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Monday, February 29, 2016

February 29, 2016: Montreal Memories: The McCord Museum

[Late last year, I had a chance to spend a few days in Montreal, my first extended visit to the city. Among the many reasons I loved it was the plethora of compelling spaces and ways through which the city remembers its social, cultural, and artistic histories. So this week I’ll CanadianStudy a few such spaces, leading up to a special post on a few Canadian colleagues!]
On the best exhibit at a unique social and cultural history museum, and its complicated relationship to the whole.
Founded in 1921 by, and initially grounded in the extensive materials of, Canadian lawyer, politician, and collector David Ross McCord, Montreal’s McCord Museum has a unique mission: to reflect the city itself, to capture in a museum setting “our history, our people, our communities.” While that mission could be paralleled to other famous history museums, from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to the British Museum in London, the McCord is much more purposefully and specifically linked to its particular city than those, seeking as “a museum that mirrors a city” to “celebrate our past and present life in Montreal.” And yet because the McCord defines its city, in that same section of the museum’s mission statement, as “a city that mirrors the world,” it at the same time seeks to incorporate “an openness to the world and to issues important to Montrealers.” Achieving that balance, between the local and the global, is a complex but certainly worthwhile goal.
To my mind, the McCord Museum best achieves such a balance in the permanent exhibition “Wearing Our Identity. The First Peoples Collection.” Introduced with a map of Canada that highlights the locations of the First Peoples cultures (past and present) across the nation, along with a looped video that continually welcomes visitors in all of their respective languages, and featuring a separate video inside that details the deeply troubling Indian Act of 1876, the exhibition certainly seeks to provide a comprehensive reflection of this vital part of Canadian identity and community. Yet in the powerfully specific and individual items it presents, pieces of clothing and costume and material culture collected and narrated with the help of Algonquin artist and guest curator Nadia Myre and an Aboriginal Advisory Committee, the exhibition makes clear that neither First Peoples nor identity can be reduced to any overarching image or idea. For this visitor, at least, the exhibition offered both specific knowledge and an invitation to enter a much broader conversation, details about dozens of communities and cultures and an understanding that the histories and stories of these First Peoples and their world go far beyond the exhibition’s walls.
Just beyond those walls, of course, is the rest of the McCord Museum. Any individual museum exhibition has its own distinct identity from the space as a whole, but in this particular case I found Wearing Our Identity to be (or at least to feel) more separate from the museum than might be ideal. Part of that is simply location and the building’s floorplan: the museum’s upper floors included at least a couple exhibitions each, while putting Wearing Our Identity on the first floor (quite possibly to prioritize it) isolated it from the rest of the collection. Yet the separation was also reflected in other exhibitions, such as those on the second floor: “Montreal—Points of View,” which “explores 10 different facets of the history of Montreal” but features at best a minimal (and nearly invisible) First Peoples presence; and the fun “Mister Rabbit’s Circus,” which offers children a glimpse into “traditional toys” but once again includes (to my memory, and as always correct me if you have other info!) little to no engagement with First Peoples materials. Here in the United States, even when we remember Native American histories we tend to treat them as entirely separate from our narratives of “America” more broadly, and the Montreal and Canadian history reflected at the McCord seems to create the same split.
Next memory tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Sites of collective memory you’d highlight?

Saturday, February 27, 2016

February 27-28, 2016: February 2016 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
February 1: Football Debates: The Redskins: A Super Bowl week series starts with what’s not complicated, and what is, about name and mascot debates.
February 2: Football Debates: Adrian Peterson: The series continues with what’s not surprising about the Peterson debate, and what we must remember nonetheless.
February 3: Football Debates: Deflategate: How to AmericanStudy an over-covered story, and what we could talk about instead, as the series rolls on.
February 4: Football Debates: Missouri Activism Update: The latest twist in one of 2015’s biggest stories, and why it’s vital to resist it.
February 5: Football Debates: Banning the Sport: The series concludes with a Fitchburg State debate on whether football should be banned.
February 6-7: AmericanStudying Super Bowl L: A pair of complementary links and articles on the 2016 Super Bowl quarterbacks and American narratives.
February 8: Teacher Tributes: Alan Heimert: A Valentine’s week series on teachers I love starts with the college professor who exemplified staying in the room.
February 9: Teacher Tributes: Proal Heartwell: The series continues with the high school teacher who had mastered the art of getting through.
February 10: Teacher Tributes: It Takes a Village: Five crucial moments and teachers from whom I’ve learned along the way, as the series rolls on.
February 11: Teacher Tributes: Jeff Renye: Some of the many things I learned from my first office and officemate.
February 12: Teacher Tributes: Student Teachers: The series concludes with three things I’ve learned about from my Fitchburg State students.
February 13-14: Teacher Tributes: My FiancĂ©: A special Valentine’s weekend post on my favorite teacher!
February 15: AmericanStudying Non-favorites: To Kill a Mockingbird: My annual non-favorites series starts with what the beloved novel doesn’t do, and what it does.
February 16: AmericanStudying Non-favorites: Citizen Kane: The series continues with two very American flaws in the classic film.
February 17: AmericanStudying Non-favorites: Mad Men: The historical and American problems with the acclaimed TV series, as the series rolls on.
February 18: AmericanStudying Non-favorites: “Africa” and Graceland: The varieties of cultural appropriation in 80s pop music.
February 19: AmericanStudying Non-favorites: Low Five: The series concludes with five historical figures with whom I have a bone—or a whole skeleton—to pick.
February 20-21: Crowd-sourced Non-favorites: Another great crowd-sourced post concludes the non-favorites series—add your grievances in comments!
February 22: Rap Readings: Public Enemy and N.W.A.: A series AmericanStudying rap starts with rap and the legacy of American protest music.
February 23: Rap Readings: Eminem’s “Closet”: The series continues with Sylvia Plath, Eminem, and persona and art.
February 24: Rap Readings: Biggie and Tupac: What we can learn from one of rap’s most famous beefs, and what it leaves out, as the series rolls on.
February 25: Rap Readings: Psy and M.I.A.: Two sides to the internationalization of rap, and what the trends helps us see in ourselves.
February 26: Rap Readings: Macklemore, J. Cole, and #BlackLivesMatter: The series concludes with two contemporary rap engagements with race in America.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Topics or themes you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to write? Lemme know!

Friday, February 26, 2016

February 26, 2016: Rap Readings: Macklemore, J. Cole, and #BlackLivesMatter

[When I wrote a Thanksgiving post on Macklemore, I realized I had never written a full series AmericanStudying rap, one of the most distinctly American, and most complex and contested, musical genres. Well, that changes this week. I’d love to hear your own Rap Readings in comments! And I have to highlight here the work of Dr. Regina Bradley, AKA Red Clay Scholar, the best current scholar of all things rap and hip hop.]
On two complementary ways rap can engage and extend a social movement.
Back in that Thanksgiving post on Macklemore, I wrote about “White Privilege” (2005), the rich and thoughtful song through which he (at a very early moment in his career) considered what it means to be a white rap artist and the roles that race, culture, and identity have played and continue to play in the genre and its evolution. Well, just over a month ago Macklemore released a sequel, “White Privilege 2” (2016), and the new song is richer, more thoughtful, and more complex than the first in every way, including its use of multiple voices and perspectives, its layered engagements with Macklemore’s own identity as both a person (speaking to himself as Ben, his actual rather than stage name) and an artist, and, especially, its focus on the #BlackLivesMatter movement to ask questions about white agency, responbility, and limits not just in rap music but in American culture and society overall. Those looking to critique Macklemore as a poser or cultural appropriator will I’m sure find plenty to dislike—but to my mind, the song not only engages with precisely those issues, but also serves as a vital model for how all white Americans can support the #BlackLivesMatter movement honestly and self-critically.
It remains the case, however, that, as Macklemore put it in the first “White Privilege,” “hip hop started off on a block I’ve never been to/To counteract a struggle that I’ve never even been through.” Portraying that block and struggle quite powerfully, in both implicit and direct conversation with #BlackLivesMatter, is another recent rap album: J. Cole’s amazing 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014). Named after his childhood home in Fayetteville, North Carolina (also home to my favorite American artist, Charles Chesnutt!), Cole’s album is rivaled only by Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012) as an artistic expression of what it means to grow up and live as a young African American male in late 20th and early 21st century America. And the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the years between the albums has allowed Cole, both in his album and in his public statements and conversations, to consider those social and historical issues of race and community even more directly and fully. Indeed, alongside Ryan Coogler’s stunning debut film Fruitvale Station (2013), I would call Cole’s album the best cultural complement to the #BlackLivesMatter movement to date.
It’d be easy to see Cole’s and Macklemore’s engagements with that movement as alternatives or even competing options—and given that radio airplay and journalistic stories and the like are ultimately limited in time and scope, I would agree that often priorities have to be established (and, to be clear, that Cole’s perspective on this issue should take priority over Macklemore’s in that case). Yet as I have done in so many posts here, I would also and most importantly return to an additive rather than a competive model for our culture and collective attention and memory. Not only because our digital and multimedia moment makes it far more possible for us to listen to and share lots of songs and artists (whether they’re getting radio play or media coverage or not), although that’s an important rejoinder to my first point in this paragraph to be sure; but also because as powerful as any individual work and voice might be, there’s an even greater power in putting them in conversation and resisting what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called “the danger of a single story.” As I hope this week’s posts have reflected, rap has never been a single story, and indeed its many stories and voices are a key part of what makes it such an important American genre.
February Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other rap artists, songs, or analyses you’d share?