Ask A Historian

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The Ask a Historian podcast is one way the Department of History gives meaning to the Wisconsin Idea—that education should transcend the walls of the classroom, and that the university’s work should benefit all those in the state and beyond. Every episode features an interview with a University of Wisconsin—Madison historian who answers a question about the past submitted by our listeners.

The generous support of the Department of History’s Board of Visitors helps make Ask a Historian possible.

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We want to hear from you! Record yourself on your phone asking a question for a historian or telling us why you love history, and send us the file at outreach@history.wisc.edu. We also welcome your comments and feedback.

Episode Notes and Transcripts

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S1E3 - Why have Asian Americans often been the target of xenophobic and racist attacks during disease outbreaks?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by a spike in anti-Asian, especially anti-Chinese, racism. Why have Asian Americans often been the target of xenophobic and racist attacks during past disease outbreaks?

Professor Cindy I-Fen Cheng puts the past and present in conversation as she explains how Americans have historically used immigrant scapegoating to misdirect attention from larger structural issues in society. She tells us about the history of Chinese immigration exclusion, traces the development of racist ideas about Asian Americans, and reflects on the Cold War continuities she sees in the conspiracy theory that the COVID-19 virus originated in a Wuhan virology lab. Finally, she shares her hope that this moment produces increased discussion on the policies that have created structural racism, as well as a new commitment to creating policies that ensure greater equity for all people.

Cindy I-Fen Cheng is Professor of History and Director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Her book is Citizens of Asian America: Democracy and Race During the Cold War.

To read more about the scapegoating of Chinese immigrants during disease outbreaks in San Francisco, see Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

For a history of Chinese immigration exclusion, Cindy recommends Erika Lee’s At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943.

Our music is Pamgaea by Kevin MacLeod, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license.

Please send us your questions for a historian and/or tell us why you love history. You can record a voice memo and share it with us via email: outreach@history.wisc.edu.

S1E2 - What lessons can the history of Ebola in West Africa offer as we face the COVID-19 pandemic?

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As we face the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, the past can shed some light on our moment of crisis. We speak with Professor Gregg Mitman about the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in Liberia. How did people’s faith in or mistrust of their government shape the trajectory of the epidemic? What lessons can the history of Ebola offer in the context of COVID-19?

Gregg tells us about the long history of capitalism, politics, ecology, and medicine behind Liberia’s Ebola outbreak. He reflects on the unique geopolitical challenges of our current moment and the ways COVID-19 confronts racist Western assumptions about disease. Finally, he underscores the vital importance of building trust in order to successfully stem an epidemic.

Gregg co-directed and co-produced the 2015 documentary film In the Shadow of Ebola with Sarita Siegel, which you can view on the film’s website. His article in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Ebola in a Stew of Fear,” is available on NEJM’s website.

In the episode, Gregg speaks about African scholars’ commentary on COVID-19, including David Mwambari’s article “The pandemic can be a catalyst for decolonisation in Africa,” and Robtel Neajai Pailey’s “Africa does not need saving during this pandemic.”

Burial team workers handling a casket with the human remains of an Ebola victim in Monrovia. Photo credit: Alexander Wiaplah
Burial team workers handling a casket with the human remains of an Ebola victim in Monrovia. Photo credit: Alexander Wiaplah. Click to enlarge image.

Our music is Pamgaea by Kevin MacLeod, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license.

Please send us your questions for a historian and/or tell us why you love history. You can record a voice memo and share it with us via email: outreach@history.wisc.edu

S1E1 - Why do racist incidents come as a surprise to many Americans?

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Professor April Haynes speaks with Professor Paige Glotzer about the history of race relations in the United States. Has there been a sudden spike of racism in the United States? Why do racist ideas and incidents come as a surprise to many Americans?

To answer these questions, Professor Glotzer explains the history of the racial wealth gap in the United States, the role of racist violence in maintaining structural inequalities, and the longstanding efforts of Black activists to communicate their experiences of racism to a white public.

To read the striking language of restrictive covenants for yourself, see below for an image of a restrictive covenant created for the Roland Park Company’s Homeland subdivision in Baltimore. The race clause—categorized under “Nuisances”—is circled. Image courtesy of the Johns Hopkins University Sheridan Library.

Ask-A-Historian - Homeland Restrictive Covenant
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Professor Glotzer’s new book, How the Suburbs Were Segregated: Developers and the Business of Exclusionary Housing, will be published by Columbia University Press on April 28, 2020.

Our theme music is Pamgaea by Kevin MacLeod, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license.

Please send us your questions for a historian and/or tell us why you love history. You can record a voice memo and share it with us via email: outreach@history.wisc.edu