My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Friday, December 3, 2021

December 3, 2021: Project Gutenberg at 50: The Marrow of Tradition

[2021 marks the 50th birthday of Project Gutenberg, the amazing web resource for full texts from across literary and cultural history. So this week I wanted to share a handful of the American literary works you can read in full on PG—add yours for a crowd-sourced weekend reading list, please!]

Did you really think I wouldn’t end this series with a plea for you to read, free and in full on Project Gutenberg, my favorite American novel, Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901)?!

Crowd-sourced reading list this weekend,

Ben

PS. So one more time: What would you add to our reading list?

Thursday, December 2, 2021

December 2, 2021: Project Gutenberg at 50: The Squatter and the Don

[2021 marks the 50th birthday of Project Gutenberg, the amazing web resource for full texts from across literary and cultural history. So this week I wanted to share a handful of the American literary works you can read in full on PG—add yours for a crowd-sourced weekend reading list, please!]

There are few American novels I’ve written about more often than Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don (1885)—and as much as I’d love to hear your thoughts on those many pieces of mine, I’d be even more excited to hear that you’ve had the chance to read and respond to this Mexican American historical novel of 19th century California itself!

Last Project Gutenberg reading tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What would you add to our reading list?

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

December 1, 2021: Project Gutenberg at 50: The House of the Seven Gables

[2021 marks the 50th birthday of Project Gutenberg, the amazing web resource for full texts from across literary and cultural history. So this week I wanted to share a handful of the American literary works you can read in full on PG—add yours for a crowd-sourced weekend reading list, please!]

Speaking of historical romances (as I was in yesterday’s post), I don’t know any American text that more thoughtfully considers that complicated genre than does the Preface to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851). And while the novel that follows isn’t nearly as perfectly constructed as The Scarlet Letter (1850), I’d argue that besides being far less well-known, it’s also more interesting on some pretty key American themes. Read it on PG and see what you think!

Next Project Gutenberg reading tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What would you add to our reading list?

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

November 30, 2021: Project Gutenberg at 50: Ramona

[2021 marks the 50th birthday of Project Gutenberg, the amazing web resource for full texts from across literary and cultural history. So this week I wanted to share a handful of the American literary works you can read in full on PG—add yours for a crowd-sourced weekend reading list, please!]

Helen Hunt Jackson’s historical novel Ramona (1884) complicatedly links realism and the romance, as illustrated by the longstanding Southern California pageant which portrays the novel’s idealized romance without necessarily engaging with its tragic Native American histories. But as with so many complex literary works (and just about all of the other literary works as well), those ambiguities are all the more reason to read and respond for yourself—and fortunately when it comes to Ramona, you can do so for free on PG!

Next Project Gutenberg reading tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What would you add to our reading list?

Monday, November 29, 2021

November 29, 2021: Project Gutenberg at 50: American Indian Stories

[2021 marks the 50th birthday of Project Gutenberg, the amazing web resource for full texts from across literary and cultural history. So this week I wanted to share a handful of the American literary works you can read in full on PG—add yours for a crowd-sourced weekend reading list, please!]

Following up last week’s post on indigenous voices, I wanted to start this series with one of my favorite texts by a Native American author, and one of the most compelling multi-genre literary works in American history: Zitkala-Ŝa’s American Indian Stories (1921). From memoirs and essays to folktales and fiction, this book from one of the most impressive and inspiring Americans exemplifies autoethnography and is a must-read for all 21st century Americans.

Next Project Gutenberg reading tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What would you add to our reading list?

Saturday, November 27, 2021

November 27-28, 2021: Emily Lauer’s Guest Post on Afrofuturism in Museums

[I’ve been fortunate enough to share a couple Guest Posts from my NeMLA colleague and friend Emily Lauer, and am excited to share another this weekend!]

In New York City on Museum Mile, both the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art now feature Afrofuturist rooms. At the Cooper Hewitt, the temporary exhibit is called “Jon Gray of Ghetto Gastro Selects” and the museum’s website explainsthat this “Selects” room “is the 19th installation in the exhibition series that invites designers, artists, architects and public figures to explore and interpret Cooper Hewitt’s collection of more than 215,000 objects. The exhibition will be on view [through]  Feb. 13, 2022.” A few blocks down at the Met, “’Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room’” opened on November 5th of this year, and will be an ongoing exhibit, nestled amongst other period rooms.

 

Both of these exhibits are richly imagined and immersive, as one might expect from their hosting institutions. Further than that, I was interested to realize that they both imagine Afrofuturism similarly. Each concocts a speculative scenario in which free, relatively comfortable and homed Black people intentionally enact the role of the museum, adventuring around time and/or space to gather items that are then put on display.

 

At the Cooper Hewitt, Jon Gray’s premise is that a post apocalyptic future has a Black adventurer gathering artifacts from the ruins, and those artifacts are displayed in this gallery. At the Met, the premise of the room is that the people who lived in Seneca Village discovered time travel and the “period room” is full of the residents’ finds they’ve gathered while time traveling.

 

Just as Hollywood loves making movies about Hollywood, and authors love writing novels about authors, so too it should not be surprising that the speculative fiction scenarios of museums feature their protagonists enacting the role of the museum. Of course the scenarios envisioned for these rooms make good use of the setting of their fictions, but in doing so they are offering one very specific take on what Afrofuturism is. If either of these rooms was a visitor’s first exposure to the idea of “Afrofuturism,” the visitor would come away with an incomplete understanding of the concept.

 

By envisioning Afrofuturist protagonists enacting the role of the museum, both rooms seem to imply that Afrofuturism is concerned with collecting and exalting vestiges of the past. In fact, many Afrofuturist visions don’t do that and the relationship between Afrofuturism and museums is more fraught in pop culture than implied by these rooms.

 

For instance, think of the scene in the 2018 film Black Panther when Killmonger liberates an African artifact held by a western museum, immediately using it. Or even more analogously, consider how Janelle Monae’s music video for Q.U.E.E.N. from 2013 explicitly features time-traveling rebels “frozen in suspended animation” in a “living museum” who break free of these bonds, perhaps the opposite of the premise of the Afrofuturist rooms currently on display on Museum Mile.

 

Thus, these rooms seem like they are explicitly looking for ways that museums could take part in a Afrofuturist vision. Instead of seeing the museum as the pillaging colonizing force, or a symbol of stultifying repression, the Cooper Hewitt and the Met want to see themselves, and their roles as museums, in more positive ways. Both of their Afrofuturist rooms, therefore, have the effect of putting the museum’s role on a kind of pedestal by imagining the protagonists of their Afrofuturist visions engaging in museum behavior, a “cool” way to see curatorship, and a way to see curatorship as cool.

 

If the video for Q.U.E.E.N. might be said to be Afrofuturism for musicians, both the new immersive rooms at the Cooper Hewitt and the Met might be said to be Afrofuturism for museums.

[Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Museums or museum spaces you’d highlight?]

November 27, 2021: November 2021 Recap

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

November 1: Action Figures: John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart: A series inspired by Charles Bronson’s 100th birthday kicks off with the film that complicates two Hollywood lives and legacies.

November 2: Action Figures: Gordon Parks and Shaft: The series continues with how one of our greatest artists helps us analyze the problems and possibilities of Blaxsploitation.

November 3: Action Figures: Charles Bronson and Death Wish: On Bronson’s birthday, one famous contemporary legacy of his watershed role, and a surprising 21st century echo.

November 4: Action Figures: Arnie and Sly: What differentiated the 80s action superstars and one important parallel, the series shoots on.

November 5: Action Figures: Black Widow: The series concludes with how the recent Marvel film echoes yet also revises a frustrating longstanding action trope.

November 6-7: Crowd-sourced Action Figures: The latest installment of one of my favorite parts of the blog, crowd-sourced weekend posts!

November 8-12: 11 Years of AmericanStudying!: Speaking of favorite parts of blogging, another is thinking about all that’s been part of this space over its now 11+ years!

November 13-14: 11th Anniversary Tributes: And even better than that is paying tribute to the folks who have inspired my work here, like the four family members I highlighted in this post.

November 15: The Montgomery Bus Boycott: The Women Who Began It: A series on an important 65th anniversary kicks off with the Montgomery women & activism that truly launched the boycott.

November 16: The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Rosa Parks: The series continues with the many layers to Parks before, during, and after the boycott.

November 17: The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Three More Key Figures: A trio of vital bus boycott figures beyond Parks and MLK, as the series marches on.

November 18: The Montgomery Bus Boycott: King’s Book: A specific and an overarching significance to MLK’s first book, a history of the boycott.

November 19: The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Aftermaths: The series concludes with important victories, and horrific backlash, and the importance of remembering both.

November 20-21: The Montgomery Bus Boycott: 21st Century Legacies and Echoes: A special weekend post on three lessons from Montgomery for our own moment.

November 22-26: Indigenous Voices for the Harvest Festival’s 400th Anniversary: For the 400th anniversary of “the First Thanksgiving,” a special post highlighting Wampanoag & indigenous voices & communities we should all listen to, this year more than ever.

Guest Post later today,

Ben

PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Monday, November 22, 2021

November 22-26, 2021: Indigenous Voices for the Harvest Festival’s 400th Anniversary

This fall marks the 400th anniversary of the 1621 Harvest Festival that Americans have long referred to as “the first Thanksgiving.” I can think of no better way to commemorate that complex occasion than by expressing my gratitude to a handful of the many indigenous voices and communities that have helped me better remember and understand Native American histories and stories.

1)      Linda Coombs: I’ve had the chance to work with and learn from Linda since the 2011 New England American Studies Association Conference at Plymouth Plantation, and am still learning from her through our work together on America the Atlas this year. In my experience, there’s no voice, historian, scholar, activist, and community member who has more to tell us about the histories, identities, and ongoing story of the Wampanoag than Linda. 

2)      The Aquinnah Cultural Center: While Linda lives and works in the Cape Cod indigenous community of Mashpee (on which more in a moment), she is a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe of Martha’s Vineyard, and has worked quite a bit over the years at the tribe’s Aquinnah Cultural Center (also known as the Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian Museum, and located near the historic Gay Head cliffs and lighthouse). I don’t know any space, in-person or online, that has more to tell us about the tribes and their histories and culture.

3)      Dawnland Voices: Much of what I’d want to say about the wonderful Dawnland Voices anthology (now also an evolving website) was said by my friend and the project’s editor Siobhan Senier in that hyperlinked Guest Post. It can feel at times difficult to connect with the voices and perspectives of pre-contact indigenous communities (including the Wampanoag), in part because much of what was published for many centuries came from (or at the very least was filtered by) European American arrivals and cultures. But Dawnland Voices has helped change all that, and as a result is a truly must-read text and collection of voices.

4)      The Wampanoag Homesite: After a few years when I spent quite a bit of time at and around that Plimoth Plantation (now renamed Plimoth Patuxet), both because of my 2011 NEASA Conference and because both boys went there on 4th grade field trips, I haven’t had the chance to get down there in a while (not since the renaming, in fact). So I’m not sure whether and how they’ve continued to develop my favorite element, the Wampanoag Homesite. But I sure hope that visitors (post-COVID, at least) can continue to learn from the indigenous performers and historians who share Wampanoag and other cultural and communal histories, information, and present realities at that vital interpretative space.

5)      Mashpee: I’ve written a lot, in this space and elsewhere, about the complex and vital histories of the Mashpee community, as well as their ongoing 21st century battle for sovereignty and survival. It’s that final subject that I want to emphasize once more here: the Mashpee Wampanoag, like the Aquinnah Wampanoag and every other indigenous tribe and nation, are entirely present in our 21st century American society, in its political and social divisions and debates, and in our overarching identity and community. All the more reason to listen to and learn from these voices and resources.

May you all have a restful, rejuvenative, and thoughtful Thanksgiving holiday! November Recap this weekend,

Ben

PS. Other indigenous voices you’d share?

Saturday, November 20, 2021

November 20-21, 2021: The Montgomery Bus Boycott: 21st Century Legacies & Echoes

[November 13th marked the 65th anniversary of a key moment in the unfolding history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of layers to that Civil Rights Movement activism, leading up to this weekend post on 21st century legacies and echoes!]

On three lessons from Montgomery for our own moment.

1)      Boycotts: It seems to me that in recent years boycotts have often come to feel like an expression of overblown consumer anger for unnecessary or at least silly reasons—people burning all their Nike gear in response to the Colin Kaepernick ad campaign, to cite just one example. But while any form of protest and activism can have its more extreme and/or unhelpful versions, those are not in any way a reason to dismiss the entire concept. And at their best, boycotts offer a crucial means through which communities can use the power of the pocketbook to highlight, challenge, and hopefully counter failures and injustices, not just from corporations but for the systems that they’re part of. Montgomery exemplifies those possibilities and should inspire us to keep using boycotts when and how we can.

2)      Domestic Terrorism: I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know about the white supremacist campaign of sniping/shootings against the newly integrated buses in December 1956 (which I discussed at greater length in Friday’s post), but I also believe that that shame is very much all of ours. Virtually all of the white supremacist domestic terrorism that has marred the last two centuries of American life (yes, going back well before the Civil War) remains entirely absent from our collective memories and narratives. Indeed, I can think of few ironies more ironic than the fact that nearly all of American society for the last two decades has been influenced by fears and narratives around “terrorism,” yet we apparently remain almost entirely unable to confront the reality that it is white supremacist domestic terrorism which has always been, and remains to this day, the most destructive form.

3)      Education: Earlier this month I was one of many folks who wrote about the ongoing debates around racism and anti-racism, “Critical Race Theory,” and American education (for many of the other great pieces and voices, see this Twitter thread). There are various factors in that current debate, including the last two years’ school closures and the related question of parental involvement in education. But it’s impossible to separate that debate from the argument, which we’ve seen from numerous state legislatures among other quarters, that teaching histories of race and racism is somehow destructive or even un-American. I hope it goes without saying that I could not possibly disagree more, and I would say Montgomery provides a perfect case in two counterpoints: that the histories of racism and racist violence on the one hand and inspiring alternatives and activisms on the other are at the heart of American history and of how and what we should teach, learn, remember, and engage if we have any chance of moving forward together.

Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think? 

Friday, November 19, 2021

November 19, 2021: The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Aftermaths

[November 13th marked the 65th anniversary of a key moment in the unfolding history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of layers to that Civil Rights Movement activism, leading up to a weekend post on 21st century legacies and echoes!]

On important victories, horrific backlash, and the importance of remembering both.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott ended with a pair of court decisions that were in their own way just as important to the early Civil Rights Movement as Brown v. Board. On June 5, 1956, a federal district court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that Alabama’s racial segregation on buses was unconstitutional; the state appealed the decision, and on November 13th of the same year (the anniversary which inspired this entire week’s series of posts) the United States Supreme Court upheld the ruling. Perhaps the precedent of Brown would have inevitably, eventually undermined racial segregation in all areas and forms—but given that prior decision’s education-specific focus, it’s at least fair to say that subsequent cases which addressed racial segregation more broadly were necessary and crucial in the lead up to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And given the central significance of transportation to both the rise of Jim Crow segregation and the Supreme Court’s support for that discriminatory system, it’s quite poetic that it was buses which provided the vehicle for this crucial legal victory.

Buses also became one of many sites of immediate and horrifically violent white supremacist backlash to these legal victories, however. Desegregated buses began operating in the city on December 20th, and over the following week snipers shot at multiple buses; the first shootings apparently and fortunately yielded no casualties, but on December 28th snipers badly wounded 22 year old Rosa Jordan, a pregnant African American woman traveling on an integrated bus. That violence was complemented by other domestic terrorist attacks in the city over the same period, including a December 23rd shotgun blast through Martin Luther King Jr’s front door and the January 10th, 1957 bombings of four Black churches and the homes of both Ralph Abernathy and Reverend Robert S. Graetz, one of the city’s most prominent white allies of the boycott. The Montgomery City Commission suspended all bus service for three weeks after those bombings; while the integrated buses eventually resumed operation, the white supremacist violence likewise continued, including the January 23rd lynching of 24 year old Willie Edwards by members of the city’s Ku Klux Klan.

Beyond the simple and crucial fact that they all happened, there’s another reason to better remember both these victories and these horrors in the aftermath of the boycott: they complicate a pair of overly simplified and interconnected narratives of the Civil Rights Movement. One of those narratives boils the movement down to singular figures and moments—especially MLK and “I Have a Dream,” but also for example Rosa Parks (and an inaccurate vision of her at that, as I highlighted Tuesday). The other emphasizes too fully the inspiring and unifying sides to those figures and moments, and in so doing downplays the ongoing backlash, violence, and domestic terrorism with which white supremacist America met the movement, in its own era and for the half-century since. The harder and more meaningful truth of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights Movement alike was that its victories were hard-won and multi-layered, fraught and fragile, part of the longstanding and evolving battle between inclusion and exclusion, mythic and critical patriotism, the best and worst of America. We’re not gonna get anywhere until we can remember all those layers to our histories, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott is a vital case in point.

Special post this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Sides to this history or histories like it you’d highlight? 

Thursday, November 18, 2021

November 18, 2021: The Montgomery Bus Boycott: King’s Book

[November 13th marked the 65th anniversary of a key moment in the unfolding history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of layers to that Civil Rights Movement activism, leading up to a weekend post on 21st century legacies and echoes!]

On a more specific and a more overarching significance to Martin Luther King Jr’s first book.

As I shared earlier in this week’s series, I’ve written a couple different pieces for my Saturday Evening Post Considering History column about the Montgomery bus boycott, and my central goal in both has been to push beyond some of the most familiar collective memories of that moment and early Civil Rights Movement activism. Certainly there’s more to the story of Rosa Parks than the familiar narratives generally capture; but similarly, the boycott is often framed as an early example of King’s leadership, while in truth his role was entirely that of a supporting figure, arriving to bolster the already underway and impressive efforts of local leaders like Parks and her colleagues (many of them women, as I also highlighted in those pieces). King did give an early December speech at the city’s Holt Street Baptist Church that powerfully expressed the boycott’s origins and goals, but (to reiterate one of my main points from Monday’s post and really for this whole week’s series) to focus too much of our attention on that speech is to miss quite a bit of the more multi-layered histories of this crucial event.

Interestingly, one of the texts that can most effectively help us push beyond those more narrow and partial histories of the boycott was also authored by King: his 1958 book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. Because King had become so closely associated with the boycott, publishers began approaching him to write a book about it, and in October 1957 he signed a contract with Harper & Brothers for the manuscript that would become Stride. Although by 1957-8 King was already hugely prominent as an individual voice and leader of the evolving movement, he saw this first book of his as far more of a collective history than a personal memoir, calling it in its Preface “the chronicle of 50,000 Negroes who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love, and who in the process, acquired a new estimate of their own human worth.” As such, Stride is a text that help us understand not just the details and stages of the boycott, but also some of the ways in which those who organized and took part in it perceived their efforts, making it a striking and significant combination of a primary and a secondary source.

That specific historical and analytical lens makes King’s book well worth a read, but it’s not the only significant layer to Stride Toward Freedom. Roughly halfway through, in the book’s sixth chapter “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” King takes a step back to consider his own arc and influences when it comes to that philosophy of nonviolent activism and civil disobedience, writing publicly for one of the first times about such what he had learned from figures as Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi, and others. As with every other aspect of King’s life and legacy, his ideas about those topics have been at best simplified and often misrepresented over the years since, especially by conservatives who seek to claim that they are the true descendants of King and his movement. Fortunately, King left a rich archive through which we can engage his own perspective and ideas, about specific histories like the bus boycotts, overarching concepts like nonviolence and civil disobedience, and most every other aspect of his work and the movement, and this chapter in Stride represents an early and important piece within that collection.

Last bus boycott layer tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Sides to this history or histories like it you’d highlight? 

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

November 17, 2021: The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Three More Key Figures

[November 13th marked the 65th anniversary of a key moment in the unfolding history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of layers to that Civil Rights Movement activism, leading up to a weekend post on 21st century legacies and echoes!]

On a trio of vital bus boycott figures beyond Rosa Parks (and MLK, on whom more tomorrow):

1)      Claudette Colvin: After more than a half-century of frustrating erasure, in recent years we’ve started to collectively remember a bit more fully the young woman who undertook first the same civil rights protest as Parks, and who was deemed unsuitable for national attention because she was pregnant. Yet as the first hyperlink above reflects, collective memory isn’t nearly enough, not when Colvin continues to be defined and limited by the criminal record attached to that brave activism. She needs our full support, as the American hero she was and is.

2)      E.D. Nixon: Women like Colvin, Parks, and the others about whom I wrote in Monday’s linked article were the true originators of the boycott. But the labor movement played a key role in launching and amplifying that civil rights protest, and spearheading that interconnected labor activism was Nixon, president of the Montgomery branch of A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union. MLK called Nixon “a symbol of the hopes and aspirations of the long oppressed people of the State of Alabama,” and through his creation of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) Nixon became just as practically influential as he was symbolically meaningful.

3)      Ralph Abernathy: The Baptist pastor Abernathy was King’s closest friend and ally throughout the years of the Civil Rights Movement, and had worked to link a network of Baptist churches to the movement since the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, but it was with the boycott that he really came into his own as a leading activist and advocate for that movement. I love this story from the first hyperlinked post above, so will share it in full to conclude today’s post: “While King emphasized the philosophical implications of nonviolence and the movement, Abernathy helped energize the people into positive action. ‘Now,’ he would tell the audience following King’s address, ‘Let me tell you what that means for tomorrow morning.’”

Next bus boycott layer tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Sides to this history or histories like it you’d highlight? 

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

November 16, 2021: The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Rosa Parks

[November 13th marked the 65th anniversary of a key moment in the unfolding history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of layers to that Civil Rights Movement activism, leading up to a weekend post on 21st century legacies and echoes!]

I apologize for linking to Saturday Evening Post columns for two posts in a row, but in truth most everything I’d want to say about Rosa Parks, during but also before and after her vital role in the bus boycott (which went way beyond keeping her seat on the bus)y, I said in this December 2020 column on the 65th anniversary of her civil disobedience. So once again I’ll ask you to check out that column if you could, to see all the layers to this activist and legend around and so far beyond Montgomery in 1955-56. Thanks!

Next bus boycott layer tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Sides to this history or histories like it you’d highlight?  

Monday, November 15, 2021

November 15, 2021: The Montgomery Bus Boycott: The Women Who Began It

[November 13th marked the 65th anniversary of a key moment in the unfolding history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of layers to that Civil Rights Movement activism, leading up to a weekend post on 21st century legacies and echoes!]

For the second piece for my Saturday Evening Post Considering History column, nearly four years ago now, I wrote about the #MeToo movement against sexual assault and racial violence that really began the Montgomery Bus Boycott (and thus helped launch the Civil Rights Movement). Rather than reprint the whole thing here, I’ll ask you to check out that piece, thanks! [I will add here what I made clear there as well, that that column was entirely indebted to Danielle McGuire’s fabulous book At the Dark End of the Street.]

Next bus boycott layer tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Sides to this history or histories like it you’d highlight?  

Saturday, November 13, 2021

November 13-14, 2021: 11th Anniversary Tributes

Last year, I paid anniversary tribute to a number of folks who had made my first 10 years of blogging so great, from individuals like Irene Martyniuk and Rob Velella to groups of people like Guest Posters and crowd-sourced post posters to, well, you! I still thank all of those folks, but this year wanted to go in a different, familial direction for my anniversary tributes, highlighting one thing about each of the four fellow writers that most inspires me in my work here (and everywhere):

1)      Dad: One thing I really love about my Dad’s scholarly writing has been that he’s never afraid to bring his own perspective and opinions in, clearly and engagingly. So much academic and scholarly writing is afraid of the writer’s perspective (hence that stupid rule about avoiding personal pronouns, which I don’t follow and you shouldn’t either)—blogging has thoroughly cured me of that fear, but I had a great model for doing so in the collected works of Steve Railton.

2)      Mom: One thing I really love about my Mom’s evolving creative writing career has been her willingness to rethink, rework, and revise. Writing is so intensely personal that, for many if not most of us, revision can feel like a painfully invasive process (there’s a reason why the phrase “kill your darlings” exists). But it doesn’t have to, not if we recognize that it’s all about making our writing communicate in all the ways we most want it to. I’m not saying it’s been easy for her, but my Mom has modeled consistent and very effective revisions, and as I’ve worked to make that more a part of my work here, I’ve been inspired quite a bit by that model.  

3)      Aidan: Writing seems to come very naturally to my older son (guess those multi-generational genes are doing their thing), and there’s a lot about his voice and style that inspire me. But one thing that’s been part of his writing from a very early age has been his sense of humor—a sense of humor that is also at least in part inherited from his Dad, but that, I will freely admit, I struggled in the blog’s early years to include in my writing and posts here (as in all my early scholarly writing). If I’ve been able to bring my sense of humor more into the blog over the last few years, as I hope and believe I have, inspiration from Aidan’s consistently witty writing has been a key reason why.

4)      Kyle: My younger son is as much of a perfectionist about writing as he is about everything in his life, which is the source of his prodigious talents in so many areas but also the source of much frustration for him. Watching him work so hard to come up with a perfect topic for a paper or piece of writing, when I know he’s already got a ton of great ideas bubbling around his amazing brain, can be a tough one for his Dad. But at the same time, Kyle never settles, never does anything that he doesn’t really commit to and give his all, and I hope and believe I’ve brought that same philosophy to this blog and all its (less than perfect but very heartfelt) topics and ideas over the years.

Here’s to the next 11 years! Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. You know what to do: say hi!

Monday, November 8, 2021

November 8-12, 2021: 11 Years of AmericanStudying!

Just over 11 years ago, I shared my first post on this blog. I could take advantage of the occasion to think about how old I was on that day (sigh), or how young my sons were (sob), but instead I wanted to take this chance to share in this weeklong post a few of the many reasons why I’ve kept AmericanStudier going all these long years. Leading up to another anniversary tribute post on the weekend!

1)      It’s fun!: As I’ll indicate in a moment, over time this blog has become hugely helpful and important to my career on multiple levels. But those things took a while to really get going, and I never would have kept it going until then—nor, I hope and believe, kept at it overall for these 11 years and nearly 3400 posts—if I weren’t really enjoying it. And man, I really have! At first I tended to write especially about topics I already knew well and loved, as illustrated by that first post on my favorite American novel, The Marrow of Tradition. But over the years, I’d say the majority of the time I’ve written about topics that I would never have engaged (at least not in writing and not at length) if it weren’t for the very happy demands of a daily blog. American Studies and interdisciplinary approaches allow for that breadth and range of interests—but it’s been this blog which has really given me the space and occasion to think about them, and that’s been, simply, damn fun.

2)      Productivity: It’s also, and I have to admit surprisingly, been really productive for my writing and publishing career overall. When I make the case for online writing to students and fellow scholars, as I do quite frequently in all sorts of settings, I like to highlight a simple and crucial stat: in my first 5 years at FSU, before I started blogging, I published one book, which was based on my dissertation; in the subsequent 11 years, since I started blogging, I’ve published five books. There are of course multiple factors in that shift, but I believe that blogging (and through it online writing more broadly) has been by far the most significant factor: because it’s helped me practice writing more quickly and with audience directly in mind; because it has refined and strengthened my style and voice; because it’s allowed me to write (or at least read my writing) day in and day out, even during my busy FSU semesters; and more. This blog isn’t just (by far) the longest thing I’ll ever write—it’s also the most influential on every other part of my writing and work.

3)      Networking: An individual blog is, by nature, individual; I’ve done my best, through things like the Guest Posts and crowd-sourced posts I’ve paid tribute to in past anniversary posts, to add other voices into the mix more and more fully, but this blog will nonetheless always be fundamentally mine. Yet at the same time, it has connected me to so many other scholars, communities, conversations, opportunities—through those aforementioned posts, but also through readers and responses, through other writing connections the blog has helped create, through sharing the blog on social media, through all the ways that academic and scholarly networking can take place. We can’t control networking and connections, but we can (as I talk about with my English Studies Capstone class all the time) do everything we can to put ourselves out there in authentic and purposeful ways, and see what happens. This blog has been by far my most consistent way to do that, and has not coincidentally yielded the most meaningful results.

4)      It’s fun!: As I say in class all the time: I love repetition, and I also love saying the same thing more than once. So I’ll say again: blogging is fun! As long as I’m still having fun here, I’ll still be here, doing my AmericanStudying thing and hoping to hear from y’all, for all the reasons mentioned above and so many more.

Anniversary tribute post this weekend,

Ben

PS. So again, and as ever, I’d love to hear from y’all about what has brought and kept you here, whether in comments or by email. Thanks!

Saturday, November 6, 2021

November 6-7, 2021: Crowd-sourced Action Figures

[Wednesday would have been Charles Bronson’s 100th birthday. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied Bronson and other action film stars and characters. Leading up to this blockbuster crowd-sourced post drawn from the responses and thoughts of fellow AmericanActionStudiers—add yours in comments, please!]

In response to Monday’s post, Mark Lawton writes, “Stewart is my all-time favorite actor! I believe he is the highest decorated actor to ever serve in the armed forces as well. (Air Force) His bio was an interesting read—especially the parts about his friendship to fellow actor/war hero, Henry Fonda. I love that you included Mr. Smith in this action hero dive, despite him being the author of this book.”

In honor of Bronson’s bday, here’s a thread from my favorite film reviewer, Outlaw Vern.

Other action film nominees:

On Twitter, Christopher J. Smith shares another Bronson film, writing, “Can I put in a plug for Mr. Majestyk? Maybe the best Elmore Leonard adaptation until (arguably) Justified.”

Justin Mason writes, I have reviewed several different action movies on my YouTube channel including vigilante action films as well as just shoot ‘em up style films and nearly every other subgenre of action films and each offers something different…Obviously most Schwarzenegger films you go in with zero expectations and it’s more of an opportunity to just shut your brain off and enjoy the chaos (albeit movies like The Terminator and True Lies offer more richness in its storytelling.) As for Bronson (and really anything Tom Hardy does) he dives head first into the character which brings a more dynamic perspective to the story itself. You look at many of his roles (Eddie Brock, Eames from Inception, Bane, Mad Max, The Kray twins in Legend, etc.) and each are vastly different characters that he makes his own and is often amongst the most well developed characters in each movie. Despite this trait I wouldn’t consider him to be a character actor along the lines of a Christian Bale I just think he is incredibly diverse.”

Lisa Moison writes, “I am giving a shout out to the entire Kill Bill series, its feminist ideology, as well as what Uma Thurman went through to make that film with Tarantino. His on-set misogyny toward her is well documented. The Bride's survival story and Uma's off-set survival story eerily mirror one another.”

Paul Daley adds, “Kill Bill is a good one. Also would like to suggest the Netflix series The Punisher. It ended a few years back and there are rights issues with Disney so I’m not sure if it still is up there, but if it is, it’s fantastic and fits the genre to a T. If you want something that is unique and blends Dystopian with Revenge plot, try Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. Opens up a lot of big conversations surrounding civil rights too.”

AnneMarie Donahue shares, “Gonna go with a classic Thriller: A Cruel Picture which was the inspiration for Elle from Kill Bill. One of the great early exploitation films. And you can't forget the epic career of Pam Grier! Coffey, Women in Cages, Black Mama White Mama. I know these movies are now problematic but they exist and should be discussed.” She adds, “Thriller: A Cruel Picture is an interesting example of a revenge film. The protagonist is a woman, human trafficked and forced in sex work (not the best term but IDK what would be). She's also eventually addicted to heroin and loses an eye (thus created the image for Elle from Kill Bill). However, she uses the money she "earns" from her captor to learn self-defense, weaponry, car driving, and warfare techniques. She then employs them on her captor, rapists, and others. It's a confusing movie because she's given a great deal of freedom of movement. However, when she is allowed to leave she initially returns to her parents only to learn they had believed she abandoned them. Feeling shamed by what has happened to her she returns to her captor without contacting her parents again. I like this film because while it's problematic there are interesting thoughts going on. She's a victim, raped as a child that leaves her nonverbal (mental not physical) for life, that is again victimized but then motivated to take a violent revenge with her own means. To quote Beatrix "I'll have my bloody revenge." It reminds me that justice for victims of human traffic and assault seldom exists and that there's no reason to assume that a woman wouldn't want to destroy her attackers. Anyway, that's my TED talk. I just liked that it was a female lead with a female narrative (do men worry about human trafficking? Do they make movies in which men are human trafficked for sex work? I'm certain this happens but there's not a great deal of media out there discussing it) about surviving assault and getting revenge.”

Derek Tang shares, Have you ever seen Denzel Washington in Man on Fire? It's one of the darkest vigilante action films I have ever watched. It's a fine balancing act between his semi-paternal rage and the cultural clash.”

Lara Schwarz writes, So can we talk about Midnight Run, in which there is gorgeous slippage between the roles of law enforcement, criminals, and seekers of justice?” And she adds, “In addition to subverting the artificial distinction between law and order and lawlessness, it's also pretty groundbreaking in the way it portrays a vigilante friendship between two men.”

Special anniversary series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think?

Friday, November 5, 2021

November 5, 2021: Action Figures: Black Widow

[Wednesday would have been Charles Bronson’s 100th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Bronson and other action film stars and characters. Share your own thoughts on these and all other action figures and films for a popcorn-popping crowd-sourced weekend blockbuster!]

On how the recent Marvel film echoes a frustrating longstanding trope, and two ways it revises it.

Perhaps more than any other cinematic genre (although horror films are in the conversation), action movies often depend for their success on audience awareness of established tropes. There are thus lots of such tropes, from what Roger Ebert named the “Fallacy of the Talking Villain” to what my favorite current film critic Outlaw Vern has called his “Theory of Badass Juxtaposition.” But one of the most strikingly consistent across decades of action films and multiple cultures/cinema traditions involves female action heroes in particular: the trope of a young girl raised from childhood by an older (almost always male) mentor to become an assassin and/or spy. That hyperlinked list isn’t even overtly about characters who fit that trope (it focuses on female assassin characters overall), yet I would argue that every character on the list does so, whether overtly (ie, we see them as children in the course of the film) or implicitly (ie, we hear about those origins and/or meet older male characters who clearly served as their mentors). Out in theaters as I draft this post is another film that follows this trope closely, The Protégé, starring Maggie Q as the assassin and Samuel L. Jackson as the mentor.

One of the biggest films of the year to date, the Marvel superhero action thriller Black Widow, likewise used and indeed amplified this longstanding trope. Natasha Romanoff, the Russian spy turned Avenger known as Black Widow and played pitch-perfectly in the MCU films by Scarlett Johansson, wasn’t (at least in this cinematic adaptation—I haven’t read any Black Widow comics so can’t speak to them) just raised from childhood to be an individual assassin. She was part of a huge cohort of such youthful female assassins (all apparently known as Widows), raised in a mysterious environment known as the Red Room to become a fearful and formidable fighting force the world over. Even before that period, as we see in the film’s flashback prologue (another scene set when its female action hero is a small child), she was part of a fake family designed to begin her training, this time one featuring not only a male mentor (David Harbour’s Alexei, himself a superhero known as the Red Guardian) but a female one as well (Rachel Weisz’s Melina). That two-part childhood seems only to double down on this well-established trope of the youthful female assassin in training.

But at the same time, it’s possible to see this amplification as a way to comment upon the trope itself, and I’d say that particular details of both those threads in Black Widow (SPOILERS in this paragraph in particular) do serve to critique and ultimately revise the trope. More overtly and centrally, while the mentor characters in these stories and films are generally portrayed as good guys (if complicated ones to be sure), the Red Room’s most explicit mentor figure, Ray Winstone’s Dreykov, is the film’s villain and a truly despicable person, and his role in the lives of the Widows is blatantly portrayed as both child abuse and a form of sexual violence. I’m not suggesting that this shift forces to revisit all the prior mentor figures and consider them in the same way, necessarily—but it makes us ask the question at the very least. Secondly, and more complicatedly, Romanoff’s fake family, including Alexei and Melina but also her faux-sister Yelena (played wonderfully by Florence Pugh), becomes not only the closest thing she has to an actual family, but a unit that by the film’s end functions directly to oppose and take down the Red Room and short-circuit any plans for future child assassins. Natasha and Yelena are still badass assassins at the film’s end to be sure—but ones who operate quite literally counter to the narratives at the heart of this longstanding trope.

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,

Ben

PS. So one more time: what do you think? Thoughts on these figures and films, or others you’d add to the mix?

Thursday, November 4, 2021

November 4, 2021: Action Figures: Arnie and Sly

[Wednesday would have been Charles Bronson’s 100th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Bronson and other action film stars and characters. Share your own thoughts on these and all other action figures and films for a popcorn-popping crowd-sourced weekend blockbuster!]

On what differentiated the two 80s action superstars, and one important parallel.

I’ve written about ‘80s action movies a few times on this blog, most notably in response to contemporary events like the invasion of Granada or the war in Afghanistan. But while the decade’s over-the-top cinematic action was indeed often related to (I was going to say “in response to,” but that might be pushing things a bit) real-world events and issues, it was also, well, ridiculously over-the-top (emphasis on ridiculous). I’m not suggesting that the prior decade’s action heroes like the subjects of my last two posts, John Shaft and Paul Kersey, were purely grounded in realism; but those characters and films were cinema verité compared to the ‘80s action oeuvre. There were lots of action stars who contributed to that ‘80s craze and craziness, from Chuck Norris to Dolph Lundgren to Jean-Claude Van Damme (and with more unexpected examples like comedy legend Eddie Murphy and TV star Bruce Willis in the mix as well), but two icons really defined and in many ways dominated the decade’s larger-than-life action explosion: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.

As that last hyperlinked article indicates, Arnie and Sly really didn’t like each other during the ‘80s. But my interest in this paragraph is not on such personal differences (entertaining as the idea of a rumble between the two icons might be), but instead on what differentiated their action movie characters and performances in the decade (and beyond). Schwarzenegger came to action films from the literally larger-than-life world of Mr. Universe bodybuilding competitions, and his action heroes tended to be similarly unrealistic, capable of feats and body counts as extreme as his musculature. Stallone’s first major film performances were in Rocky (which he also wrote) and First Blood (later renamed Rambo: First Blood), both featuring main characters who feel far more representative of everyday identities and experiences (despite Stallone’s similarly extreme, if not quite Schwarzeneggeresque, physique). I’ve written before about how the character of John Rambo in particular evolved to become more like an Arnie hero (with him shooting down Russian helicopters with arrows in Rambo III, for example); but despite that movement across Sly’s sequels, I would still argue that Stallone’s ‘80s action characters retained a level of everyman believability, while the very idea of Schwarzenegger in a “normal” marriage and family (for example) was treated as intrinsically comic.

Despite those differences in their origins and tones, however, I would say that in a significant number of their ‘80s action films, Arnie and Sly’s characters embodied something fundamentally similar: a fantasy vision of America taking on its adversaries. In Schwarzenegger’s case, those adversaries were as likely to be literal aliens (1987’s Predator) as foreign mercenaries (1985’s Commando); while in Stallone’s films, they were often more directly Cold War enemies like the Russians and the Vietnamese in his two 1985 movies, Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II. But in any case, these supersoldiers, superboxers, supermen were warding off enemies who seemed to draw on both longstanding Cold War narratives and newer 1980s fears of invaders and threats to America’s hegemony. While 70s action characters like John Shaft and Paul Kersey found themselves fighting against fellow Americans in a troublingly dangerous and divided nation, that is, Arnie and Sly and their ‘80s action counterparts took the fight to the rest of the world.

Last action figure tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Thoughts on these figures and films, or others you’d add to the mix?