AZ Confidential: The Physicality of History

An incredible rug I found at a thrift store commemorating the Brothers Kennedy. Courtesy of me.

By Jake Strickler, Co-Editor

As one leg of my long, strange trip that has brought me to Thunderbird, I did my undergraduate work at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I got out of there with a B.A. in Film History and Theory, and a B.S. in Media Studies from the School of Journalism. While it might seem like I may have picked these as specifically calculated to get my pop’s blood up (in the “What are you possibly going to do with that???” sense), these choices were rooted in something a lot deeper that I don’t think I was able to articulate at the time aside from being able to say that I was just drawn to them.

To begin this explanation, I’m a history nut, but not in the usual sense; for example, I didn’t have the desire to pursue a degree in history. I can describe to you the general ebb and flow of human history. I can converse at a maybe higher than average level about the various wars and major events that have gone on, but I’m far from being a specialist with regard to most things. I can’t tell you which century the reign of Genghis Khan was. I’m useless when it comes to specific dates, locations, and strategic objectives of individual battles fought during the Civil War. What I can do, however, is talk at great length about their implications and overall role in the human story.

I attribute this interest to the circumstances of my upbringing. As I grew up, moving here and there around the globe, I was always fascinated by local histories, cultural practices and norms, and in the different ways in which individuals around the world lived their lives. Why were the opportunities and living conditions available to me so much different from those I met in Africa or Australia or Saudi Arabia? The answer, or course, lies in history, in the interactions and past and present power dynamics of these nations

Norlin Library, University of Colorado. Courtesy theodysseyonline.com
Norlin Library, University of Colorado. Courtesy theodysseyonline.com

Chiseled in stone above the library of my University campus, an imposing building erected in 1940 in the Classicist style meant to imbue edifices with great Significance, is a quote with its roots in Cicero but attributed to an early President of the University, George Norlin: “WHO KNOWS ONLY HIS OWN GENERATION REMAINS ALWAYS A CHILD.” Another phrase greets entrants as the pass through the doors: “Enter here the timeless fellowship of the human spirit.” While thousands and thousands have walked by these statements every day without paying the slightest bit of attention to them, they always struck a chord with me; always stopped me for a moment and spoke to that essential inquisitiveness that impels me to follow the paths I follow.

It was in my introductory Film History class that these elements all sort of clicked together. On the first day of class, my professor spoke at length about the concept that when studying any kind of historical media or record – a film, a song, a novel, 15th century sales records of butter or corn, etc. – there’s a very basic formula that one always has to keep in mind: TEXT + CONTEXT = HISTORY.

For example, in this class, we looked at D.W. Griffith’s 1915 three-hour-silent epic The Birth of a Nation, based on an extraordinarily popular novel published in 1905. The film, if you’ve never had the displeasure of sitting through it, tells the stories of a couple of families during the period preceding and during the Civil War, and the following period of Reconstruction. It’s pretty standard melodrama, but what makes this particular narrative so unique is the fact that the Ku Klux Klan emerge in its third act as its heroes, guarding the pre-war social order from the threat of upheaval due to the prospect of newly-freed slaves being accorded the slightest bit of humanity and respect. While it’s easy to just write this off as regressive racist trash (which, frankly, it is), this dynamic becomes much more complicated when you begin to look at the film’s context and overall role in history

Poster for The Birth of a Nation. Courtesy slate.com
Poster for The Birth of a Nation. Courtesy slate.com

Here’s a brief overview: at the time of the movie’s release, the KKK had been largely forgotten, relegated to the status of mothballed obscurity since its heyday in the 1860s and 70s. But the film triggered latent sentiments in a mass group of Americans, and became a rallying point around which the resurgence of the KKK as an operational organization took place. It was the first film screened at the White House, then under the administration of Woodrow Wilson, who proclaimed that it was “like history written in lightning.” With words like these coming from the President coupled with the demands of public sentiment, the film spread to every nook and cranny of the country, and is now commonly referred to as the first “blockbuster” in history. Before too long, there were Grand Dragons and Imperial Wizards (membership ranks within the KKK) in full hood and robe worn ostensibly to conceal their identities from their neighbors, business associates, and other community members who might find their racial beliefs, ahem, distasteful, standing in front of theaters showing the film and actively recruiting new members stumbling out into the daylight dazed and amazed by what was, at the time, an incredible technological achievement. When confronted with the film’s heroes standing there in the flesh, these eager young men were more than happy to put pen to paper and sign up.

By the mid-1920s, the KKK had expanded beyond the persecution of African-Americans to encompass a general white nativist (anti-immigrant) attitude; claimed to count about 15% of the country’s population among its membership; controlled city governments as far-flung as Denver, Colorado; and had terrorized the nation with behavior like the lynching and cross-burning for which it is remembered today. A “third wave” began in the 1950s, further fueled by anti-communist sentiment, the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, and the rise of like-minded organizations like the John Birch Society.

Whether the group would have remained a forgotten remnant of post-war Confederate Unity if not for Griffith’s film is and forever will remain a matter of pure speculation. The point here is that we are prohibited from putting this film in the garbage dump where it belongs for the simple reason that its context and implications were so outsized and so essential to understanding the 20th century, as well as ongoing current events. This crystallized and cemented my belief that capital-H History doesn’t exist in history textbooks, which often tend to be colored by national, cultural, or ideological preconceptions anyways, but can only be found in that combination of text and context. Events and the lives of individuals are ephemeral and fleeting, but if their impact is large enough, or if it isn’t and we’re lucky enough, then traces and remnants exist in the form of novels, films, personal accounts, diaries, newspaper op-eds, photographs, family lore, and so on.

Therefore, my personal obsession with the ultimate hows and whys have transformed into an obsession with amassing these bits and pieces and traces of historical ghosts. Through their collection and assembly, through the combination of text and context, the truths of history can be conjured, and they can tell us more about the dynamics and attitudes that have brought us to where we are now and were we are likely to be headed in the future than a simple accounting of events can. For example, I recently acquired the issue of Life Magazine published seven days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. What interests me is not so much this:

Cover of Life Magazine, November 29, 1963. Courtesy author.
Cover of Life Magazine, November 29, 1963. Courtesy author.

 

What interests me is this, the advertisements and forgotten articles (here a surprisingly in-depth examination of the position of black Americans in a society that had been very much created and influenced by the events surrounding the release of the film described above):

Random set of pages within the above magazine. Courtesy author.
Random set of pages within the above magazine. Courtesy author.

These little bits of ephemera are the pieces of the puzzle, and it’s my life’s calling to assemble the puzzle. As my favorite writer, James Ellroy, wrote in the introduction to American Tabloid, the first of his three-novel series detailing the darker and less frequently mentioned aspects of mid-century American history and politics, “Mass-market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed. Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicians and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight. Our continuing narrative line is blurred past truth and hindsight. Only a reckless verisimilitude can set that line straight.”

Consider this the mission statement for an ongoing series of in-depths looks at the lesser-known events and circumstances of Arizona’s relentlessly fascinating history. I’ve spent the time since my arrival here collecting the items needed to summon these historical ghosts, and am now able to serve as a conduit for many of them to tell their stories. As Ellroy continues, the real truths of history aren’t found in the lives of the remembered, they exist in the lives of “rogue cops and shakedown artists…wiretappers and…lounge entertainers.” I’m here to discover and tell the stories of these people, with a reckless verisimilitude.

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