We will miss meeting with authors, editors, and friends of the Press in person at the American Historical Association annual conference, but we look forward to connecting with you all virtually. Until March 31, 2022, save 40% on books and journal issues with coupon code AHA22 when you order on our website. Customers in the UK and Europe can order books with this code from our UK partner, Combined Academic Publishers. You can browse a complete list of books and journals in history here.
Assistant Editor Alejandra Mejía has a brief welcome for AHA attendees.
Renisa Mawani, “Free Seas and Maritime Mobility in a World of Empires, 1880–1970,” Sunday, January 9, 10:00am EST, New Orleans Marriott, Preservation Hall, Studio 8.
You can find DUP authors in multiple panels around the conference:
If you were hoping to connect with Gisela Fosado, Joshua Gutterman Tranen, Alejandra Mejía, or one of our other editors about your book project at the American Historical Association annual conference, please reach out by email. See our editors’ specialties and contact information here and our online submissions guidelines and submission portal here.
As the fall semester gets underway, you may be looking for advice on being more productive, or writing or teaching better. We invite you to check out some great books featuring advice for teachers, administrators, advisors, and graduate students and to save 40% on them using coupon ADVICE40.
For decades The Academic’s Handbook has been a trusted guide to navigating the academy. Now in a revised and expanded fourth edition, more than fifty contributors from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds offer practical advice for academics at every career stage, whether they are first entering the job market or negotiating the post-tenure challenges of leadership and administrative roles. The new edition is edited by Lori A. Flores and Jocelyn H. Olcott.
Another book full of advice for everyone from graduate students to the faculty who supervise them is Katina L. Rogers’s Putting the Humanities PhD to Work. It grounds practical career advice in a nuanced consideration of how graduate training can lead to meaningful and significant careers beyond the academy. Writing in the LSE Review of Books, Kristen Vogt Veggeberg says, “this book does something special—it empowers, if not emboldens, the humanities doctorate, and encourages them to see the world in a way that is deserving of their time and hard work.”
If you’re looking to improve your academic writing, you won’t have a better guide than Amitava Kumar in his recent book Every Day I Write the Book: Notes on Style. Kumar is an award-winning novelist as well as a professor of English. Alongside his interviews with an array of scholars whose distinct writing offers inspiring examples for students and academics alike, the book’s pages are full of practical advice about everything from how to write criticism to making use of a kitchen timer. John Francisconi says, “Kumar’s writing guide/commonplace book is a salve. Reading his newest is like having office hours—no, better; a drink and bookish conversation, in a bar—with your smartest, kindest teacher, or friend.”
Tucker Carlson broadcasted his nightly Fox News program from an autocracy last week, Viktor Orban’s regime in Hungary. Carlson praised the dictator for cleaning up the place; muzzling or replacing his irresponsible critics in government and the media; keeping out the riff-raff at the border; and promoting an ugly Orbanized nationalism and nativism. Carlson seemed to frame Hungary as an example of what Trump was trying to do—will do?!—here.
My ongoing research for an upcoming Duke University Press title, The Dictator Stands Alone: United States Cold War Policy and the Trujillo Regime in the Dominican Republic, 1946-1961, a sequel to my 1998 book The Dictator Next Door, gives Carlson’s Big Adventure a sense of déjà vu.
If you substitute a few names and places, you have a similar scenario to a subplot of the book. Take out “Viktor Orban of Turkey” and plug in “Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic.” Substitute “Tucker Carlson of Fox News” for “the right-wing press and its political allies.” And most weirdly, make the owner of Mar-a-Lago not the Celebrity Guy, but über-lobbyist Joseph E. Davies, close confident of presidents: FDR, Truman, and Ike, alike.
My prying into recently declassified materials shows that Mar a Lago Joe Davies orchestrated a successful public relations campaign in the United States for the benefit his employer, the dictatorial Trujillo. “The Goat” had gunned his way to power in 1930, then earned international infamy in 1937 by ordering the Haitian Massacre, arguably the first genocidal event of WWII.
Davies’ efforts, run out of a new Dominican Tourism Office on 5th Avenue, NYC, cleansed the reputation of the mass murderer and ushered in a tourist rush to “Ciudad Trujillo,” the ancient city formerly known as Santo Domingo. Within a decade of Hiroshima, the Dominican Republic had become the major tourist destination in the Caribbean, with regular passenger service on three steamship lines; jet airliner connections on both Pan American Airways and KLM; a chain of fourteen modern hotels, beginning with the flagship Jaragua in 1946; new highways connecting them; and inordinate cleanliness, imposed by the Marine Corps discipline the dictator learned during his tutelage with the US Occupation, 1916-1924.
In 1955, Trujillo hosted a grandiose World’s Fair of Peace and Brotherhood. By then, Joe Davies was too old and sick to attend, confined to his king-size bed at Mar-a-Lago. As Davies faded and died in 1958, so did Trujillo’s public relations/tourism foreign policy strategy. By 1960, Trujillo was the pariah of the Western Hemisphere, soon to be assassinated, and thereafter grieved by few.
Jamaica gained its independence from the United Kingdom on August 6, 1962. This year Diana Paton and Matthew J. Smith, the editors of The Jamaica Reader, invite us to look back on how the nation has conceived of its self-governance with this speech from former Jamaican premier Norman Washington Manley.
If independence meant a triumph for the struggle for self-government that began in the 1930s, for its architects it was also an occasion for reflection on that journey and the path ahead. Norman Manley offers such a rumination in his September 1962 address to the People’s National Party (PNP)’s national conference. Manley led Jamaica through the federation years and shepherded the discussions with the British government on the terms and timing of constitutional decolonization. As premier of Jamaica—a post that ceased to exist after 1959—Manley introduced several far-reaching policies intended to improve Jamaica’s institutions. His strong support for federation suffered a blow with the referendum he called in September 1961. In the wake of that loss, and with the discussions for independence well underway, Manley called a general election for April 1962. He was defeated by Alexander Bustamante, his cousin and opposition leader. Manley continued to lead the PNP, which was again defeated in 1967. The 1962 loss was most upsetting for him and his followers. As he implies in the speech, it denied Manley the “privilege” of being the first prime minister of an independent Jamaica.
Nevertheless, amid the excitement over independence, Manley accepted that the legacies of three centuries of colonial rule would take time to dismantle. The way ahead would depend less on him and the party’s founders. The generatino of independence had to accept the charge of making Jamaica a truly free nation defined by greater levels of social equality and economic sustainability. Manley’s inspiring words in the face of two major defeats reflect his insistence that nationalism be placed above party political victory.
Comrades, I thank God that I have lived to see twenty-four years of the work of the party crowned with the achievement of independence for our blessed and beloved country (applause).
I look back on the long years of our struggle. I look back to the days of our early beginning when we first began to rouse Jamaica to her destiny as a nation in the world. I remember the hard and bitter struggles of the past. I remember the small handful of comrades that joined us. I remember the sacrifices they made. I remember the mockery they endured. I remember the suffering they withstood. I remember how some of them, nameless today and unsung, gave their lives that Jamaica might throw off 300 years of colonial bondage, might lift up their hearts to aspire to all that independence means and freedom for a people.
It is true that we have been denied the privilege of achieving power at this moment, but no one can deny us the accomplishment of our work in this country (applause). And many marveled how it was that we who were not in the seats of power acknowledged as the authors of the greatest of our land at this time (applause).
And now I am going to speak to you about the challenge of this time as we close one book of our history, a book which from the beginning could foresee its own end, and open another book in our history, the end of which no man can foresee, but it will roll on from generation to generation as we seek to build a nation worthy of our sons and daughters in this land.
Comrades, it is one thing to become free; it is another thing to build a real nation of your country (applause).
But, comrades, we start our nationhood with some great assets. One of the good things is the long time that it has taken us to evolve our life into freedom as a people. We have learned much over the past half a century. We have learned most of all over the last twenty-four years in this country; and we have only got to remember the lessons we have learned to make sure that we can find the right way for the future.
We gave this country for seven and a half years a Government that knew how to use power with restraint and respect for human decencies in the land. We gave this country for seven and a half years a Government which believed in the realities of democracy, which allowed all men to walk the land free from fear and free from oppression.
We have one third great asset in this country, moving into nationhood, and this is the quality of the people of the land, a people tough and resilient, taught by adversity to endure hardship with patience, given some special spirit of loyalty to inspire them in their devotion to the causes they espoused, a people well understanding right from wrong, well understanding decency in government, well understanding justice and the rule of law. And those are great assets for a country to start with. And I say what I have so often said, if Jamaica fails it is Jamaica’s leaders that have failed, not Jamaica’s people.
Comrades, we must never forget that we start with all the legacies of 300 years of colonial rule. We would be foolish if we did not understand that you don’t throw off all the patterns of behaviour and thought that colonialism brings upon a people merely by becoming free. We have tried hard in this country to overcome them, but they are not yet overcome. In the old days each man sought his own good in the country and each man that made his way up turned his back on where he came from, and each man who achieved a high place on the ladder went steadily striving to bow the knee to wherever power was to be found in the Colonial Empire. Those patterns prevail in this country today and there are still men who in true colonial style serve one party only, the party in power—the pips who bow the knee and scrape and cringe and deny and falsify principles so as to protect themselves and their positions. Maybe it is common all over the world, but it is particularly common in societies that have known colonial rule for generations.
And I say one last thing. When I look into the future of Jamaica, I ask you to remember the three great tasks that confront us at this time as people. First, foremost and above all, to make come true this great motto that I am proud of having played a part in formulating when I was Premier of Jamaica: “Out of many, one people.” We are not one people today. We are many. That is history. That is colonialism. That is our particular history. That is the problem before all Jamaica today—how to make “out of many, one people.” That is a problem that we have understood for many years and that is something that our party must dedicate itself to achieving in this country.
We have another basic, fundamental problem, and that is how to continue to build our economy so as to create a society which offers the reality of equal opportunity to all people and offers the opportunity of decent Christian lives to every man, woman and child in the land.
As a nation our third great problem, and it would mean so much to us, is to present ourselves to the world so that we can mean something in the world of free peoples and free nations. In other words we want a meaningful foreign policy in Jamaica as a nation.
History now gives us the role to create the new things which will make that nation live and endure in the world to come. So let no man quarrel with history or question the judgments of the Architect of the universe.
Don’t miss all our exciting new releases in August!
In three long-form poems and a lyrical essay, fahima ife speculates in Maroon Choreographyon the afterlives of Black fugitivity, unsettling the historic knowledge of it while moving inside the ongoing afterlives of those people who disappeared themselves into rural spaces beyond the reach of slavery.
Rachel Zolf activates the last three lines of a poem by Jewish Nazi Holocaust survivor Paul Celan—“No one / bears witness for the / witness”—to theorize the poetics and im/possibility of witnessing in No One’s Witness.
In Amkoullel, the Fula Boy, Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ—one of the towering figures in the literature of twentieth-century Francophone Africa—tells in striking detail the story of his youth, which was set against inter-ethnic conflict and the arrival and installation of French colonialism.
In The Politics of Decolonial InvestigationWalter D. Mignolo provides a sweeping examination of how colonialty has operated around the world in its myriad forms between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries while calling for a decolonial politics that would delink from all forms of Western knowledge.
Laurence Coderre explores the material culture of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Newborn Socialist Things to show how it paved the way for rampant commodification and consumption in contemporary China.
Carolyn Hardin offers a new way of understanding arbitrage—the trading practice that involves buying assets in one market at a cheap price and immediately selling them in another market for a profit—as a means of showing how its reliance upon taking on risk is fundamental to financial markets in Capturing Finance.
Monica Huerta draws on her experiences growing up in her family’s Mexican restaurants and her life as an academic in Magical Habits to sketch out habits of living that allow us to consider what it means to live with history as we are caught up in it and how those histories bear on our capacities to make sense of our lives.
The contributors to Long Term, edited by Scott Herring and Lee Wallace, use the tension between the popular embrace and legalization of same-sex marriage and the queer critique of homonormativity as an opportunity to examine the myriad forms of queer commitments and their durational aspect.
In Domestic Contradictions Priya Kandaswamy brings together two crucial moments in welfare history—the advent of the Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—to show how they each targeted Black women through negative stereotyping and normative assumptions about gender, race, and citizenship.
In Policing ProtestPaul A. Passavant explores how the policing of protest in the United States has become increasingly hostile since the late 1990s, moving away from strategies that protect protestors toward militaristic practices designed to suppress legal protests.
In A Black Intellectual’s Odyssey Martin Kilson—the first tenured African American professor at Harvard—takes readers on a fascinating journey from his upbringing in a small Pennsylvania mill town to his experiences as an undergraduate to pursuing graduate study at Harvard before spending his entire career there as a faculty member.
In Whiteness Interrupted, Marcus Bell presents a revealing portrait of white teachers in majority Black schools to outline how white racial identity is constructed based on localized interactions and the ways whiteness takes a different form in predominantly Black spaces.
Jennifer C. Nash examines how the figure of the “Black mother” has become a powerful political category synonymous with crisis, showing how they are often rendered into one-dimensional symbols of tragic heroism and the ground zero of Black life in Birthing Black Mothers.
Transnational Feminist Itineraries, edited by Ashwini Tambe and Millie Thayer, demonstrates the key contributions of transnational feminist theory and practice to analyzing and contesting authoritarian nationalism and the extension of global corporate power.
In Reimagining Social Medicine from the South Abigail H. Neely explores social medicine’s possibilities and limitations at one of its most important origin sites: the Pholela Community Health Centre (PCHC) in South Africa.
Looking for some summer reading? Check out the great new titles we have coming out in June!
Jennifer L. Morgan draws on the lived experiences of enslaved African women in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries in Reckoning with Slavery to reveal the contours of early modern notions of trade, race, and commodification in the Black Atlantic.
In Decolonizing Memory, Jill Jarvis examines the crucial role that writers and artists have played in cultivating historical memory and nurturing political resistance in Algeria, showing how literature offers the unique ability to reckon with colonial violence and to render the experiences of those marginalized by the state.
The contributors to Beyond Man, edited by An Yountae and Eleanor Craig, reckon with the colonial and racial implications of the philosophy of religion’s history by staging a conversation between it and Black, Indigenous, and decolonial studies.
In Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, Martin Savransky draws on the pragmatic pluralism of William James and the ontological turn in anthropology to propose a “pluralistic realism”—an understanding of ontology in which at any given time the world is both one and many, ongoing and unfinished.
In How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind, La Marr Jurelle Bruce ponders the presence of “madness” in black literature, music, and performance since the early twentieth century, showing how artist ranging from Kendrick Lamar and Lauryn Hill to Nina Simone and Dave Chappelle activate madness as content, form, aesthetic, strategy, philosophy, and energy in an enduring black radical tradition.
Việt Lê examines contemporary art in Cambodia and Việt Nam in Return Engagements to trace the entwinement of militarization, trauma, diaspora, and modernity in Southeast Asian art.
In Images of Beirut, Hatim El-Hibri explores how the creation and circulation of images has shaped the urban spaces and cultural imaginaries of Beirut, showing how images can be used to consolidate or destabilize regimes of power.
Editors Diana Paton and Matthew J. Smith combine more than one hundred classic and lesser-known texts in The Jamaica Reader to present a panoramic history of the country—from its pre-contact Indigenous origins to the present—and provide an unparalleled look at Jamaica’s history, culture, and politics.
In Colonial Debts, Rocío Zambrana uses the current political-economic moment in Puerto Rico to outline how debt functions as both an apparatus that strengthens neoliberalism and the island’s colonial relation to the United States.
The contributors to Words and Worlds, edited by Veena Das and Didier Fassin, examine the state of politics and the political imaginary within contemporary societies by taking up the everyday words such as democracy, revolution, and populism that we use to understand the political present.
A concise, easy-to-understand reference book, the revised and updated second edition of the bestselling All about Your Eyes tells you what you need to know to care for your eyes, various eye diseases and treatments, and what to expect from your eye doctor. The editors, Sharon Fekrat, Tanya S. Glaser, and Henry L. Feng are all physicians at the world-renown Duke Eye Center.
In an indispensable guide for all ethnographers, the editors of Experimenting with Ethnography, Andrea Ballestero and Brit Ross Winthereik, collect twenty-one essays that offer concrete suggestions for thinking about and doing ethnographic research and writing.
The contributors to Sound Alignments, edited by Michael K. Bourdaghs, Paola Iovene, and Kaley Mason, explore the myriad forms of popular music in Asia during the Cold War, showing how it took on new meanings and significance as it traveled across the region and forged and challenged alliances, revolutions, and countercultures.
Shaoling Ma examines late Qing China’s political upheavals and modernizing energies through the problem of the dynamics between new media technologies such as the telegraph the discursive representations of them in The Stone and the Wireless.
Thomas Aiello is Associate Professor of History at Valdosta State University and the author of many books, including Jim Crow’s Last Stand and The Grapevine of the Black South. His new book is The Life and Times of Louis Lomax: The Art of Deliberate Disunity, which traces the complicated and fascinating life of pioneering journalist, television host, bestselling author, and important yet overlooked civil rights figure Louis Lomax, who became one of the most influential voices of the civil rights movement despite his past as an ex-con, serial liar, and publicity-seeking provocateur.
David L. Chappell has called your book a “thrilling adventure story,” in addition to a “great intellectual biography.” How do you merge these two genres? That is, how do you work to craft a biography that is stylistically enjoyable for the reader?
It certainly helps to have a subject who lived an interesting life. Louis Lomax was a public intellectual, but also a media personality hungry for fame, a criminal, a crusading advocate for civil rights, and someone who lied consistently about his past. His life was itself an adventure, making telling an enjoyable story about it far easier. It is rare that a public intellectual like Lomax would become involved in the kinds of pursuits in which he was engaged. The most interesting part of his story is not evaluating his ideas, though the book certainly does that, but in figuring out why he thought what he thought and did what he did. It is ultimately that “why” question that combines the adventure story with the intellectual biography. Lomax’s thought and his strategy for relaying it to the public was shaped by his experience of growing up in the Jim Crow South, of lying about his college career, of his conviction for car theft and fraud, of his hustling journalism efforts, and of his desire for the limelight. Melding those stories with the ideas such experiences created is what merges the genres and makes the story enjoyable.
Why has Lomax been left out of the civil rights narrative of the 1960s? What are the stakes of incorporating him into that narrative?
Lomax has largely been given short shrift in discussions of civil rights because most of the era’s well-known figures staked out a position and defended it in the public sphere. Lomax’s position, however, was in a constant state of flux, making it difficult to pin down where he stood on various issues at various times without a full-length study like this one. Also, he was never part of a specific rights organization. He was a media personality that sometimes worked behind the scenes to help various causes and at other times worked to publicize them through his writing and his television and radio program.
When he does appear in civil rights narratives, then, he does so tangentially, because without a full understanding of his life, his influence, and his changing positions, it is difficult for most civil rights historians to pin down exactly where he fits. Hopefully this book can change that. Hopefully it demonstrates how important Lomax was to the trajectory of the movement. The stakes of that addition are significant because civil rights groups, whether the Nation of Islam, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or any other group in between them on the ideological spectrum, could have no substantial influence without the media. Lomax’s access to public platforms gave him the ability to publicize messages he cared about, to give louder voice to those he deemed worthy. In the process, he served as a (sometimes unreliable) gatekeeper for the messages of civil rights advocacy. Both as a thinker who helped develop the messages presented by advocates and as a vehicle to popularize those messages, Lomax was vital to the development of civil rights in the 1960s.
Can you summarize “the art of deliberate disunity,” as Lomax preached it? What might it have to offer our current political moment?
“The art of deliberate disunity” is a phrase coined by Lomax in a 1963 speech. He made the case that “only through diversity of opinion can we establish the basic prerequisite for the democratic process.” He criticized the idea that all civil rights victories were made equal, and that there was one right answer to the problem of Black equality in the United States. He saw as healthy the differences of opinion between, for example, his friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Such disputes spurred innovation, which only benefited the movement writ large. If civil rights advocates only thought in a bifurcated way about “what we think” and about “what white people think,” the diversity of Black thought would get reduced to a lowest common denominator. By cultivating good faith debates among Black leaders, the art of deliberate disunity better respected the variety of Black opinions and demonstrated a version of democracy among a group seeking democracy from those in power. If we force everyone into a monolithic way of thinking, he argued, we are no better than white leaders.
It is an idea that does potentially have something to offer our current political moment, wherein warring factions are divided into separate camps, never the twain shall meet. Lomax, were he still around, would argue that the bigotry of the right and the push for ideological orthodoxy on the left create similar problems. The modern civil rights movement, Lomax would argue, needs to foster more internal debates about strategy and about goals. Such is not a weakness, but a democratic benefit that serves as a driver of creative growth.
In your account, Lomax has made a lasting impact both in terms of his contributions to Black journalism and his resistance against global colonialism. How exactly have these two projects benefitted from his influence, and how could they continue to benefit from readers’ increased knowledge of his life?
Lomax was able to move his journalism from his early work with the Black press to a more mainstream profile, publishing with white newspapers and publishers, becoming the first Black host of a news/talk television program, and developing a series of radio shows. His influence in that realm is vital, as so many mainstream journalists, television and radio hosts all benefit from his pioneering work. His success on The Louis Lomax Show, for example, was the country’s first demonstration that a news/talk program hosted by a Black man could be financially viable, removing that potential stigma and opening up that space to more journalists of color.
A similar claim could be made about his anticolonialism advocacy. While Lomax was in no way the first leader to argue against Western hegemony on the global stage, his popular comparisons between colonialism abroad and civil rights abuses at home brought such concerns to a popular audience. Much commentary in that regard came from the far Left, from voices that mainstream (and predominantly white) audiences never heard. But Lomax’s voice was able to make that case to a wider audience. Many others made similar arguments in the years after Lomax’s death, and of course colonialism has not disappeared, but Lomax’s advocacy was the first mainstream comparison of foreign colonialism and domestic racism and among the first public expressions of concern about the tumultuous situations in Africa and Thailand, places often forgotten by American audiences obsessed with Vietnam.
Lomax, as you describe him, is a complicated figure. He was a trailblazing newsman with a sharp political mind; at the same time, he loved to be the center of media attention, and was accused of womanizing and spousal abuse. Is there a Lomax figure living today who matches this combination of laudable attributes and personal flaws?
There is certainly no one today with the same basic profile as Lomax. The background check process would simply eliminate him from consideration for those kinds of jobs. There are, however, many with profiles that retain elements of Lomax’s trailblazing career. The Breakfast Club, for example, have been able to maintain a popular, mainstream radio program that relates news and serves as a hub of racial advocacy. Charlamagne tha God, Angela Yee, and DJ Envy have been able to find a space in the media landscape where they are both media reporters and media creators, chroniclers of advocacy and advocates themselves. On the other side of the political spectrum, pseudo-journalists like Geraldo Rivera, Sean Hannity, or Rush Limbaugh have used entertainment platforms to help guide policy and governing theory for their own side, usually in the cause of the very bigotry that people like Lomax sought to eliminate. Then there are broadcasters like Brian Williams, who was caught lying about a variety of stories, but has been able to make a comeback and continue his career despite that scandal. These are approximations, of course. Lomax’s profile simply could not exist today. His infidelity is probably still very common among news reporters and political theorists, but spousal abuse, lying about academic credentials, and his largely hidden prison record are not the kinds of things that could be covered in modern society.
Religion seems to have played a significant role in Lomax’s life and work. He was the son of a Christian preacher, a friend of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam and accused by some of antisemitism. What can we learn from this confluence of religious affiliation and political movements?
Lomax saw religion as a means to an end. His upbringing was one of strict religious zeal, raised by preachers in the deepest of the Deep South. But his stories about his childhood emphasize religion’s value to people’s lives rather than its inherent truth. The same could be said about his feelings toward the Nation of Islam. He saw the group’s power not in its religious principles but in its political messaging. The religion itself was simply a vehicle for its larger aims, and when that religion got in the way, as when Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad had a falling out, it was ultimately expendable. His supposed antisemitism, too, was less the result of any disagreement with Judaic thinking or belief. It was instead rooted in politics, a concern about the role of high finance in the plight of Black impoverishment. Thus it was that religion was invariably important to Lomax. It was always present in his life. He himself experimented with preaching for a time after he moved to Washington, DC. At the same time, however, religion was a pragmatic presence, there to be marshalled when necessary to make various arguments and influence the proper people.
That confluence of religious affiliation and political movements is also common today. While there are several leaders today whose faith is at the heart of their activism (Reverend William Barber seems to be the most high-profile example), the vast majority of people use their opinions about religion to justify their political beliefs, not the other way around. Lomax wasn’t necessarily allowing his politics to direct his faith, but he was using that faith to selectively influence those to whom he wanted to speak. And he supported that strategy in others like the Nation of Islam.
If most people know anything about Isabel Rosario Cooper, it’s that she was General Douglas MacArthur’s mistress. In footnotes to most histories, she is portrayed as a tragic figure, “a beautiful woman who died of heartbreak.” What made you want to tell her story more fully?
This kind of feminine figuration has always served as camouflage for complexity, a shorthand that feeds into and is fed by a colonial fantasy of brown women longing for white men, as well as narrative desire for familiar tropes. This version of Isabel Cooper’s story is not in the footnotes: it is front and center because it’s the comfortable and typical characterization of “women like her.” When I started to dig into the footnotes of MacArthur biographies, I discovered a kind of recursive pattern that boiled down to a reliance on repeated citations of sources that had somehow become authoritative evidence for her story. What became clear was that these sources that were more hearsay or even outright inaccurate had circulated enough times that they had hardened into truth—in particular the version that revolved around the General as her object of yearning and heartbreak had become the standard. The work of postcolonial feminist scholars has taught us that of course there’s something more operating beneath the flattened image of dead, beautiful, heartbroken women, something more than “MacArthur’s mistress.” The short interludes that bothered to portray Isabel Cooper in MacArthur biographies and their suspect footnotes that were cited as evidence didn’t match up to this work.
There’s also a way in which stories like hers are dismissed as unworthy in the sense that her biggest known “accomplishment” is sleeping with MacArthur—often read as betrayal at worst, or venal at most—another way to marginalize women’s stories. At the same time, I did not want to dismiss her sexual agency, because to some degree, that was crucial to the kind of power and identity she wielded. From the great work that has been done on the early colonial period in the Philippines, particularly on the “woman question,” we know that the lives of Filipinas were complex, cosmopolitan, and often grappled with the contradictions engendered by the shifts in colonial society. I wanted to tell her story more fully because it deserved to be told with the same kind of effort in terms of research and writing as stories of men like MacArthur, and I felt that it would be a good vehicle to also interweave a parallel account about archives and genres, and the ways in which both open and up and foreclose how we learn to narrate ourselves.
You choose not to structure your book chronologically like a traditional biography. Instead you begin with her relationship with MacArthur and then jump around in time. You also feature documents, pictures and imagined letters and conversations in between your chapters. Why did you choose this structure? How does it help tell Cooper’s story more fully?
It took me a while to figure out how to tell her story. I knew I needed to include elements of biography—because so little of her life is actually known, and the broader historical context of her story is unfamiliar to most readers—so some part of this had to be fleshed out. But I also knew that I didn’t want to present an account that was somehow whole or authoritative or forthright, like an exhumation or an explanation, because I didn’t want to repeat the pattern of how she has been narrated in such an overdetermined way. I did begin with a chronological draft, but this structure felt like it didn’t make room for the ways in which patterns repeated themselves in her life, or how a particular part of her story (the MacArthur interlude) pre-empts others. It felt inert—and so I began with her death, because so much of what is written about her pivots on the suicide of this beautiful woman, and the half-truths or outright lies that adhered to it. I also foregrounded her time with MacArthur in the narrative, a bit perversely, because I wanted to arrest the desire to center MacArthur and frame him as the “reveal” of the story later on in the book. I felt like that the strange enticement of that infamous scandal was not something I wanted the reader to be invested in. The few years of her life during which she associated with MacArthur has come to define her and how she’s narrated: it’s the hook that draws most people to her story, but I didn’t want it operate as the climax of the narrative. It is certainly not the main driving force of her life, even as it is often characterized this way. I try to make the case that this moment is more an effect, rather than a cause.
The overall structure of the book also pulls from the protracted, piecemeal, and interrupted process of my research into her life, and from the sometimes-unexpected and last-minute way that new sources would shift a whole arc I had neatly mapped out. The sparseness and inaccuracy of the existing writing and archival materials on Isabel Cooper resists that neat and orderly biographical narrative: there are so many moments that are lost to history because of lack of documentation, and in her case, contradiction, inconsistency, absence, or outright error in whatever records can be pieced together. So that’s another story in itself: the colonial archive’s promises and secrets. I was struck by how so much of the narrative about her is fictional (in the sense of repeated inaccuracies), and as I dug deeper, how much of this fiction she also perpetrated. It gave me permission to speculate about moments that might not have documentation, or to invent, as she did, stories about herself.
Cooper goes by many different names in her life, from Dimples as a child performer, to Chabing Cooper, Elizabeth Cooper, and Belle Cooper, to a married name of Isabel Kennamer. Why does Cooper constantly rename herself and shift her identity?
To me, this was a strategy that was tied to moments in her life where she was reinventing herself, or starting over. She was someone who had, at a very young age, entered the world of the stage and screen, so taking on roles was a habit she never dropped. It was something she also learned from her mother, to some extent. But she also had really distinct periods in her life: she crossed the Pacific several times, experienced very diverse living conditions, married twice, had affairs, and made big choices about her career. I think renaming herself gave her some modicum of control over conditions that were far beyond her power to manage, and later on, allowed for her to have a clean slate when so much of her past tended to creep up on her unexpectedly due the lingering effects of US imperialism. As a researcher, this made tracking her occasionally tricky: it felt sometimes that these past decisions on her part were also about refusing an easy narration on mine. It forced me to pause and think about what went into her decisions to go by a particular name at different points in her life.
You say that “sex, and lots of it, defined the colonial encounter.” How does focusing on intimate relationships like that of Cooper and MacArthur change the way we view colonial history?
I owe so much of this work to postcolonial feminists who understand the intimate as a site of colonial power, and to work by Philippine Studies and Filipinx diaspora studies scholars in particular who have explored how sex and sexuality operated in the US-Philippine colonial world. My ability to tell Isabel Cooper’s story is built on that foundational research, and my claim is not new. What I try to shed a bit of light on is how the contradictions of American claims to benevolence and discourses of superiority break down when you look at how empire played out through relationships between people. So many of the colonial encounters turned on sex—the archives are filled with both overt confessions, allusions, or outright mentions of sexually transmitted diseases or decisions about the management of sex work. It’s dirty reading at times. I was interested in the messiness of transactions that revolved around sex or were defined through sexual exchange, as well as how the racial carnal desires at the heart of empire shaped relations well after the actual arrangement or encounter occurred. Who had the upper hand in these kinds of arrangements or coercions was not always clear, and that made for a fascinating dynamic to explore. Isabel Cooper operated within this colonial milieu and the ways she understood, navigated, and leveraged it gives us a sense of the push and pull, and the possibilities and limits of human agency and creativity at a more intimate scale of empire.
What can we learn about Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s from Cooper’s story? How does centering the experiences of non-white actors change the way we think about this era and its films?
I don’t know that we learn much more than we already know about how the Hollywood gambit was a story about deep disappointment for non-white actors in the 1940s and 1950s. For all the Anna May Wongs and Philip Ahns who carved out some kind of a career against and alongside the deep racism and sexism that defined Hollywood culture, there were hundreds of aspirants like Isabel Cooper whose willing and strategic self-exoticizations fell far short of any kind of living. It is probably safer to say that Cooper supplemented her income with her film acting roles but supported herself mainly from nightclub work. The casual mention of casting couch culture, or the matter-of-fact ways she tried to position herself for “Oriental” roles or parts for which she could make a racial stretch was evident in the letters that she wrote during that time, as well as in the industry literature itself. In some ways, her experience was more the rule, rather than the exception that gets written about.
How have artists and people of Filipino descent remembered and reimagined Isabel Rosario Cooper? What does her legacy mean to people today?
For most Filipinos, Isabel Cooper first registers as MacArthur’s mistress, with all the titillation and scandal that entails. This is why interest around her endures. In so many ways, this bit of her story feeds into the melodramatic habits that characterizes some of Hollywood/Manila cinema of her time, as well the theater of everyday politics in the Filipino diaspora. She is also known to some extent as a performer on stage and screen. Filipino cinema is just a bit over a century old, so there has been renewed interest in its pioneers—and as a crossover vaudeville star who made a big early impression in the first “modern” Filipino silent films, Isabel Cooper (she went by Elizabeth Cooper in film) is noteworthy.
Over the course of my research and writing, I also encountered visual artists (one of whom I write about), and writers (both fiction and non-fiction) who grapple with the kinds of narratives that adhere to Isabel Cooper. I think she continues to attract this kind of interest because when you dig deep enough, there’s a lot more to her story beyond the superficiality of MacArthur’s mistress that is typically the first draw. I look to these interpretations as retellings that reveal the inadequacy of the “mistress” framework. My purpose in the book is not to supplant or supersede any of these creative encounters with her, but rather to shake up the assumptions that produce a particular narrative account that is a habit of imperial culture, and one that clearly is not enough to contain her.
February is Black History Month! To celebrate we are sharing some of our recent books and journals that explore this essential field.
In Emancipation’s Daughters, Riché Richardson examines how five iconic black women—Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Condoleezza Rice, Michelle Obama, and Beyoncé—defy racial stereotypes and construct new national narratives of black womanhood in the United States.
Brigitte Fielder’s Relative Races presents an alternative theory of how race is constructed with readings of nineteenth-century personal narratives, novels, plays, stories, poems, and images to illustrate how interracial kinship follows non-heteronormative, non-biological, and non-patrilineal models of inheritance in nineteenth-century literary culture.
Brandi Clay Brimmer analyzes the US pension system from the perspective of poor black women in the period before, during, and after the Civil War outlines the struggles of mothers, wives, and widows of black Union soldiers to claim rights in the face of unjust legislation in Claiming Union Widowhood.
Powers of Dignityby Nick Bromell examines how Frederick Douglass forged a distinctively black political philosophy out of his experiences as an enslaved and later nominally free man in ways that challenge Anglo-Continental traditions of political thought.
In A People’s History of Detroit, Mark Jay and Philip Conklin use a Marxist framework to tell a sweeping story of Detroit from 1913 to the present, outlining the complex socio-political dynamics underlying major events in Detroit’s past, from the rise of Fordism and the formation of labor unions to deindustrialization and the city’s recent bankruptcy.
Painter, photographer, and cofounder of AFRICOBRA Wadsworth A. Jarrell tells the definitive history of the group’s creation, history, and artistic and political principles and the ways it captured the rhythmic dynamism of black culture and social life to create uplifting art for all black people in AFRICOBRA.
In Universal Tonality, jazz critic and historian Cisco Bradley tells the story of the life and music of bassist and composer William Parker, who for fifty years has been a monumental figure in free jazz. Join Bradley, Parker, our own Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker, and Anthony Reed for a special live online event on Friday, February 19.
Maureen Mahon documents the major contributions African American women vocalists have made to rock and roll throughout its history in Black Diamond Queens. These women include Big Mama Thornton, Betty Davis, Tina Turner, and Merry Clayton. Catch Mahon, along with Daphne Brooks, at an online Black History Month event about Black women in rock, sponsored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on February 22.
Infamous Bodiesby Samantha Pinto explores how histories of and the ongoing fame of Phillis Wheatley, Sally Hemings, Sarah Baartman, Mary Seacole, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta generate new ways of imagining black feminist futures.
“Policing, Justice, and the Radical Imagination,” a special issue of Radical History Review edited by Amy Chazkel, Monica Kim, and A. Naomi Paik, helps us imagine a world without police by examining historical cases in which people resolved social problems and maintained social peace through means other than relying on formal institutions of law enforcement.
And check out our Racial Justice Syllabus, one of several staff-curated syllabi focusing on today’s most critical issues.