MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Monday, March 31, 2014

March 31, 2014: Baseball Stories: Play for a Kingdom

[With Opening Day upon us, another series on AmericanStudying our national pasttime. This year, I’ll be highlighting individual baseball stories and thinking about what broader American contexts they can help us analyze. And this weekend I’ll highlight some other great writers and works who do the same!]

On baseball, America, and the Civil War.
Far more knowledgeable baseball historians than I have long debated the sport’s origins, and specifically the role that famous “inventor” Abner Doubleday did or did not play in creating our national pasttime (or even whether said national pasttime was in fact invented in a different nation, one from which we had recently declared independence no less!). It’s an interesting debate, one that touches on not only 19th century history, the development of mythological narratives in communities and nations, and how culture moves and changes across international borders, but also on the ongoing role that sports plays in our collective consciousness and imaginations. But to my mind, it’s also deeply meaningful that the invention of baseball has long been tied to Doubleday, a man otherwise most famous as a decorated Union officer during the Civil War.
Doubleday’s supposed and contested invention of the sport took place well before the war, in Cooperstown (NY) in 1839. But I would argue that many of our collective narratives of baseball’s earliest days are closely tied to the Civil War, to images of soldiers playing sandlot games during the downtime between battles and campaigns. In part remembering the war in that way offers a peaceful alternative to the war’s most dominant images, a way to imagine and contemplate Civil War soldiers that doesn’t focus solely on the conflict and violence and loss that so defined the war years. But on the other hand, the images of Civil War baseball games could be read as a direct (if of course bloodless) complement to the war’s battles—in which, similarly, “teams” that might well have been friendly or even related off of the diamond became bitter adversaries once they stepped onto that field, one from which only one side could emerge victorious (there are no ties in baseball, as the saying famously goes).
Both sides to baseball and the Civil War are captured in the best historical novel about that subject (and one of the best baseball novels period), Thomas Dyja’s Play for a Kingdom (1998). Dyja’s novel imagines a chance 1864 encounter between Union and Confederate soldiers engaged in the bloody battle of Spotsylvania, an encounter that turns into a series of baseball games contested alongside (and, gradually, intertwined with) the battle itself. Dyja nicely illustrates how the games serve not only as a distraction from the battle, but also and just as crucially as a parallel to it, one in which shifting relationships and allegiances, as well as the soldier’s individual personalities and perspectives, cannot ultimately lessen the harder and more absolute truths of war. Whatever its other starting points, baseball—like America—was created anew during the Civil War, and Dyja’s novel helps us contemplate those complex and vital points of origin.
Next baseball story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other baseball stories you’d highlight?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

March 29-30, 2014: March 2014 Recap

[A recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]

March 3: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Scorcese Films: A series analyzing things of which I’m not a fan starts with the acclaimed filmmaker.
March 4: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Morrison and Cobain: The series continues with two artists I find talented and interesting but not ultimately inspiring.
March 5: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: The Beats: A couple of the ways I would push back on our idolization of the counter-cultural community, as the series rolls on.
March 6: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Teddy Roosevelt: Not an objection to TR himself, so much as to the ways we collectively over-remember and –emphasize presidents.
March 7: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Thomas Jefferson?!: The series concludes with a couple important ways to revise our memories of my hometown’s hero.
March 8-9: Crowd-Sourced Non-Favorites: An epic airing of grievances, as well as responses to the week’s posts, rounds out the non-favorites series.
March 10: AmericanStudying House of Cards: Peter and Zoe: A series on Season 1 of the compelling show starts with the American narratives behind two distinct character arcs.
March 11: AmericanStudying House of Cards: Linda and Gillian: The series continues with the show’s two most prominent ethnic women.
March 12: AmericanStudying House of Cards: Doug and Freddy: The stereotypical but interesting identities of the protagonist’s most trusted supporters, as the series rolls on.
March 13: AmericanStudying House of Cards: Claire: Two of the many ways we might read Robin Wright’s ambiguous and riveting character.
March 14: AmericanStudying House of Cards: Frank: The series concludes with an examination of the show’s compelling anti-hero protagonist.
March 15-16: Anna Mae Duane on House of Cards: To follow up my own thoughts, one of our best American Studies scholars on the show and its protagonist.
March 17: Cville Stories: Ash Lawn-Highland: A series on stories in my Virginia hometown starts with the oft-forgotten historic home.
March 18: Cville Stories: Race at the Pool: The series continues with the more subtle and perhaps more significant sides to segregation.
March 19: Cville Stories: Faulkner at the University: On the dangers and benefits of listening to authors talk about their work, as the series rolls on.
March 20: Cville Stories: Dave Matthews: The many Cville and 21st century American sides to the musician who got his start in town.
March 21: Cville Stories: 21st Century Tensions: The series concludes with some personal thoughts on contemporary narratives of the town and the past.
March 22-23: The Virginia Festival of the Book: A special post on three things I’m particularly excited about when it comes to the reason for my current return to Cville—and a follow up after my event!
March 24: Caribbean Connections: Edouard Glissant: A series on Caribbean American links starts with the brilliant theorist who best analyzed those connections.
March 25: Caribbean Connections: The Haitian Revolution: The series continues with American connections to the region’s most important revolution.
March 26: Caribbean Connections: José Martí: The cross-cultural experiences, identities, and meanings of the legendary Cuban figure, as the series rolls on.
March 27: Caribbean Connections: Bob Marley: On whether an artist can really cross cultural boundaries, and why such crossings matter in any case.
March 28: Caribbean Connections: Edwidge Danticat: The series concludes with five great books by the hugely talented Haitian American writer.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered on the blog? Guest Posts you’d like to write? Lemme know!

Friday, March 28, 2014

March 28, 2014: Caribbean Connections: Edwidge Danticat

[In this month of spring breaks, lots of young (and not so young) Americans have likely made their way down to the Caribbean. But for this week’s series, I’ll be considering some of the ways in which the US and the Caribbean are connected by far more than just travel itineraries. Add your thoughts and connections in comments, please!]

On five of the many amazing books by one of the most talented and interesting Caribbean American authors (she was born in Haiti and moved to New York to join her parents at the age of 12):
1)      Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994): Danticat published her debut novel when she was only 25, and it’s stunningly powerful and affecting.

2)      The Dew Breaker (2004): I read this linked story collection/novel for the first time to include it in my next book project, and was blown away. One of the most complex and potent 21st century  novels thus far.

3)      Brother I’m Dying (2007): Danticat’s autobiography/family memoir was a finalist for the National Book Award, and deservedly so.

4)      Behind the Mountain (2002): Danticat’s first young adult novel walks a fine line very impressively, maintaining her complex themes but doing so pitch-perfectly for that younger audience.

5)      Claire of the Sea Light (2013): I haven’t had the chance to read Danticat’s newest novel yet—but with a track record like this, I know I’ll enjoy it when I do!
Of all the Caribbean connections I could highlight, I’m not sure any is more worth sharing than such a unique and talented voice. Check her out!
March recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other connections you’d share?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

March 27, 2014: Caribbean Connections: Bob Marley

[In this month of spring breaks, lots of young (and not so young) Americans have likely made their way down to the Caribbean. But for this week’s series, I’ll be considering some of the ways in which the US and the Caribbean are connected by far more than just travel itineraries. Add your thoughts and connections in comments, please!]

On whether it’s entirely possible for an artist to cross cultural borders, and why the crossing matters in any case.
Eric Clapton’s 1974 cover of Bob Marley and the Wailer’s “I Shot the Sheriff” (1973) has been recently inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. I’m very much not sure how I feel about that—Clapton’s version is certainly catchy and compelling, features some wonderful guitar work (duh), and is probably the version of the song most listeners would recognize (full disclosure: when I opened the above linked YouTube videos for each, I realized that I had only heard the Marley version once or twice, if that); but it’s not the original song, and it seems very bizarre to think about a cover entering a Hall of Fame when the original has not been included. And moreover, the original’s complex contexts seem entirely lost in Clapton’s version: Marley noted that he wanted to write “I shot the police” but changed it to sheriff in order to get in less trouble with the Jamaican government; it’s hard to imagine that Clapton had much to say about those kinds of legal, governmental, and social relationships in Jamaica.
That likely gap in social or communal awareness/perspective is hardly limited to Sir Eric, however. Many of Marley’s songs were closely grounded in his Jamaican experiences, settings, and perspectives; not just his overtly political songs such as “Redemption Song” and “Rat Race” (among many many others), but even the more seemingly universal or relationship-driven songs like the famous “No Woman No Cry.” The opening lines to that song—“I remember we used to sit/In a government yard in Trenchtown/Observing the hypocrites”—clearly mean something specific within that Jamaican world, and thus introduce Marley’s sensitive appeals to his titular female addressee through the lens of their experiences within that shared setting and community. That doesn’t mean, of course, that Marley’s many American listeners and fans can’t connect to the song, or to any song of his—but I think it would be important to consider the distinctions between those kinds of connections and the ones made by Jamaican audiences.
Yet I would also push back on any sense that such cultural distinctions, while undoubtedly present, are ultimately problematic or defining. For one thing, you’d have to say the same about (for example) country music being played in Manhattan, or Brooklyn hip hop in rural Oklahoma, and so on. For another, Marley himself expressed, in songs like “One Love,” a clear desire to transcend any cultural (or other) distinctions between peoples. And for a third—and most saliently for this week’s blog series—any and all audiences who listen to Marley can thus better connect not only to a hugely talented artist, but also to the culture and world out of which he emerged. Given the number of Americans who travel to Jamaica, as well as the number of Jamaican immigrants who have become part of the U.S. over the last century (such as Colin Powell’s parents, who arrived in the early 1920s), such cross-cultural connections between the two nations are particularly meaningful and significant. So wherever and whoever you are, you can throw on a Marley t-shirt proudly, I’d say.
Final connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other connections you’d share?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

March 26, 2014: Caribbean Connections: José Martí

[In this month of spring breaks, lots of young (and not so young) Americans have likely made their way down to the Caribbean. But for this week’s series, I’ll be considering some of the ways in which the US and the Caribbean are connected by far more than just travel itineraries. Add your thoughts and connections in comments, please!]

On the cross-cultural experiences, ideas, and meanings of the legendary activist.
As best I can tell, José Martí (1853-1895) could be accurately described as the George Washington, Tom Paine, and Phillis Wheatley of Cuba: equal parts revolutionary activist and leader, political journalist and philosopher, and poetic and artistic genius. Although he died far too young, fighting in the revolution against Spain that he had so fully helped bring about, he had already achieved more in his forty-two years, in all those different arenas and many others as well, than most of us can dream of a lifetime twice that long. And just as one of yesterday’s principal subjects, Toussaint L’Ouverture, belongs centrally to his native Haiti for which he lived and died so inspiringly, so too do Martí’s inspiring life and work clearly belong to his beloved Cuba, and I would never try to argue for an identity other than that for him.
Yet one of the more striking facts about that life is that almost exactly a third of it—most of the years between 1880 and 1894—was spent living in the United States; principally New York City, but with extensive time and travel in Florida as well. That Martí was less a voluntary immigrant than a political exile from his homeland interestingly connects him both to many 20th and 21st century Cuban Americans and to the long history of immigrant Americans who fled for political reasons and found a new home in (often) communities like New York. But while those are the some of the main reasons behind Martí’s move to the United States, they can’t possibly capture all that he experienced in that decade and a half here, what (for example) the society and world of Gilded Age New York meant to this still young man from Havana. Not at all coincidentally, Martí did much of his writing and literary work during these years, including (to cite only one telling example) translating Helen Hunt Jackson’s activist novel Ramona (1884) into Spanish.
Toward the end of his time in the U.S., Martí published his seminal essay “Our America” (1892), a breathtakingly original and vital work that manages both to capture his specifically Cuban patriotism and goals and a sweepingly trans-hemispheric vision of American identity and community. The essay is all Martí, reflective of all the different individual roles and talents, ideas and visions, that I tried to highlight in my opening paragraph and that define a truly singular person. But I can’t help but see it as well as profoundly influenced by his cross-cultural experiences, his time in New York and Florida (among many other places), his trans-Caribbean and –Atlantic travels, a life and perspective that had stretched beyond any borders or limiting categorizations. As such, I believe that there’s great value in thinking of Martí as Our Martí—not, again, removing him from his Cuban heritage and impacts, legacies and meanings, but instead in extending his meanings (just as he extended his life and work) into our U.S. histories and narratives as well.
Next connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other connections you’d share?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

March 25, 2014: Caribbean Connections: The Haitian Revolution

[In this month of spring breaks, lots of young (and not so young) Americans have likely made their way down to the Caribbean. But for this week’s series, I’ll be considering some of the ways in which the US and the Caribbean are connected by far more than just travel itineraries. Add your thoughts and connections in comments, please!]

On a few of our many interconnections with the island neighbor.
I don’t know if this is still true, but back when I was taking high school U.S. history our textbook heavily emphasized one particular stateside impact of the late 18th century Haitian Revolution: that it so significantly changed Napoleon Bonaparte’s New World empire—and perhaps more importantly his perspective on that imperial enterprise—that he was willing to sell most of the rest of the empire to the Jefferson Administration, in the transaction that came to be known as the Louisiana Purchase. Given how much that purchase impacted the new and evolving United States—not only by doubling the nation in size, but also by fundamentally changing our sense of the future and what it might include—it’s certainly fair to say on those grounds alone that Haiti and its revolution were as crucial to America’s fate as any other nation and event have been.
But on the other hand, emphasizing that effect of Haiti’s thirteen-year revolution only perpetuates the kind of US-centric vision of the hemisphere and its histories on which I’m trying to push back in this week’s series. More complex and multi-directional would be an emphasis on the way in which the island’s slave revolution affected the system of slavery in the American South, not only because it heightened (or at least provided an excuse for) regional fears of slave revolts, but also because it (and the independent nation that was its result) revealed the fundamental falsehood at the heart of most justifications for slavery: that slaves and/or African Americans were a lesser species, not fully human, incapable of meaningful collective action and community, much less of self-government. Haiti, that is, didn’t just become the first African-American nation in the new world—it did so through an organized, sustained uprising of slaves and former slaves, a community that fought off multiple waves of European response in order to carve out this new space and possibility.
There’s at least one more meaningful way to connect the Haitian Revolution to the U.S., and it involves the leaders of that uprising. A great deal has been written about the most prominent such leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and rightfully so; he’s one of the most complex, interesting, and inspiring historical figures. But I’m not sure we Americans have sufficiently considered just how precisely parallel L’Ouverture and his colleagues were to our revolutionary leaders and generation. Of course race and slavery represent significant distinctions, but to my mind the similarities are nonetheless more striking: a vastly outnumbered and overpowered small community who pushed back on a dictatorial European empire, weathered a decade of conflict and challenges and setbacks, and with the inspiration of philosophical ideals of equality and liberty succeeded in changing the course of history and producing a new nation on the world’s stage. What would it mean if we could consider our revolution as deeply similar and entirely complementary to Haiti’s? I’d respond: what wouldn’t it?
Next connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other connections you’d share?

Monday, March 24, 2014

March 24, 2014: Caribbean Connections: Edouard Glissant

[In this month of spring breaks, lots of young (and not so young) Americans have likely made their way down to the Caribbean. But for this week’s series, I’ll be considering some of the ways in which the US and the Caribbean are connected by far more than just travel itineraries. Add your thoughts and connections in comments, please!]

On the scholar who most fully helps us start to grapple with the connections.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that for most Americans, the Caribbean means, primarily or perhaps even solely, cruises and beach vacations and daiquiris with little umbrellas in them and making sure not to drink the water and etc. There’s also that whole unfortunateness about the Communist country with the (apparently) great cigars that we can’t legally smoke and the bearded dictator and the near-Nuclear War back in the day, but since Cuba isn’t an option for those cruises and beach vacations, I think it’s pretty distinct from the public consciousness of “the Caribbean” in any case. Yet the complex reality is that the Caribbean, or more exactly the many different distinct islands and nations it comprises, has been a hugely significant influence on American life (and vice versa) from literally the first 15th-century moments of European arrival (which took place on Hispaniola, present home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where Columbus first came ashore). There are, for example, the complex ways in which the Haitian Revolution followed the American one, scared the hell out of Southern slaveowners, and contributed to France selling the Louisiana Purchase to the US. Or there’s everything that Puerto Rico and Cuba meant to America’s imperialistic visions and wars at the end of the 19th century. Or our somewhat unofficial but very real and troubling relationships with dictators like the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo in the mid-20th century. And the list goes on.
It stands to reason, then, that one of the scholars and writers who can provide the most insight into our national identity and experience—but whose voice and ideas, like the historical meanings of the Caribbean itself, are vastly underappreciated or even unknown in America (at least outside of the academy, and I would argue even inside it to a degree)—hails from the Caribbean island of Martinique. That writer is Edouard Glissant, a hugely unique and impressive literary and cultural scholar and creative writer whose life very directly included links not only to his Caribbean home but also to France (where for example he was asked by President Chirac in 2006 to serve as the inaugural president of a cultural centre focused on the history of the slave trade) and to America (where for example he served as a visiting professor at the City University of New York for decades). Glissant published eight novels, at least as many books of poetry, and critical and theoretical works in a variety of disciplines, and also worked actively on behalf of counter-culture political and activist movements in both France and Martinique. He was short-listed for the Nobel Prize (in the same year that St. Lucian Derek Walcott won it—guess that was the year for Caribbean writers to be nominated) and until the end of his life in 2011 produced meaningful and compelling work in all his many genres.
But for an American audience, and more specifically for our understanding of our own history and identity, I think Glissant can be boiled down to one crucial text: his recent essay “Creolization in the Making of the Americas.” Finding this piece was one of the most significant moments for me in the research for my second book, a clear and striking affirmation that my main idea is in conversation with some of those scholars who have thought and are thinking about what defines the New World. But even if you never read my book—for shame!—you have to check out Glissant’s essay, which lays out succinctly and beautifully one of his most central ongoing arguments: that from their very origins (at least in the post-contact era), the Americas have been defined by cultural mixture, and even more importantly by the new and hybrid results of such mixtures. As Glissant puts it early in that essay, “When we speak about creolization, we do not only mean metissage: crossbreeding, because creolization adds something new to the components that participate in it.” And that’s the most crucial part of his ideas (and a big part of what I see as the stakes of defining our history and identity in this way, as both he and I would): that such creolizations are foundational and transformative for all who participate in them, making Americans, from the outset, unified across any cultural or ethnic or racial boundaries by this shared set of experiences.
It’s hard to overstate how radical such ideas were in the 1970s and 80s when Glissant was first beginning to fully articulate them. That was the era of identity politics and the rise of multiculturalism and ethnic studies departments, an era when celebrating diversity—meaning recognizing and embracing many distinct identities and histories and cultures—was becoming a national emphasis. Glissant didn’t dismiss such emphases or their political and cultural value, but he did argue, with force and conviction and precision and great power, that the diversity of the Americas has not only always been present but also has produced continual and crucial interconnections and new identities. Maybe not beach reading, but damn important stuff.
Next connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other connections you’d share?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

March 22-23, 2014: The Virginia Festival of the Book

[Following up the week’s Cville series, a special post on the reason I’m headed down there this weekend.]

On three reasons I’m very excited to be giving a talk at the Virginia Festival of the Book.
1)      My Panel: The Festival organizers have put me on a panel entitled “Hot Button Issues Facing the USA,” and I’m extremely excited to have to find new ways to frame my books (both the Chinese Exclusion Act one and the prior one on Redefining American Identity) in relationship to that kind of contemporary, controversial frame. I’ve said many times in this space that public AmericanStudies scholars have to be willing and able to make such links, but this will be one of the first chances I have to do so in a public setting, and I can’t wait.

2)      The Audience: I’ve given book talks in many different settings, but never at a book festival like this, to an audience who are assured to be broad and diverse, interested and well-read, and, I would imagine, more than willing to push back if something doesn’t seem worth their time and attention and potential investment. If I can’t make the case for my books and ideas in a setting like that, I shouldn’t be trying to make them more public; so it’s time for the rubber to hit the road, I’d say.

3)      The Home Cookin’: Along with all of that, I get to sleep in my childhood bedroom, see my childhood (and still) best friend, and hang with the folks. What more do I need to say?
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. One more time, any hometown stories or histories you’d share?

Friday, March 21, 2014

March 21, 2014: Cville Stories: 21st Century Tensions

[This coming weekend I’m headed down to my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia to take part in the Virginia Festival of the Book. More on that festival and presentation in the weekend post—but first, a series on Cville stories and histories. Share about your hometown in comments, please!]

On nostalgia, fear, and the divisions that threaten our communities, and our nation.
A few years back, I got back in touch with one of my favorite elementary school teachers (who shall remain nameless for what will be obvious reasons), and he/she connected me to a Facebook group named “You Know You’re From Charlottesville.” At first I was very excited to join the group, and to see the memories, stories, and historic photos of the city that its members shared and commented on. But it quickly became apparent that the group (led by that former teacher of mine) spent at least as much time doing two distinct but deeply interconnected things: expressing pro-Confederate versions of the Civil War and related histories; and waxing nostalgic about what had once been the case in Charlottesville, before “carpetbagger” recent politicians, immigration and diversification, and other late 20th and early 21st century trends had irrevocably changed the place. Way too much “I want my country back!” for me; I regretfully left the group and my former teacher behind.
Some of those narratives—the fears about carpetbaggers, the worries that some sort of “authentic” South is slipping away and must be reclaimed—go way back in regional and American history, of course. But I would nonetheless argue that these contemporary conversations reflect a significant and growing set of 21st century American fears, ones that I would have to connect to (among other things) both the Tea Party and the resurgence of racism in our communal debates. To cite another anecdotal observation from Facebook, I’ve been struck by how many of the white Charlottesvillians with whom I went to school frequently post stories about crimes committed (or allegedly committed) by African Americans; the debacle over a so-called “knockout game” attack on the city’s Downtown Mall earlier this year is a case in point. These pseudo-racist posts are almost always linked both to nostalgia (“How did our city turn into this?”) and other contemporary political narratives (“This is what happens when we create a class of irresponsible people dependent on the government,” for example). And they appear with striking regularity.
Charlottesville has indeed changed demographically, as I wrote in yesterday’s post—although the changes in communities like Cville have to my mind (and as I’ve argued extensively) only better reflected throughout the country our overarching, foundational national histories of diversity and multiculturalism. Moreover, it’s this other kind of change that bothers me—the change toward a more overtly divided and antagonist communal identity, one in which even many younger folks express nostalgia for racially or culturally regressive (and often mythological) identities. Racism and xenophobia and fear aren’t new on the American landscape, of course—but I’ve seen them reemerge in conversations around and about my hometown in ways that at once belie and yet are directly tied to 21st century progress. If we don’t find ways to bridge these gaps, to remind all Americans of the histories and stories—in places like Charlottesville as much as anywhere—that we share, it’s hard to feel that our cities and our nation can move toward a better and more unified future.

That special festival post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. So what do you think? Hometown stories you’d share?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

March 20, 2014: Cville Stories: Dave Matthews

[This coming weekend I’m headed down to my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia to take part in the Virginia Festival of the Book. More on that festival and presentation in the weekend post—but first, a series on Cville stories and histories. Share about your hometown in comments, please!]

On two different ways to AmericanStudy a local and global legend.
Before he was the leader of the most successful North American touring band of the 1990s, Dave Matthews was a Charlottesville story through and through. Having moved to town in 1986, at the age of 19, to join his mother, Matthews spent the next five years meeting and performing with local musicians and artists, including his first public performances, first paid performance, and even his first band, the speed metal group Devastator. In 1991 he formed the Dave Matthews Band with a group of fellow local musicians, and they performed publicly for the first time on March 14th at Trax, probably Charlottesville’s most prominent club and venue. It took another two years for the band to release its first album, Remember Two Things (1993)—but the rest, again, is history, and some of the most prominent musical history of the subsequent two decades.
One interesting way to AmericanStudy Matthews and his Band, then, is to consider the complex relationships between place and art. There seems to be no question that Matthews is the artistic and creative leader of the group, and by the time he moved to Cville his identity had been forged from a variety of places and influences, including his native South Africa, upstate New York, and even England. So did Charlottesville simply offer Matthews opportunities to hone and then share his work and talents, and would any other blossoming music scene have done the same? If we tell the story that way, we seem to be leaving out not only the many local artists who influenced Matthews over his first five years in town, but also and most importantly the group of musicians—many native Charlottesvillians, and all more fully local than Matthews—with whom he formed the Band. So perhaps it’s most accurate to say that Matthews’ story reflects what happens when an individual talent finds himself in a community full of talent, when one story intersects with a place full of them, and the art that follows from those encounters and intersections.
On a broader level, Matthews’ Cville story can help us recognize one of the most striking ways in which the city has evolved from the 1970s (when my parents moved there) to its 21st century identity: diversification, and more exactly globalization. As I noted in Tuesday’s post, race and race relations had been a part of Charlottesville for centuries, but mostly in a binary black-white context; the city was provincial enough, in the 1970s, that my Mom was stopped on the street and asked if she was a gypsy (she had long black hair, and slightly darker than pale skin). But over the next few decades, and thanks to a variety of factors—the increasing diversification of the university at both the student and faculty levels, general trends in late 20th century immigration and migration from Latin America and Asia and so on, a global refugee program housed in neighboring Albemarle County—the city and region became a truly and strikingly multi-national place. One in which, that is, a kid from South Africa forming a mixed-race band and playing their first gig in support of the Middle East Children’s Alliance isn’t an anomaly so much as an illustration.
Final Cville story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Hometown stories you’d share?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

March 19, 2014: Cville Stories: Faulkner at the University

[This coming weekend I’m headed down to my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia to take part in the Virginia Festival of the Book. More on that festival and presentation in the weekend post—but first, a series on Cville stories and histories. Share about your hometown in comments, please!]

On one ironic and one inspiring lesson to take away from the famous conversations.
For two years, between 1957 and 1958, William Faulkner served as the University of Virginia’s first Writer-in-Residence. He did quite a bit with his time in Charlottesville, but most famously and significantly he gave a series of public readings from and lectures on his career and works, including question and answer sessions with UVA students and members of the community. A few years ago, my Dad Stephen Railton and a team of digital scholars and designers produced an online, digitized archive of those public conversations, and I encourage any Faulkner fan—or anyone interested in American literature and culture and history, the craft of writing, or public performance, among other relevant topics—to spend some time losing yourself in that archive.
Before you listen to or read those lectures and conversations, however, it’s important to note that one of the ironic but central ideas I would take away from them is that artists cannot be entirely trusted when it comes to talking about their own works. Time and again, Faulkner says things about his works and career that, at best, feel drastically over-simplified, and at times feel (to this reader and FaulknerStudier, at least) blatantly inaccurate. That’s perhaps most true of his famous statements about The Sound and the Fury (1929), a novel that’s already plenty difficult enough to read and interpret without having to contend with some serious authorly misdirection. To be more generous to Faulkner, he was making those statements thirty years after publishing Sound, and so at the very least we have to treat all of his 1950s perspectives and ideas as just as another collection of primary texts to analyze, no more authoritative and certainly no more absolute than the complex works about which he’s talking.
But if we step back from the content of the conversations—which again is very interesting and well worth your time—and consider the basic fact of their existence, it’s hard not to be hugely inspired. Here was one of America and the world’s most famous artists, a Nobel Prize winner toward the end of his legendary career, coming to a university not just for the recognition or a stipend or the like, but instead to engage, deeply and extensively, with members of its community—including, indeed especially, some of its youngest members. That Faulkner did so at all is extremely impressive; that he did so numerous times over the course of two full years is unique and striking; that we now have so many ways to access, engage with, and become part of those conversations is a bit of a 21st century miracle.
Next Cville story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Hometown stories you’d share?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

March 18, 2014: Cville Stories: Race at the Pool

[This coming weekend I’m headed down to my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia to take part in the Virginia Festival of the Book. More on that festival and presentation in the weekend post—but first, a series on Cville stories and histories. Share about your hometown in comments, please!]
On one of the most insidious sites of American segregation, past and present.
I learned to swim at the intimidating, demanding, impressive, and inspiring hands of one Mr. Byers (I wish I knew his first name, but to us he was always Mr.). A big African American man with a shaved head and booming voice, Mr. Byers was definitely scary to this young 7 year old AmericanStudier; I can still remember how, if I came out of the locker room with even mildly wet hair, he would wrap my head in a towel and dry so vigorously I thought my head might come clean off. But he was also incredibly good at his job; not only at teaching young kids to swim, but also at lifeguarding: he had been struck by lightning at least a few different times while trying to get the last swimmers out of a pool as a thunderstorm arrived. And he could be tender and caring as well, both in his lessons and when the unexpected occurred—it was while at a lesson with Mr. Byers that we watched the Challenger explosion, and I distinctly remember his calming presence in that terrible moment.
Thanks to Mr. Byers, my memories of that tragic historical moment are a bit less traumatic than they might otherwise have been. But thanks to a more long-term and just as tragic American history, Mr. Byers wouldn’t have been welcome at—wouldn’t have been allowed entrance into—many of the swimming pools in his (and my) hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. De jure racial segregation endured in Charlottesville as long as it did anywhere in the South; the public schools only gave in and desegregated in the late 1960s, nearly 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education (and after closing for a year in a last-ditch effort to avoid having to desegregate). De facto segregation continued for far longer still, as illustrated by the city’s swimming pools in the early 1980s of my childhood—most of the private pools and clubs prohibited African American members or visitors, making the city’s public pools almost entirely and exclusively African American as a result. Even where the segregation was not so overt, it tended to follow this overarching trend—my family’s pool, Fry’s Spring Beach Club, had desegregated in 1968, but in my memories it was still almost entirely white (despite being located near predominantly African American neighborhoods).
We like to think that such de facto segregation is a thing of the past in America, but quite simply that’s not the case—as recent controversies involving proms, neighborhood covenants, and, yes, swimming pools amply demonstrate. But even where segregation is no longer either the law or the rule—and that’s most American places, of course—its potent legacies linger. As documented in this NPR interview and the book to which it connects, the history of race and swimming pools has produced a number of complex and ongoing effects—including the striking statistic that more than 50% of African American schoolchildren are not able to swim. Which is to say, not only would Mr. Byers have not been allowed to practice his craft at many of the pools in our shared hometown, but his lessons would also have been far less likely to make it to his young African American brethren. That’s not a history that we Americans much like to think about—but both for its own sake and for its present ramifications it’s vitally important that we do so.
Next Cville story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Hometown stories you’d share?