My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Monday, May 31, 2021

May 31, 2021: Remembering Memorial Day

[Before a series on Decoration Day, the holiday that preceded and evolved into Memorial Day, a special post on shifting our collective memories of the holiday’s histories.]

On what we don’t remember about Memorial Day, and why we should.

In a long-ago post on the Statue of Liberty, I made a case for remembering, and engaging much more fully, with what the Statue was originally intended, by its French abolitionist creator, to symbolize: the legacy of slavery and abolitionism in both America and France, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the memories of what he had done to advance that cause, and so on. I tried there, hopefully with some success, to leave ample room for what the Statue has come to mean, both for America as a whole and, more significantly still, for generation upon generation of immigrant arrivals to the nation. I think those meanings, especially when tied to Emma Lazarus’ poem and its radically democratic and inclusive vision of our national identity, are beautiful and important in their own right. But how much more profound and meaningful, if certainly more complicated, would they be if they were linked to our nation’s own troubled but also inspiring histories of slavery and abolitionism, of sectional strife and Civil War, of racial divisions and those who have worked for centuries to transcend and bridge them?

I would say almost exactly the same thing when it comes to the history of Memorial Day. For the last century or so, at least since the end of World War I, the holiday has meant something broadly national and communal, an opportunity to remember and celebrate those Americans who have given their lives as members of our armed forces. While I certainly feel that some of the narratives associated with that idea are as simplifying and mythologizing and meaningless as many others I’ve analyzed here—“they died for our freedom” chief among them; the world would be a vastly different, and almost certainly less free, place had the Axis powers won World War II (for example), but I have yet to hear any convincing case that the world would be even the slightest bit worse off were it not for the more than 50,000 American troops who lives were wasted in the Vietnam War (for another)—those narratives are much more about politics and propaganda, and don’t change at all the absolutely real and tragic and profound meaning of service and loss for those who have done so and all those who know and love them. One of the most pitch-perfect statements of my position on such losses can be found in a song by (surprisingly) Bruce Springsteen; his “Gypsy Biker,” from Magic (2007), certainly includes a strident critique of the Bush Administration and Iraq War, as seen in lines like “To those who threw you away / You ain’t nothing but gone,” but mostly reflects a brother’s and family’s range of emotions and responses to the death of a young soldier in that war.

Yet as with the Statue, Memorial Day’s original meanings and narratives are significantly different from, and would add a great deal of complexity and power to, these contemporary images. The holiday was first known as Decoration Day, and was (at least per the thorough histories of it by scholars like David Blight) originated in 1865 by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina; the slaves visited a cemetery for Union soldiers on May 1st of that year and decorated their graves, a quiet but very sincere tribute to what those soldiers have given and what it had meant to the lives of these freedmen and –women. The holiday quickly spread to many other communities, and just as quickly came to focus more on the less potentially divisive, or at least less complex as reminders of slavery and division and the ongoing controversies of Reconstruction and so on, perspectives of former soldiers—first fellow Union ones, but by the 1870s veterans from both sides. Yet former slaves continued to honor the holiday in their own way, as evidenced by a powerful scene from Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “Rodman the Keeper” (1880), in which the protagonist observes a group of ex-slaves leaving their decorations on the graves of the Union dead at the cemetery where he works. On the one hand, these ex-slave memorials are parallel to the family memories that now dominate Memorial Day, and serve as a beautiful reminder that the American family extends to blood relations of very different and perhaps even more genuine kinds. But on the other hand, the ex-slave memorials represent far more complex and in many ways (I believe) significant American stories and perspectives than a simple familial memory; these acts were a continuing acknowledgment both of some of our darkest moments and of the ways in which we had, at great but necessary cost, defeated them.

Again, I’m not trying to suggest that any current aspects or celebrations of Memorial Day are anything other than genuine and powerful; having heard some eloquent words about what my Granddad’s experiences with his fellow soldiers had meant to him (he even commandeered an abandoned bunker and hand-wrote a history of the Company after the war!), I share those perspectives. But as with the Statue and with so many of our national histories, what we’ve forgotten is just as genuine and powerful, and a lot more telling about who we’ve been and thus who and where we are. The more we can remember those histories too, the more complex and meaningful our holidays, our celebrations, our memories, and our futures will be. Next Decoration Day post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Saturday, May 29, 2021

May 29-30, 2021: Sarah Satkowski’s Guest Post on T.C. Boyle

[Like Victoria Scavo earlier this month, Sarah Satkowski is a graduating senior at King’s College, with whose work I got connected by my friend and Guest Poster Robin Field. I’m so excited to share the work of another awesome young scholar!]

Unethical Work Standards for Undocumented Immigrants Today as Represented in T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain

by Sarah Satkowski, King’s College ’21 

              It is hard to face the harsh realities that exist within one’s own country. News and media sources cover a lot of issues occurring at the border and problems immigrants face when coming over to the United States. We rarely see the struggles that immigrants, specifically undocumented immigrants, face when they are trying to build a life within the United States. One issue not often talked about is the terrible working conditions these immigrants sometimes find themselves in. No one should be subjected to unethical, unsanitary, and unsafe treatment for simply trying to improve one’s livelihood and the livelihood of one’s family. T. C. Boyle’s novel The Tortilla Curtain demonstrates, through the character of América, the harsh realities that still exist in today’s society about the unfair and unethical treatment within the workplace for undocumented immigrants.

              The Tortilla Curtain follows immigrants Cándido and América on their journey to make a good life for themselves in the United States. They face obstacles such as housing, healthcare, personal safety, and hunger. Most, if not all, of their struggles come from the difficulty of not being able to find steady work. When they did find temporary work, they were treated and paid unfairly. Shockingly, this situation occurs across the country today and affects millions of immigrants. They are put into dangerous working conditions without any means to defend themselves or create a change because of their undocumented status and fear of deportation. Undocumented immigrants are statistically paid less, put at higher risk, and work more hours when compared to a documented citizen (Moyce and Schenker 352). Three dangers for immigrants in the workplace that we see represented through América in The Tortilla Curtain are little to no safety standards, unrealistic and unfair demands, and sexual abuse.

              América obtains work cleaning statues for an unscrupulous man named Jim Shirley. On her first day of work, she is only given yellow gloves to use while cleaning with strong chemicals. The second day she works, the man neglects to give her any gloves and she still does not receive any other protective gear like a face covering or glasses to protect her from the fumes. América suffers throughout the day with her eyes watering, her throat hurting, and her hands beginning to deteriorate from the chemicals. Boyle describes her hands: “the skin had begun to crack and peel and that all the color had gone out of the flesh…These weren’t her hands—they were the hands of a corpse” (131). Not only were these conditions despicable for the average person, but América was also pregnant and so these conditions were even more harmful to herself and her unborn baby. In the United States today, regulations should be followed to ensure the safety of workers, but often these regulations are ignored in the employment of undocumented immigrants. If they are given safety equipment, the immigrants have been known to not wear it because it does not fit them, or they feel they cannot effectively perform their work with it. The language barrier that is often present between immigrants and employers also prevents them from understanding and receiving proper safety training (Moyce and Schenker 355). Associated with these dangerous working conditions are the unfair and unrealistic demands expected of these immigrants.

              At the same cleaning job, América’s working conditions are undesirable as she has to work under demands that are extremely unethical. To start, this work is not guaranteed and so each day she does not know if she will even receive pay. When she does work, she is cheated out of fair pay and is only paid for six hours out of the eight-hour day she worked, when she was only supposed to work six hours in the first place. Throughout this eight-hour day, she is offered no breaks for lunch or even to use the bathroom. Boyle states: “she was tired and hungry and she had to pee, but at the same time she wanted to stay here forever in the big clean open room earning four dollars and sixteen cents for every hour” (94). Not only was she performing physically exhausting work in terrible conditions, but she was also being paid unfairly for the work she was doing by a wealthy American who could afford to pay her a fair wage. When immigrants are employed, there is usually no employment contract and so there is a lot of uncertainty for how long they will have work and if they will face any harm while working. Immigrant workers have reported that employers care about speed over safety, so they do not have to pay them as much and as a result, many workers are injured. They also are pressured to feel as though they cannot take breaks, not even to use the bathroom, without being shamed (Moyce and Schenker 355). Workers without documentation often have no way of seeking help for their working conditions and often face abuse.

              Along with the abuse América experiences because of not having proper safety equipment, she also faces sexual abuse with no means to protect herself or prosecute her abuser. When Jim Shirley drove her back to the labor exchange where he hired her, he was alone with her in the car and sexually assaulted her in the front seat. Immigrants working within the United States often face “physical, mental, and sexual abuse” (Moyce and Schenker 355). Women especially are often harassed and workers in general are neglected because of the bad safety protocols. This abuse often leads to bad mental health results such as depression for many of these workers. There is a very low prosecution rate in defense of immigrant workers, which leads to more abuse occurring (Moyce and Schenker 355).

               Immigrants today face many more problems than the average American is aware of. T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain shows the harsh realities still existing in today’s society within the workplace for undocumented immigrants. This novel, while published in the 1995, remains relevant today. The danger and unsafe conditions undocumented immigrants face should raise alarm bells and more should be done to protect them. Many of these immigrants are searching for a better life and simply want to do better for themselves and their families. They are constantly put into harm’s way and have obstacles thrown at them that they are unable to escape because of their undocumented status.

Works Cited

Boyle, T. C. The Tortilla Curtain. Penguin, 1995.

Moyce, Sally C., and Marc Schenker. “Migrant Workers and Their Occupational Health and

Safety.” Annual Review of Public Health, 2018,


[Memorial Day series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think?]

May 29, 2021: May 2021 Recap

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

May 3: Mexican American Voices: Gloria Anzaldúa: A Cinco de Mayo series kicks off with what a stunning autoethnographer reveals about the US and us.

May 4: Mexican American Voices: Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton: The series continues with a handful of pieces that help us better remember an influential Mexican American author and story.

May 5: Mexican American Voices: José Enrique de la Peña: Takeaways from a controversial but apparently authentic Mexican American War memoir, as the series rolls on.

May 6: Mexican American Voices: Sandra Cisneros and Esperanza: Two childhood experiences that a classic YA short story cycle gets precisely right.

May 7: Mexican American Voices: Chavez y Huerta: The series concludes with the inspiring lives and legacies of an interconnected pair of labor leaders.

May 8-9: Victoria Scavo’s Guest Post on Gender Roles in Italian American Culture & Literature: The first of two awesome Guest Posts from King’s College students of my friend Robin Field (for the second, watch this space later today!).

May 10: Spring 2021 Moments: Jericho Brown and the Power of Poetry: A series reflecting on the most challenging semester of my life kicks off with an impromptu, powerful poetic discussion.

May 11: Spring 2021 Moments: Fruitvale and Blackish: The series continues with a planned discussion that exemplified why we do what we do, even in the toughest times.

May 12: Spring 2021 Moments: Gast’s American Progress: What my grad student educators helped me see in a classic American painting, as the series reflects on.

May 13: Spring 2021 Moments: Adult Learning Emails: One of the many reasons I’m so glad to be teaching in adult ed programs, this semester more than ever.

May 14: Spring 2021 Moments: Talking Of Thee I Sing: The series concludes with some of my ongoing book talks, and a request for more possibilities!

May 15-16: Crowd-sourced Spring 2021 Moments and Reflections: More reflections on this most challenging of semesters—add yours in comments, please!

May 17: Small Axe and America: New Orleans and Creolization: A series on one of my favorite recent cultural works kicks off with how NOLA helps us engage a foundational American identity.

May 18: Small Axe and America: Remembering Reggae: The series continues with the danger of cultural appropriation and how to remain more inclusive instead.

May 19: Small Axe and America: The Courts and Justice: The progressive potential of the court system and how critical race theory helps us understand it, as the series rolls on.

May 20: Small Axe and America: Police Reform: A telling question about the possibilities and limits of police reform, and why and how we need to keep asking it.

May 21: Small Axe and America: Caribbean American Artists: The series concludes with five Caribbean American artists I’d put in conversation with Steve McQueen.

May 22-23: Joe Moser’s Guest Post on Steve McQueen: A repeat of my colleague and friend Joe Moser’s Guest Post on McQueen’s first three films!

May 24: American Beaches: Revere Beach: A pre-Memorial Day weekend series kicks off with three telling stages in the history of America’s first public beach.

May 25: American Beaches: The Inkwell: The series continues with three layers to one of America’s most unique historic beaches.

May 26: American Beaches: Gidget and the Beach Boys: AmericanStudying the 1960s surfing craze, as the series bbqs on.

May 27: American Beaches: On the Beach: An intense and tragic film that couldn’t compete with historic fears.

May 28: American Beaches: Jamie Hirami’s Guest Post on Venice Beach: The series concludes with one more repeat Guest Post, AMST PhD student Jamie Hirami on LA’s Venice Beach!

New Guest Post later today,


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

Friday, May 28, 2021

May 28, 2021: American Beaches: Jamie Hirami’s Guest Post on Venice Beach

[The approach to Memorial Day weekend means many things—some of them far more serious, as I’ll get to in next week’s series—but one of them is most definitely the beach. Whatever this summer looks like for all of us, I sure hope it can include some beach trips, so to prime that pump here’s a series on the histories and stories of American beaches!]

[Jamie Hirami is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the amazing Penn State Harrisburg program, where she’s writing a dissertation on Venice Beach which promises to break significantly new ground in American material culture and cultural studies. This Guest Post is just a glimpse of what’s to come!]

Freak Beach.  Muscle Beach.  Silicon Beach.  Coney Island of the Pacific.  Slum by the Sea.  Venice Beach, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, goes by many monikers.  None of those nicknames reference the original plan that founder Abbot Kinney, heir to a tobacco fortune, envisioned in 1898 when he bought out his real estate partners for the southern portion land that also originally encompassed Santa Monica: a resplendent, middle-class seaside resort and town, which would cater to its clientele with Chautauqua’s and other elements of high culture.  Ultimately, mass and popular cultures shaped its direction as an amusement destination while the counter cultures of the mid-twentieth century influenced its modern reputation as bohemian community. 

Modeled after Venice, Italy, Kinney transformed the marshy land into a series of navigable canals along which, early visitors could buy real estate for single-family home development. Venice-of-America officially opened on July 4, 1905 to a crowd of about 40,000 people.  Kinney’s grand cultural intentions culminated in a 3,400 seat auditorium built for educational lectures and cultural performances, which closed after one season.  Instead, visitors flocked to the pier, bathhouse, beach and other amusements.  In fact, rides and games proved to be so much more popular than the Chautauqua experience, that in January 1906, he opened the hugely popular midway plaisance, which included exhibits and freak shows from the world’s fairs in Portland and St. Louis.

By the time Kinney died in October 1920, Venice’s original luster had greatly diminished.  The canals did not drain properly, creating murky and dirty waterways, and the national trend for boardwalk amusements, in general, faded.  Years of opposition by the growing permanent residents and clergy to boxing matches, alcohol, dancing, and more sordid amusements was capped by a hugely destructive fire that caused over a $1 million in damages.  In 1925, the City of Los Angeles annexed Venice, filling its famous canals in 1929 to make room for roads. 

Over the next forty years, Venice remained an outwardly run-down version of its former self, but in its place, a vibrant counter-culture fomented cultural growth.  It became a Southern California hotbed for the Beats; a hippie commune during the Sixties; and it embraced transients, hustlers, artists, and performers. 

Today, Venice’s increasingly gentrified neighborhoods have put homeless and homeowners, hustlers and shop-owners, and low-income versus high-income residents at odds, but it still maintains a fierce stance against the mainstream.  In 2007, Abbot Kinney Blvd. (the main commercial thoroughfare) opened its first chain store—Pinkberry—causing an uproar among residents and local shop owners who petitioned people to boycott the chain.  Three years later, it closed because it was underperforming.  More importantly, Venice still maintains ties to its popular culture beginnings with numerous sidewalk performers, a freak show along the boardwalk, and a voyeuristic outdoor gym among other diversions.  Venice Beach, through its varied history, remains, at heart, a destination that caters to popular amusements.

[Next BeachStudying tomorrow,


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

Thursday, May 27, 2021

May 27, 2021: American Beaches: On the Beach

[The approach to Memorial Day weekend means many things—some of them far more serious, as I’ll get to in next week’s series—but one of them is most definitely the beach. Whatever this summer looks like for all of us, I sure hope it can include some beach trips, so to prime that pump here’s a series on the histories and stories of American beaches!]

On the intense and tragic film that couldn’t compete with historic fears.

1959, the same year as the original Gidget movie about which I blogged yesterday, also saw the release of a very, very different beach film: On the Beach. Based on British-Australian writer Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel, the film featured an all-star cast (including Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire) as the sailors, scientists, and their friends and loved ones dealing with a post-apocalyptic world. It’s 1964, World War III has taken place, and the resulting radiation is slowly taking over the world and destroying its remaining inhabitants. Mostly set on or around Peck’s submarine, the film uses that setting to create a broadly claustrophobic tone, portraying a world in which likely slow death by radiation poisoning or the humane but absolute alternative of suicide pills seem to be the only possible futures. It’s unrelenting and uncompromising, and deserves to be much better remembered than it is.

While that’s true of the film on its own artistic merits, it’s even more true in terms of what the film reveals about the Cold War’s threats and fears. When I think of World War III scenarios in popular films, I tend to think of over-the-top dramatics of one kind or another: the ridiculous satire of Dr. Strangelove (1964); the teenage humor and heroics of War Games (1983) and The Manhattan Project (1986); the flag-waving jingoism of Red Dawn (1984). All of those films can illustrate certain important aspects of the period, but all feel, again, exaggerated in one way or another, extreme in both their plots and tones. Whereas On the Beach, to this AmericanStudier at least, feels profoundly grounded, offers a socially and psychologically realistic depiction not just of the potential aftermath of a nuclear war, but also and even more tellingly of the period’s collective fears about what such a war would mean and do. Seeing [SPOILER ALERT] Fred Astaire kill himself rather than face imminent radiation poisoning—well, that feels deeply representative of the moment’s worst fears.

You’d think that such fears might have lead to more widespread opposition to the Cold War’s arms race and military industrial complex—and indeed the U.S. military must have thought so too, as they denied the filmmakers permission to use a submarine or any other official materials. But I would argue that whatever possible influence such fears might have had was far outweighed by a different set of fears, ones exemplified by October 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis: fears not of nuclear war and its aftermath per se, but rather of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, and what would happen if America’s did not match and even exceed that opposing threat. Whereas On the Beach portrayed the horrific results of a nuclear war, the Missile Crisis reflected and amplified fears that the U.S. was potentially unprepared for such a war, one that our enemy was willing and able to bring to our very doorstep. Perhaps no film, not even one as compelling and convincing as On the Beach, could compete with such historic threats—and so the arms race and the Cold War only deepened in the 1960s and beyond.

Last BeachStudying tomorrow,


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

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

May 26, 2021: American Beaches: Gidget and The Beach Boys

[The approach to Memorial Day weekend means many things—some of them far more serious, as I’ll get to in next week’s series—but one of them is most definitely the beach. Whatever this summer looks like for all of us, I sure hope it can include some beach trips, so to prime that pump here’s a series on the histories and stories of American beaches!]

On popular cultural images of the beach, and what we might make of them.

An alien observer seeking to learn about America solely from its popular culture might well think that in the early 1960s the whole nation had gone surf crazy. The hit 1959 film Gidget (1959), starring Sandra Dee as a rebellious 17 year old who joins the local surfer culture and Cliff Robertson as the Korean War vet turned surf guru who shepards her along, quickly spawned two popular sequels: 1961’s Gidget Goes Hawaiian (with Deborah Walley taking over the title role) and 1963’s Gidget Goes to Rome (with Cindy Carol doing the same). One of 1962’s best-selling rock albums was Surfin’ Safari, the debut by the California group The Beach Boys; less than a year later they released their first mega-hit, Surfin’ U.S.A. (1963). There were of course many other popular trends in these years, but on both the big screen and the record machine, surfing was a surefire early 1960s hit.

Trying to make sense of why and how American fads get started can be pretty difficult at best, but I would argue that the surfing fad in popular culture can be analyzed in a couple different ways. For one thing, the fad represents an interesting way to illustrate the transition between the 1950s and 1960s—as Gidget demonstrates, surfing culture has often been portrayed as a counter-culture, an alternative to the more buttoned-down mainstream society, and of course the rise of counter-cultures (and the kinds of social and cultural movements to which they connected) is a key element to the 1960s in America. So the popularity of these surfing texts (like the popularity of early rock and roll more generally) could be read as an indication that Americans were ready for such counter-culture movements, and Gidget itself could be defined as a 1959 origin point for much of what followed in next decade. Seen in that light, the hugely popular 1966 documentary The Endless Summer represents a high-water mark for all these trends, before the counter-culture began to distintegrate later in the decade.

While that specific historical context would be one way to analyze the early 1960s surfing fad, however, I think a longstanding American narrative could offer another option. It was three decades later that the film Point Break (1991) overtly linked surfers to outlaws, potraying a band of surfing bank robbers led by Patrick Swayze’s philosophical Bodhi (a character not unlike Cliff Robertson’s in Gidget). But to my mind, surfing culture has always contained echoes of the Wild West, represented a new lawless frontier where rough but noble cowboys escape the confines of civilization, battle for survival in extreme conditions, and, if they’re lucky, ride off in Western sunsets. The Wild West was always more of a cultural image than a historical or social reality, of course, and an image constructed with particular clarity in a pop culture text, the Western. That genre was famously moving toward more revisionist films by the late 1960s—but perhaps it had already been supplanted, or at least supplemented, in popular consciousness by surfing stories. In any case, to quote “Surfin’ Safari”: “I tell you surfing’s mighty wild.”

Next BeachStudying tomorrow,


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

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

May 25, 2021: American Beaches: The Inkwell

[The approach to Memorial Day weekend means many things—some of them far more serious, as I’ll get to in next week’s series—but one of them is most definitely the beach. Whatever this summer looks like for all of us, I sure hope it can include some beach trips, so to prime that pump here’s a series on the histories and stories of American beaches!]

On three layers to one of America’s most unique historic beaches.

The small town of Oak Bluffs, on Martha’s Vineyard, includes one of America’s most historic African American resorts, a summertime community with roots more than a century old and a vibrant contemporary presence. That community has long designated its preferred stretch of the Oak Bluffs town beach “The Inkwell,” a name that was originally conferred out of racial bigotry but that (at least as I understand it, and I’m directly descended from one of the island’s foremost historians!) was subsequently and lovingly adopted by the African American community itself. Indeed, scholar and frequent Islander Henry Louis Gates Jr. named his genealogical and historical organization the Inkwell Foundation, a detail which nicely ties together the site’s past and present roles and meanings in African American and American life.

The Inkwell and Oak Bluff’s African American community are also the titular and principal setting for one of the more unique recent American bestselling novels, Stephen Carter’s The Emperor of Ocean Park (2002). Carter, a law professor who has gone on to write many more, equally successful works of fiction, was famously paid a seven-figure advance for Emperor, which combines multiple genres (it’s a murder mystery and legal thriller that’s also an academic satire, historical novel, and romance) into a work that’s not always more than the sum of its parts but is always readable and compelling. And as its titular emphasis on Martha’s Vineyard’s African community suggests (Ocean Park adjoins The Inkwell), Carter’s novel is at its heart a historical and sociological study of that community, and of the complexities of identity that arise from its combination of race, class, and family history (his narrator is the son of that titular emperor, a preeminent African American judge).

Similarly connected to those complexities of identity, community, and history is another frequent summer visitor to Martha’s Vineyard, President Barack Obama. Political commentators have often linked Obama and his family’s Vineyard vacations to those of his Democratic presidential predecessor, Bill Clinton; conservative commentators have used the vacations to argue that Obama is out of touch with most Americans. But others, including many Islanders, have instead linked the Obama family’s time on the Vineyard to the island’s historic and contemporary African American communities. That Obama’s vacations could be read as either deeply connected to those communities or entirely distinct from them is a reflection not only of his own complex American identity, but also of the evolving history and story of this complex and potent American beach and site.

Next BeachStudying tomorrow,


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

Monday, May 24, 2021

May 24, 2021: American Beaches: Revere Beach

[The approach to Memorial Day weekend means many things—some of them far more serious, as I’ll get to in next week’s series—but one of them is most definitely the beach. Whatever this summer looks like for all of us, I sure hope it can include some beach trips, so to prime that pump here’s a series on the histories and stories of American beaches!]

On three stages in the history of an exemplary American beach.

On July 12th, 1896, Revere Beach greeted nearly 50,000 visitors on its opening day as America’s first public beach. The site and occasion represented the confluence of multiple turn of the century trends: the completion of an urban railroad line that allowed those numerous visitors to reach the beach; the City Beautiful movement that heavily influenced landscape architect Charles Eliot, who designed Revere Beach; the increased possibility of free time for leisure and entertainment (thanks in large part to the successes of the labor movement), which led to the popularity of sites like Coney Island and Revere Beach; and the recent waves of immigration, since many of those public visitors to Revere Beach were immigrant families. For all those reasons and more, Revere Beach was more than just the nation’s first public beach—it was a hugely iconic symbol of turn of the 20th century American society.

By the second half of the century, however, Revere Beach had become a very different and far more contested kind of symbol. A number of 1960s and 70s factors and narratives contributed to increasingly negative images of the beach and, ultimately, its near-abandonment: demographic shifts that brought more African American visitors to the beach, during the same era as the Boston busing riots which demonstrated just how contentious race remained in the region (particularly between African Americans and working class white ethnics, the two communities who came to comprise Revere Beach’s principal clienteles); deterioration of the beach’s surrounding  neighborhoods, leading to a substantial increase in crime within a short period of time (there were 500 arrests near the beach in 1969 and 2700 in 1974); and the historic Blizzard of 1978, which destroyed or drove out most of the amusements, businesses, and landmarks that had not already succumbed. Whether fairly or unfairly, by the early 1980s Revere Beach was best known for the image of hypodermic needles littering the sand.

As the recent article at that last link illustrates, many of those negative images remain in the Bostonian consciousness into the early 21st century. But there’s no question that Revere Beach has also entered a new stage, one marked by the debates over development and gentrification on the one hand and tradition and preservation on the other that have informed so much of America’s urban landscape over the last few decades. As always, it’s not necessarily either-or—Revere’s waterfront can be developed (and to a degree must be if it is to survive) without the history being lost, and the history can be preserved (and to my mind must be if we are to remember our past) without sacrificing future growth. And as always, what’s most needed is an awareness of the past that does not elide the darkest times but preserves the ideals; so that whatever Revere Beach becomes in the future, the site can remain emblematic of its status as America’s first public beach.

Next BeachStudying tomorrow,


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

Saturday, May 22, 2021

May 22-23, 2021: Joe Moser’s Guest Post on Steve McQueen

[One of my favorite cultural works of the last year was Small Axe, filmmaker Steve McQueen’s anthology film series about the West Indian community in England from the 1960s through the 1980s. I’m not an EnglandStudier, but I think there are plenty of ways to apply the five wonderful films to AmericanStudying. So this week I’ve highlighted a handful, leading up to this Guest Post on McQueen’s prior films!]

[I’ve written a few times in this space about my former Fitchburg State English Studies colleague, and lifelong friend, Joe Moser. Joe wrote two great paragraphs toward the end of his first book on director Steve McQueen’s first two films, and I asked his permission to quote those paragraphs here. And then he’s followed them with two new paragraphs giving part of his take on McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave!]

[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.”

[Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think?]

Friday, May 21, 2021

May 21, 2021: Small Axe and America: Caribbean American Artists

[One of my favorite cultural works of the last year was Small Axe, filmmaker Steve McQueen’s anthology film series about the West Indian community in England from the 1960s through the 1980s. I’m not an EnglandStudier, but I think there are plenty of ways to apply the five wonderful films to AmericanStudying. So this week I’ll highlight a handful, leading up to a Guest Post on McQueen’s prior films!]

On a handful of the many talented Caribbean American artists who can rival the great McQueen.

1)      Claude McKay: A Jamaican American poet and key Harlem Renaissance figure whose “If We Must Die” is one of the most impassioned critical patriotic poems I know, and just the tip of the iceberg of his prolific and impressive career.  

2)      Paule Marshall: The daughter of an immigrant father (from Barbados) and an African American mother, Marshall grew up in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 40s and went on to write some of the most compelling fiction of the late 20th century, from her debut novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) to her award-winning Praisesong for the Widow (1983) among many others.

3)      Jean-Michel Basquiat: The son of a Haitian immigrant father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat became one of the late 20th century’s most groundbreaking and influential artists (and a compatriot of Andy Warhol) before his tragic death from a heroin overdose at the age of 27. Jeffrey Wright captures his essence perfectly in the 1996 film.

4)      Gloria Estefan: I could have highlighted any one of the three Cuban American musicians I discuss in that hyperlinked post in this spot, as all three (as I argued there) changed the game in their respective genres and eras. But what I can say, the rhythm got me.

5)      Sontenish Myers: I just learned about this young Jamaican American filmmaker through that excellent interview, so I won’t pretend to know much more yet than you all will when you read it too. But I wanted to make clear that there are so many young Caribbean American artists extending, amplifying, and building on these legacies, just like Steve McQueen is.

Guest Post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other takes on Caribbean American connections?

Thursday, May 20, 2021

May 20, 2021: Small Axe and America: Police Reform

[One of my favorite cultural works of the last year was Small Axe, filmmaker Steve McQueen’s anthology film series about the West Indian community in England from the 1960s through the 1980s. I’m not an EnglandStudier, but I think there are plenty of ways to apply the five wonderful films to AmericanStudying. So this week I’ll highlight a handful, leading up to a Guest Post on McQueen’s prior films!]

On a telling question about the possibility and limits of police reform, and why we need to keep asking it.

In the last paragraph of my year in review post on race, memory, and justice, I briefly addressed the complicated and even contradictory (yet clearly coexisting) realities of the racist origins and development of yet widespread African American support for the police in the United States. While there are various ways to understand and engage those concurrent realities, I would say that they do naturally lend themselves to an emphasis on police reform (rather than, say, abolition) as a vital goal. The third Small Axe film, Red, White, and Blue, depicts precisely such a reformer, a historical figure who sought to change the institutional racism of English policing (among other problems he hoped to address) from the inside: Leroy Logan (played by John Boyega in the film), a longtime London Metropolitan Police officer who founded the Black Police Association (now the National Black Police Association) and chaired it for its first 30 years (1983-2013, when Logan retired from the force). Logan’s recent autobiography, Closing Ranks: My Life as a Cop (2020, and co-written with George Luke), describes both the frustrations and failures and the successes and progress of that reformist career.

In watching Red, White, and Blue, I couldn’t help but think about a very different recent cultural work: HBO’s Watchmen (2019), and specifically its historical storyline featuring the character of Hooded Justice. That fictional character reminds us that the US has had African American police officers for far longer than the UK (Logan is presented in the film, apparently accurately, as one of the first Black officers when he begins his career in the early 1980s), but that they have nonetheless consistently come up against the same institutional racism and prejudice, the same challenges to both their own career and any overarching progress, that Logan encountered. And just because The Wire is never far from my AmericanStudying brain, I likewise thought about a character like Bunny Colvin, an African American police lieutenant whose efforts to change both policing and the war on drugs in the show’s fictionalized Baltimore ultimately lead to his own departure from the force rather than any substantive or at least enduring changes. Reform from within makes sense as at least part of the equation, but such fictional characters (dealing with all too historical and ongoing realities) illustrate just how challenging such reforms will always be.

But if I can quote from one more American text, Don Henley’s song “Inside Job” (from the 2000 album of the same name): “Insect politics/Indifferent universe/Bang your head against the wall/But apathy is worse.” Of course those last two aren’t the only options when it comes to policing problems in the US (or anywhere else), and I don’t want to dismiss entirely here the far more radical idea of abolition. But the truth of social reform and movements throughout American history is that they have almost always involved a series of changes, rather than massive or sweeping overhaul (with perhaps the only exception being the abolition of slavery, which did involve massive changes but also and not coincidentally the bloodiest conflict in US history)—and I would also argue that making such changes can be just as radical, if not as striking, as such overhauls might be. So frustrating as it might be, I think we need to keep banging our heads against the wall of police reform; and in the story of Leroy Logan, historically and as fictionalized so potently by Red, White, and Blue, we’ve got an excellent portrayal of both the frustrations and (eventually but unquestionably) the possibility of reform and change.

Last Axe application tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other takes on Caribbean American connections?

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

May 19, 2021: Small Axe and America: The Courts and Justice

[One of my favorite cultural works of the last year was Small Axe, filmmaker Steve McQueen’s anthology film series about the West Indian community in England from the 1960s through the 1980s. I’m not an EnglandStudier, but I think there are plenty of ways to apply the five wonderful films to AmericanStudying. So this week I’ll highlight a handful, leading up to a Guest Post on McQueen’s prior films!]

On the progressive potential of the court system, and how a frustratingly divisive theoretical frame helps us understand it.

The first of the five Small Axe films, both in the order they were released and in the chronology of their settings and stories, is Mangrove, which tells the compelling true story of a 1960s Caribbean restaurant (the Mangrove) in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood which became the focus of both repeated acts of police brutality and a subsequent criminal case that sought to convict the so-called Mangrove Nine (a group of West Indian activists and community leaders, including the restaurant’s owner Frank Crichlow, who had led communal pushback to the police’s misdeeds) of the serious charges of riot and affray. The majority of the nine beat the charges (and those who were convicted received reduced sentences), thanks in large part to their stirring testimony in the course of the trial (as well as to the efforts of their legal allies), and the case is considered a hugely significant legal advance for Britons of color and for the gradual, haphazard, fraught, yet vital and inspiring move toward a more inclusive and less institutionally racist English society.

The Mangrove Nine case thus represents something about which I’ve thought and written a great deal in an American historical context: the possibility for the court system, and thus the legal and justice systems overall, to serve as a vehicle for progress and equity. Of course far, far far far far far, too often the opposite has been true—not just with racist and discriminatory and exclusionary laws and policies, but also and to me even more frustratingly with the courts themselves supporting and reinforcing and amplifying those legal, political, and social elements. Yet at the same time, court decisions have absolutely advanced numerous social movements and causes throughout American history, from abolition and birthright citizenship as illustrated by my first hyperlinks in this paragraph to the more recent roles of the courts in (for example) opposing President Trump’s Muslim bans (although the Supreme Court unfortunately dropped that ball). At the very least, our history reveals the persistence of this potential progressive role for the courts, and remembering those histories allows for hope for that continued role in the present and future.

Interestingly, one helpful theoretical lens for both remembering and extending that hopeful legacy is something that has become a dirty word for many 21st century Americans (and currently numerous state legislatures): critical race theory. I believe even more thoughtful Americans sometimes see critical race theory as only advancing the more directly critical side of the equation, the one that argues, in the first of CRT’s two founding ideas, “that white supremacy exists and exhibits power maintained over time, and, in particular, that the law plays a role in this process.” But CRT likewise has a more optimistic layer, as illustrated by its second founding idea: “that transforming the relationship between law and racial power, as well as achieving racial emancipation and anti-subordination more broadly, are possible.” That sums up quite nicely what I would want to argue about the progressive potential of the courts and the law, a potential exemplified by the Mangrove Nine decision and the inspiring conclusion of Mangrove alike.

Next Axe application tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other takes on Caribbean American connections?

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

May 18, 2021: Small Axe and America: Remembering Reggae

[One of my favorite cultural works of the last year was Small Axe, filmmaker Steve McQueen’s anthology film series about the West Indian community in England from the 1960s through the 1980s. I’m not an EnglandStudier, but I think there are plenty of ways to apply the five wonderful films to AmericanStudying. So this week I’ll highlight a handful, leading up to a Guest Post on McQueen’s prior films!]

On the danger of cultural appropriation and how to make sure we remain more inclusive instead.

By far my favorite of the five Small Axe films, and quite possibly my favorite movie I watched over the last year, is Lovers Rock, McQueen and his co-writer Courttia Newland’s tribute to the West London reggae house party scene set over the course of one exhilarating 1980 night. While the film’s title refers in part to the blossoming romance between Franklyn (Micheal Ward) and Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) at its center, it also alludes (as I learned while researching this post, a phrase that I’m sure will apply equally to every subsequent post in the week’s series) to a popular musical genre and movement in 1970s London. Indeed, that last hyperlinked article goes so far as to call Lover’s Rock “reggae’s Motown,” an argument that this English musical moment was as profoundly influential in terms of its cultural and historical contexts as was that hugely significant Detroit musical scene in America. Yet that same article’s telling subtitle adds both that Lover’s Rock “influenced The Police” and yet that it “was sidelined in its native Britain.”

Those two phrases might seem contradictory, but I would argue that the opposite could also be true—that the appropriation of a genre by white artists can lead, and all too often has led, precisely to the sidelining of the genre’s original, foundational voices and communities. I think we’ve seen a very similar trend play out when it comes to reggae in the United States, with some of the genre’s biggest hits being covers by white artists (like Eric Clapton’s cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” and UB40’s cover of Tony Tribe’s reggae version of Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine” [yes, the song was originally Diamond’s, but UB40 specifically said they only knew Tribe’s reggae version when they covered it]). Moreover, reggae-inspired white groups like UB40 or Sublime have been the most prominent or at least best-selling artists within the genre overall. Of course all those songs and artists are examples of the cross-cultural and creolized trends I highlighted in yesterday’s post (and that extend to the worlds of rock and pop music more broadly in American history to be sure), and aren’t in and of themselves a bad thing. But when it comes to the relative obscurity of original reggae artists in comparison, particularly artists of color, I think the word “sidelined” would still be all too apt; Bob Marley might be an exception, but if so he’s the exception that proves the rule.

So how do we push back on and reverse that unfortunate trend? The obvious answer, and not a bad one at all, would be to listen to and share widely many more of those original songs and artists, including all those in lists like this one. But one of the best things about the film Lovers Rock is the way that it highlights the multilayered cultural and social meanings of a genre like reggae, the spaces and communities—from an individual house to the neighborhood of West London to multi-generational trans-Atlantic families—that are part of every song, every artist, and most especially every communal performance and party. So better remembering reggae, in 1980 London and 2021 America alike, also means engaging much more fully with all those cultural and communal layers, with all the ways that lovers rock.

Next Axe application tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other takes on Caribbean American connections?