Thursday, 11 October 2012

Product of his environment...

J. William Fulbright was many great things--Rhodes Scholar, University of Arkansas President, Congressman for three decades, inspiring orator, author of insightful political books--but he was also a racist.  He objected to integrating Arkansas schools, a position he later said was in line with the wishes of his constituents.  President Johnson claimed that Fulbright's opposition to the Vietnam War was because 'he didn't think the yellow man cared about freedom as much as the white man' did.  There are other little anecdotes, but at the end of the day, Fulbright was a paradox of a man, supporting international goodwill and culture learning abroad but still holding onto his segregationist Jim Crow way of thinking at home.

This morning I noticed a story about another racist remark coming from Arkansas (
Jon Hubbard, a state representative, was quoted as saying that African-Americans were better off living in the U.S. than they would have been in Africa, had slavery never happened.

“Slavery was cruel, but as a result of slavery, we have African-Americans living in this country today who are living here in situations that are probably much better to endure than if they were living in Sub-Saharan Africa. If you had the choice knowing the lifestyle of people living in Africa and knowing the lifestyle of people living in the United States, which would you choose? Pure and simple.” (quoted in article above)

As the article summarises it, Hubbard's position seems to be that slavery was a 'blessing in disguise' (a phrase he actually used in his 2010 book, apparently).  We shouldn't even give his remarks the dignity of engaging with them--I'll leave it there and move on with my main point.

Throughout the PhD research experience, I've been grappling with what to say about Senator Fulbright.  On the one hand, my research is all about his most enduring legacy--the best part of him, the internationalist dove and academic.  On the other hand, it's not very responsible to focus on the good and ignore any bad qualities the man had.  He was human, after all.  I considered shifting away from him, making my research project more about the exchange program and less about the man.  In practice, that left my work looking incomplete--I just can't ignore the man when discussing his namesake.

People often excuse the racist remarks of older generations by saying that they were products of their environment.  "Things were different back then..." we're told.  To some extent, I can agree with that--my grandparents said cringe-worthy things, too.  But then I read about people like Jon Hubbard, a man who actually got elected to public office by Arkansans, saying something so unbelievably offensive...There are other offensive Arkansan politicians making headlines, too, like Charlie Fuqua who supports using the death penalty against rebellious children and thinks that Muslims should be deported (not sure where he thinks American Muslims should be sent, but I honestly can't be bothered to spend too much time thinking about this ridiculous man's views).

I'm concerned that the 'environment' that shaped Fulbright's racist views wasn't the time period, but the state of Arkansas (and the region in general).  These may be isolated incidents, and I'm not saying that Arkansans are racist (I was born there, too, after all) but it just seems like you never hear about a representative from Rhode Island saying anything offensive about African-Americans.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Finding what you need, but not what you want...

For ages, I'd been looking for the records of the Fulbright Program in the 1970's.  It seemed like it was a lost decade--the National Archives had plenty of 40's-60's material, and seemed to pick it up again in the 80's and 90's, and I'd found quite a bit of post-2000 records elsewhere.  At the National Archives, when I found folders with 70's dates on them, I was disappointed to see that they were just notes--just correspondence about the Annual Report, for instance, but without actually including a copy of the Annual Report.  It was so frustrating.
At the Munich conference, another American PhD student had asked if I'd been to the archives at University of Arkansas.  I didn't know anything about them--I just knew about the Fulbright Papers Special Collection, and assumed the University's archives would be more useful for a biography of the Senator himself.  I didn't really think anything of it until I was talking about the missing 1970's reports with Richard yesterday.  Sure enough, they're at the University of Arkansas--it turns out the other student was asking about the CU special collection. It was transferred there in 1983, so it has all of these 1970's records, reports, etc. that I've been needing.  I'm kicking myself now, but I suppose I hadn't really had a chance to make a trip out there before now anyway.

While I'm absolutely thrilled to find this collection, I'm struggling with the idea of going to Arkansas.  I've joked with my supervisor about not wanting to go to Arkansas, but there are some very serious reasons behind my wish to avoid the place.  The University is in Fayetteville, spitting distance from my birthplace, and it's the town where my family used to go to Wal-Mart (store number 3!).  I don't remember living in that part of the country--we moved to Missouri when I was 2, and after we moved to Washington state when I was 6, I never went back to the area.  It's my dad's home--it's where he was born and raised and still lives today.  We haven't made much of an effort to keep up with each other, and I can't imagine going to see him--I haven't seen him since I was 5, so it would be like meeting a stranger.  But while I can't imagine seeing him, wouldn't it be weird to be in the area, doing my PhD research, and not going to see him?  It's a deeply personal issue.

When I picked this topic, it seemed like a welcome change from my BA and MA theses on the relationship between terrorism and politics and the media.  Student exchanges were happy, positive experiences to read about, and I thought I would be interviewing people about their brilliant, life-changing time abroad.  When my project turned towards archives, I was fine with that, too--my family lives near the National Archives, perfect!  I combined a research trip with a visit for my nephew's birthday--what a great project!  But now research is leading me to confront my fears and my suppressed feelings, to visit the place I always joke about, always reject.  It says I was born in Arkansas on my passport, but that's about the extent of my relationship with the place.  When I was talking it over with Richard last night, though, I realised how cool it is that I'd be returning in this way--as a PhD researcher visiting from a UK university.  Nobody saw that coming.

It's very complicated.  I've got a couple of months to think about it, but it sounds like I'll be going in January.