Wednesday, August 19, 2015

7 Questions With Pamela Newkirk, Author of Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

Pamela Newkirk is an award-winning journalist, a professor of journalism, and a director of undergraduate studies at New York University. She is the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, which won the National Press Club Award for Media Criticism, and the editor of Letters from Black America. She lives in New York City.

1.      How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
My dad was an antiques dealer and collected black memorabilia -- vintage posters, photographs, rare books, postcards and letters -- that had been tucked in bureaus and trunks acquired in estate sales. The ephemera of early black life was all around me and I became fascinated by the lost history -- by the many influential people and movements that were not included in history books. When I discovered the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which was founded by someone like my father who valued the ephemera of black life, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. 

2.      What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
It has played a very meaningful role in my life and has taught me the value of cherishing family history which feeds into our collective history. Unfortunately much of the history of African Americans and other marginalized people is left out of the historical narrative. For so long their artifacts were  not valued by major institutions and, as a result, they became devalued by African Americans themselves.  

3.      How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
While SPECTACLE is solely a historical work, all of my previous books have a historical dimension. My first book, Within the Veil: Black Journals, White Media explores the efforts by African American journalists to work in mainstream newsrooms, beginning during the Civil War. .However most of the book addresses contemporary issues. That was followed by two epistolary collections. The last, Letters from Black America, includes 250 letters penned by African Americans from the 1700s to 2008. The correspondents include slaves, surgeons, soldiers, parents, politicians and is a multidimensional portrait of black life in letters. 

4.      Why is studying/knowing history important?
Because it enables us to recognize progress or regression. Hopefully we won't continue to make the same mistakes.  It is the foundation that generation after generation builds on. 

5.      What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
The early twentieth century was fascinating. Cities like New York were becoming beacons of art, culture, architecture and attracting tens of thousands of immigrants from around the world,  bringing with them their languages, customs, and culture, Also new disciplines, like anthropology, were being created. A truly fascinating period and historians have only scratched the surface. There's so much more to unearth.

6.       Tell us about your book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga?
SPECTACLE is the story of a young Congolese man who in 1906 made national and global headlines after he was exhibited in the Bronx Zoo Monkey House, at times with an orangutan. He had been captured in the Congo and was held in the zoo against his will. This episode illuminates racial attitudes at the dawn of the twentieth century in one of the world's most progressive cities. It also shows how deeply pernicious attitudes about Africans were embedded in science, in media and in popular culture. Also, a century later, the entire episode had been sanitized and the man who most exploited Ota Benga was depicted in accounts as his friend and savior.

7.       It is a story that few people are aware of.  Why is it important today? 
This episode reveals the progress we've made in a century, but also exposes the roots of outlandish beliefs that had been grounded in science, and  that linger still.  Ota Benga's exhibition was not the creation of one bad egg. There was a wide web of complicity among some of the city's most eminent men and institutions, including The New York Times, the mayor, leading scientists, along with tens of thousands of New Yorkers. Nearly a quarter-million people flocked to the zoo to see a diminutive caged African in the monkey house.

Also, it was important to correct the historical record. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

7 Questions With Liz Covart, History Communicator

 Liz Covart is a blogger, podcaster, author, and historian specializing in early American and colonial history.  Her podcast is called “Ben Franklin’s World.”

1.       How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?

 I became "hooked" on history by being surrounded by it. As a child, my parents always took my brother and I to museums and historic sites. Growing up in New England we had a lot of choices, but my parents didn't limit us to our home region. Rather than spend our vacations on the beach, my parents planned trips around museums and historic sites. We would fly into a major U.S. city, rent a car, and drive from museum to national park to historic site for a week or more before we flew home. 

2.       What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

As a professional historian I get to research, think, write about, and convey history each and every day. The study of history is part of who I am and how I look at the world. 

On a side note, even though I have grown, married, and moved out of my parents' house, I still look at vacations as opportunities to explore history. Last year, I took my partner Tim on a "French and Indian War Tour," a 7-day cruise from Boston around the Canadian maritime provinces and down the St. Lawrence River. We stopped at Grand PrĂ©, a former Acadian settlement; Fortress Louisbourg, the gateway to New France; the Plains of Abraham, site of the battle that led France to surrender New France to Great Britain; And, the site of the Charlottetown Conference, which led to Canadian confederation. 
3.       How is history a part of your professional life and career?   Why is studying/knowing history important?

History is my professional career. I love searching for answers to my questions about the past in the archives. I also love to share my passion for history with others. I became a "history communicator" instead of a college or university professor because I want to convey history to as large an audience as possible. I believe that understanding history can help us affect a better future. We like to think that we are new and novel because we live in the 21st century, but in reality, nearly all world problems are variations on past problems. A good understanding of history provides us with the inspiration we need to innovate solutions for the challenges we face today. History can tell us what ideas fixed past problems, which ideas did not, and why ideas met success or failure. Additionally, history tells us who we are and how we came to be who we are.

4.       What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?

My favorite period is the American Revolution. I love to research, write, and talk about what happened in North America between 1750 and about 1815. 

5.       How did you get into making podcasts?

I listened to podcasts long before I decided to make a podcast. Ben Franklin's World: A Podcast About Early American History began because I wanted to discuss and explore early American history with people who love it. I also believe that my fellow historians need to interact with non-historians more because very few people outside of the historical profession know about their interesting and important work. Podcasting has allowed me to bring their important work to a history-loving public who cares about the past and wants to know more about it.

6.       What would listeners hear in your podcasts?  What sets them apart from other podcasts?

Ben Franklin's World is different from other podcasts in that it offers accessible conversations with professional historians. Listeners get to meet an historian, learn more about their research, and explore the early American past from many different vantage points. 

The show takes a wide view of "Ben Franklin's World." Franklin's life spanned most of the 18th century, which is the focus of most episodes. However, we also explore aspects of the 17th and 19th centuries, the world that gave rise to Franklin and the world he inspired. Additionally, the show doesn't limit itself to the 13 colonies or what is now the United States. Franklin was a man of the world so we discuss aspects of what may be considered Canadian history, Caribbean history, European history, Asian history, African history, and South American history.