“When San Jose Was Young:” A Study in Historical Representation

In the summer of 2014, the College Board announced that it would roll out “significant changes” to its curriculum framework for the Advanced Placement U.S. History Exam. The revised framework, based primarily on feedback from AP teachers, answers concerns that the AP course sent classrooms on a tightly-scheduled, “breathless race through American history.”  There is increased emphasis on writing, research, and critical interpretation to better align with standard college credit requirements.

While many well-known historians such as James McPherson have expressed support for the changes, the College Board has its share of critics. Conservative Jefferson County, Colorado school board member Julie Williams stated that the new curriculum is excessively concerned with “race, gender, class, ethnicity, grievance and American-bashing.”  Williams reflects a traditional belief that the increasing examination of the roles of women, minorities, and dissenters downplays the “patriotic” aspects of American history.

Students protest outside of Ralston Valley High School, as a motorist passes by, Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, in Arvada, Colo. The students are protesting a proposal by the Jefferson County School Board to emphasize patriotism and downplay civil unrest in the teaching of U.S. history. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Students in Arvada, CO protest a proposal by the Jefferson County School Board to emphasize patriotism and downplay civil unrest in the teaching of U.S. history. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Historical revisionism – of which the current APUSH debate is a part – is not a new concept.  In her 1979 book America Revised, Frances Fitzgerald argues that political debates over the teaching and learning of American history have existed since the early nineteenth century. Because white males were generally the only group to have the social capital to become professional historians, they created scholarship that reflected their own interests. After World War II, various social movements conspired to expand the scope of American history and tell stories previously skimmed over by the old consensus. As American Historical Association Executive Director James Grossman writes, “fewer and fewer college professors are teaching the United States history our grandparents learned – memorizing a litany of names, dates and facts – and this upsets some people.”

Given these facts, it can be easy for revisionist supporters and critics alike to turn past and present into a dichotomy – the exclusive history of “before,” and the inclusive history of “now” – but the reality is more nuanced.  Historical revisionism is a large and complex branch of historiography – of which the issue of representation is only a small, but significant part. Revisionist critics will say the College Board has overrepresented issues of race, gender, and class, while supporters will say that it is giving due to the underrepresented.

Traditionally “underrepresented” groups did frequently find a “voice,” albeit a highly problematic one, through the venue of popular history.  This problematic voice derived from writers’ inability to overcome contemporary biases, such as an emphasis on the “other” and the exotic when discussing minority groups.  A daily series of articles published in San Jose, California’s Evening News from September 18, 1916 to December 1, 1917 happens to serve as an unconventional window in pre-WWII conceptions of historical representation. When San Jose Was Young recognized the trope of “white man’s history” as a relic of the past, but did not possess sufficient insight to overcome a prejudicial world view.

“Many people have the mistaken idea that history is dull,” writes the anonymous journalist who introduced the column on September 18. History is likened to a fine wine “that stores up within itself the sunlight and chemical energy of years gone by [and] has never been accused of being dull, whatever else may have been said against it.” Because of the column’s philosophy that history “is by no means the dull thing that it is pictured by those who simply remember it as a string of hard to remember dates painfully studied at school,” the writers go to great lengths to narrate events in San Jose’s past that featured people from all walks of life, especially women and minorities.

Women frequently appear in the first articles in the series, which discuss early attempts at settlement in Santa Clara County by Spanish missionaries. The most famous of these missionaries was Father Magin Catalá (1761-1830). Father Catalá is portrayed as having an overwhelming spiritual power over the Ohlone Indians that came to live at his Santa Clara mission in the early nineteenth century.  In the article “The Saint,” a group of Ohlone women find Father Catalá at his table preaching to a human skull, “where are those voluptuous lips and thy vile tongue? In hell.” The women listen to Father Catalá’s bizarre sermon on vanity until all cry out in repentance.  Thus, while the experiences of female Indians became a colorful drawing point of the early installments of When San Jose Was Young, these characters are always anonymous, subservient, and awestruck.

Father Magin Catala preaches to Indians at the Santa Clara mission.

Father Magin Catala preaches to Indians at the Santa Clara mission.

November 18, 1916’s entry, “First California Feminist,” shifts to the mythological fantasies surrounding the foundation of California itself. Interestingly, the story begins with an exposition about the role of Californian women in the recent presidential election.  “It has been commonly stated both here and in the East that without the women’s vote in California the President would have been defeated,” writes the author, “[and] according to the oldest tradition of Californian women, this is as it should be.”  The article continues with the romantic tale of Queen Califia, a black “Amazon” woman said to have ruled the Island of California before Spanish contact. While it is expressed that the story was entirely fabricated by a sixteenth-century Spanish writer, the author sees parallels in his female contemporaries. “The followers of Califia had strong, hardened bodies, ardent courage and great force,” he writes. “What better description could be found of a Californian woman of today, the athletes, president-makers?”

Mural of Queen Califia (or Calafia) in the Room of the Dons at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, San Francisco.

Mural of Queen Califia (or Calafia) in the Rooms of the Dons at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, San Francisco.

The column’s editors also used interviews to gain evidence for their histories. Entry No. 129, “What a Woman Did for Fruit,” concerns the interview of a “Mrs. Dawson,” who started the first fruit canning factory in Santa Clara County. “I looked at Mrs. Dawson’s strong, intelligent face, and felt the impact of her vigorous personality,” narrates the interviewer.  Mrs. Dawson tries to make him promise not to reveal her achievement to the public, but he writes, “perhaps I promised, but it is immoral to keep some promises and some secrets. The secret that a woman started an industry that caused hundreds of thousands of acres to be planted in this valley is too important to be ignored.”  Mrs. Dawson’s first name is never stated, a relic of a time when female identity was still tied to marriage. In contrast to the awestruck Indian women and the exotic Amazon queen, however, contemporary California women are portrayed as having the most agency.

There is no question that When San Jose Was Young served the sensational and the romantic. The column’s female characters, who range from being cowering followers to respected innovators, serve as just one example that many venues of historical discussion were packed with the treatment of marginalized groups long before it became a matter of concern for today’s revisionist critics. The Evening News writers viewed history as an intoxicating wine, but were unable to realize that they themselves were intoxicated by their own biases and limitations, especially in their failure to separate non-white women from the exotic. The result was a hodgepodge of stories that do not meet modern, scholarly standards of historical revisionism, but may represent its crude, organic roots. Those who debate about the new AP framework should understand that the issue is not a matter of under- or over- representation, but of misrepresentation, which only time and responsibility can put right.

 

Sources:

The College Board, “AP U.S. History Course and Exam Frequently Asked Questions,” http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/members/exam/exam_information/224882.html

Full archive of When San Jose Was Young, transcribed by Claire Martin, for the Santa Clara County CAGenWeb Project, 2007, http://cagenweb.com/santaclara/WSJWY/wsjwy.html

Frances Fitzgerald, America Revised: History School Books in the Twentieth Century (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1979)

James R. Grossman, “The New History Wars,” New York Times, op-ed, September 1, 2014.

Valerie Strauss, “James McPherson defends new AP U.S. History framework,” The Washington Post, October 13, 2014.

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