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Monday, April 22, 2024

April 22, 2024: Climate Culture: Cli Fi

[It’s hard not to think about the climate crisis every day in 2024, but it’s impossible not to do so on Earth Day. So this week in honor of that solemn occasion, I’ll AmericanStudy cultural works that represent and help us engage with climate change.]

On the long legacy of cli fi, and a stunning recent novel that reveals the genre’s true potential.

The term “cli fi” (for “climate fiction”) has only been around for the last 10 years or so; it was apparently first coined in 2011 by activist and author Dan Bloom to describe Jim Laughter’s novel Polar City Red, and then gradually picked up by various media voices and stories around 2013-2014. But as with so many literary genres, there are numerous earlier authors and works that can productively be classified within this frame, including Jules Verne’s The Purchase of the North Pole (1889), Laurence Manning’s The Man Who Awoke (1933), multiple novels by J.G. Ballard, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), among others. While all of those works are distinct and specific, I’d say that all of them fall under the broad umbrella of science fiction, wedding as they do their realistic depictions of science and the natural world to imagined futures in which (generally) worst-case climate and environmental scenarios have come to pass and humans (individually and/or collectively) are dealing with the aftermaths.

Sci fi cli fi (say that five times fast) has continued to be a prominent sub-genre here in the 21st century, as exemplified particularly clearly by science fiction legend Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capitol trilogy (comprising the novels Forty Signs of Rain [2004], Fifty Degrees Below [2005], and Sixty Days and Counting [2007]). But as we’ve moved further and further into a world where climate change is not an imagined future scenario but a very, very real present reality, we’ve concurrently seen authors begin to produce as well cli fi novels and stories that depict, respond to, and engage in more socially realistic ways that present world. That list includes, among others, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012), Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure (2018), a number of the stories in John Joseph Adams’ edited anthology Loosed Upon the World: The Saga Anthology of Climate Fiction (2015), and one of the most acclaimed and powerful American novels in recent memory, Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning The Overstory (2018).

Yet in truth, to classify The Overstory as an example of more contemporary and/or socially realistic fiction is no more accurate than to describe it as science fiction. Powers’ book does trace the individual yet ultimately interconnected stories of nine realistic fictional characters, all Americans living in our early 21st century moment, all descended from family and communal histories involving trees in central ways. But through that shared theme, and through his structural and narrative choices as well, Powers ultimately produces a work that I would call a historical novel in which the history (as well as the present and future) of the world is viewed through the lens of trees and forests, rather than through the perspectives or experiences of humans (individual or collective, fictional or real). Which is to say, Powers’ first cli fi novel (his latest, 2021’s Bewilderment, has been described that way as well, but I haven’t had the chance to read it) isn’t just about climate change or environmentalism—it makes the environment, and specifically trees, its main character, main narrative perspective, and ultimately main emphasis, above (in every sense) and beyond us transient humans.

Next climate culture tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Climate texts of any type you’d share?

Saturday, April 20, 2024

April 20-21, 2024: Mythic Patriotisms in 2024

[Up here in New England, the third Monday in April is a holiday, Patriots’ Day. But as I argue in my most recent book, patriotism is a very complex concept, and so this week I’ve highlighted a handful of examples of the worst of what it has meant for how we remember our histories. Leading up to this special weekend post on the state of mythic patriotism in 2024!]

On two ways that mythic patriotism can help us understand this year, and one related request.

I’ll start with the request: Of Thee I Sing came out in March 2021, just two months after the January 6th insurrection (I gave my first book talk on the project on January 7th, which was, well, a whole lot); but I believe that the contested history of American patriotism is if anything even more relevant to 2024 than it was in that moment. I’ve had the chance to talk about the book and those subjects a lot over the last three years, but I nonetheless believe we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to those conversations, and would hugely appreciate any and all connections to opportunities and communities to keep the conversation going. That includes classes/students (high school as well as higher ed), book clubs and discussion groups, organizations and institutions of all kinds, podcasts, whatever you got! (I’m also very willing to travel within reason, so I’m not talking just virtual by any means.) Feel free to email with any ideas, and thanks very much in advance!

There’s no doubt that the MAGA movement has leaned as heavily into the rhetoric and symbolism of patriotism as any political community in my lifetime. I don’t disagree with Jon Stewart’s recent Daily Show rant that a movement defined so completely by allegiance to an individual, and a dictatorial one at that, really doesn’t embody any recognizable form of American patriotism. But I do think the concept of mythic patriotism in particular can help us understand some of the essence of this movement’s ideologies, some of what they mean by phrases like “Make America Great Again” (or its telling predecessor “I want my country back!”). Or, relatedly, why this movement, like Donald Trump’s own political ascendance, began so clearly with Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, one of the most blatant symbolic challenges to white supremacist visions of American politics, society, community, and identity as in any way homogeneously or essentially white. Birtherism was perhaps the first defining conspiracy theory for a movement that is more or less entirely defined by conspiracy theories, and it was a mythic patriotic conspiracy theory if ever there’s been one.

If MAGA has been the defining political force of the last decade or so, the last few years have been especially defined by anti-education efforts (and related trends like book bans and attacks on libraries), and it seems clear that such culture wars debates will play a significant role throughout this election year as well. As I discussed in Monday’s post on the 1776 Project, it’s difficult for me to overstate how central mythic patriotism is to these attacks on educators, curricula, books, and any and all other forces that challenge this specific vision of American history and identity. Moms for Liberty and all the others behind these efforts can talk all they want about threats to children or “grooming” or whatever other justifications they’re advancing, but the essential truth is that these educational elements are dangerous to these groups and this perspective precisely inasmuch as they offer challenges and alternatives to white-centered (and often overtly white supremacist) visions of America. And that’s the thing with mythic patriotism, as I’ve highlighted throughout this series—it not only excludes many Americans from its vision of our history, it also excludes all those who would challenge and counter that vision. Identifying and responding to such mythic patriotism is thus a crucial 2024 goal.

Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think?

Friday, April 19, 2024

April 19, 2024: Mythic Patriotisms: Love It or Leave It

[Up here in New England, the third Monday in April is a holiday, Patriots’ Day. But as I argue in my most recent book, patriotism is a very complex concept, and so this week I’ll highlight a handful of examples of the worst of what it has meant for how we remember our histories. Leading up to a weekend post on the state of mythic patriotism in 2024!]

First, here are two paragraphs from Chapter 7 of Of Thee I Sing:

In a telling sentence in his statement, John Warner did admit another part of the Bicentennial’s contexts: that it ‘comes after a particularly difficult decade.’ One of the most divisive elements of that decade, the Vietnam War, had come to a definitive close just a year before the Bicentennial, with the July 1975 reunification of the nations of North and South Vietnam as a new country, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. As has been the case with wars throughout American history, this one featured celebratory patriotic views through which Americans sought unity in response to this military conflict. But one of the most prominent such Vietnam era celebratory patriotisms, the ubiquitous phrase ‘Love it or leave it,’ represented a far more aggressive and divisive tone than did the Bicentennial preparations and celebrations. That phrase appeared on bumper stickers and billboards throughout this period, as well as in such cultural works as country artist Ernest Tubb’s ‘It’s America (Love it or Leave it)’ (1970) and his country colleague Merle Haggard’s ‘The Fightin’ Side of Me’ (1970), which begins, ‘I hear people talkin’ bad,/About the way they have to live here in this country,’ and then argues, ‘They’re running down a way of life/Our fightin’ men have fought and died to keep/ If you don’t love it, leave it.’ This phrase’s version of celebratory patriotism was one overtly defined in opposition to criticisms of the nation, and indeed one that portrayed an idealized celebratory patriotism as a necessary element to being part of the United States at all.

The May 8th, 1970 ‘Hard Hat Riot’ in New York City illustrated with stark clarity the effects of that aggressive celebratory stance. Hundreds of college and high school students had gathered at an early morning anti-war protest and memorial for the four Kent State University students who had been killed by National Guardsman on May 4th. Around noon, a group of around 200 construction workers, many carrying American flags and signs with slogans like ‘America, love it or leave it’ and ‘All the way, USA’ at­tacked the protesters with clubs, steel-toed boots, and other weapons. Hours of violent clashes left nearly 100 protesters injured and made clear the mythic logic behind and endpoint of the ‘love it or leave it’ celebratory patriotic sentiment.”

I said much of what I’d want to say about this phrase and concept in those paragraphs, but would add one more thing: it’s not just that I find this to be perhaps the most overt expression of mythic patriotism’s exclusion of any voices/perspectives that would criticize those myths (although it is that to be sure). It’s that “love it or leave it” so explicitly contrasts with my favorite expression of critical patriotism (and the epigraph to my book), from James Baldwin in Notes of a Native Son: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” The question I would ask anyone who subscribes to the “love it or leave it” mantra is whether they would say the same about other forms of love: does loving a person mean we can never criticize them? Or does it require that we do so when we see them falling short, in an effort to help them be their best? I know which one I’d argue for, and it’s not the mythic patriotic concept.

Special post this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think?

Thursday, April 18, 2024

April 18, 2024: Mythic Patriotisms: Defining America’s Origins

[Up here in New England, the third Monday in April is a holiday, Patriots’ Day. But as I argue in my most recent book, patriotism is a very complex concept, and so this week I’ll highlight a handful of examples of the worst of what it has meant for how we remember our histories. Leading up to a weekend post on the state of mythic patriotism in 2024!]

On the multiple mythic patriotic layers to a Puritan-centered American origin story.

In the introduction to Of Thee I Sing, I define my book’s four types of American patriotism using the four verses of Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful” (1893). While I hadn’t overtly created my terms for them yet when I wrote that hyperlinked 2019 blog post, everything I said there about the song’s second verse and its emphasis on the Pilgrims/Puritans as an American origin point exemplifies mythic patriotism as I would now define it. It’s not just that Bates’ verse celebrates the Pilgrims as part of the nation’s past, after all—it’s that she describes them as “beating” a “thoroughfare for freedom” into a “wilderness,” and thus as originating American ideals in a place that was apparently devoid of other communities until their arrival. Connecting the Pilgrims/Puritans to “freedom” is a fraught endeavor to be sure, but doing so by eliminating the indigenous peoples who were already present in New England (and everywhere else on the continent) is an explicitly exclusionary and white supremacist one.

Over the course of the century following Bates’ composition, moreover, multiple exclusionary and white supremacist narratives were created that depended upon that mythic patriotic vision of America’s origins. None was more blatant than South Carolina Senator Ellison DuRant Smith’s use of that vision to argue for the discriminatory Immigration Act of 1924 in a xenophobic speech on the Senate floor. Smith argues, “Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock…It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood.” “That splendid stock that has characterized us” is a particularly clear vision of an Anglo origin point for the United States, and the entirety of Smith’s speech—as well as the development of national immigration laws overall—makes clear the potential white supremacist use of that vision.

Far more subtle, but ultimately quite problematic in its own right, is the longstanding vision, one really created as a 20th century tourist narrative, of Plymouth, Massachusetts as “America’s hometown” (NB. That site and project seem even more overtly problematic still, so my link is for evidence only, not in any way endorsement). Would it be possible to include indigenous communities like the Wampanoag tribe in that vision of Plymouth? Maybe, but in practice that tribe has been portrayed as at best a historical predecessor to the Pilgrims, and at worst one of the challenges that they overcame to establish this American origin point. It was to counter those white-centered and exclusionary practices and narratives that Native American activist Wamsutta James delivered his 1970 speech in Plymouth making the case to reframe Thanksgiving as a “National Day of Mourning.” As readers of this blog know well, I’m all about an additive vision of our history, and I’m not trying to suggest that the Pilgrims/Puritans weren’t part of America’s 17th century origins—but any narrative that treats them as isolated or elides indigenous communities in any way is simply perpetuating these mythic patriotic visions.

Last patriotism post tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

April 17, 2024: Mythic Patriotisms: “Self-Made”

[Up here in New England, the third Monday in April is a holiday, Patriots’ Day. But as I argue in my most recent book, patriotism is a very complex concept, and so this week I’ll highlight a handful of examples of the worst of what it has meant for how we remember our histories. Leading up to a weekend post on the state of mythic patriotism in 2024!]

On how an iconic American image is mythic patriotic in both meanings and effects.

I’ve written at length in this space about the mythic but ubiquitous American narrative of the “self-made man”: first for one of my earliest posts in October 2011 (man I’ve been writing this blog for a long time!); and then in a February 2021 follow-up as part of my annual non-favorites series. Before I dive into a couple ways to connect that mythic narrative to the concept of mythic patriotism, I’d ask you to check out those two posts if you would.

Welcome back! Obviously it would be possible for any person to be described as “self-made,” but I believe it’s quite telling that almost all of the figures most commonly associated with this narrative have been white men: Ben Franklin, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Andrew Carnegie (something about those Andrews, I dunno), pretty much all of Horatio Alger’s protagonists, Jay Gatsby, contemporary folks like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, etc. While the self-made man narrative is ostensibly a celebration of  such individuals and their achievements, it is at least as much a rejection of the presence and influence of communities—or even a direct attack on them as an obstacle to be transcended in pursuit of the American Dream. I’d certainly call that vision of American identities mythic in general, but I would also add that it is a myth which specifically and overtly privileges white men, who for most if not all of American history have had a greater degree of autonomy and mobility than any other group. To be clear, even those iconic individual white men have depended on communal support, so the image is mythic in their cases too—but its rejection of the need for community does exclude most other Americans, past and present.

The problems with mythic patriotic narratives aren’t just due to their inaccuracies and exclusions, though—it’s also in the ways they can contribute to or even help create other, sometimes even more overtly exclusionary, narratives. For example, I would say it’s far from coincidental that the late 19th century in America was both an era in which the self-made man narrative proliferated and a period of intensifying attacks on the nascent labor movement as un- and anti-American. After all, at the heart of that evolving labor movement was an emphasis on workers’ communities in at least two key ways: that supposedly “self-made” individuals like the Gilded Age Robber Barons were instead achieving their successes on the backs of those communities; and that it would thus take communal solidarity to resist and challenge and change those realities. In my early 20th century chapter of Of Thee I Sing I argue that 1910s and 1920s attacks on the labor movement constituted a potent form of mythic patriotism, but I would add that those trends really began in the late 19th century, right alongside the resurgence of the self-made man narrative.

Next patriotism post tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? 

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

April 16, 2024: Mythic Patriotisms: The National Anthem

[Up here in New England, the third Monday in April is a holiday, Patriots’ Day. But as I argue in my most recent book, patriotism is a very complex concept, and so this week I’ll highlight a handful of examples of the worst of what it has meant for how we remember our histories. Leading up to a weekend post on the state of mythic patriotism in 2024!]

On two layers of mythic patriotism found in the later verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

There are multiple reasons why I decided to put Francis Scott Key conceiving of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Colin Kaepernick kneeling during a performance of it on the cover of Of Thee I Sing, and none of them make Key look particularly good. I wrote about some of those layers in this 2019 post on the anthem (and especially on its much less frequently performed later verses), and so once again would ask you to check out that prior post and then come on back for a couple further thoughts on this complex national text.

Welcome back! In the opening paragraph of that prior post, I highlighted a particular couplet in the anthem’s generally overlooked third verse: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” As I mentioned there, Key himself was both a slaveowner and a lawyer who opposed abolition and fought for the rights of other slaveowners, making his use of that particular word especially fraught if not overtly hypocritical. But I would argue that the entire phrase also plays into a specific mythic patriotic narrative of both the War of 1812 and the American Revolution: that enslaved people were adversaries of the American cause in both cases, allied with the English and thus suffering defeat (flight, the grave, etc.) at the hands of the U.S. The realities of those histories are multilayered, as I traced in this column; but as I argued in yesterday’s post, many of the Revolution’s most inspiring patriots were enslaved people, a trend that continue into the Early Republic and that Key’s phrase and verse entirely and frustratingly elide.

The anthem’s third verse is thus particularly fraught with mythic patriotic ideas, but I would add that the fourth verse likewise includes its own form of mythic patriotism. Key writes there, “O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand/Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!” and adds, “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,/And this be our motto—‘In God is our trust.’” He’s alluding there to a narrative of the War of 1812 as a defensive conflict, one in which the United States was invaded by England and fought back to protect and preserve its homes and homeland. That’s certainly one way to understand the war’s origin points; but as I wrote in this column, that narrative entirely minimizes the concurrent ways in which the war was both caused and defined by U.S. aggression, particularly towards both Canada and indigenous communities. Indeed, the United States did seek to “conquer” as part of the war, to conquer and annex a great deal of territory from those other sovereign nations—and whether we see that “cause” as “just” or not, it’s unquestionably a distinct one from self-defense. One more way in which Key’s anthem views our history through an overtly mythic patriotic lens.

Next patriotism post tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think?

Monday, April 15, 2024

April 15, 2024: Mythic Patriotisms: The 1776 Project

[Up here in New England, the third Monday in April is a holiday, Patriots’ Day. But as I argue in my most recent book, patriotism is a very complex concept, and so this week I’ll highlight a handful of examples of the worst of what it has meant for how we remember our histories. Leading up to a weekend post on the state of mythic patriotism in 2024!]

On two ways that a project dedicated to “patriotic education” embodies the worst of mythic patriotism.

In a brief post as part of last year’s July 4th series, I highlighted the Trump administration’s now-defunct but still influential 1776 Project, and the ways that its concept of “patriotic education” have informed ongoing attacks on public education, educators and librarians, the discipline of history, and more. I’d ask you to check out that quick post if you would, and then come on back here for a couple additional connections of the 1776 Project to my own concept of mythic patriotism.

Welcome back! As I define it, mythic patriotism has two main layers, both of which we can see quite clearly in the 1776 Project. The more overt is a vision of American history and identity which relies on mythic narratives, ones that are at the very least centered on white communities and are all too often explicitly white supremacist. The 1776 Commission Report develops particularly mythic such visions of history and identity when it comes to the American Revolution and founding, and most especially the Framers—making the case, for example, that while many of them owned enslaved people they opposed and sought to end the system of slavery. Besides being inaccurate to the flawed realities of this group of men, this historical narrative likewise and even more frustratingly makes it nearly impossible to focus on a far more genuinely revolutionary community of American founders: the enslaved men and women who sought to use the era’s ideals to argue for their own freedom and equality. Idolizing a simplistic vision of the Framers in a way that overtly makes it more difficult to remember the presence and contributions of their inspiring African American peers exemplifies a white-centered, if not blatantly white supremacist, mythic patriotism.

Mythic patriotism doesn’t just rely on such visions of the past and nation, however—it also defines any Americans who critique and challenge those visions as unpatriotic and even un-American. The 1776 Commission Report does that most explicitly in its portrayal of “Universities in the United States” as “hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel, and censorship that combine to generate in students and in the broader culture at the very least disdain and at worst outright hatred for this country.” The authors add that “Colleges peddle resentment and contempt for American principles and history alike, in the process weakening attachment to our shared heritage.” To tie together this post’s two points, I would highlight the word “our” in that final phrase, which to my mind subtly but unquestionably refers to a white-centered vision of American history, heritage, and identity. Besides being, once again, inaccurate to the realities of our foundational and diverse community, that vision is also entirely wrong when it comes to the potential effects, for students and for all Americans, of better remembering Revolutionary stories and histories far beyond those of the Framers. Eliding those histories in favor of simplistic myths about the Founding, and describing any scholars or educators who challenge those myths as “anti-American,” is the real peddling of resentment and contempt.

Next patriotism post tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think?

Saturday, April 13, 2024

April 13-14, 2024: I Am AmericanStudying Sidney Poitier: 21C Heirs

[This coming weekend marks the 60th anniversary of Sidney Poitier becoming the first Black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of Poitier performances, leading up to this special weekend post on a handful of 21C actors carrying his legacy forward!]

On five noteworthy performances from five of our best contemporary Black actors (not including Denzel or Morgan, who to my mind are Poitier’s genuine equals as screen legends and could each get their own full post very easily).

1)      Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda (2004): Cheadle has been a favorite of mine since he grabbed every filmgoer’s attention with his supporting role in Denzel’s Walter Mosely adaptation Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), but I worry a little that he’s one of those Marvel actors who has become for some audiences synonymous with his superhero character. And that would be a shame, because as his truly multilayered, heartbreaking, and vital performance as Paul Rusesabagina reflects, Cheadle is quite simply one of the most talented actors we’ve got.

2)      Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave (2012): First of all, I know Ejiofor is British—but a) Sidney Poitier grew up in the Bahamas; and b) more importantly, some of the best performances in 21st century American films (and TV shows) have come from Black British actors. None better than Ejiofor’s as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s film, to my mind the single best cultural work ever produced about slavery in America. If you haven’t seen it, you really really should—but in the meantime, here are two of the best minutes of acting you’ll ever see.

3)      Mahershala Ali, Moonlight (2015): My favorite Mahershala Ali performance is also my single favorite TV performance I’ve ever seen—as Detective Wayne Hays (across three very distinct time periods and stages of life, as he discusses in that hyperlinked video) in True Detective Season 3. But since Poitier was a film actor, I’m highlighting here one of Ali’s many standout film performances, and one where in just a few minutes of total screentime he creates one of the most unique and compelling characters in 21st century cinema.

4)      Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2019): Before his tragically early passing in 2020 at the age of 43, Chadwick Boseman gave a trio of truly great performances as iconic 20th century historical figures: as Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), James Brown in Get On Up (2014), and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall (2017). All three helped cement Boseman as a worthy heir to Sidney Poitier’s Civil Rights-era films, but to my mind his performance as Levee Green in the 2019 adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play is even better, and perhaps even more significant as a representation of America’s hardest histories.

5)      Jeffrey Wright, American Fiction (2023): Like Don Cheadle, Jeffrey Wright has been giving stunning film performances since the 1990s; I have a soft spot for his recurring role as Felix Leiter opposite Daniel Craig’s James Bond. But like Cheadle and Poitier and all the greats, Wright has continued to hone his craft, and I’m not sure he’s given a more deeply human and nuanced performance than he does as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in American Fiction. Every one of these actors is part of the legacy of Sidney Poitier (and so many other greats), but I’m not sure there’s a more talented heir than Jeffrey Wright.

Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other actors you’d add?

Friday, April 12, 2024

April 12, 2024: I Am AmericanStudying Sidney Poitier: Lillies of the Field

[This coming weekend marks the 60th anniversary of Sidney Poitier becoming the first Black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Poitier performances, leading up to a special post on a handful of 21C actors carrying his legacy forward!]

On what was unquestionably historic about Poitier’s Oscar, what wasn’t quite, and what’s importantly outside of that framing.

I started this week’s series by highlighting the work of my favorite FilmStudier, Vaughn Joy, so it’s only appropriate that I end the series by doing the same: for a delightful and engaging but also thoroughly thoughtful and analytical take on the history of the Academy Awards, including questions of diversity and representation therein, I highly recommend this episode of Liam Heffernan’s America: A History Podcast featuring Vaughn. As they get into at length, the Oscars have been frustratingly bad when it comes to racial/ethnic representation—which also means that we have to recognize the genuine (if frustratingly slow and haphazard) significance of historical steps in that direction. Sidney Poitier becoming the first Black man to win an Academy Award, and the first Black performer to win in the Best Actor or Actress categories, in 1964 for his performance in Lillies of the Field (1963) was such a historic step; the fact that it was long overdue, and the not-unrelated fact that it would be nearly 40 years before another such Best Actor or Actress win (2001, when both Halle Berry and Denzel Washington took home Oscars in those categories), are important contexts but do not diminish Poitier’s achievement in the slightest.

I can’t lie, though—it’s also a bit frustrating, and at least somewhat telling, that it was Lillies for which Poitier won his one Oscar. Don’t get me wrong, Poitier is great as always in Lillies, playing itinerant laborer Homer Smith who finds himself trapped in a convent doing the Lord’s work (or rather the nuns’ work, but in a pointed running joke the head nun Mother Maria [Shirley Booth] keeps thanking the Lord instead of him). And I’m not going to suggest that his character is anywhere near as limited nor stereotyped as the one for which the only prior African American Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel, took home her trophy. But nonetheless, of the couple dozen films that Poitier starred in across the 1950s and 60s (as I discussed in yesterday’s post), Homer is to my mind one of the least nuanced or interesting characters, a relatively straightforward comic role, one that uses the character more to make symbolic religious points than to offer the kinds of emotional and human truths that were at the heart of Poitier’s consistently, complicatedly compelling performances. And I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that this one, rather than all those others, was the role which won him the Oscar.

On the other hand, the Academy Awards are of course far from the only way to measure either a performance or a film’s significance. On the first note, Sidney Poitier gave many of the best film performances of the 1950s and 60s (and over the next few decades after), whatever happened in awards season. And on the second, I do think there’s at least one really important element of Lillies of the Field—that it features a Black man living in a convent with a group of largely white nuns for months, and the situation is presented as both humorous and symbolically resonant but never, not even for a second, as fraught. Considering that one of the first historic American films featured the racist myth of Black rapists as a central plot element, and that none other than the film which won Hattie McDaniel her Oscar used that same myth as a driving force in the plot of its second half as well, it’s not at all insignificant to note the absence of even the slightest intimation of those racist narratives in Lillies of the Field. That doesn’t make this one of Poitier’s most important or interesting performances, but it does make it yet another way he and his films profoundly affected Americana culture and society.

Special post this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Poitier films you’d highlight?

Thursday, April 11, 2024

April 11, 2024: I Am AmericanStudying Sidney Poitier: Two 1967 Classics

[This coming weekend marks the 60th anniversary of Sidney Poitier becoming the first Black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Poitier performances, leading up to a special post on a handful of 21C actors carrying his legacy forward!]

On standout speeches and sweet sendoffs in Poitier’s pair of 1967 releases.

By 1967 Sidney Poitier had starred in 24 films, including the 1963 release that won him the Academy Award 60 years ago this week (and on which I’ll focus in tomorrow’s post); in early 1967 he would star in another, the English educational drama To Sir, with Love. Which is to say, he was by this time already very well-established, if not indeed America’s most beloved screen actor. But having said all of that, I would still make the case that it was his second and third 1967 releases which hold up the best among all of Poitier’s films, and which not coincidentally happen to comprise (at the time and ever since) two of the most powerful depictions of race in America ever put on the silver screen: the police procedural In the Heat of the Night, which co-starred Rod Steiger and debuted in August 1967; and the domestic melodrama (with plenty of comic moments) Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, which co-starred Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (in his final performance, as he passed away in June) and debuted in December 1967.

While Poitier’s character is far more central to Heat than to Guess (where for much of the film he takes an understandable backseat to the powerhouse couple of Hepburn and Tracy), both films offer him the chance to deliver standout, stirring speeches about race in America (among other topics). In Heat those speeches tend to be brief, to the point, and righteously enraged, as in the film’s two most famous moments: “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” and the slap heard ‘round the world. In Guess Poitier’s most extended speech and scene is far more slow-building, emotionally nuanced, and multilayered: a frustrated yet loving conversation with his father (the great character actor Roy E. Glenn, Sr.) about their respective generations and perspectives. But what all these speeches and scenes share is a profound degree of emotional truth, the authentic humanity that Poitier brought to every performance and that makes both of these characters far more than just statements about race or civil rights (although they are both that as well).

Although full of more fraught and painful moments, both of these films end on sweet notes, and interestingly ones that are given to Poitier’s white male co-stars (while they are addressed to his characters). Spencer Tracy’s long final monologue in Guess is justifiably famous, not least because it is clearly addressed to his actual romantic partner Hepburn (hence her very real tears throughout) as well as to the characters by Poitier and his fiancĂ© (Tracy’s character’s daughter). Rob Steiger’s final line in Heat is as brief and to the point as Poitier’s explosions earlier in the film, but it is no less moving than Tracy’s monologue (and just as important to the film’s arc and themes), and it elicits one of Poitier’s most beautiful smiles in all his film performances. And while both of these endings are performed by other actors, I would argue that both moments have been created largely (if not, in Heat at least, entirely) by the presence and influence of Poitier’s characters, and specifically by that combination of emotional humanity and civic inspiration about which I wrote above.

Last Poitier post tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Poitier films you’d highlight?

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

April 10, 2024: I Am AmericanStudying Sidney Poitier: The Defiant Ones

[This coming weekend marks the 60th anniversary of Sidney Poitier becoming the first Black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Poitier performances, leading up to a special post on a handful of 21C actors carrying his legacy forward!]

On two different genres through which to contextualize The Defiant Ones (1958).

First things first: I have to take this post’s opening paragraph to complement Sidney Poitier’s range as an actor. Just think about the characters he played in the three 1950s movies I’ve highlighted so far in this series: a brilliant doctor in No Way Out (1950); a rebellious high school student in The Blackboard Jungle (1955); and an angry convict in The Defiant Ones (1958). Over those same years he also played a South African preacher in Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), a World War II officer in Red Ball Express (1952), a Harlem Globetrotter in Go, Man, Go! (1954), and a roughneck stevedore in Edge of the City (1957), among many other performances. Poitier became so known for his Civil Rights-related films that he’s often defined as an activist as much as an actor, and my focal points in this blog series might tend to reinforce that perspective; so I wanted to make sure to start this post by recognizing the true breadth and variety of roles that he played (and played equally pitch-perfectly), even at a young age (he was only 30 when he made Defiant Ones). Truly one of our all-time great actors.

The most straightforward way to contextualize’s Poitier’s 1958 film The Defiant Ones, and not at all an inaccurate lens, is to put it in conversation with other films about prisons and convicts, a genre with a long and multilayered history to be sure. One of the most famous such films, The Shawshank Redemption (1994), likewise features an evolving friendship between a pair of initially antagonistic Black and white prisoners, which could make for an interesting comparative lens. Others, like O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), focus as Defiant Ones does on escaped convicts, its own subgenre within this genre. And others, like Cool Hand Luke (1967), dwell on the dictatorial and destructive power structures within this brutal miniature society, structures that are never far from recapturing Poitier’s Noah Cullen and Tony Curtis’ John “Joker” Jackson throughout their story. Amidst this longstanding and crowded genre, this particular prison film was influential enough that it’s been adapted and remade multiple times, including with female prisoners in 1973’s Black Mama White Mama (starring Pam Grier and Margaret Markov).

There are lots of reasons why that might be the case, but I would argue that one is Defiant’s relationship to another genre with an even more longstanding history and perhaps even more overt audience appeal to boot: the buddy comedy roadtrip film. For the two decades prior to Defiant Ones’ release, one of the most successful film series was squarely located within that genre: Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s Road to movies (the 7th and final of which, The Road to Hong Kong [1962], came out after Defiant Ones). Like most of the films I can think of in this genre—including such famous 1980s classics as Midnight Run (1988) and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)—the Crosby/Hope films were played for laughs, while The Defiant Ones is far more serious in tone (featuring a near-lynching among many other striking such sequences). Yet whether more humorous or more harrowing, what the best of these films (a category in which I would not put the Crosby/Hope films, personally) have in common is an emphasis on their characters as the driving force, individually but even more so in relationship to one another. And on that level, I don’t know a better buddy roadtrip film than The Defiant Ones.

Next Poitier post tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Poitier films you’d highlight?

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

April 9, 2024: I Am AmericanStudying Sidney Poitier: The Blackboard Jungle

[This coming weekend marks the 60th anniversary of Sidney Poitier becoming the first Black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Poitier performances, leading up to a special post on a handful of 21C actors carrying his legacy forward!]

On two very similar characters, and one important distinction.

Five years after his debut performance as the lead of the film I highlighted yesterday, 1950’s No Way Out, Sidney Poitier took on a more supporting but still very significant role in The Blackboard Jungle (1955). Based on Evan Hunter’s semi-autobiographical 1954 novel, The Blackboard Jungle is the story of a young WWII veteran turned high school English teacher, Glenn Ford’s Richard Dadier, who seeks to get through to the troubled students at an urban, integrated trade school. While the story seems initially focused on Dadier and his adult relationships, including with his pregnant wife (played by Anne Francis) and two fellow teachers (Richard Kiley and Margaret Hayes), it is gradually dominated by Poitier’s star-making performance as Gregory Miller, a rebellious leader of the students and apparent adversary to Dadier’s authority. But when he recognizes Miller’s intelligence and talents (including as a musician) and treats him with respect, Dadier is able to make Miller an ally instead, and (having pledged not to quit as long as the other doesn’t either) together they help turn the classroom around.

If that teacher-student dynamic seems familiar to modern audiences unfamiliar with Blackboard Jungle, I’d argue a main reason might be that it closely parallels the evolving central relationship in another, more recent film set in an urban high school: between Los Angeles high school math teacher Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos) and troubled but talented student Angel Guzman (Lou Diamond Phillips) in Stand and Deliver (1988). Like Guzman in Stand and Deliver, Poitier’s Miller is at least loosely connected to a gang, which in Blackboard is led by class bully Artie West (Vic Morrow). But as that hyperlinked scene reflects for the relationship between Miller and West, in both of these stories the potential student leader is far less violent and far more open to the teacher’s positive influences than is the gang leader character. Indeed, just as Poitier’s Miller is revealed to have musical talents that could take him very far if he gets the chance to pursue them, Phillips’ Guzman turns out to be one of the best and smartest students in Escalanate’s class, scoring a perfect 5 on the AP Calculus exam.

So there are clear and compelling similarities between these two youthful characters and their roles in their respective films. But there’s also a significant difference, and it’s one that I’d argue reflects the films’ respective time periods and historical contexts: Blackboard’s two central characters are distinct in race/ethnicity (Ford’s Dadier is white, while of course Poitier’s Miller is African American), while Stand’s are both Mexican American. In a pivotal scene in Stand, Escalante is accused of helping his students cheat on the AP exam, and rightly sees the accusation as racist stereotyping of himself as well as his students, attitudes which also seem connected to 1970s-80s attacks on affirmative action. Blackboard, on the other hand, is quite specifically a story about integration in public education, one not coincidentally released just a year after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). As we’ll see throughout this week’s series, Poitier was consistently part of such Civil Rights-era films and themes, and despite its familiar overall genre Blackboard Jungle can’t be separated from those contexts.

Next Poitier post tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Poitier films you’d highlight?

Monday, April 8, 2024

April 8, 2024: I Am AmericanStudying Sidney Poitier: Vaughn Joy on No Way Out

[This coming weekend marks the 60th anniversary of Sidney Poitier becoming the first Black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Poitier performances, leading up to a special post on a handful of 21C actors carrying his legacy forward!]

Back in January, at the end of my series on Columbia Pictures’ 100th anniversary, I paid tribute to a current FilmStudier I really love: Vaughn Joy. I ended that list of (some of) Vaughn’s many impressive pieces and projects by highlighting one of her newest, her Review Roulette newsletter. Not too long after that, Vaughn focused on a Black History Month edition of her newsletter on Sidney Poitier’s film debut, No Way Out (1950). It’s one of my favorite entries in a newsletter that I’m always excited to see in my inbox, so in lieu of today’s post I’ll ask you to check out that hyperlinked piece of Vaughn’s, subscribe to Review Roulette, and come on back here tomorrow for the next PoitierStudying!

Next Poitier post tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Poitier films you’d highlight?

Saturday, April 6, 2024

April 6-7, 2024: Emily Lauer on Comics Analysis & Editing as Public-Facing Scholarship

[This is Emily Lauer’s fourth Guest Post, making her the current leader in sharing her great ideas and writing here. Everybody else, time to step up your Guest Posting game!]

It’s always lovely to guest post for Ben’s American Studies community, and this time around, instead of reviewing some interesting American Culture Thing, I’m writing about one of my own activities in public-facing scholarship. 

 

I’ve been involved with the website WWAC for almost eight years now, and I currently hold the position of Comics Academe Editor - that is, I edit the posts that go up in the section of the site dedicated to academic writing about comics. This includes scholarly reviews of comics, reviews of comics scholarship, and academic analysis of comics for a general audience. All the editors are volunteers; this role is a labor of love, not a paying gig. 

 

The website WomenWriteAboutComics.com was started by Megan Purdy in 2012 in response to a specific claim by some ill-informed pundit who said, when asked why his site didn’t publish criticism written by women, that, “women don’t write about comics.” In the many years since then, the site has grown to encompass coverage of television and film and non-comics books in our Bookmarked section as well.

 

We won the Eisner Award for Best Comics Journalism three times in a row, in 2020, 2021, and 2022. 

 

We are archived by the US Library of Congress, where we are featured as an online source for research about women and comic books

 

After Megan stepped back from her roles as Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, those roles have been filled by a number of dedicated people, currently Nola Pfau as Editor-in-Chief and Kate Tanski as Publisher. Under their leadership WWAC has “become an educational partner of the Oregon State University Creative Writing Internship program,” and they are pursuing “potential future partnerships with comics-related non-profit organizations” according to Kate. I am especially looking forward to their plan to change the site name to WeWriteAboutComics.com, to better reflect the range of marginalized genders among our varied contributors. In the meantime, we are going by our initials, WWAC, as much as possible. 

 

Personally, I got involved with WWAC in the summer of 2016 when I saw a call for people to join their copyediting team. I had a sabbatical coming up with a project writing about comics adaptations, and some experience in journalism and proofreading. It seemed like a good fit. After a time as a copyeditor, I also became a contributor; after a time as a contributor I was asked to take on editing duties for a section of the site called Pubwatches which offers roundups of comics publishers’ new releases and news on a monthly basis. 

 

After years as the Pubwatches Editor, we started winning Eisners. Was it largely due to my own personal efforts that the site became so celebrated? Reader, it was not. But it was definitely an exciting time to be involved. Due to some personal stuff with the pandemic and moving into a new apartment, I took a break from editing, but I missed it, and started my current role in the Comics Academe section of the site about a year ago. 

 

The Comics Academe section is a venue for scholarly writing with journalistic publishing practices. If you are a scholar who has something to say about a comic (or about Comics) but you don’t feel it needs to be in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, it is probably right for Comics Academe. Kate Tanski points out that, “essays published in Comics Academe are frequently used on syllabi, and have won the Gilbert Seldes Prize from the Comics Studies Society’s annual awards in 2021 and 2023 . Several current or past members of the Comics Studies Society have also served on the CSS board.” 

 

In my short time working on this section of the site, we’ve published a three-part series about archeology in comics, written by academic archeologists who happen to be interested in comics; we’ve published reviews of comics that take a scholarly approach to their analysis, and we’ve published a pedagogical discussion of using comics in the classroom—among other things. In the queue now we have a review of a scholarly collection of essays about comics, and a biographical look at an influential comics creator in India. 

 

It’s a vibrant and varied section, is what I’m saying. And we welcome pitches!

 

It’s really fun for me to receive these pitches and then get to read all these cool things scholars are doing with comics, often in a more casual tone than would be required for a scholarly journal, and a more casual timeline than would be required for most journalism. The best of both. 

 

Being a part of an organization like WWAC is rewarding for other reasons, too. Not only because the submissions are so interesting, but also partly because my involvement with WWAC is so different from my day-to-day experience of being a college professor. WWAC includes people all over the world, not all academics, with different career goals and strengths in writing. It enriches my scholarly practice, as all public-facing scholarship does, by broadening my perspective on what scholarship can be, and where it can go. 

[Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. Ideas for Guest Posts of your own? Share ‘em, please!]

Friday, April 5, 2024

April 5, 2024: Satire Studying: The Big Short and Vice

[If ever a year both needed and yet resisted a heavy dose of satire, it would be 2024. So for this year’s April Fool’s series I’ll share a humorous handful of SatireStudying posts—please add your thoughts on these and any other satirical texts you’d highlight for a knee-slapping yet pointed crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On the value and the limits of satire when it comes to contemporary, contested events.

One of the more interesting artistic transformations of the 21st century has been that of writer and director Adam McKay. McKay rose to prominence through his collaborations with comedian Will Ferrell (and others) on a series of extremely silly comedies: Anchorman (2004) and its sequel, Talladega Nights (2006), Step Brothers (2008), and The Other Guys (2010). If you haven’t had a chance to see any of those films, the most important thing to emphasize (and one you can gather from just about any clip from any of them) is that they are almost entirely, and very purposefully, non-thematic, overtly not interested in social or cultural issues and just trying to make audiences laugh as consistently and hard as possible. But in 2015, McKay wrote and directed The Big Short, a satirical dramedy based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name about the 2008 housing crisis and financial meltdown. And 2018 saw the release of a second, very similar McKay film, Vice, a satirical dramedy based on the life and political career (to date) of Dick Cheney (starring Christian Bale as Cheney, Amy Adams as his wife Liz, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld, and many more actors).

These satirical yet serious takes on hot-button contemporary issues parallel in many ways one of the 21st century’s most popular cultural genres: the satirical news commentary and comedy program. Originated by Comedy Central’s The Daily Show (especially once Jon Stewart took over the hosting gig), this genre has become one of the most prolific in recent years, from Stephen Colbert and John Oliver to Samantha Bee and Hasan Minhaj (among others!). Even late-night talk show hosts have gotten in on the act in diverse but equally compelling ways. What unites all these satirical news programs is their desire to walk a fine line between making audiences laugh (not constantly, but at least consistently) and providing thought-provoking commentary on current events, and I would say McKay’s recent films are aiming for that same sweet spot. I haven’t had a chance to see Vice yet, but I did see The Big Short and it was most definitely seeking to provide both laughs and knowledge, often in the exact same sequences (as with the famous and controversial use of random beautiful actresses to talk about the fine points of housing policy and economics). As that hyperlinked sequence featuring Margot Robbie notes, knowing these seemingly boring details is pretty vital to understanding the last decade in American life, and the goal of using comedy and satire to convey such details links McKay’s recent films to these news programs.

Yet I have significantly more ambivalence about McKay’s films than I do about those programs, and I think it boils down to one factor: the use of talented, likable actors to create sympathy for figures who have contributed negatively and destructively to these recent histories. That was somewhat the case with The Big Short’s protagonists, mortgage brokers (played by highly likable actors such as Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale) who seemingly fought the system yet at the same time profited greatly by predicting and betting on the upcoming crash and crisis. And it’s very definitely the case with Vice—again, I haven’t had a chance to see it as of this writing, but part of the reason why is that I love watching Christian Bale in anything, and really don’t relish the thought of him playing Dick Cheney, to my mind one of the truly evil figures in the last century of American political and social life. Every historical figure is a flesh-and-blood human being, with various layers and sides, and so I suppose every one is also worth extended attention and even sympathy. But I don’t know that we need an entire film creating such a multi-layered portrait of Dick Motherfucking Cheney (that’s his full name, y’know), and I likewise am not at all sure that the lighter touch of comedy and satire are appropriate when it comes to depicting such a figure. I suppose there’s a place for such films, but they’re likely to remain non-favorites for this AmericanStudier (and for reviewers such as Slate’s Bilge Ebiri, it seems).

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,

Ben

PS. So one more time: What do you think? Other satirical works you’d share?