History Through Birthdays

Fall 2015

By Peter Warren

What do the following historical players have in common: Ho Chi Minh, Miles Davis, Malcolm X, John Wayne, Dorothea Lange, Ian Fleming, Patsy Cline, Buck O’Neil, Rin Tin Tin, Bonnie Parker, Léopold Senghor, Margaret Thatcher, Joseph Goebbels, George Patton, Diego Rivera, Roger Baldwin, Eva Braun, Sergei Eisenstein, and William Randolph Hearst? The answer: all were on the last “birthday quiz” given to my Twentieth Century World History students.
Every class period begins with a five-minute observance of a notable birthday. I’ll give brief biographical details, including dates of birth and death and why the birthday boy or girl is worthy of celebration. I’ll often show an image of the person and sometimes an example of their work — a piece of music, a few lines of poetry or prose, or a video clip of an interview. The birthday men and women come from all over the world and made their marks in all sorts of spheres: politics, military, athletics, the arts, literature, science and technology, even crime. They have each made some notable contribution to 20th century history; their contributions have helped shape the century, for good or evil; their work has provided some of the vocabulary of the century.
Some of these names would have arisen in the main arteries of the course in any case, but here are some side streets we were able to go on: Miles Davis and the birth of cool; John Kennedy’s admiration of the James Bond novels; Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement, and the occupation of Wounded Knee; Léopold Senghor and the concept of “negritude” in modern African literature; Jean Seberg’s association with the Black Panther Party and the FBI’s investigation of the actress; Rin Tin Tin and the use of dogs in World Wars I and II; Jim Thorpe and the issue of professionalism in the Olympics; the significance in the ’70s of Chayefsky’s line of dialogue, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”; Roger Baldwin’s founding of the ACLU and his subsequent deployment to Japan after WWII to foster civil liberties; the politicization of Eisenstein’s “Soviet montage”; the war between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer and the birth of “yellow journalism.”
Each of their stories helps deepen the exploration of the 20th century’s experience. Spending a few minutes on individual biographies is a way to weave into history stories that would not otherwise warrant notice. These stories float free of the weights of coverage; they arise each day as little discoveries, opportunities to see the world through different lenses and eclectic perspectives. For sources, there are numerous websites with lists of notable birthdays. I generally use “www.onthisday.com” because it includes people from a wide variety of backgrounds, not simply pop celebrities. I choose people who have made a substantive contribution to the 20th century. I make sure that the selections represent over time as diverse a range of fields and backgrounds as possible.
History through birthdays guarantees fresh opportunities for all sorts of connections. We happened to be reading a document by the German historian and nationalist Heinrich von Treitschke in September, at the time of the birthday of H.L. Mencken. We discussed Mencken’s admiration for Friedrich Nietzsche. We considered Mencken’s quote, “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”1 One student saw a bridge between Mencken’s and von Treitschke’s suspicion of the efficacy of democracy. This brought us to a consideration of late 19th century German nationalism in a very different context: what elements might have been considered as positives by contemporaneous Americans? And how might that have bearing on the West’s assessment of German nationalism in the early 20th century?
Sometimes the stories go underground and pop up months later. We didn’t get to the Beat Generation until late spring, and then only cursorily. But a light went on for some students who went back into their notebooks and found notes on Ken Kesey, whose birthday we had observed in September. (“I was too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippie.”) And sometimes we get to broaden our vocabulary. There is no natural slot in which to place Greta Garbo in the course. But it seems to me that “I want to be alone” spoken in that great Swedish accent is a wonderful bit of a cultural vocabulary that can bridge generations.
Once in a while a pairing of birthdays will be serendipitous, offering the opportunity to look at a familiar face in a new context. Sometimes the connections present themselves: Zora Neale Hurston shares a birthday with Orval Faubus. The governor of Arkansas called out the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School 20 years after Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God. In 1967 the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote A Grain of Wheat about Kenya’s struggle for independence. Ngugi shares a birthday with Tommie Smith, who, a year after the novel was published, famously raised his fist in a black power salute at the Mexico City Olympics and was forced out of Olympic competition. A Kenyan writer’s name might not arise ordinarily in a course in 20th century history, but imagine the opportunity to talk about independence movements and race in this context. Students could begin to connect the struggle against colonialism in Africa and the Black Power movement in the United States.
Sometimes the birthday quiz gives us the opportunity to take a fresh look at different strands of life that occurred concurrently. You can ask for the year Elvis Presley first recorded a song with producer Sam Phillips (1954). Or you could ask what famous Supreme Court decision was handed down in the year Elvis recorded the song (Brown v. Board of Education). Although there’s no reason one would connect these two events in the normal course of a historical survey, the pairing can be an interesting diving-off place. It’s worthwhile to recognize that Great Historical Events occur within the quotidian lives of people. Here’s a court decision that became one of the most monumental markers in the history of civil rights. Meanwhile, a young white kid is launching a career that will shake the musical world: the birth of rock and roll. And you can go further: consider the role of Elvis and the marketing of music generated by African American musicians; the economics of racial “covering” in popular music; Sam Phillips’ famous statement that if he could find a white boy who could sing like a black man he’d make a million dollars. There’s a fresh path to look at race in the United States at the time.
History through birthdays defies a precalculated curriculum. I’m necessarily pushed from my own map. Perhaps the thawing of relations with Cuba persuades me to observe the birthday of Fulgencio Batista. And then I find that the dictator shares a birthday with Dian Fossey, so we discuss the political implications of her work with gorillas in Rwanda. Local filmmaking hero John Waters shares a birthday with Vladimir Lenin and Robert Oppenheimer. What can pink flamingos have in common with the architect of the Five Year Plans and one of the creators of the atomic bomb? Okay, maybe that’s too much of a stretch, but it can be an invigorating change of pace, not to mention perspective, to drop a dram of eccentricity into a pretty somber mix.
Birthdays afford opportunities for crossing through departmental silos. We break down the barriers between disciplines by showing how a poet, a musician, an artist, a quantum physicist, or a gangster from the Far East, the Middle East, Africa, or Latin America made a difference in the grand historical narrative. Once in a while I invite a colleague to talk to the class about a birthday of particular interest to him or her. Our dean of students leads students on an annual Civil Rights trip. Last December she came to class to speak about Jimmie Lee Jackson on the birthday of the activist who was part of the inspiration for the Selma to Montgomery March. It is great for students to hear teachers from other departments and disciplines talk about the people central to their passions.
Beginning each class with Today’s Birthday also has the effect of starting with a sense of curiosity and anticipation. Who will it be today? What side street will we be going down? For a few minutes at the start of class, we’re all new to the topic, and everyone is equally prepared and knowledgeable. (This also has the effect of encouraging kids to get to class on time.) Every couple of weeks I give a birthday quiz with questions from the presentations. (“Although John Dos Passos was known as a radical, his political views changed dramatically in the 1950s, and in the 1960s he campaigned for what Republican?” “James Farmer was an initiator and organizer of what civil rights event in 1961?”) Of course these quizzes do not factor into the course grade, but the scores are tallied throughout the semester, and winners are rewarded with silly and ridiculous gifts that I get from the Dollar Store. For these kids who are consumed with the stress and exhaustion of their junior year, it’s a nice way to recalibrate sensibilities for a few minutes every day.
Peter Warren

Peter Warren ([email protected]) has taught history and film at The Park School  (Maryland) for the past 28 years. He holds a B.A. from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.A. in African Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.