MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Saturday, August 30, 2014

August 30-31, 2014: August 2014 Recap

[A recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
August 4: Virginia Voices: William Byrd II: A series anticipating my next trip back to my home state starts with a complex, contradictory, compelling early Virginia voice.
August 5: Virginia Voices: Thomas Nelson Page: The series continues with the once-popular author it’d be okay not to read, and why we perhaps still should.
August 6: Virginia Voices: William McGuffey: The 19th century minister and academic who profoundly impacted American education, as the series rolls on.
August 7: Virginia Voices: Tom Wolfe: The author who helped redefine what novels could be, and then interestingly turned to more conventional fiction in his later career.
August 8: Virginia Voices: V.C. Andrews: The series concludes with the popular author who has become, long after her death, something quite different.
August 9-10: Italian American Voices: Nancy Caronia’s Guest Post: In my latest Guest Post, my colleague and friend highlights significant literary, cultural, and scholarly Italian American voices.
August 11: Birthday Specials: Born This Day: A birthday-week series starts with four Americans who share August 11th bdays.
August 12: Birthday Specials: American Memory Days: The series continues with the post that inaugurated my American Memory Day Calendar.
August 13: Birthday Specials: 2011 Birthday Best: The post that highlighted 34 favorites from my blog’s first year, as the series rolls on.
August 14: Birthday Specials: 2012 Birthday Best: 35 favorites from my blog’s second year!
August 15: Birthday Specials: 2013 Birthday Best: And 36 favorites from my blog’s third year!
August 16-17: Birthday Specials: 37 for 37: The series concludes with this year bday’s post, highlighting 37 of my favorites from the blog’s fourth year!
August 18: Films for the Dog Days: Dog Day Afternoon: A series on films about and for the dog days of summer starts with the gritty crime drama that’s also sneakily subversive.
August 19: Films for the Dog Days: Jungle Fever and Mississippi Masala: The series continues with two steamy interracial romances that make for a great film marriage.
August 20: Films for the Dog Days: Body Heat: The classic film noir that captures the genre’s problems with heat, as the series rolls on.
August 21: Films for the Dog Days: In the Heat of the Night and Black Snake Moan: On two very different steamy Southern stories that together help us remember dark regional histories.
August 22: Films for the Dog Days: Men with Guns: The series concludes with a film that takes Americans, both characters and audiences, to our Southern neighbor.
August 23-24: Crowd-sourced Dog Days: My latest crowd-sourced post, as fellow AmericanStudiers share their responses and dog day film nominees!
August 25: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Bartolomé de Las Casas: A series on nominees for my in-progress Hall of American Inspiration starts with one of the earliest inspiring Americans.
August 26: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Ely Parker: The series continues with the nominee who embodied inspiring cultural and cross-cultural identities.
August 27: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Ida B. Wells: The inspiring voice and activist from one of our darkest moments, as the series rolls on.
August 28: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Jane Addams: On the inspiring historic figure and site that still have a great deal to teach us in our own era.
August 29: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Dororthy Day: The series concludes with the activist who exemplified the most inspiring possibilities of American Christianity.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Topics or themes you'd like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you'd like to contribute? Lemme know, please!

Friday, August 29, 2014

August 29, 2014: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Dorothy Day

[One of my main projects for this summer has been to start work on my joint book/web project, The Hall of American Inspiration. That work is very much ongoing—and could still use your input!—but I thought I’d end the summer by sharing posts on five individuals whose stories and identities will certainly be part of my Hall. Add your nominees for inspiring Americans, whether public or from your own experiences, please!]
On the inspiring activist who defines the best of what Christianity has meant in America.
At the height of the mid-19th century debates over slavery in the United States, some of the most vocal partisans on both sides (and just to be very clear, I’m not trying by any means to equate the two sides in a “fair and balanced” sort of way, simply to highlight a shared rhetorical device) appealed directly to Christianity, and even more directly to particular passages in the Bible, in order to make their case. William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, three of the most prominent and central voices in the abolitionist movement, all credited Presbyterian minister John Rankin and his Scriptural opposition to slavery with greatly influencing their views on and work for that cause. On the other side, Richard Furman, the President of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, argued that “the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example”; future President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis went even further, thundering that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God,” and “is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation.” There’s plenty that can be said about the issue of religion and slavery in America, but my point here is a more simple one: the Bible can be, and most definitely has been, used to justify any social or political position, even the most diametrically opposed ones.
On virtually every relevant issue, then, the question of What Would Jesus Do? is generally short-hand for What Would I Like Some Irrefutable Backing For In Order to Feel Better About Doing Myself (not an acronym that would work as well on bumper stickers, of course)? But if there’s one social issue for which the use of Jesus’s and Christian philosophies would seem, to my mind, most appropriate and as close to genuinely irrefutable as we’re likely to get, it’s poverty. As cited in the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke, Jesus answered a question from his disciples about how to achieve perfection by replying, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor [“give alms” is the King James translation, but same difference], and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Leaving aside whether such actions are truly possible—or the even more complex question of what would then happen to those who have sold all they have, given to the poor, and thus become impoverished themselves—the larger message of this advice, as of a great many of Christ’s pronouncements, is that an individual’s and a community’s spirituality and perfection are directly connected to, even dependent on, their willingness to take care of the least fortunate among them. And by that measure, no American life and legacy are more truly Christian than those of Dorothy Day (1897-1980).
Day was by her teens in the 1910s and remained for most of her life thereafter a self-proclaimed and proud socialist and Christian anarchist, and so by her final decades, with the Cold War having pushed socialism and Christianity into explicitly opposed boxes, she was a hugely controversial and divisive figure. Her own (Christ-like, one might say) willingness to admit her weaknesses and shortcomings and mistakes, as when she wrote of her common-law marriage and abortion in the autobiographical novel The Eleventh Virgin (1924) or her spiritual struggles and doubts in the more overtly autobiographical The Long Loneliness (1952), no doubt contributed as well to those mixed responses. But Day’s most significant work and legacy, her 1933 founding (along with fellow activist Peter Maurin) of and lifelong commitment to the Catholic Worker movement, represents one of our nation’s most impressive and influential (in her own life and down to the our present moment) efforts on behalf of the most impoverished and marginalized Americans, and as such we cannot allow it to be overshadowed by those mixed responses. “Our rule,” Day wrote of the movement, “is the works of mercy,” and no figure or movement have better emblematized Shakespeare’s evocative idea (from The Merchant of Venice) that “the quality of mercy is not strained.” It is no coincidence that the movement was founded at the height of the Depression and began its efforts with a no-questions-asked soup kitchen in New York City—like Day herself, the movement has always taken the fight on poverty and hunger and injustice of all kinds into the heart of our most embattled communities, leaving the debates over theology or politics to be hashed out by those less busy helping their fellow Americans.
Religious faith is a profoundly personal matter, making it one of the American Studies topics into which I tread most hesitantly. But as with any of the central elements of individual and communal identity, it has also been a hugely influential social factor throughout our history, making it impossible to analyze American lives and texts and culture without including it in our purview. And whatever we say about Day’s personal faith (and she had plenty to say herself about it, which would be the place to start), I feel very confident in saying that her social contributions to American life embody the best and most inspiring version of what Christianity can be and mean here.
August Recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Someone you’d nominate for the Hall?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

August 28, 2014: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Jane Addams

[One of my main projects for this summer has been to start work on my joint book/web project, The Hall of American Inspiration. That work is very much ongoing—and could still use your input!—but I thought I’d end the summer by sharing posts on five individuals whose stories and identities will certainly be part of my Hall. Add your nominees for inspiring Americans, whether public or from your own experiences, please!]
On an inspiring historic figure and site that still have much to teach us.
Given that an especial emphasis of my Hall of American Inspiration will be to highlight folks who have been unjustly forgotten or elided from our national narratives, it might seem strange that my next nominee was the first American woman (and only the sixth American period) to win the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1931). But despite that prestigious international recognition, I believe that Jane Addams (1860-1935) is indeed greatly under-rembered in our collective memories and identity, and that her life and work remain as necessary and inspiring in our 21st century moment as they were in her turn of the 20th century one.
Like her contemporary John Dewey (who certainly will have his own plaque in the Hall), Addams emblematizes the turn-of-the-20th-century Progressive movement, in many ways but most overtly in the striking breadth and depth of her pursuits and passions and achievements. She won the Nobel first and foremost for her efforts on behalf of international peace, work she began during the early years of World War I (including stints as both the national chairperson of the Women’s Peace Party and the president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom), continued even after the United States had entered that war (which required no small measure of courage, since it was during World War I that the kinds of criticisms of and attacks on anti-war activists with which we are now very familiar truly began), and expanded throughout the subsequent decades. But Addams was just as active on the homefront, and for a wide variety of causes, from women’s suffrage and politics (she helped found the Progressive Party in 1912) to the needs of American children (including the dangers of child labor and the benefits of playgrounds and early education) and the development of the discipline of sociology (for which Addams did at least as much as any other American philosopher and teacher).
But what makes Addams truly inspirational is, to my mind, one unique and amazing American place: Hull House. Addams and her life partner Ellen Gates Starr co-founded Hull in Chicago in 1889 as the first “settlement house,” a space in which Americans of different levels of class, education, and opportunity could live together and come to know and understand (and hopefully influence) each other more fully. Within a few years, and for many decades thereafter, Hull’s identity and role had greatly expanded; it came to include, among many other things, adult education courses (some of the very first predecessors of modern night school), a kindergarten (in an era, as per the Dewey post, when they were not at all common), a public kitchen, a library, performance and exhibition spaces for art, drama, and music, and (at the height of Hull’s expansion and influence) a playground and summer camp. Despite, or rather alongside, this breadth of services, Hull and Addams likewise became centrally focused on its neighborhood’s and city’s large and growing immigrant communities; many of its courses and spaces were dedicated to the needs of these newest Americans, and, in an era defined by anti-immigrant sentiment both legal (such as the Chinese Exclusion Act) and otherwise (such as the pervasive hostilities toward the Jewish immigrants who comprised much of the waves of the 1880s), Hull and Addams were entirely and genuinely inclusive and welcoming.
Addams’ memoir of Hull, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910), is, like the era’s Progressive moment overall, not without its moments of condescension or paternalism toward some of these less well-educated and prosperous fellow Americans. What’s striking, however, is not the presence of such moments—they make Addams human—but rather how fully, and in how many ways, Addams was able to transcend any and all of the weaknesses that can divide and limit us, and in that transcending become and model the most truly inspiring kind of American life and identity.
Last nominee tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Someone you’d nominate for the Hall?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

August 27, 2014: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Ida B. Wells

[One of my main projects for this summer has been to start work on my joint book/web project, The Hall of American Inspiration. That work is very much ongoing—and could still use your input!—but I thought I’d end the summer by sharing posts on five individuals whose stories and identities will certainly be part of my Hall. Add your nominees for inspiring Americans, whether public or from your own experiences, please!]
On an inspiring voice from one of our darkest periods.
Since the phrase was first coined by historian Rayford Logan in the 1950s, historians have consistently described the period between the end of Reconstruction (around 1877) and the early 20th century (at least until the Great Migration and the 1920s, and sometimes well beyond) as “the nadir” of African American life and experience (at least since the abolition of slavery). There are all sorts of reasons for that designation, beginning with the rise of Jim Crow and its systems of legal and social segregation, but extending into virtually every aspect of African American existence in these decades. And of all those extensions, none is anywhere near as horrific—and perhaps none as unfortunately missing from our dominant national narratives and histories—as the lynching epidemic, the wave of brutal mob murders of (mostly) African American men that rose in the last few decades of the 19th century and continued (if with slightly less frequency) until the era of Civil Rights. Historian Leon Litwack has documented that at least 4700 African Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968, and the actual numbers (including those prior to 1882 and thus that were not reported) are thus likely well above 5000.
The numbers don’t begin to tell the real story about lynching, though. As the Without Sanctuary site documents—and this is one case where images are most definitely worth thousands of words, although I’ll certainly do what I can with the latter—most lynchings were a kind of communal carnival of graphic brutality and violence: they tended to happen with enough advance warning and preparation that large numbers of local (and sometimes distant) residents would come out, often bringing their children and families and turning the event into a party (including in many cases postcards that could be sent to those not fortunate enough to attend); and despite the association of “lynching” with hanging, the actual murders often also included castration, burning (usually while the victim was still alive), and assorted other mutilations. Even if the victim had indeed committed the crime of which he was accused—and most of the time, as the author to whom I’ll turn in a moment amply demonstrated, the accusations were entirely non-credible, blatant fronts for situations like consensual relationships between white women and black men, excuses to rid local businessmen of African American competitors, and the like—lynching as a practice went so far beyond capital punishment as to exist entirely outside of any justice system, even the most barbaric or cruel ones. These were orgies of collective fear and rage and racism, and I can’t sum them up any better than did Charles Chesnutt in The Marrow of Tradition: “our boasted civilization is but a thin veneer, which cracks and scales off at the first impact of primal passions.”
Just as Chesnutt’s extraordinary novel emerged out of the Wilmington Massacre, so too did the lynching epidemic draw out one of America’s most extraordinarily brave and impressive journalistic voices. Ida B. Wells (later Wells Barnett) was the daughter of slaves and had already by the 1880s (when she was just in her 20s) established herself as not only a teacher at Nashville’s Fisk University and a journalist in her home city of Memphis but also as a vocal and aggressive opponent of Jim Crow: in 1884 she refused to give up her seat on a Tennessee train car and brought her case all the way to the state’s Supreme Court. But it was her first truly personal experience with lynching that truly galvanized Wells—in 1891 three friends of hers who owned a successful African American grocery store in Memphis were lynched on extremely and overtly trumped-up charges, and Wells responded with the first of her many, many blunt and eloquent and powerful condemnations of lynching. Far from simply editorializing about the subject, Wells became a model researcher and journalist in response to it, producing books like Southern Horrors and A Red Record in which (for example) she used the words and statistics of local white newspapers to highlight all of the hypocrises and lies at the heart of the practice of lynching. Unwavering in the face of numerous threats and terrors of her own, she became a hugely vocal and successful advocate for the anti-lynching movement, traveling around the country and world to make her case, and made it impossible for the nation (and especially the North) to pretend that this issue was not one of significance or deep concern.
Slavery is, it seems to me, possible for us to include in our national narratives in ways that are benign enough or systemic enough that we don’t have to confront the real horrors, or can pretend that they were the exceptions or at least the minority of situations. Not so with lynching—to remember it at all is to come face to face with some of the very darkest stories in our national past, and the very worst of which humans are capable. And as inspiring as Wells’ life and career were, reading her not only doesn’t mitigate the horrors—it delineates them with particular clarity and eloquence. And sometimes, that’s the most important and inspiring thing a voice can do.
Next nominee tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Someone you’d nominate for the Hall?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

August 26, 2014: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Ely Parker

[One of my main projects for this summer has been to start work on my joint book/web project, The Hall of American Inspiration. That work is very much ongoing—and could still use your input!—but I thought I’d end the summer by sharing posts on five individuals whose stories and identities will certainly be part of my Hall. Add your nominees for inspiring Americans, whether public or from your own experiences, please!]
On the cross-cultural relationship and experiences of one of 19th century America’s most inspiring figures.
There are many reasons why I began this blog with a brief (now tragically lost) entry on W.E.B. Du Bois, but I guess what it boiled down to was that as I began to contemplate the concept of a Hall of American Inspriration, I knew that Du Bois would be one of my first, unanimous inductees. Not because he was perfect—he wasn’t, far from it—but because, I suppose, of a trifecta of core details: he spent his life trying to do things he felt were significant; he committed to each of those things with passion and seriousness and a desire to do them as well as he could and appropriate levels of (and balance between) ambition and humility; and he remained, even into his later years, very open to the voices and perspectives of the people both with and for whom he was doing them. Yup, those are pretty much the measuring sticks for induction into Ben’s Hall of American Inspiration.
I’ve known that I felt that way about Du Bois for a long time, at least since my sophomore year of college when I read a lot by and about him. Some of the other people who would be on the short list for inaugural induction I’ve known about for even longer, and would come as no surprise to anybody who knows me (Bruce, John Sayles, Val Kilmer) (just kidding about the last one, I love the dude but I’m afraid he falls short on that whole balance of ambition and humility item). But another one is a very recent discovery who has rocketed toward the top of the list: Ely Parker (1828-1897). I learned about Parker while working on a couple page portion of my second book—the opening couple pages of my chapter on the 19th century focus on Lewis Henry Morgan, the pioneering anthropologist who worked extensively on the Seneca Iroquois and was even adopted into the tribe; and Morgan, who is pretty impressive and inspiring in his own right, admired the heck out of Parker and helped him enter many of the worlds (engineering and work on the Erie Canal; law and politics and the fight for the tribe’s homeland and sovereignty; the military and service in the Union Army, through which he ended up drafting the Confederacy’s surrender terms at Appomattox Court House) to which he contributed his tireless work and passion from the late 1840s to the end of his life.
Any one of those worlds and efforts would be a good starting point for Hall of Inspiration consideration, and the cumulative effect of them is pretty overwhelming. But as with Du Bois, what I find particularly interesting and inspiring about Parker is something less explicitly heroic or impressive, but even more (to my mind) American—his complicated location amidst and between multiple communities and identities, and his determination not to simplify that position nor reject one or another of his identities and worlds. The name he was given when he was made a sachem of the tribe translates to “Open Door,” and I think that’s very apt (as was Morgan’s tribal name, which translates to “Bridging the Gap”—they were spot-on with those names, the Seneca), both in his own life and in his role as a mediating figure (anthropologically, politically, legally, militarily, ideologically, you name it) between the tribe and the American government on multiple levels. As was sometimes the case with Du Bois, Parker’s attempts at mediating and unwillingness to simplify either his own identity or his connections to both his ethnic and his national communities (such as in his post-Civil War marriage to a white socialite) were, at times, met with harsh criticism from more fully ethnically focused peers (and Parker himself apparently questioned, toward the end of his life, some of the work he did as the first Native Commissioner of Indian Affairs, a position he held in the scandal-filled administration of his old general, Ulysses Grant). But despite such specific critiques, I don’t think anyone familiar with Parker’s life and work could question for a second his thoroughgoing commitment to improving the lives of his fellow Americans, native and otherwise.
The last years of Parker’s life were defined at least in part by losses (financial, on Wall Street, and in other ways) and self-doubts (particularly about whether he had been able to maintain as well as he had hoped that balance between the different communities to which he dedicated his life). But they were also defined by another dialogic and mutually beneficial relationship, one very much parallel to his with Morgan—he was approached by a poet named Harriet Maxwell Converse who had an abiding interest in his tribe, and the two developed a friendship that helped Parker reexamine his life and identity and communicate them to an interested European American partner once more. If I can help him continue to do the same, even a century after his death, maybe I’ll have helped pass his inspiration along.
Next nominee tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Someone you’d nominate for the Hall?

Monday, August 25, 2014

August 25, 2014: Hall of Inspiration Nominees: Bartolomé de Las Casas

[One of my main projects for this summer has been to start work on my joint book/web project, The Hall of American Inspiration. That work is very much ongoing—and could still use your input!—but I thought I’d end the summer by sharing posts on five individuals whose stories and identities will certainly be part of my Hall. Add your nominees for inspiring Americans, whether public or from your own experiences, please!]
On one of the first truly inspiring American voices.
I get why we focus so many of our exploration-era narratives on the conquistador types. They were daring warrior-explorers who wore crazy hats and searched for lost cities of gold and fountains of youth (especial points of emphasis half a century ago) and killed a ton of Native Americans (especial points of emphasis these days). And certainly my somewhat in-depth engagement with the life and writings of their founding father, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea himself, Columbus, makes clear that they weren’t just one-dimensional cartoon villains by any stretch. But what a difference it would make to our national identity and narratives if the first years of European arrivals became the story first and foremost not of Christopher C. and his fellow explorer-conquistadors, but of the Spanish Priest (later Bishop) who befriended Columbus and even edited his journal: Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566).
Toward the end of his life, Las Casas published The Destruction of the Indies (1552), an incredibly honest and scathing account of the treatment of Native Americans by Spanish explorers, colonists, politicians, soldiers, and commercial interests. He would spend his final decade and a half expounding on that topic at the Spanish Court, pleading for a more just and mutually beneficial Native policy. But those events were simply the culmination of half a century of impressive efforts and actions—beginning almost immediately after his 1502 initial arrival in Hispaniola, Las Casas worked on behalf of the island’s and region’s natives on a variety of levels: certainly religious, attempting to convert them to Catholicism (not a particularly appealing thought from a 2010 perspective, but far more inclusive than most of the early arrivals’ perspectives); but also social and communal, proposing and working for a variety of experiments and initiatives intended to better integrate the European and Native communities and give proof to his steadfast beliefs that the two cultures could coexist peacefully and successfully.
One of my favorite early arrivals is Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish naval officer who was shipwrecked on coast of Florida in the 1530s, spent nearly a decade wandering across the continent and living with numerous Native tribes and nations, and developed a complex, hybrid new perspective and identity as a result; in my second book I identified de Vaca as one of the first Americans because of that hybridity and identity. But whereas de Vaca’s shifts were the result of extraordinary circumstances, Las Casas simply observed what was happening in the Spanish New World, responded to it as a truly moral and good person should but so few of his peers did, and then, more impressively still, wrote and acted on that response, consistently and unceasingly, for the remainder of his life. His efforts did not, of course, fully counter-balance the horrors of genocide and enslavement and destruction, and no one person’s could; but they help us to see that America began not only with those horrors, but also with fundamentally good people seeking a more perfect union of the diverse cultures present here.
If it’s way too easy to be a jingoistic patriot about America, it is, in some ways, also too easy to be purely cynical or pessimistic about what we’ve been and are. Resisting that second perspective partly means acknowledging and engaging with the complex humanity of even a Columbus. But it also, and more optimistically, means remembering and reclaiming the legacy of a Las Casas, as evidence that even the most horrific and destructive moments in our history have contained their voices of hope as well.
Next nominee tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Someone you’d nominate for the Hall?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

August 23-24, 2014: Crowd-sourced Dog Day Films

[Nothing beats the summer heat better than watching characters sweat it out from the coolness of a movie theater. So in this week’s series, I’ve AmericanStudied five hot and heavy dog days films. This crowd-sourced post is drawn the responses of fellow AmericanStudiers—add the sweat of your brow in comments, please!]
Dominic Livolsi nominates Do the Right Thing as a summer classic.
Joseph Fruscione also shares Lee’s film, and five other nominees: Die Hard 3, Stand by Me, The Sandlot, and both film versions of The Great Gatsby.
Jay Shaw notes that The Ice Pirates is “always at the top of my summer list!”
AnneMarie Donahue shares her own list of fun summer favorites: “Weekend At Bernie’s—Andrew McCarthy before he went all crazy-eyes!; Space Camp—I have a love/hate relationship with this film. Most of the country just hates it; Say Anything—any man standing under my window blasting U2 has my heart... and restraining order; and Summer School—it's like Dead Poet's Society if no one died, and the students were all slackers, and Gibbs from NCIS was the laughable loveable teacher, and Kirstie Alley was hot.”
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other summertime movies you’d highlight?

Friday, August 22, 2014

August 22, 2014: Films for the Dog Days: Men with Guns

[Nothing beats the summer heat better than watching characters sweat it out from the coolness of a movie theater. So in this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy five hot and heavy dog days films. Add your responses and summertime movies for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’ll sweat it out!]

On the two very different yet not necessarily dissimilar visions of Americans in Mexico in the same film.
As I wrote in this post on Edouard Glissant and the idea of creolization, and then extended in an entire series on Caribbean Connections, the United States has a lot more in common with the Caribbean and the rest of the Western Hemisphere than we often acknowledge. Moreover, as I spent another entire week’s worth of posts trying to illustrate, the relationship between the United States and Mexico is in many ways even more interconnected. Yet despite those parallel and interconnected histories and identities, and notwithstanding the basic fact of geographical proximity between the two nations, there’s no question of course that Mexico is its own place, a fundamentally different nation than the US—and thus that we can and must analyze how Americans travel to and engage with Mexico (in reality and in cultural representations) just as we would with any other place.
One of the most complex and interesting such cultural representations, of the last couple decades and of any moment, has to be John Sayles’ Men with Guns (1997). Sayles’ film was shot entirely on location in Mexico, using an all-Mexican cast who speak Mexican Spanish (with English subtitles) throughout the film, which makes the few scenes when two overtly American, English-speaking turistas show up that much more striking and significant. The two tourists, played to exaggerated perfection by Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody, are as clichéd and stereotypical as (I would argue) the rest of the film’s characters are multi-layered and complex; but while that leads their scenes to have a certain heavy-handedness, it’s also clearly Sayles’ point in these moments. These minor characters are not only outsiders and intruders in the film’s setting and world—they have no ability to understand this place and no interest in doing so, and their cultural tourism is, in the context of the film’s dark and powerful main stories and themes, both utterly ridiculous and deeply insulting. That might not describe all Americans’ attitudes toward or relationships to our hemispheric neighbors, but it’s certainly (both Sayles and I would argue) a far too prevalent perspective.
Sayles’ film would seem to be precisely the opposite: a thoughtful, nuanced, culturally immersive engagement with Mexican culture and community and history and issues. I love Sayles and am a fan of the film (although it’s not at the top of my list of his works), so I would agree with that description. Yet on the other hand, can’t we also see Sayles here as a kind of intellectual and artistic version of the tourist couple? A cultural tourist who comes down to Mexico for a while, engages with the place while he’s there, and then returns to the United States, to tell his stories of what he found? The film is, after all, not entirely unlike a tourist’s slideshow; “What John Did on His Mexican Vacation.” At the very least, I think we have to acknowledge that both Sayles and the tourists exist on the same spectrum, of American experiences in and with Mexico—and while of course it would be far too reductive to argue that all points on that spectrum are identical, it would be just as wrong-headed to claim that they don’t have anything in common. Only by acknowledging that we’re all cultural tourists, after all, can we perhaps start to analyze our own perspective and figure out how we can at times get beyond it.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Summertime movies you’d highlight?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

August 21, 2014: Films for the Dog Days: In the Heat of the Night and Blake Snake Moan

[Nothing beats the summer heat better than watching characters sweat it out from the coolness of a movie theater. So in this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy five hot and heavy dog days films. Add your responses and summertime movies for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’ll sweat it out!]
On realism, allegory, and hot Southern summers.
I’ve written many times before in this space about the difficult but vital question of how we might better remember our darkest national histories, a list that without question features prominently histories of race and slavery, lynching and segregration, and their attendant horrors. The issue isn’t simply that we don’t remember those histories, although certainly that’s the case when compared to more widely shared historical topics such as the Revolutionary and Civil Wars (which, while not without their darknesses, are far easier to fit into progressive national narratives). It’s also that when we have produced cultural texts that engage with those dark histories, we have far too often done so through stereotypes and myths, through a-historical misrepresentations of the past, or through triumphal narratives of overcoming obstacles that allow us to pat ourselves on the back rather than really examine the histories on their own terms.
Those aren’t the only options, however, and I would argue that two films set in the dog days of Southern summer offer two very distinct but perhaps complementary means through which to engage more honestly with some of our darkest histories. Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967) is a gritty, realistic crime drama, one in which Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs (played famously by Sidney Poitier), passing through the small town of Sparta, Mississippi, finds himself working closely with the town’s racist police chief (Rod Steiger) to investigate the murder of a wealthy businessman. Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan (2006) is an over-the-top melodrama, one in which a troubled, drug addicted, and nymphomaniac young woman (Christina Ricci) is discovered by a religious but bitter former blues musician (Samuel L. Jackson) who decides to keep her chained up in his house until he can cure her of her various addictions. Despite their significant differences in style and tone, the two films share not only this emphasis on a forced and uncomfortable relationship between black and white characters, but also prominent imagery of heat to highlight their tensions: from Heat’s titular reference to Black Snake Moan’s tagline, “Everything is hotter down South.”
It’d be easy, and not at all inaccurate, to focus any analysis of this pairing on the differences between the two films. Those differences likewise link the films to two distinct, longstanding artistic genres: Black Snake Moan fits nicely into the tradition known as the Southern gothic, a genre that uses extreme imagery and tones to capture allegorically the region’s worst and best sides; while In the Heat of the Night uses the realistic plotting, characterization, and attention to detail of detective fiction and the police procedural to explore its social and cultural setting and world. Yet I would argue that to engage with the South’s (and America’s) darkest histories requires a combination of these two modes: a detective’s ability and willingness to investigate the past and unearth the truth, no matter how unattractive it might be; and in so doing, a sensibility attuned to the Gothic extremes that have, quite simply, characterized histories like lynching far more often and thoroughly than we’d care to admit. As such, a dog day double billing of these two films might just be the ticket to a fuller understanding of the sultry South, and all of us.
Last dog days film tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Summertime movies you’d highlight?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

August 20, 2014: Films for the Dog Days: Body Heat

[Nothing beats the summer heat better than watching characters sweat it out from the coolness of a movie theater. So in this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy five hot and heavy dog days films. Add your responses and summertime movies for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’ll sweat it out!]
On the problems with heat captured by a classic film noir.
The plot of Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981) couldn’t possibly be more film noir: a sexy, sleazy lawyer (William Hurt) and a sexy, wealthy housewife (Kathleen Turner) begin a dangerous love affair, one that leads to financial scheming, murder, investigations by cynical police detectives, double-crossings upon double-crossings, secret identities, and shocking plot twists (none of which I’ll overtly spoil here, I promise). But to my mind, at least as emblematic as all those plot elements is the film’s sultry setting of Florida during an intense summer heatwave; noir is (obviously) known for its dark, night-time settings, but I would say that just as important as the time of day is the season, and the way it amplifies the heat that comes from passion and jealousy, from lust and hatred, from greed and suspicion, from all the emotions that comprise the genre’s beating heart. There’s a reason why so many recent film noirs have been set in the Sunshine State.
Moreover, if film noir works can be read as cautionary tales—and given how much fun they are to watch, that’s not necessarily the case, but for the sake of argument I’ll go with it—the message often seems to be a simple and crucial one, one certainly repeated in Body Heat: don’t give in to the heat. Without getting into all the spoiler-y details, it’s fair to say that Hurt’s Ned Racine would have been better off resisting the appeal of the titular body heat, should have denied his passionate attraction to Turner’s Matty Walker. And it’s equally fair to say, as the film’s famous ice scene suggests, that the summer heat and body heat are intimately connected, that the season and setting seem at least as responsible for what happens to Ned as are his libido and the woman who draws it out. Moreover, the film noir characters who tend to come out in the best shape are, I would argue, those who can maintain their cool, not because they aren’t affected by all these forms of heat but rather because they can resist enough to think and act coolly nonetheless (a description that, MAJOR SPOILERS in this clip, ultimately does seem to apply to Matty far more than to Ned).
Don’t give in to the heat, find a way to stay cool—seem like simple and logical enough lessons, and certainly applicable ones in these dog days of summer. But I think they’re problematic, and not just because no heterosexual male could be expected to resist or even think clearly around Kathleen Turner in her prime. No, the deeper problem with film noir is that, much of the time, it seems to take a prudish and puritanical attitude toward sex, if not indeed all passions—to portray them as innately dangerous and destructive, temptations that will inevitably lead us to our doom if we are unable to resist them. Again, this argument would be complicated by how much fun it generally is to watch characters give in to their passions—but of course doing so can provide a vicarious thrill while still instructing us in the need to resist similar fates. Yet the truth is that we can’t and shouldn’t resist our passions, not only because they’re what make us human, but also because without such heat, uncomfortable and even overwhelming as it can be, life would be far too cold.
Next dog days film tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Summertime movies you’d highlight?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

August 19, 2014: Films for the Dog Days: Jungle Fever and Mississippi Masala

[Nothing beats the summer heat better than watching characters sweat it out from the coolness of a movie theater. So in this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy five hot and heavy dog days films. Add your responses and summertime movies for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’ll sweat it out!]
On two swelting interracial romances that work particularly well in combination.
I don’t have hard proof for this, but I believe that when we Americans think and talk about interracial relationships, we do so first and foremost, and perhaps much of the time solely, through the lens of black and white. As is often the case, my starting point for this idea is my own perspective, my own engagement with such simplifying national narratives—despite my past interracial marriage to someone whose identity falls outside of that binary, I believe that I do tend to link the topic explicitly and consistently to issues of black and white (as illustrated by an earlier post on cultural representations of controversial issues, where I mentioned Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and All in the Family/The Jeffersons in relation to interracial relationships). And moving beyond my own individual perspective, I would cite two quick (and very distinct) examples of this trend at work more broadly: the Supreme Court case that overturned all remaining state laws outlawing interracial marriage, Loving v. Virginia (1967), was responding not only to a marriage between a white man and a black woman but also to a statute that framed the issue in terms of those two races, and thus the Court’s decision likewise focused (not entirely, but at times) on how such laws treated “the white and Negro participants in an interracial marriage”; and one of the best scholarly works on images of this topic in our literary history, Werner Sollors’ Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature (1997), likewise focuses (as its title indicates) on those two racial identities and communities.
The respective prominence of two films released within a year of one another, Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991) and Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1992), provides another illustration of this trend, as well as an opportunity to move beyond any one understanding of interracial marriage and toward a more meaningful analysis of the issue in American culture and identity more broadly. Both films were successful at the (domestic) box office, especially in relationship to their respective budgets and releases: Lee’s film grossed $32.5 million, on a budget of roughly $14 million and a wide release; Nair’s grossed $7.3 million, on a budget of under $1 million and a pretty limited release. Both similarly received prestigious recognition from film festivals and awards ceremonies dedicated to supporting independent films: Nair’s triumphed at the Venice Film Festival and won an Independent Spirit Award (among others); Lee’s won at Cannes and a New York Film Critics Circle Award (ditto). Yet it seems clear to me that Lee’s film has lasted in our public consciousness in a way that Nair’s has not. While there are any number of plausible factors for that difference, many of which have little to do with race—Lee was only two years removed from Do the Right Thing (1989), the film that had put him on the map in a major way, while Nair had directed only one other, relatively unknown feature film, Salaam Bombay! (1988); Lee’s film featured a star-making, award-winning turn from Samuel L. Jackson as a mercurial crack addict (although Nair’s film did star Denzel Washington in an award-winning role, just two years after winning an Oscar for Glory, so this factor doesn’t quite hold up)—I think it’s fair to say that Lee’s portrayal of a romance between an African-American architect and an Italian-American secretary tapped into our dominant narratives about interracial relationships much more fully than Nair’s depiction of a Ugandan-Indian-American motel employee falling for an African-American carpet cleaner.
One could get plenty of mileage trying to figure out which factors have most contributed to the two films’ respective legacies (or, quite possibly, discovering that I’m wrong about those legacies), but again and as usual my ideal would be a different and I believe more broadly productive emphasis: what we can gain by watching both films, not only individually but also as a pair of contemporaneous cultural representations of interracial relationships in the closing decade of the 20th century. And I think that both are particularly interesting, and particularly if complicatedly interconnected, in their depictions of the protagonists’ families and social networks. I don’t mean just how those families and networks respond to the interracial relationships themselves—certainly the near-universal judgments and critiques from all three (or four, if New York African American is considered distinct from Mississippi African American) cultural communities are telling, but I think the films are at least as interesting in how they construct the complex worlds of their respective settings and the familial and social networks within them. That means in each case both a kind of immigrant community (very literally and recently for the Ugandan Indian family in Mississippi; more as a vibrant and ongoing heritage for the Italian Americans in Jungle) and a homegrown African American one, but also includes other social and cultural factors—such as drug culture or the rise of an African American urban middle class in Jungle and the dictatorship and impact of Idi Amin or African American life in the post-Civil Rights South in Mississippi—that add significant layers and complications to any black and white vision of these different communities.
Next dog days film tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Summertime movies you’d highlight?

Monday, August 18, 2014

August 18, 2014: Films for the Dog Days: Dog Day Afternoon

[Nothing beats the summer heat better than watching characters sweat it out from the coolness of a movie theater. So in this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy five hot and heavy dog days films. Add your responses and summertime movies for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’ll sweat it out!]
On the gritty crime drama that’s sneakily subversive.
Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), which was based on a Life magazine story about an actual August 1972 Brooklyn bank robbery, is first and foremost a gritty, realistic story of that crime and its messy aftermath. The opening montage of sweaty summertime New York sets that scene pitch-perfectly, and the rest of the film, despite starring Hollywood heavyweight Al Pacino at the height of his Godfather-driven fame, follows suit. Much of what drives the film’s plot, for example, are small realistic details that produce big problems and changes—a young criminal’s second thoughts, a security guard’s asthma attack, the bank manager’s collapse in diabetic shock. And virtually all of the film’s scenes take place in and around the bank’s cramped, tense, sweaty confines, greatly amplifying that sense of intimate scope and scale.
Yet despite that tight focus, Dog Day Afternoon works in a couple of complex and interestingly subversive social themes and commentaries. For one thing, there’s the scene where Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik briefly exits the bank to talk with Charles Durning’s police detective; the conversation escalates, and Sonny concludes by shouting “Attica! Attica!” while the gathered crowd cheers him on. The moment is an allusion to the 1971 Attica prison rebellion, a five-day standoff between inmates who took over the jail and federal troops that ended in a bloodbath, with thirty-three inmates and ten hostages (all corrections officers) dead. While the rebellion might seem an isolated incident, and one specific to the prison world in which it occurred, the film’s evocation of it reflects a different reality: that in this post-1960s era of cynicism and distrust, the period that produced Kent State and Watergate, many Americans saw the rebelling prisoners as potential counter-culture heroes. Sonny isn’t much of a hero, but in this moment, he certainly gives voice to such a perspective as well.
Sonny also connects to the film’s other and even more subversive element, through the character of his second wife Leon Shermer, a pre-operative transsexual played brilliantly by Chris Sarandon. Leon’s gender identity is in fact one of the film’s driving elements, as we learn that it is to pay for Leon’s sex reassignment surgey that Sonny tried to rob the bank (his first such crime). When I call Leon’s character subversive, I don’t just mean the presence of a transsexual character in a mainstream 1970s Hollywood film, striking as that presence is—I also and especially mean the way in which the other major characters, from Pacino to Durning’s police officer, engage with Leon as a person and an equal, not as an “other” or a freak or any of the other demeaning possibilities we might expect. Sarandon’s wonderful performance certainly contributes to that humanizing, leading to a character whose identity is radical and revolutionary without feeling the slightest bit overt about those effects. Definitely makes for a film worth checking out on a dog day afternoon (or any other time).
Next dog days film tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Summertime movies you’d highlight?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

August 16-17, 2014: Birthday Specials: 37 for 37

[For a week that begins with my Dad’s birthday and ends with mine, I’ve shared a series of posts that engage with birthdays, both others’ and mine. This special weekend post highlights 37 of my favorite posts from the last year, in honor of my 37th bday!]
1)      August 23: Still Studying: Known Unknowns: A series on things I’m still learning concludes with a post on three recent takeaways from that 21st century resource, Twitter.
2)      August 30: Fall Forward: Three Years: In honor of the blog’s upcoming third anniversary, three of my favorite memories from those first three years.
3)      September 13: Newport Stories: To Preserve or Not to Preserve: A series on stories and histories surrounding The Breakers wonders whether and how we should preserve such historic homes.
4)      September 17: Gloucester Stories: The Sense of the Past: As part of a series on the Massachusetts fishing town, why it’s so important to better remember that community.
5)      September 25: Justice Is Not Color Blind: Duke: The most complex post in my series on race and justice in America, on expectations, realities, and the role of public scholars.
6)      October 14: John Sayles’ America: Secaucus and the 60s: A series AmericanStudying my favorite filmmaker starts with the movie that echoes but also challenges our narratives of a turbulent decade.
7)      October 21: Book Talk Thoughts: MOCA: With my year of book talks underway, a post on the inspiringly pitch-perfect New York museum that helped inaugurate those talks.
8)      October 28: Symbolic Scares: The Wendigo: A Halloween series starts with the supernatural legend that offers cultural and cross-cultural commentaries.
9)      November 7: Berkshire Stories: The Housatonic: Three complex and compelling sides to a New England river, part of a series on histories from this beautiful Western Mass. Region.
10)   November 12: Veteran’s Week: Band of Brothers: As part of a Veteran’s Day series, nostalgia and nuance in one of our best recent depictions of war.
11)   November 19: Times Like These: 1935: The debates over Social Security and how they do and don’t echo our own divided moment.
12)   November 29: Giving Thanks: Future AmericanStudiers: A Thanksgiving series concludes with an inspiring moment where past and future were in conversation.
13)   December 20: Representing Slavery: 12 Years a Slave: A series on cultural images of slavery concludes with two takes on the wonderful recent film, my own…
14)   December 21-22: Representing Slavery: Joe Moser’s Guest Post: And that of my friend and colleague (and Irish film expert) Joe Moser!
15)   December 24: AmericanStudies Wishes: Reform Now!: My annual series of wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves included this post on the very American reasons why we need immigration reform.
16)   January 4-5: Ani DiFranco and Slavery: A special addition to a year-in-review series, on a couple historical contexts for a very current controversy.
17)   January 23: Civil Rights Histories: George Wallace: Why we shouldn’t judge a lifetime by its worst moments, but why we do have to focus on them nonetheless.
18)   January 27: Football Focalizes: Concussions and Hypocrisy: A Super Bowl series opens with the gap between what we know and what we do, in football as in history.
19)   February 7: House Histories: Our Own Broad Daylight: A series on the House of the Seven Gables concludes with a post on the literary and communal presences of the past.
20)   February 11: I Love Du Bois to His Daughter: My Valentine’s Day series included this tribute to an amazing letter from my American idol to his teenage daughter.
21)   February 17: YA Lit: Little House on the Prairie: What we can and can’t learn about history from young adult lit kicks off a chapter-book-inspired series.
22)   March 8-9: Crowd-sourced Non-Favorites: One of my most epic crowd-sourced posts ever rounded out a series on American things that don’t quite do it for us.
23)   March 21: Cville Stories: 21st Century Tensions: Nostalgia, fear, and the current divisions that threaten communities like Charlottesville and America.
24)   March 27: Caribbean Connections: Bob Marley: On whether it’s entirely possible for an artist to cross cultural borders, and why the crossing matters in any case.
25)   April 2: Baseball Stories: Field of Dreams and The Brothers K: My Opening Day series included this post on divisive decades and histories, and whether baseball can bring us together.
26)   April 16: Animated History: The Princess and the Frog: On race, representation, and seeing ourselves and our histories on screen.
27)   April 28: Reading New England Women: Catharine Maria Sedgwick: A series on 19th century New England women kicks off with a funny, telling story that was way ahead of its time.
28)   May 7: NeMLA Follow Ups: Roundtable on Contingent Faculty: Three meaningful ways we can move forward with a crucial issue.
29)   May 12: Spring 2014 Recaps: 21st Century Writing: A semester recap series starts with three wonderful student papers from my Writing II course.
30)   May 22: AmericanStudying Harvard Movies: Love Story: On the enduring appeal of fantasies, romantic and communal, and what it means to share them with future generations.
31)   June 14-15: War Stories: Board Games: A D-Day series concludes with a special post on three board games from which I learned a good deal about histories of war.
32)   June 17: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: Summertime Blues: The summer song that gave multi-layered voice to the experience of youth.
33)   June 24: AmericanStudier Camp: Hello Muddah: As part of a summer camp series, the novelty song with an extended, very American afterlife.
34)   July 14: American Beaches: Revere Beach: A beach series kicks off with three telling stages of one of our most historic beaches.
35)   July 22: American Autobiographers: Olaudah Equiano: The controversial personal narrative that should be required reading whatever its genre.
36)   August 1: Uncles and Aunts: Uncle Elephant: A series inspired by my sister’s birthday concludes with the children’s book that’s as sad and as joyous as life itself.
37)   August 5: Virginia Voices: Thomas Nelson Page: For my latest return to VA, I highlighted interesting Virginia authors, including the question of whether and why we should read this once-popular writer at all.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Any topics or themes you’d like to see covered in posts in the coming year? Lemme know!