My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December 31, 2013: 2013 in Review: Nelson Mandela

[Before we leave 2013 behind, a series on some AmericanStudies connections to a few big stories I didn’t cover in this space. Add your thoughts, on these stories and any others from the year that was!]

On a couple less prominent ways to AmericanStudy an inspiring icon.
In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, numerous commentators—including this AmericanStudier—expressed the importance of remembering a series of dark American connections to the legendary leader: the ways in which the Reagan administration had supported the South African Apartheid regime; and the concurrent ways in which numerous American politicians and pundits defined Mandela as a terrorist, as belonging in jail, and so on. Given the widespread rush to forget these histories and pretend that Mandela had always been praised by all of us, I certainly believe that we must indeed remind ourselves of just how many significant American voices and leaders were on the wrong side of history in this case, and through such reminders to consider what lessons we might learn from that reality.
But there are other, less widely expressed but just as salient AmericanStudies lessons we can take away from Mandela’s life and death. For one thing—and I’m echoing the great Ta-Nehisi Coates on this note—many of the posthumous tributes to Mandela have paralleled quite directly what I wrote in this post about Martin Luther King Jr.: focusing entirely on Mandela’s late-life embrace of nonviolence and forgiveness and unity, and ignoring his earlier and just as strongly held beliefs in utilizing, when necessary, far more angry and even violent rhetoric and action in order to fight injustice. Moreover, these aren’t just two distinct stages; just as the optimistic conclusion of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech must be contextualized in relationship to the angry criticisms voiced in the speech’s first half, so too must we understand Mandela’s appeals to nonviolence and unity in conversation with his deep-seated understanding of the limits of those strategies and goals (and, for that matter, of any strategies and goals if they’re pursued myopically or without the abilty to adjust and respond to changing circumstances).
It’s also worth noting—as a few commentators did in response to Mandela’s death—that Mandela and his African National Congress were on the US Terrorist Watch List as recently as 2008. Partly that fact reflects the kinds of specific attitudes toward Mandela and his movement (and Apartheid) that I highlighted in my first paragraph. But partly it helps us recognize something that we tend, nationally, to be quite bad at considering: how much the concept of “terrorism” represents not a category of identity or action so much as a linguistic choice; and yet how much that choice, to call (for example) Mandela a terrorist rather than an activist or freedom fighter or even militant, impacts so many other conversations and realities for all concerned. That’s not to say that there aren’t people or organizations or actions that we could accurately define as “terrorist”—but because the term does not have a set of legal standards and definitions (such as, say, “murderer”), it will always remain, even in what seem to be the most clear or salient cases, a linguistic and semantic choice, and thus one that we must always analyze and question even (especially) when it feels most obvious.
Next 2013 event tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 2013 events you’d remember?

Monday, December 30, 2013

December 30, 2013: 2013 in Review: The Marathon Bombing

[Before we leave 2013 behind, a series on some AmericanStudies connections to a few big stories I didn’t cover in this space. Add your thoughts, on these stories and any others from the year that was!]

On a couple ways to AmericanStudy an event that’s still understandably raw and delicate.
A former Fitchburg State University student was good friends with one of the four people killed in April’s bombing of the Boston Marathon finish line (both were Chinese exchange students). One of my FSU colleagues was near the finish line with her young son and was profoundly impacted by the experience.  And as a resident of Waltham, I was required to stay in my home throughout the lockdown later that week, as police searched neighboring Watertown for the surviving second bomber and brother.  All of which is to say, I know full well how much the bombing and its aftermaths affected our local communities (as well as the nation and world), and I’m well aware that even eight months later it might feel too soon to analyze and AmericanStudy the event.
But on the other hand, I’d say that’s part—if a delicate and challenging part—of the job of a public AmericanStudies scholar, to try to provide contexts and frames for even our most raw and painful moments. One such context that has interested me ever since that fateful day in April has been the question of how we remember such events, and more exactly of why we remember some tragedies far more than others. For example, two days after the Marathon bombing, a fertilizer plant in West, Texas exploded, killing 15 people and seriously injuring more than 160 others (totals higher than the bombing’s effects). Yet while the explosion received some attention in its immediate moment, it has gone virtually unremembered on the national level since, and certainly has not occupied the continual place in our conversations that the bombing has. Of course, the bombing was a premeditated and violent act, not an accident—but the Texas explosion has its own complex and controversial histories and contexts. So why do we remember murder or terrorism so much more strongly than other tragedies? A complicated, but important, AmericanStudies question for sure.
Even more complicated and delicate, but just as important, are questions about the narratives we have constructed and continue to construct of the young bombers. I’m not looking to wade into Rolling Stone territory here—that’s been done, and done, and done. But here’s a moment that stood out to me, as I followed the media coverage during my locked-down day: George Stephanopoulos was interviewing a high school class of the surviving bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and he asked her the following pair of questions: “Did he speak with an accident? Or was he Americanized?”  I’ve written before about the equation of “American” with “English-speaking,” but this moment took that equation one step further, defining an accident (a foreign one, presumably—not a Southern or Boston accent, to be sure!) as similarly outside of the definition of “Americanized.” There would be many, many ways to push back on such a narrative—which might be relatively rare in our national community, but also might not be—but perhaps the simplest would be this: it’s quite likely that most, if not all, of the Founding Fathers spoke with a British accent. So however we define “American,” accents seem utterly inseparable from it.
Next 2013 event tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 2013 events you’d remember?

Saturday, December 28, 2013

December 28-29, 2013: December 2013 Recap

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

December 2: Harrisburg Histories: The Veterans Parade: A series on Pennsylvania’s capitol city begins with the post-Civil War event that represents a low and a high in our histories.
December 3: Harrisburg Histories: Preserving Front Street: The series continues with the beauties and the limitations of maintaining an architectural legacy.
December 4: Harrisburg Histories: The Capitol Building: The lavish building that embodies a city’s contradictions, and what to do about it, as the series rolls on.
December 5: Harrisburg Histories: Communal Activism, Then and Now: One of the best parts of a city’s history, and its echo in a contemporary moment.
December 6: Harrisburg Histories: Whither American Cities?: The series concludes with some thoughts on the biggest questions about our cities.
December 7-8: Remembering Pearl Harbor: In honor of Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, a post on how we remember such infamous days.
December 9: Semester Recaps: Du Bois: A series on fall 2014 recaps starts with my special author course on W.E.B. Du Bois.
December 10: Semester Recaps: Early American Lit: The series continues with a pairing that exemplifies the best of what an American Lit survey can do.
December 11: Semester Recaps: Short Stories, Then and Now: Some of the interesting 19th and 21st century pairings in my adult learning class, as the series continues.
December 12: Semester Recaps: Approaching Theory: On what literary theory doesn’t do very well, and what it does, as reinforced by my intro to theory course.
December 13: Semester Recaps: Historical Fiction: The series concludes with three works from my favorite grad class, and what they can help us remember.
December 14-15: Semester Recaps: Book Talks: A special post following up my most recent book talks, and thinking about what the semester of talks has meant.
December 16: Representing Slavery: Uncle Remus: A series inspired by the film 12 Years a Slave starts with one of the foundational post-bellum representations of slavery.
December 17: Representing Slavery: Hattie McDaniel: The series continues with the power, limits, and possibilities of performance.
December 18: Representing Slavery: The Middle Passage: Three different ways to represent one of the most horrific American histories, as the series rolls on.
December 19: Representing Slavery: Django: Anachronism, accuracy, and what we owe to the past.
December 20: Representing Slavery: 12 Years a Slave: The series concludes with a couple takes on the opening moments of a wonderful recent film.
December 21-22: Representing Slavery: Joe Moser’s Guest Post: But it’s not done yet—a special guest post on 12 Years and its director!
December 23: AmericanStudies Wishes: A Site for the CEM: My annual holiday wishlist kicks off with the historic site I’d love to help make happen.
December 24: AmericanStudies Wishes: Reform Now!: The wishes continues with the very American reasons why we need immigration reform.
December 25: AmericanStudies Wishes: Peace on Earth: A recent controversy, a neverending story, and a Christmas wish.
December 26: AmericanStudies Wishes: My Favorite Writer: My wishes for a writer you should definitely check out in the new year.
December 27: AmericanStudies Wishes: A Great Next Step: The wishlist concludes with my hopes for th next stage in an inspiring American life.
New Year’s series starts Monday,
PS. Topics you’d like to see on the blog next month or in the new year? Guest posts you’d like to write? Lemme know!

Friday, December 27, 2013

December 27, 2013: AmericanStudies Wishes: A Great Next Step

[Each of the last couple years, I’ve expressed some holiday-season wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. I’ve still got plenty on my list, so this year I’ll share five more wishes. Add your own in comments, please! And happy holidays!]

On my hopes for the next stage in an inspiring American life.
The oft-quoted, and perhaps misquoted, F. Scott Fitzgerald line that “there are no second acts in American lives” is totally, utterly inaccurate. Many of the inspiring Americans I’ve written about in this space had multi-act lives, full of distinct and equally meaningful stages. And high on that list would be my Mom, Ilene Railton, whose multi-act American life has included, among many other stages: a childhood in Malden, Mass. as the daughter of second-generation Jewish American immigrants; an undergraduate major in Anthropology at Barnard College; a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Bank Street College of Education; numerous jobs in the field as a preschool teacher, day care center director, child care resource and referral officer, and more; marriage and motherhood and grandmotherhood; and, most recently, a decade of work with Virginia’s Bright Stars program.
Last week my Mom retired from that job with Bright Stars, her last full-time gig in that forty-year career in early childhood education. It’s been, as she’s said many times, a perfect last job, incredibly exhausting and incredibly rewarding, tied to all her prior jobs and experiences in the field but also linked to numerous new and evolving American communities, issues, and pressing questions. I know for a fact that she has impacted hundreds (at least) of young children and their families, and that they have all likewise impacted her. And I know that she won’t ever entirely disconnect from this kind of work and these communities and issues, that she will always find ways to volunteer, to offer her time and energy, to make a difference in the lives of the families and kids for whom she has worked so consistently throughout these four decades.
But on the other hand, it’s time for what’s next! So, AmericanStudies Elves, my final wish for this holiday season is that my Mom find next stages and steps that challenge her, enrich her, give her new horizons and opportunities and possibilities. She’s already signed up for a writing class in the spring, and I can’t wait to read more of her work, and to get to share it in this space when it makes its way out into the world. But whatever her next act holds, I wish it be everything she deserves, and I know it’ll be as inspiring as all that’s come before.
December Recap this weekend,
PS. Wishes you’d share?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

December 26, 2013: AmericanStudies Wishes: My Favorite Writer

[Each of the last couple years, I’ve expressed some holiday-season wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. I’ve still got plenty on my list, so this year I’ll share five more wishes. Add your own in comments, please! And happy holidays!]

On the contemporary writer whom you should definitely check out in the new year—and yeah, I’m biased, but it’s still true.
One of this blog’s central goals, from its earliest posts into this now fourth year of existence, has been to highlight American writers with whom we should all be a lot more familiar. Charles Chesnutt. Sarah Piatt. Carlos Bulosan. Sui Sin Far. Catherine Maria Sedgwick. William Apess. I could go on—oh, could I go on—but you get the idea: American literary history is full of incredibly talented and important voices with whom we barely engage at all, even into this multicultural, canon-broadening 21st century moment. And while there are many valuable communal and social and historical reasons we should read these folks, the strongest argument is also the simplest: they’re great, and well worth your time on their own terms even if you don’t care about any of those contexts or connections.
I say that to say this: there are certainly contexts and connections for the writer I’m sharing in today’s post that it’s important for me to note. For one thing, she’s my girlfriend. For another, related thing, I happen to know that she manages to find the time and space to write in a life full of other impressive responsibilities and interests: as a single mother to two young kids, while working full-time in marketing and promotions at a major transporation company, and while making her own jewelry to sell at craft shows, to name only three of those other pulls on her time and energy. But while knowing all those contexts and connections makes me that much more impressed that in the last year Jessica Afshar has started a writing blog, gotten multiple poems and short stories published, and gotten well into the work on her first novel, the truth is this: her talent, like that of the folks I highlighted above, speaks for itself.
So AmericanStudies Elves, my wish for today is two-part: that Jess keeps finding the time and space to write (with some help from her friends); and that she can find audiences with whom to share her talents and work. She deserves it!
Next wish tomorrow,
PS. Wishes you’d share?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

December 25, 2013: AmericanStudies Wishes: Peace on Earth

[Each of the last couple years, I’ve expressed some holiday-season wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. I’ve still got plenty on my list, so this year I’ll share five more wishes. Add your own in comments, please! And happy holidays!]

On the situation that seems irresolvable, and my wish for it nonetheless.
Earlier this month, I signed my name to a letter opposing the American Studies Association’s proposed boycott of Israeli universities and academic institutions. By the time this piece posts, the ASA general membership’s vote on the boycott will have been completed (INSIDE BASEBALL SEE HOW THE SAUSAGE GETS MADE BLOG SPOILER ALERT: I’m writing this on December 11th, the vote closes on December 15th, and I’ll add the result as a PPS to this post so it can at least be part of any continuing conversation), and so my stance on it will be a relatively moot point; for that reason, and because it’s not the principal thrust of this post (nor exactly in the holiday spirit), I’m not going to get into why I oppose the boycott here (although of course I’d be happy to discuss it further, whether in comments, by email, or in any other way).
Whatever the results of the ASA vote, it doesn’t seem likely to me that this action—nor, to be honest, any action or inaction an organization like this could take—would have any effect on the situation between Israel and the Palestinians. One of the more striking moments from a childhood watching classic films with my Mom was when we watched the film based on Leon Uris’ novel Exodus (1958); I’m sure it wasn’t the only nor even a particularly intended effect, but what stood out to me was the stark realization that conflict and violence have been integral to Israel’s existence since even before the nation was founded, and I’ll admit that it’s very difficult for even this optimist to imagine a future for the nation and region that isn’t similarly war-torn. To quote the best song I know about that conflict, Steve Earle’s “Jerusalem”: I woke up this mornin' and none of the news was good/Death machines were rumblin' 'cross the ground where Jesus stood/And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way/And there was nothin' anyone could do or say.”
Yet Earle’s next lines push back on that version of history, and the speaker instead “look[s] into my heart to find/That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham/Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem.” So AmericanStudies Elves, on this holiday that has for so long been associated with peace on Earth and goodwill toward men, I wish that Earle’s belief will come to be, and that even the most deeply rooted of human conflicts can move toward a different and better future. Merry Christmas if you celebrate, happy holidays if you don’t, and peace be with you in any case.
Next wish tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this wish? Wishes you’d share?

PPS. Per a December 16th update, the boycott resolution passed, with about 2/3rds of the 1250 voters voting in favor of it.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

December 24, 2013: AmericanStudies Wishes: Reform Now!

[Each of the last couple years, I’ve expressed some holiday-season wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. I’ve still got plenty on my list, so this year I’ll share five more wishes. Add your own in comments, please! And happy holidays!]

On the change that needs to occur—not for political reasons, but for American ones.
I’ve written before, pretty recently in fact, about the ways in which—despite my earnest desire to keep from connecting my Chinese Exclusion Act book to any one political argument in the present—a more accurate knowledge of the histories of American immigration and immigration law seems clearly to lead to particular positions on those contemporary policy debates. Or, at the very least, I would argue—and indeed do in the book’s most present-minded section, the Conclusion—that many of our most prominent immigration policies, today and for the last few decades, reflect a profound gap between those histories and our understandings of immigration in America. Chief among those (to my mind) misguided present policies are the federal government’s ongoing and even increasing deportation efforts and the equally amplified militarization of the southern border, both of which, whatever arguments might be made for them in the present, are strikingly out of step with the long arc of American immigration and legal history.
Again, I don’t want to use this space to advocate for any one position—as I wrote in that above-linked post, it’s undeniably the case that for much of American history our borders and immigration policies have been entirely open, but of course that isn’t necessarily an argument for any present or future policies—so much as to insist that we need, collectively and socially as well as politically, to rethink both our narratives of immigration and our general approach to the issue. Far too often, not only in informal conversation and debate but at the highest levels of our government, from town halls and state legislatures to Congress and the Supreme Court, immigration policy is framed as a war, as a problem in desperate need of solving, as a broken system in a state of crisis—and while those latter definitions might make sense if we were talking about the millions of immigrant Americans forced to live in horrific and destructive poverty, with no possibility of changing or bettering their situation, we’re most definitely not doing so, unless we’re actively characterizing them as the enemy in the war, the problem that needs redress, the “illegals” who need deportation.
So AmericanStudies Elves, my second wish this year is for immigration reform—not just of our policies, but also and even more fundamentally of our narratives and perspectives. If we start to recognize more accurately and with more complexity the longstanding histories of immigration and law and diversity, and if we start concurrently to think about what are the real current problems (as opposed to those created by the misunderstandings and inaccurate narratives and false perspectives on our history and community), we’ll be doing more than just setting the stage for policy reform. We’ll also be changing, for the better, the ways we talk about one of the most defining American communities and stories, now as well as throughout our past.
Next wish tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this wish? Wishes you’d share?

Monday, December 23, 2013

December 23, 2013: AmericanStudies Wishes: A Site for the CEM

[Each of the last couple years, I’ve expressed some holiday-season wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. I’ve still got plenty on my list, so this year I’ll share five more wishes. Add your own in comments, please! And happy holidays!]

On the unbuilt historic site that I’d love to help make happen.
Hartford, Connecticut is already home to a couple of America’s most famous historic or cultural sites: the Mark Twain House and the Harriet Beecher Stowe House, both located in the city’s historic and picturesque Nook Farm neighborhood. Both houses are great, and I recommend a visit to both (which can and should be accomplished at the same time, as they’re next door to each other and speak to each other in interesting and important ways). But over the last year or so, as two of my ongoing scholarly interests have intersected—the 2016 Northeast MLA conference, for which I’ll be President and which will be held in Hartford; and the story of Yung Wing and his Chinese Educational Mission, which was housed in the city and about which I wrote a good deal in my recent book—I’ve come to feel that Hartford needs another historic and cultural site, and it needs it now.
The complex, inspiring, and profoundly American stories of Yung and of his CEM students unfolded around the country and world, from the Chinese communities out of which they all came to the many New England towns where they studied, from Washington DC where Yung volunteered for the Union Army during the Civil War to San Francisco where the CEM baseball team played its final, triumphant but ironic game. But it was in Hartford where Yung settled with his wife, Avon (CT) woman Mary Kellogg, helped raise their two sons, Morrison and Bartlett, and (per his New York Times obituary) passed away in 1912; and it was in Hartford that Yung decided to construct the Educational Mission’s headquarters and that thus served as a central American home for the 120 CEM students during their near-decade in the US (between 1872 and 1880). Moreover, just as Twain’s and Stowe’s lives included and impacted many places and communities but have been focalized in their Hartford historic sites, so too do Yung and the Chinese Educational Mission need a particular place to be most fully remembered—and there’s no better American place to do so than Hartford.
There’s just one problem—I have no idea how to get started advocating for the creation of a historic site; and it’s a particularly difficult and challenging time even for well-established and longstanding such sites, much less for not-yet-constructed or even –envisioned ones. Okay, maybe that’s more than just one problem. But it’s also where the AmericanStudies Elves come in. So Elves, I have, well, more than one wish: that I can find ways to connect to multiple communities who would have an interest and stake in helping make a CEM site happen (from fellow AmericanStudiers to the Chinese American community, the Connecticut Historical Society, and the Define American project, among many others); and that I can live to see Yung Wing and the Chinese Educational Mission remembered in a Hartford site that does justice to their amazing American stories.
Next wish tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this wish? Wishes you’d share?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

December 21-22, 2013: Representing Slavery: Joe Moser’s Guest Post on 12 Years a Slave

[A couple weeks ago I finally had the chance to see the amazing film 12 Years a Slave, one of the greatest American cultural representations of slavery. In this week’s series I’ve AmericanStudied some other cultural representations, leading up to two posts on 12 Years—one from me yesterday, and this special guest post!]

[I’ve written recently about my English Studies colleague Joe Moser. Joe wrote two great paragraphs toward the end of his book on director Steve McQueen’s two earlier films, and I asked his permission to quote those paragraphs here. And then he’s following them with two brand new paragraphs giving part of his take on 12 Years! Add your thoughts on the film in comments, please!]
[Quoting Joe’s book:] “Productively complicating this artistic landscape further is another phenomenal Irish film from 2008, Hunger. This is the work of Steve McQueen (b. 1969), also a Londoner, who is the son of West Indian immigrants. A renowned photographer and fine artist, McQueen transitioned to cinema to craft his visceral interpretation of the IRA hunger strikes at the Maze Prison in 1981. An astounding, revelatory debut, Hunger is by equal turns horrifying and breathtaking, as well as restrained and careful in its attention to the humanity of pro-British guards and IRA prisoners alike.
McQueen followed up Hunger with a second collaboration with the versatile and enigmatic Michael Fassbender, the Irish-German actor who portrayed hunger striker Bobby Sands with harrowing depth and conviction. Their 2011 film Shame is another meditation on human degradation—one that reveals, through its portrait of sex addiction, the angst and excesses of modern Western masculinity with unflinching, clinical precision and insight. Fassbender’s Irish-American protagonist, Brandon, spends much of the film plundering New York City for increasingly lurid erotic stimulation, leading him to the brink of psychological breakdown and alienating him from his only close human connection, his fragile sister, whom Brandon abandons in her time of direst need. McQueen’s film leaves viewers in a Beckettian state of penultimacy, wondering if someone as damaged and self-destructive as Brandon, so far gone down the road of addiction, can ever lead a remotely normal, healthy life again. The movie is a devastating critique of the half-truths, self-deceptions and outright lies upon which patriarchal masculinity relies to maintain its ascendancy.”
[Joe’s new paragraphs:] “McQueen’s third feature film, 12 Years a Slave (2013), is at once his most accessible and challenging film. Whereas Hunger’s portrayal of Bobby Sands is ripe for misinterpretation in some key respects, 12 Years offers few comforting illusions of masculine moral agency for viewers. The earlier film has been attacked by some critics and admired by others as a valedictory portrayal of an ambiguous historical figure (Bobby Sands); those who ignore McQueen’s sympathetic portrayal of the IRA prisoners’ adversary, the conflicted Long Kesh guard played by Stuart Graham, will fundamentally misunderstand the film. On the other hand, from its opening scene, 12 Years a Slave confronts viewers with the essential psychological horror of slavery: the systematic destruction of any individual will to resist and the coopting of humane men and women into acts of brutality and subjugation. McQueen amplifies the terror of Solomon Northup’s ordeal by rendering familiar scenes and tropes of American literature and film atrociously unfamiliar and pregnant with dread, including pivotal riverboat voyages, noble defenses of vulnerable women, benevolent authority figures confronting abusive underlings, and ingenious escape plans and attempts. Viewers able to endure the succession of visceral shocks wrought by the film’s first hour, however, will likely settle into a slightly more conventional latter half, as Solomon and his female counterpart, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), contend with their mercurial, tormented, vicious master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, once again). This is no fault of the film, and the imbalanced battle of wills between Epps and his chattel Solomon and Patsey builds to a shattering but admirably restrained climax.
If McQueen has erred in his handling of this breakthrough film, it is only in his marketing efforts. While promoting 12 Years a Slave to the brilliant satirist and tongue-in-cheek Southern apologist Stephen Colbert on cable television, McQueen touts his film as “a true story about an American hero.” With all due respect—tremendous respect—I emphatically disagree. The director’s greatest artistic coup with this work is the manner in which he assiduously pares away any notion of heroism and shows an oppressive system for precisely what it is: an authoritarian affront to human dignity and a concerted effort to turn its victims into degraded mirror images of its perpetrators. Fittingly, then, the film’s most intense moment of liberation parallels a demoralizing concession and betrayal from the opening act. In this sense, one of the most notable outlying critical opinions of 12 Years, that of Slant Magazine’s Ed Gonzalez, gets the film exactly right (in his two-star review): “Solomon almost appears deaf to the world. This is because the film practically treats him as passive observer to a litany of horrors that exist primarily for our own learning.” I completely agree that Solomon is frequently characterized by passivity, but regrettably, Gonzalez fails to appreciate McQueen’s scrupulous intelligence and artistic (as well as educational) purpose in holding his protagonist, and vicariously, his viewers, in that agonizing condition for the duration. Even the lone white abolitionist depicted in the movie—a carpenter (Brad Pitt) working briefly on Epps’ plantation—finally answers Solomon’s plea for help with a muted promise of action punctuated by the caveat: “I am afraid.” By the film’s close, we are all afraid—of freedom as well as bondage. Indeed, Solomon’s tragedy, and that of millions of others coopted into oppressive systems, is that survival and the hope of freedom ultimately depend on passivity and deafness to the suffering of others, on repressing the capacity for moral agency, much less heroism. It is McQueen’s monumental achievement that he has crafted a Hollywood film that cuts straight to the heart of this painful, damning truth.”
Special Holiday series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? I’ll add other takes on the film I get in comments—please feel free to do the same!

Friday, December 20, 2013

December 20, 2013: Representing Slavery: 12 Years a Slave

[A couple weeks ago I finally had the chance to see the amazing film 12 Years a Slave, one of the greatest American cultural representations of slavery. In this week’s series I’ll AmericanStudy some other cultural representations, leading up to two posts on 12 Years—one from me, one a special guest post! SLIGHT SPOILERS for the opening of the film in this post.]

On two distinct and equally powerful ways to read one of the film’s first images of slavery.
12 Years a Slave opens (before the title card comes on screen) with a striking short prelude, a series of moments/vignettes set during (what we will later realize is) a random period of Solomon Northrup’s time in slavery. The accumulated moments highlight many sides to the daily realities and details (as well as brutalities and oppressions) of slavery, but culminate in a particularly surprising one: the female slave sleeping next to Solomon on a crowded floor wordlessly implores him to touch her and give her pleasure, and he does so, after which they silently roll apart and turn away from each other. And this moment is immediately juxtaposed with an even more striking shift, to a wordless scene of a younger Solomon and his wife lying in bed together, holding and looking at each other with tenderness and love; after this idyllic image is held for a few seconds the title card comes up and the film’s more chronological narrative begins.
The most overt, and certainly an accurate and salient, way to read these juxtaposed images is through their stunning contrasts, not only in tone and theme, but in every sensory detail: Solomon and his wife are dressed in fine, comfortable clothes, lying on a large and pillowy mattress, bathed in light, silent because no words need be spoken in a moment like this; Solomon and the slave woman are dressed in rags, lying on a dirty floor in the darkness, trying to stay silent for safety and survival. The fact that it is Solomon in both moments and images only heightens the sense of contrast, and foreshadows very succinctly and perfectly the thorough and horrific shift that he will undergo when he is kidnapped from his comfortable and happy free life into the depths of the slave South. What makes Solomon’s unique narrative and story so potent is precisely these contrasts, the way in which his prior life and identity could so full reveal the absolute horrors and inhumanities of the slave system. And as with so many choices in McQueen’s economical film, these two juxtaposed images present those contrasts more evocatively than any extended exposition ever could.
But on the other hand, if we see Solomon as somehow more human or more tragic than any and every other slave, we miss another crucial theme of the film, one likewise introduced through this opening image: that every slave was a human being, with all the complex needs and desires and emotions and thoughts and soul that all humans possess. It’s easy to say that, but (I would argue) very hard to really wrap our heads around it, around the recognition that all the millions and millions of American slaves were complex individuals (so were the slaveowners, of course, but that’s a topic for another day).  By introducing, as the first individual fellow slave of Solomon’s, this woman desperate for any kind of human contact, as well as for a moment of selfish (in an entirely understandable sense) pleasure, McQueen immediately and irrevocably establishes this shared humanity. Which is to say, this unnamed fellow slave is not all contrasted to Solomon and his wife in that other image—her situation may be the exact opposite of theirs, but she is far more similar to than different from them (and me, and you). Another vital theme of Solomon’s story and McQueen’s film, and one likewise highlighted from these opening moments on.
Guest post on the film and its director this weekend,
PS. What do you think?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

December 19, 2013: Representing Slavery: Django

[A couple weeks ago I finally had the chance to see the amazing film 12 Years a Slave, one of the greatest American cultural representations of slavery. In this week’s series I’ll AmericanStudy some other cultural representations, leading up to two posts on 12 Years—one from me, one a special guest post!]

On anachronism, accuracy, and what we owe to the past.
Reading Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990) was one of the most discordant experiences of my AmericanStudying life. Johnson’s novel is a National Book Award-winning historical novel, and a nautical adventure story and first-person narrative of self-discovery to boot; which is to say, a book aimed at multiple Ben sweetspots. Yet it didn’t do much of anything for me, and if I had to say why, the answer would be a pretty simple one: anachronism. It’s not just that Johnson’s narrator, Rutherford Calhoun, uses terms like brontasaurus and astronaut that had not yet come into existence in the novel’s 1830 setting. It’s that these linguistic anachronisms reflect a broader, entirely purposeful choice on Johnson’s part: to create a narrator and character who is distinctly more modern than the novel’s historical setting, who feels anachronistic by design to the period and to histories of slavery, the slave trade, and other antebellum American experiences.
In the interview available at that latter hyperlink, Johnson calls his use of these anachronisms both an attempt “to close the distance between the past and the present” and “a kind of ironic winking at the reader.” Similarly dual purposes, thematic and stylistic, seem clearly to animate Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), a film that uses both the scores to 1970s film Westerns and 21st century rap songs as the musical accompaniment to its depiction of a mid-19th century America that seems at one and the same time Southern and Western, antebellum and contemporary, mythic and realistic, boundary-pushing on multiple levels. Along with closing the distance and ironicallly winking, I’m sure Tarantino would argue—and likely has, although I have a hard time watching his interviews—that his film’s anachronisms help him create, in his two central slave characters Django and Broomhilda, figures who explode any stereotypical or mythic images of slavery, replacing them with a badass action hero and his German-speaking idealized beauty of a wife.
I don’t think that either a novel or a film has a necessary responsibility to be accurate to the past, either in small details (like word choices and musical accompaniments) or big ones (like the historical realities of the slave system); these texts are created to entertain and engage, and if we look to them for education in any overt sense, we’re likely setting them and ourselves up for failure. But on the other hand, I would disagree with Johnson that such inaccuracies or anachronisms close the distance between the past and the present—quite the opposite, they create more of a distance, reinforcing our present perspectives and world at the expense of a possible connection to this distant period. And so while Rutherford and Django might feel more positive or heroic than prior slave characters and stereotypes, they’re no less mythical, no less an artificial construction imposed on these histories for present purposes. And I do believe that we owe our pasts—and especially our darkest pasts—an attempt to engage them as best we can on their own terms, rather than to manipulate or reshape them (even with the best of intentions). On that score, both Johnson and Tarantino fall short.
First 12 Years post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

December 18, 2013: Representing Slavery: The Middle Passage

[A couple weeks ago I finally had the chance to see the amazing film 12 Years a Slave, one of the greatest American cultural representations of slavery. In this week’s series I’ll AmericanStudy some other cultural representations, leading up to two posts on 12 Years—one from me, one a special guest post!]

On the innovative and impressive lengths to which writers will go to capture one of our most horrific histories.
I know this is a strange way to start a post, but I can still remember how impressed I was when Alex Haley stripped down to his underwear. Toward the end of Haley’s Roots (1976), the author details his painstakingly thorough research into the life of his slave ancestors, and particularly into the book’s main protagonist, Kunta Kinte, who was kidnapped into slavery in Africa and brought to the Americas as part of the Middle Passage. In an effort to get slightly closer to the experience of that horrific journey, Haley stripped down and climbed into the crowded hold of a freight ship, imagining himself in his tiny space surrounded by a sea of enchained, enfeebled, sick and death-ridden and terrified fellow slaves, not knowing whether he would survive nor where he was headed if he did. As Haley freely admits, the act might seem silly, both literally and in its distance from the Middle Passage itself—but it also symbolizes nicely Haley’s willingness to do whatever he could to imagine himself back into his family’s, people’s, and our national past; a willingness that certainly resulted in a highly detailed and hugely compelling work of autobiographical and historical fiction.
It’s difficult to imagine getting any closer to the details and specifics of the Middle Passage than did Haley, in his own action and in the resulting section of the book. But details and specifics are only part of a historical event, of course, and not necessarily the most evocative or significant part. And other American authors have made equally interesting stylistic choices in an attempt to capture other, more ephemeral but no less meaningful sides to the Middle Passage. Robert Hayden’s dense and demanding poem “Middle Passage” (1962), for example, utilizes numerous and varied formal elements to capture the passage’s many voices and identities: direct quotes from journals and letters (written by not only slaves but also slavers, other sailors, and more); the Biblical names of slave ships juxtaposed with passages from Scripture; an extended quote from Shakespeare that echoes many of the passage’s themes; Hayden’s own highly poetic and evocative language and descriptions. The poem does not, to my mind, capture much at all (nor does Hayden intend to) the experience or emotions for any one slave—but it portrays the whole communal experience with deep and real power, and contextualizes it in a longer literary, cultural, and human history at the same time. Certainly both of those effects are likewise key to remembering the Middle Passage.
Yet so too is that individual side, and while Haley’s book does a great job conveying all the details of what an individual slave might have experienced, I don’t know that his journalistic style is quite able to capture the emotions and effects of those experiences. For that, I’d highlight a brief but crucial section of one of the most prominent American historical novels: Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). Beloved is about the whole of slavery, among many other weighty American themes, but in one particularly complex, dazzling, and important passage Morrison makes it very specifically about the Middle Passage; the passage, which represents the only section in which Morrison uses her stream of consciousness style to portray the perspective of the ghostly title character during her experiences after being killed and before coming back to life (spoilers, sorry!), locates that character on the Middle Passage, even though neither she nor any of the novel’s other characters actually experienced the journey. There are thematic and historical effects to that choice, making clear how much the passage served as a formative and foundational experience for—a ghost that haunted, if you will—all that followed in slavery, for African Americans, for America, and so on. Yet Morrison’s hugely compelling stream of consciousness style also simply captures the passage, the feel and emotions and moments of it, in a way that neither of those other talented authors quite accomplishes for me.
Next representations tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?