Connections Between Classes: A World History of Rubber

Another book I read in the class World History in the Year 1900 was A World History of Rubber: Empire, Industry, and the Everyday by Stephan L. Harp. It discussed the time period around the 1880s to the 1940s. I found this book interesting because it connected the struggles of people of color during the production of rubber in different parts of the world, from Sumatra, Indonesia to Akron, Ohio, through the study of a commodity. For example, it explains how plantation owners in Southeast Asia  would call the workers of color “boy,” similar to what African Americans were called in America, thus emphasizing a power dynamic based on age and also on lack of manliness. These hierarchies were emphasized by the belief in scientific racism, that some races were naturally better than others.

When discussing Akron, also known as the Rubber City, the book discusses many of the things we discussed in class, like how African Americans migrated to the North for work, and how these power dynamics were complicated because in the North there were other immigrants that also got a lower status when seeking jobs. African Americans faced discrimination, as they were prevented from building tires until after World War II, and instead often worked in the mill room which had toxic fumes. They were also the first to be laid off and last to be rehired, and their lower pay reflected their status. The cafeterias were segregated and the Goodyear company featured minstrel shows. I admit these last points shock me a little, I think because usually when learning history it is emphasized to just blame the south for racism, which is highly problematic. The other reason it shocks me is because I know several of my (white) ancestors lived in Akron at the time, so it becomes a bit more real and personal than when reading about other places.

Harp’s organization of the book, putting it in sections like “race” or “gender” and then talking about various places in the world, reminds me of W.E.B Du Bois’ ideas on race, as he often discussed it from a global perspective. I would recommend this book if someone was interested in seeing the world through a commodity and have it focus on the global interactions. However, I think the book could use more substance and examples. The book does mention Wooster once, which was fun to read.

Connections between Classes: King Leopold’s Ghost.

Currently I am in two history classes (three if you count art history), and one of them is about world history in the year 1900. One of my favorite books we’ve read was King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. The book follows the story of the Belgium King and American explorers conquering the Congo during the scramble for Africa, and how that event led to one of the first international human rights campaigns. The author, Adam Hochschild, had a journalism background and told the story in a very engaging narrative. However, one of the shortcomings of the book was the lack of speaking from an African perspective, which the author himself regrets not being able to do. Regardless, I thought I’d share two of the non-white voices he was able to talk about in detail, two African Americans visiting the Congo, George Washington Williams and William Sheppard.

George Washington Williams was born in Pennsylvania in 1849. He joined the army, fighting in the Civil War and other events. He went to college at Howard University, (which he usually referenced as sounding a bit like “Harvard”), and in a few short years he went from not being able to spell to “compose fluently in the rolling cadences of a 19th century pulpit.” He became a pastor, a journalist, a lawyer, politician, and historian, not staying in any profession for very long. He received praise from prominent people like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Dubois. After a series of other accomplishments, he decided to go to a Congo as a part of a program that recruited black Americans to work there. Getting there was not without trouble, but since he decided that’s what he wanted, he did so anyway, even when King Leopold himself (knowing the human rights violations happening) tried to keep him away. And, when he finally got there in 1890, he was “disenchanted, disappointed,

and disheartened” in his open letter to the King about the situation in the Congo. In fact, he said Leopold’s Congo state was guilty of “crimes against humanity,” a phrase 50 years ahead of its time and at least 10 years before the rest of the world was aware of what was happening in the Congo.

Another interesting figure, William Shepard, was born in Virginia in 1865. He was able to go to the Congo as a missionary and also with the help of white supremacist Alabama Senator John Tyler Morgan, who was hoping other African Americans would emigrate there. One of the main differences between Shepard and the other missionaries was that he treated the native population with more respect, like learning their language, even if he didn’t have a completely open mind with some of their religious practices, as he himself was an evangelical

christian. He truly enjoyed his experience in Africa, at least compared to many of the other missionaries. In 1892, Sheppard became the first foreigner to reach the town of Ifuca.

More information on both of these men and others can be found in King Leopold’s Ghost. 

Why Schools Fail To Teach Slavery’s ‘Hard History’

By Cory Turner

An article from NPR discusses American education and why it fails to teach slavery’s ‘hard history.’

“‘In the ways that we teach and learn about the history of American slavery,’ write the authors of a news report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), ‘the nation needs an intervention.'”

“The report lays out several key “problems” with the way slavery is often presented to students. Among them:

1. Textbooks and teachers tend to accentuate the positive
2. Slavery is often described as a Southern problem
3. Slavery depended on the ideology of white supremacy
4. Too often, ‘the varied, lived experience of enslaved people is neglected.'”

There is a quiz at the end that can test your knowledge of American slavery. The article discusses the results among high school seniors as “dismal,” as of the 1,000  seniors surveyed only 8% cited slavery as the reason the south seceded.

I thought I’d share this article because it highlights an issue with  American k-12 schools in how they teach history, and this may be the reason many of us are taking this class.