History Slam Episode Eighty-Three: Disaster Citizenship

By Sean Graham

Disaster CitizenshipIn June 1914, the town of Salem, Massachusetts was the site of a massive fire that destroyed over 1,300 buildings. Three and a half years later in Halifax, a fire aboard the SS Mont-Blanc caused an explosion that killed approximately 2,000 people and injured 9,000 others. These two events may seem completely separate in both time and location, but comparing the responses to the disasters sheds an interesting light on the nature of relief efforts and the connections between people living in the United States and Canada.

In the case of Salem, which was home to a sizable francophone community, there wasn’t much coverage of the fire in Quebec. The Halifax explosion, on the other hand, received plenty of attention in Boston, where residents had significant ties to Nova Scotia. The way in which each disaster was met, both locally and abroad, presents not only a unique opportunity for transnational history, but also serves as a fascinating comparison of how citizens respond to disasters.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Jacob Remes about his new book Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era. We talk about doing trans-national research, North America diaspora, and responses to disasters.

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History Slam Episode Eighty-Two: Historically Inspired Baby Names

By Sean Graham

hello-my-name-isI am not a parent. Nor am I close to becoming a parent. That being said, one of the things that strikes me as a major challenge of early parenthood – perhaps the first challenge after a child is born – is picking a name. The challenges of finding the right name has long been a sitcom staple. And while it may seem easy to pick a name that doesn’t rhyme with a female body part, I would be overwhelmed by the options available. I can stand in the cereal aisle for 20 minutes trying to decide what to get, so the prospect of picking a name seems really intimidating.

Yet, every day people are able to name their kids. Over the past five years, I’ve had a bunch of friends who have gone through the process of naming their newborn children. The consensus seems to be that naming is easier than it seems from the outside – that while there can be and often is lots of discussion beforehand, the right name tends to be clear when the time comes.

The reasons for picking a name can vary greatly, from liking the one a name sounds to honouring a departed family member to concluding that a newborn ‘looks’ like a certain name. Less common, however, is naming your kids after prominent historical figures. While it does happen on occasion, it can be challenging to find a name that is both inspired by someone from history and also fits in the 21st century. Continue reading

History Slam Episode Eighty-One: The Bank War

Yesterday, Jonathan McQuarrie wrote about the smash Broadway show Hamilton. Even before the show, when most people thought about the establishment of the financial system in the United States, Hamilton was likely the first person to come to mind. President Andrew Jackson, probably wasn’t top of mind, while Nicolas Biddle remains a largely unknown figure. That’s why Paul Kahan’s new book The Bank War: Andrew Jackson, Nicolas Biddle, and the Fight for American Finance is so interesting.

The book traces the battle between Jackson and Biddle through the 1830s as the President tried to dismantle the national bank while Biddle fought to preserve the institution. Ultimately, Jackson prevailed, a result that had major implications for the American economy through the 19th century.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Paul Kahan about the book. We talk about the challenges of writing popular history, the history of America’s financial structure, and the role of personalities in early American history.

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History Slam Episode Eighty: Human Rights Frameworks for Health and Why They Matter

By Sean Graham

Yamin“Before I had my two children, I had a miscarriage.” This is how Alicia Yamin starts her new book Power, Suffering, and the Struggle for Dignity: Human Rights Frameworks for Health and Why They Matter. By introducing the book in such a personal manner, Yamin, the Policy Director of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, prepares the reader for what is to follow. In interweaving personal stories, Yamin demonstrates how health should be situated as a human right and, in doing so, represents a major turning point in the struggle for dignity.

The great challenge in studying broad concepts in matters with very real world ramifications is that the writing can feel distant and cold. To alleviate this concern, Yamin incorporates case studies from her vast experience working in the field. By humanizing these seemingly abstract issues, Yamin is not only able to hook the reader but also establishes a narrative voice that guides the reader through the book.

At its best, Power, Suffering, and the Struggle for Dignity attacks the preconceptions and assumptions that have inhibited the implementation of a human rights framework for health. For instance, in the introduction Yamin cites the too-often-used phrase “there but the grace of God go I” in discussing a general apathy towards the issues on the part of those in privileged positions. By casting the inequalities in health and healthcare to divine providence, the real-world human decisions that have fostered and expanded inequality are easily dismissed or ignored. As a result, too many people unnecessarily suffer from indignity without intervention.

These inequalities are often the result of discrimination based on race, gender, and poverty – issues that are beyond the control of those that don’t  have access to health. Many of Yamin’s examples are related to maternal health and mortality. From the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse perpetrated by the men in her life to losing multiple children to AIDS and malnourishment, Yamin outlines how one particular woman had been denied agency throughout her life for no other reason than she lived in an impoverished region. The decisions that led to that poverty were well beyond her control – often made on the other side of the world – and yet we too often believe the myth that we all reap what we sow.

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History Slam Episode Seventy-Nine: Open Access

By Sean Graham

Open AccessThere are certain universal experiences that go along with being involved in academics, one of which is explaining the publishing model of academic journals. This is particularly difficult for grad students, who, upon their first publication, are confronted by family members wondering how much they got paid. It’s a well meaning question, but it’s a bit of a downer to have to explain how academic publishing works and that, as today’s guest aptly puts it, it’s a gift culture. The work is done in the pursuit of knowledge with the primary goal not being monetary gain, but rather having the information available for public consumption.

Recently, that final point has increasingly been scrutinized by the Open Access movement, which is explored by Peter Suber in this openly accessible book. More and more scholars are moving away from journals with paid subscriptions in favour of open access publications. Sometimes that’s not possible, however, which is why some institutions are requiring their faculty to put copies of their publications in open access repositories in their libraries.

At Harvard University the push towards open access has been led by the Office for Scholarly Communication, which has been able to get each school to agree to participate in its open access repository. Through Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard (DASH), publications by Harvard faculty are freely available to anyone. The site has been quite successful since its launch, recently surpassing 7 million downloads. They also maintain an Open Access Directory, which includes listings of open access materials and different funding models for open access journals.
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Activehistory.ca repost – Black History Podcasts and Talks

As part of Black History Month every Friday in February we’re featuring some of our most popular posts and podcasts on Black History.

Today we’re featuring some of our favourite podcasts and recorded talks on Black History from the past few years.

History Slam Podcasts:

  • Episode Twenty-Six: The Black Panthers in Saskatchewan
    In this episode of the History Slam podcast, Sean Graham talks with Dawn Flood of Campion College at the University of Regina about Black Panther Fred Hampton and his visit to Saskatchewan. They chat about racial discrimination in Chicago, the reputation of the Black Panthers, the reason for coming to Saskatchewan, and Fred Hampton’s death.
  • Episode Forty-One: Race, Identity, and Newfoundland Culture in Robert Chafe’s Oil and Water  On February 18, 1942 off the coast of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, the USS Truxton and the USS Pollux ran aground in the midst of a harsh winter storm. Of the 389 sailors on both ships, only 186 survived. Of those, one stood out: Lanier Phillips. After being rescued by a group of locals, Phillips became the first African American in St. Lawrence, an experience that forever changed him and the community.  The transformation of Phillip’s life is the focus of playwright Robert Chafe’s Oil and Water.  In this episode of History Slam Sean Graham speaks with Robert Chafe about his play, Lanier Phillips’ legacy and the challenges of representing a true story on stage.
  • Episode Fifty-Eight: African Canadians in the US Civil War
    Sean Graham and Richard Ried discuss the challenges of researching African Canadians in the Civil War, the tasks given to black regiments, and the domestic policies that shaped British North Americans’ participation in the conflict.  They also examine the legacy of African Canadians fighting in the war and the historical oddity of Civil War pensions being paid into the 21st century.(Sean Graham and Richard Ried)

Recorded Talks:

  • The Drake “Smoke Screen” Phenomenon: Canadian Hip Hop History
    A conversation Francesca D’Amico hosted with award-winning journalist, radio and TV broadcaster, Dalton Higgins.  Higgins and D’Amico engaged in a discussion intended to use the life and music of Drake as a lens by which to discuss broader issues such as: the history of urban music in Toronto; class and authenticity in urban music; and race, ethnicity, identity and notions of multiculturalism and acceptance in Canada.


History Slam Episode Seventy-Seven: Prime Minister’s Row

By Sean Graham

Laurier Ave E in Ottawa

Google Map of Laurier Ave E in Ottawa

Before I moved to Ottawa, my only experience with the city was a brief research trip, during which I heard about the nation’s capital radius rule. The rule holds that if you’re standing on Parliament Hill you can walk 15 blocks in any direction and still feel like you are in a national capital. That radius includes the Supreme Court, Library and Archives Canada, several museums, a variety of embassies, high commissions, and consulates, and the core of the city’s ‘business district.’ Once you wander outside that radius, however, Ottawa feels like any other town in this country, with its mix of suburban housing, strange traffic patterns, and chain restaurants.

When I first got to Ottawa in 2009, I lived inside that radius and rarely left – mostly because every time I ventured further afield, I was reminded that the radius was a pretty accurate description. More recently, however, the city has undergone a bit of a revitalization that, in my opinion, has either expanded the radius or made it an obsolete concept. The completion of Lansdowne Park, the construction of light rail, and the redevelopment of Lebreton Flatts are a couple examples of Ottawa’s newly found penchant for growth. There is work to be done, of course, as Tim Harper in the Toronto Star recently asked “Why is our Nation’s Capital so drab?

In addition to the major projects spearheaded by the municipal government, there are plenty of grassroots groups working on improving the city’s cultural reputation. One of these is Prime Minister’s Row, a group which is conducting research on the many historical figures that lived on Laurier Avenue East in the Sandy Hill neighbourhood. Their goal is to take advantage of the city’s built heritage to create Ottawa’s first street museum. By including both cultural and political figures in their research, the group hopes to attract a diverse audience to a part of the city that isn’t on the radar of many tourists.
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History Slam Episode Seventy-Five: Paper Cadavers

By Sean Graham

Paper CadaversBetween 1960 and 1996, the Guatemalan Civil War pitted the government against leftist rebel groups. Both during and after the war, there were accusations that government forces committed human rights violations against civilians. The government denied these allegations and claimed that there was no documentation to substantiate any of the claims. That was until a cache of documents from the National Police was found in an abandoned headquarters in 2005. That launched a massive effort to preserve and archive the documents. Despite official efforts to destroy the material and threats of physical violence, a group of volunteers worked tirelessly to ensure that it was possible to figure out what happened during the war.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Kirsten Weld of Harvard University about her book Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatamala. We chat about the uncovering of the archives, the process of reclaiming the material, and the contested nature of building memory.
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History Slam Episode Seventy-Four: SHARIAsource

By Sean Graham

On November 16, parts of Harvard University were closed for a few hours following a bomb threat. Access to Harvard Yard was restricted while police searched several buildings. It was an interesting experience – the helicopter circling above was certainly unique – particularly in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Paris. Despite the fact that, at the time, there was no information about who made the threat or why, message boards were full of epithets referring to this being the product of a Muslim plot. (I don’t know why I still read the occasional message board)

Occurrences of Islamophobia have been well documented recently, with one of the prime claims being that Muslims want to impose Sharia Law in North America. Sean Hannity, for one, is obsessed with Sharia Law. What you find, though, is that a lot of these claims are inaccurate, based on extreme examples, or oversimplified. While this is partly the result of the sound bite media environment, it also speaks to the challenge of finding thorough, well rounded, and accessible English language material on Sharia.

To help counter this, the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School is launching SHARIAsource, a new website devoted to providing accurate and accessible information about Sharia Law. In working with scholars and practitioners around the world, the editors are hoping to provide a space to provide information, engage in debate, and serve as an outlet for primary sources.
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History Slam Episode Seventy-One: Race, Gender, and Rap

By Sean Graham

When teaching courses on the history of popular culture, one of my favourite exercises is to play a song and then ask the class what the song is about. With certain songs, students come up with answers pretty quickly, while in other cases, it takes a little more prodding. In all cases, though, it’s a lot of fun to examine the music in an effort to understand its cultural significance and the artists’ expression of identity.

As a relatively new style of music in the mainstream, rap has not received the same scholarly attention as other genres. Jazz of the interwar period and folk of the Vietnam era have been studied extensively, but rap is just now coming into focus for historians. This is a critical development as it’s a style ripe with material for study.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Francesca D’Amico about her research on rap in North America. We chat about the differences between Canadian and American artists, gender representations, and race construction. Continue reading