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Saturday, March 31, 2018

March 31-April 1, 2018: March 2018 Recap


[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
March 5: Boston Massacre Studying: Soldiers in the City: On the anniversary of the Boston Massacre, a series starts with two ways to contextualize the dynamic that precipitated the event.
March 6: Boston Massacre Studying: Crispus Attucks: The series continues with adding layers to collective memories, and what we do when we can’t know for sure.
March 7: Boston Massacre Studying: John Adams: A Founding Father’s frustrating role in the massacre’s aftermath, and why it still matters.
March 8: Boston Massacre Studying: Christopher Monk: The massacre’s sixth casualty and the vagaries of historical memory, as the series rolls on.
March 9: Boston Massacre Studying: Collective Memory Media: The series concludes with three forms of media that have contributed to our collective memories of the massacre.
March 10-11: Boston Massacre Studying: My Sons’ Thoughts: One of my favorite Guest Posts ever, featuring thoughts from my sons’ experiences learning about the massacre!
March 12-18: Spring Break: It wasn’t really Spring, but the blog took a break nonetheless—and asked for your ideas, which you can still share in comments!
March 19: Black Panther Studying: The Original Comic: A series on the blockbuster film starts with the 1960s comic and Black Power.
March 20: Black Panther Studying: Erik Killmonger: The series continues with the fascinating debates over the film’s most American character.
March 21: Black Panther Studying: Everett Ross: The film’s unfortunate change to a longstanding comic character, and his important role nonetheless.
March 22: Black Panther Studying: Gender and Violence: Two distinct but interconnected associations of gender and violence in the film, as the series rolls on.
March 23: Black Panther Studying: Liberia, Garvey, and Wakanda: The series concludes with historical and cinematic American visions of Africa.
March 24-25: Black Panther Studying: Ryan Coogler’s Films: A special weekend post on three choices that emblematize filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s unique and vital American voice.
March 26: Baseball Stories: Play for a Kingdom: An Opening Day series starts with baseball, America, and the Civil War.
March 27: Baseball Stories: The Given Day: The series continues with Babe Ruth, symbolism, and race in America.
March 28: Baseball Stories: Field of Dreams and The Brothers K: Whether baseball can help heal generational divides, as the series rolls on.
March 29: Baseball Stories: South Street: Pessimism, optimism, realism, and baseball in David Bradley’s tragicomic novel.
March 30: Baseball Stories: Boston Strong: The series concludes with the communal roles, and limits, of sports in the aftermath of tragedy.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, March 30, 2018

March 30, 2018: Baseball Stories: Boston Strong



[For this year’s Opening Day series, I’ll be highlighting individual baseball stories and AmericanStudying their contexts and meanings. Play ball!]

On the communal roles, and limits, of sports in the aftermath of tragedy.

It’s difficult (if not impossible) to argue with the idea that the 2013 Boston Red Sox became inextricably intertwined with the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. From David Ortiz’s F-bomb heard ‘round the world to the Sports Illustrated cover celebrating the Sox’s run to a World Series championship, and in countless instances in between and since, the baseball season’s surprise team was connected to the year’s most striking tragedy. And, more exactly and more crucially, the team’s success was linked to the phrase that became ubiquitous after the Marathon and that was utiilized on that SI cover: Boston Strong. The phrase became so tied to the Sox that Fenway Park’s landscapers even began mowing it into the field itself during the playoffs.

It would be at least as difficult to argue that such associations were or are problematic, or that the Sox didn’t play a communal role in helping Boston move forward after one of the worst days in the city’s history—and I don’t plan to try. Indeed, as someone who is profoundly interested in communal memories and narratives, and especially in how we deal with and move forward through our darkest histories, I found a great deal to admire in how Boston has done so in this case. There are of course no perfect answers for how we grapple with darkness, and there are flaws with any and all options, but it seems clear in this instance—as in other recent ones, such as in New York in the aftermath of 9/11—that sports had a meaningful role to play. After all, the Sox are Bostonians and citizens too, grappling (as Ortiz’s comments demonstrated) with the same questions and traumas; it’s easy to think of professional athletes as super-human, but situations like these tend to reveal our shared humanity, and there are few more significant revelations.

If I were to analyze one limitation to what sports can do and offer in such circumstances, I would do so in direct relationship to my one issue with the Boston Strong phrase: its emphasis on entirely positive responses and stories, in explicit exclusion of other, more complex and dark ones. For example, it’s fair to say that the bombings—like any such event—inspired a host of negative emotions and responses, from fear and panic to bigotry and divisiveness. Admitting and engaging with those negatives wouldn’t in any way mean that we’d have to characterize the city or community through them—simply that we need to note that shared humanity includes some of our most painful or troubling as well as our best and most inspiring qualities. And while sports are good for many things, I don’t know that they can do much to help us engage with our darkest qualities—even if the Sox hadn’t won the championship, that is, the narrative of their season would have been an inspiring and uplifting one. Rightly so, perhaps; but there’s also a need for other stories and histories, ones that can’t be mowed onto the outfield grass but that are part of us nonetheless.
March Recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other baseball stories or histories you’d highlight?

Thursday, March 29, 2018

March 29, 2018: Baseball Stories: South Street



[For this year’s Opening Day series, I’ll be highlighting individual baseball stories and AmericanStudying their contexts and meanings. Play ball!]

On pessimism, optimism, realism, and baseball.

David Bradley’s debut novel South Street (1975) is many things, often at the same time: a tragicomic farce of urban life; a romance; a crime novel; a biting satire; a raucous celebration. It opens with one of the most well-executed set-pieces you’ll ever read, features numerous unique and memorable characters, portrays its slice of Philadelphia with hyperbole and yet (to my mind) authenticity, and made me laugh out loud on more than a few occasions while keeping me in genuine suspense about the resolution of its central plotlines. Which is to say, there are lots of very good reasons to read this under-rated American novel, and lots of concurrent ways to AmericanStudy it. But among them is the unique and telling use to which it puts the Philadelphia Phillies games that serve as a near-constant backdrop in the South Street bar that’s the novel’s central setting.

On one level, the baseball games are literally and figuratively another of the novel’s jokes—the Phillies are always losing, and every new arrival to the bar simply inquires by how much they happen to be losing on this particular night. On the one night when they’re actually, miraculously ahead, the heavens refuse to cooperate, the game gets rained out, and the prospective victory is lost. Yet if these perennial losers would seem to validate the characters’ (and novel’s) most cynical and pessimistic views of their world and future, there’s a complication: the bar owner, Leo, keeps turning the games on, optimistically insistent that this time might be different. That dance, between pessimism and optimism, no joy in Mudville and Mighty Casey’s eternal possibilities, “dem bums” and “there’s always next year!,” is at the heart of much sports fandom, it seems to me—and much of American history, culture, and identity besides.

So does Bradley’s novel simply vacillate between the poles, just as it does between comedy and tragedy, humor and pathos, farce and slice of life? Not exactly, although it does make all those moves and more. I would also argue that in his portrayal of those hapless yet somehow still hopeful Phillies, Bradley has created a powerfully realistic image—not just of sports fandom, or of human nature, but of the African American community and its conflicted, contradictory, but sustained and crucial relationship to the nation. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written frequently and eloquently about the defining presence of racism and white supremacy in the American story, and how much such forces have made America a losing game for its African American citizens. Yet, undeniably and inspiringly, the vast majority of African Americans have long refused—and continue to refuse—to give in to the pessimism, have found ways to maintain an optimism about America and the future that is mirrored in Leo’s nightly return to the Phillies. There’s always next year, indeed.

Last baseball story tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other baseball stories you’d highlight?