Mary Ann Shadd Cary

Mary_Ann_Shadd

[A fantastic photograph of Mary Ann Shadd Cary that is in the public domain, and can also be found at the National Archives of Canada. Photographs like this are important at multiple levels, one of which being that they attest to the widespread popularity of Victorian styles of dress and hair outside of whitewashed images of the Victorian Era]

While a name that perhaps many Canadians do not recognize, Mary Ann Shadd Cary (née Mary Ann Shadd) was an important woman to the intertwined histories of abolitionism and Black publishing in 19th c Canada and the USA. Born in Delaware, USA in 1823, Mary Ann Shadd and her family moved to Pennsylvania when the education of African American children was made illegal in the state of Delaware. After attending a Quaker school in Pennsylvania, the Shadd family again moved – this time north to what would become confederated in 1867 as the settler state of Canada – following the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. The Shadds moved to famed North Baxton, ON, a town founded in 1849 by African Americans escaping enslavement in the United States. Mary Ann and her brother Isaac, however, moved to Windsor, ON, where she went on to found a racially integrated school.

While her brother Isaac most certainly deserves a blog post on his own (he helped host planning parties for the raid on Harper’s Ferry led by John Brown), it is Mary Ann Shadd Cary who we wish to praise today on the blog. Beginning in March 1853, Shadd began publishing The Provincial Freeman, making her the first Black woman publisher in North America and the first woman publisher in Canada (you can even see her featured in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, NMAAHC, in Washington, DC!). Through both her newspaper (co-published with Rev. Samuel Ringgold Ward) and the school she helped found, Mary Ann Shadd was a fierce advocate for the self-education of Black people in North America. The Provincial Freeman, as with other Black owned and operated newspapers of this era, was essential in developing and strengthening transnational, diasporic community ties. Shadd, along with other Black activist abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, was a fierce advocate of racially integrated schooling. She was also an essential proponent of moral uplift which, while problematic, was a pivotal movement of Black activism amongst middle class Black women during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Mary Ann Shadd eventually went on to marry Thomas F. Cary, a barber in Toronto, whom she had two children with. After Thomas’s death, she and her children moved to the USA, where she helped recruit Black soldiers for the Union Army during the Civil War. After the end of the Civil War, Mary Ann Shadd Cary became the second Black woman in the United States to earn a law degree – which she achieved at the age of 60! Shadd Cary continued her activism until old age, working alongside other suffragettes to earn the right to vote for women. She, amongst countless other Black women in Canada and the United States during the 19th c, fought for the rights of Black people in multiple spheres of engagement. By doing so, she demonstrated a keen and astute political awareness of how each sphere of inequality and injustice is intertwined and must be addressed in conjunction with one another.

~ M

Bibliography

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2016 [Revised edition].

Conaway, Carol B. “Racially Integrated Education: The Antebellum Thought of Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Frederick Douglass.” Vitae Scholasticae Vol. 27 Issue 2 (2010): 86-104.

“The Provincial Freeman.” Last modified January 25, 2012. Accessed August 29, 2017. https://web.archive.org/web/20120126000215/http://www.archives.gov.on.ca/english/archival-records/interloan/provincial-freeman.aspx

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Mary Ann Shadd Cary

Inés of Herrera

Today I’m tipping my hat to late 15th-century conversa mystic, Inés of Herrera, as I find myself once again reading about a woman (well, a girl, actually) who was investigated—and in this tragic case, executed (1500)—by the Inquisition as a result of not only practicing her religion, but also publicising it. That said, most of the women mystics I come across are Christian. Thus, Inés and her ardent followers remind us that Christians were hardly the only Europeans filled with religious zeal in this period.

Inés was born c. 1488. In her late childhood, Inés began to have visions and transcendent experiences in which her deceased mother and angels accompanied her on ascents to heaven. As a result of her experiences, Inés began to prophesy about the deliverance of her co-religionists, Spanish conversos/conversas (Jews converted forcibly and otherwise to Christianity), to the Promised Land, as well as the coming of Elias (who would announce the coming of the Messiah in 1500). Despite having been coerced and even violently forced to convert to Christianity, many of her co-religionists lent her their eager ears. Adults and children alike travelled to Herrera to hear her prophecies, as well her messages about the importance of following the 10 Commandments, fasting, and observing the Sabbath. What I love most about this is that many of those who came to visit Inés were (or claimed to be?) tanners and shoemakers travelling under the guise of doing business. Inés’s father, Juan Esteban, was a shoemaker and tanner by trade, and would invite travelling colleagues ostensibly in Herrera to buy leather to his home to meet his daughter.

In 1499, Inés and her enthusiastic followers came to attention of the Inquisition. Although she and many of her followers were investigated and punished (with various degrees of severity and “lenience”), surviving inquisitorial records literally testify to the expressions of Jewish joy that Inés and her prophesies generated in the community. Many children were especially fervent followers of hers, and records mention how they played, danced, and sang in her presence.

Haim Beinart, throughout her chapter in Inés in Women and the Inquisition: Spain and the New World, points out that the records surrounding Inés’s case reveal how the Jewish faith remained very much alive among many conversos/conversas (at least those in and around Herrera) following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Despite having been coercively converted (at best), testimonies from Inés’s case show Jewish perseverance in their frequent references to passages from the Hebrew Bible, as well as the reports of fasting and Sabbath observance.

~S

 

Bibliography

This entire post is based on information found in:

Beinart, Haim. “Inés of Herrera del Duque: The Prophetess of Extremadura.” In Women and the Inquisition: Spain and the New World. Edited by Mary E. Giles (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 42-52.

Inés of Herrera

Octavia E. Butler

Octavia-Butler_612x380

[A photograph of Octavia E. Butler looking absolutely resplendent, found on the blog http://www.winnovating.com/octaviabutlerwinnovatingsciencefiction/]

Here at the HHBlog, we like to highlight people from both the distant and not-so-distant past who have inspired us in their radical, rabble-rousing, or otherwise rebellious ways. The fantastically-talented science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler is one such person, who has remained a captivating literary powerhouse for generations.

Octavia Estelle Butler was born in 1947 in Pasadena, California to a domestic working mother (Octavia Margaret Guy) and shoe-shining father (Laurence James Butler) and was raised predominantly by her mother and maternal family after her father’s untimely death.  In 1968 she earned an Associate of Arts degree from Pasadena’s Community College, and later attended California State University in Los Angeles and UCLA. For the next several years, she studied  at the Screenwriter’s Guild Open Door Program and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop where she took a class with her soon-to-be-mentor, Harlan Ellison in science fiction. In 1971, she published her first science fiction short story, beginning a long and successful career as a science fiction and speculative fiction writer.

Although she published many works of science fiction during the 1970s, it was not until the publication of her absolutely brilliant 1979 novel Kindred that she was able to support herself  solely off of her work as a writer. While Kindred is one of her most well-known literary works outside of the science fiction literary community, she also published the Xenogenesis trilogy, Earthseed series, and many other novels and short stories. Throughout her career, she won the Hugo Award multiple times, the Nebula Award, the Locus Award, and in 1995 was the first science fiction writer to be awarded the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (aka ‘the Genius Grant’). Butler continued to win awards for her work even after her death in 2006, including being inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010.

Today, we highlight Octavia E. Butler on the Blog for many, many reasons. Butler was an incredibly prolific and talented writer who created multiple immersive worlds out of her use of language. She infused all of her writing with important feminist social commentaries born out of her experiences as a Black woman born into the mid-20th c United States. Butler is an important literary figure in 20th and 21st c science fiction writing for the ways in which her talents and identity were bound up in each other. Rarely are Black women visualized by popular mainstream media when they represent what science fiction writers or science fiction fans look like, despite the fact that Butler is one amongst countless Black writers and fans of science fiction. For these reasons, we here at the Blog wanted to celebrate the genius that was Octavia E. Butler. We also wanted to acknowledge that Black women and other women of colour have been science fiction and speculative fiction writers for the entire history of these genres; women of colour have been creating fictional worlds out of our words for much longer than these genres have been named. Today, we here at the HHBlog give many thanks to Octavia E. Butler and all of the Black women who have written, continue to write, and will write science fiction!

~ M

Bibliography

“About.” The official site of the Pen Lifetime Achievement and MacArthur award winning writer Octavia E. Butler. http://octaviabutler.org/bio/. Accessed July 7, 2017.

“Octavia E. Butler.” Octavia E. Butler Literary Society.  https://oebsociety.wordpress.com/octavia-e-butler/. Accessed July 7, 2017.

Octavia E. Butler

Jeanne Guyon

Today I tip my hat to Jeanne Guyon, a 17th-century Catholic woman mystic, whose religious practices—especially her mode of intensive, interior, constant prayer intended to maintain oneself in the presence of God—and writings lead to her persecution by officials in both the French government and the Catholic Church in France.

Like many early modern women authors, Jeanne was born (1648) to a wealthy family, and her parents had her educated. She was thus privileged with the ability to commit her beliefs to text. Although she became a mystic and author later in life, Jeanne was not an apt pupil, but nevertheless continued to be educated by nuns in various convents as her family moved repeatedly. Though she apparently lacked the makings of a scholar, Jeanne was devoted to her religious life from early on. She desired, at one time, to become a nun, but agreed instead to marry at 15.

After 12 years of marriage, Jeanne was widowed and left with 3 surviving children. As a widow, Jeanne began to teach her beliefs about and methods of prayer, causing controversies in France (and beyond). She was accused of heresy and imprisoned several times (including a 7-year-stint the Bastille). However, she also enjoyed considerable support from many elites. In St. Cyr, Madame de Maintenon, who ran a girls school, invited her to lecture to her pupils.

Jeanne’s adulthood was rife with gains and losses of friends and support (she was asked several times by local authorities to leave towns in which she settled). Indeed, de Maintenon eventually became one of many who cut ties with Jeanne once her controversies caught up with her as she moved from place to place. Even the support of pious courtiers, however, did not prevent her imprisonment after the publication of her book, A Short and Easy Method of Prayer. During her imprisonment Jeanne was forced to renounce her book in exchange for her release. In 1693, with the aim of clearing herself of the socio-religious taint of heterodoxy (Jeanne always considered herself a Catholic), Jeanne requested that Bishop Bossuet (a foremost Catholic cleric who enjoyed the favour of Louis XIV) review her work. He found much of it unorthodox and Jeanne subsequently promised to cease teaching. After a year off the radar, Jeanne tried her luck again. She went to Meaux, home of Bossuet’s cathedral, straddling the line between prisoner and penitent. After 6 months there she escaped with a “certificate of orthodoxy” bearing Bossuet’s signature.

Jeanne’s escape led to her imprisonment in the Bastille. She was released in 1703 on the condition that she live with her adult son in Blois and remain under the supervision of the local bishop. Although she had renounced her writings years before, Jeanne remained devout until her death in 1717, and Blois became pilgrimage site even during her lifetime.

There are a couple of reasons that I wanted to write about Jeanne today (beyond my interest in women mystics). First and foremost, much of the readily available/public sources that discuss Jeanne centre the men in her life. During her earlier years as a spiritual writer and teacher, much is made of one man’s influence over her mind. After her ideas began gathering momentum, another man’s importance to the rise in their popularity is emphasised. Given the patriarchal nature of early modern (and modern) society, I’m sure these men were influential and important, but ultimately Jeanne was the mystic. It was Jeanne who wrote about prayer, her ecstasies, and her experiences of God’s own presence, and it was she who wanted to teach her method of prayer to others. Secondly, Jeanne reminds me to be compassionate when studying history. She didn’t heroically stand by her teachings in the face of indefinite imprisonment; she renounced her greatest work and went on living piously. These actions might not have been as noble as some of those we’ve written about on this blog, but they can remind us that historical hotties respond to hostility in many different ways because at the end of the day they’re “just” people.

~S

Bibliography:

Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Guyon, Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Mothe“. Encyclopædia Britannica. 12 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Degert, Antoine (1913). “Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon“. In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

Jeanne Guyon

Philip Vera Cruz

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[A fantastic photograph of Philip Vera Cruz in later years, found on the great blog https://fromthevcvault.wordpress.com/tag/philip-vera-cruz/]

More often than not, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta are the two people who are most prominently remembered to be associated with agricultural worker’s unionization efforts in the United States. And while they are important in the histories of agricultural labour unions in the United States, the story of the United Farm Workers (UFW) is much larger than them. Rarely if ever does the name Philip Vera Cruz get mentioned in popular histories of the United Farm Workers labour union (UFW) outside of one or two lines, except for perhaps in Asian-American history texts.

Born in 1904 in Saoang, Ilocos Sur, Philippines, Vera Cruz was a critical driving force in unionization efforts amongst a broad racial coalition of agricultural workers in mid-20th c California. At a young age he immigrated to the United States as part of the early wave of Filipinx migration from an American Empire-controlled Philippines, carrying the legacies of American colonial rule to the United States with him. Entering the United States through Seattle in 1926 and later moving to Chicago, Vera Cruz spent his early years in the USA working as a physical labourer and sending money back home to support his family in the Philippines. Following the Second World War, Vera Cruz left Chicago for Delano, California in order to work as an agricultural labourer.

Vera Cruz, along with many other Filipinxs and Filipinx-Americans from his generation became involved in the growing agricultural labour movement after his move to Delano. In the 1950s Vera Cruz became the president of the Delano local of the National Farm Labor Union which represented mostly Filipinxs along with some Mexican and Mexican-American workers. At the same time that he was working in Delano as a farmworker, the demographics of the agricultural workforce were shifting as the Bracero Program (1942-1964) was bringing in thousands of Mexican men, many of whom returned to the USA on a regular basis after their contracts finished or stayed permanently in the USA as undocumented workers.

In 1959, the AFL-CIO organized the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, and within three years César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla, and other agricultural workers created the National Farm Workers Association. The strike that would ultimately provide the catalyst for the nation-wide (and eventually even international) grape boycott and strike took place in September 1965, when the predominantly Filipinx and Filipinx-American workforce voted to strike against the exploitative grape growers in the broader Delano area. The Filipinx community in the United States “had a strong labor consciousness,” in Vera Cruz’s words, because they had been continuously exploited since arriving in the United States decades before, as it was extremely difficult to leave the United States for the Philippines due to geographic, immigration, and economic reasons. Even more, many had left the Philippines while it was under American imperial control and had therefore experienced American capitalist exploitation from even before their move to the USA.

Vera Cruz would go on to play a major role in organizing Filipinxs and Filipinx-Americans through the UFW, which he helped found, all while attempting to balance the delicate and often difficult racial coalition that existed amongst Mexican, Filipinx, Arab, and Black American agricultural workers in the union. Ultimately, Vera Cruz left the UFW (which he served as second vice president at the time) in 1977 over intense ethical and political disagreements with how Chávez led the union, ignited especially in regards to the visit Chávez undertook to the Philippines where human rights abuses were state-sanctioned at the time. Despite leaving the UFW, Philip Vera Cruz continued to be a strong advocate for the labour rights of agricultural workers until his death in 1994.

Vera Cruz remains an important but often overlooked (at least outside of Asian-American academic circles) historical figure who can teach us a lot about the experiences of colonized peoples under American imperial control in Asia, the attempts of some of the most marginal people in capitalist economies – impoverished, racialized agricultural workers – to unionize, and the difficult yet necessary work that goes into creating racial coalitions and solidarities. The effect of Vera Cruz’s activism and life can be felt today in the United States, even if his name remains relatively unfamiliar to many outside of his community. We hear at the HHBlog tip our hats to Vera Cruz, and we hope you seek out more information about him and his radical work as a labour organizer!

~ M

Bibliography

Fujita Rony, Dorothy. “Coalitions, Race, and Labor: Rereading Philip Vera Cruz.”  Journal of Asian American Studies Vol. 3, No. 2 (June 2000): 139-162.

Lyons, Richard D. “Philip Vera Cruz, 89; Helped to Found  Farm Worker Union.” New York Times, June 16, 1994. Accessed June 9, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/16/obituaries/philip-vera-cruz-89-helped-to-found-farm-worker-union.html.

Scharlin, Craig, Lilia Villanueva, and Elaine H. Kim. Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.

Philip Vera Cruz

John Brown

John_Brown_by_Augustus_Washington,_1846-47[A daguerreotype photograph taken by the Black photographer Augustus Washington in Massachusetts during the years 1846-1847. This photograph is in the public domain. This daguerreotype was later reproduced under the title “John Brown from a daguerreotype loaned me by Annie Brown” by Levin C. Handy between 1890-1910 over 40 years after Brown’s death. The Handy photograph’s original caption reads “Regarded as the best picture by the family” – and we certainly can see why!]

Today’s post (coming just a little over a week after his 217th birthday!) is dedicated to the controversial radical, by-any-means-necessary white American abolitionist John Brown. Born in the year 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut, Brown was descended from some of the earliest English Puritan settlers, tracing his family lineage back to 17th c England. After marrying Dianthe Lusk, Brown and his family – including several children – moved to Pennsylvania. After Lusk passed away, he remarried a young woman named Mary Ann Day and moved to Ohio,  where he worked as a hide tanner and sheep breeder (as he had earlier in life). In 1846, he moved yet again (after declaring bankruptcy several years earlier) – this time to Springfield, Massachusetts, which would prove a central turning point in his path towards becoming a radical and violent abolitionist.

Prior to his move to Massachusetts, when abolitionist journalist Elijah P. Lovejoy was murdered, Brown had reportedly declared that “before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery” (as quoted in War and Reconciliation: The Mid-Missouri Civil War Project); however, it would be several years before this sentiment would be put into action. This is not, though, to suggest that Brown had been pro-enslavement previous to 1837. As a devoutly religious man (Calvinist), Brown’s abolitionism was deeply intertwined with his religiosity, especially in relation to how he understood enslavement to be a sin. Nonetheless, his time spent living in Massachusetts was pivotal to his developing abolitionism as he became a parishioner at the famed Sanford Street Free Church, where he encountered Black radical abolitionists such as Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, and became involved in the Underground Railroad. It was his time spent with Douglass that led him to believe that he was “less hopeful for [enslavement’s] peaceful abolition” (as quoted in Carvalho III, 2012). In 1850, because the Fugitive Slave Act had been passed, Brown helped to found the League of Gileadites (in reference to the Biblical Mount Gilead), a militia-style group that prevented the recapture of fugitive slaves. Shortly thereafter, he left Massachusetts for North Elba, New York.

During this time, several of Brown’s adult children were living in the newly established settler territory of Kansas, from whom he learned that there were mounting fears that pro-enslavement settler forces were growing in militancy. Newly founded settler territories such as Kansas proved critical points of contention in a nation built on enslavement, but divided between states who allowed enslavement to operate within their borders (for ex. the Plantation South), and states who profited from enslavement via commerce and indirect trade but viewed themselves to be ‘outside’ of enslavement (for ex. New England). Each new settler territory therefore proved a point of contention – would enslavement be legal or not within its borders? In response to his adult children’s’ concerns regarding growing pro-enslavement militarism, Brown made his way to Kansas in 1855 in attempts to help Kansas go from a territory to a free state. The following years (particularly a set of several months) would come to be known as “Bleeding Kansas” because of the violence that ensued between abolitionists and other anti-enslavement militias, and pro-enslavement militias. During the ensuing violence, one of Brown’s sons was killed by a pro-enslavement militant; Brown and several of his adult sons later fled Kansas in order to raise money amongst abolitionists and their supporters.

John Brown is perhaps most (in)famous in American history for the final years of his life, wherein he and a dedicated few radical abolitionists (including Harriet Tubman and former enslaved Black people living in Ontario) took it upon themselves to plan and lead an insurrection against enslavement, specifically against a federal armoury, hoping that this would set off a domino of other insurrections. In July 1859, Brown began to put his plan into action at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Unfortunately, far fewer people joined him than he anticipated (under 25 altogether, all men under the age of 50 including several Black men). In September of 1859, Brown led the attack on Harpers Ferry which quickly failed, beginning with the first death of the attack accidentally being a free Black man named Hayward Shepherd on an incoming train. Several of the radical abolitionists died, including two of Brown’s sons, in the violence that followed. Brown was eventually captured, put on trial, and found guilty, sentenced to hang in December. On December 2, 1859 Brown was killed by hanging, dying (in his words) “a martyr” for abolitionism. Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry would come to be understood as one of many, many initial catalysts for the American Civil War.

Brown, as other revolutionary figures in history, is often demonized in mainstream white American histories because he resorted to fighting the inhuman violence of enslavement with his own forms of violence. Writing histories of violence can be difficult, especially when confronted with figures such as John Brown who has both been vilified and romanticized for his actions. As there is no such thing as an objective or neutral history, I have not attempted here to hide my biases and subjectivity when writing about John Brown’s commitment to the lives of enslaved Black people in the United States. For me as for many others, the intertwined horrors of enslavement, colonialism, and capitalism far outweigh the moral arguments against John Brown’s use of violence at Harpers Ferry. Brown was a contentious figure during his time – contemporary abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass disagreed with his use of violence to fight enslavement, while others viewed this as the only way out of enslavement – and he has remained a contentious figure to this day. In my view, John Brown was a radical and revolutionary man not without his idiosyncrasies and questionable actions who was willing to lay down his life in order to fight one of the founding violences (enslavement) of the United States. Although a settler and the father of settlers who participated in displacing Indigenous peoples off of their lands, John Brown understood the enmeshed violence of capitalism and enslavement. He and his abolitionist sons were willing to fight by any means necessary against the enslavement of Black people in the United States and the capitalist structures of power that rested upon their stolen labour.

For those who have not always viewed John Brown as anything other than an “unhinged” or “crazy” violent man, it is important to begin to read other accounts of his life. When we remember John Brown, we may recall the words of the late historian Howard Zinn, who wrote that although it was “Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves, not John Brown,” Brown was “hanged, with federal complicity, for attempting to do by small-scale violence what Lincoln would do by large-scale violence several years later – end slavery.” If you are someone who has valourized Lincoln, but demonized Brown, these are important words to jump off from into asking yourself why one form of violence (large-scale war) creates an historical hero of one man, and another form of violence (small-scale rebellion) creates an historical villain in another.

With this, I leave you with the words of John Brown, specifically a dramatic reading of his last speech originally delivered on November 2, 1859 and performed here by actor Josh Brolin. I encourage all of you to go out and search for critical histories of John Brown, whether academic texts or popular ones, books or blogpost, as this short post is just one condensed sliver of the many histories of John Brown.

~ M

“Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.
[…]
I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted that I have done in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments I submit. So let it be done.” – John Brown, November 2, 1859.

Bibliography

“Biography of John Brown.” : War and Reconciliation: The Mid-Missouri Civil War Project. Accessed May 10, 2017. http://law.missouri.edu/bowman/hatts/john_brown/biography.html

“John Brown’s Last Speech.” Teaching A People’s History: Zinn Education Project. Accessed May 10, 2017. https://zinnedproject.org/materials/john-brown/

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: HarperCollins, 1980.

John Brown

Mifune Toshiro (Toshiro Mifune)

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[Mifune Toshiro* for the film Seven Samurai, looking like the talented hunk he was. Photograph courtesy of Janus Film]

Today’s Historical Hottie is none other than the prolific Chinese-born Japanese actor Mifune Toshiro, known in the western world as Toshiro Mifune.* Mifune was born in April 1920 to two Japanese missionaries in Shandong Province, China. After nearly two decades of living in China, he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War and, because of his experience working in his father’s photography studio, served as an aerial photographer.

After the Second World War, Mifune went on to work in the Photography Department of Toho Productions, where he would meet the masterful film director Akira Kurosawa during film auditions. This meeting would go on to shape both of their careers, creating a partnership that spanned 16 films, many of which such as Rashomon (1950) – a personal favourite of mine, Seven Samurai (1954), and Throne of Blood (1957) – another favourite! – influenced, and continue to influence, the art of cinema around the world. Despite later difficulties in their professional relationship, Kurosawa continued to believe that he was “proud of nothing I have done other than with him [Mifune].” His acting career was not, however, limited to just these 16 films with Kurosawa – which would have been prolific on its own. Mifune acted in over 120 films, various TV shows, and inspired the likes of people like Clint Eastwood in his portrayal of a rough, lone warrior. Mifune’s portrayal of samurai and ronin was groundbreaking as, at the time, film representations never ventured into portrayals that centred on rough or coarse characters, but instead depended upon particular stereotypes of refinement which Mifune broke. After a long, illustrious career that at times was wrought with difficulties (a failed film school from the 1980s, for example), Mifune passed away in 1997,

Mifune is one of the most important screen actors of the 20th c, despite the fact that perhaps few outside of cinema lovers know his name or the impact he has had on modern film. At a time when North America was hostile to East Asians, especially Japanese people due not only to the Second World War but decades of anti-Asian racism enshrined in law and culture, Mifune’s rise to worldwide prominence is even more astounding. In honour of Mifune, we here at the HHBlog urge you to check out some of his films if you haven’t already! What better tribute to a rich and creative body of cinema acting than to sit and watch one of his many incredible performances.

~ M

*Traditional Japanese naming customs place the family name first and given name last, unlike common western naming customs which place given name first and family name last.

Bibliography

Lyman, Ryan. “Toshiro Mifune, Actor, Dies at 77; The Primal Hero of Samurai Films.” New York Times. December 25, 1997. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/12/25/movies/toshiro-mifune-actor-dies-at-77-the-primal-hero-of-samurai-films.html

Turan, Kenneth. “Review: In documentary ‘Mifune: The Last  Samurai,’ Spielberg, Scorsese and others  she light on the legendary Japanese actor.” LA Times. December 1, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-mifune-review-20161128-story.html

Mifune Toshiro (Toshiro Mifune)