This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History


Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From the FBI’s hunt for Billie Holiday, to why we need a new European Enlightenment, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

The Hunting of Billie Holiday

Johann Hari

One night, in 1939, Billie Holiday stood on stage in New York City and sang a song that was unlike anything anyone had heard before. ‘Strange Fruit’ was a musical lament against lynching. It imagined black bodies hanging from trees as a dark fruit native to the South. Here was a black woman, before a mixed audience, grieving for the racist murders in the United States. Immediately after, Billie Holiday received her first threat from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Harry had heard whispers that she was using heroin, and—after she flatly refused to be silent about racism—he assigned an agent named Jimmy Fletcher to track her every move. Harry hated to hire black agents, but if he sent white guys into Harlem and Baltimore, they stood out straight away. Jimmy Fletcher was the answer. His job was to bust his own people, but Anslinger was insistent that no black man in his Bureau could ever become a white man’s boss. Jimmy was allowed through the door at the Bureau, but never up the stairs. He was and would remain an “archive man”—a street agent whose job was to figure out who was selling, who was supplying and who should be busted. He would carry large amounts of drugs with him, and he was allowed to deal drugs himself so he could gain the confidence of the people he was secretly plotting to arrest. [continue reading]

The Response to Charlie Hebdo and the Imperial Hangover in France

Michael Collins
History Vault

As economic under-performance, loss of sovereignty and German domination of the EU grind away at French self-esteem, contemporary France is also divided by chronic and deep-rooted anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. French Jews were leaving the country for Israel, the UK, Canada and the United States in their thousands long before the latest atrocities in Paris. Many Muslims in France continue to be economically and socially marginalised. The Front National, which displays rank prejudice against both Jews and Muslims, continues to grow in strength.

The challenges France faces today – loss of former Great Power status, fear of its “decline” and of immigration from former colonies, which causes much agonising about cultural difference undermining the secular values of the Republic – can be seen as part of a long imperial hangover. Some of this is true of other former European imperial powers. But if these political questions are embedded in France’s imperial past, they now also form a spectre over France’s future. [continue reading]

The Future of Cuba-Texas Relations

Jonathan C. Brown
Not Even Past

Within a week of President Barack Obama’s announcement about the renewal of diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Austin American Statesman ran a cartoon entitled “America Prepares to Invade Cuba.” It depicted a line of passengers dressed in beach wear boarding a plane heading to Havana. Perhaps the cartoonist exaggerated, for President Obama merely loosened existing restrictions. Cuban Americans may travel to the island several times per year and send more money to relatives there. Non-Cuban Americans may travel there more freely, although special licenses are still required. The U.S. government will allow Americans to use their credit and debit cards in Cuba. The president may have cut the Gordian Knot ending 54 years of mutual hostility and eliminating one of the last vestiges of the Cold War. But he did not sever it completely.

Likely presidential candidate Jeb Bush has already stated that, if elected, he would reinstate travel restrictions. With two conservative Cuban Americans also likely to run for the presidency, including Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the Cuban Embargo will remain a lively issue of debate. By the way, Jeb Bush holds a MA in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. The Cold War between Washington and Havana will not end until Congress says it’s over. That may not happen any time soon. Many Senators and Congressmen from Texas oppose the repeal of three pieces of “Cuban boycott” legislation dating from 1963, 1992, and 1996. Together these laws restrict travel, trade, and investment. [continue reading]

After the Paris Attacks: It’s time for a New Enlightenment

Pankaj Mishra

The perpetrators of the unconscionable massacre of Charlie Hebdo’s journalists, and the gratuitous killing of French Jews at a supermarket, were the sort of young men who might have been little more than petty criminals in another era – disaffected drifters who are now susceptible to the pied-pipers of jihad. They preen in the costume of the pious for their propaganda videos, and betray easily their very modern brand of criminality. The Parismurderers claimed to be redeeming the honour of the Prophet Muhammad, but they made the most venerated figure in Islam seem like a small-time mafia boss.

Yet many commentators on the attacks have revived the very broad discourse of the clash of civilisations, which was fatefully deployed after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to justify the war on terror, and resulted in the latter’s catastrophic imprecisions. Once again the secular and democratic west, identified with the legacy of the Enlightenment – reason, individual autonomy, freedom of speech – has been called upon to subdue its perennially backward “other”: Islam. [continue reading]