Rosalind Franklin

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[An absolutely fantastic photograph of Rosalind Franklin, found in “Rosalind Franklin: A Crucial Contribution” http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/rosalind-franklin-a-crucial-contribution-6538012 ]

Rosalind Franklin, born July 25th, 1920 in London, England, was an Ashkenazi Jewish woman who contributed key scientific advances in the mid-twentieth century. Born to a well off Jewish family in England, she considered herself to be an agnostic Jew who kept many of her cultural traditions while being skeptical of the existence of a higher power.

She was privileged enough to attend one of few London schools that taught the sciences to girls, and at the young age of fifteen she decided that she was going to become a scientist. Enrolling in 1938 at Cambridge where she studied physics and chemistry, she graduated in 1941 and went on to earn a PhD. Franklin went on to fill a post-doctoral position in France, after which she returned to England and worked as a researcher. Throughout her entire career within the academy, she constantly suffered under the extremely sexist climate which prevented women, for example, from entering the dining halls at English universities and therefore keeping them from fully engaging in the scientific community on university campuses. Rosalind Franklin’s most famous contribution to the scientific world involves her research on DNA, specifically related to its double-helix shape.*

Unfortunately, Rosalind Franklin passed away in her mid-thirties from ovarian cancer. Despite being gravely ill towards the end of her life, she continued to research and publish within her field of molecular biology, and was even appointed to a new position mere months before she died. Rosalind Franklin is a testament to the struggles that countless brilliant women have endured working in patriarchal spaces such as Western universities. We here at the Historical Hotties Blog consistently try to address – in our own academic lives – the injustices we see in academia, and we are forever grateful that women such as Rosalind Franklin came before us to help pave the way.

While neither Spirit nor myself are scientists or read much within the various scientific fields, we feel it is important to acknowledge the struggles that women in the sciences have faced and continue to face to this day. Importantly, by highlighting a scientist such as Rosalind Franklin on the Blog, we hope to also force our readers to grapple with the uncomfortable reality that very often women in the sciences (as with other disciplines) face consistent objectification and in mainstream media portrayals of their fields. By featuring Franklin today, we want to acknowledge how oftentimes social constructions of “beauty” or “attraction” are used against various historical subjects in order to invalidate their full, nuanced, and complicated humanity as persons.

Thank you, Rosalind Franklin, for dedicating yourself to the study of science and for doing so unapologetically.

~ M

*While I would explain more about her marvellous work as a scientist, I am remiss to admit that no matter how much I have tried to understand it, this cultural historian has no idea what is going on within the study of DNA – but I encourage you to learn more about her contributions!!

Bibliography

Maddox, Brenda. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012.

Rosalind Franklin

Anna May Wong

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[A black and white photograph of Anna May Wong looking glamorous as all hell circa 1935. Her gaze is focused somewhere behind her and to her right, creating the illusion of ignoring the camera and her onlookers. This photograph is in the public domain, and was found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anna_May_Wong_-_portrait.jpg ]

Today’s post is dedicated to the talented and absolutely fabulous actress known as Anna May Wong. Born Wong Liu Tsong (Yellow Frosted Willow) in Los Angeles early in 1905 to Chinese-American parents who ran a laundry, Wong went on to become one of the only Asian-American actresses of the early to mid-twentieth century in American cinema (Hodges, 1). Beginning her career at a young age, first in silent film and moving into talkies, she worked in the film industry as a renowned actress until her untimely death in 1961.

Her films ranged from 1922’s The Toll of the Sea, 1929’s Piccadilly, 1931’s Daughter of the Dragon, and 1943’s anti-Japanese propaganda film Bombs Over Burma, with her being cast in different “ethnic” roles ranging from Inuit to Mongolian throughout her career. As scholar Anthony B. Chan notes in Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961), Wong’s varied roles were “designed to reveal an exotic, stern, and mysterious Asian being rather than a matter-of-fact person who relished the art of repartee. Her films served to create an aura of aloofness that seemed to encourage a sexual encounter but at the same time pushed aside the possibility of touching and intimacy” (Chan, 193).

Wong was constantly cast as the “ultimate cinematic tease” in Hollywood films (Chan, 193), as a stereotypical “Dragon Lady” in her early years, leading her to leave for Europe in search of more fulfilling roles that did not rely on her playing a supporting “exotic” character. By leaving the United States film industry for the industries flourishing in Europe, she was able to escape being constantly typecast as an exotic supporting role, which came out of a combination of anti-miscegenation laws that disallowed her from having on-screen romances with anyone who was not Asian and from Euro-American actresses constantly being cast in yellow-faced leading Asian roles. Eventually, she was signed on to Paramount in the 1930s and returned to the United States after starring in several European films of varying success. As her fame grew in the United States during the 1930s, she began to advocate on behalf of the Chinese-American community and new Chinese refugees during a time of extreme anti-Asian racism and hostility in the United States that had begun with the California Gold Rush in the mid-nineteenth century and continued on throughout the next century.

Wong’s career spanned a breadth of roles, from stereotypical and offensive to witty and empowering, that constantly subverted Euro-American expectations of (East) Asian-American women. She was an “icon to the people of Chinese North America” who wrote tongue-in-cheek signatures on publicity photos destined for Euro-Americans, such as “Orientally yours” (Chan, xii;  Hodges, xvii). Anna May Wong’s life leads us to interrogate the ways that rebellion and subversion often co-exist with what, at times, appear to be the upholding of oppressive norms. Furthermore, Wong’s “exoticized” beauty forces us to grapple with the ways in which beauty is often weaponized against particular gendered and racialized historical subjects, leading to a forced simplification of an individual’s complexity and humanity. Wong’s sexualized appeal as a racialized subject of White fetishes regarding East Asian women is an essential aspect in understanding the complicated history of media portrayals of Asian women that reverberate into the present day.

We here at the HHBlog have the utmost respect for trail-blazing women like Anna May Wong and hope that in detailing a little bit of her life in all of its intricacies, we have inspired you to think critically about the way women living at the intersections of fetishized and sexualized racism resist, rebel, and survive.

~ M

Bibliography

Chan, Anthony B. Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961). Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2007.

Hodges, Graham Russell Gao. Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012.

Tiana (Thi Thanh Nga). “THE LONG MARCH: From Wong to Woo: Asians in Hollywood.” Cinéaste 21, no. 4 (1995): 38-40. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41687420.

Anna May Wong

The Amistad Africans

We here at the Blog dedicate ourselves each week to writing a post on a person (or set of people) that has been in some way marginalized, written out of mainstream historical narratives, or dismissed as unimportant for various reasons. We spend a lot of our time for each post researching the person/people in question, writing up a short but still informative post, and editing to make sure there aren’t too many glaring mistakes, inaccuracies, or problems with what we choose to present our readers with each week. Some posts come easier than others, not because of an assumed superficiality of the historical subject we are writing about but for various other reasons. Other posts – at least for myself – take on a fourth step in my “research-write-edit” (repeat) process. That fourth step often includes a self-critical (re)evaluation of the entire post and the Blog.

The responsibility that comes with running a blog named Historical Hotties weighs heavily when you are trying to both bring attention to oft-overlooked historical figures or their communities without simultaneously fetishizing or bringing unwanted bigotry to their descendants or present-day communities. Today’s post grapples more clearly with those issues than perhaps other posts, specifically because the subjects were a group of Black men and four Black children who were captured, enslaved, and brought across the Middle Passage to the Americas (Turtle Island). The present-day issues of how to commemorate and celebrate their resilience without romanticizing or fetishizing suffering and oppression are key questions that we must deal with here at the Blog, and that historians working both within and outside of the academy must be held accountable to. These issues are also layered with the larger questions of who has claims to what history. These questions present themselves differently to those of us who write about our own people’s histories versus those of us who write about the histories of peoples who we do not come from.

With these questions in mind, for today’s post we present to you the history of the Amistad Africans (as they are commonly and presently referred to). The story of the Amistad Africans is one that many historians of enslavement will be familiar with, or fans of Steven Spielberg films will be at least vaguely familiar with. The Amistad Africans were a group of forty-nine adult men and four children who were originally from interior Mende country in what is present-day southern Sierra Leone (Osagie, 4). These fifty-three people were kidnapped in 1836 and sold into enslavement to two Spanish slavers, Pedro Montes and José Ruiz, who then proceeded to force them across the Atlantic Ocean along the Middle Passage until they reached the Caribbean. Stopping in La Habana and switching ships to La Amistad, their ultimate destination was Puerto Príncipe.

On the third night en route from La Habana to Puerto Príncipe, the forty-nine Mende men revolted after the ship’s cook Celestino taunted them with cannibalism. Senbge Pieh (one of the Mende men) incited the other men to action: “We may as well die trying to be free, as to be killed and eaten” (as quoted in Osagie, 5). Senbge with the help of another man, Grabeau, broke out of his chains and once all of the men were freed from their iron collars, proceeded to grab cane knives and kill the captain and the cook. In the ensuing rebellion, two of the Mende men were killed and two Spanish seamen managed to escape by boat. Ruiz and Montes – the men who were to hold the Amistad Africans in enslavement – were captured and became prisoners on the ship. However, as none of the Mende men knew how to navigate La Amistad, they depended on their prisoners Ruiz and Montes to aid them back to Africa.

Ruiz and Montes by day travelled east, and by night steered La Amistad west and north, hoping to land in the United States. After two months, eight people dying of various illnesses, and a quickly depleting food supply, they eventually reached Long Island, New York. The Amistad Africans, after attempting to negotiate with local captains, were captured by the navy and taken prisoner where they would spend the next twenty-seven months in captivity. On August 27th, 1836, La Amistad was towed to New London, Connecticut and the story soon turned into an international incident as the enslaved people’s worth exceeded an estimated $70,000, leading the case to be taken up by the American court system. The case was presided over by pro-enslavement judges where the adult Amistad Africans were tried with murder and piracy.

While the case developed in Connecticut, abolitionists began to take notice, including Dwight Janes who went to the August 29th hearing and learned that the Mende men and four children had been brought to La Habana directly from Mende country despite the Atlantic Slave Trade being legally “over” (although, of course, in practice this was not the case). The editor of the Emancipator Rev. Joshua Leavitt and Simeon Jocelyn (a White minister in New Haven’s first Black church) along with the businessman and abolitionist Lewis Tappan soon rallied in support with Janes, hoping to meet the needs of the Amistad Africans in regards to their legal defense (Osagie, 7). The group of abolitionists who took it upon themselves to provide legal counsel eventually found John Ferry, a free Black Mende man living in New York, who served as the initial interpreter in the early stages of the case. Eventually another free Black Mende man, James Covey, took on the role of interpreter for the duration of the case.

The case proceeded to gain more attention not only within the United States but in Cuba, Spain, and Great Britain. However, it was not the attention of other imperial powers that swayed the former President John Quincy Adams to eventually take on the case in front of the Supreme Court. It was instead the words of two of the Amistad Africans, Kali and Kinna (sometimes spelled Kenna) who wrote to him, pleading for his legal aid. Adams took on the case, with the Supreme Court upholding the rulings of lower courts stating that the Amistad Africans (only thirty-five of whom were still alive at this point) were not enslaved but instead free men illegally kidnapped from Africa, pointing to the Atlantic Slave Trade’s illegal status in 1836 as proof of their freedom. The Amistad Africans and the Amistad Committee (comprising the many abolitionists who came to their aid) raised money to return to Mende country by various means including going on church speaking tours and making crafts (Osagie, 18). Eventually, the thirty-five remaining Amistad Africans made it back to their homeland by sailing with a group of White and Black American missionaries.

We here at the Blog tip our proverbial hats to the resistance the Amistad Africans enacted against their enslavement, both the violent aspects of their rebellion and the non-violent ones such as the letters Kali and Kinna wrote to John Quincy Adams. The histories of these fifty-three Mende people point us in various directions, including being cognizant of the history we are literally living on top of. As a student at Yale University, an institution built on stolen Indigenous land and with the funds of enslavement as its source of original wealth, in New Haven, it is important for me to engage with the history of the place I live in, and this includes situating myself in relation to this history that partly took place in New Haven, Connecticut (located on Quinnipiac Territory). Alongside the familiarity with the history of particular places that academic spaces are found in, the histories of the Amistad Africans also forces us to recon with questions regarding the limits of utilizing the (il)legality of settler colonial and imperial states in seeking justice; of how piracy was often depicted as a specifically racialized threat; and of how transnational histories of enslavement and resistance engage with one another across and along the Atlantic.

We hope our readers take it upon themselves to seek out histories of resistance such as those of the Amistad Africans, or at least in learning a little bit about the places we variously call “home.”

~ M

Bibliography:

Osagie, Iyunolu Folayan. The Amistad Revolt: Memory, Slavery, and the Politics of Identity in the United States. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

 

 

The Amistad Africans

Look for More Historical Hotties This Friday September 9th!

 

Hello wonderful beauties of the Internet!

We hope that all of our readers have enjoyed their summers (if you live in a part of the world that experienced these past few months as summer, that is) and that those of you who are heading back to school are excited at the prospect of new classes. On our end, we are (as always) eager and maybe a teeny bit anxious to get back into the rigmarole of formalized post-secondary schooling.

Monique has spent the last few months (read: year) working in the service industry all the while devouring all the books, articles, blog posts, and Twitter threads she can on all things historical, political, and cultural. As of this very moment, Monique is beginning her doctoral studies at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut in Mexican and Mexican-American twentieth century cultural history. Since this is a new and exciting next step in Monique’s academic career, things might get a little hectic with readings but that will just mean there will be that many more Historical Hotties to choose from each week!

Spirit spent fall 2015 and spring 2016 doing the coursework portion of her doctoral programme. Since late spring she has been in a state of ecstatic reading for her comprehensive examinations in spring 2017. For Spirit this means relishing fantastic secondary literature on “early modern” Europe (her major field), gender and material culture (her minor) and “modern” Canada (her other minor), all of which is not only providing her with all kinds of insights about these subjects, but also helping her in her constant refashioning of her own approach to historical studies. Additionally, Spirit still cannot believe that it’s currently her job to read all year. Childhood-Spirit’s dream has come true.

As you can see from what both Spirit and Monique have been up to over these last few months, our brief Historical Hotties Blog hiatus was not spent slacking! With this new school year, we hope to bring you new Historical Hotties to feast your eyes and minds on, all while challenging historically oppressive standards of beauty and paying tribute to the wonderful rabble-rousers, rebels, and radicals that have come before us. As you’ll see once we get the proverbial ball rolling again, Monique will be writing the majority of posts for the foreseeable future as Spirit is busy spending quality time with the books on her reading lists and, by extension, the (often comparatively well-known) historical actors that occupy them. But don’t worry, you’ll still have plenty of Historical Hotties to read about as the weeks go by and we get deeper into our favourite season, autumn, aka the season of hot tea, old books, and comfy study nooks.

~ Monique and Spirit

 

 

Look for More Historical Hotties This Friday September 9th!