Black Samson: The Untold Story of an American Icon

Nyasha Junior

Professor Nyasha Junior

In their new book, Black Samson: The Untold Story of an American Icon (Oxford University Press, 2020 // TU copies; Amazon), Nyasha Junior and Jeremy Schipper describe and illustrate how the biblical Samsom became a cultural icon to the Black community. Samson appears in the Book of Judges, chapters 13 to 16 (excerpts below). Though a relatively minor character when compared to Moses, Solomon, or David, Samson has experienced a surprising afterlife in American history. As early as the American Revolution, the enslaved and free Black community identified with Samson, his prophetic birth, his awesome strength, and his enslavement by and resistance to the Philistines.

Jeremy Shipper

Professor Jeremy Schipper

Today our culture is less Bible-literate than in the past, but most people have at least heard bits and pieces – narrative fragments – of the Samson story, even if they cannot arrange them into a coherent picture or even recognize their provenance. With long, beautiful locks as the source of his strength, Samson killed a lion with his bare hands, slew a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass, courted and fell prey to Delilah, and then was blinded and enslaved by the Philistines before wreaking vengeance on a full house of worshippers at the Temple of Dagon. Latter day artists, poets, and politicians have teased out these threads of the Samson story for their own rhetorical and expressive purposes.

At times Black Samson represented the embodiment of the Black community and its struggles and at other times discrete heroic individuals. Shapeshifting, he has also been used to describe the struggles of Black women, white abolitionists, and the working class. He has even been retrojected into the past as inspiration to slave revolts and uprisings, cast onto the silver screen, and starred in a graphic novel.

I spoke with Nyasha Junior and Jeremy Schipper on November 19, 2020 about their new book, Black Samson: The Untold Story of an American Icon (Oxford University Press, 2020 // TU copies; Amazon), which is available in print, ebook, and audiobook formats.

—Fred Rowland

Excerpts from the Book of Judges 13-16:

13.6 And the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him, and he rent [the lion] as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand: but he told not his father or his mother what he had done.

15.15 And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith.

16.19 And [Delilah] made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him.

16.21 But the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass; and he did grind in the prison house.

16.29 And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left.

16.30 And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.

Sights and Sounds of America’s Tenth Man Contest

Christine Woyshner image

Christine Woyshner

 

The 1930s American South was a region of deep racial segregation as the social norms of white supremacy and the terrorism of lynching kept white and black Americans in separate and unequal spheres. The Commission on Interracial Cooperation was an Atlanta-based initiative of white liberals and black leaders to increase understanding and cooperation between the races. Of its many programs, an essay competition called the Tenth Man Contest encouraged white schools to teach black history and culture. At its height, the contest reached 90 school districts in 23 states. Students participating in this program studied numerous textual sources, engaged in a variety of artistic activities, and visited black schools and businesses.

One of the rich legacies of the Tenth Man Contest is an archive of the student papers submitted to the competition. In her article, “‘I feel I am really pleading the cause of my own people’: US southern white students’ study of African-American history and culture in the 1930s through art and the senses” (History of Education, 2018, URL), Professor of Education Christine Woyshner uses this archive to analyze the ways that white high school students understood and interpreted their encounter with the black history, society, and culture. These encounters were often sensuously rich as white students described their visual and aural impressions of African American art, literature, schools and neighborhoods.

I spoke with Christine Woyshner about her article on April 30, 2018.

—Fred Rowland

Settler Colonialism and the American West

Andrew Isenberg

Lawrence Kessler

 

The Fall 2017 issue of The Journal of the West is devoted to the concept of settler colonialism as it applies to the American West. Settler colonialism describes a form of colonialism in which settlers seek to eliminate the indigenous people from their land and replace them with settlers from the metropole. It has been used to describe many historical and contemporary encounters, including those in the United States, Australia, and Israel. Settler Colonialism differs from accounts of, say, the British in India, where the colonizers were intent on subordinating the native population and using it as a labor force to extract wealth.

Historians Lawrence Kessler and Andrew Isenberg contributed an article to this special issue, “Settler Colonialism and the Environmental History of the North American West,” (access restricted to Temple affiliates) which adds nuance and complexity to the standard settler colonial account by using an environmental history approach. The European conquest brought deadly microbes (smallpox, typhus, cholera), domestic animals (horses, sheep, cattle, pigs), and a market-based economic system. Kessler and Isenberg illustrate the ways that both whites and Indians were often responding to unexpected environmental contingencies. They show that between the arrival of Europeans and the eventual US removal of American Indian tribes to reservations in the nineteenth century, there were hundreds of years of trade, negotiation, cooperation and accomodation, in addition to warfare, between the various colonial powers and the natives. Most importantly, the two authors restore some of the agency to Native Americans that settler colonialism accounts often gloss over.

Lawrence Kessler earned his PhD in History at Temple University and is currently a Fellow in Residence at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine. Andrew Isenberg is a professor of History at Temple University. I spoke to them both on April 3, 2018.

—Fred Rowland

The Hamlet Fire, 1991

Bryant Simon

Bryant Simon

 

 

 

A deadly fire raced through the Imperial Food Products factory in Hamlet, North Carolina on the morning of September 3, 1991. As the fire raged, employees found themselves trapped behind chain-locked exits, which led to the deaths of 25 people. The fire was big news. I was living in Philadelphia at the time and I can remember news reports and descriptions of desperate people frantically trying to escape.

Historian Bryan Simon was in a doctoral program at the University of North Carolina in 1991 and he often drove through Hamlet on his way to visit the research archives at the University of South Carolina. Birthplace of  jazz great John Coltrane, prize-winning reporter Tom Wicker, and former Philadelphia Eagles Pro Bowl wide receiver (and current Eagles radio color commentator) Mike Quick, Hamlet had been a prosperous railroad junction through the first half of the 20th century until the railroads went into decline. By the 1980s, the city government and its inhabitants were desperate to bring new businesses to town. It was during this time that a Pennsylvania company processing chicken parts into chicken tenders moved to Hamlet.

Bryant Simon’s most recent book, The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives (The New Press, 2017), as the subtitle indicates, is about much more than a tragic fire. Instead, Simon uses Hamlet as a microcosm to examine the larger economic and political forces that have transformed the United States. Where policy makers were once focused on creating an economy that produced high manufacturing wages, starting in the 1970s they increasingly turned their attention to an economic model of low wages and cheap products. The fire at Imperial Food Products are part of this story.

I spoke to Bryant Simon on January 23, 2018.

—Fred Rowland

The Virgin Mary in 19th Century American Culture

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In contemporary American culture the Virgin Mary is associated with Catholic devotion and worship. Because of this, it should come as a surprise to many readers that the mother of Jesus was a general cultural icon in the latter half of nineteenth century Christian America. Temple professor Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez details this history in her new book, The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth Century American Culture (Temple / Amazon). Images and references to Mary proliferated in popular magazines and on the walls of modest and fashionable homes, appealing to both Protestant and Catholic audiences. The Civil War, industrial revolution, and westward expansion transformed the United States. The rise of major urban centers like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis drew in rural migrants and immigrants, unsettling religious, gender, and social norms. In these early years of mass society when the old agrarian ways were slipping away, the focus on the Virgin Mary offered a safe and familiar way of talking about and negotiating new female roles in this changing social landscape. Professor Alvarez traces the career of Mary from the declaration of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854 through its fiftieth anniversary in 1904.

I spoke with Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez about her new book on November 7, 2016.

 

Death in the Shape of a Young Girl

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Professor Patricia Melzer is the author of a new book titled Death in the Shape of a Young Girl: Women’s Poltical Violence in the Red Army Faction (New York University Press, 2015). By focusing her study on the Red Army Faction (RAF), a West German terrorist group which had many female members, including leaders, Melzer complicates our contemporary understanding of feminism and violence. The RAF committed acts of assassination, bombings, bank robberies, and kidnappings from 1970 to the early 1990s in order to challenge what it saw as the West German state’s support of capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy.

While contemporary feminism is closely linked to positions of nonviolence, this was less the case at the founding of the Red Army Faction, where patriarchy shared responsibility with economic and political structures for women’s oppression. As feminism narrowed its focus to patriarchal violence – especially the personal physical abuse of men against women – the nurturing role of women and the importance of nonviolent political resistance became more essential to feminism’s understanding of itself.

Melzer also analyzes the ways German media portrayed the lives and acts of these terrorists through a gendered lens that was very often inaccurate and misleading. This placed the contemporaneous German feminist movement in the delicate position of trying to respond to the misrepresentation of female RAF members while distancing itself from their terrorist acts.

Juxtaposing feminism and violence in the Red Army Faction offers valuable insights on the nature of the modern women’s movement. I spoke to Patricia Melzer on April 4, 2016.

—Fred Rowland

 

Dissent in America: A faculty-librarian collaboration

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The early 2000s was an eventful period: a popping Internet bubble deflating the economy; the controversial presidential election hanging on chads in Florida and determined by Supreme Court justices long committed – at least rhetorically – to judicial restraint; the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington; and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Polarized politics, contested economics, and lots of bombs dropping in faraway places.

In these anxious times Professor Ralph Young created the Dissent in America course and students eagerly signed up. Young found students enthusiastic to learn about the history of dissenting voices and ideas in American history. Students were introduced to distant voices and gained insight on how the United States had come to its present circumstances. As an outgrowth of the course, Young started the Dissent in America Teach-Ins (see YouTube Video) on Friday afternoons which are open to anyone. Both the course and the teach-ins continue to this day.

After Dissent in America became a General Education course, Young worked with librarian David Murray to add a formal information literacy component. Murray, an experienced instruction librarian, worked with Young for ten years before departing for the College of New Jersey in the summer of 2015. Young published two books as a result of his work on dissent: Dissent in America: The voices that shaped a nation and Dissent: The history of an American idea.

On December 2, 2015 I spoke to Ralph Young and David Murray on Dissent in America and their work together.

—Fred Rowland

 

 

Bollywood’s India: A Public Fantasy

Priya-Joshi

 

During the 1950s the young Indian nation faced immense challenges but was, as Professor Priya Joshi explains in this interview, still innocent and optimistic. By the 1970s the bloom of youth had faded as Indians suffered under widespread political and economic corruption and malaise, most visible in the 22 months’ “Emergency” which gave Prime Minister Indira Gandhi the power to limit democratic governance and civil liberties. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, India charted a new course of economic liberalization that led to dynamic growth and increased engagement with the rest of the world.

In Bollywood’s India: A Public Fantasy (Columbia University Press, 2015), Priya Joshi chooses these three historical periods – the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s – to illustrate how, in critiquing the state, Bollywood blockbuster films have performed a kind of “social work” for the Indian nation. Popular throughout India and globally, Bollywood films feature a rich mixture of romance, comedy, melodrama, social themes, and exuberant singing and dancing. Professor Joshi focuses her analysis on the serious social commentary flowing through these films, such as Awara (The vagabond, Raj Kapoor, 1951), Sholay (Embers, Ramesh Sippy, 1975), and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun? (Who am I to you?, Sooraj Barjatya, 1994). She looks at the themes of crime and punishment in the 1950s, the family and romance in the 1970s, and the emergence of “Bollylite” in the 1990s. Throughout this entire period, however, Joshi’s Bollywood turns a sharp edge to the Indian state in the secure and safe fantasy world of the cinema.

I spoke to Priya Joshi on September 16, 2015, about her new book Bollywood’s India: A Public Fantasy.

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—Fred Rowland

What is fundamentalism?

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David Watt

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Khalid Blankinship

 

…..the New Oxford American Dictionary (3rd edition) gives the following definition of fundamentalism…..

fundamentalism /ˌfəndəˈmen(t)lˌizəm/

▶ noun

a form of a religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture.

  • strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline: free-market fundamentalism.

 

…..and the Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (2003) gives this definition…..

Fundamentalism. 

In general, a description of those who return to what they believe to be the fundamental truths and practices of a religion. It can thus be applied to this attitude in all religions (e.g. the resurgence of conservative Islam is sometimes called ‘Islamic fundamentalism’). But this use is often resented by such people, because of its more usual identification with those, in Christianity, who defend the Bible against charges that it contains any kind of error. More specifically, it denotes the view of Protestant Christians opposed to the historical and theological implications of critical study of the Bible.

To avoid overtones of closed-mindedness, Christians in the Fundamentalist tradition often prefer to be called Conservative Evangelicals.

The word (Arab. equivalents are salafiyya and uṣūliyya) is used of Muslims, when it refers to those who assert the literal truth of the Qurʾān and the validity of its legal and ritual commandments for modern people.

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I’m guessing that my two guests, Temple University professors David Watt (History) and Khalid Blankinship (Religion) would have some problems with each of these definitions. I invited them to my office to speak about Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History (University of South Carolina Press, 2014, Print / Online) on March 6, 2015. This anthology, edited by David Watt and Simon A. Wood, presents multiple scholarly perspectives on the history, concept, and use of the term “fundamentalism” in the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. David Watt is a specialist on Protestant Christianity and Khalid Blankinship on Islam.

For anyone who pays attention to the news, it’s difficult to make it through the day without hearing the word fundamentalism thrown around in many different ways and in many different contexts. Among scholars, some believe that this term captures a set of features and characteristics that generally hold across religious boundaries, while others assert that its use obscures diversity and collapses differences. While Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History contains perspectives from each side of this debate, my two guests belong to the latter group. Both have contributed chapters to the present volume.

This interview will provide listeners with a deeper appreciation of the diversity of beliefs and practices that lies behind the term fundamentalism. An understanding of its origin, transformation, and use will prompt consumers of the news to listen more closely, read more carefully, and ask better questions.

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—Fred Rowland