

Fascism’s Birth

 Mussolini as a WWI soldier in 1917.

Mussolini as a WWI soldier in 1917.

By 1919, Italy was on the brink of collapse. It suffered from rampant unemployment and fear of a communist uprising. (Somewhat discussed in this blog post and to be discussed in further detail in a future post.) Mussolini returned from WWI, having been wounded in a training exercise, with a renewed nationalist vigor. He believed that the men returning from war should be the new elite. They should receive land for putting their lives on the line for their country.

Early on, Mussolini was interested in socialist philosophers like Karl Marx. But he was also fascinated with theories by Nietzsche. In particular, he was interested in the notion of “übermensch,” a German phrase meaning “over human.” It was a term coined by Nietzsche to describe a drive for humanity to create a better human. Hitler and Mussolini would hijack and distort this term. Hitler would use it to push his “Aryan Race” agenda and would also coin the term “untermenschen” to describe “subhumans,” such as Jews. (Nietzsche himself vehemently opposed Anti-Semitism.)

Drawing on inspiration from people like Plato and Gabriele D’Annunzio,  Mussolini created the Fascist Party. This party was ultra-nationalist, anti-egalitarian, anti-democratic, classist, aggressive in foreign policy, and believed in totalitarianism and forcible militarization of the state. Mussolini drew people in with charismatic speeches. He promised to bring back the glory days of the Roman Empire and believed it needed a new emperor for the people to pledge fealty to. And that role could only be filled by himself. Mussolini was called “Il Duce” or “the Boss.” In 1922, he laid out his plan to take his massive, violent black-shirted fascist militia and march upon the Parliament. His goal: to wrest the Prime Minister seat for himself.

It worked. The king feared a civil war if he denied Mussolini’s demands. He also thought fascism would be a better option than communism, so he relented. Upon becoming prime minister, Mussolini began consolidating power. He put men he could manipulate into cabinet seats. He abolished all political parties but the fascist party in 1925.

Revolutions are not made by saints.
— Benito Mussolini

Male Insecurity's Poster Child

 Upon Mussolini’s entry into power, he started clumsily playing the role of the “gentlemen.” In order to impress the elites, he attempted to act as if he had always been part of the upper-echelons of society. This was a tactic he would use continually throughout his life. He would change his mind or himself to appeal to the whims of the people. Mussolini was a deeply insecure person - obsessed with a façade of machismo and virile masculinity. He unabashedly took mistresses, despite being married with a daughter. He used propaganda to further his infallible image - one of a macho warlord.

 Mussolini inspecting Italian troops in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). 

Mussolini inspecting Italian troops in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). 

He joined the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations formed after WWI). Shortly after, he spit on the Treaty of Versailles by attacking Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). He felt Abyssinia was an easy target and wanted his slice of African colonial expansion. He used poison gas against the people. The death toll reached 500,000. His actions in Abyssinia would later lead to WWII. From him, Hitler learned that the Treaty of Versailles could be broken with no consequences.

Enter Hitler

 Mussolini and Hitler in 1936, after their official Axis had been formed.

Mussolini and Hitler in 1936, after their official Axis had been formed.

Adolf Hitler began to rise to power in Germany in the 1930s, well after Mussolini had established rule over Italy. He was a fan of Mussolini, even writing him a letter asking him for an autograph. Mussolini declined. Hitler modeled Nazism after Fascism, though the Anti-Semitic, racial purity issue was unique to Nazism.

Nothing will make me believe that biologically pure races can be shown to exist today.
— Benito Mussolini

Mussolini would later (like many of his stances) change his mind to appease others.

Eventually, Mussolini would come to accept Hitler as a junior partner. He did, however, have a healthy fear of the military strength of Germany. This power structure would not last long. Hitler’s rapid militarization and expansion of power shoved Mussolini into the subordinate role. Mussolini’s attack on Abyssinia spelled ruin for the Italian economy and Italy’s power on the world stage. He tried to fight back with anti-Hitler propaganda, but failed.

The Munich Agreement forced Mussolini into the role of peacemaker between Hitler and the Allies. He facilitated the arrangement, giving Hitler the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia in exchange for his promise (broken within a year) not to seize any more land in Europe. Although Mussolini was celebrated for this, his role diminished his reputation as a warmonger.

 Image taken during the Munich Agreement. From left to right: Neville Chamberlain (prime minister of Britain), Eduoard Daladier (prime minister of France), Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Galeazzo Ciano (the Italian foreign minister and Mussolini's son-in-law). 

Image taken during the Munich Agreement. From left to right: Neville Chamberlain (prime minister of Britain), Eduoard Daladier (prime minister of France), Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Galeazzo Ciano (the Italian foreign minister and Mussolini's son-in-law). 

The Pact of Steel would cement Mussolini’s subordination. The Pact said Italy would go to war if Germany did. This was in May 1939. In September, Hitler would invade Poland, causing Britain and France to declare war on Germany. Italy would be dragged into the war. The world would soon become the stage for their petty betrayals. In November 1939, the Non-Aggression Pact arranged between the USSR and Germany became public knowledge. Mussolini had not known about this agreement in advance. As a response, Italy invaded Greece in 1940, intent on making land grabs without Hitler’s knowledge. Italy also invaded multiple African states. But these invasions all ended in abject failure, forcing Mussolini to seek help from Germany to win the wars he had started. Mussolini blustered and blamed the soldiers for the failures, not himself.

He constantly sought to appease Hitler. To do so, he imposed Racial Purity and Anti-Semitic Laws in Italy, much to the confusion of Italian Jews. One-third of Italian Jews had joined the fascist party. Mussolini’s mistress was Jewish herself. (However, this is not to say that Italy hadn’t been deeply racist prior to this alliance. During the war in Abyssinia, Italy imposed a number of laws stripping Africans of their human rights, placing them as subordinate to their white colonizers, and forbidding intermingling of the races. They just hadn't been particularly Anti-Semitic.) Mussolini began to call Italians a pure Aryan race, despite former derision for the term and Germany’s outright repudiation of the Italians as an Aryan race.

If Britain wins, we lose. But if Germany wins, we are lost.
— Italian saying at the time

Three years of military disasters weakened the foundations of Italian Fascism. The Council of Fascism was forced to take drastic measures. With the help of the king, they removed Mussolini from power. Once again, Hitler was forced to come to Mussolini’s aid. He quickly rescued Mussolini and Germany invaded North Italy. South Italy signed an armistice with the Allies. This split led to a brutal civil war. Hitler instated Mussolini as the head of North Italy. However, he was merely Hitler's puppet. Mussolini ordered the killings of many top fascists who had cooperated with the king in removing him from power. For the first time, Italian Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. 

Mussolini would later be shot in April 1945 in an attempt to escape to Spain from Italy when the war began to fail.

 After their execution, Mussolini (second from left) and his followers were strung up for all to see. His mistress (third from left) was also one of those executed. 

After their execution, Mussolini (second from left) and his followers were strung up for all to see. His mistress (third from left) was also one of those executed. 

Curious Curator Mini: Capitalism, Fascism, Socialism, and Communism

 Anti-Communist propaganda depicting a man standing on the Phillipines holding a knife that reads "democracy." 

Anti-Communist propaganda depicting a man standing on the Phillipines holding a knife that reads "democracy." 

In addition to being a hot button issue for almost the entirety of the 20th and 21st centuries, socialism and communism are often used as scare tactics. But many lack a proper understanding of what these ideologies mean. In order to form legitimate opinions on these topics, it is most important to understand them. So, whether your bumper sticker says "don't tread on me" or "glory to the proletariat," let’s all hop on the magic school bus of education. 

Let’s get one big issue out of the way: the falsehood of Nazism as socialism. This myth derives from the name itself. Nazi is short for National Socialist. However, Nazism is not socialism and has none of the characteristics or hallmarks of socialism. Nazism is, in fact, a form of fascism as Adolf Hitler was strongly influenced by Benito Mussolini. I will discuss fascism in further detail below. 

I want to introduce this topic because it is important to understand these ideologies with regards to our current blog series about WWII. And also when these words are tossed around in our current political climate. If you leave here with a better understanding to support your Facebook arguments, then I’ve done my job. (I’m joking – arguing on Facebook is bad for your health.) 

Supply and Demand: Capitalism

 McKinley-era pro-capitalist propaganda poster, depicting the gold standard. 

McKinley-era pro-capitalist propaganda poster, depicting the gold standard. 

Capitalism was a naturally-occurring economic movement that came into power during the Industrial Revolution. It was an evolution of the economics and politics that had always been in place, an echo of former ways of life, including monarchy and feudalism. (The latter, basically, meaning the serfs working the land for a noble landowner. This landowner reaped the profits of their labor, while the serfs received  little.) Capitalism is an economic policy steeped in inequality and competition. 

Capitalism means that private companies or individuals own the means of production and derive their income from doing so.  The free market, dictated by supply and demand, is the king of capitalism. Low demand and high supply means low prices. Low supply and high demand means high prices. This fosters a competitive economic climate, which enables rapid advancement in products and technology. It also breeds severe inequality. The negative aspect that many fail to understand about capitalism is that not everyone can become the owners of the means of production. And not everyone is afforded that opportunity. The greatest myth is the myth of the American Dream in a capitalist society. Those who are disabled or disadvantaged physically, mentally, emotionally, economically, or socially are not on a level playing field with those who have all the advantages afforded to them. This is why we see wealthy families and wealthy business owners creating a sort of "American Royal" situation. Capitalism breeds a new classist society based on inheritance (but of income rather than titles). 

As you might have noticed, this description of capitalism seems overly critical. Even reading it myself, I wonder if you think I’m a communist with a poster of Karl Marx over my bed. Capitalism has to be identified through both its weaknesses and strengths. Growing up in America, we become indoctrinated to the idea that any critique of capitalism means you are a communist traitor. A particularly funny image, considering the amount of socialist aspects to our government and economy in America. (To be discussed further in the socialism section below.) You grew up hearing the positive aspects of capitalism opined by everyone within earshot. It is most important, however, to understand the negative aspects in order to understand the appearance of the new economic and political ideologies outlined below.

Seize the Means of Production: Socialism

 Anti-capitalism propaganda poster. 

Anti-capitalism propaganda poster. 

Fascism, socialism, and communism were all ideologies that sprang forth as a response to the downfalls of capitalism. As mentioned above, capitalism was the natural evolution that came with rapid industrialization. Its pitfalls and weaknesses became clear very quickly. Philosophers, economists, politicians, and others scrambled to come up with a solution to these problems. 

Socialism and communism derived from the philosophies of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Both stemmed from a desire to limit worker exploitation and eliminate economic classes, thereby eliminating economic inequality. A phrase I’ve heard parroted even by staunch libertarians is “it sounds good in theory, but it doesn’t work in reality.” This might actually be true, as no socialist economy has flourished without the addition of capitalist elements. This is primarily due to the corruption at the highest levels of power. 

Could it work, though? Possibly. 

According to Marx and Engels, socialism is an inevitability after capitalism. They believed that the proletariat (the workers and producers, such as farmers and factory workers) would rise up against the bourgeoisie (the owners of the means of production). They would seize the means of production, thereby eliminating the economic inequality. The people who worked would own the results of their work. No one would get rich off the labor of others. Capitalism thrives on competition whereas in socialism, all society contributes to the best of their abilities to the greater good and all share in the profits. This takes care of the disabled and disadvantaged in our society. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” 

However, even in theory, socialism stagnates technological and industrial progress in the interest of equality. It cannot create the same incentive that the promise of wealth within the confines of capitalism does. “The greater good,” while a nice-sounding phrase, is not as much a motivator as greed is. 

We do see elements of socialism within modern capitalist societies today. This includes public schools, fire departments, police departments, social security, medicare, universal healthcare, etc. 

Glory to the Proletariat: Communism

 Although there were many who contributed to the philosophy of communism and socialism, this image is the most frequent seen, showing the profiles of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and Josef Stalin.

Although there were many who contributed to the philosophy of communism and socialism, this image is the most frequent seen, showing the profiles of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and Josef Stalin.

Repeat after me: THERE HAS NEVER EXISTED A COMMUNIST COUNTRY. No, the USSR was not communist. (I would add to my argument that its official title is the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but names are meaningless considering National Socialism is not socialist.) China was never communist and is only so in name these days, operating under the former communist party with a capitalist economy. Communism was considered by Marx and Engels to be the ultimate goal after the stepping stone of socialism. What is the difference between communism and socialism? Well, communism is basically socialism on steroids. 

Socialism advocates for the means of production to be held by the state or in the public interest. Communism advocates for a world with no private ownership, no money, and no national borders. Every individual contributes what they can and takes what they need. And everything is owned by the collective. According to Marx, communism allocates goods according to need and capitalism allocates goods according to greed. 

Forcible Suppression for the Greater Good: Fascism

 Arguably the most famous fascist leaders: (left) Benito Mussolini, the dictator of Fascist Italy during WWII, and (right) Adolf Hitler, the dictator of Nazi Germany (his own brand of fascism) during WWII. 

Arguably the most famous fascist leaders: (left) Benito Mussolini, the dictator of Fascist Italy during WWII, and (right) Adolf Hitler, the dictator of Nazi Germany (his own brand of fascism) during WWII. 

Finally, we have fascism – a counter-solution to communism and capitalism. Most of the sources I visited trying to get a clear definition on fascism emphasized the difficulty of defining such a thing. However, there are a few important characteristics that can be singled out: extreme nationalism often giving way to xenophobia, strict obedience to a central power at the expense of individual rights, a belief in Social Darwinism over equality. 

Fascism has traditionally evolved out of fear of another group gaining power: for Nazism, it was the Jews and the communists, and for Mussolini's fascism, it was the communists. (Hitler equated Jews with communism and referred to the Bolsheviks – the communist group in Russia that succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy – as the Bolshevik Jews. In Mein Kampf, Hitler claimed that the true enemy of the German people was the communists.) Mussolini is believed to have been the creator of fascism, or at the least was the one who popularized it. Nationalism and national security is at the heart of fascism. In fascism, individual liberties and civil rights are given up in favor of national security. The extreme nationalism and the fear of other groups gaining power leads to racism and xenophobia (fear of foreigners). Demands are made on the people for the good of the nation. Like socialism and communism, there is one central power (usually a dictator) and absolute loyalty is demanded to this person. Decisions made by the state are always the right decision. The people must submit to the will of the nation (usually represented by one person, such as Hitler or Mussolini). This is all done in the name of providing national self-sufficiency, which can lead to isolationism. In the well-known examples, this leads to violent invasion of other nations to capture resources for their own use. 

Unlike communism and socialism, fascism abolishes unions and promotes private enterprise that supports the state. Foreign trade is banned so the nation does not become dependent on other countries. Ultimately, the worth of the individual is tied to the state. An individual who cannot contribute to the glory of the state is considered a burden upon it and must be eliminated.

These terms are important to understand when reading about World War II. It is important to understand that Hitler's Nazism (his own brand of fascism), and Mussolini's fascism, were diametrically opposed to the capitalism of the West, the socialism of the USSR and the socialist reforms taking place under Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States. (You can read more about the latter here.)

World War II Series (Part One): The Path to War

For this series, I don't plan to cover every aspect of World War II from beginning to end. That would take more than a blog series to complete. For some people, that's their life's work. No, I won't do it the injustice of trying to tackle it in a blog. Rather, I want to use this series to tackle misunderstood, underreported, or little-known aspects of the war. 

It seems popular in our current political climate to draw parallels to World War II, Nazi Germany, and Adolf Hitler. And why not? When self-proclaimed Nazis and Anti-Fascists are breaking into violent riots. But, as a historian, I see history being shredded to fit the narrative of today. History does not repeat itself. Each moment in time is absolutely unique and history will never be exactly the same.

What has been interesting to note in my research is the difference in people telling the history of WWII back in the ‘80s and ‘90s and now. Certain parts are emphasized and other parts are glossed over in order to fit the square peg of history into the round hole of today. In this blog post, I am not looking to make political statements of today’s world. Rather, I wish to offer the history without drawing parallels or trying to force it to fit my bias. I will leave that to my readers.

Germany After the War: The Weimar Republic

 Post WWI Germany

Post WWI Germany

People had never seen a war like that of World War I. Out of the Industrial Revolution, people were able to wage a new type of warfare. No more were the days of mounted cavalries and one minute loading times for guns. Now we had tanks, poison gas, grenades, trench warfare, and machine guns. This enabled death on a massive scale. The tenuous peace with the defeat of Germany and the other Central Powers was only further destabilized by the crushing demands of the Treaty of Versailles.

Germany lost territory. They were disarmed and their military, the Wehrmacht, shrunk to just 100,000 soldiers. They were forced to pay reparations that the country could not afford. Their monarchy was abolished and a democratic system was forced on a people who neither wanted it nor understood it. Most Germans couldn’t comprehend their loss.

Just as Germany began to recover, the Great Depression hit worldwide. 3 million were unemployed in Britain. One-third of the American workforce was unemployed. In Germany, unemployment was at 22%. Images come to mind of stockbrokers committing suicide, of homeless shantytowns in Central Park, of people taking wheelbarrows of useless Deutschemarks to the market.

The Ingredients for a Dictatorship

Splintered political parties and a people resistant to democratic ideology crippled the German fledgling democratic government, the Weimar Republic. Germany was drowning in political parties, which held violent political demonstrations. Many of these political parties had their own paramilitary units. Democracy and parliamentary government had been the norm in the United States and Britain. But for Germany, it was brand new. They used to have an empire and an emperor. They were used to authoritarian regimes. Chancellor after chancellor failed to enact any changes or make any progress.

From a failed artist to a WWI veteran, Adolf Hitler decided to pursue a career in politics. First, he worked for the police spying on political parties. However, he became enamored with a tiny splinter group called the National Socialist Party. “Nazi” for short. He was able to make a name for himself in a party that had not much more than a board of directors with his charisma and vibrant speech delivery. He quit his job as a spy and became the head of the Nazi party in all but name.

As party leader, Hitler blamed the loss of World War I on the Jews. He claimed they had betrayed Germany. He attracted people to the Nazi party through a narrative of German victimhood. Hitler identified three threats that had to be battled by Germany: democracy, Marxists (Communists), and Jews. In Mein Kampf, he identified Communists as being the number one enemy of Germany.

In Hitler, people found a narrative they could understand. There was someone other than themselves to blame for their failure to win World War I. Specific, tangible enemies were identified. They were given their power and their pride back. They could better swallow a story of Germany as the victims than Germany as the villains.

Even so, the Nazi Party never won majority in elections. 55% of people did NOT vote for the Nazis. In fact, They never won more than 38% in the national elections. Adolf Hitler had to be appointed, not elected by popular vote, by President Hindenberg. President Hindenberg felt pressured to offer the position of Chancellor to Adolf Hitler to appease Hitler's followers and his personal army of 2 million storm troopers (which dwarfed the German army of 100,000).

Adolf Hitler had the benefit of rich backers. He also had the benefit of propaganda in his propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels. When he came to power, the conservatives hated him. However, they hated their left-wing counterparts more. They believed they could control him and kept him in power for fear of losing to the left-wing parties. Hitler began to consolidate power through intimidation. In one act, he burned the German seat of government, the Reichstag, and blamed it on the communists. In order to offer order and security to the German people, he seized more power. He dissolved rival political parties, labor unions, and the powers of the German states to self-govern. He eliminated basic civil rights of the people in the name of safety.

Why didn’t anyone stop it?

 August Landmesser refuses to salute, though it is mandatory under German law at this time in 1936. Landmesser was originally a member of the Nazi party since 1931. However, he fell in love with a Jewish woman and proposed to her in 1935. When he was discovered, he was expelled from the Nazi party. He, his pregnant wife, and his daughter were later sent to concentration camps. 

August Landmesser refuses to salute, though it is mandatory under German law at this time in 1936. Landmesser was originally a member of the Nazi party since 1931. However, he fell in love with a Jewish woman and proposed to her in 1935. When he was discovered, he was expelled from the Nazi party. He, his pregnant wife, and his daughter were later sent to concentration camps. 

Some tried. According to Peter Hayes, many ambassadors considered resigning when the Nazis came to power. However, only one person – the ambassador to Washington D.C. actually followed through. When asked, one other ambassador said, “one does not abandon one’s country because it has a bad government.” Much of the Nazi practices were hand-waved away with excuses. Some called it “the inevitable excesses that come with Revolution” and allowed discrimination, violence, and persecution to happen at the hands of the Nazis because the Nazi party had been able to bring about an economic resurgence. Others refused to resign, claiming they would fight the system from within. However, the biggest rationalizations given for allowing the Nazis to continue was that everyone had “bigger problems.” The Jewish community was not united as a whole, and everyone else was unwilling to step in because there were “more important” matters that needed their attention.


It was true that Hitler did bring about economic change through massive public works projects, such as the Autobahn. Just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt was doing in the United States. 7 million people got jobs over a period of two years in Germany. Every household in Germany received a simple radio, so that Hitler could reach the entirety of the country and spread his propaganda.

But as the economy improved, there were riots in the streets. Political opponents of Hitler were beaten, terrorized, and held indefinitely by an abusive police force enabled by the suspension of civil rights. Left-wing members of the German government were among the first sent to concentration camps. Jews were attacked on the streets by Hitler’s personal army. Their shops were boycotted. They were stripped of their rights as German citizens piece by piece. (Please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website for more information on the path to the Holocaust.)

Why the Jews?


I think one of the most pressing questions on everyone’s minds is: why the Jews? Professor Peter Hayes of Northwestern University has been contemplating this question for three decades. To the average U.S. citizen, it doesn’t make sense. The average person doesn’t harbor Anti-Semitism. Americans are allies with Israel. We are unfamiliar with the Anti-Semitism that has existed in the west for 2,000. The Jews have been considered “contaminants” since the introduction of Christianity. It was believed that the Jews would corrupt Christians.

Fast forward to the 1700s and this narrative began to change. The Enlightenment represented Jews as a hindrance to progress. They were seen as backwards and traditional in the face of progress of society. Then came the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s-1900s. This Anti-Semitism changed to make the Jews out to being a threat to the health of others. As being a moral and political threat that must be combated. A large part of this had to due with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which was linked with Jews. Communism, coups, and power grabs were associated with the Jews.

Germany rearmed against the Treaty of Versailles. And as Hitler began to grow increasingly paranoid, he ordered what is now known as the Night of the Long Knives on June 20, 1934. The S.A., Hitler’s personal army, was gutted of its leaders. The total, according to Hitler, was 61 deaths. Post-war reports estimate the death toll between 1,000-7,000 people associated with the S.A.

By this time, President Hindenberg was in ailing health. Hitler pressured the government to also award him the powers of the president. When Hindenberg died in August of 1934, Hitler eliminated the position and declared himself the leader of Germany – the Fuehrer. Finally Germany had the autocrat it had sought.

Lebensraum: "Living Space"

Hitler began to retake territories Germany had lost in World War I. He was met with empty threats and weak protests from other Western European countries who desperately wished to keep the world out of another war. After regaining lost territories, he went after the German-speaking Austria. This, despite the fact that Austria had never been part of Germany. His takeover, like the others, was peaceful. His gaze next sought out the Sudetenland, a predominantly German segment of Czechoslovakia. When he invaded Czechoslovakia to retake the Sudetenland, he claimed this would be his last takeover. The Allies were once again soft in their responses, negotiating a treaty that would give Hitler the Sudetenland.

If you have sacrificed my nation to preserve the peace of the world, I will be the first to applaud you. But if not, gentlemen, God help your souls.
— Jan Masaryk, Czech ambassador to Britain

Peace in Our Time

 Neville Chamberlain waving the Munich Agreement, declaring he had achieved "peace in our time," 1938. 

Neville Chamberlain waving the Munich Agreement, declaring he had achieved "peace in our time," 1938. 

After coming back from a peace agreement signed by Hitler, Prime Minister of Britain Neville Chamberlain declared, “This is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honour. I believe it is peace in our time.”

Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor. They chose dishonor. They will have war.
— Winston Churchill

Hitler’s next move was to form an alliance with his worst enemy, the Soviet Union, to expand further east. He promised Stalin the Baltic States and east Poland to the USSR. This provided he would not make an enemy of Russia if he took west Poland. Hitler’s minister of Foreign Affairs, von Ribbentrop, told him that the invasion of Poland would draw no ire from the west. Emboldened by reassurances from von Ribbentrop and the alliance with Russia, Hitler invaded Poland. This invasion caused both France and Britain to finally declare war on Germany. 


August Landmesser's Story

I apologize for the lack of links in this blog post. Most of my sources for this were print or documentaries.

Here are some resources I used:

Black Cats and Biological Warfare: The History of the Plague


Studying this topic put me off my lunch. I’m starting to think I’ve a fascination with morbid history topics. First the KKK, then this. I’ve been planning on doing a piece on WWII, too. To save you the trouble of moseying on over to Wikipedia and enduring the images I had to, I want to introduce you, my reader (not a typo), to the Plague.

3 Types of Plague

The source of the plague is a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. Based on DNA extracted from burials in contemporaneous French cemeteries, we know that this was the cause of the Black Death. I won’t include pictures in case some of you are eating lunch. The most famous form of the plague is the bubonic plague. It is so named due to the characteristic symptom of painfully swollen lymphnodes (called buboes). The septicemic plague spreads through the bloodstream. The pneumonic plague, an advanced form of the bubonic plague, is the most infectious type. It is passed from person to person through airborne droplets coughed from the lungs.

The Black Death


The first known plague in Europe was the Plague of Justinian in 541 CE. It wiped out half of Europe’s population before 700 CE. Europe and Asia have seen a number of plagues. But none so bad as the one that ripped through the continents in the 1300s, killing an estimated 20 million people.

All the citizens did little else except to carry dead bodies to be buried [...] At every church they dug deep pits down to the water-table; and thus those who were poor who died during the night were bundled up quickly and thrown into the pit. In the morning when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shovelled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.

After that imagery. I feel we need a pick up. (Warning for profanity).

The most famous plague is inarguably the Black Death, the bubonic form of the disease that ravaged Europe and Asia in the mid 1300s (~1346-1353 CE). The plague was born in the steppes between the Caspian and Black Seas in 1346. Plague reservoirs, like this region in Central Asia, are areas that are usually the foci of outbreaks of plague. (Here is a map of plague foci based on modern documentation and historical documentation.) Reasons for the name the Black Death vary – perhaps it was named after the color of the characteristic buboes of the disease. Or it was a mistranslation of the Latin word “Atra,” meaning ‘terrible’ or ‘black.’ It was not called the Black Death contemporaneously. It earned that name later. At the time it was called names such as the Great Dying.

The plague first touched Europe when a ship carrying plague victims docked in a Sicilian harbor. The men aboard were either dead or dying of the disease. The government swiftly sent the ship away, but it was too late.

Causes and Transmission


The bubonic plague incubates for 3-5 days before the victim falls ill. It takes another 3-5 days before the victim dies, which is 80% of cases at this time. The disease is typically carried in fleas and lice and can be transmitted to humans or animals. Animals and humans may also infect each other in the advanced pneumonic form. However, it is more difficult to spread the disease through humans or animals.

The disease spread more virulently during the summer and died off in the winter when the fleas died. The increase in trade during this period meant that the disease could spread uninhibited. Even the most remote villages could now be stricken by the plague. Ship transportation caused an unpredictable pattern of outbreaks. It spread the disease to new corners of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The only two countries in Europe that appear to have been spared the ravages of the disease are Iceland and Finland. This is primarily due to their lack of trade and geographic isolation.

Black Cats and Bloodletting: Cures and Scapegoats

 Cats were actually beloved pets which dealt with pests such as rats in Medieval times. 

Cats were actually beloved pets which dealt with pests such as rats in Medieval times. 

Contrary to popular belief, the Church did not accuse witches as being a cause of the outbreak. In fact, the Church didn’t accept the existence of witches until 1484, one hundred years after the plague. It is a common misconception that the Pope called for the massacre of cats (since they are associated with witchcraft), which let the rat population explode and actually caused the spread of the Black Death. No such call was ever made by the Roman Catholic Church or the Pope.

This is not to say that people didn’t look for someone to blame. Lepers and beggars were blamed for the spread and transmission due to a lack of cleanliness and illness. Jews were accused of causing the plague in many parts of Europe (the notable exception being Italy and England). The latter had exiled Jews in 1290, so allegedly had no population of Jews). The persecution and violence against Jews was so bad that Pope Clement VI had to condemn these acts in 1348.

People were desperate to find a cure. Medicine at this time called for blood-letting, boil-lancing, burning herbs, inducing diarrhea, and bathing in rosewater. Creative means of cures included coating the victim in mercury and baking them in an oven.

I apologize for that imagery.

 When these methods proved ineffective, some people began flagellating themselves in repentance. The Pope also had to condemn this practice in 1349.

More effective methods of controlling the plague included quarantines, border control, and spy networks. The first quarantines in recorded history were carried out in the city of Ragusa. People had to carry health passports and cross border control if they came from a plague-stricken area. Spy networks reported back on new plague outbreaks.

A Ubiquitous Image: The Plague Doctor

 17th century German Plague Doctor outfit

17th century German Plague Doctor outfit

The image we know of as the Plague Doctor does not actually come out of the Black Death, but out of a later epidemic of the plague.

The nose [is] half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the [herbs] enclosed further along in the beak. Under the coat we wear boots made in Moroccan leather (goat leather) from the front of the breeches in smooth skin that are attached to said boots, and a short sleeved blouse in smooth skin, the bottom of which is tucked into the breeches. The hat and gloves are also made of the same skin…with spectacles over the eyes.
— Charles de l’Orme, chief physician to Louis XIII and inventor of the plague doctor suit, 1619

The plague doctors, while they did seek to find a cure and treat their patients, found themselves doing more counting than curing. Their log books are important records of deaths and the spread of the plague. They conducted autopsies, testified and witnessed for the dead and dying, and some took advantage of the victims with false cures. In general, plague doctors, though becoming a pariah within society for their close dealings with death, were considered brave and were highly-valued. There are cases of plague doctors being kidnapped for ransom… and the ransoms were paid.

Unit 731

WARNING: This topic is VERY dark. If you want to keep your faith in humanity, do not read this section.

 A building on the former Unit 731 property in China. 

A building on the former Unit 731 property in China. 

Unit 731 is one of the darkest secrets kept out of history books. This Unit was the Japanese biological and chemical warfare research center, based in Manchuria (now Northern China). Never heard of it? The U.S. gave the doctors involved in this atrocity immunity at the end of the war in exchange for their research. Any time information about this Unit threatened to come to light, Japan and the U.S. quickly quashed it. Japan claimed there wasn’t enough evidence for it. The U.S. claimed it was “communist propaganda” until the 1990s. This is not unprecedented, as the U.S. did the same for many Nazi scientists under Operation Paperclip.

Unit 731 experimented on human test subjects – usually Chinese civilians or POWs, testing the lengths a human body could withstand. Doctors in training often practiced surgeries on subjects. They amputated healthy limbs and watched subjects bleed out to see how long it would take. They purposely gave inmates disease, frostbite, bullet wounds, burns, and STDs through forced rape between victims. They performed vivisections (dissections on living patients). All of this was done without anesthesia because it was claimed it would alter the results.

 Photo of a decapitation of a POW. 

Photo of a decapitation of a POW. 

Unit 731 brought another epidemic of plague in the 20th century. Victims were told they were receiving vaccinations but were injected with plague. Some victims were chained to stakes in open fields and were bombed with “flea bombs” containing fleas infected with bubonic plague. This was done to study the effects of such weapons. They set these flea bombs on Chinese military and civilians in Ningho and Changde, causing an outbreak of plague in those cities.

 Doctors from Unit 731 with a victim. 

Doctors from Unit 731 with a victim. 

At the end of the war, when Emperor Hirohito surrendered in 1945, the facility was burned down and the remaining living victims were shot. This meant there were no survivors to tell their stories – only the perpetrators. They were understandably tight-lipped about the entire operation until much later in life. When they burned down the facility, they purposely released plague-infected rats and fleas into the Chinese countryside, causing an epidemic which killed 20-30,000 people. 

 General Shiro Ishii, head of Unit 731.

General Shiro Ishii, head of Unit 731.

Plague outbreaks continue to this day, mostly in areas such as Madagascar and Peru, though there are occasional cases of plague in the United States itself.

The Southern Emblem

 Color lithograph from 1896 showing four versions of the flag of the Confederate States of America. Standing at the center are Stonewall Jackson, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Robert E. Lee.

Color lithograph from 1896 showing four versions of the flag of the Confederate States of America. Standing at the center are Stonewall Jackson, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Robert E. Lee.

Emblematic of our Cause: Origins of the Confederate Battle Flag

The Confederate Flag has been a point of contention in recent years. Some claim it’s a symbol of racism. Or a symbol of Anti-Americanism as it represents the secession from the Union. Others claim it is a symbol of Southern heritage and pride. I’m not going to argue in favor of one side or the other, since this is a history blog. But I am going to explore its origins. Even among its most vehement defenders, the history of the Battle Flag seems to be an area of only vague understanding.


For those of you that haven’t had Middle School History in a while, the American Civil War was fought from 1861-1865. After the election of abolitionist Abraham Lincoln, pro-slavery states seceded from the United States. These states were all what we now consider Southern states. Their economies relied heavily on slave labor. These states withdrew from the United States to form their own country. They feared Abraham Lincoln would abolish slavery. Seven states initially formed the Confederate States of America, later growing to eleven states. The states that remained loyal to the United States were called the Union.

The Civil War raged for four years, killing approximately 750,000 people. The conflict ended when General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union. This caused a domino effect of surrenders among Confederate generals. Slavery was abolished at the end of the conflict.


The Real Stars and Bars


Upon seceding, one of the first things the Confederacy needed to do to was to establish their legitimacy as a new nation. The best way to do so was to create their own flag. They formed the Committee on the Flag and Seal, headed by William Porcher Miles. Miles was the designer of the Confederate Battle Flag. This would later become the inspiration of the modern Confederate Flag. However, his design was rejected in favor of the “Stars and Bars,” designed by Nicola Marshall. The apparent reasoning behind this choice was its similarity to the United States flag. The secessionists still wanted to keep their history from the Revolutionary War and wanted to keep the flag they saw as theirs. Many people contacted the Committee to advocate for a flag that kept true to the original American Flag.

The original design contained seven stars representing the first seven states to secede. These states were: South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Later, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina seceded, making it necessary to design a nine- and eleven-star flag. The final “Stars and Bars” design contained thirteen stars. The eleven states of the Confederacy laid claim to the border states of Kentucky and Missouri. (However, these states never officially seceded. Some government officials independently declared secession, but not through legal venues.) 

The Stars and Bars flag was first flown over Montgomery, Alabama in 1861. However, the similar design to the American flag proved to be a considerable detriment on the battlefield. During battle, it became unclear which side was which, since they both looked too similar.

People soon came to hate the flag, which looked far too much like the enemy they were fighting.

Every body wants a new Confederate flag. The present one is universally hated. It resembles the Yankee flag and that is enough to make it unutterably detestable.
— George William Bagby, January 1862

The Stainless Banner


Miles’s Confederate flag design was adopted as the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia. It soon grew in popularity that superceded the official national flag. To replace the hated Stars and Bars flag, William Tappan Thompson and William Ross Postell designed the “White Man’s Flag.” It placed the square Battle Flag on a background of white.

As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematic of our cause.
— William Tappan Thompson, designer of the flag


This new design was adopted in 1863. However, the public perception, originally positive as it had been for the Stars and Bars design, shifted. The white made it look like a flag of surrender.

The Blood-stained Banner


In 1865, a modification was made to the white flag, adding a red bar on the right-hand side to contrast with the “Yankee blue.” The red bar also paid tribute to the flag of France, from which many people of the Confederacy claimed origin. However, this flag came so late in the war that few were made and few Confederates saw the new flag, let alone came to identify with the flag.


The Confederate Battle Flag

The battle flag as it is known today was originally used by the Army of Northern Virginia. Later it disseminated throughout the South. Many other army regiments and cavalries used variations of the battle flag. It never represented the Confederacy, though it was incorporated into the later flags. The original flag was a cross, not an “x." A self-described “Southerner of Jewish persuasion” requested that a cross not be used to represent the entirety of the Confederacy. Miles, the designer, changed it to an “x.”

The flag itself was the most popular design of the Confederacy, even though it was never used as the Confederate flag. Its modern appearance began when the United Confederate Veterans adopted the battle flag as its original emblem. Sons of Confederate Veterans later adopted the flag.

 Confederate flags at a Gone with the Wind showing. 1940.

Confederate flags at a Gone with the Wind showing. 1940.

The popularity of the flag surged with Civil War nostalgia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (discussed in more detail at the blog post here) and Gone with the Wind played a role in the popularity of Southern nostalgia. The American Civil War was rebranded from a treasonous response to abolition, to a noble and heroic struggle against insurmountable odds. Proponents claimed it was a war to keep the Southern way of life, not to keep the superiority of whites. This movement was called the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.

Supporters of this movement had to ignore significant amounts of evidence, including words from the states’ own constitutions, declarations of secession, and the Confederate constitution itself.

Article IV Section 3(3)

The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several states; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form states to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress, and by the territorial government: and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories, shall have the right to take to such territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the states or territories of the Confederate states.
— Article IV Section 3(3)

False stories of “happy slaves” and “kind masters” were shared to change perceptions of the villainous South. The war was even renamed “the War Between the States” (a term rarely used during the War). And later “the War of Northern Aggression”  in the 1950s to explicitly declare that the North initiated the conflict (an untrue assertion that has been refuted many times over.)

 Confederate flag being flown alongside swastikas at a National Socialist (Nazi) parade in the U.S. 

Confederate flag being flown alongside swastikas at a National Socialist (Nazi) parade in the U.S. 

Its Use Today

Currently, very few Americans have a positive view of the Confederate flag. When polled in 2015, 13% of Americans had a positive reaction, 28% a negative reaction, and 56% had no reaction (the other 2% didn't respond). It is used by right-wing activists in the United States and in Europe. It is particularly popular in Germany as the Nazi flag is illegal. It is used as a substitute for the Nazi flag. In the U.S., particularly in the South, proponents claim it is representative of Southern heritage, parroting the revisionist language that came out in the mid-20th century.

Mini Blog: Conservative Democrats and Liberal Republicans

 A Thomas Nast political cartoon, showing the first representation of the Republican Party as an elephant. 

A Thomas Nast political cartoon, showing the first representation of the Republican Party as an elephant. 

In school, something I heard from classmates was the Democrat and Republican parties used to have opposite platforms. Thankfully, my history teacher didn’t simplify the situation to this extent. But I also wasn’t taught the history of our modern two parties, either. I often wondered how Democrats went from Pro-Slavery to Pro-Civil Rights in a century. If you’re reading this, I hope you have wondered the same thing.

Let me begin by saying that the Democratic and Republican parties were not the only parties to exist in our history. They both actually stemmed from the Democratic-Republican Party. This party was formed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, that favored states’ power. It operated in opposition of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party, which favored federal, centralized power.

 Andrew Jackson, the first Democratic president. 

Andrew Jackson, the first Democratic president. 

The Democratic Party

Although the Republican Party is called the “Grand Old Party,” the Democratic Party is actually the world’s oldest political party. It was formed in 1828 behind Andrew Jackson. This early Democratic Party, splintered from the Democratic-Republican Party, still kept the same ideals. They favored smaller governments and focused on individual liberty. Government was viewed as corrupt and would harm ordinary farmers by supporting big business. Public schools were a problem as they undermined the freedom of religion and parental responsibility. This Party staunchly opposed reforms, as reforms required a more active government.

The Party fractured around the Civil War between Northern and Southern Democrats. This splintering allowed Abraham Lincoln, a Republican candidate, to come to power.

 Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president. 

Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president. 

The Republican Party

The Republican Party formed in 1854 by anti-slavery activists in the North. They viewed slavery as a great evil. Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 put the party in power for the first time. Their platform was anti-slavery and pro-economic reform. They opposed the plantation system as they believed it harmed smaller farms and their farmers. They supported high taxes to fuel economic growth. They supported businesses, pensions for veterans, and high wages. They wanted a stronger federal government to subsidize the transcontinental railroads, create a national banking system, and offer land grants for higher education. This party was more reflective of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party.

The Republican Party began to struggle in the early 20th century. Taft and fellow party member Teddy Roosevelt butted heads. Republicans were originally the party of big business, but Roosevelt supported small business. He was a liberal who supported social reform. He left the party to form the Progressive Bull Moose Party. His followers went with him, weakening the Republican Party.

 Franklin D. Roosevelt, a liberal Democrat president, who began the conservative and liberal fracture between the parties with his implementing of the New Deal. 

Franklin D. Roosevelt, a liberal Democrat president, who began the conservative and liberal fracture between the parties with his implementing of the New Deal. 

The New Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt

It was the next Roosevelt that would cause another massive fracture in the American party system. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, came into office during the Great Depression. The Democrats were perceived as the people’s party. Its goal was to support and represent the poor and the farmers of America. Previously, they supported the disenfranchised South, which was weak in the face of Northern industry.

During the Great Depression, Roosevelt and the Democratic Party took a new approach to helping the less fortunate in America. They called it the New Deal. Roosevelt was a liberal Democrat and used Federal aid to push for social reforms. He formed the foundations of the modern welfare state with a number of new government programs enacted to support farmers, the unemployed, the youth, and the elderly. This included the Social Security Administration. They enforced more regulations on the banking industry to ensure another Great Depression would not happen. He implemented public works to employ millions of Americans. He invigorated the rural U.S. and launched the T.V.A. Roosevelt supported the redistribution of wealth.

This is where both parties began to fracture along the lines of liberal and conservative. Liberal and conservative were not synonymous with Democrat and Republican. Both parties had liberal and conservative segments until the 1920s and 30s, when this began to break down.

Republicans were social liberals and economic conservatives; Democrats were social conservatives and economic liberals. However, FDR promoted a social liberal platform that empowered the poor and minorities.

The Republicans were divided between the Conservative Republicans in the Midwest and the Liberal Republicans in the Northeast. Democrats were still rifted between Liberal in the North and Conservative in the South. Conservative Republicans began to feel more aligned with the Conservative Democrats, who were also opposed to FDR’s New Deal actions. Liberal Republicans supported Liberal Democrat FDR’s measures. FDR’s power as a successful and respected president, followed by the election of Liberal Democrat Harry Truman, caused a shift wherein the Northeast, for the first time, became Democrats. The Liberal Republicans changed their support to the Democratic Party. At the same time, the South swung Republican to distance themselves from the overwhelmingly liberal party.

 Ronald Reagan, the father of the modern conservative Republican Party. 

Ronald Reagan, the father of the modern conservative Republican Party. 

Over time, the Liberal wing of the Republican party faded away, until it was essentially extinct in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the modern Republican Party was cemented with Ronald Reagan acting as the paragon of new Republican, conservative ideologies. 

The Invisible Empire: The History of the KKK and Why People Joined

The Invisible Empire

 Klan members arrested for attempted murder of a family in Mississippi. 1871. 

Klan members arrested for attempted murder of a family in Mississippi. 1871. 

The Origins of the KKK

The Ku Klux Klan was formed by a group of Confederate soldiers after their defeat in the Civil War. The name derives from the Greek word “kuklos,” meaning “circle." It was organized in 1865-66 in Tennessee by six men as a social, fraternal organization. Originally, it was not meant to be a hate group. As the Klan grew, its ideologies began to shift. Its members were bitter about the disenfranchisement of the South in the Reconstruction Era. Its members saw enemies in the freed blacks, their allies, and the Republican opposition.

Bitterness, stewing in an insular, secret society, transformed the small fraternal organization into something far more dangerous. The Ku Klux Klan became a secret vigilante group. They threatened and enacted violence on their perceived enemies. They advocated for white supremacy, intimidated black voters, and attempted to suppress their votes. They escalated from harassment to arson and murder over a period of five years.

From 1866 through 1871, men calling themselves ‘Ku-Klux’ killed hundreds of black Southerners and their white supporters, sexually molested hundreds of black women and men, drove thousands of black families from their homes and thousands of black men and women from their employment, and appropriated land, crops, guns, livestock, and food from black Southerners on a massive scale.
— Elaine Frantz Parsons in Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction.

Before the turn of the 20th century, the movement had largely died off.

 Poster for D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation. 1915.

Poster for D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation. 1915.

The Second Wave

The KKK experienced a revitalization credited to the film Birth of a Nation by D. W. Griffith. The film was a cinematic masterpiece as far as technique. But the narrative of black men as uncontrollable savages was toxic to a culture already racially divided. This movie ignited an already-fearful nation. Waves of immigration, particularly from Catholic countries, instilled a sense of fear and nationalism in the American subconscious.

The second wave of the KKK began in Stone Mountain, Georgia by William J. Simmons. In addition to their Anti-Black ideology, they extended their new society to Anti-Semitism, Anti-Catholicism, and Anti-Immigration. Cross-burning was then, and still is, a sacred ceremony in the Klan. The Klan does not view this as sacrilegious. The Klan’s identity is steeped in the Protestant religion. Its members believe the act of burning the cross is a symbol of their Christianity. This imagery has become synonymous with the Klan as an intimidation tactic against “enemies.”

Events of the early 20th century only created a better environment in which the Klan could thrive. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 created fears of communism. Prohibition and the Temperance Movement received strong Klan support.

 Klan Parade in Washington D.C. 1926.

Klan Parade in Washington D.C. 1926.

In the 1920s, Klan membership was around 4 million nationwide. For a portion of the Klan, it was a fraternal lodge with political power. They viewed it as a social group that could act as a charity. They had social gatherings and helped support local churches and baseball teams. In this way, it was not much different than the Free Masons. However, there was still a violent segment of the KKK. And there was always an underpinning of white supremacy within the organization.

Cleveland had two Klaverns: #12 and #88, both established in 1922. They were the first Klaverns in the area. Chattanooga would get its first Klavern in 1923. 

Eventually, the Great Depression and World War II diminished the Klan’s membership. The organization was disbanded in 1944.

 Violence at a Klan march in Mobile, Alabama. 1977.

Violence at a Klan march in Mobile, Alabama. 1977.

The Third Wave

The Civil Rights Movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s incited another wave of the KKK. The KKK made it a priority to fight desegregation through intimidation of civil rights activists. They made attempts to stop civil rights demonstrations when possible. During the Civil Rights Movement, membership in the KKK grew to about 40,000.

In Cleveland, TN, Bob Jones University refused blacks admission in the university until 1971. (It was in Cleveland from 1933-1947 and had no black students for the duration.) It also banned interracial dating until March 1, 2000. Bob Jones Sr. was an ally of the Klan, though there are no records that he was part of the Klan itself.

On the other hand, Billy Graham, who had attended Bob Jones College for one semester, was pro-desegregation. At a 1953 rally in Chattanooga, he tore down the ropes that segregated the audience, stating: “We have been proud and thought we were better than any other race, any other people. Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to stumble into hell because of our pride.” Graham, a friend of MLK, also said, “there is no scriptural basis for segregation. The ground at the foot of the cross is level, and it touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross.”

The KKK began to fade from the public consciousness again, though it still existed. In 1980, three KKK members opened fire on five black women in Chattanooga. The women survived. But an all-white jury acquitted the KKK members of any wrongdoing, which incited riots in Chattanooga. The women filed a civil lawsuit and were awarded $535,000 from the Klan by federal courts. This outcome spurred legal action against the Klan with the goal of dismantling it.


Multiple outlets say that white supremacy and hate crimes are on the rise. At the very least, white supremacist groups are becoming more apparent in our public consciousness. The KKK supported Donald Trump for president. White supremacists have, as they did during the second wave of the KKK, gotten a foothold in mainstream American politics.

There are no Klaverns in Cleveland, TN according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. However, there are between 5,000-8,000 Klan members nationwide. The modern Klan, while taking on new targets such as homosexuals, have backed down on its attacks against Catholics.

So, why did/do people join the Klan?

The reasons might not be exactly what you think and it largely depends on the time period.

During the First Wave, it was a place of camaraderie for the defeated Confederate veterans. It was not only an outlet for their anger surrounding their defeat, but it provided an opportunity to pursue their ideologies. Their government had now implemented laws interfering with the men’s individual liberty to pursue and enforce their beliefs. (Which was the belief that their liberty was superior to the liberties of others). They were unable to make changes in the law, so they funneled their frustrations into violence against those they saw as causing their anger.

In the South, it was largely believed that white supremacy and slavery were divine rights. Human government was (allegedly) interfering with the will of God. These men rarely saw anything wrong with slavery and held the belief that black people were lesser. Therefore, enacting violence on blacks or those who supported them was not a crime. Not in God’s eyes. (This was their belief, not truth or the beliefs of this author.)

 Sheet music for We Are All Loyal Klansmen.

Sheet music for We Are All Loyal Klansmen.

During the Second Wave, the KKK was a group that was seen as fighting injustices against the American people. It became strongly nationalist (as many hate groups do, including the Nazi party in Germany, but that is a blog post for another day). The Klan felt immigrants and anyone not of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) heritage was the underlying cause of America’s problems.

But the KKK was more insidious during the second wave, rebranding itself in a more mainstream and palatable way. They did charity work, organized parades, and had social events where they invited the white community. Klan members began taking political and government positions and wielded significant power in Southern communities and nationwide. Many men joined to gain the support of the powerful Klan when they wanted to pursue office.

Women began to join at this time as well, as the Klan supported Prohibition, a female-supported cause. (Alcohol was viewed, at this time, as a source of much of the domestic violence and rape that occurred.) The Klan also promised to protect the sanctity of white womanhood.

Since its inception, violent Klan activities have been blamed on the poor, on the rural segments, on the uneducated people involved in the group. Often, upstanding members of society who were also Klan members used this to absolve themselves of any associations with the violent movements. However, this was not shown to be the case. 

Indiana’s Klansmen represented a wide cross section of society: they were not disproportionately urban or rural, nor were they significantly more or less likely than other members of society to be from the working class, middle class, or professional ranks. Klansmen were Protestants, of course, but they cannot be described exclusively or even predominantly as fundamentalists. In reality, their religious affiliations mirrored the whole of white Protestant society, including those who did not belong to any church
— Leonard J. Moore in Historical Interpretations of 1920s Klan: The Traditional View and the Populist Revision

Today, advances in the field of psychology and the shift in perception of white supremacy as abnormal has led to a better understanding of why people today choose to join groups such as the Klan. One small scale survey says a group of people who identify as alt-right (which hold white supremacist ideologies) has higher instances of narcissism and authoritarianism. Economic disenfranchisement has often been cited as a reason behind this movement. However, the same survey found no difference between the control group and the alt-right group when it came to social isolation or concern about the economy.

Current white supremacists rely on victimhood to draw others into their cause. White supremacists claim: 1) whites are victims of discrimination; 2) whites are denied the ability to form whites-only groups, unlike minorities; 3) whites are stigmatized if they show pride in their heritage as they are taught to hate themselves and white history, while minorities are told to have pride in theirs; 4) whites are experiencing a loss of self esteem due to the previous; 5) the white race is in danger of becoming extinct.

If you are white and some of this hits home in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you are not alone.

  1. 55% of whites believe discrimination against whites exists. Here are a few charts to get you started on understanding, at the very least, that discrimination against blacks is more significant than discrimination against whites. We can see with our own eyes that discrimination against blacks is worse than against whites. Racial violence is usually enacted against minorities, not whites. There are 24x more hate groups against people of color than whites in Tennessee. (The Black Nationalist Nation of Islam being the only anti-white group in Tennessee. Once again, refer to the SPLC site.)
  2. It is true that it is looked down upon to form groups on the basis of whiteness. But feminist groups, LGBT groups, and racial minority groups (such as the NAACP) welcome majority members. They are not exclusionary. These groups were formed to help combat significant forms of discrimination and help attain their civil rights. This is something that majority members have not had to do. Whereas white groups have a history of hate and violence. Whites-only groups were formed as a means to combat the civil rights of others. It is also true that whites-only groups exist without needing to dictate it as such. There are all-white churches, all-white groups surrounding hobbies and activities, and all-white advocacy groups. None of which are designated as such. Or intentionally made as such. But it simply happens when in a white-majority country. Minority groups must have intentionality when they want to form a group of others of the same minority. 
  3. This one is the toughest, I think, because white guilt is very real. Whites tend to feel guilty about the actions of their race throughout history. It is very easy to grow resentful that you must shoulder the burden of a history you had nothing to do with. But it is also a burden people of color must bear as well. The actions of their ancestors and the actions taken against their ancestors has just as much of an effect on them. It isn’t hard to wonder why whites today must feel guilty for being on the receiving end of advantages their ancestors had drawn for them. And why they must feel guilty for all the bad things done on behalf of their race. On this topic, I feel it is very important to remember three very important things:
    1. We can and do celebrate white heritage in this country. It is usually celebrated as a national heritage e.g. Irish pride, Italian pride, German pride, etc. (Although German pride can be a touchy topic due to World War II.) For blacks in America, many of them don’t know their country of origin due to the Atlantic slave trade and can only celebrate African-American pride in general. (This is improving with widely-available genetic testing.)
    2. History has affected today and we must remember that, but it is not necessary to feel secondhand guilt. It is only necessary that history is remembered to make for a better future. Recognize the mistakes of the past and the advantages or disadvantages you may have because of them. If you have advantages, use them to help those that are disadvantaged from history.
    3. As they say in High School Musical: we’re all in this together. And we are all products of our history. The person next to you is just as much affected by it as you are.
  4. Self-esteem should not be drawn from textbooks. If you hinge your self-esteem on a history of colonialism, slavery, racism, and hate, it’s time to grow up. If your only source of pride is your race, it means you’re a bad person. Do something useful and help Habitat for Humanity and give yourself something to actually build your self-esteem on.
  5. Race is a human concept and not a real thing, for one. But that’s a very big topic to tackle on this already-lengthy blog post. Second, all “races” are going to become extinct as everyone mixes. If that scares you, it’s not going to happen in your lifetime, so don’t worry about it. It’s not going to erase history. It will just give children of the future multiple histories. 

Inked Histories

Inked Histories: Tattooing Around the World


 Advertisement for a "tattooed lady" in a circus sideshow. 

Advertisement for a "tattooed lady" in a circus sideshow. 

Tattoos are painful (I know from firsthand experience.) They're sometimes regrettable. And yet, they've been part of our bodies for thousands of years. Why? Why do we ink our bodies? Why is it such an ingrained part of our history? Why is it forbidden to some? Why do so many cultures around the world tattoo?

 A closer look at some of Iceman’s tattoos.  (Credit: EURAC/M.Samadelli/M.Melis)

A closer look at some of Iceman’s tattoos. (Credit: EURAC/M.Samadelli/M.Melis)

The History of Tattoos

Tattoos have been around as early as the Neolithic Period (and possibly as early as the Upper Paleolithic). The earliest evidence for tattoos are artistic depictions. Our first direct evidence for tattoos comes from 3000 BCE. Otzi the Ice Man, who lived sometime between 3370-3100 BCE, is a preserved early man found in Europe. His skin still has tattoos. Is it exciting or terrifying that your tattoos could last for 5,000 years? 

The word "tatau" comes from Samoan (a language of the Samoan people who live in the Pacific Islands). It was brought back to the Western World by James Cook. However, tattooing was not unknown to Western culture before this. It was known by other names. 

Tattooing Around the World

 Tattooed Japanese man ca. 1875. 

Tattooed Japanese man ca. 1875. 


Ancient China. Peoples in Ancient China considered tattooing to be barbaric, a punishment and identity marker for slaves and criminals. The word "prisoner" was tattooed on the faces of those who committed crimes. Despite these outward signs of derision, many heroes in Ancient Chinese prose were tattooed. One story tells of a mother who tattooed a pledge on her son's back when he went away to the army. Southern China was closer to cultures that tattooed and was home to talented tattoo artists. People would come from Southeast Asia and India to be tattooed by artists here. 

Japan. In great contrast, Japan has been tattooing since the Paleolithic. Tattoos were indications of social status before the Meiji Era of Japan and before direct contact with Europe. Later influenced by westernization, tattooing sharply declined in Japan. From 1603-1868, tattooing was done only by prostitutes, manual laborers, and firemen to denote their status. Eventually, tattooing was banned for being barbaric, leaving heavily tattooed people in a state of limbo. Their very bodies became a crime. Some speculate that the yakuza (the Japanese mob) arose from this state of limbo. 

The Philippines. The Philippines were also once pro-tattoo. Tattoos were believed to be magical. They were also markers of rank and accomplishments. Christianization, however, put a damper on tattooing, spreading the idea that tattoos were heathen or lower-class. 

Taiwan. Facial tattoos are of significant cultural importance among the Atayel ethnic group in Taiwan. Men get their faces tattooed in a coming of age ritual. A man earned these tattoos by bringing back a human head, thereby proving he can protect his homeland. Women, similarly, had to prove they could weave to earn their facial tattoos. Only people with tattoos could marry and pass into the spirit world. Male tattoos were simple compared to those of women. Female tattoos could take up to ten hours to complete. Among the traditional Atayel people, only women were tattoo artists. 

Thailand. Still to this day, people in Thailand tattoo themselves with symbols for luck and protection. These tattoos must be given by monks or priests to be imbued properly. 

Myanmar. In Myanmar, one ethnic group, the Chins, had a significant tattooing practice. Boys were tattooed from their waist to their knees. In Burmese culture, boys had to enter temporary monkhood. The waist tattoos were usually done during or after this ordination. These tattoos were painful and were given over a period of 3-6 days. Boys used opium to endure the pain. Women in the Chin culture also tattooed, though their reasons were different. It is said that Chin women tattooed their faces around 15-20 years old to discourage kidnapping by invaders. However, traditional tattooing fell into decline when the Socialist party banned the practice. Later, as many Chins converted to Christianity, tattooing nearly died out. 

 Tattooed Egyptian figurine. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tattooed Egyptian figurine. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Rome/Greece. In the Mediterranean, primarily slaves and criminals had tattoos. Tattoos were punishment for crimes. Romans tattooed soldiers and arms manufacturers to identify them. Religious tattooing was practiced in other Mediterranean regions, such as Egypt and Syria. Christianity may have forbidden tattooing (in Leviticus) to differentiate itself from these religious groups. 

Classical Persia. In Classical Persia, only slaves and prisoners of war were tattooed. Later, Islam would spread to the region. Some branches of Islam forbid tattooing. However, Islamic cultures in the Middle East have practiced tattooing alongside Islam with no issue. 

Ancient Egypt. In Ancient Egypt, very little evidence exists for tattooing of men. It is believed that there was religious significance to tattooing. Until 300-400 BCE, evidence only exists for tattoing on women. Women in Egypt were tattooed since at least 2000 BCE and may have been a signifier of a priestess or other religious figure. 

 Tattoo on the mummified body of the Siberian Ice Maiden, image courtesy of the Siberian Times.

Tattoo on the mummified body of the Siberian Ice Maiden, image courtesy of the Siberian Times.


Siberia and Eastern Europe. The Scythian Culture of Siberia and Central Asia has some of the most impressive preserved tattoos from ancient times. The Siberian Ice Maiden has significant tattoos on her body. It is believed that the people of the Pazyryk culture used tattoos as markers of identity. 

Germanic/Celtic/Nordic Peoples. These groups are the only early European peoples for which we have evidence of tattooing. Western and Central Europeans didn't appear to have significant tattooing practices. Even for these peoples, most of our evidence comes from secondhand accounts and artistic depictions. We have no direct evidence that any of these people tattooed. People from other cultures recorded Vikings having tattoos, but this could have been temporary paint. 

 Maori Woman in the 19th Century, showing off moko tattoos. 

Maori Woman in the 19th Century, showing off moko tattoos. 


Polynesia has some of the richest tattooing traditions in the world. This is where we get the word for tattoo. The exploration of Polynesia is what brought tattooing back into popularity in the Western World. 

Maquesas Islands. Both men and women receive their tattoos as symbols of lineage, denoting rites of passage, and marking accomplishments. 

Maori. The Maori have some of the most unique tattooing traditions of any culture - moko. Rather than administered by needles, the skin is carved by chisels. This leaves grooves in the skin. Moko were tattoos on the face, denoting high status. It was a rite of passage and to make people more sexually appealing. Men had full face tattoos. Women only had their lips and chins tattooed. Tattoo artists were considered sacred. Today, moko has experienced a resurgence as a marker of cultural identity. 

Samoa. There are two types of tattooing in Samoa - pe'a for men, malu for women. Pe'a is a tattoo which goes from the waist to the knees. The process is extremely painful and can take anywhere from a week to years to complete. If one does not complete a tattoo for reasons of money or pain, it is a mark of shame. Those without tattoos are called "naked." The family joins the tattooed person to offer words of encouragement through the process. Malu is a smaller tattoo on the backs of thighs of women. It used to only be worn by the chief's daughters after they reached puberty, but later many other women practiced Malu. 

 This pot depicts a woman with ornate tattoos on her body, arms, and face; filed teeth, and a deformed head. It dates to AD 1300 - 1520.  Copyright © 2010 Tom Gidwitz

This pot depicts a woman with ornate tattoos on her body, arms, and face; filed teeth, and a deformed head. It dates to AD 1300 - 1520.

Copyright © 2010 Tom Gidwitz


Southeast U.S. Tattoos were a maker of rank and accomplishments. They could be blue or red and were given to males and females. If an individual had tattoos they were not entitled to, they must get them removed. 

Mesoamerica. There has been much debate as to whether groups like the Aztecs tattooed or painted their bodies. Spaniards who came in contact with the Aztecs say they tattooed, but most of our evidence is secondhand. It is fairly certain, however, that other groups, such as the Huastec, tattooed. 

 This young Fulani woman has "tchoodi," a tattoo around her lips that makes her more attractive to men. 

This young Fulani woman has "tchoodi," a tattoo around her lips that makes her more attractive to men. 


Unfortunately, little research has been done on tattooing in Africa (outside of Egypt). It seems that while present, scarification (the process of making cuts on the skin to create patterns of scars) was more prominent among most ethnic groups in Africa. Scarification was believed to cure disease, protect against evil, reflect personality, social status, and tribal identity. In some groups, such as the Hausa, tattoos came from scarification. Ash or charcoal is rubbed into the wounds to stall healing and create a more raised pattern. This had the side effect of creating tattoos. This process is called cicatrization. For cultures like the Fulani, mothers and grandmothers made small incisions on a child's lips and face. 

 A "tattooed lady" in the early 20th century. 

A "tattooed lady" in the early 20th century. 


Tattooing was reintroduced to the Western World by sailors to Polynesia. In America, sailors initially used tattoos as a means of differentiating themselves from others on their I.D. cards. Later, they began to use tattoos as a means of self expression. In Britain, tattooing was associated with sailors and the wealthy. Sailors received tattoos on their journeys and only the wealthy could afford the expensive process of tattooing outside of those voyages. The idea of tattoos being a marker of wealth began to die out in the late 19th century. Heavily tattooed women "tattooed ladies" became featured in circuses. Until the 1920s, these women were popular sideshow acts. 

Today, 23% of American women are tattooed, compared to 19% of men. It is the first time in U.S. history women have outnumbered men when it comes to tattoos. Despite the historic forbidding of tattoos in Christianity, many Christians today use tattoos to identify themselves with their faith. 

Reasons for Tattooing

If there is one singular word to sum up all the reasons behind tattooing, it would be "identity." They can denote status, group affiliation, or accomplishments. Many people tattoo for aesthetic purposes. Some women in the Western World practice tattooing as permanent makeup. Some people use tattoos to cover up scars, stretch marks, or other flaws. They can be an indication of spiritual devotion or loyalty to one's family. They can be done for luck, for protection, or for an expression of individuality. 

Why do archaeologists hate fun? [Mini Blog]


And historians, and scholars in general. Why do they all hate fun? Or perhaps, more accurately, why do they lack imagination? Why do we dig our heels in and insist that anything that challenges our views couldn't possibly exist? And if an academic is open to a non-mainstream thought, they're immediately black-balled by the academic community. I think more than many other disciplines, archaeology and history are inundated with amateurs who wish to partake in the field without the "proper educational background." But this lack of an educational background actually creates a much more open-minded interpretation of the evidence. 

  The Maine Penny - Hoax or Real?  Photo courtesy of Maine State Museum. 

The Maine Penny - Hoax or Real? Photo courtesy of Maine State Museum. 

Or it makes them gullible enough to believe hoaxes. But even the most educated minds have been fooled before. 

I remember a paleontology professor - a man with a doctorate and one of the smartest people I've ever known - saying there was IMPOSSIBLE for anything other than carbon-based life to exist. He gave his very well-thought-out evidence for this assertion. But haven't we discovered life we insisted couldn't be possible before? Why do scholars keep shutting down a universe that has proven to be full of infinite possibilities?

The world went insane when it was discovered that Columbus wasn't the first European to step foot on the American continent - it was the Vikings, nearly 500 years prior. "There must have been a mistake!" But, no, we are still discovering more Viking sites in North America

This is not to say that aliens built the pyramids. This is not to say that scholars are uptight. I'm an archaeologist myself. And always be skeptical. Certainly, question. And question again. And again. Never stop questioning. But denying possibilities could be denying real evidence that revolutionizes our knowledge of the world we live in. 


Can Feng Shui be Applied to Exhibit Design?


Anyone who knows me knows that I’m open-minded and willing to give just about anything a try. I’m also a chronic insomniac. I’ve had trouble getting sleep since I can remember. If I’m not taking 2+ hours to fall asleep, I’m waking up at 3am and unable to fall back asleep. And I have tried everything. I’ve tried every combination of everything. I’ve tried aromatherapy. I’ve tried proper diet, exercise, no caffeine, turning off electronics an hour before bed, not using the bed for anything but sleep, etc. And, of course, the list includes Feng Shui. Did it work? I can’t be sure. I definitely slept like a baby that first night. But whether it was from Feng Shui or exhaustion from pushing furniture around, I can’t say.

For those that aren’t New Age Hippies like me, Feng Shui is a Chinese philosophy of harmonizing with your environment. Calculations and formulas balance the invisible force of the universe (or qi). Feng Shui has been used to orient buildings and design homes. Even the Skeptic Encyclopedia concedes it is rational to wish to harmonize with your environment. And my philosophy is: what could it hurt?


Shapes and Layout

There are certain aspects of Feng Shui that can be helpful to exhibit design. Feng Shui encourages a variety of shapes in your environment to keep your Feng Shui elements balanced. From a more practical standpoint, the mixture of shapes will keep the eye engaged. If everything is rectangular, the design will become monotonous. Feng Shui also emphasizes the importance of flow. This is definitely important in exhibit design. There has to be a clear pathway through the exhibit space.


Colors and Elements

Plenty of research has been done on the psychological effect of colors. And these effects are not much different than the color meanings in Feng Shui. Marketing and branding uses color to influence our purchasing decisions.

The interior of our museum is dominated by wood and metal elements with a touch of earth elements. In our permanent exhibit, the area is dominated by wood elements in materials and shape. (The element of wood is connected with rectangular shapes.)

Our walls in our exhibit are gray and light blue. Psychologically speaking, light blue calms the mind and aids in concentration. But it can be perceived as unemotional and unfriendly. It is not an inviting color, but may aid the audience in learning. Gray is a psychologically neutral color, which is why it is used in our changing exhibit area. It is supposed to be an unseen backdrop. But the question is, do we want an unseen backdrop of color or do we want to affect how people feel when they are in the space? (Unfortunately, in the temporary exhibit space, how we want them to feel may be ever changing.) In Feng Shui, blues invite wisdom and calms the mind. Not so different from proven color theory. Gray, however, is not a neutral color in Feng Shui. Instead, it is considered a helpful color as it balances black and white.


Controlling Our Exhibit Elements

Our overabundance of the wood element is counteracted by the metal element. Metal helps to control wood. The color gray and the metal light fixtures help combat the wooden display cases. However, according to Feng Shui, we would he helped by having more circular items. (Circles are connected to metal). In this aspect, I agree with Feng Shui. We could definitely soften up our exhibit.

However, we have only ‘controlled’ our wood element. We have not tried to ‘reduce’ it, which would be done by adding the fire element to the mix. Fire is associated with the color red, which is a powerful color psychologically. Red makes a statement, that’s for certain. Colors also include yellow, orange, purple, pink, and magenta. Fire is associated with triangle and star shapes. It is meant to enhance fame, reputation and public attention. Not a bad addition to a museum’s Feng Shui. Maybe I can look into adding fire elements as we move forward with updating our permanent exhibit.

Holy Hillbillies!: The Unique Religion of the Appalachias


For much of the past week, I’ve been sitting on my office floor, mapping out Christian branches and denominations in magic marker on giant paper. It is a much more significant task than I expected. With estimates of Christian denominations ranging from 200 to 33,000, I had no hope of making sense of it all. (This was done for our “Our Beliefs, Our Faiths” mini exhibit running now. I’m not actually crazy.) I sat on the ground with my papers realizing I’d just fallen into the deep end. No, I’d fallen into Mariana’s Trench. And I was being eaten alive by anglerfish.

 Artist's rendering of me trying to understand Christian denominations. 

Artist's rendering of me trying to understand Christian denominations. 

Narrowing my focus, I decided to research denominations that emerged in our region, which led me to Church of God. A few of the beliefs of the Church of God that differ from mainstream Christianity are speaking in tongues and faith healing. To this yankee, lay on of hands was a cleric’s spell in Dungeons and Dragons and Glossolalia was the word that makes you lose the spelling bee. (And Appalachia is pronounced App-uh-lay-shya.) When I met people who believed in these things, I had to learn more. I had to understand.

And I learned that my grandfather (now passed) apparently had the gift of tongues.


The Gift of Tongues

Speaking in tongues is considered a signal of being baptized in the Holy Spirit. People may also have the gift of interpreting tongues. Some may have convulsions or faint when experiencing the gift of God. Speaking in tongues goes back to Ancient Greece, to the priests of Apollo. It goes back to the Ancient Israelites. Today, it is primarily found in Pentacostal/Charismatic churches. Scientifically speaking, during these episodes, the part of the brain that oversees inhibition and self control essentially shuts down. For believers, this may be an indication of the Holy Spirit taking control of a person. For skeptics, this may be a purely psychological phenomenon.

Then there is faith healing. I will not comment on whether or not this is real or a fraud, as I am not qualified to take on such a complex topic. However, faith healing and speaking in tongues can be found in many different churches across the world. What about practices unique to Appalachia?


Signs Following

This brings us to the Holiness Movement and (more locally) the Church of God with Signs Following. Like the Galapagos Islands’ isolation bringing us so many unique and interesting endemic species of animals, Appalachian isolation brought on unique culture and beliefs. (Appalachian Isolation sounds like a School House Rock song.) Endemic practices such as snake handling arose from interpretations from the following biblical verses:

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
— (Mark 16:17-18)

These are called the “Signs Following,” and are a critical component of Appalachian Pentecostal practice. It is not found in some translations of the Bible, but it is present in the King James Version, which is the preferred version of most of these churches.

The practice of snake handling began when George Went Hensley introduced it to the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee. This is almost exclusively practiced in the Appalachian region. The practice is outlawed in all Appalachian states except West Viriginia. However, adherents still practice despite the illegality and the danger posed to snake handlers. According to Pastor Jamie Coots: “Handlers get bitten all the time, and every few years someone dies.” Sadly, Coots was one of the ones to die from a snake bite after being bitten nine times during his life. Family refused medical treatment for him, as it went against his religious beliefs. Coots wished to have snake handling protected under religious freedom.

On the one hand, observers are kept at a safe distance from those that wish to handle the snakes and there has been no documented cases of a snake biting a non-handling believer. On the other, the snakes are often captured from the wild and kept in poor health. For those who do die of a snake bite, it is believed that it was simply their time to die.

Adherents also drink poison - usually strychnine. 

You can’t go to the hospital. There is not a lot they can do. But [seeking medical help] means you’re already starting to lose faith.
— Mack Wolford

These are deadly religious practices and I cannot say whether they should be legal or not. But they are unique. They are part of our history as a region. And we need to preserve these traditions through writings as the practice begins to die out.

Fun Post: Writing Historical Fiction


In addition to being a museum curator, I'm also a budding novelist. Budding novelist sounds better than wannabe writer. It all boils down to writing novels in my spare time, just for fun. You can probably guess what genre they usually are. Yeah, historical fiction or historical fantasy. If I do write pure fantasy, it's got a heavy basis in real history. (Currently I'm trying to branch out and tackle the exact opposite genre: Science Fiction. I can't even decide on the main character's name.) 

Why am I babbling about this? Because once every couple of months, I get to write a post on whatever I like. (Every month that we have a fifth Thursday). And I want to talk about my other great passion. 

Although I'm more curator than author, I do have some tips on writing any fiction with a strong historical base. 


1. Set the mood

One difficult with writing historical fiction is getting tone mixed. History is jumbled together as a monolith in our minds and it can actually affect the mood of your book. Music and sound (even without words) can affect your verbiage and the way you tackle the scene. If I want two characters to have a discussion about the meaning of life on a bench in a park, I could get two very different things depending on if I listened to Medieval festival music or Soviet propaganda anthems. 

My favorite website is for atmosphere, ambience, and music. Try out 1920s Speakeasy. It's one of my favorites. This site can also be used for just about any genre. If you want something specific, you're likely going to have to go digging. You don't need to be specific down to the very minute in history. This is one thing you can brush with broad strokes because it serves as inspiration for tone. 


2. Move from the library to the typewriter

At least under-researchers get something written. Many a writer spends more time researching than writing. I won't give you an arbitrary length of time that you should research, since everyone absorbs information at varying degrees. But no wishy-washy nonsense. You want to have a solid foundation to stand on. Read a full Wikipedia page's worth of research for every priority topic you want to tackle. For example, if you want to write a fantasy based on Aztec gods, make sure you research the Aztec mythology and the general overview of Aztec history and culture. You don't need to read all the codices and learn the exact hairstyle a lowerclass woman would wear. 

Build the solid foundation for a house, but you don't need to worry about the style of the faucets just yet. 


3. Anachronism? Is that like an aneurism? 

Sit down to write and don't let anything but fundamental historical accuracies get in your way. Yes, you likely need to know the basic tenets of Islam if you're writing a novel set in Ottoman Turkey. But, no, you don't need to know on what day the garbage truck came through in 1947 in Chicago. If you don't know how your main character would have worn their hair or what food they would eat, mark it to research it later and keep going. Put a placeholder if need be. This is all about putting up the frame of your house. Take liberties. Mark anything you're not sure of. 


4. The Antikythera Method

History itself has its own anachronisms, like the above Antikythera mechanism. We're continuously discovering new things that reshape our theories of the past. When examining your story afterwards, handle the historical accuracy. Do your tedious research now that you know exactly what you need to discover. Pick and choose where you want to be accurate. And keep the cool anachronisms. Leave out the too-weird accuracies. The most important rule: don't break your story. If making something historically accurate will harm your story, don't do it. Unless... Rule two: don't write something that will take 90% of readers out of the story. Whether its an accuracy or an anachronism, eliminate anything that distracts too much from the story. There will be a small percentage of the population who know far too much about history and will be taken out of a story by an inaccuracy. And then there will be a part of the population so fascinated by an accuracy, they'll stop reading to research. Don't worry about either of those guys. 

If you don't have anything else to do tonight, look up these out of place artifacts: (I plan on doing an artifact about these seeming anachronisms in the future.) 

Educating All Y'all: Islam


As you can tell from the title, I want to keep this post as light-hearted as possible. Religion is a touchy subject, which I’ll be discussing in my next blog post. So keep an eye out for that. Some of you, like me, will have a  simple rule when making conversation: No politics and no religion. That is my one rule in nearly all interactions. However, another portion of the population asks “what church do you go to?” or “what denomination are you?” as often and as easily as asking someone’s name. (My answer to that is usually awkward laughter.)


But, if we are going to talk about religion, let’s talk about Islam. Once again, the population is split. There are those that misunderstand Islam and those that know Islam is misunderstood. If you’re here to fight instead of learn, then go to a boxing ring instead of an educational blog.

Here are a few misconceptions about Islam:


Islam is misogynistic

People are misogynistic. Islam is not. The relatively new (as in the 20th century) fundamentalist movement twists the words of the Quran.  It mutates the life of the Prophet Muhammad to suit its own needs. You can make something say whatever you want. These fundamentalist “Muslims” create their own meaning and interpretations of the Quran. They put themselves in a place of power and manipulate women how they want them. “Scholars” of Islam often insert their own meaning and interpretations into the Quran. They will issue fatwas (or rulings) based on their own interpretations of the Quran. This leads to fatwas such as: 

  • women do not need to be educated past elementary school
  • women can marry as young as 11
  • women should not wear bras
  • women can only be truly connected with God if she serves her husband’s physical needs first. 

It seems that these male “scholars” have written their own rules to give them power over women.

Why do I say they are writing their own rules? It comes from the Quran, doesn’t it? No. While women were not completely equal to men in the Quran, the book was feminist for its time. Women were entitled to property. Women kept their own last names. Women selected their own husbands and could initiate divorce. How do these Quranic verses compare with the fatwas issued above?

The Prophet Muhammad himself lived a life surrounded by strong women. His first wife was forty years old when she hired the twenty-five year old Muhammad. She was the leader of a trade caravan - a business owner. She was quite taken with Muhammad, so she proposed to him.

After Khadija’s death, we have Muhammad’s second wife, Aisha. She rode into battle on the back of a camel. Women at the time were freer in the Islamic world than in the Western world. They were generals and soldiers. They were entitled to divorce and kept their own name and inheritance. 


Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab (headscarf)

What does the Quran really say about a Muslim woman’s hijab?

The answer to this misconception is yes and no. Some Muslim women ARE forced to wear it. By laws. Or family. Or societal pressures. But other Muslim women wear it by choice. And their reasons are as varied as humanity is. Some read Quranic passages and hadiths as requiring the wearing of the headscarf. Others do so to rid themselves of oppressive beauty standards. For some women, the hijab is a symbol of their oppression. For others, it is a symbol of her freedom.

Hijab is a term meaning barrier. In the Muslim world, it refers to a code of dress for men and women. In the Western World, it means the headscarf. But once again, there are many interpretations on the few select passages in the Quran that speak about how women dress. Watch the above video for more detailed information.


Islam is incompatible with Western values

The Muslim on the Airplane 

Only in the way that Christianity or Judaism are. These three religions are more alike than they are different. They follow many of the same moral codes. When it comes down to it, Islam is held up by the Five Pillars of Islam:

  • The shahadah - or declaration of faith saying you believe in one God and that Muhammad is his messenger
  • salat - prayer
  • sawm - fasting during the holy month of Ramadan (if able)
  • hajj - the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca (if able)
  • zakat - charitable donation based on income.

Freedom of speech, prayer, fasting, travel, and charity hardly sound incompatible with Western values.

We’ve already tackled the myth of Islamic misogyny, so let’s tackle the other one: Islamic homophobia. Studies have shown that LGBT individuals believe Islam is more intolerant of homosexuality than any other religion. And they have a good reason. With so many Islamic countries punishing homosexuality with the death penalty, it doesn’t look good.

Once again, it comes down to scholars and interpretation.

There is no one Muslim perspective on anything.
— Kecia Ali with regards to homosexuality in Islam.

Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam has the story of Lot. And like Christianity and Judaism, there are many different interpretations among Muslims as to what exactly the passage is referring to. Is it condemning inhospitality? Homosexuality? Rape? The punishments cited by homophobes are not in the Quran. They are in unauthenticated hadiths (these are recorded sayings from the Prophet Muhammad.) However, some were written centuries after his death with no evidence  other than the word of one person. (Therefore called "unauthentic.”)

While most Muslims are homophobic (as are most evangelical Christians, for perspective), some Muslim scholars argue that homosexual feelings are not haram (meaning forbidden). Only the acts themselves are haram. For the majority of Islamic history, homosexuality operated under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In early Islamic history, there were Islamic scholars, poets, and artists who were openly homosexual. Arabia had no significant taboos against homosexuality. However, when the Persian Empire became the powerhouse in the Islamic world, we began to see a lot more discrimination against homosexuality.

If we are going to say that Islam conflicts with Western values (which are what? exactly?), Christianity would as well. Western society values personal freedom. It values women’s rights. It values diversity. In the Islamic holy book, women are given more personal freedoms than in Christianity. In Islam, converting must be a choice. Islam is more racially and ethnically diverse than Christianity. (I know what image you must have in your head, but only 15% of Muslims are Arab).


So what is Islam like?

There is no one answer. Islam is as diverse a set of beliefs as any other religion. Alcohol is considered “haram” by almost all Muslims, but I’ve known Muslims who drink. Muslims can be gay, feminist, fundamentalist, and everything in between. Some Muslims don’t even follow the Five Pillars of Islam and are often referred to as “non-practicing Muslims.” But Muslims nonetheless. One unique aspect of Islam is that you can’t excommunicate anyone (once again, there is debate as a small minority of Muslims believe you can.) And you only leave the Islamic faith by your own choice. You are the one who decides whether you are Muslim or not.

Islam in the United States is feeling like an outcast. Feeling unwanted. Fearing you will be forced to register yourself in a database. Fearing your family and friends will be exiled. Being forced to compensate with overt friendliness lest someone think you are evil. Removing your hijab so you don’t make other people feel uncomfortable. Not performing all five daily prayers in public because you don’t want to be caught. Trying to look less Muslim because you want to make it home tonight to your cat (who is eagerly awaiting her Fancy Feast).

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Education is the best weapon for battling hate. That’s why I’m educating all y’all.

Quilting in Tennessee

FTB Logo Foundation.JPG

Hello, everyone! I've been quite busy with the Quilt Show, so this week's blog post will be a combination of the blog I was supposed to write and this week's upcoming post. On the first Monday, I usually write up something related to the museum and museum events. On the second Monday, I usually write up a local history piece. This week, I'm combining them. So let's take a quick look at Quilting in Tennessee! 

Quilting History

Quilts were introduced in America when colonists arrived from Europe (though Europeans were not the inventors of the quilt - it has been found in many different cultures all over the Old World). Wholecloth quilts gave way to the rising popularity of patchwork quilts. Patchwork quilts are considered quintessentially American and is usually what is pictured when one thinks of a quilt. 

Major events became reflected in quilting, as evidenced by the increasingly popularity of scrap quilts in Tennessee during the Civil War. Women would often work together to create quilts for soldiers of the army they supported. Myra Inman of Cleveland, TN mentions Federal soldiers taking a quilt off her slave's bed as they moved through the area. 

Regional Differences

Before regions became more cohesive and mixed (due to inventions like the car, the printing press, the dissemination of national newspapers and magazines, etc.), there were more significant regional differences in quilts. Even across the state of Tennessee, one could see different trends. In East Tennessee, quilters favored appliqué, lighter tones, and more white fabrics incorporated into quilts. In Middle Tennessee, darker, more somber tones were used. And in West Tennessee, they preferred strong colors and used a variety of prints and solids. This does not hold true today as quilting patterns can be had from anywhere on the globe. 


To learn more about Quilting in Tennessee, stop by our exhibit: A Patchwork of American History, sponsored by the First Tennessee Foundation. 

Genocide, Colonialism, and Museums

 (c) Marvel Studios

(c) Marvel Studios

The Black Panther hype continues and I want to highlight one very important scene in the movie (minor spoilers ahead).

The reaction at the end of this video was mine. I nearly jumped up and applauded in the movie theater, but didn’t because I’m a decent person and didn’t want to ruin anyone else’s experience.

Here’s the thing, all of my fields have a dirty history. I have a BA in Archaeology, an MA in Anthropology, and I work as a museum curator. Our work is historically built on racism, colonialism, theft, and genocide. We were grave-robbers. We were colonists. We claimed it was our divine right to subjugate and oppress other cultures and take their things for our own education and study. We even took people, putting them in our human zoos to gawk at.

Doesn’t help that I’m white. But I’ll leave that for another day.

When I talk about we, I’m referring to those traditionally of my profession - the anthropologists and historians. As archaeologists we dug up African countrysides and left nothing but holes in the ground as we carted off their greatest treasures to our museums. As anthropologists we used human samples to make determinations about racial differences (which, to the surprise of no one, suggested that whites were the superior race). As curators, we put those relics from other nations behind glass and profited off them while those nations suffered.

I know after those paragraphs, I’ve lost half of my readers. So, to the remaining two who are still here, I want to tell you how we should move forward.

From here on, this is my opinion. It is not an opinion that Europeans and Americans profited off exploitation of other cultures. But I do have an opinion on how I believe museums should move forward.

 (c) Pixar

(c) Pixar


  1. Negotiate the return of items. It’s a lot of work to put items back in the hands of their rightful owners, but we’ve taken steps towards it in the past. NAGPRA has helped negotiate the return of Native American burial artifacts to the Native American tribes to which they belong. This process would involve reaching across the aisle to negotiate with other countries. It would be a long, drawn-out, diplomatic process, but it would facilitate new bonds and partnerships. But what about OUR museums? Won’t they be empty? In this beautiful day and age, there are items called replicas. It’s amazing what we can do nowadays. And, really, with 3-D printing, this could be a fantastic method of replacing returned items.

  2. Negotiate the proper transfer of ownership. Many of the places the Western World has ripped items from are still struggling from the legacy of that colonialism. In most cases, the Western World stole the items, did not pay a fair price for them, or took advantage of a less-privileged nation. So what do we do? We go back, and we decide how to handle this past. We can offer a fair and final price. We can accept these items as a gift or donation from another nation (if the nation offers the item as a gift) and label it as such. We can offer a donation for our continued use of the item. We could offer a percentage of the profits we make off the item. No matter which way it is decided to be placed in our care, we should be making amends and we should be consulting the peoples these items were taken from.

Yes, it is a complicated process. It will be painful acknowledging the dark past of anthropology. It will not be financially in our best interests. So why do it? Because it’s the right thing to do.

 (c) Disney

(c) Disney

(How much did you love Black Panther?)




 (c) Marvel Studios

(c) Marvel Studios

Two things you need to know about me during this blog post: 1. I have a vicious cold. 2. I am hyped up on Black Panther.

Last week, I missed putting up a blog post. To my entire four readers, I apologize. (Who am I kidding? My only readers are Mike and myself.) Today I will be posting two blog posts, though both will be slightly shorter than usual. For today, my plan had been to examine Afrocentrism, Pan-Africanism, and the Diminution of the African continent. After watching Black Panther, I decided my readers would be better off watching Black Panther, as it tackles those issues in a much more entertaining way. And, also, while I did extensive research on those topics prior to seeing the movie, I couldn’t manage to string two coherent sentences together about the topics.

Between the cold medicine and the mucus filling my sinus cavities, I will not be managing to create neither a knowledge-sharing or thought-provoking blog post today. (If I ever manage to do so). So let’s talk about Afrofuturism. Or rather, please read my almost-nonsensical rant on Afro-futurism.

I have four primary passions that drive my life: history, costuming, writing, and my cat. Let’s talk about a subject encompassing the first three. I’ll save the topic of my cat for another day. Afrofuturism is a term relating to science fiction - it’s the genre seen in Marvel’s Black Panther. A science fiction aesthetic rooted in the black experience – both in Africa and around the world. It also combines elements of fantasy and history as well. Usually afrofuturism has the goal of reframing a political narrative.

 (c) Marvel Studios

(c) Marvel Studios

Afrofuturism is a necessary term to identify specifically because most science fiction is rooted in European or Asian culture (the latter has become more prominent in recent years with shows like Firefly, movies like Pacific Rim, or many anime live-action remakes.) It tackles topics faced by African and black communities all over the world like colonialism and oppression. It is, in its nature, a politically charged genre.

 (c) Marvel Studios

(c) Marvel Studios

Beyond the political topics it tackles, it is also an outlet for an expression of black excellence. It is a place in which black contributions to the world can be highlighted. When the world wants to use a black narrative, it focuses on their oppression - we clamor to read books about the experiences of a black slave, we run to the theaters to see movies showing blacks fighting for their rights. But does it always have to be about struggle? Why is it that the only story of blacks in the Western narrative is about romanticizing how they overcame obstacles placed upon them?

 (c) Marvel Studios

(c) Marvel Studios

Our stories set the bar far too low. Blacks excel by achieving equality to whites. But whites excel by becoming superhuman. Afrofuturism tells us that blacks can be amazing. Period. No need to compare them to whites. Black narratives don’t always have to dwell on racism. Afrofuturism shows us the value of non-white culture and its potential for advancing all societies. It brings African cultures to center stage.

In the future, I want to see more than Afrofuturism. I want science fiction rooted in the hundreds of other cultures that fill our world. I want to see sci-fi steeped in ancient Mesoamerica, based in Japan (but with actual Japanese characters), based in Mongolia, based in Cambodia, based in India… I could go on. Our science fiction needs diversity that reflects the world we live in.


Race Wars and Peaceful Protests: an Intersectional Profile of Social Change

I apologize. The second Thursday of the month is usually dedicated to local history topics. Today’s planned topic was segregation and civil rights in Tennessee. However, this topic is more thoroughly reviewed here and I feel I couldn’t do a much better job than they’ve done.

Today’s post is instead inspired by the patterns I noticed while researching for this article. This is not meant to be an endorsement of any sort of method of social change. Simply, it is an examination of the differing methods whereby social change has come about.


The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.
— Booker T. Washington
By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creater with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
— W.E.B. Du Bois

My first thoughts on the differing ideologies for social change came when studying Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Both strove for the betterment of African-Americans after Emancipation. However, they had different methods for doing so. Washington believed that the appeasement of white men would, over time, earn the black man an improved status. If the black man could prove himself as a civilized member of society… if he could “play ball,” then he could be granted rights by the white man. (During this time, civil rights were primarily pursued for black men as women’s rights were still far away.) He called for compromise, which would, realistically, earn black men more opportunity. He offered the acceptance of white superiority in exchange for white support of black education. Safe. Peaceful. Realistic.

W.E.B. Du Bois did not want the future of the black race placed into the hands of the whites. Du Bois did advocate for peace, but he wanted power over black men firmly in the hands of black men. While Washington encouraged African-Americans to compromise, Du Bois eschewed it. Washington believed small changes would lead to changes in society, given time.  Revolutionaries like Du Bois, however, are idealistic. They look at the big picture. They cannot toil in progressive, but almost insignificant, actions. They cannot accept anything short of their visions for the future. 


I am not guilty. I am going to die and I have no fear to die. God bless you all.
— Ed Johnson, just before he was lynched.
We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.
— Malcolm X

I don’t like the word militant. It has a negative connotation. I’ve seen it used to describe W.E.B. Du Bois because he wasn’t willing to bow his head and accept compromise. I reject that resistance is militancy. I also reject that notion that nothing is won through militancy. Here I use pacifist to mean “passive resistance.” Activists resist, yes, and prove their point through action. But these actions are non-aggressive in nature. Pacifists may fast in protest. They may participate in sit-ins. They are the activists who don’t move to the back of the bus, who march through the streets, who sit at a whites-only lunch counter. They resist, but they don’t fight back. These are the actions of the pacifist. The ideology of a pacifist is also non-aggressive in nature and probably the most important identifier of a pacifist. Pacifists argue for equality. Pacifists wish to enact social change by elevating the unequal to become equal.

Militants make their point through a show of force and aggression. This doesn’t necessarily mean they take up arms and participate in acts of violence. Many times, this militancy is a militancy of thought. Militants use aggressive ideology, such as black supremacy. Militants wish to enact social change by elevating the unequal above the other and by pushing the oppressor down. Militant ideology is to argue for the opposing ideology of the current social environment. In action, militants are willing to meet aggression with aggression. Militants are more willing to use a show of force. Race riots and the like are results of militant thinking, but that does not mean all militancy is violent.

Incremental Pacifist: One Step at a Time

Incremental Pacifists believe change comes about through changing minds – even if it is only one at a time. It’s an internally-focused revolution: show them why you deserve to be equal through your actions. It is a change of accepting compromises and it has its place in social change. It is more slow and submissive and puts the power primarily in the hands of the oppressing power. 

Incremental Militant: Breaking Barriers

Incremental Militants are usually the holders of aggressive ideologies and are willing to be confrontational in daily pursuance of rights. They may carry guns for protection, expecting violence to be carried out against them. Or they may react in violence to infringement on their safety or rights. They may believe in supremacist ideas (with regards to the Civil Rights Movement, black supremacy).  Through incremental militant actions, one makes it clear to those around them that they will not be silenced. 

Revolutionary Pacifist: Peaceful Protest

Revolutionary Pacifists are usually regarded as martyrs. (Unlike Incremental Pacifists, who are usually forgotten with the passage of time, if they were ever noticed at all.) They demonstrate their beliefs in non-violent ways so as to reveal the oppressive force they rally against. Non-violent protests can be self-sacrificing particularly when the oppressive force reacts with violence. 

Revolutionary Militant: Forcible Change

Where Revolutionary Pacifists believe in “turning the other cheek,” Revolutionary Militants believe in “an eye for an eye.” They are aggressive in their pursuit of their oppositional ideologies and this sometimes leads to violence. 


Bottoms Up!: Snippets in the History of Beer


Beer. It’s the third most popular drink in the world. If you're wondering, water and tea are first and second.  Beer is made from fermented malted barley, wheat, corn, rice, or other cereal grains. Hops, when added to beer, is a natural preservative and stabilizer. It's a shared experience amongst people from all cultures and all walks of life.

Beer Consumption per Capita

1.     Czech Republic (Europe)

2.     Seychelles (Africa)

3.     Austria (Europe)

4.     Germany (Europe)

5.     Namibia (Africa)

6.     Poland (Europe)

7.     Ireland (Europe)

8.     Lithuania (Europe)

9.     Belize (North America)

10. Estonia (Europe)

The U.S. ranks at 17th.

Alcohol Consumption per Capita

1.     Belarus

2.     Moldova

3.     Lithuania

4.     Russia

5.     Romania

6.     Ukraine

7.     Andorra

8.     Hungary

9.     Czech Republic

10. Slovakia

The U.S. ranks at 48th.

Islamic countries rank at the bottom due to religious prohibition of alcohol consumption. Often, there are also laws against the consumption of alcohol in these countries. In some, the law only applies to Muslims, so religious minorities or visitors may partake.

The Quran says: "They ask thee concerning wine and gambling. Say: 'In them is great sin, and some profit, for men; but the sin is greater than the profit.'" (Al-Baqara; 2:219)

The Bible speaks of alcohol similarly: "The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: ... drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God." (Galatians; 5:19–21)

Religion, including both Christianity and Islam, is frequently the reasoning behind alcohol prohibition. Counties and cities in the U.S. are dry. These places are usually in predominantly Christian areas. 

 A receipt for beer in Sumerian. 

A receipt for beer in Sumerian. 

Origins of Beer

It is interesting, then, that the first known instances of beer appear in Iran in 7000 BCE. We know beer was in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) by 6000 BCE, China by 5000 BCE, and Europe by 3000 BCE. Some determinations are based on residue analyses of pottery. Others are based on depictions and recipes from these civilizations. Sumeria, a civilization in Mesopotamia, honored Ninkasi, the goddess of brewing. Because she was female, the majority of brewers were women. Later in the region, the Bablylonian Code of Hammurabi (1754 BCE) refers to beer.

 A 19th century cartoon in favor of the temperance movement. 

A 19th century cartoon in favor of the temperance movement. 

Beer in the Old World

The Old World refers to Europe, Asia, and Africa. In Ancient Rome, wine replaced beer in popularity, though beer was not forgotten. It was simply relegated to lower classes. In Medieval Europe, beer was a drink for all classes. It was during this time that the beneficial addition of hops was discovered. It was noted by a Frankish Abbot (head of a monastery) in his writings in the 9th century. Indeed, beer wasn’t wholly disdained by religious Christians at this point in time.

Wine continued to be a more popular drink in Southern Europe due to its abundant grape production. However, beer was more popular in the working class.

 Chicha Morada 

Chicha Morada 

Beer in the New World

The Americas were not left out of discovering the enjoyable effects of fermented grains. In the New World, however, it was usually a combination of fermented grains and corn to create chicha. Chicha was in the stomachs of people from Mesoamerica to South America. They offered it to gods and their ancestors like many civilizations across the ocean.

We know a lot about Incan chicha consumption. In the capital of Cuzco, the king poured chicha into a bowl at the “navel of the universe” to feed the sun god. Human sacrifices were rubbed with the dregs of chicha, then tube-fed more chicha through a hole in the ground as they were buried alive.

 Disposal of liquor during Prohibition.

Disposal of liquor during Prohibition.


Alcohol was banned in the United States from 1920-1933 by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. This legislation was pushed by the “drys” (pro-prohibitionists). The drys were predominately Evangelical Protestants in the South. They believed that alcohol was the source of many evils befalling the United States in the early 20th century. However, this outlook was not popular among the general American public, who found many ways around the law.

The amendment banned the manufacture, importation, sale, and transport of alcohol, but not consumption. Many people stockpiled alcohol prior to the act going into effect. During this time, physicians and pharmacists prescribed alcohol for medicinal purposes. They fought with the government to allow medicinal alcohol. Within six months, the government issued 72,000 prescription alcohol licenses to doctors and pharmacists. Even if you didn’t stockpile alcohol or get a prescription, there were other ways to get alcohol. There were speakeasies, moonshiners, and even your local grocery. Grape juice fermented into wine with 12% alcohol content after 60 days. There were no restrictions on grape juice.

Unfortunately, the laws unfairly targeted the working class. In the beginning, the working class was unable to amass the same stockpiles as the wealthy. When enforcement of the laws began, the working class was penalized more harshly in comparison to their upper class counterparts. More often, they were subject to raids and arrests.

The 18th Amendment was later repealed by the 21st Amendment. However, states, counties, and cities were allowed to create their own prohibition laws. Mississippi was the last dry state, repealing the law in 1966. Still today, there are dry counties and municipalities. 


Do you love beer and wine? Then you should toddle on down to the Brew-Ha-Ha at the Museum Center at 5ive Points! Get your tickets here: 

Museum Minimalism

 A view of one of our storage spaces. Space is becoming very precious. 

A view of one of our storage spaces. Space is becoming very precious. 

Minimalism. It’s a concept often used in interior and lifestyle design. Minimalism frees your space. It is intended to help you live a life without physical and emotional clutter.

It seems like a concept diametrically opposed to the purpose of museums. After all, the purpose of museums is to hold items in the public trust. Our purpose is to preserve and display history through artifacts. But is our current practice the best way to do so? Is there a better way to approach museum collections?

 One of our many boxes of Civil War Era bullets. 

One of our many boxes of Civil War Era bullets. 

Minimalist Accessioning

A common practice among new museums is accepting any items offered up for donations. This seems like a good idea at the present, but is short-sighted. Down the road, this will be a disaster. Even the most organized museum with solid accessioning procedures will create clutter for its future. In ten years or so, these museums will be inundated with artifacts. Most likely, many of these artifacts have never been removed from storage. Later curators will sift through these items during inventory and wonder why we’re wasting valuable space on it. These items seemed like a good idea at the time, when there was hundreds of square footage for it. But when your collections are bursting at the seams, you have to be more cognizant of the items you accept.

So what do we do? We need to approach accessioning with a minimalist mindset. Pretend your collection is already bursting at the seams, no matter what space you have. Is this item ever going to see the light of day? Is it important enough to take up precious space? After all, keeping that unknown hunk of metal now might well keep out a game-winning football years later. Why? Because deaccessioning is a much harder process. It is so mired in conflict that many museums fear deaccessioning.

 Some of the typewriters in our collection. 

Some of the typewriters in our collection. 

Decluttering through Deaccessioning

Many museums are not in the privileged space of early accessioning. Most are facing the problem of shrinking space. Most are looking at the bag of dozens of pencils that once belonged to a prominent local figure. Who thought these were worth keeping in the first place? Are we planning on having a pencil exhibit in the future? And, if we are, did we need every single pencil this person ever touched? The answer is likely no. We don’t need to keep the tissue a governor once sneezed on. This is not an episode of hoarders. So, why did we keep them? Perhaps we were taking anything to fill the space in our museums. Perhaps we felt bad telling donors that their generous donations were not accepted. Whatever the case, we are now faced with having to get rid of it. 

I’m not going to go too in-depth into deaccessioning, since it is a difficult process. It is a complicated procedure with several legal hoops you have to jump through. However, doing so is important to the well-being and the future of a museum. As a general rule, here’s what to deaccession.

  • Duplicates 
  • Unimportant items. You are a professional, and you have a valuable opinion on what is important. You have a pretty solid idea on what needs preserved and what can be displayed. Do you really need an antique eraser? Are you a historic stationary museum? Then probably not. Ask yourself if this item is worth channeling funds into its preservation. If this item was the only thing in your storage space, would it be worth the upkeep of temperature and humidity control? Is it worth the cost of the acid-free containers and bags it is kept in?
  • Unprovenanced items. These items might be better served in an education or teaching collection. They offer very little in the way of valuable research, but would be much more helpful for use in lessons. Have you tried writing exhibit labels for these items? It’s not easy. This is a chair probably from the 1950s. Does it serve your audience by teaching them something about their history? If not, it belongs somewhere else.
  • Items that don’t fit into your museum’s mission. Ours is: Telling the story of the Ocoee Region. This means non-local items, which might be cool, do not belong here. 
 One of my favorite impactful exhibits at the Customs House Museum. 

One of my favorite impactful exhibits at the Customs House Museum. 

Impactful vs. Immersive Exhibit Space

Minimalist exhibits are impactful. They highlight one or few artifacts, allowing the viewer to marvel at and examine this item. This item draws the viewer in, begging to be scrutinized. Minimalist exhibit spaces are to feature your crown jewel(s). They are inevitably what people will be drawn to. Don’t hide your best items amongst clutter, especially if they’re small. They will be drowned out by quantity.

 An impactful exhibit space highlighting one item. 

An impactful exhibit space highlighting one item. 

Cluttered exhibits have their place as well. Cluttered spaces are immersive. They give the viewer a sense of place. They see the antique bed, the end table overflowing with artifacts, the items all clamoring for attention. It gives the viewer an overall picture rather than an opportunity to examine detail. Those items that only need a cursory view should be amongst other items of similar ilk. There are many items in our collections that are better to be seen as part of a whole, not examined.

 An immersive exhibit space filled with dozens of objects. 

An immersive exhibit space filled with dozens of objects. 

As museums begin to learn that more is not always better, that more means drowning out invaluable artifacts (or worse: rejecting invaluable artifacts), we need to be more aware of clutter. We need to embrace some of the tenets of minimalism to better serve the public. Rejecting or deaccessioning single items might not serve the individual donor, but it serves the community as a whole. Displaying a singular item as a focal point might not serve the boxes of artifacts we have in storage, but it better serves the community by highlighting an important aspect of history. And, as Spock said, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”  



For more on minimalism and decluttering, check out these blogs: 

The Minimalists

Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Becoming Minimalist

Be More With Less