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My New Book!
My New Book!

Saturday, February 27, 2021

February 27-28, 2021: Adam Golub’s Guest Post on Creativity and American Studies

 [Adam Golub is Professor and Graduate Advisor in the phenomenal American Studies program at Cal State Fullerton. Along with Heather Richardson Hayton he edited the wonderful collection Monsters in the Classroom, and writes and teaches about a wide and deep variety of American Studies subjects. And he’s one of my oldest Twitter follows and connections, and I’m so excited to finally share a Guest Post of his on the blog!]

In his 2018 book Creative Quest, musician Questlove examines the role of creativity in everyday life and offers a guide to the creative process. Questlove, the drummer and co-frontman for the hip-hop band The Roots, writes that creativity is the “personality that makes it possible that something new and somehow valuable can be formed.” How does one foster this creative personality? Creative Quest abounds with Questlove’s insights and advice. For example, the would-be creative should encourage their own “cognitive disinhibition,” and permit oneself a “wider range of ideas.” Creative types should “try to always be inspired by something surprising—or to surprise yourself by always being inspired.” Creativity is about “refusing to keep things out.” To be creative is to “pay attention to seeds,” to be a “tourist in other perspectives,” and to “unfocus your eyes in the right way.” Ultimately, a creative person is “anyone who is making something out of nothing by virtue of their own ideas.” 

Reading Creative Quest, I couldn’t help but think about American Studies. Questlove’s book is one of many meditations on creative thinking that have captured our imagination in recent years—"creativity studies” is newly in vogue in education, business, and artistic circles. In light of this resurgent interest in creativity, I think it is worth reflecting on the myriad ways American Studies is itself a creative field. After all, in American Studies, we effectively practice “cognitive disinhibition” by refusing to be confined by conventional disciplines, methods, archives, or areas of inquiry. In our study of relationships between diverse cultural “texts” (broadly conceived—a song, a statue, a sermon, a gesture, a shirt, a game, a Tweet…), we pay attention to seeds and refuse to keep things out. As we uncover hidden histories and counter memories, we unfocus our eyes from master narratives and give voice to marginalized and silenced perspectives. American Studies is about interdisciplinarity, and interdisciplinarity, to paraphrase Roland Barthes, is about creating something new that belongs to no one.

In his oft-cited and oft-assigned essay, “‘Paradigm Dramas’ in American Studies” (1979), Gene Wise characterizes American Studies as the practice of the “connecting imagination.” While we in the field have talked much about the “connecting” part of Wise’s formulation—in American Studies, we build connections among diverse texts, contexts, disciplines, and publics—I wonder if we’ve fully explored the “imagination” part of his phrase. What is the role of imagination in American Studies? How is American Studies creative? How does the field cultivate a creative mindset and encourage creative work? 

I certainly think American Studies is a field that values play. We play with cultural puzzle pieces, trying to make meaningful connections among seemingly unrelated phenomena and experiences. In doing so, we recombine, we refashion, we remix, we rearrange in order to discover new interlocking webs of meaning. In The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World (2017), Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman argue that new ideas evolve as the result of three cognitive operations: bending, breaking, and blending. “Bending” is when “an original is modified or twisted out of shape.” “Breaking” is when a “whole is taken apart.” And “blending” is when “two or more sources are merged.” American Studies is arguably the studio where we are given free license to bend, break, and blend cultural texts, historical narratives, and the stuff of everyday life. The field invites joyous exploration. We play to innovate.   

American Studies is also an intellectual project invested in creating new visions of culture. The field has an activist tradition, one that strives to reach outside of the classroom and “go public.” American Studies is not just an interdisciplinary mode of analysis; it is a public practice. Through critical pedagogy and public engagement, American Studies endeavors to make us all take another look at the taken for granted, to understand the workings of power and oppression, to learn to listen for the silences in our cultural mythos. And American Studies recognizes that there are ways to communicate new knowledge to the public beyond the traditional research paper and the academic monograph. When we “go public” in American Studies, we try to innovate new and different ways to “decolonize minds and imaginations,” as bell hooks puts it. We study culture, and then we try to create it.

I suspect there are many more ways that American Studies involves creative work, and I’ve only imagined a few here. If it is true that the 21st century has seen the rise of what is called the “creative economy,” and that more jobs today require college graduates to possess cognitive flexibility, the drive to innovate, and the ability to rephrase problems as questions, then it seems worthwhile for American Studies to reflect on the role it can play in cultivating a creative mindset in students. Beyond this, though, I think it is important to consider the value of simply trying to lead a creative life. In her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (2015), Elizabeth Gilbert posits that “a creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life.” Similarly, in The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday (2019), Rob Walker observes that trying “to stay eager, to connect… to notice what everybody else overlooks” are all important, skills-wise, for a creative thinker, but to live this way is also just delightful. And good for the soul.

If we conceive of American Studies as creative work, we open the possibility that it may not just be about the practice of cultural analysis. American Studies could very well inspire us to lead an amplified life of joyous exploration, one where we constantly dwell in the possibility of making something new. A creative quest, indeed. 

 [Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? AmericanStudies projects or work you'd highlight?]

February 27-28, 2021: February 2021 Recap

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

February 1: Sports in 2021: COVID: A Super Bowl series on sports in 2021 kicks off with playing & watching sports during a pandemic, past and present.

February 2: Sports in 2021: Activism: The series continues with the huge step that athlete activists took in 2020, and where we go from here.

February 3: Sports in 2021: The Olympics: The limits of traditions and how one can potentially evolve into something better, as the series plays on.

February 4: Sports in 2021: The NCAA: What this year has revealed and reaffirmed about college athletics, and what’s still possible.

February 5: Sports in 2021: Banning Football?: Revisiting a prior and still relevant debate at my university.

February 6-7: Sports in 2021: Revolutionary Change: The series concludes with how the evolution of black quarterbacks reveals how sports can challenge and change their and our limits.

February 8: Short Stories I Love: “My Kinsman,  Major Molineux”: My annual Valentine’s Day series focuses on short stories I love, starting with Hawthorne’s ambiguous historical fiction.

February 9: Short Stories I Love: “The Tenth of January”: The series continues with a short story that combines local color and sentimental fiction, and becomes so much more.

February 10: Short Stories I Love: “A Sweatshop Romance”: Romance and realism and why they don’t have to be at odds, as the series reads on.

February 11: Short Stories I Love: “Yellow Woman”: A more problematic kind of fictional ambiguity and why it’s well worth reading nonetheless.

February 12: Short Stories I Love: 21st Century Stories: The series concludes with a host of contemporary short stories and authors I love.

February 13-14: Short Stories I Love: Ilene Railton’s Stories: A Valentine’s weekend special post on the evolving career of my favorite writer, and why we should all be following it.

February 15: Non-Favorite American Myths: The First Thanksgiving: For my annual non-favorites series, a collection of non-favorite national myths begins “The First Thanksgiving.”

February 16: Non-Favorite American Myths: Pocahontas: The series continues with some of the myths behind one of our most mythologized historical figures.

February 17: Non-Favorite American Myths: George Washington: Three of the many inaccuracies at the heart of the Washington mythos, as the series trolls on.

February 18: Non-Favorite American Myths: The Self-Made Man: How a national mythos develops, and the multiple reasons why it’s so destructive.

February 19: Non-Favorite American Myths: The Greatest Generation: The series concludes with the limits to a mythic vision of an iconic American community.

February 20-21: Crowd-sourced Non-Favorites: Another installment in one of my favorite posts of the year, the crowd-sourced airing of grievances!

February 22: Florida Histories: The Treaty of Adams-Onís: On the Treaty’s anniversary, a FloridaStudying series kicks off with how the historic agreement that brought Florida into the US reveals the darker sides to American expansion.

February 23: Florida Histories: St. Augustine: The series continues with how and why to better remember the foundational Hispanic American community.

February 24: Florida Histories: The Everglades: The very American story of the woman who saved the Everglades, as the series rolls on.

February 25: Florida Histories: Parkland: What’s frustratingly not new and what’s inspiringly changed when it comes to an infamous school shooting.

February 26: Florida Histories: Cuban American Artists: The series concludes with a trio of exemplary Cuban American musical artists.

Next series starts Monday,


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

Friday, February 26, 2021

February 26, 2021: Florida Histories: Cuban American Artists

[On February 22, 1819, the Treaty of Adams-Onis that brought Florida into the United States was initially negotiated; this year marks the 200th anniversary of its 1821 ratification as the Transcontinental Treaty. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the Treaty and other Florida histories!]

On a trio of talented and influential Cuban American musical artists who also reflect their respective generations and periods.

1)      Arturo Sandoval (born 1949): Sandoval, one of the 20th century’s most talented and influential jazz trumpeters and composers (and he’s still going strong into the 21st!), first became a force within the worlds of jazz and music while still in Cuba: he helped establish the Orquestra Cubana de Música Moderna in 1967 (when he was only 18), and began touring with his own band shortly thereafter; in 1982 he toured with the legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and they began a close working and personal relationship. It while on a 1990 world tour with Gillespie that Sandoval defected to the U.S. embassy in Rome, beginning the Cuban American stage of his life and career that included his 1998 citizenship and his 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Although, again, he has continued to work prolifically in recent years, and although any figure this pioneering unquestionably transcends historical circumstances, Sandoval’s connections to both jazz and to Cold War Cuban and American dynamics embody the baby boom generation in many ways.

2)      Gloria Estefan (born 1957): Although she was born only eight years after Sandoval (and left Cuba long before him, in 1960 as her family fled Castro’s revolution), I would nonetheless locate salsa and pop singer, songwriter, and superstar (and now businesswoman and entrepreneur) Estefan in a subsequent generation and artistic period. “Conga,” the 1985 song that launched Estefan and her band Miami Sound Machine (she had been singing with them since 1977, when they were known as Miami Latin Boys) into international superstardom, mixes Latino rhythms and influences with the legacy of disco and the currents of 80s pop, yielding a new sound that would make Estefan and the band into perennial chart-toppers for the rest of the decade. After Estefan went solo in 1991 with the album Into the Light, she continued to build on those interconnected musical and cultural influences over subsequent decades, moving back and forth between English and Spanish songs and albums in the process (and receiving her own Presidential Medal of Freedom, along with her husband and lifelong collaborator Emilio, in 2015). In all those ways, Estefan reflects the evolution of popular music and culture in and after the 1980s, an evolution that continues to shape our 21st century world in every way.

3)      Pitbull (born 1981): Armando Christian Pérez, the Cuban-American rapper and producer known by his stage name Pitbull, is the only one of these three artists to be born in the United States; his parents had fled Cuba many years earlier, and he was born in Miami (a fact he includes in many, many songs). It is thus perhaps no coincidence that Pitbull has risen to musical prominence in the genre of rap, one of the most uniquely American musical genres; while it’s true that he frequently raps in Spanish as well as English, I would (as any reader of this blog likely knows) call that a distinctly American combination as well. So it’s certainly possible to say that Pitbull represents an overtly post-Cuban identity and generation, one where Cuba is of course a heritage but where the United States—not only geographically, but in its art and pop culture—is the central presence and influence. Yet at the same time, we AmericanStudiers know that identity, community, and culture are never that simple—and in this particular case, Miami in particular is a setting that over the last half century has come to be defined as fully by Cuba as by any influence. So Pitbull really reflects a new Cuban-American generation and community, one helping them and all of us move into the 21st century.

February Recap this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other Florida histories or stories you’d highlight?

Thursday, February 25, 2021

February 25, 2021: Florida Histories: Parkland

[On February 22, 1819, the Treaty of Adams-Onis that brought Florida into the United States was initially negotiated; this year marks the 200th anniversary of its 1821 ratification as the Transcontinental Treaty. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the Treaty and other Florida histories!]

[NB. I initially wrote this post for my 2018 year in review series, but I believe it’s topics are only more relevant still here in early 2021.]

On what’s not new, kind of new, and entirely new about our worst contemporary tragedies.

Seven years ago to the day, I wrote a year in review piece on the January 2011 Gabrielle Giffords shooting, and on how pioneering scholar Richard Slotkin’s AmericanStudies analyses of violence and guns in American history and identity could help us understand such shocking and disturbing acts of political and social violence. The fact that I’m writing a year in review piece seven years later about another mass shooting—and, more exactly, the fact that I could have picked any one of the almost literally countless other 2018 mass shootings as a starting point for this post; although we must keep counting, and must keep thinking about each of them and their victims individually—proves Slotkin’s theses and then some. The final book of Slotkin’s trilogy called America a “gunfighter nation,” and hardly a day has gone by in 2018 that hasn’t featured literal, painfully exemplary acts of gun-fighting. Indeed, one of the most frustratingly common responses to such mass shootings—the idea that we just need more guns and shooters to intervene—represents yet another layer to that symbolic but all-too-real gunfighter nation mythos.

So we’ve always been a nation deeply linked to images and realities of violence and guns, and mass shootings like the February 14th, 2018 massacre at Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have to be put in that longstanding and foundational American context. But at the same time, no AmericanStudier or American historian (or even slightly knowledgeable and engaged observer of American society) could possibly argue that mass shootings have not become more ubiquitous, more of a fact of American daily life, over the last few years; that whatever the longstanding impulses or inclinations to which they connect, these horrific acts of mass violence have not found more consistent outlets in the 21st century. Or, to put it more exactly and crucially, that white Americans have not been forced to deal with the threat of mass violence more fully—as African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans (among other groups) can attest, such threats have been part of the American experience of too many communities for centuries. But in 2018, the threat of mass violence has for the first time become a genuine possibility for every American community at every moment and in every space, from night clubs to synagogues, supermarkets to high schools.

That constant threat comprises a dark new reality, perhaps especially for American parents (my sons have to do monthly active shooter drills in their schools, something I can’t quite bear to dwell on). But in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, young students at the high school also modeled another and very different new reality: a generation willing and able to use their voices, their social media presence, and their activist acumen to challenge such dark histories and their causes. We’ve only just begun to see the potential effects of this group of young people and the broader generation they represent, although the November midterm elections certainly exemplified the kinds of victories this cohort can help produce. But while electoral and political results are certainly important, the fundamental truth is that the Parkland students have already and significantly changed the conversation, making clear that both gun victims and student communities will have a say in the ongoing debate around mass shootings and guns in the United States.

Last Florida history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Florida histories or stories you’d highlight?