Erika K. Jackson is an associate professor of history at Colorado Mesa University. She recently answered some questions about her book, Scandinavians in Chicago: The Origins of White Privilege in Modern America.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

I have a complicated identity as an adopted child raised in a family with a strong Swedish-American heritage. I would always get asked if I was Swedish, and when I told people that I was at least Scandinavian according to my adoption records, there was always a sense of intrigue and recognition of racial privilege. In my early twenties, I worked at the Swedish American Museum and Center as a museum intern and felt even closer to my (adopted) ancestors, which led me to investigate the origins of ethnic privilege I recognized when speaking with people from a contemporary perspective about my ethnic roots. When first reviewing the secondary literature in researching my book, I was struck by the notion that many scholars focused on the privileges Americans granted Scandinavians during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it was almost as if there was a hesitation among some writers to be forthright in their assertions. Based on my lived experience, as well as primary source research, I knew I had stumbled upon a new direction of focus, especially as whiteness studies was becoming more prominent during the mid-2000s.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

I had the immense opportunity to work with some of the individuals who had the greatest impact on my book, including Lisa Fine and Dag Blanck. Lisa was my graduate advisor at Michigan State who modeled excellence as a scholar and seasoned educator in women and gender studies and labor history. Dag saw potential in my work early on and has become an important mentor, most recently inviting me this past November to participate in a seminar on the future direction of Swedish-American studies at the Swedish Embassy in Washington D.C. and George Washington University. In my research, my greatest influences in regard to the history of race and ethnicity are Matthew Frye Jacobson, Thomas Guglielmo, and Russell Kazal, while Gail Bederman, Ruth Frankenberg, and Joanne Meyerowitz’s works helped me to integrate whiteness and gender into my study. From a more pointed perspective on Scandinavian American history, the scholarship produced by Catrin Lundström, Jørn Brøndal, Dag Blanck and Philip J. Anderson, Arne Lunde, and Joy Lintelman inspired me to rethink the direction of the field.

Q: How did you conduct research for your book?

 Research for my book took me across the country and the Atlantic Ocean and was the most fulfilling part of the process. Early in the process, I traveled to Växjö, Sweden, as part of a scholar exchange and did some initial research at the Swedish Emigrant Institute. After that, I began the bulk of my work in Chicago at the Newberry Library, Kenilworth Historical Society, the Chicago History Museum and the Swedish-American Archives of Greater Chicago at North Park University before receiving the Dagmar and Nils William Olsson fellowship at the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College. In the early stages of my research, I knew I wanted to provide more of a balance between the voices of women and men in locating the origins of white privilege with Scandinavians in Chicago, but ultimately the sources I found guided the direction of the project. Over the years, I became more interested in the influence of newspapers on both Americans and Scandinavians, which took me to Pacific Lutheran University’s Archives and Special Collections and back to the Newberry to focus more closely on the foreign language and english language presses in Chicago and the Midwest. Research is still what I love to do the most and find great joy in discovering long-forgotten sources.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

There were two major discoveries that come to mind – those types of sources that historians gasp out loud when found in a quiet archive. The first was the image that begins the introduction to my book taken from a Chicago Daily Tribune article published on January 19, 1908 that asked, “Will the World’s Most Beautiful Woman Be Found in Sweden or Norway?” The article said everything that I wanted my book to convey, that Nordic whiteness was a concept created by Scandinavians and parlayed in American newspapers and popular culture. It was assumed that, of course, the most beautiful woman in the world would be located out of these two countries, regardless of the fact that the article discussed an international beauty contest. The second major discovery is featured in chapter two, “Vikings and Dumb Blondes,” which I believe is one of the first “dumb blonde” jokes published in the popular American satirical magazine, Puck, in 1909. The origin of the joke focused on the lack of intelligence among Scandinavian domestics, where a fortune teller tells a patron that there will be “a wreck in your home” caused by a blonde woman. The audience’s initial response is to sexualize the insinuation, that a blonde woman would cause marital disharmony, but instead, the patron indicates that the so-called wreck had already occurred when the “new Swedish maid” let the dumb-waiter fall, breaking all the dishes.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

Ultimately, I hope to dispel the myth of the hierarchy of race constructed by “race scientists” like William Ripley, Joseph Deniker, and Madison Grant, which continues to drive race consciousness in America to this day. As I argue in the conclusion to my book, Nordic whiteness is the ultimate position of unquestioned racial hegemony to this day. This is one of many reasons why, I believe, that people are utterly fascinated by my adopted ethnic background. One of the first questions I am always asked is, “if you’re Swedish, why do you have brown hair?” These myths of race extend beyond perceptions of Nordic whiteness to apply to any racial or ethnic distinction we have created as a society over our history to negotiate identity.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

 I hope for my readers to come away with a better understanding of the ways in which race was socially constructed over our nation’s history. It may be a bit utopian, though my ultimate goal is for readers to have an appreciation of their own racial and ethnic background – adopted or not – and learn to embrace it if they have not already. Finally, I invite my readers to always use a critical eye when consuming newspapers and other media outlets.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

The topic of my next book is taking a completely different direction in historical focus to investigate the experience of girlhood in the 1990s and the influence of white privilege on the third wave. Because research is joyful to me, I like to immerse myself in the popular culture of the 1990s to help shape the direction of my study. I listen to quite a bit of feminist rock by Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Hole; watch movies and television shows focused on the perspective of “girls” like My So-Called Life and Felicity; and read Sassy and zines from that period. I live in Colorado, so in my spare time I try to get outdoors and into the mountains as much as possible.

As part of the special blog tour in honor of Mark Saunders, we celebrate the generosity our staff demonstrates toward every student who walks through our doors.

Over the last year and a half, our newly formed internship committee has worked hard to grow and support a comprehensive internship program. We have expanded opportunities to undergraduate and graduate students in the region who wish to gain experience in academic publishing with the mission of increasing diversity and inclusion in the industry. By all measures, our staff’s efforts in this area have been a great success. We have continued to support paid staff positions and long-term internships, built a variety of opportunities for single semester practicums, and hosted several two-hour career exploration “field trips” during the academic year.

Staff involvement in these efforts has been incredible. An astonishing 80% of our staff members (representing every Press department) have volunteered their time in some way over the last twelve months to support the many elements of our growing program. Eleven staff members currently serve on the internship committee. Many staff members have met one-on-one with students for informational interviews. Others have shared their career histories during group field trips from the graduate college and the English department. Three-quarters of the staff have attended at least one monthly professional development lunch. And a large number serve as direct supervisors for student staff and interns – offering their years of expertise to those just beginning to explore the wide diversity of careers in publishing.

Spring semester 2019 was a high point in our collective efforts. A record 18 students were in the building on a regular basis, ranging from paid staff in marketing and journals to our third “Round-the-Press” intern. We hosted an additional two graduate students in April for an innovative one day “immersive” internship experience designed in collaboration with the Graduate College. Beginning in late April, I had the pleasure of speaking with eight students as they wrapped up their time with us. One student had interned in our art department for two years designing book covers and marketing materials; five students from the iSchool spent the semester working on special projects; and one undergrad was leaving her paid position in the IT department. Each was invited to share the positive aspects of their experiences and make suggestions for the future. I was delighted – though not surprised – that no matter the length of time these students had worked with us, each and every one of them identified the openness and generosity of our staff as a highlight of their experience.

Thank you to each and every U of I Press staff member who has given of their time and expertise to help introduce a new generation of people to the world of academic publishing!

By Julie Laut, Outreach and Development Coordinator


Join us October 4-5 on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus for conversations on past and present student activism in honor of our new book by Michael Metz, Radicals in the Heartland: The 1960s Student Protest Movement at the University of Illinois. 

October 4–5, 2019

Friday Keynote:

Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, University Archivist at the University of Maryland College Park, and co-founder of Project STAND (Student Activism Now Documented), which focuses on documenting student activism among historically marginalized communities.

Saturday Sessions:

Radicals in the Heartland: Reflections on the 1960s Protest Movement

Moderator: Michael Metz (BA ’70), author of Radicals in the Heartland

Panelists: Vern Fein (MA ’65), Vince Wu (MS ’66), and Vic Berkey

Documenting Student Activism: The Role of the Archive

Moderator: Ellen Swain, UIUC Student Life and Culture Archives

Panelists: Jessica Ballard, UIUC Archives, and Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, University Archivist, University of Maryland

Illinois Student Activism: Past and Present

Moderator: TBD

Panelists: TBD



Friday, October 4

Walking Tour of Key Anti-Vietnam War Demonstration Sites

Location: Meet on the South Patio (Quad side) of the Illini Union (1401 W. Green St.)

Start time: TBD

Join Vic Berkey (SFS and SDS leader) and Vern Fein (MA ’65) (Committee to End the War and SDS leader) for a FREE guided one-hour walking tour of some of the key sites of anti-Vietnam War demonstration sites on the University of Illinois campus. Some sites may require participants to navigate steps. Contact Vern Fein for more information.

Contact: Vern Fein (


Saturday, October 5        Check back soon for more related events!


Learn more here.

Co-sponsored by: The University of Illinois Press and the University of Illinois Archives

Questions? Contact Julie Laut, University of Illinois Press,

If sport provides a powerful lens through which social norms are produced, reproduced, and challenged, sports media compose key mechanisms through which these meanings are built and communicated. As studies of sports media gain momentum in the humanities and social sciences, this field-defining series will feature humanistic research that explores and critiques sports media’s significance, uses, and power.

Studies in Sports Media will bridge the gap between media studies and sports studies by paying attention to sport’s history, politics and particularities while probing the industrial, political, commercial, and aesthetic contexts that shape media’s production, circulation, and consumption. Books in the series will make important scholarly interventions while exhibiting the clarity, accessibility, and liveliness that nonacademic audiences expect.

Humanistic approaches to sports media analyze media industry, text, and public engagement in historic context. From “traditional” broadcast outlets to “new” media applications, sports media represent a rare site of broad public struggle over questions of community and identity. From the constant churn of SportsCenter to smartphone apps and talk radio, to team logo-wear as haute couture, fantasy gaming, and league appeals to corporate citizenship, sports media are an increasingly inescapable part of everyday life. 

The series’ editors encourage submissions that present humanistic approaches to the study of sports media as provocative and significant interventions by which to consider historic and contemporary questions of community, identity, “interactivity” and engagement, industry, text and context.

Single-authored monographs and edited collections will be considered for inclusion in the series.

Inquiries and proposals can be sent to Daniel Nasset:


Victoria E. Johnson is Associate Professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies and Ph.D. Program in Visual Studies at the University of California, Irvine, where she is also affiliated faculty in African American Studies. Her publications focus on U.S. television history, cultural geography, and critical race theory with current work examining the cultural history of U.S. television through the lens of sports media, and the marketing of sports culture to a post-Title IX generation of women.

Travis Vogan is Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication and the Department of American Studies at the University of Iowa.  His research focuses on the intersections among U.S. sports media’s cultural history, industrial contours, and institutional politics. He is the author of Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films and the Rise of Sports Media (2014) and ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire (2015).

The semester has finally ended and that means it’s time to catch up your TBR pile. To help you stock your shelves, we’re having a summer sale!

June 3-14, use Promo Code SUMMER on our website to get 40% off all books! That’s right, all books! And all formats too. So whether you prefer ebooks, paperbacks, or hardcovers, the promo code will work for all of them.

Happy Reading!



The following is a guest post from intern Laura Coby, a graduate student in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the past three years, we’ve partnered with the English department to provide a graduate student a comprehensive experience of scholarly publishing. Students start in journals, and then move through acquisitions, editorial, design, and production, and marketing. Read Laura’s reflections on the process below to learn more.


Throughout my undergraduate and graduate career, I have worked in many of the departments involved in running an academic press—editorial, production, design, and even some small-scale marketing. However, these isolated experiences were all performed at separate presses.  When I heard about the Round-the-Press internship, I became very excited at the prospect of seeing how all the various departments come together to work as a unit.

I began my internship in the Press’s journals department. During this stage of my internship, I performed mostly editorial tasks, such as prepping files for the copyeditor with type-marking codes and revising page proofs. I was overwhelmed and highly impressed by the amount of journals that come out of the UI Press and how efficiently each stage of the publishing process is facilitated with each publication.

I moved next to acquisitions, where my internship began to mimicking the life cycle of a book. During the acquisitions portion of my internship, I gained an understanding of how books are acquired by the UI Press. I went over manuscript proposal material and peer review packets with acquisitions editors, and they highlighted ideal qualities of each. I also attended internal and transmittal meetings—giving me a better idea of acquisitions’ role in the grand scheme of things. Because this was the department I had the least experience with, I held several informational interviews with the acquisitions editors to provide a better understanding of what the day-to-day workload is like.

The EDP (editorial, production, and design) portion of my internship began in editorial. Here, I copyedited partial manuscripts, copyedited marketing copy, edited an index, and checked a set of revised page proofs. From there, I went to production where I used InDesign to typeset the interior of a book. Afterwards, I revised the page proofs for that title to ensure there were no style errors. I, then, moved to design where I learned some of the ins and outs of Photoshop—culminating in my design of a back cover for one of our books. My favorite parts of working in EDP were the incredibly tangible tasks I was given to complete; I felt a sense of accomplishment producing work that would benefit the department.

The last stage of my internship landed me in marketing. I learned a great deal about all of the different avenues for promoting and selling scholarly books. I wrote and edited copy for book covers and the catalog for the season. I also pulled quotes from reviews for promotional materials and wrote a blog post for one of our titles. I really enjoyed ending my internship in marketing because—as I traveled through my internship—I was able to see marketing’s influence through an acquisitions or EDP lens, and now, I could finally see all of the other departments through a marketing lens, tying the whole experience together.

Through my experience with the Round-the-Press internship, I have been able to sharpen previous publishing skills and learn new ones. This internship has allowed me to paint a picture of how each department at an academic press works together to form one, cohesive operation and has increased my excitement of future publishing opportunities to come.

–Laura Coby

Cicero M. Fain III is a professor of history at the College of Southern Maryland. He recently answered some questions about his new book Black Huntington: An Appalachian Story.


Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

I decided to write the book because no one had yet told this important story.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

Two of my biggest were:

1) conversations held on my front porch discussing this historical figure, development, and/or event, which, over the course of time prompted me to dig deeper into the uniqueness of Huntington’s black history.

2) And black local historians, like Edna Duckworth and Nelson Barnett, Jr., whose initial research presented historical documentation that provided evidence of black contributions.

Q: How did you conduct research for your book?

A wide ranging search through archival material, genealogical societies, local history collections, libraries, court documents, newspapers, journals, articles, family histories, interviews, and church records throughout the Tri-State region of WV, KY, and OH.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

Charles Ringo’s exploits.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

That while WV was formed as anti-slavery slave, it was not pro-black. In truth, Black residents and migrants arrived in the state because of economic opportunity and not because WV was somehow elevated in their thoughts on race. It was their labor that was eventually coveted, not their political aspirations.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

Blacks had to combat racism, forge a life, build community, work the worst jobs and under occupational constraints, construct institutions, and climb the economic ladder while confronting the barriers and mechanisms of Jim Crowism. Their fortitude, persistence, and sacrifice should be noted and celebrated.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

I’m a huge science fiction fan so I’m always watching some show or movie. Most of my reading is purposeful, so not a lot of time to pick up a book just for the sheer pleasure of reading and learning. However, I’ve started in on Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime and am immensely enjoying it. I’ve got eclectic tastes in music. Everything from Pink Floyd to Prince, from Jill Scott to Corrine Bailey Rae, from Pat Matheny to George Duke, from Milton Nascimeinto to Santana.


Linda A. Morris is a Professor of Emeritus at UC Davis. Her current research is on gender play in the works of Mark Twain. Her earlier published work focused primarily on women’s humor in nineteenth-century America. Her teaching and research areas were late nineteenth-century American literature, Mark Twain, American humor, and African-American literature with an emphasis on women’s fiction. She recently shared her thoughts on “What is Personal about Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc?” from an issue of American Literary Realism.

My article, “What is Personal about Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc?” was the culmination of my thinking and writing about Twain’s Joan of Arc over time for close to two decades.  My first paper, written for a conference, puzzled over the fact that the physical Joan was never described by Twain (or by the primary historical sources), yet he claimed he modeled her physical likeness on his daughter Susy. I’m not sure I ever satisfactorily answered that question, but Personal Recollections stuck in my mind.

The next time I turned to Twain’s Joan was much more concentrated, for I was writing Gender Play in Mark Twain: Cross Dressing and Transgression. The historical Joan of Arc was the most famous cross-dresser of all times, and Twain was clearly fascinated by her for many years. It turns out that the fact that Joan cross-dressed as a male, even while imprisoned, was highly significant in her trial and subsequent martyrdom. In the end, the only crime the church was able to convict her on was putting on her male clothing after she had agreed, under duress, to renounce it. Once she put an “x” on a piece of paper denouncing her male attire, as Twain called it, her prison guards stole her female clothing while she slept and she had no choice but to once again cross-dress.  She was almost immediately burned at the stake.

At the same time I was writing a chapter on Personal Recollections for my book, I began to question, as many scholars have done, why Mark Twain believed it to be the “best” work he ever wrote, and his favorite. Many Twain critics have rather vehemently disagreed with that judgment, but I thought it deserved attention. The answer took me in several directions. For instance, scholars had dismissed the claim as Twain’s sentimental association of the book with his daughter Susy, who died shortly after the book was published. (I cover that topic, in part, in my article in American Literary Realism, but briefly I concluded there are a number of compelling reasons why he judged the book so highly, including the extraordinary amount of research he devoted to the work.)

Several years after the publication of Gender Play, I was invited by a French colleague, Ronald Jenn, to apply together for a France-Berkeley grant to study Twain’s own marginalia in a number of texts Twain studied in preparation for writing his Joan of Arc (all located in the Mark Twain Papers at UC Berkeley). We received the grant, which proved to be a marvelous opportunity to “read” the original French and English sources over Twain’s shoulder, so to speak. We watched him teach himself about Joan’s life, her success in battles to liberate France from the English, to marvel at Joan’s resilience in the face of her cruel treatment in prison while she was on trial, and to see Twain begin to challenge the accuracy of some of his historical sources. We then wrote and published an article about our discoveries about the marginalia. (“The Sources of Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Mark Twain Journal, Vol. 55, Spring/Fall, 2017,55-74.)

Our work together in the Mark Twain papers in turn resulted in my receiving an invitation to present a paper about Twain’s Joan at the Joan of Arc historical society in Rouen, France, where the audience was steeped in knowledge about the historical Joan but knew virtually nothing about Twain’s Joan of Arc. In anticipation of that talk, Ronald Jenn and another French colleague took the lead in producing a film about Twain’s work, which we previewed in Rouen, and which won a prize at the 1st Anstia film festival in Paris in 2018 for the best documentary. (“Jeanne d’Arc, l’histoire d’une passion.”)

The articles that appear in the special issue of American Literary Realism also grew out of our France-Berkeley project and a panel of papers presented at the Elmira College Quadrennial conference on Mark Twain, chaired by Delphine Louis-Dimitrov. There is yet another project to follow—a special issue on Joan of Arc in America, to be published by the French journal Revue Francaise d’Estudes Americaines. I look forward to reading that issue, as well, eager to hear what the writers have to say on this topic.

Jonathan Fenderson is an assistant professor of African and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He recently answered some questions about his new book Building the Black Arts Movement: Hoyt Fuller and the Cultural Politics of the 1960s. 


Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

When I was in graduate school at the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University there was a room named in honor of Hoyt Fuller.  Inside that room there was also an incredible portrait by Jeff Donaldson, which is now featured on the cover. Before entering that room and seeing that portrait I had never heard his name, but as I started to do research on him, and understand his importance to the Black Arts Movement, I said to myself, “someone needs to write a book about this guy.” Luckily, I was fortunate enough to gain entry into the graduate program at the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass, where they encouraged the idea. Subsequently, the more research I did, the more I realized the singularity of his role in the Movement.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

In regard to the project, my biggest influences would have to include the faculty of UMass’ Afro-American Studies program. I would also have to include Carole Parks, Abena Brown and Angela Jackson, who were colleagues (and friends) of Fuller. Collectively they made sure I had everything I needed to complete the book. Robert Harris also went above and beyond, when he allowed me the opportunity to access his personal papers, which had yet to be archived. In terms of my intellectual influences, more broadly, they may be too many to mention by name. I was particularly moved by Black scholars that have wrestled with questions of intra-racial class conflict within African-American society. In particular, scholars like E. Franklin Frazier, Amiri Baraka, and Adolph Reed. I was also very moved by the work of David Levering Lewis, Lawrence P. Jackson and other scholars that have written provocative Black literary histories.

Q: How did you conduct research for your book?

My experiences conducting research for this book has been a tremendously rewarding journey. My primary archive was in Atlanta at the Woodruff Library in the Atlanta University Center. I made regular trips there and was fortunate to build a really supportive relationship with the archive staff. I also spent times in secondary archives in New York City, London, Lagos (Nigeria) and a number of other places. I also made regular trips to conduct oral history interviews. In hindsight it is safe to say that the research for this book has taken me around the world. I have ventured to places I never could have imagined when I first chose this project. Throughout the entire process I remained committed to deep archival research, which I felt had been lacking in much of the scholarship on the Black Arts Movement.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

I think the most interesting discovery is the story I try to tell in the final chapter of the book, regarding Fuller’s sexuality and the creation of the archive. For many years I wondered how I was going to write about Fuller’s sexuality without having much to reference, yet still remaining true to an approach to Black Studies that situates history as foundational. And while, there is still very little reference material in the archive, the story about why so many silences exist in the archive is fascinating. Very early in the process I knew that Fuller engaged in same-sex sexual relationships with men, but that reality—in and of itself—was not a very interesting or compelling part of the story, in my opinion. However, when I learned that individuals had worked to “clean” Fuller’s papers after he died, I felt that was an important story that needed to be told. I had to come to terms with an expression of homophobia that was rooted in notions of love, protection and devotion for marginalized LGBTQI subjects.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

There are a few myths that I hope my book dispels, or at least troubles. First, there is a widely held (and frequently circulated) idea that the Black Arts Movement was unrelentingly hyper-masculine and dogmatically patriarchal (and by extension homophobic) due to the Black nationalists impulses that resided at its core. And while there are very sound critiques to be made of black nationalism—particularly along the lines of gender and sexuality—the history of the Black Arts Movement is far more complicated than the scholarship has suggested. Second, I wanted to challenge Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s contention that the Black Arts Movement was the shortest and least successful movement in African-American cultural history. To the contrary, I wanted to show that the Black Arts Movement was responsible for advancing a notion of “cultural politics” that has remained a core feature of American intellectual discourse. Lastly, I wanted to tell the story of Black Arts institutions. When scholars write about the Movement they tend to reference individuals, like Amiri Baraka, or particular poems, but the story of the era resides in the rise and fall of experimental Black institutions, and the people who found these institutions to be productive spaces for artistic creation. Therefore the book offers a story of important Black institutions, but documenting one persons experiences in those institutions.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope that after reading my book scholars will see that we have so much more to learn about the Black Arts Movement. In addition, I hope that subsequent scholars will see that we can approach the study of the movement with historical rigor and archival attentiveness. In addition, I hope that my book helps to situate Hoyt Fuller as an influential thinker in the Black intellectual tradition. Finally, I hope that Building the Black Arts Movement illustrates the fact that community-rooted institutions laid part of the intellectual groundwork for modern day African-American Studies, and that there was a tradition of popular intellectual engagement that emanated from everyday working-class people in African-American communities. During the 1960s and 1970s, Black Arts was Black popular culture, and even though the study of Black culture is now academically acceptable that was not always the case.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

I’ve spent a significant portion of my life listening to hip-hop music, so it has remained a consistent source of fun and frustration. I also enjoy listening to podcasts of all sorts, and watching good television shows and films. And perhaps my favorite thing to do is to spend time with my wife, searching for good food. We’re lucky because Saint Louis has some really good food to offer, but we also love to travel in search of good food.

Melanie Holmes is the author of The Female Assumption, recipient of a 2014 Global Media Award from the Population Institute. She recently answered some questions about her new book, A Hero on Mount St. Helens: The Life and Legacy of David A. Johnston.


Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

I didn’t “decide” so much as I was engaged in a conversation with a longtime friend (David’s sister) and realized that too many people had taken liberties with his story over the years, and that a book informed by those who knew him best could possibly heal wounds inflicted by past hurts. I never met David, thus he was outside the sphere of my friendship with his sister; we had barely discussed him in all the years of our friendship. Thus writing this book involved asking the must fundamental questions; the more I learned about him, the more compelling his story became. We tend to forget what people of past generations went through because of the social and political climate; this is an attempt to frame one life, set in the context of the turbulent 1960s.

Q: How did you conduct research for this book?

It began with dinner. With the idea of a book in mind, we met for dinner to discuss it. We were both nervous, but it went well; she gave me names of David’s friends from childhood and college and I contacted all that I could track down. People were generous with their time, in sharing stories about David as well as what went on at Mount St. Helens. I read thousands of pages of research articles, books, letters sent to David’s parents after he died, as well as David’s own writings (letters home, etc.). I traveled to the Mount St. Helens area and toured the Cascades Volcano Observatory. I stood on lahar sediment west of the mountain. I watched a voluminous number of documentaries on the eruption as well as on the recovery of the ecosystem. Perhaps as important as research on the man and the mountain was researching the time period in which David grew up—it felt important to view him from a cultural viewpoint. This is one man’s story, but it’s also the tale of a generation.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing this book?

The human condition is a fascinating landscape; it is hard to narrow it down to one thing. Perhaps discovering that David had a very anxious disposition, and learning about what might have fueled those anxieties, and especially how he overcame that as an obstacle. From the perspective of Mount St. Helens, it is most interesting that the science we have today quite frankly did not exist in 1980. Volcanology was an immature science. Even though the United States had a volcano hazards program, it wasn’t well-funded. The only volcano observatory that existed in 1980 was in Hawaii—despite the fact that the United States has the greatest number of active volcanoes of any country other than Indonesia. But in 1980 people saw the Cascades as beautiful snow-capped mountains, perfect for skiing.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope this book will help readers unlearn?

Some say that David “knew” the volcano was going to erupt as it did. Media quoted him when he called it a dynamite keg with its fuse lit. Did David “feel” it was going to erupt? Yes. Absolutely. He even mentioned a volcano in Russia that erupted with a directed/lateral blast in 1956, which is what ended up happening at Mount St. Helens. But the science did not exist that would have helped scientists to know what was going on. To say that David “knew” what would happen is to say that he “knew” people would be killed, and that’s not fair to the families of those who died or were seriously injured. What it would be good for people to “unlearn” is to not believe everything you read. As David’s mother used to say (she was a newspaper editor), check the facts, verify. The other thing is not to treat David and the others who died as just another news story. They were people. Their families have feelings that have been trampled over and over.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from this book?

This depends on who you are. An overarching theme is: “heroes walk among us.” There are many that we can point to from the period in which David grew up. Those who fought in Vietnam deserved so much more honor than they received. Vietnam vets flew helicopters that performed search and rescue after the eruption; I wonder how many people know that. Scientists also are true heroes. Diseases have been eradicated. Lead times for warnings about tornadoes and volcanic hazards have improved. Scientists typically toil in obscurity, even as their discoveries improve (or save) lives. Every scientist will tell you that preparation is key when it comes to natural disasters. The other takeaway is: we are each other’s keepers. There’s a quote in the book, David’s words from when he was 25 years old (during 1976, America’s bicentennial): “Everything that America is, was, or ever will be is the result of what its people are.” That’s a good ethic to live by.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

I read mostly nonfiction (memoirs, self-help). The last fiction book that I really loved was probably The Book Thief; even though it came out 10 years ago, I read it only a year ago. Its focus on a little German girl who couldn’t understand the hatred of the Holocaust really resonated. Children aren’t born hating; they learn to hate. As far as what I watch? Jeopardy is like a religion in my home. I love superhero movies (my older brother introduced me to my first Wonder Woman comic book circa 1970) And I’ll watch any movie with my adult daughter that she selects (our favorite is Mamma Mia!)