All posts by Cecilia

History: Topics for Review

I think I need more revision on Slavery and the New World. I forgot if there were any specific events that are useful to remember. I’d like to see some sample paper 3 questions about this topic.

I think it would also be very helpful if we could create a timeline together for every topic (like how we did for South Korea).

Reflection on Anderson and Schwartz

From both Schwartz and Anderson’s essays, I realized how complicated slavery was in Brazil. Enslaved people were not captured passively; rather, they “molded their destiny as Brazilians.” It impressed me how “the slaves knew how to disrupt the operations of their master’s plantation, and they had carefully taken with them all the hardware of the engenho so that the mill remained inactive for two years.” But surely such things happened in the U.S as well. It is easy to forget the abilities of enslaves people. An account from the slaves is indeed very precious.

In Anderson’s essay, I am impressed by how Palmares is able to establish ground for so many years. The success of Palmares shows us the requirements for a “well-ordered” multi-racial society: small population, militarization, a charming leader, and a common enemy. Palmares feels like a myth to me because I can’t imagine a society like this in today’s world.

I also learned about how Brazilian culture was able to “syncretize” Christian and African belief and practice. The survival of a culture depends on its ability to continue despite changing circumstances. I underestimated the role of religion in shaping the institution of slavery. I think the question “To what extent did different religious beliefs impact the outlook on slavery, along with the activism against it” needs more exploration for me.

Brazil had many more slaves imported than America, but from what I comprehend, there isn’t a “mainstream account” of slavery’s history in Brazil. There are of course “antiracist” and “anticolonial” voices, but there isn’t as much accusation and victimization. How should we view enslaved people if they contributed to the institution of slavery? To me, slavery in Brazil is more confusing than slavery in America. There are many voices, which dilutes the story-telling. It is difficult to decide on which aspect of slavery in Brazil to pay the most attention to.

The Subject of the Slave Trade: reflection

John Wood Sweet’s The Subject of the Slave Trade revealed to me more complex, and broader perspectives of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. I appreciate how Sweet discussed different perspectives of the Slave Trade at different “scales.” Since reading the 1619 Project, I realized how difficult but important it is to pay attention to the scale of history we examine. It is easy to forget about West Africa, and even other European countries when the majority of voices telling the story of slavery is American. But it is understandable; slavery did play a considerable role in shaping America to the country it is today. However, if the scale of historical interest remains confined, it can potentially turn history into moral sentiments. For telling a nation’s story it is useful, but to understand why the world is the way it is today, we need to look beyond that.

On a narrower scale, we focus on the sufferings of slaves. As a result, it is tempting to categorize people into “victims” and “villains.” But as we know, the slaves “were not passive victims…but rather crucial players decisively shaping events and outcomes.” (p. 34) The victims are also the oppressors, and oppressors are also subject to oppression. In desire for political power, tribes of West Africans contributed to the capturing of slaves before they themselves could potentially be captured. As Sweet points out in Markus Rediker’s The Slave Ship, the members of the crew were also susceptible to oppression and death. (p. 12) The sailors oppressed the slaves, but the Captains oppressed the sailors. The Captains who threw the slaves off the ship in the Zong massacre ensured the maximum profits they could get from one voyage, but they also reduced the witnessing of unnecessary sufferings. The slave owners were not an exception; the accounting system in plantations gave market values to the slaves as commodities, not as humans. By dehumanizing enslaved people, they can choose to ignore the trauma they imposed on the slaves and consequently, on themselves too. The colonialists and capitalists are in constant competition for power and dominance over the global market. Therefore, if “logic of finance capital and the logic of empathy” work along, I think fear of suffering also plays an important role.

That’s why I don’t completely relate to Katrina Browne’s Traces of the Trade. There is a sort of moral pressure and responsibility for the De Wolf descendants to find out about their family’s history in the Slave Trade. But sympathy is weak and cheap in a sense that they are still doing what reduces the most suffering for themselves.

There will always be people that suffers from exploitation. Who suffers in place of the slaves in today’s world? It is easy to blame slavery to ignore the challenges imposed by a global economy. Slavery created impacts that continued (and will continue) “for several centuries.” It isn’t just a period of human moral decay that has been left in the past to be examined for. It is crucial to investigate the Slave Trade’s history, and therefore, the history of the modern global economy. In this case I agree with Sweet that it is “hard not to wonder whether the universal agreement to condemn slavery is not still a part of an attempt to reassure the world that, having abolished this one form of exploitation, the modern economic order has been redeemed.” (Pp. 30-31)

The thing I appreciate the most from Sweet’s essay is that it reviews multiple perspectives from lots of sources. I think this is how history should be told; which is, multiple versions of the same story being told at the same time. One can easily focus and sympathize on the sufferings of the slaves. However, placing it in a larger scale, from another perspective; the Slave Trade can be more than the treatment of a single slave, of a ship of slaves, of slavery in America, or of commerce between several countries. It is essential to understand each perspective of the Slave Trade at the same time.




Reflection on the 1619 Project

I perceive the 1619 Project as journalists’ attempt at telling history. It is not “academic” history, but it is certainly one way of telling a story. There are several things that did concern me as I read the arguments and counterarguments between the staff writers and the historians.

It is undeniable that there are “factual errors” or selected evidences that supported the Project’s claims. But these claims were not what concerned the critics the most; it was the “pessimism about white America” that had put them off. The articles by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Matthew Desmond gave eye-widening claims that I was never aware of. But the way these claims were written made it subject to negative reactions and criticisms. For example, “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” This isn’t language normally used for writing history because it is very confrontational. Another example would be where Hannah-Jones described plantation slavery as “a system so grotesque that Nazi Germany would later take inspiration from it for its own racist policies.” She also connected the plantations to “forced-labor camps.” The choice of metaphors and “subjective” use of language made these claims look like opinion pieces in disguise of writing history. But interestingly, when Niles Niemuth was criticizing Hannah-Jones about her reference to racism and DNA, he also mentioned “German geneticists” providing “a pseudo-scientific justification for Nazi-anti-Semitism and racism.” One can make references to the same things to make different arguments.

I agree with Adam Serwer’s point that the claims given by the 1619 Project suggests “anti-black racism is more intractable problem than most Americans are willing to admit.” The fact that the 1619 Project was not “academically” written, and didn’t have solid evidence to defend its claims made it susceptible towards these criticisms. The project deserved most of the criticisms, but the five historians and other critics are really just denying the Project’s “pessimism on white America.” I find it discouraging that they are criticizing the Project in such a roundabout way.

The need to “conceive of and understand our (American) history as ‘progress’” made an impression on me. The point doesn’t only apply to Americans writing American history. I believe this is our natural tendency as a species. We would like to believe that we have evolved and are a generally better species than the homo sapiens. It is a similar thing for Americans (and those concerned about American history) to believe that racial justice has been fought for, and slowly achieved, and achievable in the future. But it isn’t the case that we, as a species, have always shown progress in history. Have things really improved, or did the problem disguise itself in another form?

Not only is it hard to agree with these claims that overturned America’s foundation, not everyone can agree with the political consequences of these claims. One can definitely view the 1619 Project as a “politically motivated falsification of history” by the Democratic party.” But you can also see the Project as a challenging but enlightening perspective of American history.

Therefore, I think there is no “apolitical” history. If you think about the causations of “historical events,”  there could only be so many explanations, such as economic and political factors.  It brings us back to the question of whether Slavery was racial or economic. The 1619 Project and its critics can agree that racism is a consequence of the economic benefits from slavery. The people profited from slavery received political power. History cannot be separated from these reoccurring themes, and thus it is nearly impossible to exclude history from the present’s political environment. The dispute over interpretations or intentions of history is unpreventable, especially in an environment where different voices are encouraged. If you think about if there is only one authoritative voice telling only one version of history, then that “history” is likely propaganda. That’s why I think the 1619 Project is definitely history. It is just one way of telling the story of America.

US Constitution Article I & Article II

One of the main objectives of the US constitution is to divide the powers of the federal government so no branch dominates the other. Hence the name of the United States; is united only because of the division. The country is divided into many states, the federal government is divided into three branches, and even in the legislature there exists the division of the House and the Senate.

Article I states that the legislature represents the people. Only the House of Representatives represents the people directly because it is” composed of Members chosen every Year by the People of several states…” (Article I, Section 2). But due to the ratio of population per representative, the House often serves the popular, therefore majority opinion.

To adjust this, Article I immediately follows up with the Senate, which prevents the override of popular opinion. “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.” (Article I, Section 3) By having two votes regardless of the number of population ensures the power of minorities in Congress.

The combination of the more “democratic” House and the more “conservative” Senate together represent the people. The President, however, is guaranteed his individuality from Congress. As a result, he has limited influence over congress.

For example, the Constitution states that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by the Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.” (Article I, section 8) The legislature controls the federal money, and the President can’t borrow from it unless Congress approves it. However, he is free to suggest what to use it for and when to use it. 

Furthermore, the President doesn’t need to rely on Congress since Congress needs to pay him the same salary regardless. “The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be encreased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected…” (Article II, Section 1) 

The constant push and pull between the legislature and the executive branch show how democracy is being contained and utilized. In some aspects, it may appear undemocratic, for example, the number of representatives per population greatly affects a party’s power in the House. But it is a smartly designed system that has flaws here and there but overall, successfully abolishes the aristocratic system of Britain.

Reflection on the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important milestones in History. Politically, it is an example of effective public literature. However, the language was very ambiguous. Take the most famous line for an example,

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. “

Who are the “we?” It is rather obvious that the notion of democracy is very different from the American democracy of today. The range does not apply to everyone in this circumstance. The people who wrote the Declaration were religious white men. Perhaps It was clear to Thomas Jefferson that the upper class needs to initiate the democracy and make it appear beneficial to the lower class people, otherwise it will just be a revolution. But there are still countless of people excluded from the Declaration, and not even taken into consideration.

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honour.” This line rings no bells to me, because it does not apply to me. It applies to the religious white men in America, regardless of economic status. But that was it. They would perhaps word their sentences with more discretion if they knew that their own words will be used by the oppressed to declare for their own rights.

To think that the intentions of writing the Declaration is purely genuine is very positive. It is possible that they just desperately needed their independence. But looking at it from another perspective, the American democracy was likely a  happy accident. It was bound to happen, but it really is just a one-time situation that no other power in the world can imitate.

The Declaration of Independence was a good foundation for a democratic government, but it did not have so much democratic intentions in itself. The purpose was to have any other government than the British colonial government, but generations have passed, and the way people interpret it has changed. Many of these lines do not apply to people anymore (and for some, it is doubtful if they ever did) But the values of democracy seems to root deep down in the heart.

I think it is outdated. This is why there are so many controversies about topics like these today. In a politically critical situation, such ambiguous phrases in the Declaration will only work temporarily. It is impossible to make everyone happy forever.

What is Democracy?

In 2013, the Chinese government published “Opinions on Cultivating and Practicing Socialist Core Values.” It was of little importance to me, who was only ten at the time. But the teachers made every Chinese student memorize “The 24 virtues”, which was a big no-no for me. When entering the school gates each morning, a teacher would randomly pick students and listen to them recite “The 24 virtues.”

If translated into English, it would sound something like this:“Prosperity, democracy, civil, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, lawful, patriotism, dedication, integrity, and friendliness.” I was an ignorant rebel who never memorized it and suffered quite a lot from detention.

But do notice that the Chinese government wants us to be democratic good citizens. It never occurred to us that being democratic in an almost (really, almost) totalitarian country was a problem. I remember learning about the types of governments, and when I first knew that China is a Communist China, I was surprised. Funny enough, I thought I lived in the “democratic centralism”.

To me, democracy means capability. You can only be democratic when you are capable. How can you respect someone else’s rights if you yourself are discriminated upon? How can you believe in individual freedom if your life depends on someone else? How can you be so sure of your words if you’ve never had a chance to speak? Democratic values can exist almost anywhere in the world. Pick any society and you might find traces of democracy, even if it is only among a few people. But to have a democratic government requires strict conditions. It only functions best in an elite country of few citizens, where the people are willing to take responsibility for their logical decisions. You can’t just put your opinion out there, and not take any responsibility for your words. Citizens need to realize that they are the government, they are the country, they are also the people. They need to collectively reflect and adjust the society’s values on the scale between the “common good” and the individual’s rights. If failed to find such balance, democracy will be an empty terminology serving a corrupt and dysfunctional government.

Democracy means much more than just freedom and justice. The term Freedom, like democracy, is highly controversial. Freedom does not exist without chains, and Democracy doesn’t exist without exclusion. Freedom is a result of sacrifice, a seemingly worthy exchange from either yours or someone else’s misfortunes, and oftentimes, other people suffer for your happy freedom. Then why don’t we apply some justice to the system? Justice doesn’t apply to everyone. It only serves for either the majority or the minority. It risks the possibility of being seriously abused in any government.

But Democracy is irreplaceable. It is desirable. It is also a privilege. However, It can be no more than an illusion. The term Democracy has no faults in itself, but every government can become a pile of lies; lies building upon lies. That’s why I love democracy, but I have no hopes and no trust in any democratic government.