Friday, February 09, 2018

A Dream of Whiteness: Toni Morrison's "Playing in the Dark" and "La La Land"

La La Land presents itself to us as a film about a dream -- a dream of the Hollywood screen (or as the first song has it, a “technicolor world made out of music and machines”). The film sells skeptical viewers on its sometimes spectacular song sequences by suggesting that each song is itself a kind of dream. And Mia’s “Audition” song at the end of the film only underlines the dream motif: “A bit of madness is key/ to give us new colors to see.” The color referred to in these songs are the colors of the Hollywood dream fantasy, but I would argue they are not new colors. What they are is in fact a very old and familiar dream -- through which white writers and performers have produced an idea of whiteness against the backdrop of African American cultural artifacts. The Hollywood dream of La La Land is, in short, a dream of whiteness.

Within the world of the film, Ryan Gosling’s character Sebastian is obsessed with a strange and quirky commitment to vinyl records and increasingly obscure music that has fallen out of fashion in a consumerist, pop-obsessed society (“No one likes jazz, not even you,” he tells Mia at one point in frustration). He meets and converts a skeptical Mia to his way of thinking: you can’t just listen to jazz, you have to “see… what’s at stake,” he tells her. He takes her to a club and helps her understand the improvisatory nature of the music. He insists that real jazz is not Kenny G., it’s something powerful and visionary (note that he does not say, “black”). In the scene in a jazz club where they first have this conversation, the film demonstrates visually that the music is a black cultural artifact -- the musicians in this scene are all black. But it doesn’t discursively or textually fill in the rest of the blanks in the story: when we talk about Kenny G.’s approach to jazz, we are talking about a white musician. (Tellingly, when he mentions someone committing an act of violence -- Sidney Bechet -- that’s a black musician.)

Jazz is now historical. It started as black music; over the course of its history it was widely appropriated and repackaged by white artists. Arguably this process led to a total sanitizing of the idea of jazz -- so Mia can describe “jazz” as synonymous with Kenny G., not, say Miles Davis. Within the fantasy world of the film, Sebastian’s commitment to traditional jazz -- and his rejection of a path that involves a diluted, sell-out jazz-funk-pop band fronted by Keith (John Legend) -- pays off. At the end of the film he runs his own night club; he realizes his dream.

The former basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar succinctly pointed out the irony in Chazelle’s depiction of a white jazz purist and a crowd-pleasing black band-leader:

But I'm also disturbed to see the one major black character, Keith (John Legend), portrayed as the musical sellout who, as Sebastian sees it, has corrupted jazz into a diluted pop pablum.

Wait just a minute!

The white guy wants to preserve the black roots of jazz while the black guy is the sellout? (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hollywood Reporter, February 15, 2017)
The problem of the erasure of black cultural origins in La La Land is definitely a real problem, but it’s much bigger than this one particular film -- and the film might actually be useful as a way of thinking about a problem that is very broad and deep in American life. Despite the centrality of black music to its story, the place La La Land wants to take us is to a place where the originality of that music is relegated to the background. It's the context that enables Sebastian's art, but it can't be the text itself. I would argue that the film’s relationship to black music lines up with just about perfectly with similar patterns of erasure, blindness, and misrepresentation Toni Morrison talked about in her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

Let’s take a step back and introduce Playing in the Dark a bit more broadly.

First off, Morrison mentions jazz at the very beginning of the book, with reference to a passage in Marie Cardinal’s novel The Words to Say It. There, the music of Louis Armstrong precipitates a psychic crisis in the narrator: “Gripped by panic at the idea of dying there in the middle of spasms, stomping feet, and the crowd howling, I ran into the street like someone possessed.” Toni Morrison goes on to provide a series of remarkably compelling readings of as she puts it, “the way black people ignite critical moments of discovery or change or emphasis in literature not written by them.”
What Africanism became for, and how it functioned in, the literary imagination is of paramound interest because it may be possible to discover, through a close look at literary ‘blackness,’ the nature--even the cause--of literary ‘whiteness.’ (Morrison, 9)
The kind of reading method Morrison employs in her book is what some critics would call dialectical reading (Edward Said would describe it, using musical terminology as “contrapuntal.”) She sees whiteness and blackness as intertwined, as producing each other, in American life. Whiteness is a dominant, but it depends upon its subordinate to give it shape, even though it also aims to relegate its other to a position of marginality and partial erasure. Sometimes the marginalization is direct and obvious (as she shows happening in Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not: the black character on the boat to whom Hemingway refuses to grant agency). At other times, the connection is more associative -- requiring the critic to fill in gaps left by authors whose failure to grant full subjectivity to their black characters is symptomatic (a great example of this more associative reading method might be with Morrison’s account of Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl).

Here’s another passage from Morrison that speaks to this more oblique mode of reading:
Explicit or implicit, the Africanist presence informs in compelling and inescapable ways the texture of American literature. It is a dark and abiding presence, there for the literary imagination as both a visible and an invisible mediating force. Even, and especially, when American texts are not ‘about’ Africanist presences or characters or narrative or idiom, the shadow hovers in implication, in sign, in line of demarcation. It is no accident and no mistake that immigrant populations (and much immigrant literature understood their ‘Americanness’ as an opposition to the resident black population. Race, in fact, now functions as a metaphor so necessary to the construction of Americanness that it rivals the old pseudo-scientific and class-informed racisms whose dynamics we are more used to deciphering. (Morrison, 46-47)
It’s in passages like these that one gets a hint of the ambition and scope of this argument -- it goes to the core of the construction of Americanness itself.

One way for critics to try and prove her assertion (in such a short book I think we have to take her readings as suggestive rather than dispositive) might be to go deeper into the ways in which what she calls the Africanist other was a constitutive presence and absence from other works in the American canon. (And American literature people in fact have been doing this, in a growing sub-field focused on “whiteness studies.”)

Another response might be -- and this is one that comes more naturally to me -- might be to cross-reference her approach to representations of blackness in texts by white American writers with comparable representations of various Oriental and African others in works in the British tradition:

“As a writer reading, I came to realise the obvious: the subject of the dream is the dreamer. The fabrication of an Africanist persona is reflective, an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious. It is an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity, of shame, of magnanimity. It requires hard work not to see this.”
This is remarkably parallel to what Edward Said notes in Orientalism with respect to western conceptions of non-western cultures. When American writers construct a discourse of Africanism in their works, they are constructing an inverted mirror -- a fantasy of otherness. They are not, by and large, actually incorporating the actual voices and narratives of people of African descent. When British writers like H. Rider Haggard or Joseph Conrad dreamed of “savages” in sub-Saharan Africa, they were not seeing and hearing real African people; they were imagining an Other to themselves said more about their fantasies than it did to the ethnographic reality of the people they were ostensibly encountering along the Nile or the Congo.

There might be a third way of responding, which is to extend and expand Morrison’s method to a range of contemporary references, including in popular culture. One sees a version of “Playing in the Dark” in the long legacy of white musicians appropriating and commodifying black musical traditions, from the blues, to jazz, to rock n roll, to hip hop. Al Jolson was playing in the dark; Elvis Presley was playing in the dark; Dave Brubeck was playing in the dark; Eminem and Macklemore and Vanilla Ice and Post Malone -- all playing in the dark, and taking it to the bank.

This is not to say there is something lacking in the art of Dave Brubeck or George Gershwin. Actually, I think Morrison would say that the pattern of appropriating black cultural artifacts and whitewashing them is a fundamental cultural process. For white musicians and for white audiences, black music is a site of dangerous otherness and wild excess -- a site for the exploration of taboo sexuality -- a journey, in effect to the “dark side” (again, see the quote from Marie Cardinal in the Morrison along these lines: jazz music seemed to produce a rupture within the narrator’s soul). It represents freedom and a path to the uncensoring of the Puritan self. In another way of looking at it -- and I can’t help but think of the passage relating to William Dunbar in the second section of Morrison’s Playing in the Dark here -- the incorporation of black music alongside the constitutive exclusion of actual black people is not just an American story, it’s the American story. In short, it’s through “playing in the dark” that white Americans have in fact constructed the category of whiteness.

Another interesting passage from Morrison:

“A second topic in need of critical attention is the way an Africanist idiom is used to establish difference or, in a later period, to signal modernity. We need to explicate the ways in which specific themes, fears, forms of consciousness, and class relationships are embedded int he use of Africanist idiom: how the dialogue of black characters is construed as an alien, estranging dialect made deliberately unintelligible by spellings contrived to disfamiliarize it; how Africanist practices are employed to evoke the tension between speech and speechlessness; how it is used to establish a cognitive world split between speech and text, to reinforce class distinctions and otherness as well as to assert privlege and power; how it serves as a marker and vehicle for illegal sexuality, fear of madness, expulsion, self-loathing. Finally, we should look at how a black idiom and the sensibilities it has come to imply are appropriated for the associative value they lend to modernism--to being hip, sophisticated, ultra-urbane.” (52)
Again, I recognize La La Land here, both in its superficial stylistic elements (the hip and sophisticated feel of the film is connected to its appropriation of blackness), and more substantively. Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian uses a traditional form of black music to signal his rejection of contemporary consumer culture (“they worship everything, but value nothing,” he says contemptuously at one point). That’s what makes him a dreamer and a visionary (notice that the film does not frame his actual cultural borrowing and mimicry as borrowing -- in the fantasy world of the film, it’s seen as originary). And remember the clip we looked at earlier: Sebastian said, “they used jazz to communicate.” Notice what he didn’t say: that these people who created jazz in a “flophouse in New Orleans” were black people. Their language was, following the passage from Morrison quoted above, fragmentary and wild. It needed a white romantic lead to narrate it and give it shape and vision.

(One question all of this raises of course is where does this leave Emma Stone’s character, Mia ? At first she is a jazz skeptic, but then as a convert she pressures Sebastian not to give up on his dream. Do white women play in the space of black music the way white male musicians have for so long?)

As a final comment, it seems appropriate to end by gesturing to the song Jay-Z released in the summer of 2017 on 4:44 -- entitled “Moonlight.” On the surface -- and in its title -- this song refers to the infamous scene at the Academy Awards in 2017, when the Best Picture Award was mistakenly given to La La Land rather than the African American directed Moonlight. The mishap seemed to underline the problem we have been talking about: the overwriting of a black cultural artifact and black creativity by whiteness. And Jay-Z played with this in the song with a double irony. First, he never says the word “Moonlight” in the song -- “We stuck in La La Land” is the chorus. However, the rapper makes no actual reference to the film La La Land in the song either (he only uses the phrase). The song as a whole is in fact a lament for how hip hop as a musical form has been turned into a bankable commodity by music industry executives, at the expense of the artists themselves.

We Stuck in La La Land
Even when we win, we gon’ lose

Jay-Z’s “La La Land” is a land of where black artists lose even when they win, where record executives profit while artists struggle and lose their way. It’s also, I would argue, a land dominated by a logic of racial inscription that seems so familiar because we’ve seen it so many times before. “La La Land” is the American dream of whiteness on repeat.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Literature and Social Justice: Teaching Notes (Spring 2018)

My colleague Jenna Lay and I are co-teaching the English department's Literature and Social Justice (LSJ) graduate seminar this spring. We offer the LSJ seminar as a required course for all first-year graduate students in the department. This week, I presented this overview to introduce the broad arc of the class to the students. 

A good place to start might be the Lehigh English Department's “Literature and Social Justice Mission Statement.” This is a collectively-written document that was developed by the department’s faculty LSJ committee a few years ago that the full department then workshopped and signed off on. It's helped shape our vision of our graduate curriculum as a whole and our approach to hiring new faculty; it's also clearly informed the thinking that went into the design of the course you're now taking.

I won’t rehearse the whole of the Mission Statement here, but there are a couple of bullet points that are especially helpful in framing what we’ll be trying to do in this course. Let’s start with a relatively straightforward statement from near the beginning of the document:
We believe that the study of literature, mapping the contours of what it means to be human—our aspirations and anxieties, our histories and hopes—is essential to the work of social justice. We come to know others by the stories they tell, even as we determine who we are by the stories we tell ourselves. (source)
Of course, one of the issues we need to think about as we dive deeper into what “literature and social justice” means is what we mean by “social justice” itself. What does that term really point to, and where does it come from? There is a tradition of thinking about the idea of “social justice” in political science and philosophy, and we’ll start in our conversation today with an attempt to define the term “social justice” -- before putting “literature” back into the equation with our readings for next week. This preliminary conversation will not necessarily settle the question of what we mean by "social justice," but as we discuss terms like "distributive justice" and think about how Rawls and other thinkers have conceptualized the role of public institutions, the nation-state, and the free market in creating the conditions for justice, we'll begin to develop a common vocabulary on this topic. We'll also ponder some of the newer challenges to classic concepts of nation-based social justice that have arisen in connection with multiculturalism and globalization.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Green World: Notes From a Visit to Puerto Rico (December 2017)

We recently spent a few days in Puerto Rico -- just a short trip with kids to get out of the cold and snow, largely possible due to my wife's amazing skill managing frequent flier miles and credit card points. Here are a few limited observations from a tourist with very minimal Spanish.

The good news is, the island is still there and still eminently visitable. It's still the warm, green, inviting place I remembered from several earlier trips, though the energy seemed subdued and the numbers of both locals and tourists seemed down. My daughter was seeing it all for the first time: "It's so green! It's a whole green world!"

San Juan has power, though many traffic lights are currently not turned on, which makes driving interesting. (At one point we were trying to locate some quarters for a parking meter, when someone told us that because of Maria, there is currently no parking meter enforcement in the entire city! Nice... for us at least.)

A few big beach hotels on the Condado were damaged by the storm, including the super-deluxe Condado Hilton (still not open). Most are open, though it seemed to me they weren't as crowded as one would expect.

Outside of San Juan, power is much more spotty. We drove around the east coast of the island and down to Ponce, and it seemed like most of the way there was no power. Even in a relatively sizable city like Caguas, in the middle of the island, the traffic lights were all off; at one intersection I saw a hopeful banner someone had made: "Como el morivivi, Caguas Renace!" (Like the Morivivi [the island's indigenous "shy" flower], Caguas reborn!")

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Race and Policing: Links for Class

These are links my students found related to Race and Policing after our discussion of Between the World in Me. 


The Cases Where US Officers Have Faced Charges:

When Should Officers Use Deadly Force?


Concrete Account -- Eric Garner

General Analysis -- Police are almost never charged with a crime in these instances


Eric Garner:

Andrew Rosenthal, "The FBI's Phantom Black Menace" 


George Zimmerman:

Charles Blow, New York Times: The Whole System Failed Trayvon Martin

JM: (on chokeholds and what is being done about them in wake of Garner)


Eric Garner: 

CNN, "Was a New York Police Officer's Use of a Chokehold Necessary?"


A conservative response to the Trayvon Martin killing -- actually George Zimmerman is not your friend, conservatives:

Charles Blow, "The Curious Case of Trayvon Martin"


What it means to be in police custody:

BBC: "Freddie Gray's Death in Police Custody: What We Know"


In Tamir Rice Case, Many Errors by Cleveland Police, Then a Fatal One: 

A Better Standard for the Use of Deadly Force:


(Lexis Nexis links)
Charles Blow, New York Times, "The Curious Case of Trayvon Martin" (See IB)

Canberra Times, "Crackdown on Profiling" 

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

"Believing They Are White" -- Talking about Ta-Nehisi Coates and Whiteness with my Students

Yesterday we started Ta-Nehisi Coates' book Between the World and Me in my first-year writing class.

We had a vigorous discussion of the following passage. At the end of the hour I felt good about the level of engagement, but perhaps also aware that not everyone in the room was convinced by Coates' scathing assertions about whiteness in particular. The key passage comes right at the beginning of the book:

Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism—the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore he Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.

But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white. (7) 

There are two difficult ideas here. Let's pull them apart to try and understand them better.

1. Where did Racism come from? 

The first is a historical one (crystallized as "race is the child of racism, not the father"). After a certain amount of talking it through, my students seemed to get it. Since Coates isn't really giving us a detailed history of the emergence of scientific racism here, or talking about various kinds of tribalism and ethno-nationalism that exist outside of the Euro-American framework (i.e., with whiteness on top), I had to fill in some blanks.

To help my students get there, I suggested to them that before modern race science (modern racism), various societies certainly did have versions of tribalism in which outsiders were denigrated and contrast to "our people." Sometime in the early modern period -- probably coinciding with the inception of the transatlantic slave trade -- that changed in Europe and North America. A new, overarching theory of Race ("capital R") was invented, displacing minor tribalistic racisms with a Theory that could now be applied to all forms of cultural difference.

Monday, September 11, 2017

From 9/11 to the Trump Presidency: the Clarifying Power of Difficult Times

Since the election last November I've said a few times that living in the U.S. under Trump is a lot like living through the reaction to 9/11 all over again. On the one hand, both events give one the sense of being surprised by a darkness running deep in the bloodstream of American culture that we might not have been aware of. We had to contend, then as now, with the thought that our ostensible friends and neighbors might be harboring a hostility that we didn't realize was there.

On the one hand, that fall I remember arguing in a public forum with a colleague who essentially bought into the Bush administration's line that the war in Afghanistan was actually about freeing Afghan women who were oppressed by the Taliban. (Faculty on college campuses were by no means immune to government propaganda!)  I stumbled a bit to respond -- I was new in my job and untenured. At a relatively conservative campus and at a time when there was a strong social imperative to be critical of terrorists and supportive of those who oppose them, I was unsure whether I could publicly say what I actually thought: that the Bush administration did not care at all about women in Afghanistan. And that we need to be extremely skeptical of any and all American rationalizations for military action. That particular day, I don't think I quite pulled it off.

That said, so many people were also inspired by the cascade of military and political missteps in 2001-2003 -- from the various excesses of the Patriot Act, to the use of torture at Guantanamo and CIA black sites, to the build-up to the invasion of Iraq -- to become engaged with global current events in a way they hadn't been before.

In contrast to that other colleague I mentioned, another colleague, a (now-retired) Jane Austen specialist whose office was adjacent to mine, was inspired by her commitment to feminism to develop a deep knowledge of groups like RAWA -- and was only too sensitive to the classic Gayatri Spivak conundrum of "white men saving brown women from brown men." She and I had many good conversations in those years about this conundrum, about the complexities of understanding how patriarchy functions in South Asia from a western vantage point, and about the possible roles and limits of western feminism in light of everything else that was going on. I remember marching with this colleague in New York City at the massive anti-war protest in February 2003. Though we did not agree on everything, I was proud to stand with her that day.

So just as it was a terrible and deeply disheartening moment, both in itself and in the social and political reaction it provoked, 9/11 (and now, the Trump Presidency) led many of us to wake up again and assert our commitment to justice -- with all of its complications. Then, we were talking about protecting civil liberties and privacy in light of the Patriot Act, the human rights of prisoners in detention, and the danger of rushing thoughtlessly to war.

Today we have to talk about: the plight of undocumented immigrants and refugees, the rise of a new kind of white nationalism, the many ways in which American society seems to deny the humanity of black people, the fundamental dignity and rights of LGBTQ people, the importance of addressing climate change... and the danger of rushing thoughtlessly to war.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Teaching Resources: Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me" in the First-Year Writing Classroom

Resources for Teachers: Links and Documents related to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me.

These are some texts and resources that might be helpful for people teaching Between the World and Me. While there’s no doubt that this book is an impressive achievement -- as a work of rhetoric, as a thoughtful and learned essay -- it might not be transparently obvious how to teach it to first-year students at Lehigh, especially in coordination with a textbook like They Say / I Say. These resources aren’t designed to be “lesson plans” in and of themselves, but rather focal points that might come in handy for a number of different approaches to situating this book in a composition classroom.

One important starting point to bring in might be the “rhetorical situation” -- Coates wrote this book at a particular point in time and in the midst of a particular conversation about police violence and the contested deaths of (generally unarmed) black men and women in a series of incidents especially in 2014 and 2015. It's important to name that rhetorical situation, and underline for students that virtually every great work of public argument starts with a rhetorical situation, whether it's Lincoln at Gettysburg or King at Birmingham Jail.

Another possible conversation might be connected to the rhetorical positioning Coates uses here -- the second person address (or: the form of the “open letter”). This could be a good opportunity to bring up the Baldwin text that Coates’ book is modeled on (see below). It could also form the basis of a short paper assignment (or even *the* paper for this unit): have students compose an open letter type argument in the second-person. It *might* also be helpful to link the Coates/Baldwin texts to other influential open letters (one thinks of Emile Zola's "J'Accuse" in the Dreyfus Affair in France -- it might be helpful to show students how this form works outside the frame of American history).

Another approach might entail finding the “They Say…” voices inside Coates’ book. Some of these are easily located (such as the allusion to Saul Bellow’s comment about the “Tolstoy of the Zulus”), others are ones we might have to interpolate. If one of the most important ‘scenes’ in Coates’ book is the moment his son learned the news that Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown, would not be indicted, in a sense that suggests that the Grand Jury’s finding is itself a kind of statement to which Coates and his son are both responding.

A way to make that interlocutor more concrete might be the statement from Robert P. McCulloch, the St. Louis prosecuting attorney who made an official statement around the time the decision was reached not to indict Officer Wilson:

There is nothing “racist” in McCulloch’s statement, but perhaps that’s the point. Coates is responding not to individual incidents of racism, but to a pervasive sense that black bodies -- the bodies belonging to Michael Brown, Prince Jones, or his son -- are subject to violence in America. Not only is there no legal recourse for that violence, it’s what the country was founded on. It’s embedded in our “heritage,” our system of laws, and even the “objective” findings of a federal prosecutor. What might it mean if we were to read Coates' book as an oblique response to McCulloch's presentation of the case?

I. Sources / Origins

Richard Wright, “Between the World and Me” (poem, 1935)
This is the poem that gives the book its title. Coates also gives a few lines from it as an epigraph.

James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time” (1962-1963). The Fire Next Time is of course the most immediate source text for Between the World and Me -- Coates models his rhetorical positioning and the idea of the open letter to a younger black man on Baldwin’s open letter to his nephew. Excerpt here:

Malcolm X, “Message to the Grassroots” (1963)
This is the origin of the quote on p. 35 (“Don’t give up your life…”)

II. Immediate Context

→ Coates names a number of African-American men and women killed by police in 2010-2015: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, John Crawford, Kajieme Powell, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Marlene Pinnock... He also frequently returns to death of an acquaintance at police hands more than a decade earlier -- Prince Jones. See the essay by Coates on this, “Black and Blue,” indicated below.

John Lewis, “Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the ‘Other America’” The Atlantic, December 15, 2014. Forceful argument by a civil rights pioneer shortly after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner

Nice survey in the LA Times of several fatal police shootings. Published in May 2017, not long after the death of Jordan Edwards:

Black Lives Matter debates:

A conservative critique from July 2016 (shortly after five Dallas police were killed):

Deray McKesson’s response to critiques of BLM -- from that same week:

Interview with Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of BLM, reflecting on how the movement has been mischaracterized. August 2017:

III. Earlier Writings by Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Black and Blue.” Washington Monthly, 2001. This was Coates’ first version of the story of the killing of Prince Jones, a fellow Howard University student and acquaintance of the author in college.

Darryl Pinckney, “The Anger of Ta-Nahisi Coates” New York Review of Books, February 11, 2016.

The review by Pinckney summarizes some of the key points in the story of Coates’ father, which Coates wrote about in The Beautiful Struggle (2008). Students may want to know more about Coates’ family, especially after the reference to the Black Panther Party on p. 30. Also, the review is helpful for acknowledging critiques of Between the World and Me -- specifically the sense that Coates isn’t arguing for “hope” or confident that the world can “change.” (Good instances of “They Say / I Say…”)

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations”

Some of the history of segregation described in Between the World and Me is taken as a given. Practices such as “redlining” are mentioned but not explained. Coates did a deep dive into some of these discriminatory practices -- which occurred in northern cities like Chicago & continued well past the end of “Jim Crow.”

This essay is important because it might show students that “racism” can in fact be “systemic” -- supported by government policies -- not just the product of individual idiosyncrasy. It also gives important context for African American urban poverty.

IV. Historical and Literary References in the book that might be interesting to explore

"A Forgotten History of How the U.S. Government Segregated America." Interview on "Fresh Air" May 2017.

Saul Bellow, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be happy to read them.” This is mentioned on p. 43 of Coates’ book. A helpful account of the controversy Bellow’s statement inspired can be found here (dating from 1994 -- shortly after Bellow made the comment):

Brian Farm, Gettysburg. This is the farm Coates mentions on 101-102. It is part of the historical battlefield of Gettysburg. Interestingly, it was owned by a free black man who fled the farm ahead of the battle fearing that Robert E. Lee might be likely to pull him back into slavery. (This might also index with ongoing debates about the status of Confederate statues)

Solomon Northrup, “12 Years a Slave.” This is mentioned towards the end of Coates’ book

Robert Hayden’s poem “The Middle Passage.” Cited on p. 51 of Coates’ book

V. Police Shootings Data / Statistics

These databases probably need to be scrutinized. If introduced to students, it seems important to frame them thoughtfully. Might also be helpful to have general crime statistics (i.e., crime has been decreasing steadily in the U.S. for twenty years), as well as comparisons to other countries (fatal police shootings in the U.S. are way, way higher than in other countries).

Washington Post, “Fatal Force” Database.


VI. Critiques of the book:

Andre Archie, “The Hopeless Politics of Ta-Nahisi Coates.” The American Conservative.
November 9, 2015.

Nice critique by Melvin Rogers, professor of African American History at Swarthmore College:
Key quote: “But if we are all just helpless agents of physical laws, the question again emerges: What does one do? Coates recommends interrogation and struggle. His love for books and his journey to Howard University—“Mecca,” as he calls it—serve to question the world around him.  But interrogation and struggle to what end?

VII. Teaching Resources / Reading Guides at Other Institutions

First-Year Experience Common Read, California State University-Northridge:

Random House's "Freshman Year/ Common Readinng Discussion Guide:

Kansas University Reading Guide -- First-Year Common Book 2016:

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Visualizing Modern Poetry : Thematic Tags in First Books by McKay, Pound, H.D. Plath...

(I'll be presenting a more formal version of this work at the Modernist Studies Association in Amsterdam this weekend -- if I ever get there! Flight cancellations, delays, etc.)

One thing I was happy to do this summer was finish the expansion of my Claude McKay project -- it now contains all of McKay's early Jamaican poetry. I also had a chance to look at the Daily Gleaner and Jamaica Times microfilms at the Library of Congress, so I could include most of McKay's early uncollected poetry as well.

Along the way I got interested in the force-directed graphs you can produce in Scalar, which has a customized form of the D3.js visualization library built into the platform. This makes it incredibly easy to generate network diagrams without having to know Javascript or CSVs. The diagrams are interactive and clickable, so they can serve both as visual depictions of digital collections and as site maps through which we access the texts themselves. However, the price of ease-of-use is that the diagrams are constrained by Scalar. (One of my goals for the summer was to learn enough Javascript that I could start building versions of these diagrams outside of Scalar. It's mid August; I'm not there yet.)

Below I'm going to paste screenshots some of the diagrams I've been generating using "first book" collections by several authors: McKay, Georgia Douglas Johnson (Bronze), H.D. (Sea Garden), Ezra Pound (Personae), and Sylvia Plath (Colossus, and Other Poems). I had earlier in mind the idea of including W.H. Auden's first proper book ("Poems"), but found it difficult to apply the method I have been developing to that book (Auden's early writing involved poems that were too long and narratively immersive to be readily reducible to "themes"). I have also been working on Tagore's Gitanjali, and might add it to the collection below soon.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Standing Together Against Hate

I was recently asked to give a short statement at an interfaith event in Doylestown, sponsored by Rise Up Doylestown, Showing Up for Racial Justice, and a number of other groups. This is the text of what I presented at that event. 

Statement for “Many Faiths, One Community” Event (June 11, 2017)

When 9/11 happened, I had just moved to this area from North Carolina for my first real teaching job at a university. I was living alone in downtown Bethlehem, near a high school. I was numb from the horror of the attack and from spending a little too long watching the coverage of it on the news.

But I was also afraid for myself. I didn’t go out much that fall and when I did I felt myself under scrutiny. I heard a lot of hostile, even hateful comments. Driving, I was threatened by other motorists. The comments were of a certain stripe: “Osama,” “Taliban,” “Saddam.” Sometimes the harassers tried to sound mean and friendly at the same time: “What’s up, Bin Laden?” When I flew to a conference in Wisconsin that November, the woman sitting next to me on the plane was immediately uncomfortable. She asked to change seats, and the flight attendant agreed. I was horrified, but I understood that this was going to be part of life in America. The country where I had grown up, which I thought of as my country -- my home -- had become something strange and newly hostile. I had to learn to accept those sorts of reactions. And on the whole I was lucky. I faced no physical violence; others in my circle of friends and family did. I didn’t have to worry about my job security or my visa status; others I knew did. And after a couple of years people seemed to calm down and I could begin feel a bit more comfortable in public places. I could start to go on with my American life.

When the 45th President was elected this past November, I couldn’t help but remark to friends and family that it felt a little like 9/11 all over again. I couldn’t understand how so many people thought this man would be good for the country. His comments about planning to ban Muslim immigration in particular seemed unthinkable to me: unconstitutional and just plain wrong. But then he won, partly on the basis of his very racism, xenophobia, and hatred of Muslims. And again, the country that I thought I knew turned out to be something stranger and darker than I had thought.

It is probably important to mention at this point that I am not a Muslim but a Sikh. Beause of my turban and beard we are often confused here in the U.S. Sikhism is a faith based on egalitarianism, a strong sense of social obligation to others, and courage when faced with hostility. In our tradition, we tell the story of the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, who when the Sikh community was under threat from the Mughal Emperor who ruled India in 1699 established the idea of a distinctive Sikh identity -- the Khalsa. From this point forward every Sikh would be identifiable, even if it made them a target. A fateful decision, but a powerful one.

I don’t regret the hostility that is directed towards me by mistake. I embrace it. Today, when I have been the target of anti-Islamic hate-speech I have always tried to make it a point not to simply say, “I’m not a Muslim” -- because that person is definitely going on to target someone else. The better strategy is to stand with my Muslim brothers and sisters against all such hatred. Because if we are going to stay here in this country -- if we are going to find a way to make it feel like home again -- we have to stand together against intolerance directed against all religious and racial groups. That’s why I also think it’s important to support my Jewish friends who are facing a resurgence of anti-Semitism at present as well. Why we need to support and stand with our LGBTQ friends and allies. And why I think it’s important to say “Black Lives Matter.”

In one sense the election of President #45 hasn’t led to the kind of overnight and blanket hostility people who look like me once faced every time we went outside. But what it has unleashed has been a new mainstreaming of extremely intolerant and hateful speech, not just on the streets, but in the mainstream media and in government. That’s what the so-called “March Against Sharia” that is taking place in cities around the country today is. In response I think it is important not just to stay home and stay inside, but to go out on the streets to do counter-marches, to gather at events like this one. To find allies and support each other as we face the long and dangerous road ahead. Thank you