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October 2017

Discussing Dangerous Subjects with Ken Coleman

Today Ken Coleman talks with us about his new book Dangerous Subjects: James D. Saules and the Rise of Black Exclusion in Oregon. Dangerous Subjects is Ken’s first published book and explores the unique story of James D. Saules, a black sailor who settled in Oregon in 1841.

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OSU Press: Briefly describe your book Dangerous Subjects.

Coleman: It’s an account of what I refer to as the “Americanization” of Oregon centered around one person. The Americanization of Oregon was a colonial process that began when Anglo-American farm families began arriving in the region in large numbers in the 1840s. In some ways, it’s a story that’s been told many times before, but most historians have either focused on American settlers or—in recent years—indigenous or mixed-race communities. Instead, I was interested in how the arrival of the Oregon Trail immigrants coincided almost immediately with a series of laws banning black people from living in Oregon. I centered my narrative on one man, James D. Saules, someone whom historians have either ignored or treated as a peripheral figure in early Oregon history. Saules was a black man who settled in Oregon two years before the first major wagon trains arrived, and is most often cited as the man who inspired Oregon’s first black exclusion law. The book is not only about the local and national context of Oregon’s early black exclusion laws, but about how Saules coped with and adapted to massive social, political, and cultural shifts in Oregon.

OSU Press: What about James D. Saules’ life initially drew you in to his story? Why did you originally feel compelled to write this account of his life?

Coleman: When I began researching black exclusion in Oregon several years ago, I was struck by how often Saules appeared in the historical record. Truth be told, compared to white elites of the same period, it wasn’t much. But for a member of a racialized minority like Saules, it was significant. Secondly, Saules was a sailor. Oregon’s black exclusion laws and the rhetoric political figures used to support them often singled out black sailors as a particular threat to the nascent American settlement. Many suggested that black sailors would incite Native people to violence against white settlers. I knew Saules was actually arrested for doing just this, so I tried to find out as much as I could about him. It turned out he lived an extraordinary life, and the more I found out about him, the more his life took on an epic scope.

OSU Press: Why study the colonial and racial history of the Pacific Northwest through the eyes of this particular figure? What, if anything, does that do for the account of history? Are there concerns with limiting the perspective to one particular individual or does it provide a unique opportunity? If so, why?

Coleman: I don’t think it’s possible to “see” history through the eyes of a historical figure, since we only know historical figures through textual evidence. This is made more difficult since most of evidence about Saules was written by white elites, and I come to this subject as a privileged twenty-first century white male. That being said, once I narrowed my focus to Saules, ironically the story became much bigger and I was able to connect Saules to larger national and transnational historical processes. Saules was a free black man from Connecticut who had worked as a whaler in the South Pacific and later served as a cook on the United States Exploration Expedition, a naval voyage of discovery unprecedented in size and scope. This led me to research such topics as the nineteenth-century international maritime economy, merchant capitalism, U.S. and European imperialism during the Age of Sail, and the experience of black people who worked aboard sailing ships. These were all topics I doubt I would have encountered had I researched and written the book as a more local study of race relations in Oregon. For instance, by focusing on Saules, it became even more apparent that the United States was shifting from a maritime nation to one that looked to its own interior for economic resources. This fact would have a major impact in Oregon, and Saules was present when these changes occurred. I also learned that legislation targeting black sailors for exclusion was not unique to Oregon and was common in other parts of the United States, particularly the American South.

Historians who grapple with issues relating to race, class, gender, and sexual orientation often face a dearth of sources about the lives of specific people whose lives were affected by these axes of inequality. And as I mentioned before, most readily-available primary sources from the first half of the nineteenth century are written by white elites: government officials, military officers, journalists, missionaries, merchants, financiers, etc. Because of this, social historians have to read existing sources against the grain and often have to generalize to address silences in the historical record. I certainly wasn’t immune to this. As I wrote this book, I had to generalize, speculate, and engage in deductive reasoning to try to fill in the blanks. But when you focus on one person, I think you can keep generalization to a minimum and write about topics like black exclusion and white supremacy not as abstract historical processes, but as very real things that involved and affected very real human beings. For the reader, I hope this makes this account of history more intimate and less abstract.

OSU Press: Why publish this particular account today? What kind of impact do you hope this book will make? How do you hope this book to be received? What kind of audiences do you hope to reach?

Coleman: As I wrote this book, the phrase “black lives matter” and the activism around it entered into the American consciousness after the death of Trayvon Martin. My simplest answer is that I hope this book makes some contribution to the notion that the black lives mattered in the past as well.

When I began researching this project in 2011, certain political commentators were still describing the United States as a “post-racial” nation, that somehow the election of Barack Obama proved that white supremacy was a thing of the past. Obviously, this claim is belied by almost everything that has occurred since, not the least of which was the election of a president who made racial fear and scapegoating the centerpiece of his campaign.

On a more local level, my hometown of Portland, Oregon in the same Willamette Valley where Saules once resided remains one of the least racially diverse cities in the United States in a region—the American West—increasingly defined by its ethnic diversity. I insist this lack of diversity was by design, not happenstance.

The United States is a nation founded on the theft of indigenous land and the labor of enslaved human beings, and white supremacy and ethnic cleansing was central to U.S. imperial expansion. Yet I insist that racism is not an ahistorical aspect of human nature, and race itself is a social and historical formation. Because of this, I believe it can be overcome. But it can’t be eradicated overnight by the election of a president, and it won’t be overcome unless we begin by taking an honest and clear-eyed look at our collective past. Therefore, I think it’s essential that Americans in general and Oregonians in particular remember that they live in a colonized space. A phenomenon like the Oregon Trail should be viewed as more than the heroic trek of hardscrabble pioneers. It was also a tactic of American imperialism in which Anglo-American settlers imposed their own racial and social order with little regard for the Native, mixed-race, black, and Pacific Islander people who lived there.

Yet the task of a historian is to understand the past rather than pass judgment on historical actors. I think my account of Saules’ life and times complicates tidy narratives. Such as one of my central points, that Saules was both an agent of empire and a victim of it; for white settlers, he occupied a liminal state between colonizer and colonized. Furthermore, historical forces like colonialism, racism, and capitalism are multifaceted and dynamic, and historians need to track these changes.

As for an audience, I am trained as an academic historian, but I wrote the book to appeal to an audience beyond academia. I tried to keep jargon and esoteric references to a minimum in an effort to connect with readers of any background. In particular, I hope high school and college students could read the book and come away with a solid understanding of Oregon colonial past and present.

OSU Press: What insights do you have after publishing this book with the OSU Press?

Coleman: This was my first book. And I’m sure just about every first-time author has the same thought: If I ever have the opportunity to write another one, I would do just about everything differently. In particular, I eventually learned how crucial it is to not lean so heavily on digitized sources. It’s important to get off the computer, leave the house, hit the physical archives, and, most importantly, talk to a wide variety of people and actually listen. It was through these personal interactions that I had my biggest breakthroughs.

Another major lesson I learned through working with OSU Press is that regardless of the fact that my name is on the cover, writing a book is a deeply collaborative process. Once my rough manuscript began passing through the hands of various readers, reviewers, and editors, it kept reemerging as something different and far stronger. This can be a painful process, especially when criticism strikes a raw nerve, but it improved the book significantly.

Compelling Paradoxes from Larry Lipin's Point of View

The impetus for Larry Lipin’s most recent book, Eleanor Baldwin and the Woman’s Point of View, came while researching his previous book. Like an earworm that couldn’t be shaken, Larry kept coming back to Eleanor Baldwin’s story as a radical female journalist from Portland, Oregon. His book takes a nuanced and complicated look at Baldwin’s compelling, and at times seemingly paradoxical, intellectual journey in the previously forgotten account of Portland’s Progressive Era. Below, Larry gives us a glimpse into the contradictions within Baldwin’s character that made her so worth writing about.

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I first came across Eleanor Florence Baldwin while researching my book Workers and the Wild (University of Illinois Press, 2007) that explores Oregon labor and its changing relationship with nature. Baldwin had written a letter to the editor of the Oregon Labor Press (OLP) defending the right of poor working people to augment their wages and to provide some healthy leisure outside of the degradations of the workplace by fishing; she came out in support of measures that would limit the commercial take of salmon on the Willamette River.

A little later I came across a few other of Baldwin’s letters that spoke to some of the more divisive issues that made their way into that newspaper’s pages, notably defenses of the Bolsheviks and the anti-Catholicism that would be associated with the KKK. The OLP’s editor, Clarence Rynerson, had denounced the Klan as an anti-labor organization when it first appeared, but as the Invisible Empire grew more powerful in Oregon, the OLP grew more silent. It became evident that the solidarities of the trade union movement, like those of Oregon in general, had been rent apart by the Klan. Yet, Baldwin’s simultaneous support for Bolsheviks and Klansmen caught my attention. Enough so that while waiting for some materials at the Multnomah County library, I used their extensive card index (as quaint as that sounds) for individuals who appeared in the local press to seek out some information about this odd person. That led me to her obituaries.

It was then that I learned that Baldwin had been a female writer who for three years put together a daily woman’s column that had appeared on the editorial page of the Portland Evening Telegram between 1906 and 1909, that she honored the abolitionist memory of her minister father, and that she was a monetary theorist of sorts who brought nineteenth century greenbackism and anti-banker sentiment into the early twentieth century. This made her seem all the more interesting, as this Klan supporter had continually honored her family’s abolitionist stature.

Yet, there were things holding me back from committing to this project. Noting that her monetary tract—and a subsequent unpublished sequel—were held in the special collections department of the University of Oregon library, I drove from Portland to Eugene to read her tract. In it, Baldwin sought to convince her readers that money was a “force” and not a mere medium of exchange; I duly noted the argument, but came away unimpressed. The cultural use of electricity as a metaphor for both the human body and mind were familiar to me, but not that interesting. Still the contradictions of her biography bothered me and would not let me completely leave it at that. I decided I needed to read the columns.

After taking notes on many of them, I decided that this project was not worth the time that would be needed to read all nine-hundred columns, so I began to photocopy them off the microfilm reader. I knew I had a sabbatical coming up in the next couple of years and that I could use that to make sense of them. Desiring searchable data, I found a student of mine to transcribe them into word documents. That student, Caty Prechtal, soon came to know Baldwin better than I did; some of her email messages with transcribed documents came with exclamations of how interesting she was. As Ms. Prechtal had taken my Victorian gender and sexuality course at Pacific University, she knew the context in which Baldwin had lived and these expressions of interest were reasonably grounded. Her emails slowly but surely caught my attention, and so I began to read the columns in earnest.

What I found was a remarkably progressive woman, which did nothing to blunt the contradictions that I had originally found and which continued to perplex. But other things came into sharper focus. The columns made clear that Baldwin was an adherent of the emerging “New Thought” religious tradition, and Portland, I soon learned, had been a center for women who had moved into this religious belief system from spiritualism. New Thought came out of mind-cure circles in New England; it was significant enough to capture the attention of William James who wrote about it in his Varieties of Religious Experience. The gist was that the focused mind could not only cure the body, but that the collective mind could cure society of its illnesses. Though the tradition would eventually move towards the kind of mainstream religion as offered by Norman Vincent Peale or what some call “prosperity gospel,” in Baldwin’s day it nurtured a number of socialists who believed that the mind could bring forth a socialist utopia. This tradition was evident in many of her columns, as was her friendship with other local practitioners like Lucy Rose Mallory who published a monthly newspaper that melded together spiritualism, left-wing populism, and New Thought for decades, and the woman’s right activist, Clara Colby. I was pretty much convinced that I needed to write about Baldwin, if for no other reason than to alert others to the vitality of this tradition.

And, thus, I was motivated to return to Eugene to one more time go through her papers regarding the nature of money, and what I had previously thought had been incoherent became much clearer: Baldwin had been translating greenback labor theory into New Thought language. Her final and unpublished manuscript, written in the early 1920s as she was writing her defenses of both Bolsheviks and Klansmen, sought to reinvigorate the socialist possibilities in New Thought against the more individualistic and consumerist direction to which it was inevitably tending. All of a sudden, the incoherent and uninteresting was transformed into a fascinating, if unsuccessful attempt to adapt nineteenth century religious and political traditions into a meaningful political and spiritual statement for the developing mass consumer society of the twentieth century.

And in this way I committed to Eleanor Baldwin and the writing of this book.

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