Reading and Writing During 2019

December 31, 2019

In his little book, The Sage’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life, William Martin offers a description that suits me well: “that quiet older gentleman who sits and drinks his coffee as he writes at the corner table by the window.” Again, in Martin’s words: “That is fine with me” (p. 108).

The purpose of this report written on a cold, windy New Year’s Eve afternoon is to highlight the reading I’ve been doing this year during these long hours sitting by my window. A report on my writing during 2019 may come sometime after the new year begins.

Despite my aging eyes, I still can read extensively and write about what I read. Occasionally the books are on the history, theology, and practice of Christian worship, which was the focus of my academic career, but these books no longer hold my attention as they once did. Instead, I am drawn to books dealing with the intersection of religious practice and public affairs, and to others focused upon the environment, cycling, and biographical studies.

In order to remember and reckon with what I’m reading, I have to take notes, and the more challenging the book, the more important it is to write a careful response. Sometimes these reviews summarize a book’s thesis and plot line as they are colored by how the writer has affected me. Often, these summaries are written as blog posts, about 750 words in length, and sometimes as review essays ranging in length from three or four pages to ten to twelve pages.

I began my blog—keithwatkinshistorian.wordpress.com—in 2010 and one of its primary functions has been the dissemination of these occasional writings. Now and then, one of my review essays appears in Encounter, the theological journal published by Christian Theological Seminary. Although I have been busy enough throughout 2019, this year’s list of reviews is not very long. The yearly average of blog posts since 2010, many of them literature reviews, is 47. In 2018, I posted 19 times, but in the year now closing, the number is down to 11, fewer than one a month. My original plan was to post two 750-word essays per week. Just when I think that it’s time to discontinue the blog, someone writes a response like one I received this week.

A woman who had been one of my fellow travelers on a two-week bicycle trip from Albuquerque to the Grand Canyon and Return in 2010 wrote a comment about one of this year’s blogs in which I posted a summary of a solo cross-country bike ride I had taken in 1999.  Read more. . . .Reading and Writing During 2019


Peculiar Rhetoric: A Review Essay

December 12, 2019

Peculiar Rhetoric: Slavery, Freedom, and the African Colonization Movement

by Bjørn F. Stillion Southard (University of Mississippi Press, 2019)

Review Essay by Keith Watkins / December 2019

How do you describe a social practice that is legal, practiced widely, and defined as ethically appropriate even though it clearly conflicts with the basic standards of a society’s religious, ethical, and constitutional principles? This is the challenge faced by Americans beginning four centuries ago with the transporting of Africans to this country against their will and classifying them as slaves, totally subject to the will of their masters, with virtually no human rights, powers of self-determination, or means of escape.

And this in a nation established on the principle that “all men are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  During the 1830s, southern political leader John C. Calhoun introduced the term “peculiar institution.” This phrase acknowledged that the position of enslaved Africans differed from that of white citizens but it supported the practice as being suitable and for the benefit of all concerned.

Although white society defended the legitimacy of this system, allowing it to continue until the Civil War rejected its basic forms, black people objected with increasing clarity and power during the same years that white people were supporting it. From constant experience, they knew that slavery was a terrible way of life and was in sharp conflict with the principles that white society used to describe and support their own place in the social order.

In his book Peculiar Rhetoric: Slavery, Freedom, and the African Colonization Movement, Southard focuses attention upon three inter-connected aspects of the nineteenth century context for this rhetorical and political struggle: (1) growing unrest across the country because of slavery; (2) the emergence of debate about the peculiar institution aimed by some to support its continuing legitimacy and by others to do away with it; and (3) the emergence of organizations and processes, especially the American Colonization Society, intent upon overcoming this institution in ways that could be affirmed by white societies in the north and south. Southard is interested in the rhetoric that was in the middle, existing between competing traditions in white society, drawing ideas from each side without uniting them. Although this rhetoric may have reduced conflicts between opposing sides, it did not resolve these differences and thus found it difficult to motivate people on either side to act. Read more. . . . Peculiar Rhetoric