THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

14 June 2018

Call for Applicants: Fulbright-British Library Eccles Centre Scholar Award

Above: Klondiker's buying mining licenses in Victoria, BC. J. W. Jones, 1898 [Picturing Canada project on Wiki Commons]

Summertime is always exciting for the Eccles Centre as we announce new calls for our various awards and fellowships. Keep an eye on the Americas blog for news of our various award schemes over the coming months but today I wanted to write about our US-UK Fulbright Commission Scholarship. This is a relatively new part of our programme and is a partnership with Fulbright to bring a US-based scholar to the Library so they can work on the North American collections held here. Work can be on any area of the collections relating to Canada, the Caribbean and / or the United States and applications connected to the Centre’s research priorities are encouraged.

The Fulbright-Eccles Scholarship is a unique opportunity for a US-based scholar as it provides a significant award (£12,000) to cover a dedicated research trip of twelve months. As well as using the collections of the Library our Scholars are encouraged to take part in our events programme, including our evening lectures and Summer Scholars season, and present about their work with partner institutions outside of the Library, such as the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford. This provides a rich set of opportunities to develop ideas and discuss them with a variety of audiences during the scholarship. We are also happy to facilitate a Scholar in conducting wider work with the Library and helping them get to know other parts of the Library’s operation, such as our innovative Learning Team, British Library Publishing and others.

Our 2018-19 Scholar will be Professor Andrew Hartman who will be using the British Library’s collections to conduct further research on the influence of Karl Marx on American political thought. The research will form part of Professor Hartman’s upcoming book, Karl Marx in America, which is contracted to University of Chicago Press. The Fulbright-Eccles Scholar is one of over 800 U.S. citizens who will teach and conduct research abroad for the 2018-2019 academic year through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program; if you would like to apply to be our Scholar in the 2019-20 academic year please do see our website for further information and get in touch with us.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre

08 June 2018

On Funeral Trains

June 5, 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Senator Robert F. Kennedy.  Reflections on his political and cultural significance have appeared across media, with many  articles illustrated by wonderful photographs from the lively campaign for the Democratic nomination he was working on, and winning, at the time of his death.  Perhaps the most striking images, however, are of the crowds that came to pay their respect alongside the train tracks via which RFK's funeral train passed on its way from New York to Washington on June 8, 1968.

The most well circulated images from the funeral train were taken by Magnum photographer Paul Fusco.  Fusco was working for Look magazine, and was assigned to the funeral mass and burial.  The mass was held at St Patrick's Cathedral in New York, where RFK's brother Edward Kennedy delivered this moving eulogy to his older brother.  Subsequently, his body was taken by train to Washington where it was transferred to a cortege that wound past Resurrection City, to its final resting place alongside President John F. Kennedy at Arlington Cemetery.

It was a hot summer Saturday and the crowds that appeared along the length of the train tracks were so large that the train had to run at a slower speed, following a collision at a station.  The journey lasted most of the day, and was broadcast in its entirety on national television (it was also partially transmitted by satellite to the UK).  Perhaps for this reason, the photographs remained largely unseen until 1999 when Fusco found a new audience for his work.  The America they capture is a reflection of RFK's political vision and campaign strategy - profoundly democratic and inclusive, and which spoke directly to and about people at the margins of society.  They are also a fascinating evocation of US urban life in 1968, the social demographic mapping of cities, and the importance of trains and railway infrastructure within this.  It is interesting to consider how the communities depicted in Fusco's photographs have since fared.  Baltimore proves a particularly sobering comparison, from the lively and thriving neighbourhood seen in Fusco's photograph of North Broadway, and its current condition.  Elsewhere, whole communities disappeared under eminent domain with the expansion of Washington Dulles airport.

It is safe to say that this particularly egalitarian view of national mourning was possible because it was a train journey.  In this respect, Kennedy's funeral followed in the footsteps of Presidents F.D. Roosevelt and Lincoln, both of whom were transported by train following their deaths.  FDR died at Warm Springs, Atlanta, and was returned to Washington by train, although though this was not part of his funerary rituals.

FDR Funeral Train
Map by Steven Noble, shelfmark YC.2012.a.6505

Abraham Lincoln's funeral train journey was of a wholly different scale.  Departing Washington on April 21st 1865, it passed through hundreds of towns, stopping at 12 cities in 6 states on a 13 day trip.  Pulled by Lincoln's purpose-made engine, The United States, the funeral train followed the reverse route from Springfield, Illinois to Washington made by Lincoln for his 1860 inauguration.  You can read more about this on the Library of Congress' interactive site, which houses photographs, maps and newspaper accounts.  Lincoln's funeral is now near-mythical, and has been an inspiration for many projects - including this particular endeavour to rebuild The United States.

Clearly, trains figure largely in the American political imagination, which is pertinent given their early importance in connecting isolated populations to national events.  The whistle-stop campaign continued to be used in 20th Century campaigns as it continued to be a practical strategy of reaching otherwise alienated voters in sprawling states, while also invoking the nostalgia of 19th century political Americana.  It thus should not be a surprise that trains continued to figure largely in political death - they too proved an eminently practical means of enabling community-based mourning, and in the case of President Lincoln and Senator Kennedy, they also transported a large entourage of mourners, politicians, and press.

Given that Roosevelt was known for his whistle-stop  campaigns, turning out to see his funeral train was a particularly apt way of bidding farewell to the wartime President.  Indeed, RFK also undertook a whistle-stop campaign in Oregon, just a matter of weeks before his assassination.  Comparing the images of this to those from his funeral train, and reading descriptions of the atmosphere on board, one can't help but think how fitting it was that RFK's funeral elicited the spirit of inclusive participatory democracy that characterised his politics and his campaign.

- F.D. Fuentes Rettig, Curator North American Collections

 

The issue of Look Fusco originally printed his images in can be found at shelfmark P.P.6392.la., they appear in the RFK special memorial issue which hit the shelves late June, 1968.  They can also be seen in his seminal photobook RFK: Funeral Train, shelfmark LB.31.a.10247 , and subsequent expanded publication Paul Fusco: RFK shelfmark, LC.37.a.312 .  Jean Stein's American Journey, a collection of interviews with some of the passengers aboard RFK's funeral train is at shelfmark A70/3547.  Bill Epstein's collection of campaign photographs, A Time It Was can be found at LC.31.a.6397, and Harry Benson's RFK: A Photographer's Journal is currently on order.  Full descriptions of the Washington stages of both Senator Kennedy and President F.D. Roosevelt's funerals can be found in B.C. Mossman and M.W. Stark's The Last Salute: Civil and Military Funerals, shelfmark A.S.573/59. or online here.  See also Michael Leavy, The Lincoln Funeral, shelfmark YKL.2016.b.2629 .

 

 

23 May 2018

Indigenous Australian Comic Characters in the British Library

IMG_6809
Left: X-Men Anthology featuring Gateway. Right: The compiled Millennium series, featuring Betty Clawman. See endnotes for publication details.

After reading Luke Pearson’s blog post on Indigenous X about Indigenous Australian characters in comic books, I decided to see what comics the British Library held that represented Indigenous Australasian characters.[1] Instead of reiterating Pearson’s existing article, which I recommend reading, I have simply listed the comics I was able to find and their shelfmarks at the end of the post. The Condoman poster for a sexual health campaign is a great example of how comic characters can appeal to and educate children and teenagers. By making Condoman an Indigenous man there is a clear relatability for the Indigenous teens that this poster was aimed at.

It is clear that creating characters that readers or viewers can identify with is important; it provides a role model that one can recognise themselves in. Ryan Griffen, creator of the television show Cleverman – a program centred on Indigenous Australian characters and inspired by Indigenous culture, explained how he had created Cleverman so his son had Indigenous superheroes he could be as excited by as he was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
‘I wanted to create an Aboriginal superhero that he could connect with, no matter what others said. I wanted a character that would empower him to stand and fight when presented with racism. Just like the old dreaming stories, Cleverman would be able to teach moral lessons; not only for my son, not just for Aboriginal people, but for many more out there as well.’[2]
As Pearson points out, the majority of the Indigenous characters he lists were created by non-Indigenous people. I was interested in how some of these Indigenous characters were depicted so decided to focus on one of them, a DC character named Betty Clawman. She appears in the Millennium comic, the compilation of which is in the British Library collections.[3]

Betty does not appear until week two of the series, where she is found squatting by ‘the aptly named Ayres Rock, near Alice Springs, Australia.’[4]  The comic series was produced three years after custodianship of Uluru was returned to the Anangu traditional owners so it seems likely this event caught the international imagination and resulted in Indigenous Australians being associated with Uluru. Ayres Rock was the name that colonisers gave the rock, it was named after a South Australian Premier called Sir Henry Ayres, I am unsure how this makes it ‘aptly named’ and I assume it underlines how little research the comic writers had undertaken into Indigenous Australian history and culture. Betty has been selected as one of a group of people to become immortal guardians of earth, a fact she already knew before she was approached as she foresaw it in the ‘Dreamtime.’[5] While Betty seems to impress the existing Guardians, she is rather passive throughout the encounter and makes multiple references to dreaming and the land – ‘while I, rather than dreaming on the land, learn how to wake from its embrace!’[6] These vague references around dreamings and land could also be reference to a half-formed understanding of Indigenous culture through the debates surrounding the return of Uluru. It seems no coincidence, however, that this comic was produced in 1988, the same year Australia celebrated the Bicentennial of its ‘founding’. On 26th January 1988 (Australia Day) Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike took to the streets to protest the celebration of two-hundred years of history that tried to rewrite the 40,000 years of history Indigenous Australia had prior to British conquest. The protests sought to highlight ongoing denial of land rights along with the integral structural racism Indigenous Australians often experienced. It would be interesting to know how much of this political background Englehart, Staton and Gibson were aware of when they conceived Betty Clawman.

The other future Guardians set to join Betty suggests that the writers were keen to create an inclusive and diverse range of characters, yet they fell into the trap of easy cultural stereotypes (another future Guardian is Xiang Po, a Chinese woman who seizes the opportunity because ‘it never would have happened before the reforms)[7]. While I understand that the pages of comic books do not lend themselves to nuance and subtlety, it is a shame that the characters are so stereotyped. Betty’s willingness to follow the existing Guardians could at first be taken as passivity, but she often shows that she is confident and intelligent, such as questioning the teachings that the universe is logical. She is fore fronted in the cartoon frames and praised for her readiness to become a Guardian. I was very excited about the empowering depiction of Betty until the selected new Guardians transitioned into their new forms – the stereotyping became almost comical again: Xiang Po becomes incredibly sexy and her whole appearance is Westernised. Betty quite simply disappears! She becomes an invisible spirit that is simultaneously part of the earth and the other Guardians but no longer visible or audible; she informs others and perhaps shapes their actions but can no longer take actions herself.

This characterisation of the spiritual silent Indigenous person is reminiscent of Gateway, the Indigenous character Marvel created the same year the DC created Betty Clawman. Like Betty in her Guardian form, Gateway is silent and only communicates through telepathy. He simply sits and watches the actions of the X-Men, opening portals for them on request.[8] From my close reading of these two comics and looking at the Indigenous characters on Pearson’s list, it does seem that if writers want a mysterious character that is imbued with spirituality, they make that character Indigenous. While there is perhaps nothing necessarily wrong with depicting an Indigenous person as deeply wise and spiritual, it becomes problematic when that is all they are shown as. It firmly places Indigenous Australians in a position of ‘other’, making it difficult for Indigenous people to identify with those characters, let alone other comic book fans.

Joanne Pilcher is currently carrying out a PhD placement project at the British Library, exploring contemporary publishing in Australia. If you would like to know more about placement opportunities at the Library for doctoral students please click here.

In my placement at the Library I have suggested the purchase of comic books that show a wide variety of Indigenous characters and complex personalities. If you have any other good suggestions do tweet me: @JoannePilcher1

Comic books/graphic novels in the British Library Collections that feature Indigenous Australian characters:

Grant Morrison et al, The Multiversity: the deluxe edition, New York: DC Comics, 2015, [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YKL.2017.b.559]

Hugh Dolan, Adrian Threlfall, Reg Saunders: An Indigenous War Hero, Sydney, NSW, Australia: NewSouth, 2015 [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YKL.2017.b.766]

Marvel Comics, Essential X-Men, Volume 8, New York, N.Y. : Marvel Publishing ; London : Diamond, distributor, 2007, [General Reference Collection YK.2009.b.171]

Steve Englehart, Joe Staton, Ian Gibson, Millennium: Trust No One, DC Comics, New York 2008. [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YK.2009.b.9556]

 

References:

[1] Luke Pearson, ‘The Wombat to Kaptn Koori – Aboriginal Representation in Comic Books and Capes,’ Indigenous X, 13th June 2017, https://indigenousx.com.au/luke-pearson-the-wombat-to-kaptn-koori-aboriginal-representation-in-comic-books-and-capes/#.Wm8DF1hLHcs, [last accessed 29/01/18]

[2] Ryan Griffen, ‘We need more Aboriginal superheroes, so I created Cleverman for my son’, The Guardian, 27th may 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/may/27/i-created-cleverman-for-my-son-because-we-need-more-aboriginal-superheroes, [last accessed 29/01/18]

[3] Steve Englehart, Joe Staton, Ian Gibson, Millennium: Trust No One, DC Comics, New York 2008. Originally published as an eight part magazine series in 1988. [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YK.2009.b.9556]

[4] Millennium, DC Comics, p32

[5] ibid

[6] ibid p33

[7] ibid p40

[8] Marvel Comics, Essential X-Men, Volume 8, New York, N.Y. : Marvel Publishing ; [London : Diamond, distributor], 2007, [General Reference Collection YK.2009.b.171]. Originally printed as serial magazines in 1988.