“Dispatch from the Queen City” (will be appearing in the "Public Seminar" blog for the New School)

The biggest logistical problem at Buffalo’s sister march, “No Hate, No Mandate”:

Finding downtown parking garages not owned by our own mini-Trump, Carl Paladino. Paladino, former Republican nominee for governor, recently published a vile misogynist and racist tirade against Michelle and Barack Obama. In the lead up to the women’s march activists have staged numerous rallies to get him off the school board and call out his abhorrent speech. And then there is local representative Chris Collins, the first Congressional lawmaker to endorse Trump and a key member of his transition team who recently called civil rights activist John Lewis a “spoiled child.” So for Buffalonians combating hate is personal and local.

            Luckily Buffalo has experienced a resurgence of political activism in recent years. This has ranged from Black Lives Matter to umbrella groups like the Partnership for the Public Good, the Western New York Peace Center, and People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH), which have done invaluable work coordinating projects and communicating across the city and suburbs. And as any reader of Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis’s classic Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community knows Buffalo has a long history of a politicized and diverse LBGTQ community. Thanks in part to the visibility of the Standing Rock movement, members of the Seneca Nation also played prominent roles in the march and protest Saturday.

And although we didn’t have Alicia Keys or Madonna, the entertainment reflected Buffalo’s diversity: Mexican marimba players and African American drummers.

            Our march began at the “solidarity hub” in Babeville, a renovated nineteenth church that musician Ani DiFranco transformed into a performance space. There was a line of crock pots filled with soups, stews and chili all made by Buffalo women and free to the crowd (I had the best carrot soup ever), there was a table to write letters and sign petitions, and representatives from various groups recruited for their causes. That included the University at Buffalo sanctuary campus movement where I saw a number of faculty friends I had no idea were doing this organizing. And there was a cash bar where you could grab a local brew before heading back outside. It soon became too crowded inside as people began to pour into Delaware Avenue, the first indication that the march would reach at least 4,000 people. As in reports elsewhere there was an abundant supply of goodwill, including by the local police who blocked off Niagara Square when it became apparent there were too many marchers to make it safe.

            In sum, this felt different than the many other marches I’ve engaged in, from the nuclear freeze marches in the late 1970s to the anti-war marches of the Bush era. It felt local, it felt personal, and it felt generative. Buffalo is ready not only to take on Trump, but Paladino and Collins as well. Bring it on.



False Choices: Identity Politics and Lessons from the Left

This post appeared on the "Black Perspectives" blog originally:

False Choices: Identity Politics and Lessons from the Left


By Victoria W. Wolcott  January 15, 2017 0 


Recently my academic-laden social media feeds have been filling up with denouncements of identity politics, or occasionally denouncements of those denouncements. Many of these are responses to Mark Lilla’s opinion piece in the New York Times blaming Clinton’s loss on identity politics. In these debates class and identity are at times posed as opposites, one drawing energy away from the other. One doesn’t have to be trained in intersectional feminism to view this as a false choice, although that would be right in my case. One only has to look at historical examples.


I have been researching and writing about civil rights unionism in the 1930s, a topic that was most extensively explored in the dry and dusty labor histories of the 1970s and 1980s. This movement, particularly its southern incarnation, brought together the socialist left, feminists, black and white workers, and New Deal ideologues. The Highlander Folk School and Southern Tenant Sharecroppers’ Union (STFU) are perhaps the best example of civil rights unionism. Like the “social unionism” that defined progressive-era workers’ education programs, civil rights unionism sought to create a new social order, rather than implement incremental reforms. The movement was interracial and included the active participation of whole families, including women. Most importantly, belying the notion that identity and class are antithetical, it blended class politics with the politics of race and gender equality.


Sharecroppers in St. Francis, Arkansas in 1937. Image: Louise Boyle, Kheel Center.


Many of the leading activists of the civil rights movement, like Ella Baker and Pauli Murray, emerged from this vital interracial movement. In the 1930s and 1940s, they promoted cooperatives as socialist alternatives to capitalism and helped pioneer nonviolent direct action. Civil rights unionism also directly influenced New Deal liberals, who borrowed their strategies when crafting programs like the Farm Security Administration’s cooperative farms. And religion was a vital part of civil rights unionism, particularly the prophetic faith of white pacifist A. J. Muste and black theologian Howard Thurman, analyzed in Albert Raboteau’s recent bookAmerican Prophets.


A. Philip Randolph


Their activism was as comprehensive as their goals, going well beyond the picket line. For example, they skillfully deployed culture, from the repurposing of “We Shall Overcome” by Highlander to the labor theater groups that activists dispatched to the scenes of strikes. As Doug Rossinow noted in a recent article this movement also linked progressives and liberals in generative ways. “From the 1910s through the 1940s,” states Rossinow, “liberal Democrats sometimes welcomed political support from socialists and other leftists.” Most importantly, these activists and politicians challenged white working-class racism directly, rather than separating class politics from the damage that segregation and racial violence wrought.


Although civil rights unionism faltered with the advent of the cold war, which marginalized socialists and other radicals, it’s legacy for the long civil rights movement was significant. The nonviolent direct action tactics honed during this period, particularly by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), were later deployed in Montgomery and countless other cities. And as William P. Jones has argued in The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights, labor leaders such as A. Philip Randolph profoundly shaped the economic message of the civil rights movement, which combined jobs and freedom.


This history reveals that resistance movements are strongest when activists do not make false choices between class and race, or other forms of identity. And electoral politics are most progressive when liberals listen and learn from their radical allies.

Victoria W. Wolcott is a professor of history at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, where she teaches urban, African American, and women’s history. She is the author of Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit (2001) and Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America (2012). Her current research focuses on the emergence of experimental interracial communities in mid-twentieth-century America and their influence on the long civil rights movement. She is also researching the life of African American pacifist and civil rights activist Eroseanna Robinson.


Thoughts on the Moment

I have been working on and off for the last several years on a book project that I hope to complete after finishing Living in the Future. It is a microhistory of Eroseanna Robinson, an African American radical pacifist and civil rights activist in the post-war era. I've given several papers about her life, including one on her hunger strike after her arrest for tax evasion in 1959, and the excruciating force feeding she endured. In order to understand hunger strikes as a resistance tactic and the torture of force feeding I began to research its history, from the horrific speculum oris used to force feed captured African slaves during the middle passage to the force feeding of English and American suffragists. Upon election day I've naturally been thinking much about the suffering of American activists, like this description by American suffragist Doris Stevens of her imprisonment and force feeding:  “Yesterday was a bad day for me in feeding.  I was vomiting continually during the process. The tube has developed an irritation somewhere that is painful.  Never was there a sentence like ours for such an offense as ours, even in England. No women ever got it over there even for tearing down buildings. And during all that agitation we were busy saying that never would such things happen in the United States. The men told us they would not endure such frightfulness.” The women endured the frightfulness. To understand what it meant to be force fed in 1914 the feminist journalist Djuna Barnes had herself forcibly fed and photographed for the New York World Magazine. After the experience she stated that she “shared the greatest experience of the bravest of my sex." Below is a photo of Barnes along with the force feeding chair that the American military designed for Guantanamo inmates who have persisted in their own hunger strikes. I realize that both the history of suffrage and the election of Hillary Clinton are fraught with complex racial and class dynamics, not to mention the militarism that has led to the horrors of Guantanamo. All of this is swirling in my head as Tuesday approaches. But I want to express gratitude to Doris Stevens and all the other women who did truly suffer for suffrage.


Research Troubles

Each chapter of Living in the Future could easily be a book in itself. In chapter one alone I write about Brookwood Labor College and Highlander Folk School. Despite knowing I can not go into micro-details about each of my "utopian" examples I continue to research as if I can and will. This is SLOWING ME DOWN. It's like an addiction. Sometimes fed, of course, by turning up wonderful details and compelling stories. But I've just spent two weeks going through all of my archival sources on the Delta Cooperative Farm before even sitting down to write. And my leave is quickly drifting away. This book cannot take another decade. Well, actually it could. My new strategy is to approach the writing a bit like I would approach a textbook or lecture notes. I have accumulated layers of knowledge at this point that I can lay down quickly if I let myself. And if I want to write while I am department chair (starting in August) this will be vital. Now I have the "Born Free" song stuck in my head from my 1970s childhood. Because I need to let my writing be free and not bogged down in my meticulous research.

To Blog or Not to Blog

I am an avid reader of blogs. In my Feedly feed I have about twenty blogs that I look at daily (only a subset of these post regularly). My favorite blogs are written by smart, sassy academic women (see Historiann). But do I want to blog myself? Do I believe Tenured Radical that blog writing enhances other forms of writing: the more you write the more you can write? Maybe. Placing a blog on this website is a small first step at experimentation. At the moment, being on leave, my days are filled with attempting to create a cohesive narrative from a mind-boggling number of sources. Living in the Future is a book that I am truly enamored with, but the actual writing is a very tough slog. And my internal writing dialogue doesn't necessarily make for exciting blogging. As for politics, I'm waiting for the primaries to be over for reasons that anyone on social media will understand. I may blog about my first year as department chair, something I'm now gearing up for. Or my dog Flopsy, who is a ridiculously huge part of my life. Or life in Western New York, particularly around questions of urban justice. For now I give you Flopsy.