Archive for March, 2012

Alison Efford in Samoa–on serendipity and field research

Dr. Efford continues her account of recent sabbatical research trips to New Zealand and Samoa.  Here she reminds of us the importance of serendipity when doing history. 

My first research trip to Samoa had its frustrations. Internet access was unpredictable. I usually turned up to appointments damp with sweat despite being scantily clad by local standards. My contact at the main university had left for New Zealand a week before I arrived, and the archives of the Catholic archdiocese were unavailable after being hastily relocated twice since the 2009 tsunami.

While the challenges of working in a small and tropical developing nation (when “Samoa” is unqualified, it refers to the islands that are not American territory) were rather predictable, the rewards were quite unexpected. I had not counted on Samoans being so willing to help out a sweaty palagi (white) woman who turned up asking odd questions about events long ago. Fa’afetai lava (thank you very much) to Amela Silipa and Vaveao Toa at the Ministry of Education, Sports, and Culture, to Rev. Father Kolio Kelekolio, the Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Samoa-Apia, to Lalotoa Mulitalo, a legislative drafter and doctoral student at Australia’s University of Queensland, and to Leasiolagi Dr. Malama Meleisea, a distinguished historian who now serves as a judge.

The Apia clock tower with a billboard marking the fiftieth anniversary of Samoan independence.

Ordinary Samoans were also prepared to talk history. Taxi drivers, waiters, and school children were eager to discuss the fiftieth anniversary of Samoan independence from New Zealand. Apia, the capital, is preparing for celebrations in June with a rash of construction and beautification.

When I wondered aloud whether all this activity was mostly for the benefit of foreign dignitaries, everyone assured me how much the anniversary mattered to them—and not just because it will be marked by a week-long public holiday! Samoans are very proud to have shaken off colonial rule before their Pacific neighbors.

Continue reading ‘Alison Efford in Samoa–on serendipity and field research’


Andrew Kahrl on the history of segregated beaches in New Orleans

Here’s a recent article by Andrew Kahrl in Louisiana Cultural Vistas on the history of segregated beaches in New Orleans.  See pages 68-77 (starts on page 70 of the viewer at the bottom).  Those interested in this subject should check out his book, The Land Was Ours: African American Beaches from Jim Crow to the Sunbelt South, which comes out in April.  Congrats Andrew!

Andrew Kahrl is an assistant professor of US and African American History.  We look forward to the publication of his first book (listed above) by Harvard University Press.

Alison Efford in New Zealand–Constitutions and Histories

Dr. Efford on constitutions as a lens for looking at the past and present in New Zealand and the US.

I am an historian of the United States. I am also, among other things, a New Zealander. I have always imagined that my outsider’s perspective brings something distinctive to American history. But on my latest trip home (reconnaissance for a project on Samoa), I thought the tables might turn. Perhaps my American training could offer useful insights into developments in the country of my birth. New Zealanders are performing a constitutional review, and the American past has a lot to say about constitutions.

Americans penned state constitutions as they struggled for independence from Great Britain in the 1770s and then framed the capital-C Constitution to strengthen the central government. New Zealanders, on the other hand, never codified their fundamental law. The country slowly grew apart from Britain, and centralization is not much of an issue when your population only numbers 4.2 million!

Te Whare Runanga (the meeting house) at the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi, Aotearoa/New Zealand

New Zealand has no capital-C constitution. Its system has developed incrementally through the interpretation of English common law and the passage of parliamentary legislation regarding representation and individual rights. The closest thing New Zealand has to what Americans might recognize as a constitution is the Treaty of Waitangi. This document, signed in 1840, was an agreement between envoys from Britain and representatives of Maori, New Zealand’s original inhabitants. The Maori signees recognized the Crown’s authority in return for the recognition of their tino rangatiratanga (chieftainship) over their land, homes, and other taonga (treasures). (The definition of “tino rangatiratanga” and “taonga” is contested—and significant since Maori signed a Maori version of the Treaty.)

Although Pakeha (European) New Zealanders repeatedly disregarded the capital-T Treaty for well over a century, during the 1970s, Maori began to use it to reclaim some of the power wrested from them by force of arms, deception, and demographics. Parliament established a tribunal to redress grievances under the Treaty and thus elevated the document’s legal standing. This process provides the context for the current constitutional review. The Maori Party (just one of the many groups that represent Maori today) requested the formal public discussion in return for its support for the center-right National Party in parliament.

Continue reading ‘Alison Efford in New Zealand–Constitutions and Histories’

Tim McMahon at the American Conference for Irish Studies

Tim McMahon on his recent experience at the ACIS conference held in New Orleans.

Marquette’s spring break provided me with the chance to attend the annual meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies (ACIS), which was hosted by Tulane University in New Orleans from March 14 through the 17th.  Attendance was at its highest total to date—more than 450 presenters from twelve countries gathered in the Crescent City—a place with a long long history of Irish immigration.  Scholars came from a wide range of disciplines, including Irish literature, history, political science, folklore, and anthropology.

The serious business of the meeting was remarkable for its breadth, and I for one was impressed by the high level of research on display.  Literary giants, such as Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett, received attention of course, as did discussion of the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland; Ireland’s place in the wider world, both past and present, also was a theme that emerged in several sessions, including one that I chaired on Ireland and Empire in the latter-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.  As we considered the program, my colleagues and I noted two themes that stood out across the entirety of the program: the critical mass of interdisciplinary scholarship and the richness of transnational comparisons, in subjects ranging from anti-colonial struggle to women’s work in and outside of the home.  We also noted the challenges we commonly face when economic uncertainty makes it difficult to undertake long-term research.

Continue reading ‘Tim McMahon at the American Conference for Irish Studies’

Part two thoughts from China–Pollution

Daniel Meissner continues his observations from China

Where does China get the electricity?  Tens of thousands of high rise buildings house Guangzhou’s 13 million people.  Every family has an apartment loaded with electric appliances, from the essential water boilers, refrigerators, and air conditioners, to water heaters, hot plates, televisions, clothes washers, rice cookers, microwaves, drinking water coolers/heaters, computers, and rechargeable I-pods, tablets and cell phones.  The cities are lit like Los Vegas with hundreds of skyscrapers radiating color (in addition to office lighting), huge televisions beaming advertisements, trees hung with colored lights, and incalculable numbers of neon signs and  billboards.  Energy conservation does not seem to be a topic of concern.

Ironically, pollution is an issue.  One afternoon a couple weeks ago, I was gazing out the window of my daughter’s apartment in Shenzhen at the beautiful view of the harbor and distant mountains of Hong Kong.  In the matter of an hour or two, however, first the distant mountains disappeared, then the intermediate lights of the city, and finally the apartment towers across the bay.  A deep brown smog had enveloped the entire region.  Some of the pollution was certainly due to the rising number of cars already clogging the new highway systems, and some due to the tremendous volume of manufacturing that drives the economy of this region.  Certainly, however, a good portion of that brown haze was due to coal-produced electricity.

A billion-plus people in China can’t have it all.  Like Americans, they want the conveniences of a modern life, from cell phones to cars, with everything in between.  They want to celebrate their success with glitzy cities and conspicuous consumption.

But they also want to provide the best life possible for their one child.  Such opposing objectives will require Chinese to prioritize, attain some consensus, and then advocate for change.  Very soon.

Some initial thoughts from China

Daniel Meissner recently received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach a course in China on Sino-American relations.  He’ll also be working on his second book, “Seward’s Shanghai: The Roots of American Diplomacy in China?”  He shares some thoughts on the changes in China since the last time he taught there nearly thirty years ago.

So much has changed in China over the past thirty years that it’s hard to know where to start.  Perhaps, I should begin with some of the most obvious observations.

Thirty years ago, streets were packed curb to curb with bicycles and pedestrians.  A few buses and even fewer cars crawled through the crowds with horns blaring, parting the sea of humanity that quickly closed behind them.

Today, bicycles have all but disappeared (no bike lanes on the dangerously busy streets), replaced by a fleet of cars (German luxury cars seem popular), modern buses, fleets of taxis, and sleek subway systems.  Despite an impressive intra- and inter-city highway system, however, traffic snarls and jams have slowed some city streets to about the speed of bicycle travel three decades ago, with no end in sight as thousands of new cars are added to the system each day.

Thirty years ago, isolation was a Chinese reality.  The campus where I taught had few phones, and a call home literally took hours (and a small fortune) to complete.  Students gathered at our house to watch one of the 4-5 stations on our prized television, and of course, no internet was available.  A highway system did not exist and only the major cities had airports.  Trains connected key cities, but jolting, dirty, non-heated/air conditioned buses were the primary means of transportation to most other urban areas.

Today, instant access has unified the country.  Taxis, modern buses and subways whisk travelers (engrossed in their iPhone messaging) from one corner of the sprawling cities to another.  Continue reading ‘Some initial thoughts from China’

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