Behind The Scenes

The 1970 Women’s March for Equality in NYC

To kick-off our celebration of Women’s Herstory Month, let’s travel back to the groovy days of 1970. Pervasive inequality pushed the Second-wave Feminist Movement forward into the next decade. Its Founding Mothers, including Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem established the National Organization for Women (NOW), a centralized force for change. NOW sponsored the Women’s Strike for Equality. On August 26, 1970, the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment passage (when women gained the right to vote), feminists and their allies in 40 American cities, as well as in France and the Netherlands, protested for gender equality. In New York City alone, 10,000 took to the streets to fight for their rights at home, in the classroom, and at the office. Radical feminists linked arms with “suffrage veterans” who had help secure voting rights for women five decades earlier. Check out images of the march from our Library’s archives!

New-York Historical Society’s dedication to American women’s history doesn’t end on March 31. Next year we will be opening our very own Center for the Study of Women’s History in the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, which will showcase rotating  exhibitions and re-imagined permanent installations dedicated to women’s history.

“Don’t iron while the strike is hot!” and “I am not a Barbie Doll!” were popular chants among the day’s marchers.

Eugene Gordon Photograph Collection, PR 248, New-York Historical Society

Eugene Gordon Photograph Collection, PR 248, New-York Historical Society

 

Question 7: “Have you ever resented it, even a little, that almost all the important political decisions are made by men?”  This broadside quiz publicizing the protest showed women New Yorkers that the fight for gender equality was far from finished. After the march, 80 percent of Americans were familiar with the Women’s Movement and its demands.

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Women’s Coalition Strike Headquarters broadside, SY1970 no.4, New-York Historical Society

 

The march reflected the diversity of the feminist movement. Participants demonstrated for gender equality, while garnering support for other causes: the anti-Vietnam War Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement were all represented.

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Eugene Gordon Photograph Collection, PR 248, New-York Historical Society

 

Eugene Gordon, 2005 & Miriam Gordon, 2008.

Eugene Gordon Photograph Collection, PR 248, New-York Historical Society

 

Eugene Gordon, 2005 & Miriam Gordon, 2008.

Eugene Gordon Photograph Collection, PR 248, New-York Historical Society

 

Eugene Gordon, 2005 & Miriam Gordon, 2008.

Eugene Gordon Photograph Collection, PR 248, New-York Historical Society

 

Eugene Gordon, 2005 & Miriam Gordon, 2008.

Eugene Gordon Photograph Collection, PR 248, New-York Historical Society

 

 

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Uptown, Audubon’s Birds Hit the Streets

Patron saint of the environmentalist movement and celebrated ornithologist, John James Audubon was the first to sound the alarm. He recognized in the early 1800s that many avian species and their habitats were threated. Almost 200 years later, many of the feathered subjects are endangered or extinct. To see 42 of his original breathtaking watercolors from The Birds of America, come check out Audubon’s Aviary: The Final Flight, opening today at the New-York Historical Society!

Inspired by John James Audubon’s vibrant avian watercolors, the National Audubon Society teamed up with New York street artists and the Gitler & _____ Gallery to bring you the Audubon Mural Project. The ambitious plan will transform blank brick walls and rolling steel security grates around Washington and Hamilton Heights into works of art, immortalizing 314 of Audubon’s treasured birds who’re currently climate-threatened. We recently sat down with Agatha Szczepaniak, Senior Media Relations Manager at the National Audubon Society to talk about the new flock uptown.

Our national symbol makes an appearance. Camilla Cerea/National Audubon Society

Our national symbol makes a colorful appearance. Camilla Cerea/National Audubon Society

Please explain the Audubon Mural Project.

The Audubon Mural Project is a public art initiative of the National Audubon Society, in partnership with the Harlem‐based Gitler &_____ Gallery. The project is inspired by the legacy of the great American bird artist and pioneering ornithologist John James  Audubon (a former neighborhood resident), and is energized by recently published findings from the National Audubon Society that nearly half of all North American bird species face dire threats to their survival by 2080 due to global warming. The project is commissioning artists to paint murals of each of the threatened birds—a total of 314 species—throughout Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights. It will beautify the neighborhood; create a powerful draw for tourists and residents from throughout the city; and be a fresh, surprising way to bring attention to a critically important environmental and conservation crisis.

Why was spray paint the chosen medium? 

Spray paint was the medium our select artists were comfortable using. The larger murals are painted with spray paint but the smaller installed works are painted with mixed media.

Mike Fernandez/ National Audubon Society

The Rusty Blackbird’s habitat is now threatened by climate change. Mike Fernandez/ National Audubon Society

How do you think John James Audubon would react to this project?

We think he would be happy as the whole goal of the project is to make more people, the general public, aware about the threats to birds… same purpose as J.J. Audubon’s paintings except that it’s just a modern way of doing so.

The murals are currently underway across Hamilton and Washington Heights—how has the community responded to the project so far?

Mostly curiously and positively. Most seem to appreciate this unique approach and creative way of reminding passerbys about nature, the effects of climate change on birds and what the National Audubon Society does. (But of course, there always some “jaded” New Yorkers who don’t even notice). We hope it inspires more people to help protect birds and engage in conservation action.

And be sure to watch this amazing time-lapse video of the Audubon street artists at work!


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A Look at Harlem’s History of Protest

In today’s installment of our Black History Month celebration, we’ll be exploring Harlem. The first wave of African Americans landed in Harlem after World War I, when hundreds of thousands left the Jim Crow South in search of safety and opportunity. In 1914, only 50,000 blacks lived in Harlem, but by 1930, almost 205,000 had moved to the Big Apple, the majority settling north of Central Park.

Their arrival sparked an artistic movement that we now call the Harlem Renaissance. Poets, musicians, writers, and artists joined forces to create a rich oeuvre reflecting the diverse African American experience. And, for the first time, American society at-large took note, tuning in to black culture. Greats like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, and Zora Neale Hurston merged prose, poetry, and politics. “Democracy will not come/Today, this year/Nor ever/Through compromise and fear… I do not need my freedom when I’m dead./I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread,” penned Hughes. The renaissance was cut short by the onset of the Great Depression.

 

Portrait of Langston Hughes, 1960. PR276 Bernard Gotfryd Photograph Collection

Langston Hughes merged music and verse to create a new literary genre: jazz poetry. Portrait of Langston Hughes, 1960. PR276 Bernard Gotfryd Photograph Collection

 

But the trying 1930s didn’t squelch growing action against pervasive inequality. And the outbreak of World War II illuminated unresolved racial conflict dating from the Civil War. While President Franklin D. Roosevelt emphasized that the boys overseas were fighting for democracy (more than 1.2 million African American men were in uniform), segregated lunch counters, schools, buses, and military units underlined this hypocrisy. In Harlem, and across the country, African Americans organized and the Civil Rights Movement was born. The neighborhood’s cultural centers—churches, music venues, homes, and restaurants—became political hotspots.

 

One of Harlem’s greatest institutions, the Apollo Theater, was originally an all-white venue. However, during the 1930s, after New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia campaigned to end the city’s burlesque shows, the theater rebranded to attract the neighborhood’s growing population of African Americans. Andreas Feininger Photograph Collection, PR 207, New-York Historical Society, Gift of the photographer. © Andreas Feininger/Bonni Benrubi Gallery.

Early in the 20th century, many of Harlem’s theaters and shops including the Apollo Theater were all-white venues. However, during the 1930s, after New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia campaigned to end the city’s burlesque shows, the Apollo Theater rebranded to attract the neighborhood’s growing  African American population. Andreas Feininger Photograph Collection, PR 207, New-York Historical Society, Gift of the photographer. © Andreas Feininger/Bonni Benrubi Gallery.

 

A 1935 playbill from the Cotton Club, another Harlem late-night spot, frequented by Harlem’s African Americans.

A 1935 playbill from the Cotton Club, another Harlem late-night spot, frequented by African Americans. Bella C. Landauer Collection of Business and Advertising Ephemera, PR 031, New-York Historical Society

 

Underground music and dance venues merged entertainment and politics. Among the performers was Billie Holiday,  whose repertoire included the powerful protest song “Strange Fruit,” which boldly juxtaposed the beauty of magnolia trees against the ugliness of lynching.

Underground music and dance venues joined entertainment and politics. Among the performers was Billie Holiday, whose repertoire included the powerful protest song “Strange Fruit,” which boldly juxtaposed the beauty of magnolias against the ugliness of lynching. Andreas Feininger Photograph Collection, PR 207, New-York Historical Society, Gift of the photographer. © Andreas Feininger/Bonni Benrubi Gallery.

 

Racial unrest reached a crescendo in Harlem on the summer night of July 16, 1964, when a white New York Police Lieutenant shot and killed James Powell, a 15-year-old unarmed African American. The policeman claimed Powell lunged at him with a knife; a handful of witnesses disagreed. Regardless, a grand jury failed to indict. Powell’s death sparked a six-day race riot during which thousands took to the streets in protest. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Harlem continued to be an organizing hub for racial equality. While some followed the non-violent movement of Martin Luther King, Jr., others championed radical means to achieve justice. Black nationalists like the Black Panther Party and racial separatists including Malcolm X garnered support.

 

Sometimes the Panthers served their radical politics with a side of eggs and bacon. They encouraged Harlemites to join their cause by instituting a free breakfast program for youths in need.

Sometimes the Panthers served their radical politics with a side of eggs and bacon. They encouraged Harlemites to join their cause by instituting a free breakfast program for youths in need. Photograph by Ken Regan. Michael Sonnenfeldt Collection of Theatre, Film, and Entertainment Photography, PR 305, Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections, New-York Historical Society, ©Ken Regan/Camera 5.

 

The Black Panther Party was started in Oakland, California, in 1966, and soon spread across the U.S. to cities including New York.

The Black Panther Party was started in Oakland, California, in 1966, and soon spread across the U.S. to cities including New York. Photograph by Ken Regan. Michael Sonnenfeldt Collection of Theatre, Film, and Entertainment Photography, PR 305, Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections, New-York Historical Society, ©Ken Regan/Camera 5.

 

Do you see the similarities between the New York of past decades and today? What do you think has changed? If you want to learn more about Harlem through the ages, be sure to check out our online exhibition showcasing a vibrant collection of Camilo Vergara’s photographs of the neighborhood spanning four decades. Also, don’t miss out on the upcoming book club meeting when New York Times best-selling author Rita Williams-Garcia will discuss her highly acclaimed children’s book, One Crazy Summer, and remember to see our on-going exhibition on the Civil Rights Movement, Freedom Journey 1965.


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Remembering Keith Haring 25 Years Later

Monday, February 16, marked the 25th anniversary of Keith Haring’s death. To celebrate his life, Haring’s former studio manager and personal friend, Julia Gruen (who in 1989 Haring named Executive Director of the Keith Haring Foundation)offered us her thoughts on Haring’s lasting influence on the art world and popular culture. Today, his works live on as one of the most recognized visual languages of the 20th century. As you enter the New-York Historical Society, be sure to check out Haring’s black-and-white abstract ceiling mural from the Pop Shop hanging above the admissions desk.

“Regarding Haring’s continued popularity, I’d say it’s a result of his Foundation’s commitment to keeping his work, his activist ethos, sexual politics, and philanthropy in the public eye, via museum exhibitions, significant grant-making within the sectors established by Haring himself, and the global licensing of his imagery, which together continue to engage, educate,  and inspire the younger generation.

Keith Haring in thePop Shop. Photo by Charles Dolfi-Michels

Keith Haring in the Pop Shop. Photo by Charles Dolfi-Michels

That Haring’s sexual identity, imagery, activism and charitable efforts have always been part and parcel of his public profile go without saying.  But in the 25 years since his passing, the advent of the internet and social media have changed the world in ways even Haring himself could not have anticipated. The explosion of interest in both contemporary and street art, the changing face of the AIDS epidemic, marriage equality, LGBTQ rights, gender politics, racial tensions, climate change, environmental concerns, animal rights, poverty and inequality, to name but a few hot-button issues, keep relevant the Haring Foundation’s mission to deliver Haring’s messages of tolerance, generosity, accessibility and his unwavering belief in the artist as activist, to a global audience. For those who are intrigued by his art, the causes he believed in and supported (or fought against), the ability to reach this massive audience further cements Haring’s legacy as one of the most influential artists to emerge from the 1980s downtown communities of visual artists, musicians, designers, dancers and performers of all stripes.

Twenty-five years after his death at 31 from AIDS-related illnesses, the issues that plagued the world during his brief lifetime are, for the most part, and regrettably so, still with us.  Thus, his work remains of continued relevance and (we hope) continues to enlighten all audiences. And for the younger generations, it doesn’t hurt that certain contemporary public figures and celebrities collect his work, or are seen in films, or on video and TV wearing apparel bearing his imagery – including Madonna, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Kanye West, and Beyoncé, to name just a few.

While always a bit startling, individuals often send messages and inquiries to us that open with, ‘Dear Mr. Haring…’ On innumerable occasions, our Twitter feed includes posts commenting, ‘I didn’t know Keith Haring was dead.’ Perhaps that is the greatest compliment of all.”

 


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Meet Our Resident Lion Dancer: Zhi hen Li

By day, Zhi hen Li is an Accountant here at the New-York Historical Society. But, by night, he’s a lion dancer. The Lion Dance is a Chinese tradition and a vital component of Chinese New Year celebrations. As a lion dancer, Zhi wears intricate and colorful lion costumes and mimic the majestic cat in movement. On February 16, Zhi will be performing two Lion Dances with the Chinatown Community Young Lions here at the New-York Historical Society at noon. The event is free with Museum admission, so come check it out!

Zhi in action.

Zhi in action.

“Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by the Chinese Lunar New Year’s Parade,” said Zhi. He was born and raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where the parade is an annual neighborhood tradition. Although he “desperately wanted to learn Lion Dance,” most community groups didn’t accept American-born Chinese like himself. It wasn’t until 2002, when Zhi was in high school that he joined the Chinatown Community Young Lions.

“Chinese New Year 2003 was my first celebration with the club, so naturally I was ecstatic. After months of practice, I was finally allowed to play the lion head. I was immediately taken by the role. I considered endless combinations of head, mouth, ear and eye movements and contemplated how I could stitch them together to make the lion come alive.” Zhi explained.

Getting in costume.

Zhi getting in costume.

The Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations in New York City usually include two Lion Dances: on Chinese New Year’s Day and the following Saturday. Zhi was selected for the honor of opening the first procession and closing the second. “This was thrilling because I got to put my own touch on the performance. I gave it my all—using all the moves I’d learned over the last year in practice. The parades themselves were physically exhausting. I danced around nonstop—hustling from store to store, blessing each as we passed.

After 12 years, Zhi is still a proud member of the club. Today, his role has evolved: the student has become the teacher. “I now teach new members of my distinct style of Lion Dance. It’s time for the next generation to take on and continue this tradition.”


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Stephen Somerstein on the Road to Montgomery

This year, we’ll be celebrating Black History Month with highlights from our photography and art collections. To kick-off this series, let’s take a look at our own on-going exhibition, Freedom Journey 1965, which features New Yorker Stephen Somerstein’s moving photographs of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March. The protest marked a watershed moment in civil rights history; it led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act just months later. During the five-day, 54-mile protest, 25,000 brave individuals risked their lives to participate in the march.

At the time, Somerstein was a 24-year-old Physics major and Photo Editor of the City College newspaper. As events unfolded, Somerstein dropped everything and arrived in Alabama on the last day of the demonstration. His images capture an often untold side of the Civil Rights Movement: the range of profound human emotions experienced by demonstrators and on-lookers, opponents and leaders alike. Alongside the photos below, the photographer describes the scene in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 25, 1965.

Stephen Somerstein, young civil rights marchers with American flags march in Montgomery, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer.

“This was an historic occasion. A civil rights march unlike any other march before or since. A mass gathering from across the country to march for voting rights for the disenfranchised. Once word had gone out from Dr. King for people to join the march I had less than a day to prepare my camera equipment, film and gear and join the buses heading for Alabama.”

 

 

Stephen Somerstein, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Looks out at crowd in Montgomery, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

Stephen Somerstein, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Looks out at crowd in Montgomery, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

“During Dr. King’s speech I had been photographing him from various angles from the Press area in front of the speaker’s platform. Yet I was unsatisfied with not being able to gather together in one photograph the powerful persona of Dr. King and his effect on the 25,000 people raptly listening to his words. Turning around and looking at the sea of onlookers, I could see that he had captured them in that moment. I realized that only a view from his perspective on the platform would give me an image that would combine the two concepts.”

 

 

Stephen Somerstein, hecklers yelling and gesturing at marchers, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

Stephen Somerstein, hecklers yelling and gesturing at marchers, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

“For most of the march, the on-lookers showed emotional restraint. But in the city, a few rowdy young white hecklers showed their disdain for the marchers and played to the camera with catcalls and obscene gestures.”

 

 

SOMERSTEIN_GIRLS - Selma to Montgomery, Alabama Civil Rights March, March 25, 1965:  Two negro women seated on porch with children drinking from milk bottles, one seated young girl, watching marchers.

Stephen Somerstein, two mothers with children watching marchers, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

“I saw this scene with mothers and their children at a distance, but did not move in closer. I took the photograph with my 135 mm telephone lens so as to not disturb the arrangement or make them aware of the camera. After taking the photo, I thought for a moment that I’d hoped that the babies would grow up into a world far more open and receptive to them than the one that existed at that moment.”

 

 

Stephen Somerstein, man with American flag and marchers walking past federal troops guarding crossroads, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

Stephen Somerstein, man with American flag and marchers walking past federal troops guarding crossroads, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

“Several thousand U.S. Army troops were arrayed in a movable protective phalanx, tracking and moving parallel to the long line of marchers along Route 80, the road to the state capital in Montgomery, Alabama. At one of the road intersections, where the army had set up their jeeps to block cross traffic, I found a slight rise to position myself to sight down on the military, the shoulders of the onlookers, and the flag-bearing marchers.”

 


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The Men Who Lost America

British-born Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, Professor of History at the University of Virginia, and 2014 recipient of the New-York Historical American History Book Prize Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy fearlessly tackles centuries-old stereotypes surrounding the American Revolution in his upcoming talk at the New-York Historical Society on February 21.

In your most recent book, The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, you tackle the British perspective in the American Revolution. How did this alternative point of view first grab your attention?

It’s something I’ve long been aware of. My father taught at Columbia, so I visited New York from a young age. Sightseeing in the city as a child first stimulated my interest in U.S. history. But it was really when I began studying the Caribbean during the American Revolution—both as an undergraduate and for my doctorate—that I was tuned into the little-known international dimensions of the war.

Yale University Press

Yale University Press

In your comprehensive study of the American Revolution, what has surprised you the most about the war?

I originally intended to argue that the major factor in the British defeat had been that they were engaged in this global war that over-stretched their resources. Even before the French formally entered the war, the British were stretched throughout the world in expectation of war. But I think the importance of public opinion became more and more apparent. In fact, there was a British general who even used the phrase, ‘hearts and minds.’ He said the British needed to ‘win the hearts and subdue the minds of America.’ The British had an army of conquest, not an army of occupation. They occupied every American city at some point during the war but were never able to conquer territories. Probably the greatest example is in the South, where the British largely defeated the Continental Army. In 1780, they took Charleston, which was the largest city in the South. Two weeks later, General Cornwallis defeated the victor of Saratoga, Horatio Gates at the Battle of Camden. The British had really captured or killed most of the Continental Army. Yet, they then faced—what we would call today—insurgences fought by people who have become modern-day folk heroes like Frances Marion, the ‘Swamp Fox,’ and Thomas Sumter, the ‘Gamecock.’ There were so many more of these people, many whose names are no longer so familiar. Partisan bands were very effective in disrupting British supply lines. In the end, my argument focuses on public opinion and the failure of the British to win American support. Part of their dilemma was that the very presence of their army in America alienated Americans because the two sides increasingly thought of each other as foreign.

How do the British and American accounts of the American Revolution differ?

They surprisingly differ very little. The reason for this is the government which waged the war, and the war itself was discredited in England. The opponents of the government eventually came to power and they became the heroes of the story. Whig history, or the history of progress, became the dominant pedagogy in the 19th century and so anyone opposed to this movement toward democracy, including King George III and his administration, were demonized. To some extent, we’ll never dispense of this mode of thinking. I realized when I wrote the book that the values of the British leaders are not ones we would identify with by any means, but there’s very little difference between the versions on either side of the Atlantic.

How does your text combat popular misconceptions surrounding the American Revolution?

I argue that these misconceptions are deeply woven into the American popular psyche. I often use movie clips to illustrate how we have caricatured the British leadership as aristocratic buffoons. You get it both in popular history and across academia. Even in scholarly texts, you’ll find words like ‘hidebound’ and ‘incompetent’ to describe the British politicians and generals. However, nobody is losing sleep in Britain about how these men are caricatured—nor am I.  I only use them to argue that this phenomenon is a distraction. I wrote this book to emphasize the real lessons of this war and illuminate the British leadership’s policymaking and the central role of popular opinion. I use the multi-biographical approach to dramatize these themes. By looking at the ten key decision-makers—both political and military—it’s possible to make clear the difficulties they were up against and the extent to which the conditions almost guaranteed their failure.

Do you think there was a moment when historians began attributing Britain’s defeat to its leaders’ arrogance? Was this a conscious effort?

This started very early. It was as strong among the British as it was among the Americans. Part of the problem was that commanders and politicians blamed one another. It is very popular when things go wrong to hold individuals responsible. And they were caricatured brilliantly at the time in cartoons, poetry, and the newspapers. They had some of the most brilliant opposition speakers against them like Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox. Obviously, there are a lot of decisions that, with the value of hindsight, the British would have reversed. But I argue that their decisions were often based on the limited information they had available at the time. They were defensible decisions. Not always the best decisions, but defensible.

It is also true that for national histories there’s always going to be a certain, narrow perspective, looking from the view of the nation. There’s also the difficulty of the revolution itself. It is so much part of the American identity that it’s very difficult to overcome the myths, which are an important bond in the country, and to look at the revolution from an analytical perspective.

What do you hope the public takes away from your upcoming talk?

It will help people make sense of the American Revolution and give them a real insight into why the British lost. Including more detail and exploring the British leadership will contribute to a much better understanding of the war. We have a lot of studies of the Confederates during the Civil War. So it’s surprising that there’s not more literature on the British side of the American Revolution. After all, it was their policies that provoked the war and their strategic initiatives that decided where it was fought. So it’s very important to understand the British perspective in order of fully comprehend the American Revolution.


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The Celestials: An Interview with Author Karen Shepard

A factory owner’s wife ignites a scandalous love affair with a Chinese worker in Karen Shepard’s newest novel, The Celestials. A bi-racial love child follows. In conjunction with the New-York Historical Society’s ongoing exhibition Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion, we sat down with Chinese-American author Karen Shepard who teaches writing and literature at Williams College to discuss her work of historical fiction, her source of inspiration, and the lives of her characters. She sets the scene for her oeuvre in a 19th-century Massachusetts industrial city amid a divisive union labor strike. Scores of Chinese strikebreakers arrive to fill the emptied assembly line at a local shoe manufacturer. But their entrance does more than maintaining the status quo.

Jake Lee, Laborers Working on Central Pacific Railroad, ca. 1950s. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy of Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA). © Chinese Historical Society of America.

During the 19th century, Chinese immigrants became a crucial source of labor on both American coasts. This watercolor is featured in our ongoing exhibition on the subject, Chinese-American: Exclusion/InclusionJake Lee, Laborers Working on Central Pacific Railroad, ca. 1950s. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy of Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA). © Chinese Historical Society of America.

Who are the Celestials? How can a contemporary audience relate to your 19th-century characters?

The Chinese in America in the 19th century were often referred to as Celestials. One of the translations of the word for “China” was “The Celestial Empire,” thus, “the Celestials,” but there was also the sense that these people were so foreign, so alien, it was as if they were literally other-worldly.  I was interested in how a word like that lumps a whole bunch of individuals together in a way that prevents them from being distinct, that allows their “viewers” to see them as one mass of something very, very different from anything we may have felt comfortable with.

Yes, the book is set in the 19th century, but the emotional desires and needs of any of us flawed humans don’t change all that much, I think. And, more specifically, I was struck, when working on the book, how many of the issues that were relevant then are relevant now: immigration, labor, interracial relations, etc.

Barry Goldstein

A photograph of the author by Barry Goldstein

Where did you first get the idea for this book?

I knew a little about the Chinese living as strikebreakers in North Adams, Massachusetts, but I didn’t know details until I went to a lecture by Anthony W. Lee, an art historian at Mt. Holyoke, who has a non-fiction book on the photograph of the workers that was taken when they first arrived in North Adams.  I didn’t go with the idea of writing a novel in mind, as evidenced by the fact that I didn’t have anything to take notes with in my bag. Lee showed slides of the photographs that the workers took of themselves, and they were really intriguing to me—a window into what these workers wanted, how they wanted to appear to the world, and to themselves. I came home from the lecture and did a couple of years of reading before admitting to myself that I wanted to write a novel based on the event.

The Celestials is a work of historical fiction, so where does the history end and the fiction begin? How do you straddle these two worlds in your text?

For me—and this might be different from project to project—I had to read enough of the history, the facts— to feel confident about making stuff up. I had to feel that I knew how people heated their homes, what time they went to church, what they ate for supper— so that I could imagine their interior emotional lives, and so that I could imagine exterior events that may not have happened, but could have happened. I think of the novel as an alternate universe, an alternate story of the factual event.

Do the struggles immigrants face today differ from those of the Celestials?

I would imagine the answer to this is yes and no. But I would also imagine that today’s immigrants are struggling with many of the same questions that Charlie Sing and the other workers were struggling with when they arrived in North Adams all those years ago: who will I be here in this new and alien place? How will I reinvent myself? What will that reinvention cost me? As many writers have said before me, fiction writers are interested in what their characters want and what they’re willing to do to get it—character and plot.


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“How Long, Not Long:” Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Today the New-York Historical Society’s newest exhibit, Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein opens to the public just in time for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Monday, January 19. This exhibition features 46 stunning black and white and color photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March. In 1965, the photographer was a Physics major at City College who, on a whim, headed south to cover the protest for his school’s newspaper. But his images go beyond a comprehensive chronology of the march; they capture its soul, highlighting the people behind it.

Stephen Somerstein, young civil rights marchers with American flags march in Montgomery, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer.

Stephen Somerstein, young civil rights marchers with American flags march in Montgomery, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer.

During the five-day, 54-mile demonstration, tens of thousands of Americans risked their lives to fight for their right to vote. They remained peaceful in the face of horrific violence—residents, as well as local and state police turned out in droves to physically stop protesters. Somerstein arrived on the last day of the five-day demonstration: March 25, 1965, to capture King’s famous speech on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol Building at Montgomery, “How Long, Not Long.” The photographer gained access to King—hopping on stage to snap the iconic shot of a King’s blurred silhouette before a sea of protesters listening intently to his words.

Somerstein photographing King from the CBS News Archives.

Somerstein photographing King from the CBS News Archives

In recent months, the image has even inspired the movie poster for Selma, a historical drama about the civil rights march.

Stephen Somerstein, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Looks out at crowd in Montgomery, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

Stephen Somerstein, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Looks out at crowd in Montgomery, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

The film’s poster similarly features King’s back, but the demonstrators in the foreground have been replaced by the march’s opposition: an all-white police force. While the movie focuses on the leader behind the protest, Somerstein’s images emphasize the people driving it. “Somerstein turned on his camera not only to the people marching but also to the people sitting quietly on the side of the road or on their porches watching history being made,” explained the exhibit’s curator Marilyn Kushner. So how are you celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? Come check out the people behind the protest in Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein.


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New Year’s Day Isn’t January 1st for Everyone: Celebrating Chinese New Year

This post was written by Chennie Huang

Traditionally, Chinese New Year (known as “Lunar New Year” in other Asian countries) is celebrated during the second new moon after the winter solstice.  This year Chinese New Year is on February 19, beginning the Year of the Sheep. Going by the lunar calendar, each month begins on the darkest day, and New Year starts on the first day of the month lasting until the 15th when the moon is brightest. According to a legend, in ancient times Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Chinese New Year and named a year after each of the twelve animals that came.

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The Dragon’s Head, La Fiesta, Los Angeles, California, 1903. Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.

In the 1880s, a large community of Chinese residents in prosperous Marysville, California acquired an expensive, ceremonial dragon from China. The majestic “Moo Lung” (meaning dancing dragon) graced holiday festivities and civic parades in Marysville and other cities across the nation. Housed at the Bok Kai Temple, a historic Taoist temple in Marysville, the New-York Historical Society arranged for this magnificent piece to be restored. As part of the current exhibition, Chinese American: Exclusion / Inclusion (on view untilApril 19, 2015), visitors have the rare chance to get a close glimpse of this precious work of art and piece of  Chinese American history.

Early Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States during the 19th century, many without their families. For the New Year, they found community and solace through neighborhood associations instead. For years, Chinese American communities across the nation put on parades, often including a dragon dance. The dragon is animated by a team of dancers who mimic the movements of the dragon’s sinuous and undulating manner. The appearance of a dragon is both frightening and bold, but it is said to have a benevolent disposition. A Chinese New Year Parade takes place annually in New York’s Chinatowns. The festivities involve huge street parties, tantalizing treats, and performances for people of all ages to welcome the new year.

But you can certainly celebrate Chinese American culture any time of year. On January 10 at 7pm, join us here at the New-York Historical Society for “From China to America,” a musical journey with renowned composer/conductor Tan Dun and guests.


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