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2019

I’m a month into my research sabbatical and feeling as though the list of questions I set out to answer is only getting longer. Going into this project my plan was straightforward: learn all I can about care of the mentally ill in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the late 19th/early 20th centuries and then find ways to integrate what I’ve learned into my survey US and US Women’s History courses. When I started the archival research I had no idea what stories would be uncovered but I was hopeful that the dozens of secondary sources I had already poured through would be adequate preparation for what lay ahead.

 

I hit a stumbling block during my very first archival visit. Reading through admission notes for female patients in the 1870s I notice that time and again doctors indicate that their female patients had recently (within weeks or months of the admission) experienced child birth. I began to wonder about postpartum depression and whether doctors in the late nineteenth century would have diagnosed such a condition. Later that evening I started back through some of the major secondary sources in search of post-childbirth diagnoses but came up empty handed.

 

The field of women’s history has expanded exponentially over the last forty years and yet, the more I search, the more frustrated I become: time and again searching for pre-twentieth century historical references to postpartum depression yields links to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and virtually nothing else. After combing academic databases for journal articles to no avail I posted queries to two list-servs asking fellow historians for input: what secondary sources exist to help contextualize post-childbirth mental health problems at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century?

 

It’s only a matter of hours before the first response arrives in the form of an email from a nursing professor who recommends that I contact an historian friend of hers on the faculty of a medical school. By the end of the day I’d been in touch with three historians on two continents who confirm that my inability to find secondary literature is the result of a vast empty space in the historical narrative. Historians, it seems, have been remarkably silent on the topic of postpartum depression before the Second World War and at this point I can only make broad assumptions as to why.

 

Historical research requires detective work: searching for clues to the past and seeking answers to questions big and small. My experience this semester is reminding me how important it is to share that research process with colleagues near and far, and to seek help when needed. Only a month into my sabbatical I am already indebted to numerous librarians, archivists and historians who have provided advice. I look forward to incurring more academic debt as my sabbatical continues.

In a May 2017 blog I shared my favorite short research assignment, which requires students to conduct secondary source research to place photographs and artwork from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries into historical context. I’ve thought a lot about that assignment over the past week since Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page became a source of public discourse. The image is startling to anyone who has studied the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries: two men, one wearing Ku Klux Klan regalia and the other, smiling, in blackface.

 

Public discussion of this image reinforces, for me, the importance of studying our national history. Rather than imparting our personal political views on our students, this situation is a case-study in why we need to let our students learn the lingering scars of history’s terrible truths for themselves. Contextualizing the men’s costumes within the history of race in the United States opens avenues of discussion in both contemporary and historical settings.

 

When I first present the image-based research project to my students they commonly respond that “there is nothing happening” in their assigned picture. I encourage them to reflect on the unspoken fact that photographs are taken to memorialize -- a moment, an experience, a relationship -- deemed important to someone. If we frame the discussion of Northam’s yearbook page in these parameters, we ask our students to confront the overt symbols of racism that continue to plague our country nearly two centuries after phrases like “blackface” and “Jim Crow” entered our public discourse.

 

So when your students ask about the Northam image, suggest that they do some research. Googling the term “Blackface,” for example, will bring students to articles about the practice as a form of entertainment for white people in the 19th century. “Blackface: The Birth of An American Stereotype”  (National Museum of African American History & Culture) explains the concept with visual examples that can help students to recognize how prevalent the custom was in the 19th century. Ask students to brainstorm times when they have seen blackface (or references to it) used in popular culture. Online resources about the Ku Klux Klan can illuminate student understanding of the longevity of the terror organization. Particularly useful is “Ku Klux Klan: A History of Racism” (Southern Poverty Law Center), which provides a chronological history that enables students to see how the KKK has remained an active agent of hate for more than a century.

 

Finally, ask your students to think about the time in which Northam’s yearbook was published. What was going in 1984 that might have contributed to its inclusion?

 

Whatever reaction you may personally have to the Northam picture, do not allow your students to think “nothing is happening.”