Why Black Panther is like Godzilla

Note: This blog post contains some spoilers of both Black Panther (2018) and Godzilla (1954).

I like superheroes. And, according to IMDB’s list of the top grossing movies of all time in the United States, I’m not alone. Of the top 20, six are superhero movies (and, for good measure, so are numbers 21 and 22, so eight of the top 22).

Amazingly, Black Panther is already number 16 on that list, having grossed around $430 million dollars to date. That is remarkable, considering the film only debuted two weeks ago! At this rate, it is probably on track to be the highest grossing film of all time.

Beyond its box office success, Black Panther has drawn accolades for being so, well, black. Superheroes have tended to be overwhelmingly white and male. For example, the number of white men in superhero movies played by actors with the first name “Chris” has drawn derision and scorn. (Buzzfeed even produced “A ranking of Every White Guy named Chris Who Stars in a Superhero Movie.”) Wonder Woman, #20 on the above list of box office grossings, has received similar praise for being so unabashedly about a woman and directed by a woman, things out of line with most superhero flicks. But, Black Panther has had its racial aspects even more highly discussed and lauded

One film critic (FilmCritHulk) has even claimed, “Black Panther unspools with a complexity I have not seen talked about with regards to race since [Spike Lee’s critically-lauded] Do The Right Thing.” The Hulk (the film critic one) even said the film is “in short, a miracle.” But, to me, the appropriate comparison to Black Panther is not Do The Right Thing, but, instead, Godzilla.

Stay with me here.

In 1954, the original Godzilla (Gojira, if you will) was a cinematic marvel ahead of its time. Yes, it appears cheesy today to see a man in a foam rubber suit destroy what is clearly a model of a city. But, at the time, it was a revelation. Beyond its theatric appeal for people who liked destruction, Godzilla had a deeper meaning. Bill Tsutsui well explains in his book, Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (2004).

In the original Godzilla, the big green lizard is originally awakened by U.S. nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean. As a postwar Japan struggled to find its identity and deal with the horrors of WWII, this mechanism made sense to Japanese moviegoers; the United States was bad, and its atomic bombs caused bad things to happen. But the film placed Japanese scientists as the direct antithesis to their U.S. counterparts.

In the film, Japanese scientists have also created an ultimate weapon: the oxygen destroyer. Combatting both a love triangle and the King of Monsters, a Japanese scientist ultimately uses the oxygen destroyer to kill Godzilla and then kills himself so that the knowledge of how to make such a horrible device would never fall into the wrong hands. You see, in this story, when the Japanese created a world-altering weapon, they only used it once in defense and then realized that it was too terrible ever to be used again. The scientist who killed himself thus protected the world in two ways.

The movie implicitly makes the comparison between the ethics of U.S. actions and the ethics of hypothetical Japanese actions. This message was scrubbed out of the U.S. release almost entirely, but it resonated a great deal with Japanese people at the time.

Fast forward to Black Panther. The film postulates that the most technologically advanced nation in the world (by a longshot) is Wakanda. To the outside world, Wakanda appears to be a poor herding nation that is not worth messing with at all. It is so poor that, in the European colonial landgrab of the 14th through 20th centuries, it was left entirely alone. Because of this, Wakanda was never colonized by a foreign power.

We know, of course, that the Wakandans never would have been able to be conquered due to the fictitious metal vibranium they mine, and also the power granted by the heart-shaped herb that helps create Wakanda’s protector, the Black Panther himself. These two facts make Wakanda incredibly powerful, more so than any other nation in the world by a significant margin. It is, in this way, that the comparison to Godzilla becomes clear.

A central component of Black Panther’s plot revolves around a leadership struggle in Wakanda and the fundamental question of what Wakanda’s role in the world should be. Two diametrically opposing viewpoints emerge: one states that Wakanda should hide itself from the world and only use its technology in defense, and the other states that Wakanda should use its technology to arm people of color all over the world so that they can become colonizers and take over other nations. (In one of the post-credit scenes a compromise is effectively reached where Wakanda does not take over the world but instead decides to share its technology for the good of everyone.)

Black Panther, therefore, presents essentially the same idea as Godzilla. It posits a tremendously powerful African nation saying, “when WE had the power to do horrible things like Euro-Americans did, WE instead decided not to do so.” Just as the Japanese did not unleash the oxygen destroyer on the United States, the Wakandans did not colonize the entire planet like Euro-Americans did. Both sides COULD have done so, but had more honor, integrity, and value for human life than that.

Thus, to me, Black Panther is the modern equivalent of Godzilla, especially in the morality that it espouses. Both films are highly cognizant of history and want to show that things could be different if people made different, better choices. Non-violence in this case does not represent a weakness or incapability to commit violence, but instead demonstrates a higher level of moral fiber. As an historian, I find that message highly appealing, especially the idea that if good people make decisions they can change the world for the better, creating a safer, more harmonious world for all nations.

Because of that, I am looking forward to watching Black Panther climb the box office charts. I do not know if it will become the highest-grossing film of all time. But its message is good enough that I will be happy if it does.

How Impressive Are KU's 14-Straight Conference Titles?

With its recent 74-72 win over Texas Tech, the University of Kansas continued one of the more remarkable streaks in college basketball history. KU has now won 14-straight Big 12 conference regular season titles (outright 10 times and shared 4 times). Some people will argue that only the tournament champion is the “true” champion in any conference, but this argument is hogwash. Getting hot over a 3-4 day stretch is not nearly as impressive as asserting your dominance over a full conference season.

Where does this rank among the all-time great college basketball streaks? No team will ever top UCLA’s 7-straight national titles (1967-1976, part of a streak of 10-straight Final Fours), or their 88-game winning streak (1971-1974). But it’s probably on or above the level of UNC’s streak of 13-straight Sweet Sixteens under Dean Smith (1981-1993).

But, how impressive is KU’s streak, really? To determine that, we would have to determine how good of a conference the Big 12 has been. For this blog post, I’ve used numbers from Ken Pomeroy. He has, in my opinion, the best mathematical rankings of college basketball and has for many years. The rest of the data comes from Wikipedia, other than where I’ve determined it’s inaccurate.

From 2005-2011, the Big 12 had an average KenPom ranking among other conferences of about 3.6. For comparison, that was tied for 3rd among all conferences. But that has skyrocketed in recent years. From 2012-2018, the Big 12 has an average ranking of 1.4 and has been the top-ranked conference each of the last five years. Very impressive.

In some ways, however, that’s a curious number. In the final KenPom team rankings from 2005-2017, KU is one of only two teams in the Big 12 to average a top-40 ranking (KU at 6.5 and Texas at 31.5). Meaning? KU has been consistently excellent. Texas has been pretty good (a top-25 team more often than not). The rest of the conference has been, on average, pretty mediocre, even if some teams have had some really good years.

KenPom Rankings.png

But what of those good years? KU has finished in the top 10 of the final KenPom rankings ten times during the last 13 seasons (they’re currently 9th). The rest of the Big 12? Only thirteen times total. That’s… not a lot, especially when spread over about 140 total seasons. (To be fair, Texas Tech is currently ranked 11th and West Virginia 12th, which shows how the statistic can be somewhat arbitrary.)

Perhaps the Big 12 has had significant NCAA tournament success over the time? Well, it all depends on how you define that. KU has been a top-4 seed in each of the last 13 tournaments (this season is obviously to be determined). Seven of those seasons it’s been a 1 seed, and three times a 2 seed. The rest of the Big 12 has not faired as well, combining for only 23 top-4 seeds among those about 140 seasons. But those numbers are a bit misleading, as no other Big 12 team has been a 1 seed in the past 13 tournaments, and only seven have been 2 seeds.

But perhaps once they got to the tournament they’ve played well? Actually… not so much. While KU won the national title in 2008, made the Final Four in 2012, has four other Elite Eights and two other Sweet Sixteens, the rest of the conference has made only a single trip to the Final Four in that time (Oklahoma in 2016). They’ve combined for 63 total NCAA tournament appearances, but, outside of OU’s 2016 run, only seven Elite Eights and nine other Sweet Sixteens. 

That means that, if you’re not KU, you only make the NCAA tournament about 45% of the time, only make it to the Sweet Sixteen 12% of the time (27% of tournament appearances), the Elite Eight only 5% of the time (11% of tournament appearances), and the Final Four less than 1% of the time (1.5% of tournament appearances).

That seems odd from the conference that KenPom has ranked as its number one conference for five years running.

There’s a chance, if these numbers were crunched for other conferences, that the Big 12 would still compare favorably, but I doubt it. Just going by Final Four appearances over the last thirteen tournaments, the ACC has eight appearances by three teams, the Big East has 9 appearances by six teams, the Big 10 has ten appearances by five teams, and the Southeastern Conference has 9 appearances by four teams. Shit, even the Colonial League has had two teams make the Final Four (George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011), which is only one fewer Final Four than the Big 12 has over that time period (even including KU).

Look, I’m not saying… I’m just saying. Maybe the Big 12 actually hasn’t been that strong a conference over the past 14 seasons, KenPom conference rankings be damned.

I probably got some of the numbers a bit off in this post (I’m just sitting on my couch compiling them), but they don’t paint the picture of a particularly strong conference over time, at least not at the top. Sure, the Big 12 has been a competitive conference, but no team outside of Lawrence has even been a one seed in the NCAA tournament.

If you wanted to say that NCAA tournament success is poor indicator of actual team strength since it’s a one-and-done format (especially salient considering we’re talking about regular season titles for KU), you could. But, if any other real challengers existed to KU in the Big 12, you would think they would have been more competitive nationally. KU’s supremacy in the Big 12 is probably as much or more of an indictment of the rest of the conference than it is a measure of KU’s excellence.

KU deserves a great deal of credit for winning 14 straight league titles, but it seems unlikely the Jayhawks would’ve had such dominance had they played in a different conference with more strength at the top. Hell, if you go by Final Four results, KU may not have won 14 straight regular season titles if they played in the Colonial.

Release Syed Ahmed Jamal Immediately

On 24 January 2018, Syed Ahmed Jamal, an immigrant to the United States from Bangladesh, was arrested from his front yard while trying to take his daughter to school. This action was shameful, and I want to add my voice to those calling for his immediate release. My open letter follows.

**     **     **

4 February 2018



To Whom It May Concern:

It was with great distress and consternation that I read about the arrest of Syed Ahmed Jamal from his Lawrence, Kansas front yard on 24 January 2018. I write this letter to lend my support to his cause and add my voice to those requesting his immediate release.

So often the current discussion on immigration centers around whether the immigrants are worthy of staying in the country—how long have they lived in the United States? have they achieved an education? what are they adding to the nation?

While this is a fraudulent and damaging conversation to have (immigrants’ value simply as human beings is the more important question), Jamal scores highly in each of these questions. He has lived in the country for decades, and all his children and siblings are citizens. He has a PhD in a STEM field. And he is an educator, seeking to improve the next generation.

Syed Ahmed Jamal is EXACTLY the sort of person we want in the United States, and arresting him, presumably for deportation, hurts this nation.

Moreover, as a professional historian, I am incredibly distressed to see attitudes also evident in some dark times in our nation’s history.

The first anti-immigration law—the Chinese Exclusion Act—was passed in 1882, intended to discriminate against hard-working immigrants who were abused for their labor (largely building the Transcontinental Railroad) and then cast off.

After that law, the nation steadily drifted toward ever greater discrimination against and demonization of immigrants from all nations. The most shameful incidents occurred during World War II. During that conflict, acting upon President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, over 100,000 Japanese-Americans (most of them U.S. citizens) were interned, violating their constitutional rights. And thousands of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust were turned away from U.S. shores. Many later died in the Holocaust.

Jamal’s treatment is not only wrong, but it is also bad for this country and our ideals of freedom, democracy, and the American Dream. Please do the right thing and return Syed Ahmed Jamal to his family immediately.


Neil Oatsvall, PhD

Pete Maravich was Stephen Curry before Curry was born

I remember walking into my sister’s high school (we went to rival high schools) when I was in college and being flabbergasted by a scene in front of the basketball gym. Broughton High School had erected a veritable shrine to Shavlik Randolph, the latest big name to graduate from the high school. You may never have heard of Randolph—he went undrafted by the NBA in 2005 and has had a very modest pro career—but he went that private school in Durham (name not to be uttered by this Tar Heel fan). In high school, he was a very highly-rated, blue chip recruit.

No, while that display of a rival’s player may have displeased me, what shocked me was a little photo next to it of one of the greatest basketball players of all time. The photo just had a caption of the player’s name, and it showed none of the fanfare afforded to Randolph, who garnered a full wall of praise. That was when I found out that Pete Maravich also went to Broughton High School, in Raleigh, NC. I had no idea. Neither do most people, if the size of display was any indication.

It can be tough to fathom how good Maravich was. In college, the 6’5” guard averaged 44.2 points per game for LSU, easily leading the nation in scoring those years. In fact, even though there was no three point line (he was a phenomenal shooter, and nicknamed “Pistol”) and he was not allowed to play his first year (no freshmen were), even decades later he still leads all NCAA basketball (both men and women) in career scoring with 3,667 points. Oscar Robertson’s career scoring average is the closest to Maravich’s among other career scoring leaders, but the Big O could only manage 33.8 points per contest. Maravich was the national player of the year in 1970.

In the NBA, Maravich averaged almost 25 points per game over roughly 10 seasons with four clubs, adding in more than 4 rebounds and 5 assists a game. While he did once score 68 points against the NY Knicks, Maravich never found much team success in the NBA. Knee injuries forced him to retire, and the Hall of Famer eventually died of a heart attack in 1988 at the age of 40.

Why have we forgotten about Maravich? When you watch clips of him, it is clear that he was one of the most exciting players to ever dribble a basketball (and, my goodness could he dribble). He was arguably the most offensively gifted player ever to play the game. In fact… when you watch him play… he reminds you a little bit of Stephen Curry. But Maravich was doing all of this fifty years ago.

My personal hypothesis is this: the sport and its fans were not ready for someone like Maravich when he played. He shot too much. His dribbling was too showy. He made passes that were designed to delight as much as win games. These days, after Michael Jordan’s tongue wagging, after the Fab Five’s cockiness, after Vince Carter’s dunks, after And-1 mix tapes… we are used to basketball players displaying the attitude toward the game that Maravich did.

The Wall Street Journal ran an article recently that cited Oklahoma’s Trae Young, currently leading men’s NCAA basketball in both points and assists per game, as being the first of the “Stephen Curry” generation. If the Wall Street Journal is noticing sports, the players must be pretty special.

And they are. Both Curry and Young are absolutely electric. Watching them is like glimpsing lightning in a bottle.

But are they really doing things we have never seen before? I think not. Maravich had all that firepower decades ago. More, really. My favorite story about Maravich is that he honed his legendary dribbling skills by dribbling out the window of a moving car as his father, the well-known coach Press Maravich, drove around town (that fact and more here). He shot from his hip and was an excellent long-range shooter. It was like he had the ball on a string when he dribbled. And his passing! Check out the pass here around 0:46 in the video.

If you have a few free minutes, go watch some videos on Maravich doing his thing. One of the saddest parts of his career is knowing that the NBA instituted the three point line at the very end of his career. For his career, Maravich made 10-15 shots from behind the arc. How many more points would he have scored had he had the benefit of that shot and been able to tailor his game to it as modern stars do?

Stephen Curry may be inspiring a whole generation of kids to grow up to become slick-dribbling, crafty-passing, cocky sharpshooters. But he is not doing anything new. Not really.

Pete Maravich was Steph Curry before Curry was even born.

What can you do with a history PhD?

A few weeks ago, a student in one of my U.S. history classes posed to me the question in this blog’s title: “What can you do with a history PhD?” He knew that you could teach, but wondered if there were any other career opportunities.

As I started answering the question, it made me realize that I had friends who had done many different things with their degrees. With this post, I wanted to highlight some of those very talented people and also speak to the versatility of the degree. (This is, unquestionably, one of the best parts of going to graduate schoolmeeting so many talented, intelligent people and getting to socialize with them.)

I asked these colleagues all to do three different things with their responses. (1) Explain the type of history training they received and when they graduated; (2) Describe what their job is, and; (3) Explain how they use their history PhD skills in their job.

In sum, I thought the respondents highlighted several themes, each, I believe, inherent to graduate training in history. First, getting a PhD trains you how to be a good researcher. Second, the degree helps you process and assess information quickly and thoroughly (you develop excellent analytical reading skills). Finally, graduate school in history will help you develop strong, argumentative writing skills. These skills are applicable to a variety of careers, as seen below.

Do other courses of study help you develop similar skills? Of course. But, in a world seemingly devoted to STEM degrees and skills, there is frequently a narrative that historians (and other graduate degree holders in the humanities) have no “real” skills. I disagree strongly, and I think each of the people below would.

With that, I will let them tell you about their graduate school training in their own words. Though young, each of them has already had real career success and can serve as a model for students looking to seek employment inside (in the case of Kelly Houston Jones) or outside (as in everyone else) the academy.

**One last note: I left their responses almost entirely unedited, so that is why there is a slight difference in style between each of them.


Frank Blazich

In terms of an “about me,” my biography from work might help. My title is curator of modern military history here at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The majority of work revolves around researching, curating, and enhancing the museum’s collections and exhibits as pertaining to twentieth and twenty-first century American military history (predominantly home front, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps). While I can and do work with eighteenth and nineteenth century items, modern is my forte.

After completing my doctorate in modern American history (with a military history emphasis) from Ohio State University in 2013, I took my first position as a federal employee as the historian at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum. A small museum with a staff initially numbering a half a dozen, the work found me handling everything from moving objects, identifying objects, researching, writing, giving public presentations, helping design and build exhibits, repairing exhibits, painting walls, sweeping floors, the entire gamut of museum work really. From the aspect of education/training, much of my museum/curatorial knowledge stemmed from my father’s collecting of militaria and my own partial collecting of civil defense-related objects. Learning to identify an object by markings and assorted details, to recognize its contextual role in history is something that I learned through experience and research. The research and analytical skills developed in graduate school certainly helped me gather information to identify and contextualize objects quickly and efficiently. The latter is critical when working with a collection as large as what is housed here at the museum.


John Hess

I received both my MA and PhD in military history from the University of Kansas, finally graduating in May 2017. During grad school, I received mostly traditional history training designed for grad students looking for jobs within academia. Initially this was the path I wanted to follow, but around three years into grad school I realized that a job within academia was not for me. As a result, I began looking for alternative job options and training to get those jobs.

The biggest help I received was from programs at KU's Hall Center for the Humanities, which had recently begun a series of programs designed to help humanities grad students find employment outside of academia. Through these programs, I participated in a week-long "boot camp" that served as an introduction to these opportunities and got an summer internship at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. These opportunities were exceptionally helpful in showing how the skills developed as a history graduate student could be transferred into the world outside of academia.

From there, I decided I wanted to work in public policy (a long-held interest that I've had) and basically lucked into a position as a Legislative Fellow at the nonpartisan Kansas Legislative Research Department. After that fellowship concluded, I was hired as permanent fiscal analyst for KLRD.

As a fiscal analyst, I am responsible for analyzing the budgets for my assigned state agencies, writing up that analysis, presenting my analysis to the Legislature, tracking legislative changes to the budget, and assisting with post-session fiscal publications. Beyond that, I am responsible for answering legislative requests for information regarding the budgets of my assigned state agencies, which includes significant work on school finance-related issues since I am the assigned fiscal analyst for the Kansas Department of Education.

Although my grad school training did not include fiscal analysis (I mean, why would it in history), there are plenty of other history PhD skills that are well-suited for work in the public policy sector. First, is the ability to write; good, clear writing is vitally important in explaining the complexities of state budgets and in answering legislative questions. Second, the analytical skills developed by graduate study are eminently useful. In my position, you need to be able to look at the greater context legislative action and history to explain major budget changes; and history training definitely reinforces the importance of context. And perhaps most important skill is the ability to quickly digest, analyze, and explain large swaths of information. This is a skill honed mostly during coursework in grad school, but the timeline of the legislative session means that you often have to research and answer major questions within hours or days; you do not have several weeks to research and write a response. Grad school coursework definitely teaches you how to read, analyze, and explain large amounts of information in a short timeline. There are many other history PhD skills that translate to public policy work, but these are, I think, the most important.


Kelly Houston Jones

I am originally from Conway County, Arkansas, and I graduated from the University of Arkansas with a Ph.D. in history in 2014. Certainly, the program taught me how to be a historian—by learning what conversations historians before me have had and where I can contribute to those debates—along with several other skills that I treasure.

As a student, I got the chance to travel to archives at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, and the National Archives and Library of Congress in Washington, DC. I picked up some skills in writing funding proposals to get the grants. More importantly, I learned how to organize which information was most relevant to my research question before making the trips, prioritize the time I had to gather information, and then process those documents into a meaningful system of organization that I could rely on to write the dissertation. Thus, I believe one of the most important skills that I learned at the advanced level as a doctoral student was information literacy. My education taught me how to sift through and analyze mountains of information and find and use what I needed for the task at hand. I would say that goes for research and writing as well as teaching.

While working toward the completion of the Ph.D. I served as Assistant Editor of my state’s historical journal, the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, which is housed at the U of A in Fayetteville. Not to be confused with an editorial assistant (who fact-checks and performs clerical work), the job of the assistant editor required me to edit the work of other historians at two levels—the copyediting “micro” level where I searched for typographical errors and mistakes in Chicago Style references, and the “bird’s eye view” editing that looked for a clear argument, logical flow, organization, and consistency. Doing this work for two years immeasurably improved my own historical writing and armed me with helpful experience that I could have used to go into the academic publishing field if I had not gone into the professoriate.

I am now in my third year as an Assistant Professor in History at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville Tennessee. This means I’m at the “beginner” or “junior” rank and can hope to achieve the next rank of “Associate” upon being awarded tenure in year six. I use all of my skills as an academic historian to continue my publishing agenda, but I also draw on them to organize my courses, prioritizing what information is most valuable for students, and distilling it for the audience whether they are freshmen or graduate students. I am committed to sharing information literacy and clear writing with them because I understand how important those skills are to all who seek higher education. I teach four classes each semester, including general US history surveys as well as focused upper level and graduate courses on topics like American slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. I go to several conferences every year, like the Southern Historical Association meeting, where I learn from other historians’ research, try out my ideas on other historians, and pick up new teaching ideas.

Note: Kelly recently organized an entire weekend of events devoted to "emphasizing the experience of African Americans in our area during the war and Reconstruction." You can see the flier for that event here.


Jeremy Prichard

I am the 19th Airlift Wing Historian at Little Rock Air Force Base. Before that, I earned my Ph.D. in History from the University of Kansas in 2014. I specialized in mid-nineteenth century U.S. history with an emphasis on the Civil War Era. I was fortunate that the U.S. Air Force – a military institution with roots established in the twentieth century – was willing to overlook my infatuation with the nineteenth-century’s most politically and socially consequential affair and offer me a job.

I wear many hats as an Air Force Historian. I manage most history-related inquiries and projects associated with my assigned unit and much of the military installation. I research and write the annual wing history for archival preservation at the Air Force Historical Research Agency in Maxwell, Alabama. And I instruct Airmen at “The Rock” – uniformed and civilian – on U.S. military, Air Force, and airlift history in an effort to connect today’s missions with those from yesteryear.

The skills that I developed in graduate school translate perfectly into my current position. In fact, my employers highlighted my experience researching, writing, and teaching (over my lack of Air Force knowledge) when they offered me a job; they (correctly) presumed that familiarity with Air Force history would come with time. While I often miss the classroom, working for the Department of Defense has its own rewards, chief among them are the opportunity to work as a professional historian combined with the financial means to support my family.

**Jeremy added that his research path had taken him from very traditional historical military research, such as into the burial of President Abraham Lincoln, to public, institutional history like the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the attack on the 19th Bombardment Group at Clark Field.


Amanda Schlumpberger

 I graduated in 2015 with a PhD in American history from the University of Kansas. My specialization is US foreign policy during the Cold War. I am currently a performance auditor for the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit (LPA).

A performance audit is not the same as a financial audit.  A performance audit is an evaluation of how well a government function, agency, program, or activity is working. Typically, audits answer questions surrounding the compliance, effectiveness, and/or efficiency of an agency, program, or function. An audit can be about a broad range of topics and use a variety of methodologies to answer the audit questions.

The most important skill from my history education in my work is critical thinking. No matter what the audit topic is, I must be able to think about the context and conduct analysis and interpretation. Strong research skills are also important to my job. Since the research I conduct over the course of an audit could range from data analysis, to legal research, to conducting interviews and surveys, the diverse research skills and methods that historical work uses is essential to my job. The ability to look at the results of research and synthesize larger conclusions is a fundamental history skill that I use in my work as well. Every conclusion I make in an audit must be supported by evidence and the evidence must be documented (yes, I even use the mundane skill of citing sources in my work). Communicating ideas clearly is also a key history skill I use in my job. I must be able to write in an organized and clear manner to deliver audit results to people who may not be familiar with or have in-depth knowledge of a program or agency. Our reports are designed the same way historians work and write. There is a question to answer, an answer that is the thesis statement, and then the supporting evidence collected through research and analyzed.

**Amanda later added “for what it’s worth, I would agree with the five skills listed here that history does not teach but are essential for career diversity.”

Hot Springs Spa Con, 2017

This past weekend, two of my colleagues at ASMSA and I competed in the 2017 Spa Con Puzzle Hunt (Spa Con is the local sci-fi/fantasy/comic convention in Hot Springs, AR, which is the “Spa City”). I am proud to announce that we won, but, more importantly than that, I wanted to talk about what a cool experience actually getting to compete in it was. The organizers based their idea for the evening off of the 1980 movie Midnight Madness (which happened to be Michael J. Fox’s movie debut).

 The championship medal with commemorative towel.  It's a major award!

The championship medal with commemorative towel. It's a major award!

To give you an idea of what it was like, I wanted to tell you about each puzzle and clue so that you could get a sense of how intricate it all was. The event was extremely and impressively well planned, and that is part of what made it so great. As an FYI, I received permission from one of the organizers to talk about the puzzles, so I am not spoiling anything.

The game started in the large Hot Springs Convention Center auditorium, where every team was handed a map (which had clues on it, little did we know). There we saw, in an homage to Twin Peaks, a supposed federal agent driving around in Hot Springs trying to solve the mystery of the Tardis. That was our first clue.

Outside the auditorium was a replica Tardis (it said so on the plaque… because duh it is a replica). That Tardis had a flashing blue light above it that spelled out, in Morse Code, “Maxwell has a mighty blade.” (The map had a Morse Code key on it, which helped to clue you in.)

That led you to the magician Maxwell Blade’s theater. There, the billboard flashed up a bunch of famous people and said, “Let’s make something disappear.” This helped you realize that each famous person had a letter missing from their name. The missing letters spelled out “Tune in to KUHS,” which is the local radio station.

The radio station was playing a homemade rap that was about chemistry, molecular construction, and the periodic table of elements. It would be a bit too much to go into all the clues, but each verse was essentially a series of clues that led you to a different letter (or pair of letters), which, when all combined, spelled out “Dugan” for the Dugan-Steward Building.

At the Dugan-Steward Building, you found a Stranger Things-inspired Christmas lights clue. The letters it spelled out, when corresponded with locations on your map (each labeled with a letter), drew an arrow that pointed to your next location, the parking garage.

At the parking garage, there was a difficult to see screen with a bunch of glasses on the table. I found out later you were supposed to ask one of the attendants for their glasses (whoops), but for some reason my group found a pair of polarized lenses that let us see the message. That said to go to location Z, make a relief of something (they had crayons), and “look under the missing O.”

Once we arrived at location Z, the Post Office, we were basically stuck. Much later we realized that our map had some words on it that were taken from a plaque about baseball. We realized that the words on our map were missing the word “who,” and the next location was centered right under where the “o” in “who” should have been.

Thus the next location, one of the town’s escape rooms, held our final clue. Seven photographs of fish (and one idol) that corresponded with a nearby fish tank. When you counted up the numbers of the different kinds of fish in the fish tank and matched those up with the appropriate letter of the alphabet, you had the word “cadence,” which activated the “federal agent” from the video who led us to the end.

We had won!

Of course… we hit some snags along the way. We got lost and ended up going to the parking garage first, only later backtracking through the other clues. In fact, though we were the first group to get to the ending, we decided to be honest and declare immediately that we had not gotten all the clues. The judges conferred, appreciating our honesty, and decided that if we could figure out the missing clues and make it back before anyone else that we would still be the winners. We were lucky enough to do so. (And, as far as I know, almost everyone did things out of order and we were the only team that eventually solved all the clues.)

Additionally, we probably spent 45 minutes at the post office looking for the missing “o,” only to find a random missing 0 (zero) on a street sign and look under it for a few minutes! Quite an unlucky coincidence that cost us a lot of time. Also, when we were in the escape room, one of the fish had “swam” inside the fish tank idol, so at first our word looked like “caddncd.” We thought we had misunderstood the puzzle. And we did get some hints/clues along the way from various people.

Anyway, it was a tremendous amount of fun and I wanted to share some of the joy I had with everyone else.

ALSO, as winners, we were tasked with either completely designing or designing with help next year’s “Midnight Madness” puzzle hunt. So, if you are in Hot Springs next year for Spa Con, please come compete! We will see if we can stump you.

 The winning team, me, Jack, and Caleb (L to R)

The winning team, me, Jack, and Caleb (L to R)

In Support of Jemele Hill: Donald Trump is a White Supremacist

On Monday, September 11th, 2017, ESPN anchor Jemele Hill called president Donald Trump a bigot and a white supremacist on Twitter. While some news outlets, like the iconoclastic Deadspin, called Hill’s comments “pretty standard and well-founded opinions,” others have been less charitable. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Hill’s tweets were “outrageous” and more than implied that ESPN should fire Hill for the tweets.

Sanders’s comments are particularly troublesome considering the First Amendment clearly protects our civil liberty to free speech against government infringement. While ESPN, as a publicly traded corporation, would be well within its right to fire Hill for her expressed political beliefs (or any number of things, really), Sanders’s assertion amounts to an attempt to violate Hill’s first amendment rights.

But, beyond that, as far as I can see, the real issue is whether Hill was correct or not. Is Donald Trump a white supremacist?

The evidence overwhelmingly seems to point to that conclusion.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has recently written roughly 8,000-word article calling Trump “The First White President” that fairly exhaustingly lays out the effects race and white supremacy have had on Trump’s election and presidency. I will not go into that here other than to say it is overwhelmingly a convincing argument. But, a few key data points seem to, if not demonstrate Trump’s relationship to and dependency on white supremacy, at least put the onus on Trump’s increasingly fewer defenders to rebut the claim.

In 1995, five black and Latino teenagers, dubbed the “Central Park Five,” were accused of assaulting and raping a white woman in Central Park. DNA evidence would later exonerate those men and be used to vacate their sentences, but, before that, Trump ran a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for their execution. A public figure publicly calling for a group of teenagers’ executions is eye-raising enough, but what is most troubling is that Trump defended his advertisement and refused to back down from his claim in 2016. Given our nation’s history of false convictions of persons of color, Trump’s position seems inexplicable outside of a combination of hubris and racial prejudices.

But public statements pale in comparison to the history of rampant racial discrimination exhibited by Donald Trump and his father, Fred, in their real estate holdings. Add this to Trump’s promotion of “birther” ideology, espousing for years that President Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya? And his insistence on increasingly diminishing the rights for Hispanic peoples living in the United States by ending DACA, combined with his intransigence on building a wall between the United States and Mexico? Donald Trump, to put it mildly, does not seem to believe that persons of color, especially black people, deserve equal treatment to whites.

Many of the people with whom Trump has surrounded himself also seem to be white supremacists. Just the highlights here. Steve Bannon, for example, was Trump’s campaign strategist and, after the inauguration, White House Chief Strategist. As the former editor of Breitbart, he helped publish articles like this one that laud many white supremacists, such as Richard Spencer. As another example, Trump nominated Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General, even though Coretta Scott King once railed against his potential appointment to a federal judgeship. After talking about his use of “the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters,” King wrote, “The irony of Mr. Sessions’ nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given a life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods.” And Trump has a complicated history with David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

And after a violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia where a white supremacist murdered a counter protester with his car, a rally where neo-Nazis, KKK members, and others marched in support of white supremacy, Trump claimed (and later doubled down on these comments) that there was “blame on both sides.” How difficult is it to criticize Nazis? I am sincerely grateful that my grandfather, who fought in both the D-Day invasion and the Battle of the Bulge, did not live to see the U.S. president fail to condemn neo-Nazis and their appalling ideas.

This blog post is not arguing anything that others, like Coates, have not said before (and more eloquently than I am able to say). But, I do think it is important for white people to point out, and condemn strongly, white supremacy and its ascension into the highest halls of power. With this post, I wanted to do that, and, as I always tell my students to do, clearly state my idea and support it with evidence.

Donald Trump is a white supremacist, and his rise to power has been supported by white supremacy. Jemele Hill was neither the first nor the last person to say this. And I agree with her statements.

Let all good Americans denounce white supremacy and all who support it.


Disclaimer: As per University of Arkansas system guidelines, the views expressed in this blog post, as all of my blog posts, represent only myself and not any university institution or other employee. Moreover, I have not worked on this post, nor will I comment on it or interact with it in any way, during regular business hours.

If Coach K is arguably the best coach ever, Roy Williams is not far behind

When Mike Krzyzewski won his last national title (before, even), the headlines lauded him as potentially the best college basketball coach ever. Jason Keidel of CBS asked, “Is Coach K The Best College Basketball Coach Ever?” Reid Forgrave of FOX Sports argued, “Forget numbers, 5th title makes Coach K greater than Wooden.” Chris Chase of USA Today contended, “Like it or not, Mike Krzyzewski is the best coach in college basketball history.” And of course the indomitable Gregg Doyel weighed in, “Coach K is the best now, but Wooden is best ever.”

As a UNC fan, even I have to admit that Coach K’s credentials place him, at a minimum, among the elite college basketball coaches of all time, perhaps even among the elite college coaches in any sport of all time. And, yet, if that is the case, then Roy Williams is not too far behind him, no matter if his peers think he is overrated. This post lays out that case.

Coach K was the first men’s college basketball coach to crest 1,000 wins (Pat Summit was the first in college basketball), and currently is in first place among men’s coaches with 1,071. Williams is not far behind at 7th with 816 wins. But, to Williams’s credit, he’s averaged more wins per season (28.1 vs. K’s 25.5) and owns a higher winning percentage (79.1 vs. 76.4).

The biggest argument in K’s favor revolves around his 5 national titles (second only to John Wooden’s 10). After his most recent title this year, Williams is at 3, which is tied for fourth all-time among men’s college coaches. If you consider conference titles (regular season and tournament combined), K leads Williams by only a slim margin—26 to 24 (however it took K 42 total seasons but Williams only 29). K has been national coach of the year 6 different years, and Williams 4 different years (he won two different NCOY awards one year). Williams, however, has been his conference coach of the year 9 times to K’s 5.

Apart from the national titles, it is a bit more difficult to adjudicate between their tournament successes. While K does have the 5 titles and 12 Final Fours, Williams is not far behind with 3 and 9. Even though he has coached more than a decade longer, K has only led teams to one more Elite 8 than Williams (14 to 13). To his credit, Williams has never lost a first-round NCAA tournament matchup, while K has lost 4 (including some historic upsets as the 3 seed in 2014 to 14 seed Mercer and as the 2 seed in 2012 to 15 seed Lehigh). But, while Williams has won at least 2/3rds of his career games in each round, that is not as impressive as K’s 85% (to Williams’s 69%) Elite 8 winning percentage or K’s 75% (to Williams’s 66.7%) Final Four winning percentage.

If you compare these laudable achievements of both coaches to their expectations, Williams grades out well against Krzyzewski. K’s teams have often been ranked more highly in the preseason polls, polling preseason no. one 7 times (to Williams’s 4), in the top ten 27 total times (to Williams’s 20), and in the top twenty-five 31 total times (to Williams’s 25). Compared to preseason expectations, Williams has done as much or more than Coach K. And Coach K has arguably had more talented teams, having had 19 consensus All-Americans to Williams’s 11. (Of course, it is a college coach’s job to recruit.)

It would be very fair to point out that Coach K started his career at Army, an independent school where he had no chance to win a conference title and essentially no chance at making the NCAA tournament. In his 5 seasons as Army coach, K went 73-59 with one NIT appearance (he lost in the first round). And, K had a losing record in his first three seasons as coach at Duke, his best finish among those being his first year when his team went 17-13 and lost in the third round of the NIT. For clarity, in the three seasons before Krzyzewski became head coach, Duke won a combined 73 games and lost in the NCAA title game, lost in the round of 32, and lost in the Elite 8.

Williams, of course, began his career taking over a Kansas program on probation, but, as many will point out, competed in the comparatively weak Big 8/12 (as compared to the ACC). That did not stop Williams from having fairly immediate postseason success, making the NCAA tournament every year Kansas was not on probation, going to 2 Final Fours in his first 5 eligible years at Kansas (in 1991 he lost to Krzyzewski in the national championship game; K has an overall 18-12 record against Williams).

All that said, the point is not to say that Roy Williams has career accomplishments equal to or better than Mike Krzyzewski. That is a difficult argument to make. But, when you look at their entire careers, there just is not as much separating the two coaches as one might think. Considering he has coached for thirteen more years than Williams, Coach K simply SHOULD have more career accomplishments. In almost every per-season statistic, however, Williams is better than or equal to Krzyzewski. What does that mean?

If Coach K is arguably the best college coach of all time, then Roy Williams is not far behind him and should be included in that discussion.


**If you want to look at the numbers yourself, I pulled most all of these from the coaches’ Wikipedia pages and also their Sports-Reference pages.

Roy vs. k chart

Celebrating Student Research, Spring 2017

The news is a bit old, but I wanted to celebrate the success of two of my advisees, Madison Brown and Diego de los Reyes. Both were recognized for excellent senior research projects at ASMSA's annual research symposium and science fair. You can read the press release here. (photo credit to Donnie Sewell, ASMSA's Public Information Specialist)

Madison's project, entitled "Slot Springs: The History of Gambling in Hot Springs, AR," won first place in the Senior Research Symposium's history category and also won first place overall in the Senior Research Symposium. Her paper argued that, while gambling is typically understood by scholars as having negative effects on society, Hot Springs's unique history meant that gambling, even though it was conducted illegally, actually benefitted the city economically and socially.

Diego's project, entitled "Charting the Hits: An analysis of Pop Music from 2006-2015," won first place in both ISEF West Central Arkansas regional science fair and in the junior academy presentation competitions. His paper argued that, while many people believe that pop music is formulaic and that there might be an easy way to create a Billboard Charts hit song, songs in the yearend top 1-10 positions were actually less similar than songs in the yearend 31-40 position. Diego's finish means that he will is also eligible to compete in the state science fair and junior academy competitions.

I'm very proud of both of them!

"I wish I were a real adult"

One of the great shames of my life is that I do not like coffee. There were a few weeks in middle school were I tried to, you know, become an adult. But it never quite worked out. Other adults seem skeptical of people like me, and of the fact that I generally do not have too much trouble waking up in the morning. (Avoiding an afternoon nap is another thing.)

With that in mind, I wanted to share a (bad) poem I wrote about not liking coffee (or tea), and the social angst that comes with it. 


I wish I were a real adult,

Who drank coffee proper.

Culture might value me more, and,

I’d have lots to offer.


Real adults cradle, clutch coffee,

Hold it to their bosom,

Morning rite’s righteous talisman,

Wards off impending doom.


A proper adult can even,

Take succor from black tea,

To do so, of course, ignores her,

Riotous history.


But tea drinkers can rightly claim,

Mild sophistication.

My tastes rebel at what must be

Liquid fornication.


Oh! Shame! You ordered hot cocoa,

When adults got Java?

Your troglodytic sense of style,

Might as well get cola.


But I guess this is why I went,

To earn a grad degree.

Lesser ones should know their betters,

And as such I know thee.

But, take pity on me would you?

Real adults drink coffee.

Celebrating Black History Month

On 1 February 2017, Vice President Mike Pence posted a tweet lauding Black History Month by celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s accomplishment of supporting the Thirteenth Amendment. While Lincoln was a true champion of the freedom and rights of black people, Pence’s tweet was roundly criticized (see here, for example).

Abraham Lincoln remains a personal hero of mine. But, with all due respect to Vice President Pence, I thought I would write a post about Black History Month that let black people speak for themselves. With that in mind, below is a short list of my favorite quotations that I have curated (including sometimes combining paragraphs or lines of poems for visual reasons). These are in chronological order and I think speak for themselves.


“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

Frederick Douglass**, “West India Emancipation” (1857)


“We the darker ones come even now not altogether empty-handed: there are to-day no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes; there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folk-lore are Indian and African; and, all in all, we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness.”

W.E.B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), chapter 1.


"Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth, Stealing my breath of life, I will confess, I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!"

Claude McKay, "America" in Harlem Shadows (1922)


“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail Cell” (1963)


Until the killing of black mothers' sons is as important as the killing of white mothers' sons, we must keep on.” 

Ella Baker, speech before the 1964 Mississippi Democratic Party state convention


“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size But when I start to tell them, They think I’m telling lies. I say, It’s in the reach of my arms, The span of my hips, The stride of my step, The curl of my lips. I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.”

Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman” from And Still I Rise (1978)


“There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers [of black bodies] or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing […] serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the chards, the regressions all land, with great violent, upon the body.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015), chapter 1


“I realized that our time in the White House would form the foundation for who [our daughters] would become and how well we managed this experience could truly make or break them. That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight, how we urge them to ignore those who question their father's citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don't stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.’

Michelle Obama, speech before the 2016 Democratic National Convention


**Douglass is somebody who's done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.

Guest Post for Adrian Atkinson's "Secondary Break"

Adrian Atkinson is one of the best resources for University of North Carolina basketball on the web. He does data-driven analytics, specifically doing a magnificent job of meticulously charting a number of factors every UNC possession, both offense and defense.

Adrian's new site, The Secondary Break, is a treasure trove of information, and a must-follow for any UNC fan. I am pleased to announce that I have written a guest post for the site on the incredible shooting season point guard Joel Berry is having, comparing it to past seasons. You should have known it would be about history if I wrote it.

Anyway, you can check it out here. Below is a preview of the post.

"Joel Berry is off to a torrid shooting start this season, which got me to thinking—which player in UNC history had the best shooting season ever? (In order to make anything resembling an apples-to-apples comparison, I’ve limited answering this question to the 3-point era, or the 1986-1987 season to the present. All stats and statements reflect that unless explicitly noted otherwise.)

"Berry’s numbers almost speak for themselves. Roughly a quarter of the way through the season, Berry is on pace to join the mythical 50/40/90 club (shooting splits of 50% field goals, 40% from three point range, and 90% from the free throw line). Obviously nothing is guaranteed, but, if he could keep up his current numbers, Berry’s splits of 51.8/43.8/91.7 would arguably be the best shooting line in UNC history, 3-point era or not."

Go Westworld, Young Man

Like many people, I have been captivated by HBO’s new series “Westworld.” Based on a 1973 Michael Crichton movie of the same name, the show fictionalizes a future where incredibly life-like robots populate a western-themed adult fantasyland. The rest of this post contains some potential (but not obvious) spoilers to the show, so if you have not finished season one, you might consider stopping at this point.

With this blog post, I wanted to highlight how the show uses the idea of a theme park to play with our ideas of what the U.S. West was, or at least what we think it should have been. So much of our national identity is bound up in the West. Indeed, when historian Frederick Jackson Turner proposed his “Frontier Thesis” in 1893, positing that the West was over, the country went through a bit of a shock. The nation’s western expansion had helped to craft a national self-image just as much as any founding father ever had, and the supposed closing of the West meant that the United States would need to find a new way to define itself. (Imagine an historian creating such ripples today!)

With that in mind, in what ways does “Westworld” play into our sense of what the West was? Well, for one, the show and park are incredibly violent. Murders and rapes abound, and bandits frequently ride into town for “mayhem” (as they say), only to gun down every civilian they can find. In actuality, however, the real U.S. West was not terribly violent, at least toward whites. A tremendous amount of violence was visited on American Indians, but the sort of outlaw culture that we popularly imagine simply did not exist on anywhere near the scale as it does either in “Westworld” or our imaginations.

Non-white groups are similarly misrepresented. Historian Susan Lee Johnson has called the nineteenth-century Gold Rush “among the most multiracial, multiethnic, multinational events” in U.S. history up to that time (Roaring Camp, 12). For sure, Westworld is not specifically about the Gold Rush. But the U.S. West, in general, had many non-white peoples who were and are central to the region’s history. American Indians were the land’s first inhabitants, and they, along with Hispanics, had to be violently removed for whites to take over the land. Asian immigrants, particularly Chinese workers, played prominent roles as well, especially in building the railroads. These people led complex lives, had their own dreams and desires, and sought to make the West into a space that they envisioned.

Those peoples, however, are not treated with any sort of care in “Westworld.” American Indians only appear as exotic threats who might kill the white protagonists (similar to what Neva Jacquelyn Kilpatrick describes old Westerns in Celluloid Indians). Hispanics appear, but only as peripheral to the story, and often in a bandit or outlaw context. And the only hint at an Asian influence occurs in the train station when guests arrive at or leave the park—we hear Chinese spoken over the loudspeaker. The “Westworld” space is therefore a fairly milquetoast world—it looks much more like a John Wayne movie than the West ever did.

The environment also gets a short shrift. Historians like Donald Worster have made a career out of showing that the environment constricts human choices (Worster once wrote, in an article “New West, True West,” “My West is, by contrast [to frontier tales], the story of men and women trying to wrest a living from a condition of severe natural scarcity and, paradoxically, of trying to survive in the midst of entrenched wealth.”) “Westworld,” however, gives little-to-no sense that the natural world plays a role in human lives, likely because that is not how we want to think of the West (why watch a story about farmers in dry land when you can see cowboys and banditos?).

I should point out, of course, that “Westworld” does not pretend to be historically accurate. The show is mostly playing into our cultural memory that the West was a violent, white place where humans exerted their will on the environment. But, the show does get a number of feelings right, more or less. For example, the park has a sort of timelessness (made especially clear by the last episode) that pervades our thoughts. The West, in U.S. culture, is an unchanging place. Of course, this is not historically accurate, but it matters a great deal to us culturally that the West might always exist in a certain way.

Similarly, the show portrays women in an interesting way. While there are a plethora of female hosts, the guests are almost entirely male, emphasizing that the U.S. West was, for the most part, a male space. Not only was it demographically such, but it has remained an important male fantasy space to this day. “Westworld” thus finds a way to include more women while still maintaining the place’s “male” identity.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the pubic hair. Yes, the show has a lot of pubes. One thing that becomes obvious, though, is that the hosts do not have much else in the way of body hair—just hair on their heads and pubic hair. This seems an odd choice historically, but works in current U.S. culture. Historically, it is unlikely that any of the citizens in “Westworld” would have shaved any hair off their bodies. Of course they would have had pubic hair, but they would also have chest, underarm, and leg hair (men and women!). But, in current U.S. culture, body hair is often seen as unseemly, and therefore showing any body hair, especially pubic hair, has its own sort of risqué appeal. We viewers want things to be messy, but not that messy.

“Westworld” thus plays with the history of the U.S. West in a way that reflects prevailing U.S. cultural memory about the West. Far from faulting the show from being historically inaccurate, I actually really like the way it plays around with our popular memory of what the West was or perhaps what we think it should have been. The show has fashioned a truly fabricated fantasyland and overtly told viewers that everything on the park, from the landscape to the lands to the narratives, has been crafted by humans. In doing so, we find that “Westworld” was not created with the sensibilities and desires of the guests in mind, but instead with ours at the forefront. It is not so much that the human characters in the show desire a violent, sexual West to act out their deepest desires, but more that we viewers crave such a place, voyeuristically yearning to watch others act our own delightfully wicked desires.

With that in mind, I am ready for season two.


**Sincere thanks to Anne Greenwood and James Katowich for watching the show with me and discussing it at length, sharpening my own thoughts a great deal. The best parts of this post I likely subconsciously (or intentionally) stole from them.

Busy Semester

I have not posted much on my blog this semester because I have been quite busy. In addition to my trip to Japan detailed in an earlier post, my wife and I welcomed our second daughter into the world in October. I have a post on the HBO show "Westworld" coming soonish, but until then best holiday wishes from the Oatsvall household!

Christmas Card copy.jpg

ASMSA Expanding Global Programs

At the beginning of September, I was fortunate enough to go with a group from my school to Japan. The ASMSA (Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts) group went to Tokyo, then up to Hanamaki (Iwate Prefecture) to sign a sister city agreement with Hanamaki Kita High School, and then down to Osaka to sign a global learning partner agreement with Tennoji High School. 

If you are interested in learning more about the trip, my school, and our global programs, please check out this article. It even has a few choice quotations from me! Feel free to ask any questions you may have in the comments section or email me. A few photos are below.

 Me in front of the Kamakura Giant Budda (大仏). It is about forty feet tall.

Me in front of the Kamakura Giant Budda (大仏). It is about forty feet tall.

 Local newspaper article from our Sister High School signing ceremony.

Local newspaper article from our Sister High School signing ceremony.

 One of the many beautiful floats in the Hanamaki Autumn festival.

One of the many beautiful floats in the Hanamaki Autumn festival.

 Lovely Osaka skyline view from our hotel.

Lovely Osaka skyline view from our hotel.



Mount Vernon's Environment as Washington’s Greatness

George Washington is a rightly revered figure in this country. However, I argue here that, unless you understand the Mount Vernon estate, you cannot fully appreciate how impressive a thinker and manager Washington was. Put another way, Mount Vernon's landscape and environment exemplify Washington’s genius better than any of his other accomplishments.

A variety of perspectives exist concerning Washington. While some have elevated the first president to god-like status (see “The Apotheosis of Washington”), others have taken a more nuanced view. Thomas Jefferson, for example, once said that Washington’s mind was not “of the first order,” but later wrote, “On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance.” (Excerpt from Jefferson’s letter to Dr. Walter Jones)

When lauding the General, most people focus on Washington leading the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War, heading the Constitutional Convention, or serving as the nation’s first President. These are undoubtedly remarkable achievements. But Washington’s most impressive gifts were less in leadership than in his incredible managerial mind. The environment and various interactions with it at Mount Vernon best display this.

This is a big assertion, so what I want to do with this blog post is highlight a few examples from the Mount Vernon grounds that display Washington’s keen vision and managerial sense.

dung house

Sometimes this organizational mind trended toward mundane details (but still very important). Mount Vernon had what is believed to be the first American structure devoted to composting. The “repository for dung” was an open-walled structure that housed manure and other organic materials that could be turned into fertilizer. In a 1785 letter to George William Fairfax, Washington said that the best farmer was “Midas like, one who can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards Gold.” Using manure as fertilizer is not terribly special, but Washington had a special sense of its importance, and that was all part and parcel of controlling to farm production at every step. 

Washington carefully crafted the plantation and its environment not only to suit his taste but as an expression of his wealth and incredible agricultural mind. For example, Washington had a phenomenal greenhouse. Greenhouses do not seem special to us today, but Washington’s was an impressive one of his own design. And his winter visitors would have been amazed to taste fresh coffee, oranges, lemons, and limes, and many of them likely had never seen a palm tree in person. During the winter, an enslaved laborer maintained a fire around the clock that warmed the greenhouse with radiant floorboard heating, keeping all of the sensitive tropical plants alive. Having a greenhouse was expensive, in terms of both money and labor, and Washington went through great effort to make sure that his was both pleasing and extraordinary. (The photo is from an insurance engraving of how the greenhouse looked during Washington’s life. Image credit Jason Steinagle.)

Front Gate and Bowling Green

Similarly, Washington took great pains to make sure that his house was viewed only on his terms. For example, while the mansion house Washington inherited (much tinier than his eventual additions would make it) had a single, straight driveway, Washington eventually changed that to a double, bell-shaped path. And in the middle of those paths was his bowling green, an immense stretch of grass. Again, this does not seem remarkable to twenty-first century viewers, but it was an ostentatious display of wealth at the time. The green had to be mowed with hand scythes (of course by enslaved persons), and they used stone rollers to ensure that the lawn stayed flat and not lumpy. The bowling green therefore represented a Sisyphean undertaking—in the summer, by the time mowers reached the end they had to start over at the beginning.

 Mount Vernon lawn over the years. Image credit Luke Pecoraro.

Mount Vernon lawn over the years. Image credit Luke Pecoraro.

And Washington wanted viewers from the Potomac to have a similarly spectacular view. He planted trees so that these perfectly framed the mansion house from the river. As you can see in the photo (the current grounds, as best possible, recreate the estate as Washington left it in 1799), the view to the mansion house is flanked on both sides by trees that obscured the house from view until a river traveler had the perfect view. Trees conceal the house until it peaks from behind their foliage at just the proper moment, revealing itself in all its intended grandeur.

 View of Mount Vernon from the Potomac. Image credit Jason Steinagle.

View of Mount Vernon from the Potomac. Image credit Jason Steinagle.

Mount Vernon Back Porch

It gets better. Washington thought that the natural hill interfered with this carefully constructed Potomac view and therefore had his enslaved workers shave down the hill in front of his back porch so that the landscape would not disturb the curated experience. You can see the curvature in the photo to the right. Look at how the slope dips down from left-to-right. 

Mount Vernon Tulip Poplar


One final fun connection—there are about a dozen trees still on the Mount Vernon estate that were alive during Washington’s life. Washington planted some of these very explicitly, such as two tulip poplars (some of the very tallest trees on the estate) placed at identical sides of Washington’s driveway to achieve the greatest effect. My school, the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts, has a tulip poplar descended from one of Washington’s trees.

George Washington’s brilliance is thus best understood through the meticulously curated and managed Mount Vernon estate. This is not to be misunderstood as saying that creating the “perfect” mansion grounds were Washington’s most important accomplishments. Not at all. But Washington’s mind was at its most powerful—and, frankly, unmatched—when he worked as a manager and organizer. It is why a high school in Arkansas is honored to have a small piece of the Mount Vernon landscape on its campus.



 Plaque marking the Tulip Poplar at ASMSA. Image credit Corey Alderdice.

Plaque marking the Tulip Poplar at ASMSA. Image credit Corey Alderdice.

Remembering Mount Vernon's Enslaved Population

This past week I was fortunate enough to participate in the Gilder Lehrman Institute (GLI) “Era of George Washington” summer teacher seminar. The GLI very generously fully funds around thirty of these seminars all across the country (with one in Edinburgh!) every summer. At each one, about two dozen k-12 teachers, k-12 librarians, park service rangers, etc. get together with a senior scholar and a GLI master teacher to discuss a particular historical topic and learn how to better teach that topic.

Mount Vernon Sunset

Gordon Wood, Alva O. Way University Professor emeritus at Brown University, led the “Era of George Washington” seminar along with Gloria Sesso, GLI master teacher. Perhaps the best part of the seminar was its location: Mount Vernon. Not only did we get to do a number of private tours that went well beyond what a typical visitor might see, but we also had free run of the grounds after hours. You really cannot beat enjoying a sunset from George Washington’s back porch—simply magnificent. 

I am going to write at least one more post about Mount Vernon in the near future, but I wanted to start off with a post about the cemetery for the plantation’s enslaved population. Located not too far from Washington’s final tomb, the cemetery had three different posted markers, and, in conjunction, the three demonstrate changing interpretations of slavery.

1929 Marker

The first marker, placed in 1929, said it was in memory of “the many faithful colored servants” of the Washingtons. It is inappropriate to criticize the marker for using the word “colored” to describe the slaves of African descent, because that was considered an appropriate term at the time—see, for example, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909). 

What is problematic, however, is calling the enslaved workers “faithful.” These individuals typically resisted their enslavement in a variety of ways, and many tried to escape (some were successful, some not—the most noteworthy failed attempts to escape George Washington were of seven men and women who were re-enslaved after the Revolutionary War when the British returned them to Mount Vernon; seventeen had run away to the British earlier in the war). But, perhaps most insidiously, the marker plays into the trope of the benevolent slave master who presumably was a sort of father figure to the enslaved. They, in turn, loved and respected the master and were “faithful” for the master’s kind treatment. The “mammy” stereotype, as an example, well fits within this particular interpretation.

But, unsurprisingly, it’s a bad interpretation. Calling the enslaved “faithful” to the Washingtons does damage to their history, perspective, and historical agency. And it seems particularly distasteful at a cemetery. 

Times change, though, and there are other markers there that do a better job. I particularly want to stress how impressed I am that the Mount Vernon Ladies Association (MVLA; it owns Mount Vernon) has not removed the 1929 marker. It would be very easy to try and cover up an unpleasant past, but the MVLA is respectful of the past and leaves the 1929 marker to help educate people about why past interpretations have been eschewed for modern ones. Clearly, the MVLA has made significant strides over the course of nearly a century. Kudos to the organization.

1983 Marker

Students from nearby Howard University, an historically black university, helped the MVLA establish the second marker in 1983 after a minor kerfuffle in the Washington Post that the original marker had become overgrown and forgotten.  Chastised and embarrassed, the MVLA has had a permanent marker at the site since then. The 1983 marker is beautiful and moving, but it too has language that can be unpacked.

The 1983 marker has shifted from calling the enslaved “colored” to instead calling them “Afro Americans.” More importantly, any sort of language about them being “faithful” was excised, as were all references to their masters at all. The memorial is about the enslaved peoples of Mount Vernon, and the new marker appropriately focuses exclusively on them. The actual structure of the marker rests upon a three tiered dais, with each level representing one of "faith," "hope," and "love." Love, being the greatest of these, is at the top.

Archaeological Team Marker

Interestingly, however, the enslaved workers are called “slaves.” While this was considered appropriate language in the past (even likely five years ago), in recent years language that emphasizes the humanity of enslaved peoples has become preferred. A shift from calling them “slaves” to calling them “enslaved people” focuses first on their personhood while emphasizing that enslavement was a violence done to the enslaved. 

The current-day sign explaining the archaeological dig in the cemetery thus uses this language and also mentions William Lee by name. Lee, sometimes called Billy Lee (he preferred “William”), served as Washington’s valet for many years, including during the entire Revolutionary War. Mentioning Lee by name further helps recover the past of enslaved peoples and also attempts to keep their humanity as in tact as possible. The newest sign thus represents an important shift, as does the archaeological effort to locate every grave within the cemetery.


You can see in the final photo a small section of the dig. I added a red line to highlight the gravesite just above it. The grave is a slightly darker yellow than the surrounding soil because a deep grave would stir up darker yellow Virginia clay. Even well over a century later, this difference can be seen just a few inches below the surface. The Mount Vernon archaeological team is doing a laudable job to help uncover and preserve the history of enslaved individuals on the property. 

In all, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association should be commended for shifting both their language and attitudes in ways that better respect the lives of Mount Vernon’s enslaved population. And the evolution of graveyard markers helps demonstrate that shift, reminding us that our understandings of the past can sometimes tell us more about ourselves than they do past peoples.

Celebrating Student Research

With this blog post, I want to celebrate research papers written by three of my U.S. history students this semester. The students below** each wrote superb essays highlighted by strong research, clear prose, and insightful arguments. Each paper may be downloaded from the link available on the paper's title.

One of the class objectives on my course syllabus was: “Demonstrate an appreciation for the historian’s craft, including the ability to develop and critically evaluate arguments based on evidence, especially primary sources, and separate long-held assumptions and myths from historical interpretations that are supportable by evidence.”

To that end, at least once a week this school year we worked with primary sources (we use several excellent document readers to supplement our not-so-excellent textbook). With the research paper, I expected students to put what they had learned all year to practice and become historians themselves.

The actual paper could have been on any topic in U.S. history, was to be four-to-five pages, have original, primary source research, be placed within the historiography, and argue for a larger idea within U.S. history. (I always push my students to find “the big idea,” just as my mentors did to me.) Each of these student essays did that.

Quite a few of my students wrote very good papers, but these three in particular stood out to me. Our school does not offer any sort of formal awards for our U.S. history courses, but I wanted to recognize these students for their excellent work. It is lamentable how few avenues exist to praise research done by undergraduate and high school history students. This is my small attempt at a corrective measure.

**     **     **     **     **

Carson Cato, “Sputnik and the American People”

Cato’s (he goes by his last name) paper stood out for a number of reasons. Most especially, I was impressed with the way he used New York Times articles as a proxy for U.S. public opinion on Sputnik. While his conclusion is not abnormal—Sputnik caused the U.S. public to feel “trepidation and inferiority”—the research truly shows this idea. Moreover, the paper is well written, well placed within the historiography, and thoughtful in terms of its treatment of the connection between the media, government, and public opinion.

Calista Keck, “The Lynching of Jesse Washington”

Cali’s paper details the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. Even though the event was horrific, Cali excelled in crafting a clear narrative full of argumentative vigor. With sharp research, especially including visual sources, Cali demonstrated that, while the residents of Waco normalized the assault and considered it justice, a significant portion of the rest of the country, led by the NAACP, found the event reprehensible. The end result was greater public recognition of the practice of lynching, which eventually helped lead to the practice’s downfall.

Landon Middleton, “Christian Socialism from 1890 to the 1920s”

Landon’s project really took off after we studied the Red Scare of the 1950s. His original research question centered around why anti-communist forces of the 1950s put “In God We Trust” on the U.S. currency and generally believed that socialism and Christianity were entirely antithetical. That question led Landon down the rabbit hole until he arrived at the fin-de-siècle Christian socialism movement. His final essay combined contemporary writings with secondary sources to trace the evolution of Christian socialism from being a social movement to becoming a political movement. In the end, I was most impressed with how he wrote with nuance in describing historical Christianity and socialism, showing a panoply of beliefs among past peoples.


**As a reminder, I teach at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts, a public, residential high school for academically advanced 11th and 12th graders. Since each of these students is a minor, I secured both their and their parents’ permissions to post their essays and identify them by name.

A Magnificent Moment

Being an educator is frequently an enervating experience. We work long hours, feel pressure from multiple fronts, and do so for little pay. But we love it, most of us. We seize upon particular moments where everything comes together like the carefully designed ending of a novel. I had one of those moments a few weeks ago.

Over spring break, one of my U.S. history students went to France with her family and visited Normandy Beach. In class, we were in the middle of a unit on World War II, which straddled the break. When she returned, she came to my office hours somewhat sheepishly, and started talking with great feeling about her trip.

My student told me how moving it was to visit the site of the D-Day landing, and how standing on the beach was a watershed moment. She told me that, as she stood at the liminal space where the waves lapped at the shore, she stared up at the hills where Nazi machine gun nests would have been. After describing this moment to me, she said, “I don’t think I would have gotten it if not for your class—I wouldn’t have been able to understand what it must have been like and put myself in those soldiers’ shoes on both sides.”

This was, of course, quite a moving moment for me as well. We always wonder whether our lessons actually mean anything to our students. For me, the notion of perspective likely remains my most fundamental idea in history education—if you cannot understand an event from the multiple perspectives of all historical actors involved, you do not truly understand an event. But to hear my student telling me that her experience on Normandy Beach mattered so much because of the idea of perspective? It was, in all honesty, a tremendous moment as a teacher.

What she did next blew me away. My student pulled out a small bag and removed from it a small glass jar (pictured right). The jar had sand from Omaha Beach that she had carried for me all the way across the pond. (If you are wondering, the sand is incredibly fine, almost like a dust. It is, for lack of a better word, beautiful, perfect sand.)

For one of the few times in my life, I was speechless. Not only had she thought of me during that experience, but it had been impactful enough that she went out of her way to bring back something of that memory to share with me. It was simply a magnificent moment as an educator.

I know this comes off as a “humble brag,” but I do not really care. The interaction meant a great deal to me, and I wanted to preserve that feeling here and share it with others. And, I wanted to hope that each of you have a similar experience sometime soon, even if I know you probably will not. Because, if you are a teacher, you know that these moments are few and far between—that is why we need to hold onto them so tightly.