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Hello, my name is Valorie. I have a Master's Degree in History and a license to teach-- I have been both university professor and public school teacher. Currently, I am a middle school social studies teacher. I love horror movies and spooky things. Every day is Halloween. I am also a passionate book blogger.

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Book Review: 23:27 by H.L. Roberts

Monday, February 22, 2010

Book Review: Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice by Merry E. Wiesner-Hank

Title: Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice 
Author: Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks 
Genre: Nonfiction - History 
Finished: February 22, 2010

In Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice, Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks examines how Christian and Protestant ideas altered and defined sexuality and sexual behavior. The geographical focus of Wiesner-Hanks extends beyond the European continent. She writes about the colonial experience of Europeans bringing Christianity into Latin America, Asia, Africa, and North America, all of which were already inhabited by groups possessing their own native beliefs about sexuality, the changing of which was not done without challenge and compromise. Reconstructing the pre-colonial world of Latin and North American presents a problem, as Wiesner-Hanks notes, because documents are scarce, and as a result she cannot give a complete description of native beliefs. The first three chapters of the book are loosely chronological within topically based chapters, beginning with Christianity before 1500, then moving on to Protestantism, and finally to Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy. The final three chapters shift to the overseas colonies discussed above. 

In investigating sexuality, Wiesner-Hanks looks at how earlier civilizations influenced later ideas of early Christian writers, and then in turn how these Christian writers shaped opinions on marriage, divorce, fornication, prostitution, sodomy, and witchcraft, to name a few. As Wiesner-Hanks traces how these ideas evolved over time, she also compares them to one another, letting readers see not only how ideas shifted over time, but how Catholicism differed from both Protestantism and Orthodoxy. The chapters are short and succinct, but detailed enough that in every case there is a clear picture of the time and group change. The book is more than a mere generalized overview even though its length is small, though some generalization is necessary and involved, because Wiesner-Hanks looks at specifics and fills her pages with one detail after another. As a result, very little space is given to stories or narratives, which perhaps would have been a nice addition to break up her dense fact-based approach. In fact, it is all too easy to get lost or confused within the barrage of facts and details as, for example, Wiesner-Hanks moves from infanticide to women's bodies to unmarried women and men to craft guilds all in the same two page spread. That being said, there is a lot that Wiesner-Hanks does not say or does not explain, which leaves one with many questions. For instance, when Wiesner-Hanks discusses the Roman model of marriage and sexuality, she fails to mention that the Romans too had their own form of spiritual virginity in the Vestal Virgins, which would be an interesting parallel to Catholic convent life. In another part of the book, Wiesner-Hanks states that religious wars increased the number of people, both men and women, who worked in prostitution (89). Yet she does not explain how that link is made. In many places she describes a situation or a law but then finishes up with the note that the event was rare or the law was rarely enforced, which makes one wonder why it was ultimately significant to mention. It would be a lot to expect one writer to include every detail or point, so the unstated or unanswered in no way mitigates what a good book Wiesner-Hanks has written on the topic of sexuality and religion.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Book Review: Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore

Title: Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950
Author: Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore
Genre: Nonfiction - History 
Finished: February 3, 2010 

 Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore redefines the standard chronology of the Civil Rights movement, popularly known for its post-WWII activity. Post-WWII civil rights action would culminate in achievement with Brown v. Board of Education and the 1964 and 1965 Acts of President Johnson. As the title of the book indicates, and according to Gilmore, civil rights in fact had far earlier and far more radical origins in Communism, labor, Fascism and anti-Fascism, and the Popular Front. She substantiates her thesis by tracing the activity of these movements, and by placing within them the African Americans and whites involved who both worked together and in opposition to one another to end or continue Jim Crow. The issue of black civil rights is typically isolated to the United States and is considered to be historically a distinct American problem. By highlighting the involvement of radical movements that found their roots in Europe, Gilmore places African American civil rights on an international stage and redefines it within the context of what the world was experiencing and how this weaved into American culture. Gilmore shows that in America there was an active Communist Party that was focused on illuminating how racism created class differences, and had a purpose to overcome this class inequality by organizing Southern black laborers into a force white supremacists could not reckon with. The CPUSA would become a major player in calling for an end to Jim Crow and white supremacy, and would operate at the same time of the NAACP, whom the communists considered too conservative and bourgeois. The distinction between the two is one where the Communist Party favored direct action and the NAACP preferred legal means to solve issues, and Gilmore states that when placed alongside Communism, the conservative nature of the NAACP is stark (7). In emphasizing this simplistic distinction between the two, Gilmore slights the NAACP of some of its own influence and early contribution. Though less radical in comparison to a system like Communism, the NAACP nevertheless operated within a legal system that was hostile to them. When placed within the cultural context of America in the early 20th century, the NAACP was also radical in its own way because it defied the "place" of the African American, and the organization enjoyed many successes of its own. For example, the NAACP played a major role in the 1923 Moore v. Dempsey decision that strengthened due process and African American's Constitutional rights. It was not only the Communist Party that took an interest in labor either, though Gilmore makes it seem as if labor was a CPUSA concern only and does not mention that the NAACP was involved in the creation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African American labor union (52). Though these successes are certainly not as radical as labor marches through the streets of Gastonia, they are still significant to early civil rights radicalism. In keeping with the international scope of civil rights and the importance of the Communist Party, Gilmore brings to light that Africa Americans even went to Russia, had audience with Stalin himself, and many even let out sighs of relief to be in a country where they could, for the first time, enjoy life without fear. African American civil rights and Communism are two movements not typically linked together. In placing them together, Gilmore effectively rewrites civil rights history to include world wide involvement. She does similarly with Fascism in the United States. Gilmore reveals that Fascist ideology was intertwined with white supremacy (106), yet Gilmore does not adequately make the connection between the ideologies of Fascism and white supremacy to explain how white supremacists co-opted Fascism into their beliefs. Additionally, Gilmore splits up the influence of Fascism into two different sections, one in which she describes how some Americans embraced it early on, and then how later Fascism became linked with Communism and Nazi policy, and was thereafter largely rejected within America. Gilmore skips from one to the other without describing the intermediate years and how white supremacists that were once Fascist came to reject the ideology. Gilmore makes it clear why they did, but does not trace how or what happened to the former Black Shirt white supremacist American Fascists. Gilmore focuses her narrative on select people and groups, which allows her to make her points without filling pages with names and events that would have made the monograph dense and less fluid. Through the experiences of her select characters, Gilmore documents the progress of movements and is then allowed to move on with her point made by their examples. As she admits in her introduction, she leaves out a significant portion of people in the South who played major roles in the Civil Rights movement (11). As reviewer Michael Dennis points out, the people ignored precisely the kind of political linkages that defined the popular front and did a good deal more grass roots organizing in the South than Fort-Whiteman. While leaving out these groups of people and their contributions does not weaken the argument Gilmore is trying to make, adding them would have strengthened her narrative by illustrating the scope of the work the Popular Front involved itself in. While she leaves out some groups and people, she includes other often overlooked players such as Truman's committee on civil rights, adding another layer to the retelling of conventional civil rights history (409). Gilmore's limited focus allows her to incorporate an element of familiarity that makes her story easier and more enjoyable to read. The people involved in the movements she writes about become more than just names, but people with personalities. The emotional connection forged with these people give the book a sense of intimacy. Much like in her previous book, Gender & Jim Crow, Gilmore uses this feeling of familiarity to make assumptions about people's feelings and motivations that cannot be supported by evidence. For instance, Gilmore assumes that Louise Thompson must have been hiding something about her feelings for African American Communist Lovett Fort-Whiteman (143). She does the same when she attempts to psychoanalyze the reticence of Alain Locke and attributes it to an attraction to the charismatic Langston Hughes (137). These are things that Gilmore herself simply cannot know without personal testimony. In some cases, Gilmore is able to more successfully pull off her personal narratives. When she describes the death of Fort-Whiteman, she adds a touching reflection of his last moments that closes up the extraordinary life of this very unique man (154). It is in moments like those that Gilmore fosters a true emotional connection between her book and the reader. The combination of humanization and the personalization of events with a unique historical interpretation make Defying Dixie an essential book on the civil rights movement. Defying Dixie adds a new layer to the understanding of how the civil rights movement progressed, and what influenced the later movement. While it does not rewrite the entirety of the movement, it inserts a new level that should not be overlooked.