A Brief Commentary on The Politics of Mourning presented as a “source” for researching the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

I began my research into the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire with an eye to disclosing the difficult and dangerous working conditions for women and men in the early twentieth century. This fire, in a mere eighteen minutes, physically consumed the lives and bodies of one hundred forty-five people, along with the hearts and souls of a community.   The shock and outpouring of grief by the city, state and country at the death of these women and children, and subsequent change in labor laws – always too little, too late – live on today.

The newspaper sources, court transcripts, firsthand accounts all built disgust at the owners and the managers for being complacent about safety; panic and sadness for the people desperately seeking a way out; horror faced by those helpless to stand by and watch as girls jumped to their deaths and at the descriptions of the cleanup of the skeletons poised over their sewing machines, killed before they could move.

Then I read the “source” paper The Politics of Mourning, a cerebral attempt to use the horrid fate of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers as a springboard to an example of racism, white versus black.    The author presents the idea that the community’s outpouring of grief for the lives of these dead women and men is an example of how white and “not quite white (Italian, Jewish)” coalesce into white versus black. She presents the facts of the fire and its aftermath, then takes the giant leap that had these workers been black, there would have been no outcry, using the Tulsa Race Riot as the opposing example – though a different cause and circumstance.

White versus black was NOT the issue surrounding this fire and its aftermath.   Unsafe working conditions, lax labor laws, inconsiderate owners led to these deaths. Further, white versus black, though part of the landscape and psyche of the U.S., was NOT the driving force in the expansion and development of the United States of America in the 1860s, in the early twentieth century, into the 1960s until now. Freedom and Justice for ALL is the underlying ideal of our country…it is THAT for which all Americans live, fight and often, die. Freedom to be safe in our homes, to make our own destinies. The promise of Freedom is why people come here – some to engage it, some to annihilate it as in the case of in country terrorists. Freedom for all, or in the current vernacular, ALL LIVES MATTER. It is an ideal, difficult to meet, but worth seeking.

I will not continue on for four pages arguing against the argument made in The Politics of Mourning.  Nor will I further decry the bias presented in this textbook.   When faced with the inaccuracy about the Japanese being given no warning about the A-Bomb, I was advised I could talk with the publisher.   I understood with that comment, that no attempt will be made by the instructor or the school to ensure that future History of the US 1865-Present classes are presented accurate facts. No matter. You warn everyone at the beginning to read everything critically, so it is up to us to find inaccuracies, not up to staff or administration to point or weed them out.

I will write something about the Triangle Fire sometime in the future, after more in depth research and thought and time away from the bias of this class. It is horribly fascinating. I hope to find out about the workers’ lives before they came to work there, how they lived afterward. How does one recover from watching associates burn to ash?   Did these owners go back to making their fortunes by cramming hundreds into small, poorly ventilated spaces? I will find out, and write about it later when my schedule allows.

With all due respect to my professor, and without proper citation format, I submit this for what it is worth, which will be nothing in my overall grade. I have learned much in this class, though: to watch for accuracy in any information presented as the authority on a subject; to do proper research, to come to, if not logical, at least my own conclusions; and that I do not intend to be an historian, and so ultimately have little interest in the trappings of historians. And so it is.

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