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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

August 9, 2022: Birthday Bests: 2011-2012

[On August 15th, this AmericanStudier celebrates his 45th birthday. So as I do each year, here’s a series sharing some of my favorite posts from each year on the blog, leading up to a new post with 45 favorites from the last year. And as ever, you couldn’t give me a better present than to say hi and tell me a bit about what brings you to the blog, what you’ve found or enjoyed here, your own AmericanStudies thoughts, or anything else!]

35 of my favorite posts from my blog’s second year!

August 16: Me Too: In which I follow up the birthday favorites by highlighting five posts that make clear just how much I too continue to learn about America.

August 23: Virginia, Cradle of American Studies: The first post in what I believe was my first series (now of course the blog’s central format), on a few of Virginia’s American Studies connections.

September 1: First Questions: A back to school post, highlighting both the role that teaching plays in my American Studying and my (continued!) desire for your input on my topics here.

September 2: Not Tortured Enough: On torture, American ideals and realities, and how contemporary politics and overarching American questions intersect.

September 12: The Neverending Story: Perhaps the most vital American Studies response I can imagine to September 11th and its decade-long aftermath.

October 6: Native Voices: Linking the NEASA conference at Plimoth Plantation, the hardest part of my dissertation and first book, and a key American question.

October 11: Remembering an Iconoclastic Genius: One of my most important jobs here, I think, is to help us better remember important (and often inspiring) people and histories and stories that we’ve forgotten; Derreck Bell is one such person.

October 19: The Importance of Reading Ernest: Making the case for an under-read American great, and remembering to keep my literary interests present in this space at the same time.

November 7: Moments That Remain 1: The fall’s NEASA conference was one of the best weekends of my life, and it was very exciting to be able to bring a bit of it to the blog.

November 14: Kids Say the Darnedest Things 1: Of the few different ways I’ve tried to grapple with the Penn State scandal in this space, I think this series, using student voices and ideas to remember the best of what college should be, is my favorite.

November 28: Bond, Racist Bond?: It’s not easy to analyze something we love—but I tried that here, with one of my favorite films in my favorite series.

December 5: Defining Diversity: Transitioning from a topical post (one responding to other American commentators) to the continued development of my own ideas about American culture and identity.

December 12: Cross-Culture 1: It’s Not Only Rock and Roll: And then extending those ideas to one of the many different media, genres, and disciplines that American Studies helps us analyze.

December 19: Making My List 1: Memory Days: The Memory Days have become a separate and ongoing project and page here, but this is where they began.

December 29: Year in Review 4: School for Scandal: Another stab at Penn State—not searching for answers so much as highlighting some of the key American Studies questions.

January 4: Gaga for American Studies: What American Studies can help us see in and say about Lady Gaga. Enough said.

January 21: American Studies for Lifelong Learning: A series that helped me plan the spring semester, connect my teaching to this blog, and, in this case, move me toward both a new experience and what would turn out to be my third book.

January 23: Mexican American Studies: I’m maybe most proud of this series out of all that I’ve done in this space this year, and this is where it started.

February 2: The Three Acts of John Rocker: Trying to do complex justice to a figure and story that are both close to my heart (or at least the Atlanta Braves are) and easily over-simplified.

February 16: Remembering Yasuhiro Ishimoto: Another far-too forgotten figure, and a post inspired by an idea from a friend (which was the origin for the now-frequent crowd-sourced posts).

February 24: Detroit Connections: I think it’s fair to say that I hadn’t thought about this topic at all prior to coming up with the series and writing the post. That’s part of what a blog allows us to do, and while the results have to speak for themselves, I love the opportunity.

March 6: Celebrating Zitkala-Sa: The whole Women’s History series was a lot of fun, but any time I get the chance to recommend this unique and amazing author, I take it.

March 21: Balboa Park: Family vacations will never be the same, now that they’re part of my American Studying and blogging too. That’s fine by me.

March 27: Race and Danny Chen: Like the prior day’s subject, Trayvon Martin, Chen is a tragically killed American whose story we should all know and with which we have to engage.

April 4: Melville’s Confidence Man: A good reminder that both literature and laughter have their place on the blog too.

April 19: How Would a Patriot Act? Part Three: This post on the amazing and inspiring Yung Wing helped me continue developing book three.

April 26: Great American Stories, Part Four: One of the very best American short stories, by one of my very favorite authors.

May 10: Maurice Sendak: Sometimes I feel locked into a week’s series, but Sendak’s death reminded me that sometimes I need to shift gears and write about a topical and important subject.

May 29: Remembering Pat Tillman: I hope I did justice to the complexities and ambiguities in this American life and death; this remains by far my most-read post on the Open Salon version of this blog, so it seems like it struck a chord with folks.

June 2-3: Remembering or Commemorating War: Michael Kammen, Kurt Vonnegut and Clint Eastwood, and big American questions—if that’s not American Studying, what is?

June 12: Playing with America, Part 2: But this is American Studying too—analyzing some of the cultural and historical causes behind the hula hoop fad.

June 16-17: Crowd-sourced Post on Material Culture: My first crowd-sourced post, now one of my favorite aspects of the blog. Add your thoughts for this week’s!

July 6: Newton’s Histories, Part 5: To come full circle to the August 16th post, Jonathan Walker reminds me of how much I still have to learn about American history and culture.

July 27: Jennings on the Long Haul: And the inspiring life and career of Frances Jennings reminds me of why continuing to learn, study, analyze, teach, and write about America is so important and so rewarding.

Next birthday best post tomorrow,

Ben

PS. You know what to do!

Monday, August 8, 2022

August 8, 2022: Birthday Bests: 2010-2011

[On August 15th, this AmericanStudier celebrates his 45th birthday. So as I do each year, here’s a series sharing some of my favorite posts from each year on the blog, leading up to a new post with 45 favorites from the last year. And as ever, you couldn’t give me a better present than to say hi and tell me a bit about what brings you to the blog, what you’ve found or enjoyed here, your own AmericanStudies thoughts, or anything else!]

In honor of this AmericanStudier’s 34th birthday in 2011, here (from oldest to most recent) were 34 of my favorite posts from the blog’s first year:

1)      The Wilmington Massacre and The Marrow of Tradition: My first full post, but also my first stab at two of this blog’s central purposes: narrating largely forgotten histories; and recommending texts we should all read.

2)      Pine Ridge, the American Indian Movement, and Apted’s Films: Ditto to those purposes, but also a post in which I interwove history, politics, identity, and different media in, I hope, a pretty exemplary American Studies way.

3)      The Shaw Memorial: I’ll freely admit that my first handful of posts were also just dedicated to texts and figures and moments and histories that I love—but the Memorial, like Chesnutt’s novel and Thunderheart in those first two links, is also a deeply inspiring work of American art.

4)      The Chinese Exclusion Act and the Most Amazing Baseball Game Ever: Probably my favorite post to date, maybe because it tells my favorite American story.

5)      Ely Parker: The post in which I came up with my idea for Ben’s American Hall of Inspiration; I know many of my posts can be pretty depressing, but hopefully the Hall can be a way for me to keep coming back to Americans whose stories and legacies are anything but.

6)      My Colleague Ian Williams’ Work with Incarcerated Americans: The first post where I made clear that we don’t need to look into our national history to find truly inspiring Americans and efforts.

7)      Rush Limbaugh’s Thanksgiving Nonsense: My first request, and the first post to engage directly with the kinds of false American histories being advanced by the contemporary right.

8)      The Pledge of Allegiance: Another central purpose for this blog is to complicate, and at times directly challenge and seek to change, some of our most accepted national and historical narratives. This is one of the most important such challenges.

9)      Public Enemy, N.W.A., and Rap: If you’re going to be an AmericanStudier, you have to be willing to analyze even those media and genres on which you’re far from an expert, and hopefully find interesting and valuable things to say in the process.

10)   Chinatown and the History of LA: At the same time, the best AmericanStudiers likewise have to be able to analyze their very favorite things (like this 1974 film, for me), and find ways to link them to broader American narratives and histories.

11)   The Statue of Liberty: Our national narratives about Lady Liberty are at least as ingrained as those about the Pledge of Allegiance—and just about as inaccurate.

12)   Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing” and Parenting: Maybe the first post in which I really admitted my personal and intimate stakes in the topics I’m discussing here, and another of those texts everybody should read to boot.

13)   Dorothea Dix and Mental Health Reform: When it comes to a number of the people on whom I’ve focused here, I didn’t know nearly enough myself at the start of my research—making the posts as valuable for me as I could hope them to be for any other reader. This is one of those.

14)   Ben Franklin and Anti-Immigrant Sentiments: As with many dominant narratives, those Americans who argue most loudy in favor of limiting immigration usually do so in large part through false, or at best greatly oversimplified and partial, versions of our past. 

15)   Divorce in American History: Some of our narratives about the past and present seem so obvious as to be beyond dispute: such as the idea that divorce has become more common and more accepted in our contemporary society. Maybe, but as with every topic I’ve discussed here, the reality is a good bit more complicated.

16)   My Mom’s Guest Post on Margaret Wise Brown: The first of the many great guest posts I’ve been fortunate enough to feature here; I won’t link to the others, as you can and should find them by clicking the “Guest Posts” category on the right. And please—whether I’ve asked you specifically or not—feel free to contribute your own guest post down the road!

17)   JFK, Tucson, and the Rhetoric and Reality of Political Violence: The first post in which I deviated from my planned schedule to respond directly to a current event—something I’ve incorporated very fully into this blog in the months since.

18)   Tribute Post to Professor Alan Heimert: I’d say the same about the tribute posts that I did for the guest posts—both that they exemplify how fortunate I’ve been (in this case in the many amazing people and influences I’ve known) and that you should read them all (at the “Tribute Posts” category on the right).

19)   Martin Luther King: How do we remember the real, hugely complicated, and to my mind even more inspiring man, rather than the mythic ideal we’ve created of him? A pretty key AmericanStudies question, one worth asking of every truly inspiring American.

20)   Angel Island and Sui Sin Far’s “In the Land of the Free”: Immigration has been, I believe, my first frequent theme here, perhaps because, as this post illustrates, it can connect us so fully to so many of the darkest, richest, most powerful and significant national places and events, texts and histories.

21)   Dresden and Slaughterhouse Five: One of the events we Americans have worked most hard to forget, and one of the novels that most beautifully and compelling argues for the need to remember and retell every story.

22)   Valentine’s Day Lessons: Maybe my least analytical post, and also one of my favorites. It ain’t all academic, y’know.

23)   Tori Amos, Lara Logan, and Stories of Rape: One of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard helps me respond to one of the year’s most horrific stories.

24)   Peter Gomes and Faith: A tribute to one of the most inspiring Americans I’ve ever met, and some thoughts on the particularly complicated and important American theme he embodies for me.

25)   The Treaty of Tripoli and the Founders on Church and State: Sometimes our historical narratives are a lot more complicated than we think. And sometimes they’re just a lot simpler. Sorry, David Barton and Glenn Beck, but there’s literally no doubt of what the Founders felt about the separation of church and state the idea of America as a “Christian nation.”

26)   Newt Gingrich, Definitions of America, and Why We’re Here: The first of many posts (such as all those included in the “Book Posts” category on the right) in which I bring the ideas at the heart of my second book into my responses to AmericanStudies narratives and myths.

27)   Du Bois, Affirmative Action, and Obama: Donald Trump quickly and thoroughly revealed himself to be a racist jackass, but the core reasons for much of the opposition to affirmative action are both more widespread and more worth responding to than Trump’s buffoonery.

28)   Illegal Immigrants, Our Current Deportation Policies, and Empathy: What does deportation really mean and entail, who is affected, and at what human cost?

29)   Tribute to My Grandfather Art Railton: The saddest Railton event of the year leads me to reflect on the many inspiring qualities of my grandfather’s life, identity, and especially perspective.

30)   My Clearest Immigration Post: Cutting through some of the complexities and stating things as plainly as possible, in response to Sarah Palin’s historical falsehoods. Repeated and renamed with even more force here.

31)   Paul Revere, Longfellow, and Wikipedia: Another Sarah Palin-inspired post, this time on her revisions to the Paul Revere story and the question of what is “common knowledge” and what purposes it serves in our communal conversations.

32)   “Us vs. them” narratives, Muslim Americans, and Illegal Immigrants: The first of a couple posts to consider these particularly frustrating and divisive national narratives. The second, which also followed up my Norwegian terrorism response (linked below), is here.

33)   Abraham Cahan: The many impressive genres and writings of this turn of the century Jewish American, and why AmericanStudiers should work to push down boundaries between disciplines as much as possible.

34)   Terrorism, Norway, and Rhetoric: One of the latest and most important iterations of my using a current event to drive some American analyses—and likewise an illustration of just how fully interconnected international and American events and histories are.

Next birthday best post tomorrow,

Ben

PS. You know what to do!

Saturday, August 6, 2022

August 6-7, 2022: Hettie Williams’ Guest Post on Beyoncé’s Renaissance

[This is the second Guest Post that my friend and the current AAIHS President Dr. Hettie V. Williams has shared with us, and hopefully not the last!]

Of Trap Queens and Fallen Angels: Beyoncé’s Renaissance as Religious Meditation


Photo by Dustin Tramel on Unsplash

With her latest album Renaissance, Beyoncѐ Knowles the Queen Bey is telling us that her soul is unbroken despite the death of her beloved "Uncle Jonny" to whom Renaissance is dedicated. Though it is aesthetically a dance-romp extravaganza or very much, and mostly, a dance party album, Beyoncѐ Knowles is also nonetheless sanctifying the dance floor with anthems that sample and pay respect to an earlier era of disco-trap house music while engaging in a level of hierography. This album is both a love letter to the "fallen angels" or victims of the AIDS epidemic like Uncle Jonny and a hierographic treatise containing descriptive texts (song lyrics) about sacred subjects. In Renaissance, Knowles incorporates a myriad of themes including religion, community, art, culture, gender, sexuality, identity, escapism, the Black Church, Black music history, pandemics, death and rebirth. Here I consider some of these themes through a discussion of Renaissance as a type of hierographic meditation.


Photo by Alejandro Cartagena 🇲🇽🏳🌈 on Unsplash

The title is an obvious play on the European Renaissance that began in Fourteenth Century Italy made notable by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo who infused religious themes, symbols, and imagery into their paintings while receiving patronage from the Roman Catholic Church. It is pertinent to note here that da Vinci’s "The Last Super" is painted in a Dominican monastery (in Milan, Italy) and Michelangelo—who is known for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and "The Last Judgement"—was artist-in-residence at the Vatican. These artists were to an extent reliant upon the Church for financial support to create their art. Religion, sex, sexuality, renaissance art, and rebirth are driving themes that shape this production by Beyoncѐ Knowles. Renaissance as a concept as it applies here gets mixed, flipped and redefined.

Beyoncѐ on the cover of Renaissance posits herself as Judge—Queen Mother Goddess—final judge or as she who governs and presides over the rebirth of house music culture. She more specifically further invokes the term renaissance as applied to Black culture and, more directly, Black Church music culture. Queen Bey channels here a history of Black women’s god-talk evident in the visual art and music from the Black Arts Era to the present. She has also previously engaged Renaissance Era art and imagery in her music while defining herself as a lover and collector of art. As art critics have stated, she fuses Renaissance Era with Afro Futuristic themes suggesting a double-speak intrinsic to her style and voice. She mixes art styles in her music and self-presentation—the way a DJ might mix a record—as if to erase the line of delineation between notions of high and low art.

Knowles has often publicly discussed her penchant for collecting art while incorporating themes drawn from the visual arts, and the Renaissance Era in particular, into her music or in visual representations. In 2017, she strategically reimagined herself as Our Lady of Guadalupe in a photoshoot taken while she was pregnant with her twins. Photos taken later of the singer with her new born babies reveal a Botticelli inspired theme. We should recall here that she and husband Jay-Z recorded their "Apeshit" video at the Louvre. This video also contains Beyoncѐ as art replica in the flesh—reborn. An image of the two in front of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa also appears in the video from their Everything is Love (2018). There is a doublespeak or rather a double consciousness here in Bey’s usage of the term Renaissance to title her most recent work. She on the one hand is suggesting reverence for high art in a neo-classical sense while on the other hand applying, more specifically, the concept of renaissance to the current neo-house revivalism happening now in Black popular music culture that must also involve an engagement with Black gospel traditions.  

Renaissance is a compilation that has been defined by some Black cultural critics as a type of gospel album given that a sampling of a song written by the singer-songwriter, known for her role as a member of the Clark Sisters, Elbertina “Twinkie” Clark is used in the song “Church Girl.” In terms of the imagery that appears on the album cover, Knowles presents herself as a juxtaposed figure: that of the Trap-Queen-Lone-Horsewoman of the apocalypse. Reimagined with her soul intact—and at once a work of art. Black church music features many of the elements found in house music including call-and-response, repetition, specifying and contemporary gospel praise music also incorporates a dance culture of its own. Here Bey is offering us a history lesson on the roots of Black music. She is in essence speaking in tongues as we peel back the layers of this album it is at once a history lesson and a meditation defined by a strident cultural feminism with a blending of messages.    

Renaissance or rebirth has historical and contemporary implications as well as being related to the core themes of art, culture, identity, religion, pandemics, death and disco-trap culture expressed in the song lyrics that dominate this album. The use of this term speaks to the idea that an outburst of artistic fervor often follows a time of plague in this post-pandemic moment that is not yet past. In times of chaos and calamity, humans routinely turn to art and music to make sense of the world around them. Renaissance, as a term, also speaks to a phase in history when people turned away or rejected the Church to embrace hedonistic pleasures—this also as a reaction to the increased abuses of the institution during the time of the Black Death. Historians have long documented the fact that victims of the bubonic plague in the Fourteenth Century were sometimes turned away from the Roman Catholic Church when they sought relief and succor from the ravages of illness.  

In contemporary times, we see some parallels regarding human behavior and powerful social institutions as Knowles alludes to in her work. Members of the LGBTQ community—victims to the plague that was/is AIDS—were not only castigated by some in the (Black) Christian Church at the height of this crisis in the 1980s but also left to fend for themselves in the streets. She calls those who died “fallen angels” while suggesting that the core disciples or heirs to the Gospels are those who care for the sick and dying regardless of sexual orientation or station in life. She tells us “Queens and Doms to the front” in “Break My Soul” letting us know that she is centering the culture and lives of the LGBTQIA+ community. There is a strident ethic of communal care demonstrated in the Black society but, more particularly, evidenced among members of the Black LGBTQ community that runs through the lyrics of many songs included on Renaissance.  Some excerpts here from two songs that appear on the album clues us in on the scripture she offers:

From "Break My Soul"

I’m taking my new salvation (hey, yeah, yeah)

   And, I’ma build my own foundation…

              From "Church Girl"

                                           Got friends that cried fountains…

 

Nobody can judge me but me,

I was born free (born free)…

 

                                           Swimming through the oceans of tears we cried (tears that we’ve cried)

                                        

There are mixed definitions here of the “Church Girl.” She is as much the women in the church born female as she is the Trap Queen, Goddess, non-binary human and gay Choir Director who has seen his many friends die. Rebirth requires a new salvation. According to Tupac Shakur, in his song "Only God Can Judge Me" nobody can judge him but God but for this Queen-Mother-Goddess that judgement lies with her/them/they.

Knowles is intentional about the way she features members of the LGBTQIA+ community in Renaissance that is essentially a collection of songs that channel disco-trap and house dance music culture more generally. With this work, she pays homage to the true saints who created the music (the trap Queens, Drag Queens, and LGTBQ entertainers) while understanding how they used the dance floor as a form of rival geography to queer public space. She does this while also inviting members of this community such as Big Freedia heard on “Break My Soul” to participate in the writing, production and development of Renaissance.

 

Photo by Sophie Emeny on Unsplash

This intensity in music, movement, and frenetic dance that defines disco-trap and house music culture was born out of a moment of devastation—the decimation of Black and LGBTQIA+ communities from AIDS in the 1980s. In this context, the bending over (a move to simulate homoerotic sex acts i.e. queering public spaces), bouncing, and twerking can be understood as powerful acts of sex/gender transgression and reclamation (or rebirth). By reimagining the trap as a space of fun, pleasure, and freedom Trap Queens and Drag Queens, speaking back to a violent heteronormative gender regime, helped to normalize gender-non conforming identities and sexual behaviors in the American popular imagination while reshaping heteronormative intimacies in the process illustrated with the rise of “heterosexual anal sex” by the 2000s.[1] Sexuality, Knowles suggests, is a part of what makes us human and what makes us free. She centers the humanity of a group continuously maligned, rebuked, and degraded to make this point. Her message is twofold: dance like a Queen and be free but remember this is dedicated to the true saints or “fallen angels.”

[Annual birthday posts start Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think]



[1] See William Saletan, “Ass Backwards: The Media’s Silence about Rampant anal Sex,” Slate September 20, 2005; Daily Dish, “The Rise and Rise of Heterosexual Anal Sex,” The Atlantic October 8, 2010; and for more scholarly analyses of this phenomenon: KR McBride, JD Fortenberry, “Heterosexual Anal Sexuality and Anal Sex Behaviors: A Review,” Journal of Sex Research 47 (2-3), 124-136, 2010; Melissa A. Habel, Jami S. Leichliter, Patricia J. Dittus, Ian H. Spicknall, Sevgi O. Aral, “Heterosexual Anal and Oral Sex in Adolescents and Adults in the United States, 2011-2015,” Sexually Transmitted Diseases 45 (12) 775-782, December 2018; and  from a feminist perspective Breanne Fahs, Jax Gonzalez, “The Front Lines of the “back door”: Navigating (dis) Engagement, Coercion, and Pleasure in Women’s Anal Sex Experiences,” Feminism & Psychology 24 (4) 500-520, 2014.

August 6, 2022: AmericanPhones: Alexander Graham Bell

[August 2nd marks the 100th anniversary of inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s death. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied some famous phones in American culture, leading up to this special post on AGB’s life and legacies!]

On three layers and legacies to Bell’s impressive and inspiring life beyond the telephone.

1)      The Deaf Community: If there was one main through-line in Bell’s life of scientific experimentation and invention, it was his desire to better the lives of deaf and hard of hearing people (and children in particular). His mother Eliza Grace Bell was deaf, and he would go on to marry a deaf woman, Mabel Hubbard. Some of his earliest professional experiences involved training instructors at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes (later the Horace Mann School for the Deaf), the Hartford American Asylum for Deaf-mutes, and the Northampton Clarke School for the Deaf. He went on to open his own School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech in Boston, where none other than Helen Keller was one of his pupils. To put it simply, there’s no way to understand how and why Bell developed the telephone without the contexts of this lifelong work seeking to, as Keller herself put it, lessen the “inhuman silence which separates and estranges.”

2)      Heredity: At times Bell was far too strident in his opposition to sign language (seeing it as a separation of the deaf from the rest of society), leading to understandable critiques of him from the hearing-impaired community. But in an era when far, far too many of even the most progressive scientists and thinkers were influenced by the racist narratives of eugenics, Bell, who had a lifelong interest in genetics and heredity, seems to have engaged with but ultimately resisted the frustrating pull of those hierarchical and bigoted ideas. His 1883 paper to the National Academy of Sciences, “Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race,” noted a hereditary tendency toward deafness and expressed concerns about the creation of a segregated deaf community, but also strongly opposed policies (far too prevalent in the era) like sterilization or opposition to intermarriage. Bell’s thoughts on genetics were far from perfect, but I’d argue that they were also more nuanced than far too many of his peers.

3)      National Geographic: As that article notes, Bell was one of the founders of the National Geographic Society, and would go on to serve as its second president from 1898 to 1903. That role reflects not only his prominence within the American and global scientific communities at the turn of the century, but also his commitment to bringing those scientific discoveries and conversations to broader public audiences. I’ve written before about Bell in the context of my problem with narratives of the iconoclastic individual inventor and genius—there are lots of reasons why that image is a false and destructive one, but as Bell proves in all these ways, it also just fundamentally misrepresents many of these figures and their interconnected lives, careers, and communities.

Annual birthday posts start Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Famous historical or cultural phones you’d highlight?

Friday, August 5, 2022

August 5, 2022: AmericanPhones: Smart Phones

[August 2nd marks the 100th anniversary of inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s death. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some famous phones in American culture, leading up to a special weekend post on AGB’s life and legacies!]

On one loss, one gain, and one effect too close to call with the defining technology of our age.

1)      Wandering: In the summer of 2002, I had the opportunity to spend a month in Rome as part of my grad school program; it was and remains one of the greatest experiences of my life to date. There are lots of reasons why, but very high on the list is the simple but stunning experience of wandering the city, often looking for somewhere or something in particular but always doing so in a meandering way that allowed for every one of my favorite a-ha moments. That experience might have still been possible if I had a smartphone with a maps app, but at the very least I’d have likely been looking down at my phone a good bit of the time, and would have missed the unexpected, perspective- and life-altering views that I wrote about in that hyperlinked post. Maps has been immeasurably helpful in my driving life, but I do wonder how much wandering we’ve lost along the way.

2)      Music: I do my best not to be a luddite nor a curmudgeon about technology, though, and one surprising and absolutely delightful benefit of smartphones for me has been helping me get back into albums. I know that might be blasphemy to vinyl lovers, and as someone who grew up on cassette tapes I’ll always have a nostalgic fondness for flipping the tape over and pressing play on side two. (For my money, the best side two opening track is Midnight Oil’s “The Dead Heart” from Diesel and Dust.) But thanks to the combination of Apple Music on my phone and the ability to connect that phone to my car radio and play it on my commute, I’ve been able over the last couple years to listen to countless albums in their entirety—childhood favorites like that magisterial Midnight Oil record, new releases like The Killers’ excellent Pressure Machine, and so, so many more. I know the debates over digital music, but it’s been an amazing game-changer for this lifelong listener.

3)      Conversation: This is a really tough one for me to call. On the one hand, as a divorced single dad I am forever indebted to the ability of my teenage sons and I, thanks almost entirely to our smartphones, to stay connected in so many ways during the times that we’re apart (I’m particularly fond of texting gifs and emojis back and forth as we watch a Celtics basketball game “together,” for example). Compared to the first post-divorce years, when I would often only hear from the boys in my solo weeks during our short bedtime phone calls, these new layers of conversation are incredibly welcome and moving. But (and here comes the curmudgeon side of me, #sorrynotsorry) I will never be anything other than flabbergasted at the number of people who are on their smartphone while in an in-person conversation with someone at the same time. I know distraction is possible in any circumstance, with or without technology, but I think these little computers in our pockets have offered a whole new batch of hugely easy ways not to be connected to what and who is right in front of us.

AGB post this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Famous cultural phones you’d highlight?

Thursday, August 4, 2022

August 4, 2022: AmericanPhones: “Madam and the Phone Bill”

[August 2nd marks the 100th anniversary of inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s death. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some famous phones in American culture, leading up to a special weekend post on AGB’s life and legacies!]

On a funny and fun poetic voice and character, and the layers of meaning she reveals.

Across his nearly 50 years writing and publishing poetry (among other genres), American treasure Langston Hughes went through a number of different stages and series. One of the more unique were the Madam Alberta K. Johnson poems—originally created by Hughes in “Madam and the Number Runner” (later revised to “Number Writer”), published in the Autumn 1943 issue of Contemporary Poetry, Johnson would go to serve as the speaker/persona for nearly 20 more of his poems (all titled in that same “Madam and the” style) over the next few years. Johnson was a confident, no-nonsense Harlem matriarch, a woman navigating with humor, resilience, and serious attitude both contemporary and universal challenges of economics and survival, gender and relationships, race and community, and many more. As with almost all of Hughes’ works, the Madam poems are deceptively straightforward, highly readable and engaging but with significant layers and depth (of literary elements and cultural/historical contexts alike) that reward our close readings.

The one that I’ve close read the most often, as I teach it in my American Literature II course alongside a couple other Hughes poems, is “Madam and the Phone Bill” (1944). Like most of the Madam poems, this one is presented as part of a dialogue, but with the reader only getting Johnson’s half of the conversation. In this case that conversation is with a representative of the “Central” phone company who has contacted Johnson to make her pay for a long-distance call from her wandering (in both senses) significant other Roscoe. The first stanza immediately establishes every aspect of that situation along with Johnson’s unique and witty voice and perspective: “You say I O.K.ed/LONG DISTANCE?/O.K.ed it when?/My goodness, Central/That was then!” Effortlessly using poetic elements like rhythm and rhyme, as well as typographical ones like capitalization, italics, and punctuation, Hughes locates us within his speaker’s voice, in the middle of this phone conversation (or rather argument) in progress, and with an immediate sense of the problem facing our put-upon heroine. The voice and humor only deepen from there, as in the poem’s middle stanza (the 5th of 10): “If I ever catch him,/Lawd, have pity!/Calling me up/From Kansas City.”

But like all the Madam poems, and as I said all of Hughes’ poems and works period, there’s a lot more to “Phone Bill” than just that fun and funny feel. Certainly the poem offers a glimpse into Johnson’s fraught negotiation of gender dynamics, such as the contradictions between her desire to maintain her status as an independent woman and her worries about what “them other girls” might offer Roscoe (perhaps especially while he’s hundreds of miles away in KC). Written in the shadow of the recently ended Great Depression (a frequent Hughes topic), the poem likewise reflects the fraught dynamics of an individual’s conversations with the corporations who could with a single bill (or instead with an understanding waiving of that bill) profoundly change their economic situations. And I would say that it’s particularly relevant that the bill in question is a phone bill—the period’s increasingly ubiquitous telephones, and more exactly evolving technological possibilities like long-distance calling, symbolized at once greater social and communal connections and yet another way in which individuals were beholden, to grasping corporations and distant but still needy significant others alike. Like it or not, Alberta, those are debts we’re all “gonna pay!”

Last famous phone tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Famous cultural phones you’d highlight?