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Friday, January 31, 2014

January 31, 2014: Football Focalizes: The Bigger Question

[In this Super Bowl week, a series on some of the American issues and questions with which the sport can help us engage. Join the huddle in comments, please!]

On one more big question about football in 2014 America.
I’ve used football to engage with some very big American and human questions this week—racism and rape, historical hypocrisy and mythic success—and I don’t mean in my title to suggest that today’s question is bigger than (or even as big as) any of them. Instead, I mean that this is a bigger question about football itself—or rather sports themselves, although by any almost any measure football is the most popular sport in 2014 America—rather than about those related but certainly more all-encompassing issues. And the question, to put it bluntly and somewhat hyperbolically, is this: has football become what Karl Marx called religion, “the opium of the people,” a pleasant distraction from the huge problems plaguing our society, nation, and world?
As the week’s posts have indicated, football is of course far from free of those social and cultural problems; moreover, as Dave Zirin argues in the piece hyperlinked under “a pleasant distraction,” it’s insulting to sports fans to insinuate that they turn off their brains or broader social engagement as a result of (or even during) their sportswatching. But those conditions and caveats notwithstanding, I think it’s still entirely fair to ask whether something like the NFL doesn’t serve (just as entertainment mediums such as Hollywood films and television can) as an escape from the inequalities, the crises, the looming disasters that define so much of the world around us in the early 21st century. Isn’t that, after all, the core of what NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell means by “the shield,” the layer of insulation separating the NFL’s image from the complexities and messiness of the world beyond?
To be clear, such escapes are entirely necessary and beneficial—I’m not sure anybody could spend all day every day thinking about the hardest challenges facing us and our world, and I know it wouldn’t be healthy to try (there’s a reason why President Obama is such a big sports fan). But if and when the escapes get so big and become such central focal points, it is important to take a step back and consider whether they’ve become in at least some ways part of the problem, whether specifically because of the investment they require (see: those ticket prices) or broadly because of the collective focus and energy they swallow up. Football might not be opium, but it’s hard to deny that it can be a circus (as in “bread and circuses”), and that it wouldn’t hurt for us to find ways to step outside of the tent a bit more often than we tend to these days.
January recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

January 30, 2014: Football Focalizes: RGIII and Winning

[In this Super Bowl week, a series on some of the American issues and questions with which the sport can help us engage. Join the huddle in comments, please!]

On winning, perception, and American idols.
In my first post in last year’s Super Bowl-inspired series, I focused on a December 2012 controversy surrounding Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. At the time, RGIII was perhaps the biggest story in the league, not only for his stellar rookie season but also because of his unique personality and seemingly limitless potential (and not just as a football player). But in the 2013 season, the stories and controversies surrounding RGIII reflected instead the fickle nature of such stardom—he began the season recuperating from the prior year’s season-ending injury, never quite seemed to get back to where he had been in that rookie season, and before the end of the year had been benched in favor of backup Kirk Cousins (a move that, along with the team’s dismal year, may have precipated the firing of head coach Mike Shanahan).
Obviously it’s far too premature to say that Griffin has definitively lost his star potential or status (just as it was probably, in retrospect, too early to grant him that level after his rookie season alone). But there’s no question that the narrative has changed, and more exactly that Griffin is now no longer considered (notwithstanding his unquestionable talent) a definite “winner” in the NFL. Debates over winning vs. talent have long been a part of both the NFL specifically (see: Brady vs. Manning and Montana vs. Marino, to cite only two examples) and the sports world more broadly (see: Russell vs. Chamberlain, to cite perhaps the best known example of all). But such debates, and more specifically the power of being considered a “winner,” also have a great deal of valence in our larger culture and society—as illustrated by the example of Donald Trump, whose multiple bankruptcies and other public failures haven’t apparently dimmed his “winner” status in much of our collective perception.
There’s certainly an element of universality, of simple human nature, in such idolization of “winners” (whatever the specifics or contexts of their situations). But these emphases are also closely tied to many different core American narratives: of individual success and the self-made man; of rags-to-riches stories and the American Dream; of the meritocracy and the mobility it promises. All of those narratives have a significant degree of circularity at their core: if RGIII wins, it’s because he’s a winner and has made his own success; if he doesn’t win, it’s because he’s not a winner and is lacking what it takes to get there; and so on. But perhaps these two back-to-back seasons can help us see the other side of these questions, the ways in which contingency and context have so much to do with winning and losing, success and failure. Injury notwithstanding, RGIII was fundamentally the same quarterback and person in 2013 as in 2012; if his circumstances and thus his results changed, that doesn’t mean we have to change the narratives as well.
Next issue tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

January 29, 2014: Football Focalizes: Rape and Recognition

[In this Super Bowl week, a series on some of the American issues and questions with which the sport can help us engage. Join the huddle in comments, please!]

On questions that are never entirely answerable—and why they’re still worth asking.
In early November, the story broke that nearly a year earlier—in December 2012—a young woman had come to the Tallahassee police alleging that she had been raped by Jameis Winston, at the time red-shirting on the Florida State football team; this season, as the team’s red-shirt freshman quarterback, Winston was the leading contender for college football’s most prestigious award, the Heisman Trophy. There were and remain all sorts of questions about why neither the Tallahassee police nor FSU seemed to have investigated the allegations until nearly a year later; in any case, when they did, they decided that there was not sufficient evidence to charge Winston, a decision that was revealed at an early December, controversially upbeat press conference. Less than two weeks later, Winston won the Heisman Trophy by a significant margin (although he was also left off of a number of ballots).
Allegations of rape will always (in the absence of some sort of incontrovertible evidence or eye-witness testimony or the like) be very difficult to substantiate and prove, especially when the accused is alleging (as Winston did) that he had consensual sex with the accuser; the Winston case is partly an illustration of that difficult fact of our legal and justice system. But of course, the questions surrounding the authorities’ year of inaction in the Winston case, as well as the parallel questions about the timing of the press conference (at which the state’s attorney obliquely referenced the upcoming Heisman vote, while simultaneously claiming he was unaffected by that factor), raise another uncertain issue: whether Winston’s status on campus and in his city, as perhaps the most sought-after recruit (and then the most acclaimed football player) in the country, impacted either the investigation or its results. It’s entirely possible that those elements had no impact; but we’d be na├»ve not to consider the possibility that they played a role.
Legal questions are not the same as football or perception ones, of course. But if we treat those two kinds of uncertain issues as overtly parallel, it would have at least one distinct benefit: just as the uncertainities surrounding rape charges do not mean that police and authorities shouldn’t investigate such charges to the full extent of their abilities, so too do the enduring uncertainties about the role of status and recognition in a case like Winston’s not in any way mean that we shouldn’t ask and consider those questions as we analyze and respond to such a case. I don’t have any idea what happened with Winston and his accuser, but I know this: from Kobe Bryant to Ben Roethlisberger, to cite only two other high-profile cases, rape and sexual assault are a part of the culture of sports in America, and the least we can do is to treat the issue with the seriousness and analytical rigor it demands.
Next issue tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

January 28, 2014: Football Focalizes: Racism and Forgiveness

[In this Super Bowl week, a series on some of the American issues and questions with which the sport can help us engage. Join the huddle in comments, please!]

On the story that should inspire me—and why it kind of doesn’t.
Last July, just as NFL training camps were getting underway, video surfaced of fourth-year Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper angrily confronting and using a racial slur to attack an African American security guard at a June country music concert. It seemed for a while as if the controversy would end with Cooper no longer a member of the team, not least because the starting quarterback at the time (and thus the player with whom a wide receiver would need the most chemistry) was Michael Vick; but instead, Cooper apologized profusely, both publicly and privately to his teammates, was fined by the team, and all involved moved on. Cooper ended up having a pretty successful year (partly with Vick as quarterback and partly with his replacement Nick Foles), and the team, after a disastrously bad 2012 season, won its division and made the playoffs (which as I write this post have not yet begun).
There’s a lot that’s inspiring about the Cooper story. For one thing, compared to the divisions and defensiveness that accompanied Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s ignorant and hateful comments (which extended to African Americans as well as gay people), in the Cooper case there was widespread agreement that his words were wrong and hurtful, expressed by the offender himself as well as in the broader conversations. (Those conversations did also include some of the “African Americans use the n-word” pushback that seems inevitable in every such controversy, but most commentators were willing to acknowledge that Cooper’s anger and threat differentiated his comments from other examples.) For another, it seems, at least in the stories and narratives written about the controversy’s aftermath, that the Eagles team and organization has genuinely moved toward what I’d describe as one of my most ideal goals for America: a mixed-race community working to acknowledge and engage with divisive and troubling issues, and finding a new and hopefully more meaningful unity in response to both the issue itself and that engagement with it.
That’s definitely one way to see what happened, and I don’t want to dismiss it. But at the risk of being a Debbie Downer, I have to say that there’s another way to interpret the incident’s aftermath, one that would parallel it to the Phil Robertson story instead of contrasting the two: that like Robertson (star of the highest-rated reality TV show in television history), Cooper is very important to his employer; and so that like Robertson, whose suspension from A&E ended after a couple of weeks, Cooper has been quickly forgiven and accepted back into the fold in order to allow him to continue performing that important (and profitable) role. It’s not either-or, of course; the team and ownership could be thinking of such business concerns at the same time that the players and locker room were moving forward in the ways I described above. And I’m not suggesting that Cooper should be forever disgraced or out of work because of one moment and statement. Instead, and as always, I’d simply note that we need to make sure to keep talking about the difficult and challenging issue, to make sure that we collectively ca model that best-case scenario for what transpired with the Eagles.
Next issue tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Monday, January 27, 2014

January 27, 2014: Football Focalizes: Concussions and Hypocrisy

[In this Super Bowl week, a series on some of the American issues and questions with which the sport can help us engage. Join the huddle in comments, please!]

On the gap between what we know and what we do.
In the decades prior to the Civil War, virtually every Northern (and American) household contained numerous products made from cotton and other materials produced by slave labor. We tend, in our narratives of slavery and the war, to oppose the North and South, but the realities were significantly different: not only because abolitionism was a minority opinion even in a place like Boston; but also and even more saliently because of those economic and material interconnections between the regions. Those interconnections don’t mean that the North was pro-slavery, exactly—but they certainly mean that the North cannot be viewed or understood as separate from the realities of the slave system. Indeed, if anything it could be argued that the North existed in a state of deep hypocrisy, benefitting from those realities of slavery without having to confront their dark, horrific, everyday details.
As I transition to this post’s main topic, I need to be very clear that I am not equating NFL players with slaves, nor the league with the plantation system (equations that have occasionally, and very controversially, been advanced by players or commentators). Instead, I’m making a parallel to the state of deep hypocrisy in which most NFL fans and viewers—communities to which I belong—exist in this early 21st century moment. The scientific and medical consensus about what the sport does to those who play it—or at least what it can do, and has done far too frequently—has become clearer and clearer, and the tragic results of those effects more and more overt and undeniable. Yet we still watch, in record and if anything increasing numbers—numbers that amplify the profits and successes of the teams, of the networks that broadcast their games, of the advertisers who flock to them, of the sport as a whole. All those entities are of course caught up in the web of hypocrisy as well—but so, again, are we fans and viewers, including this AmericanStudier for sure.
So what’s the answer, not for the league or those other entities but for fans and viewers? One of my favorite current writers and one of the most thoughtful observers of American culture and society, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has written extensively about his own decision to stop watching and supporting the NFL, a decision that would seem the only way to meaningfully act upon what we now know. My knowledge, and in most ways my perspective, mirror Coates’ very closely; yet my actions have not, and I can’t say that I plan to stop watching football games any time soon. (Although I most definitely would discourage my sons from playing the sport if they showed an interest.) Which is to say, I don’t have an answer, not for myself and thus certainly not for anyone else or our culture more broadly. But at the very least, as I hope this blog consistently illustrates in relationship to all its different focal points, it’s pretty important that we think, openly and collectively, about the question.
Next issue tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

January 25-26, 2014: Crowd-sourced Civil Rights

[Following up my MLK Day post, the week’s series has focused on some of the crucial complexities of the Civil Rights movement and related histories and stories. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the responses and connections of fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours in comments, please!]

Following up Monday’s MLK Day post, Roland Gibson writes, “I have to admit that with all the talk and media emphasis this time of year surrounding MLK Jr. and his positive influence in our country, I was very interested and intrigued to read your blog perspective - calling his "I Have A Dream" speech kind of OVER-RATED. In my thoughts and response, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about MLK's work - similar to the way we talked about W.E.B. Du Bois in the Major Authors course this past semester - in that they both used many different approaches; different genres, in effect - in an attempt to achieve the goal of racial justice and harmony in this country. I think if we choose to ask ourselves - in hindsight - and also to try to answer the question: "What exactly was MLK trying to accomplish in his brief “I Have A Dream speech"? (taken in the larger context of his many other works and his action) I personally would say he did a pretty damn good job. What stood out most for me in MLK Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech was two key points:
Point #1 - The powerful and carefully-crafted IMAGERY MLK Jr. used to communicate the country's deplorable social conditions, as far as the Negro is concerned: "...America has given the Negro people a BAD CHECK, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" "But we refuse to believe the bank of justice is BANKRUPT." "NOW is the time to make real the PROMISES of DEMOCRACY. NOW is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial JUSTICE...to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of BROTHERHOOD." Who taught this guy to write and speak so vividly like that? Was it his father... also a minister? This man was WAY ahead of his time, in my opinion.
Point #2 - He was clearly speaking and advocating FOR the American Negro, but - in the final analysis - he wasn't really speaking AGAINST anybody; which is as surprising to me as it is refreshing. MLK JR's DREAM was to include: "...all God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics..."  This message of WHOLENESS is exactly what the country needed to hear at the time, and the message is just as fitting and appropriate today.
Summing up: I would agree that this work of MLK Jr.'s has to be taken in literary context to truly understand the man, and I further think that there is definitely some necessary OVER-SIMPLIFICATION present in his speech text, but I don't think I would have then concluded by calling it kind of OVER-RATED.”
Roland also shares this piece, on a local (Mass.) Civil Rights activist.
Following up Tuesday’s Rosa Parks piece, Matt Cogswell writes, “An older student of mine from Salter fondly recalls meeting Ms. Parks in Montgomery when he was a child. I can't remember the context other than his living in Alabama and meeting her. But, what will always stay with me is the reverence in which he spoke of her. In that moment, she was not just an icon or a name but a person, plain and simple. I always believed that was the point Ms. Parks was trying to make anyway, that she was just a person, no more or less worthy of special rights than anyone else but to be considered a person, a human. The student was a black man, which I suppose shouldn't matter, but it did make that memory all the more poignant for me. He is also a veteran. I don't know much about veterans outside of their service who have ‘advanced history,’ but I'm sure there's some prominent figures there who ought to be remembered.”
Following up Wednesday’s Mississippi murders post, Ian Wilkins writes, “Your assertions about the communal nature of that which precipitates such things is very important and so often overlooked (I think because it is more complex, and in difficult times we seek easy answers like pointing the finger at a few instead of understanding the tacit [or not-so-tacit[ participation of the many). To my mind one of the works which best presents this facet of these kinds of issues is Bob Dylan's "Only A Pawn in Their Game" from the 1964 album The Times They Are A'Changin', a song in response to the murder of Medgar Evers. While this song specifically deals with the power structure in the South and the ways in which it manipulated the overall political and cultural climate there, it also suggests that the specific identity of the man whose ‘finger fired the trigger’ is unimportant in terms of assessing the situation, that it was a system, a community of sorts, which put whatever it was in the killer's brain that urged him to commit such an act. This way of broadly contextualizing something so tragic and painful is not the easy response, but it is important and holds much truth.”
Following up Thursday’s George Wallace post, my colleague Joe Moser writes, “I'm reminded of the great Drive-By Truckers album SOUTHERN ROCK OPERA. ‘The Southern Thing,’ ‘Birmingham,’ and the spoken-word track ‘Three Great Alabama Icons’ offer similarly nuanced takes on George Wallace and that era. It's all about ‘the duality of the Southern thing.’”
Some other relevant pieces:
Rebecca Onion on MLK on strategies for bus boycotts;
Rick Perlstein on the Santa-Clausification of MLK; and also on the hate mail received by Illinois Senators when King came to Chicago.
Gwendolyn Simmons and Lucas Johnson on Deromanticizing the Civil Rights Movement;
Super Bowl series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Friday, January 24, 2014

January 24, 2014: Civil Rights Histories: Yuri Kochiyama

[Following up my MLK Day post, a series on some of the crucial complexities of the Civil Rights movement and related histories and stories. The weekend will feature another crowd-sourced post, so please share both your takes on these posts and some of the histories and stories you’d highlight. Thanks!]

On the inspiring life that has pushed way past racial binaries and categorizations.
Scholars and activists associated with ethnic American communities and identities—Asian, Hispanic, Native, and others—have long critiqued our national tendency to treat race as a binary, to focus solely (or at least centrally) on the (already complex and unstable) categories of black and white. The same could be said of our dominant narratives of the Civil Rights Movement, which similarly focus largely (if not exclusively) on those racial categories, and ignore the era’s concurrent movements for Chicano, Asian, and American Indian equality, among others. What’s more, even if we recognize those multiple communities and movements, it’s far too easy to treat them as separate and distinct, rather than to engage with the ways, issuse, and moments through which they intersect and intertwine and become inseparable parts of American communities and histories.
One American whose amazing life and work force us to push beyond those concepts is Yuri Kochiyama. Kochiyama’s life certainly highlights the evolving histories of Asian American identity, community, and civil rights, from her childhood years in a Japanese internment camp through her role as a mentor for young Asian American activists in the 1960s and 70s and up to her central role in advocating for the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which awarded $20,000 to each internment survivor. But Kochiyama’s activism (which continues to this day) has crossed well beyond one race, culture, or community: in 1977, for example, she joined a group of Puerto Rican activists in their takeover of the Statue of Liberty in support of Puerto Rican independence; and, most famously and compellingly, in the early 1960s she became friends with Malcolm X (with whom she shared a birthday), joined his Organization of Afro-American Unity, and was present at his Febraury 1965 assassination, holding his body in her arms as he died.
Given that (as I’ve argued all week) we don’t remember the Civil Rights Movement nearly as fully or with as much complexity as we should, it might seem crazy to argue that we should also be trying to push our narratives past the central focal points of that movement. But the truth, as I see it, is that those two efforts—remembering the movement more accurately, and pushing beyond it—go hand in hand. As Yuri Kochiyama illustrates, better remembering a single Japanese American life means also better remembering the dark histories of the internment camps, the burgeoning Asian rights movement, forgotten Puerto Rican activists, and Malcolm X’s evolving and tragically unfinished final years and work, among many other things. Similarly, the Civil Rights Movement, while hugely significant and inspiring on its own terms, also connects to numerous other American histories and stories, communities and identities, tragedies and activisms. I say we go ahead and remember it all!
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So what do you think? Responses to any of the week’s posts? Other Civil Rights histories or stories you’d highlight?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

January 23, 2014: Civil Rights Histories: George Wallace

[Following up my MLK Day post, a series on some of the crucial complexities of the Civil Rights movement and related histories and stories. The weekend will feature another crowd-sourced post, so please share both your takes on these posts and some of the histories and stories you’d highlight. Thanks!]

On why we shouldn’t judge a lifetime by its worst moments—but why we do have to focus on them.
One of the most iconic 20th century American moments and images has to be Alabama Governor George Wallace standing in front of the auditorium door at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in June 1963, trying to prevent the enrollment of the institution’s first African American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood. Three months later, Wallace would do the same not once but four times, attempting to stop schoolchildren from enrolling at elementary schools in Huntsville (and thus integrating primary or secondary schools for the first time in the state). And in these deeply un-American moments Wallace was simply putting into practice what he had argued in the most famous line from his January 1963 inaugural address: “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
If we only remember Wallace for those 1963 moments, however, we miss the fact that both earlier and later in life he took significantly different positions on race and related issues. During his first, 1958 campaign for governor, he was endorsed by the NAACP and soundly defeated by a candidate aligned with the KKK (against whom Wallace had spoken); it was in reference to this defeat that Wallace later noted, “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been parf of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.” And having become and stayed governor through precisely that kind of racist rhetoric, Wallace late in his life and career underwent another series of striking shifts: apologizing to civil rights leaders in 1979 for his earlier support of segregation; noting of his schoolhouse stand that “I was wrong. Those days are over, and they ought to be over”; and in his final term as governor (1983-1987) appointing two African Americans to his cabinet for the first time in the state’s history.
So it’d be inaccurate to remember Wallace solely for those worst moments. But on the other hand, not all moments are created equal—not in an individual’s life, and certainly not in a nation’s history. It’s fair to say that the early to mid-1960s were one of the most pivotal such moments in the histories of race and equality in America, likely paralleled only by those during and immediately after the Civil War. And it’s also fair to say that, while (as I wrote in yesterday’s post) entire communities in the South and throughout America opposed that progress, few if any individuals represented and spoke for that opposition more clearly and strongly than did George Wallace. People (like those three civil rights workers, and many many more) were attacked and killed as a result of that opposition, to name only its most overtly violent effect. Should we remember George Wallace in connection with those attacks and deaths? I think we have to.
Next complex history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Civil Rights histories or stories you’d highlight?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

January 22, 2014: Civil Rights Histories: Murders in Mississippi

[Following up my MLK Day post, a series on some of the crucial complexities of the Civil Rights movement and related histories and stories. The weekend will feature another crowd-sourced post, so please share both your takes on these posts and some of the histories and stories you’d highlight. Thanks!]

On two distinct cultural portrayals of a tragedy, and what each leaves out.
By far the most prominent cultural engagement with the June 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner is the film Mississippi Burning (1988); the film starred Gene Hackman, one of his era’s biggest movie stars, and Willem Dafoe, one of its up-and-coming young stars, and received seven Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, Director, and Actor. Yet while it is a gripping political and legal thriller, I would argue that as a work of historical fiction Mississippi Burning fails completely—not because it may be inaccurate to the actual FBI investigation, nor even because it tells virtually none of the story of the three young men, but because it portrays a crucial moment in the struggle against racism and white supremacy as led by FBI agents. Let’s just say “Not so much” and leave it at that.
Far more engaged with all those histories—of the three slain workers and of the broader contexts to which they connect—is Pete Seeger’s song “Those Three Are on My Mind” (1966; that’s obviously a cover). In fact, Seeger balances both levels of history very effectively, opening with verses devoted to each of the three young men’s identities and then building toward broader, biting condemnations of the society, legal and justice system, and nation within which the murders took place and in which Seeger’s speaker lives uneasily as well. Yet Seeger’s song has to my mind one significant flaw, and it’s a very common—indeed, almost unavoidable—one when it comes to how we think about and portray dark American histories like these murders: it focuses on the individual and overtly evil perspectives and actions of “the killers,” those directly responsible for such acts of violence.
Of course there were individuals who committed the murders, and at least some of them were eventually brought to trial (although they went largely unpunished). But the more salient truth about lynchings and racial violence in the South, from the immediate post-Civil War era up through the 1960s, was that they were deeply communal in nature, supported (at least tacitly, and often quite openly and proudly, as the pictures and postcards in the Without Sanctuary exhibit illustrate) by large portions of the white population. Depicting that kind of widespread communal culpability is of course far more difficult and painful than focusing on individual killers and criminals (as both the film and song do, in their different ways)—but it would also, I would argue, come far closer to telling the full story of the murders in Mississippi.
Next complex history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Civil Rights histories or stories you’d highlight?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

January 21, 2014: Civil Rights Histories: Rosa Parks

[Following up my MLK Day post, a series on some of the crucial complexities of the Civil Rights movement and related histories and stories. The weekend will feature another crowd-sourced post, so please share both your takes on these posts and some of the histories and stories you’d highlight. Thanks!]

On the good, better, and best ways to remember an iconic moment and figure.
Given that Rosa Parks has to be on the very short list for the best-remembered African Americans (and historical Americans period), it would seem silly to argue that we should remember her more than we do. If anything, many historians and journalists have argued that narratives of the Civil Rights movement focus too fully on Parks as an origin point, and not enough on all the others who contributed to and influenced the movement. While it’s always good to broaden our collective memories, I think our starting point for remembering Rosa Parks is indeed a good one, and that it’s both appropriate and American (in the best sense) that we connect the movement’s origins not only to public leaders like King, but also to a much more private individual like Parks.
On the other hand, Park’s famous stand (or rather seat) was neither as private nor as individual as our dominant narratives emphasize. Parks (born Rosa McCauley) had been connected to the NAACP since her 1932 marriage to Raymond Parks, already an active member of the organization; she herself joined the Montgomery chapter in 1943, and was elected the chapter’s secretary in the same year. She had thus been active in the civil rights organization for a dozen years (and connected to it for more than two decades) by the time of her fateful December 1955 bus ride; and moreover, four months earlier she had attended an August 1955 mass meeting in Montgomery at which activist T.R.M. Howard outlined the many different ways African Americans could advocate for their rights in their own communities. All of which is to say, it’s far from coincidental that Parks’ refusal to give up her seat precipated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, an activist effort led by organizations like the NAACP and activists like Howard (among many others of course).
Yet if it would be better for us to remember that Rosa Parks spent her lifetime working in and with communities and organizations dedicated to civil rights, it seems to me that the best way to remember her and her bus ride would be to push one step further still, linking the private and public sides to her action. After all, however much her refusal to give up her seat may have been part of a larger strategy or effort, it was also a profoundly individual, and profoundly courageous, choice; that August 1955 meeting was in response to the Emmett Till lynching, a stark reminder that every African American in the Jim Crow South was at all times in danger of violent attack and death—and certainly that any who fought the power, who bucked the system in the ways that Park did (or, indeed, in far less overt ways, like Till), were doubly at risk for such terrorism. Which is to say, Parks’ connection to and knowledge of her city and region’s civil rights histories don’t diminish her individual action in the slightest—instead, they amplify its impressiveness.
Next complex history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Civil Rights histories or stories you’d highlight?

Monday, January 20, 2014

January 20, 2014: The Real King

[I wrote this post back in December 2010 and have re-posted it for each MLK Day since. Still seems relevant, and of course I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses and perspectives. So here ‘tis, and the rest of the week’s Civil Rights-inspired series will begin tomorrow.]

It probably puts me at significant risk of losing my AmericanStudies Card to say this—and you have no idea how hard it is to get a second one of those if you lose the first—but I think the “I Have a Dream” speech is kind of overrated. I’m sort of saying that for effect, since I don’t really mean that the speech itself isn’t as eloquent and powerful and pitch-perfect in every way as the narrative goes—it most definitely is, and while that’s true enough if you read the words, it becomes infinitely more true when you see video and thus hear audio of the speech and moment. But what is overrated, I think, is the weight that has been placed on the speech, the cultural work that it has been asked to do. Partly that has to do with contemporary politics, and especially with those voices who have tried to argue that King’s “content of their character” rather than “color of their skin” distinction means that he would oppose any and all forms of identity politics or affirmative action or the like; such readings tend to forget that King was speaking in that culminating section of the speech about what he dreams might happen “one day”—if, among other things, we give all racial groups the same treatment and opportunities—rather than what he thought was possible in America in the present.
But the more significant overemphasis on the speech, I would argue, has occurred in the process by which it (and not even all of it, so much as just those final images of “one day”) has been made to symbolize all of—or at least represent in miniature—King’s philosophies and ideas and arguments. There’s no question that the speech’s liberal univeralism, its embrace (if in that hoped-for way) of an equality that knows no racial identifications, was a central thread within King’s work; and, perhaps more tellingly, was the thread by which he could most clearly be defined in opposition to a more stridently and wholly Black Nationalist voice like Malcolm X’s. Yet the simple and crucial fact is that King’s rich and complex perspective and philosophy, as they existed throughout his life but especially as they developed over the decade and a half between his real emergence onto the national scene with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and his assassination in 1968, contained a number of similarly central and crucial threads. There were for example his radical perspectives on class, wealth, and the focuses of government spending, a set of arguments which culminated in the last years of his life in both the “Poor People’s Campaign” and in increasingly vocal critiques of the military-industrial complex; and his strong belief not only in nonviolent resistance (as informed by figures as diverse as Thoreau and Gandhi) but also in pacifism in every sense, which likewise developed into his very public opposition to the Vietnam Year in his final years. While both of those perspectives were certainly not focused on one racial identity or community, neither were they broadly safe or moderate stances; indeed, they symbolized direct connections to some of the most radical social movements and philosophies of the era.
To my mind, though, the most significant undernarrated thread—and perhaps the most central one in King’s perspective period—has to be his absolutely clear belief in the need to oppose racial segregation and discrimination, of every kind, in every way, as soon and as thoroughly as possible. Again, the contrast to Malcolm has tended to make King out to be the more patient or cautious voice, but I defy anyone to read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”—the short piece that King wrote in April 1963 to a group of white Southern clergyman, while he was serving a brief jail sentence for his protest activities—and come away thinking that either patience or caution are in the top twenty adjectives that best describe the man and his beliefs. King would later expand the letter into a book, Why We Can’t Wait, the very title of which makes the urgency of his arguments more explicit still; but when it comes to raw passion and power, I don’t think any American text can top the “Letter” itself. Not raw in the sense of ineloquent—I tend to imagine that King’s first words, at the age of 1 or whenever, were probably more eloquent than any I’ll ever speak—but raw as in their absolute rejection, in the letter’s opening sentence, of his audience’s description of his protest activities as “unwise and untimely.” And raw as well in the razor sharp turn in tone in the two sentences that comprise one of the letter’s closing paragraphs: “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”
I guess what it boils down to for me is this: to remember King for one section of “I Have a Dream” is like remembering Shakespeare for the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy in Hamlet. Yeah, that’s a great bit, but what about the humor? The ghost? The political plotting and play within the play? The twenty-seven other great speeches? And then there’s, y’know, all those other pretty good, and very distinct, plays. And some poetry that wasn’t bad either. It’s about time we remembered the whole King, and thus got a bit closer to the real King and what he can really help us see about our national history, identity, and future.
Civil Rights series begins tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

January 18-19, 2014: Crowd-sourced Spring Previews

[As my spring semester gets underway, this week’s series has focused on courses and other events to which I’m looking forward. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the responses and spring plans of fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours in comments, please!]

In response to Monday’s Sci Fi and Fantasy post, my colleague Kisha Tracy notes that she too is teaching some excerpts from Lord of the Rings this semester. And then she went ahead and created this awesome Storify for her class and plans!
In response to Wednesday’s post on my Am Lit II syllabus shift, Rob Velella writes, “In my opinion as a non-professor [Ben adds: not yet!], I think that's a good swap. I've come to love tales and find novels a bit more frustrating as far as time commitment. I'm sure your students think similarly, even if they don't express it. Hypothetically, I've thought I'd teach by reading aloud sections that are crucial, hoping that the drama of the scene would inspire them to go back and read the rest.”
Following up the same post, Irene Martyniuk agrees, noting that in a Victorian Lit course “the only big book I assigned was The Moonstone because it's silly and important. Dickens, Stevenson, Conan Doyle, etc—all short stuff. And yet, only 2 or 3 out of 18 read all of The Moonstone. I get their reasons. I really do. But by skipping so many big novels, they really miss a big part of Vic Lit. I feel guilty about that for the few who are thinking of grad school. No three deckers, no Trollope, few women. I don't have a solution, just more sighs.”
A high school English teacher adds, “Engaging readership is tricky, practically impossible at the high school level as Sparknotes pretty much beats me to the punch daily. I will ask the students to find a section they find interesting and write about it, we call it ‘commonplace book’ entries. They have to read a section, analyze it and write about it looking at text, structure of sentences and paragraphs, but most importantly how it reflects the book as a whole. Granted, they can randomly choose from the book using the inny-minny-miney-moe method (and probably do) but at least I know they had to look at a section and read deliberately. Another trick up my rapidly diminishing sleeve is to make them responsible for teaching a specific motif to the others. They have to track it through the book like in Lahiri they track names and trains. Then they have to examine the use, the lead in and exit from the use of it, and what she's trying to communicate through its use. But my fav is asking them to redesign the book into a new form of media. So Frankenstein becomes a child's story, Dracula is a folktale. They have to go beyond plot to retell the story in a new form of media.”
In response to Thursday’s post on my new Writing II syllabus and its unit on advertising, Ian Wilkins writes, “In my prepracticum classroom last semester, the teacher did a lengthy unit on this very thing with his AP class. It was focused mainly on a book by Neil Postman called Amusing Ourselves to Death, then supplementing that with a bunch of smaller pieces. My recollection is that there were some very though-provoking ideas put forth in that book, which relate directly to those questions you are talking about. One area of this that I think is especially interesting is the very contemporary concept of individually targeted online advertisement (web analytics, email account-based ads, sponsored Google search links, etc.). These are the most subversive forms of advertising and consumerism to date, and they raise all kinds of important, open-ended questions for me. Sounds like this focus will be highly generative in terms of thought for your students.”
Nancy Caronia also follows up that post, writing “Have you seen the documentary Miss Representation? Deals with gender, advertising, etc. Might be a good jump start in that first section.
Special MLK-inspired series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. So what’s on your spring calendar?

Friday, January 17, 2014

January 17, 2014: Spring 2014 Previews: The Book Talks Resume

[As my spring semester gets underway, a series on courses and other events to which I’m looking forward. Share your spring previews for a forward-thinking crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]

On three new places, literal and philosophical, to which my spring book talks will take me.
1)      Our Northern Neighbor: In a couple weeks, I’ll be in the Toronto area, giving a talk at Waterloo’s Wilfrid Laurier University (and hopefully one at a public library in Toronto, although this is still in flux). My goal for this talk will be to connect my book, and the histories of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Chinese Americans on which it focuses, to their parallels in Canadian history—which has, I have only recently learned, its own Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923. Given that one of my favorite American authors, Sui Sin Far, spent most of her childhood and early adulthood in Montreal and considered herself a lifelong Eurasian Canadian, I’m excited to pursue these connections and see where they take me!

2)      Across the Pond: In late February, I’ll travel for the first time to the UK, where I’ll be a featured speaker at a March 1st seminar on Law, Race, and Culture in the Americas. The seminar, organized by the UK scholarly organization Race in the Americas, will thus be transnational on multiple levels: focused on comparative analyses of its topics across the Americas; and featuring the work and perspectives of mostly British scholars and students. My plan is to give the standard version of my talk, since it’s what I know best—but I can’t wait to hear all the other talks and topics, and to learn from all these transnational connections and conversations.

3)      Back Home: In late March, I’ll get to return to my hometown of Charlottesville ,Virginia, not only to sample some of that home cookin’ (although yes) but also and most importantly to participate in the city’s annual Festival of the Book. I’m very excited to get to talk about my book in that setting, not only because of the personal connections but also because it will force me to take my public scholarly goals to another level, focusing entirely on what makes these histories and stories and topics relevant and interesting and meaningful to any and all readers and audiences. Obviously I believe that’s true, but this’ll be a chance to make the case, and see how an audience responds. I can’t wait!
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. Last chance to share some spring previews of your own for that weekend post!

PPS. The Canadian talks have been pushed back to Fall 2014--but will still happen, and I look forward to making those connections at that point!