April 30, 2012

OAH 2012 in Milwaukee: lots of labor history, not so much on religion or the West

by Tisa Wenger, April 27, 2012

I don’t always make it to the OAH (Organization of American Historians), but this year I’d been asked to respond to a panel titled “In the Aftermath of Contact with ‘Others’: The Reformulation of Religious and Racial Identity on the Frontier”—with three papers very much of interest to readers of this blog—so I made my way to Milwaukee for the conference last weekend. Actually I headed to Madison first, where I fit in four days of research at the fantastic Wisconsin Historical Society.  (They have impressive holdings that go far beyond Wisconsin history, so check it out if you ever have the chance. I spent most of my time there immersed in the papers of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union, and related collections.)

At the conference I roomed with an old friend, Colleen O’Neill, author of an excellent book on Navajo labor history, Working the Navajo Way: Labor and Culture in the Twentieth Century. I bring this up because Colleen also happens to be the associate editor of the Western Historical Quarterly, based at Utah State University, and she mentioned to me that the WHQ is always interested in articles on religion in the American west. So if any of you are working on essays that might fit in that venue, send them her way!

To some extent the OAH program reflected the interests of this year’s president, Alice Kessler-Harris, who is a leading labor historian and gave a very interesting presidential address titled “Capitalism, Democracy, and the Emancipation of Belief.” So there were a few more sessions than usual related to labor and economic history, important topics to be sure, but not really speaking to my interests. And there were correspondingly few either on the American West or in religious history, let alone the two in combination. I noticed one panel on the Joseph Smith papers, but that happened while I was still in Madison. Another session, “Catholic Lay Women and Mid-Century Public Life,” included 1) Mary Henold on Catholic lay women’s responses to Vatican II, raising important questions about methods and sources for studying the “average” lay women, 2) Karen Johnson on Catholic women and interracial activism in mid-century Chicago, and 3) Tim Lacy on the relationship between political position and conversion to Catholicism in the life of Clare Booth Luce. Great stuff, but unless we place Chicago in the West, not really within the scope of this blog.

These exclusions, of course, reflect something of the blind spots of all these fields: mirroring the traditional lack of attention to class, labor, or the West among historians of American religion, labor historians have only relatively recently started to work on the west, and only a handful have found religious history relevant to their concerns. Exceptions to these lines of division on the program included a roundtable panel on “Religion, Corporate Capitalism, and Democracy in the Twentieth Century,” featuring the star-studded lineup of Kate Bowler, Darren Dochuk, Darren Grem, Kathryn Lofton, and Bethany Moreton, and another roundtable on “Religion, Democracy, and the Working Class in Capitalist America, Gilded Age to the Present.” I couldn’t attend either of these panels—one was on Thursday while I was still in Madison, and the other was on Sunday when I was already on my way back home—but they bode well for the developing conversation between religious history and the histories of class and labor.

Finally, back to the session that took me to the conference in the first place, which proved a fruitful exploration of the construction of racial and religious identities within various sites of encounter in the American west. Kristine Gunnell’s paper, “The Daughters of Charity as Cultural Intermediaries,” examined the motivations and racial dynamics of the work of this Catholic order in early twentieth-century Los Angeles, a time of extensive Mexican immigration into Southern California. In “Texas Jews and other Others: Race, Masculinity, and American Identity,” Sarah Imhoff interrogated the interest among some Jews in early twentieth-century Texas in claiming kinship to Native Americans, or somewhat later in “playing Mexican,” as ways of asserting both whiteness and masculinity. For Imhoff these practices reflected an impulse distinct from but parallel to the contemporaneous Zionist movement—one that similarly sought to assert Jewish identity and masculinity, but in this case placing themselves at home in the American West. And finally, in “William McCrary’s Racial Ventriloquism during the Mormon Exodus, 1846-1847,” Max Mueller mined the few available sources in an effort to recover the perspective of McCrary, a racially ambiguous “Negro-Indian” Mormon convert who left the Saints after Mormon leaders refused to accept his claims to prophetic authority. I am looking forward to seeing all three of these pieces in publication.

So that was my experience of the OAH this year. The take-home for me, as it has been so many times before, was—why so little in our field on the program? And one answer to that question is that if we want to see sessions on religion in the American west, then we need to propose them. Kudos to Kristine, Sarah, and Max for doing just that at this year’s conference, and I’d encourage all of you to do the same in future years!

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