Podcast review: Uncivil

Stumbling across the podcast Uncivil was like finding a jewel. I was excited by the promise of this podcast: a historical look at the untold stories and different perspectives of the Civil War.

Uncivil discusses long-forgotten or never recounted events from the Civil War, events that were mis-recounted or distorted. Its goal is to uncover the myths of the Civil War and reveal the fragmented nature of the Civil War monolith that we were taught. The hosts, journalists Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika, examine a variety of topics, such as who fought in the war, the origins of the anthem of the Confederacy, the existence of spy rings, and the use of paper money to undermine the Confederacy.

The first episode appeared in late September 2017 but then as suddenly, the podcast stopped producing episodes in late 2018.

I discovered this podcast not long after it stopped broadcasting. I gorged on all dozen or so episodes in brief succession. And then experienced withdrawal after no more episodes were forthcoming. It left me wanting more and wondering why it was no longer being produced. Surely, they didn’t run out of material?

The podcast was even recognized for its excellence. It received the Peabody Award in 2017 for the episode The Raid. How could Uncivil shine so brightly and then vanish?

To quote Chenjerai Kumanyika from his acceptance speech for the Peabody Award, “Now more than ever, we need to recover untold histories…we need to recover the histories of black people, indigenous people, brown people, queer people, feminists who are participating in an ongoing resistance. In other words, we need to see history for what it is. A fight for the future.”

Fortunately, I have encountered Chenjerai Kumanyika elsewhere (as a guest host in the On Scene podcast in a serial discussion of Whiteness). But I would love for Uncivil to start back up.

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Podcast review: Backstory

I am not entirely sure how I came to know about Backstory. I think I wasn’t getting enough history from the various podcasts I listen to. I started trolling history podcasts and stumbled across Backstory. Hmmm. “…a weekly podcast that uses current events in America to take a deep dive into our past.” I was intrigued and decided to give it a shot.

Fast forward to the present. I look forward to Backstory every Friday. What topic will I be learning more about? The 1918 flu? Taxidermy? Puerto Rico? Socialism? The topics are diverse and fascinating. Each podcast is a collection of snippets across time in America’s history.

Their topics are often timely. They are always informative. The episode on the history of blackface and minstrelsy was fascinating…and humbling. I learned ways that discrimination has permeated our culture up to the present day that I wasn’t aware of. And I better understand the horror that is blackface. (I highly recommend that episode to understand the depth of discrimination that white America has remained ignorant of.)

The podcast is made possible thanks to the generosity of Virginia Humanities. Stories are recounted by historians of different American eras: Ed Ayers, Brian Balogh, Joanne Freeman, and Nathan Connolly. Often they bring their own experiences to the discussions, such as childhood experiences with beach culture while growing up in southern Florida, California, or even Tennessee.

Far from dry and dull—and I have tried lots of other history podcasts—BackStory is an enlivening look at topical history. The historians interview various people and introduce stories from different times and places. They make history come alive. I learn something and am entertained at the same time. And as their website describes it, “BackStory makes learning about history like going to a lively cocktail party.” That is actually kind of true.

If you are interested in American political, social, or cultural history, give BackStory a shot. I doubt you will be disappointed.

Podcast review: American Revolution Podcast

I love history. History teaches about the past and illuminates the present. It focuses on events and people but often reveals things about current situations and oneself. History done well can challenge assumptions and widen one’s perspective on the world. It can broaden horizons and deepen knowledge. The American Revolution Podcast lives up to this historical legacy.

A couple years ago, I stumbled across the well-established Revolutions podcast by Mike Duncan. I decided to start at the beginning, rather than jumping into the most current episodes. When I got to the American Revolution, I was surprised by what the podcast illuminated—both about events and people I knew and those I didn’t. After completing the episodes on the American Revolution, I searched for historical works to learn even more.

And then I learned about the American Revolutions Podcast by Michael Tory. (Full disclosure: Tory alerted me to his podcast in a comment to my blog post about the Revolutions podcast. Intrigued, I subscribed to his podcast and started to soak in his talks.)

I am still winding my way through his podcast, trying to catch up to the present episodes. (I’ve listened to 13 episodes so far.) I’m hooked. It is a completely different animal than Revolutions. True to his word, Troy goes into more detail about the revolution than Duncan does. (Of course, American Revolution Podcast is focused on the American Revolution whereas Duncan goes in-depth about a particular revolution for dozens of episodes before moving on to a different revolution.)

Troy begins by laying the groundwork for the revolution a few decades before the revolution technically begins in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. His focus is decidedly on military aspects. He gives wonderful blow by blow accounts of military expeditions—who was involved, the strategies used, the outcomes reached, and the implications. The sheer amount of information that he shares (and that is completely new to me) is staggering. Thirteen episodes in and I am not yet to what one typically thinks of the start of the revolution.

Troy walks listeners through the relations between the British, the French, and the Native Americans in the decades prior to the revolution. I suspect that many of the places and the people will resurface later, and that knowing about pre-revolutionary America will deepen my understanding about the colonies, our relations with others in the world, and the revolution itself.

I am patiently waiting (ok, maybe not so patiently) for if/when present-day Indiana enters the discussion on the Ohio River Valley. After my travels to historic sites in Vincennes and reading fiction set in the time of George Rogers Clark, I am finding the descriptions about skirmishes between the British, French, and Native Americans (aka the French and Indian War) enlightening.

Interesting tidbits in the episodes routinely jump out at me. I’ve learned why Washington was not the magnificent military leader early in his career—a fact alluded to in the musical Hamilton. Spoiler: Washington failed miserably at an expedition in the Ohio River Valley.

King George I (not The King George during the revolution—that was King George III) was actually originally over 50th in line to the throne, but as he was the only next in line who wasn’t Catholic, he got the throne. (You know that whole bloody mess they had in England over Catholicism.)

Delaware was originally a Swedish colony. (I didn’t know the Swedes were some of the early colonists.)

The Forbes Road—a military path in Pennsylvania—later became the basis of the Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania, a highway that spanned the US in the early 1900s.

Both American Revolution Podcast and Revolutions contain information on military exploits but the latter focuses more on political history. American Revolution Podcast focuses more, at least so far, on military history. Troy’s podcast is filling in gaps in my knowledge (or entire lack of knowledge) about pre-revolution America.

Troy’s episodes are so rich—I could easily listen to them multiple times and learn more each time. I am looking forwarding to continuing past episode 13…and seeing what I learn next.

Podcast review: Revolutions

Revolutions is one of those podcasts that you hear about years after it started and then find yourself devouring episode after episode. Kind of like binge watching shows on Netflix.

I first heard of Revolutions on the NPR Politics podcast. One of the regular presenters shared a podcast that she had found very enjoyable: a historical podcast on revolutions around the world. Ooooh! That sounds interesting, I thought.

I have devoured the first year of backlogged Revolutions podcasts with no sign of letting up. Yes, they are interesting. Very.

The podcaster, Mike Duncan, makes history wonderfully engaging, full of anecdotes, facts, and commentary. I find myself laughing at descriptions he paints or emitting an exclamation of surprise about a tidbit of information that he shares.

In one case, he described a German officer who was attempting to train Americans to be soldiers. He spoke no English and the Americans spoke no German. Communication occurred through French. (He spoke French. Someone translated from French into English.) Often he would get frustrated or enraged at the American soldiers, turning red in the face and swearing in German—which the American soldiers found absolutely hilarious.

In another case, he related an observation by this same German officer: that European soldiers immediately obey when they are told to do something. In contrast, Americans want to be told why they need to do something before they will do it. I spit out whatever I was drinking. Some things, I thought, do not change with time. Imagine Americans not doing something until they knew why?! (I’d add that Americans need to agree with the reason.)

Revolutions are divided into, well, different revolutions. The podcast starts with the English Civil Wars and continues with the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and others.(I’m currently in the throes of the French Revolution.) The various episodes describe the political/social/historical situation that led up to the revolution under discussion, the revolution itself, and the immediate aftermath.

The podcast has definitely increased my knowledge and understanding of history and events. For example, while some names of the English Civil Wars are familiar to me (such as Oliver Cromwell), I was pretty much in the dark about England’s civil wars. (There were two civil wars back to back?!)

When I hear names in other contexts, I can now place them in time and understand the historical context around them. (Oh, King Charles II? The king that was invited back from exile after the English attempt at a republic failed? Oh, the Howes? Those brothers who led British troops in the American Revolution?)

The episodes on the American Revolution solidified, expanded, and corrected what knowledge I did have about my country. Who knew that Washington was the master of the graceful retreat? What was the deal with Benedict Arnold?

The episodes also piqued my interest. I found myself picking up books about the American Revolution and noticed nice confluences between the book I was reading and the podcast. I am now feeling yearnings to re-read political theory from undergraduate classes. Anyone up for Burke, Paine, or Locke?

Lafayette, who popped up in the American Revolution episodes, reappears in the French Revolution episodes that I am currently listening to. (I am waiting for Thomas Paine to make an appearance in the later French Revolution.)

Only two and a half more years of backlogged episodes to go! (Or only two and a half revolutions, depending on how you look at it.) And then I can turn to his initial podcast, The History of Rome, which ran from 2007 to 2012 and has only 191 episodes.

Check out either podcast—Revolutions or The History of Rome. (I can’t vouch for The History of Rome yet, but in 2010 it won Best Educational Podcast.) You won’t be disappointed.

Podcast review: Serial, season one (2014)

I recently heard coworkers talking about this series of podcasts. And then I heard the host and producer interviewed by Terri Gross on Fresh Air. I was intrigued and thought about dipping my toe in to see how it was.

I ended up plunging in head-first. The real-life story is that engrossing.

Serial is a series of 12 podcasts that debuted October 2014 as a spin-off from This American Life. The host, Sarah Koenig, as an investigative journalist, looks into the 1999 strangulation of a high school student and the subsequent incarceration of the newly deceased’s ex-boyfriend.

Sarah has ongoing telephone conversations with Adnan Syed from his prison. She reenacts the events of the day, walking through the timeline presented in court. She interviews different people: Adnan, Jay (the sole witness), jurors, lawyers, detectives, and those that knew Hae Min Lin (the deceased). She tracks down any item in the records that wasn’t followed up on or that seems suspicious, such as girl who could corroborate Adnan’s alibi or the lack of DNA testing done.

Through her investigation, we learn things about the judicial system and how police investigations are carried out. For example, Sarah tests the hypothesis that memory is reliable, which is a bit shocking when you consider how much stock we place on witness accounts and their memories in criminal investigations, at trials, and in life in general.

Sarah also discusses her feelings, the ups and down, the roller coaster she is on. One minute she thinks Adnan is innocent, and then something suggests that there is no way that he is innocent, and then something else suggests that there is no way that he committed the murder. And on and on.

And she discusses her perspectives on Adnan’s reactions and feelings. Fifteen years after the conviction, the wounds for him are being reopened for him to suffer through again.

It is disconcerting to consider the amount of human error in legal judgments. And what Sarah is investigating and discussing is not a hypothetical. It is a real case with a dead high school woman and a convicted man behind bars for life. Swirling around them are numerous lives that were affected to varying degrees…from the friends, to the parents of Hae, to the guy who helped bury Hae’s body.

Both the interview with Terri Gross and the podcast series Serial are well worth a listen. The first season of Serial is over and you can binge listen to all 12 episodes (which is what I did). 2015 brings a new season…and a new story.