A Renegade History of the United States
Free Press, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2010
In this insightful book, Thaddeus Russell takes a controversial look at the evolution of American freedoms that are often attributed solely to the Founding Fathers. He argues that many of these freedoms evolved from actions of the renegades of society, those who refused to follow the accepted social norms of established upper classes. Renegades include the gamblers and drunks, the prostitutes and gunslingers, slaves and freed blacks of the 19th century, immigrants from many countries, working class women and flappers of the 1920s, civil rights activists and black nationalists of the 1950s and 1960s, homosexuals and hippies of the 1960s and 1970s.
Each generation had those, for a variety of reasons, failed to happily endorse the Protestant work ethic encouraged by the conservative establishment. This has often focused on attitudes towards alcohol, various styles of music and dance, racial integration, sexual relations outside of marriage, organized crime, prostitution, smoking marijuana, and homosexuality.
Race Relations from Slavery to the Civil Rights Era
Two consecutive chapters, entitled “The Freedom of Slavery” and “The Slavery of Freedom,” focus on slavery and its aftermath. The author recounts that the Master, or Plantation Owner met most immediate needs of food, shelter, and health care. This changed overnight, when slaves were suddenly “free” to work much harder and longer than they had as slaves without any of the perceived guarantees of security they had taken for granted as slaves. The author relates race relations through Reconstruction into the early 20th Century, far too complex to relate in detail in this brief review.
Race relations and black society of the mid 20th century remained complex. From the 1930s to the 1950s, there were two immensely popular black ministers, James Francis Jones (Prophet Jones) and Charles Manuel Grace (Sweet Daddy Grace). With the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, these cult like figures who lived a life of excessive flamboyance supported by contributions from religious working class blacks, were criticized by other factions of black Americans society: the more conservative religious leaders including Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson, and black nationalists, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. These groups had conflicting views on integration vs. segregation and black nationalism, the decadent excesses of Sweet Daddy Grace and others of his kind, and violence vs. non-violence. The conflict between these factions is an era of our modern racial history that is not well known to many Americans.
Immigrants and Racial / Ethnic Relations
The author traces the history over several generations of different immigrants, particularly the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews. In all three cases, these immigrants suffered much discrimination, often living among blacks in the urban tenements of the Northern cities (and a few southern cities, such as New Orleans). This intermingling between new immigrants and blacks led to a fusion of their music, entertainment, and culture. This includes the “black face” white entertainment, usually with music and dance, quite common in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century Vaudeville.
Gradually, over about two generations, the Irish, Italians, and Jews moved into respectable niches of policemen, teachers, entertainment, and sports. They became “white enough” to move into “mainstream” American white society from which they had been shunned. For obvious reasons of skin color, this was not a true option for the blacks, largely descended from former slaves and visibly distinct from the European “white.”
Prostitution in the Wild West
Like slavery, the history of prostitution in the Wild West from after the Civil War into the early years of the 20th century is difficult to understand seen through modern eyes. Women composed a very small portion of the western population. Russell sees in the madams of the bordellos the origins of women’s liberation. In the various boomtowns of the west, the madam was sometimes the wealthiest member of the community. While providing a legal (or at least tolerated) service for the community, the Madam often assured her girls were well maintained, well dressed, and generally well fed and cared for when ill.
As anti-prostitution forces organized, in the early 20th century the bordellos were closed down, leaving these women to fend for themselves. Losing the security and safety of the organized house of prostitution, they were often forced into the streets, and into control of pimps and organized crime, and their life became much more difficult and dangerous.
World War II and Japanese Internment Camps
Despite the popular belief to the contrary, there were many who did not support the war effort during the 1940s, a war that had to be fought with a large contingent of draftees. There were many “illegal” strikes during the war supported by factions of the labor movement, who were often depicted as “unpatriotic.”
During World War II, there were indeed several thousand Japanese-Americans who were sympathetic to the cause of Japan. This in part led to the internment camps for Japanese Americans in remote areas of the west. Many of those detained were “patriotic” Americans of several generations. This event is a cautionary tale of what some fear could still happen today with “Arabs,” who are perceived by some as synonymous with “terrorists.”
Gay Liberation, Viet Nam and the Hippies
In more modern times, Russell discusses the events leading up to the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York, when police violently cracked down on homosexual nightclubs in New York. This was the beginning of the modern gay liberation movement. Four decades later, this debate has shifted to include issues of same sex marriage and custodial rights of children by gay couples, and the recently repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of the military.
The Viet Nam War led to social unrest of those opposed to the War. The peace movement and youth movement, personified by the “hippies” led to a small “back to the land movement.” Some hippies developed communes, often working much harder physically in achieving (or often failing to achieve) a more natural life-style.
Alcohol, Women’s Liberation, and the Working Man
Russell explores other issues as well. These include the history of alcohol in American society, the Temperance Movement and Prohibition, Organized Crime and gangster days in Chicago, the suffragists and more recent women’s liberation, and labor history.
The Cultural Wars Continue
Not surprisingly, the mingling of various nationalities, races, religions, and political and sexual persuasions has often been violent. We have a long history of posses, police officials, or corporate goons bashing or shooting protesters and renegades of various stripes. This is true of our labor history, mentioned only briefly in most high school history texts, and a topic that Russell covers only slightly. Many social issues have caused conflict and violence. The use of alcohol or marijuana, sexual freedom, and “provocative” music and dance have all been repressed by the establishment at times, perceived as dangerous and threatening to society. Many varieties of music and dance have been strongly criticized by the elders as “barbaric” or worse over the years, ranging from jazz to swing, rock and roll to hip hop to disco. It is the free spirit of these renegades that has produced “American standards” of jazz, improved legal rights for women and laborers, religious freedom, and greater social justice for blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other immigrants and minorities. If not for these renegades, we would live in a very bland society where everyone danced, lived, dressed, and acted, and thought alike.
The “cultural wars” and “family values” debates have a long history in this country. Debates over slavery and women’s rights were once argued with the greater passion (and violence) than we see today over same sex marriage and abortion. Any given era has its lightening rod issues, often with puritanical forces on one side wishing to impose their conservative religious / social views on the society as a whole. In opposition are the renegades who often choose to largely ignore social stigma and live their lives as they see fit.
Some may see this book as an overly romanticized view of various segments of our society that many would perhaps prefer to ignore. But I don’t think the author is trying to “glorify” slavery, or prostitution, or the days of bootleg liquor and “flappers”, or organized crime as the real founders of Las Vegas. He is trying to reveal a largely untold history of the renegades of society and how they have had an important influence in making our lives what they are today. Whether one agrees or not with Russell’s analysis, this fascinating book tells many stories of American history that were not taught in your high school history class. It importantly relates missing chapters of the evolution of American society, helping to more fully explain how America became a vibrant 21st century multi-racial, multi-religious, and multi-cultural society.
Originally published on www.celebrations360.com
The History of Flag Day
On June 14, 1861, Hartford, Connecticut was home to a special celebration honoring the flag. George Morris, of Hartford, is given credit for promoting the idea, commemorating the day in 1777 when the Second Continental Congress formally adopted the precursor of the United States flag we know today. This first flag birthday party was overshadowed by somber reality. Prayers of support were offered for those soon to fight in the still young Civil War. The idea of an annual Flag Day did not catch on at the time.