American History

Pop quiz: What's a word you use a hundred times a day — that doesn't show up in the dictionary?

Give up? Mmhmm.

You got it! Mmhmm is a small word that's often used unconsciously. But it can actually tell us a lot about language, bias and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Once upon a time, English speakers didn't say "mmhmm." But Africans did, according to Robert Thompson, an art history professor at Yale University who studies Africa's influence on the Americas.

When I was a high school junior in New Orleans taking AP American history, my teacher assigned us a paperback book. Slim in contrast to our hulking required textbook, it was a funny, compelling, even shocking read. Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen, explained how history textbooks got the story of America wrong, usually by soft-pedaling, oversimplifying and burying the thorny drama and uncertainties of the past under a blanket of dull, voice-of-God narration.

Van Turner has a secret: He knows the whereabouts of the controversial Confederate statues removed last year from two parks in Memphis, Tenn.

"They have to be kept in a secretive location," said Turner on a recent afternoon, standing in a park overlooking the Mississippi River where one of the statues — of Confederate President Jefferson Davis — once stood. "For fear of someone trying to go in and get them."

Decades before the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016 that claimed 49 lives, another deadly attack on LGBTQ Americans took place.

It was 45 years ago this Sunday that one of the worst attacks on the LGBTQ community left 32 people dead.

Courtesy of Lynn Lavner

Thanks to my father’s late-life nostalgia, last summer my family reconnected with a woman we’d known back in Brooklyn decades ago who’d gone on to live a remarkable life. Her name is Lynn Lavner, and it turns out, she’d been living under 10 miles away from my parents’ place in south Florida for years. It also turns out that in the decades since we’d seen her, she’d become a pioneering crusader in the movement for equal rights for the LGBTQ community.

Pixabay

Florida was the first state to enact a "stand your ground" law. Under the law, a person is allowed to use lethal force — and has no duty to retreat — if they believe they are in danger.

Since it was enacted in 2005, the law has drawn high-profile controversies, including the shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.

Harvard professor Caroline Light was recently in Miami to talk about the law’s historical roots and her book “Stand Your Ground: A History of America's Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense.”

OK, so you've just left the hospital with your newborn baby. You're relieved, because the baby is healthy, your heart overflows with love and you're excited to begin this new chapter in your life. Then, most parents will tell you, on the way home a strange feeling sets in.

It's as if you went to sleep in one world and woke up in another, a world that seems familiar but slightly off-key. As you gaze into the eyes of this fragile new being, it hits you: "What have I done?" And, more importantly, "What do I do now?"

Editor's note: This report contains language and an image some may find offensive or upsetting.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice stands high on a hillside overlooking downtown Montgomery, Ala. Beyond the buildings you can see the winding Alabama River and hear the distant whistle of a train — the nexus that made the city a hub for the domestic slave trade.

Before he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what was to be the last public address of his life to a crowd of sanitation workers, who were about to strike for a living wage. On Wednesday — the 50th anniversary of King’s death — we discussed his legacy and economic justice.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination on April 4, 1968 shook the nation. For me, it was a devastating re-awakening to changes that had taken place in America, in the years I had been away.

"The Second Amendment."

If you've lived in America, you've heard those words spoken with feeling.

The feeling may have been forceful, even vehement.

"Why? The Second Amendment, that's why."

The same words can be heard uttered in bitterness, as if in blame.

"Why? The Second Amendment, that's why."

Apocryphal stories about our nation's first president abound.

Wooden dentures? Experts say disabusing the public of this myth is like ... well, pulling teeth. (And George Washington did have several pulled, having suffered mightily from dental problems.)

Neal Asbury stands in front of first maps of Florida at NSU exhibit.
Caitie Switalski / WLRN

There are plenty of ways to learn more about early American history: books, movies, podcasts. And for those that love maps,  Nova Southeastern University’s main library has a treasure trove of old maps telling hundreds of years’ worth of history.