This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Mapping the 1821 US-Mexico border. David Taylor and Marcos Ramirez ERRE
Mapping the 1821 US-Mexican border. David Taylor and Marcos Ramirez ERRE

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

From how colonialism shaped music to retracing the 1821 US-Mexican border, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

How Colonialism Shaped Music as We Know It

Michael Denning
Foreign Affairs

Between the development of electrical recording in 1925 and the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, the soundscape of modern times unfolded in a series of obscure recording sessions, as hundreds of unknown musicians entered makeshift studios to record the melodies and rhythms of their local streets and dance halls. Virtually all the music the world considers canonical took shape in these recordings of the late 1920s—Havana’s son, Rio’s samba, New Orleans’ jazz, Buenos Aires’ tango, Seville’s flamenco, Cairo’s tarab, Johannesburg’s marabi, Jakarta’s kroncong, and Honolulu’s hula. The new vernacular musics reverberated on the edges and borders of empires, in the barrios, bidonvilles, barrack-yards,arrabales, and favelas of an archipelago of colonial ports, linked by the steamships, railway lines, and telegraph cables that moved commodities, people, and information across and between empires.

Why was such music first heard in these ports? The answer lies in the peculiar social and cultural formation of the colonial port: a volatile mix of millions of new migrants living in waterfront neighborhoods imbricated with the racial and ethnic logics of settler regimes and imperial conquests; a population dense enough to provide the critical mass to support the emerging institutions of commercial musicking, the urban industry of theaters, brothels and dance halls; a physical and cultural distance from the powerful and prestigious capitals; and finally, a peculiar encounter and alliance between the “ear” musicians among the rural migrants—those who played local musics on cheap, mass-produced horns, guitars, and concertinas as well as on hand-crafted drums and fiddles—and the “reading” musicians—those among the port’s subordinated but educated elite, a “talented tenth” playing waltzes and polkas as well as sacred hymns and calls to prayer. [continue reading]

Crossing Borders: a Feminist History of Women Cross DMZ

Suzy Kim
Asia-Pacific Journal

On May 24, 2015, thirty women peacemakers from fifteen nations, including American feminist activist Gloria Steinem and two Nobel Peace laureates, Mairead Maguire from Northern Ireland and Leymah Gbowee from Liberia, walked with Korean women of the North and South to call for an end to the Korean War and the peaceful reunification of Korea on the seventieth anniversary of its division. The arbitrary division of the peninsula in 1945 by the United States and the Soviet Union led to the creation of two separate states, setting the stage for an all-out civil war in 1950 that became an international conflict. After nearly 4 million people were killed, mostly Korean civilians, fighting was halted when North Korea, China, and the United States representing the UN Command signed a ceasefire agreement in 1953, which called for a political conference within three months to reach a peace settlement.

Women Cross DMZ international delegation with South Korean organizers, May 24, 2015.
Women Cross DMZ international delegation with South Korean organizers, May 24, 2015.

Over 60 years later, we are still waiting. To renew the call for a peace settlement by offering a model of international engagement, Women Cross DMZ organized peace symposiums in Pyongyang and Seoul where women shared experiences of mobilizing to bring an end to violent conflict, and crossed the two-mile wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates millions of Korean families as a reminder that division can be overcome. As one of the members of the organizing committee of Women Cross DMZ, I travelled with other international women peacemakers to meet face-to-face with Korean women on both sides of the DMZ and cross the military demarcation line that divides Korea. On the seventieth anniversary of Korea’s partition this August 2015, I write as a historian of modern Korea to reflect upon the experience specifically from a feminist standpoint. [continue reading]

Corn Wars: The Fight Between China and the United States to Dominate the Global Food Supply

Ted Genoways
New Republic

On September 30, 2012, agents from the FBI contacted U.S. Customs and Border Protection at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago with an urgent request. They wanted bags from two passengers on an outbound flight to Beijing pulled for immediate inspection. The passengers didn’t track as dangerous criminals: Li Shaoming, president of Beijing Kings Nower Seed Science & Technology, a large Chinese agricultural company that develops corn, rice, cotton, and canola seeds, and Ye Jian, the company’s crop research manager.

In Li’s luggage, agents found two large Pop Weaver microwave popcorn boxes. Buried under the bags of unpopped snack kernels were roughly 300 tiny manila envelopes, all cryptically numbered—2155, 2403, 20362. Inside each envelope was a single corn seed. In Ye’s luggage, agents found more corn seeds hidden amid his clothes, each one individually wrapped in napkins from a Subway restaurant. Customs officers were dispatched to the gate area for the Beijing flight, where they found the two men and conducted body searches. Still more corn seeds, also folded into napkins, were discovered in Ye’s pockets. [continue reading]

Why Republicans Reject the Iran Deal — and All Diplomacy

Nicole Hemmer and Tom Switzer
New York Times

Since the nuclear deal with Iran was announced on July 14, Republicans have attacked it with fire-and-brimstone zeal. They have called it everything from appeasement to betrayal. President Obama has fired back, arguing that opposition to the deal stems from the same worldview that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “A mind-set characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy.”

But this strain of thinking goes beyond Iraq. Although not all conservative Republicans share it, the tendency to reject diplomatic deals is rooted on the right of the American political spectrum. And while several Democrats — from Harry Truman to Henry “Scoop” Jackson during the Cold War — have embraced aspects of this hardline foreign policy, it is conservatives who are far more likely than liberals to stress confrontation over conciliation. [continue reading]

Delimitations: Rethinking the U.S.-Mexican Border

Marisa Schwartz
Time Magazine

Today, the border between the United States and Mexico is clearly delineated. But it was far hazier in 1821, when Mexico gained its independence from Spain. Then, the boundary was vast and never formally surveyed, stretching from modern day Oregon to Louisiana. California, Texas and most of the current U.S. southwest were part of Mexico.

In July, David Taylor, a multimedia artist and professor at the University of Arizona, and Mexican visual artist Marcos Ramirez, known as ERRE, set out to mark this border for the first time in a multi-disciplinary project titled Delimitations. “[This is] about the transitory nature and ephemerality of borders,” says Taylor. “We live with borders all the time and we depend on their permanence. But, in fact, history does not support them as static phenomena, they move around all the time.” [continue reading]

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