I'm pleased to share that my article, "Nature in Black and White: Summer Camps and Racialized Landscapes in the Photography of Gordon Parks," is now available to read online in Environmental History.
The premise for historian Tobin Miller Shearer’s book, Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America, began with a single photograph. As Shearer rifled through a Mennonite record room ten years ago in Pennsylvania, he discovered a peculiar image. In the photograph, a young African American girl casts her gaze solemnly downward while a group of white onlookers surround her at a train station. The vacant stares of the all-white group provide an unsettling backdrop for the unidentified child’s somber expression. Shearer learned that this photograph was a product of the Fresh Air Fund, an organization founded in 1877 that coordinated rural summer vacations for city children. The program arose out of a belief that nature provided something inherently virtuous that those who grew up in the city lacked. Although Fresh Air initially offered trips to ethnically white children, its efforts shifted to urban children of color after World War II. This shift is the focus of Two Weeks Every Summer, which documents the racial politics of the Fresh Air Fund.
Despite the seemingly niche subject, Two Weeks Every Summer moves past the parochial with topics that remain relevant to contemporary racial issues. Fresh Air’s programming reflected a national trend of whites solely addressing racism through positive interracial interactions, rather than the more effective tactic of dismantling systemic and institutional inequalities. The organization’s activism was also limited by its strict social boundaries. White hosts only extended equality temporarily to carefully-vetted children. Further, only a small fraction of hosts opted to invite their guests back the following year. While certain children of color may have elicited sympathy from white hosts, black and brown teenagers and their parents did not. These exclusions reveal the limits of Fresh Air activism. Ultimately, because of Fresh Air’s unwillingness to address institutional racism, Shearer argues that it “brought about only the most modest of changes in racial and class order.”
Another timely theme explored in the book involves the cultural dichotomy between city and country. The Fresh Air Fund consistently denigrated cities to justify sending urban children to the country. Fresh Air promotional materials conveyed cities as dirty, crowded, dangerous, and corrupting. Rural spaces, however, were wholesome, pure, and sanctifying because of their proximity to nature. This discourse remained largely uncontested until the 1960s, when the Fresh Air programs began to receive backlash. Black Power groups condemned the organization’s condescending tone toward urban culture, and even accused the program of “cultural genocide.” Critics also pointed out the hypocrisy of the trips. Although Fresh Air introduced black and brown children to rural landscapes for brief summer vacations, segregation kept people of color out of many of the host neighborhoods for the remainder of the year. Once again, this demonstrated the organization’s unwillingness to address systemic racism.
While Two Weeks Every Summer analyzes the institutional values and tactics of Fresh Air, it also emphasizes the agency of the children themselves. Despite adult hosts’ expectations about how their guests should behave, the children asserted their autonomy as “independent actors.” Although the Fresh Air Fund’s negatively characterized cities, the children often expressed their fondness for urban environments. Swimming in particular became a poignant site for children to act independently. Pools provided opportunities for children to swim, play, and cross barriers of racial segregation on their own terms, and literally outside the reach of adults. This reflected the national civil rights struggle, wherein swimming pools became strategic protest spaces. Further, visiting children sometimes schooled their adult hosts about the reality of racial dynamics. By communicating their perspectives and behaving according to their own desires, Shearer argues that these children waged their own civil rights struggles.
Overall, Shearer argues that the two most prominent legacies of Fresh Air include “racialized reunion and racialized rejection.” By creating opportunities for people of different races to live together, the organization fostered meaningful integration. Indeed, some former participants later reminisced about the positive bonds they created with their white hosts that cultivated a sense of “reunion” throughout the years. Conversely, the famous marches and sit-ins of the civil rights movement only allowed for brief moments of public integration. In this way, Fresh Air children crossing the color line to live with whites should not be underestimated. (tie in reunion) Still, Shearer highlights the significant limitations of the movement, which led to “racialized rejection.” Some participants recalled the sting of their invitations being rescinded once they became teenagers. Although the summer trips may have facilitated positive transracial encounters, Fresh Air’s strict rules–including age caps and the brevity of trips–made racialized rejection inevitable.
Two Weeks Every Summer exists among a small but significant subfield that examines the intersections of race and outdoor culture. Related works include The Land Was Ours and Free the Beaches by historian Andrew Kahrl; Black Faces, White Spaces by geographer Carolyn Finney; and Landscapes of Exclusion by historian William O’Brien. By bridging the divide between environmental and cultural history, this scholarship forges important new contributions to both fields. Two Weeks Every Summer is no exception. Shearer’s arguments about the divide between rural and urban, as well as the failures of limiting civil rights activism to individual encounters are particularly poignant. Overall, the book provides critical insights about the pervasive problems of race that still linger in the United States.
This post was featured on High Altitude History.
Historians have a reputation for obsessing over details. We write tomes about events that may not even span a year. Take, for example, Heather Ann Thompson’s recently published book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, which contains nearly 600 pages of analysis about an event that technically lasted for five days. What many consider overwrought minutiae, historians consider the essential meat of history. Put simply, historians believe that understanding anything requires context, and lots of it.
President Donald Trump has taken a different approach to communicating ideas. Trump has earned the nickname “Tweeter-in-Chief” with his daily use of Twitter, which limits each tweet to 140 characters; he makes announcements, gives political commentary, and responds to his critics. Trump considers Twitter a direct line of communication between himself and the public, free from the critical and contextual oversight of the media. The President seems to prefer the brevity and autonomy that Twitter offers. During an interview, he stated that “I get very dishonest media, very dishonest press. And [Twitter’s] my only way that I can counteract.” As Caitlyn Dewey of the Washington Post recently pointed out, Twitter also caters to the President’s penchant for exclamation points: a punctuation choice that prioritizes emotional declaratives over developed, logical conclusions.
Given these two conflicting approaches to sharing knowledge, why would historians engage with Twitter? Twitter has become my social media platform of choice. It has allowed me to connect with a bevy of historians across the world. These #twitterstorians share powerful, pithy ideas and engage in fascinating public dialogues that have enriched my thinking. Historians have, perhaps surprisingly, proven that Twitter can provide a fruitful intellectual forum. Political historian Kevin M. Kruse, for example, produced an extensive thread on the contemporary relevance of McCarthyism. Similarly, historian Joanne Freeman analyzed the danger of Trump’s tweet condemning the judicial branch by outlining the historical significance of the separation of powers. As Shakespeare wisely wrote, “brevity is the soul of wit,” meaning that succinct language is something to aspire toward, not denounce. However, Twitter has not rendered the crucial context of history obsolete. If anything, Twitter’s new centrality in political discourse has highlighted the dangers of vague language and the necessity of deep historical analysis.
Trump’s Twitter rhetoric suggests a lack of understanding of United States history, and his unfiltered snippets, largely devoid of context, have resulted in far more confusion than clarity. The persistent repetition of the phrase “AMERICA FIRST!” (most notably in his inaugural address) echoes anti-Semitic isolationists in the 1940s who accused American Jews of propelling the United States into World War II. His championing of “forgotten men” draws parallels to white resistance to granting African Americans the vote in the 1960s, as well as to the New Deal’s neglect of blacks during the 1930s. By professing himself “the law and order candidate,” Trump imitates Richard Nixon’s political tactics that preyed on white fears of predominantly black urban neighborhoods. His monolithic treatment of Muslims echoes America’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, as do his vague references to the possibility of a Muslim Registry. By villainizing Syrian refugees, he nods to Americans’ reluctance to allow Jewish refugees into the country in the 1930s. Finally, Trump’s justification for his executive order that banned citizens based on their nation of origin recalls the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, as well as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Trump himself has done little to denounce these comparisons, aside from repeatedly calling the media dishonest.
Twitter can provide a fascinating forum for sharing ideas. But the President’s ahistorical statements allude to reprehensible moments in the United States’ past. At best, Trump’s tweeting suggests an ignorance of some of the darkest moments of American history. At worst, his tweets reveal an attempt to resuscitate racist and exclusionary ways of thinking. Without explaining his sentiments in depth and disavowing their historical connections to bigotry, President Trump is complicit in emboldening growing white supremacist movements in the United States such as the Alt-Right (which he recently defended on Twitter). Without clarification, and, importantly, a recognition of historical context, Trump’s curt language calls into question exactly which era in America’s past he considers “great.”