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.

The new capital-R Racism Coates is talking about starts with a concept of a social hierarchy that presumes that one group must prevail over all others. The various others are "racialized" differentially. A set of racist stereotypes tended to be applied to people from Asia and the middle East (see: "Orientalism"): they were seen as tending towards authoritarianism and despotism, as fetishizing ideas of honor and masculine pride, and an unable to think dispassionately or analytically. Another set of racist stereotypes were seen to apply to people from Africa and of African descent: among other things, they were depicted as less intelligent across the board, and tending towards pure animal ("savage") violence. These stereotypes were not understood as merely opinions or as fodder for racist cartoons and caricatures; they were institutionalized and put into academic textbooks.

It's important to indicate that all of these stereotypes were invented by the dominant group to justify their continued dominance over the others. To eradicate these stereotypes it isn't enough simply to prove that they aren't true. To really fight them, we need to change the relationship of dominance that is behind them. Ending slavery and Jim Crow -- and the turn towards full integration, Civil Rights, the Voting Rights Act, the election of a black President -- was the starting point for this in the United States at least. But while these changes were necessary and important moves in the right direction, arguably the system of social dominance that led to the invention of captial-R Racism is still in place.

More globally, the starting point for challenging Racist (here: specifically Orientalist) stereotypes about Asians and Arabs started with formal decolonization. But to really change the dynamics between "East" and "West," developing nations need to become something other than "third world" societies in various states of dysfunction.

2. Decentering Whiteness. How Do We Get There? 

There is a second difficult idea in the Coates passage above, and that pertains to the idea of Whiteness. Some students in the class seemed to resist intensely Coates' assertion "whiteness" is a fiction. I couldn't quite solve this for them in class, so let me take a stab at it here.

First, Coates does allude immediately afterwards to various modes of identity that predated Whiteness (which, again, he believes is a product of capital-R Racism):
These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. the new people were something else before they were white--Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish-- and if all of our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again.
Before they were understood as "white," Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants in the U.S. were all subject to stereotypes that foregrounded their ethnic and religious differences from the mainstream of American society (note that most Irish and Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were Catholics, while the U.S. is very much a Protestant-dominated society). Historians have explored this history in detail (a starting point might be a book like How the Irish Became White). I don't have space to do that here, but maybe the following cartoon from 1899 will help give an idea of the racialization of Irishness worked:

The main point is that over time these populations did become "white" as they assimilated into the mainstream of American life. What did that assimilation into whiteness entail? It certainly didn't involve any changes in physical features or skin tone. No -- the focus was on cultural values, ways of talking, ways of being. As Irish immigrants in Philadelphia and Boston lost their accents and started becoming lawyers and doctors, over time the stereotypes about them started to drop off. They became Americans -- white Americans.

Something similar has been happening with two other populations more recently -- Latinos (Latinx) and Asian Americans have also in some ways been following that pattern. The first generation of immigrants might understand itself as part of a minority set apart from the mainstream of American life, but not their children or their grandchildren.

There are many Latinos in public life today who are comfortably both "Latino" and "White." (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio certainly come to mind.) I have also had students from various Latin American backgrounds tell me the same thing: "I identify as Latina and White."

And while this is less common among Asians, I have met many Asian-American people who have indicated to me that in one way or another they feel more attached to the white American mainstream than they do the communities or national identities of their ancestors. Another example along these lines from contemporary politics might be Nikki Haley, current Ambassador to the UN in the Trump Administration and former governor of South Carolina. Haley is, like me a second-generation Indian American. But on a census form in 1990 -- when the choice was either "white" or "black" (at that time, there was no option for "South Asian" or "Indian American") -- she checked "white" when describing her racial identity.

The point here is not to say that Nikki Haley shouldn't be allowed to identify as white if she feels white. As a fellow Indian-American I'm not invested in calling her out -- and one might also mention that for years Arab Americans and Iranian Americans also checked "white" on their census forms; same logic. The bigger question is why "whiteness" is seen as the inevitable destination for immigrants as they assimilate into the mainstream. Why did my Latina student -- who was on her way to pledging a 'mainstream' sorority at the time she was in my class -- feel it was important to assert her claim to whiteness?

Another version of that question: why is "mainstream" seen as synonymous with "white"? Is it possible to imagine a version of American identity in which assimilated immigrants are seen as defined in some racially unspecified way? (As the country becomes increasingly "brown," one might imagine a new mainstream "American" as "indeterminately multiracial" and/or "vaguely brown." We are still many years away from that becoming plausible, though Time Magazine did generate the following image by synthesizing facial features and averaging the complexion of a large number of immigrants together. Maybe this will be our default idea of what an "American woman" looks like:

Still, for now, there's no doubt that "whiteness" is still synonymous with "mainstream" in American life. It is the "norm"; all other groups are minorities, whose values and cultural identities deviate from that norm.

Many white-identified students at this point get confused [I have had a version of this conversation in other classes], and say some version of the following: "but I've never really thought about my whiteness as a thing. I mean, I know I'm not Asian, or black, or Latino. But my whiteness is really more a blank -- I'm actually envious of people who have more clearly defined identities. My whiteness is just there, and it's boring." Also: "I don't much mind if you want to take away the category of 'whiteness', but if we do remove it, what am I?" Finally, "if I stop being white, does that mean that Coates will stop being black? Why do minorities hold on to their racial and ethnic identities, while I'm being asked to disavow mine?"

These are all hard questions. On the last question, I think the answer is yes -- if we really stop thinking of whiteness as the image of Americanness, and thoroughly dismantle Capital R Racism,  we'll also dismantle other racial identities as well. (We're a long way from that, however. And I don't think Coates believes we'll ever get there.)

When a student says, "I've never really thought of myself as particularly white, and I certainly don't think I cling to whiteness," I think the response is that that lack of consideration is itself only possible because of white privilege. Whiteness as blankness, in other words, is a symptom of whiteness as central, normal, default. (We'll have to save the conversation about "white privilege" for another day, but this essay might be a good place to start.)

As for "what am I, if not white?" my thought is something like "we're not there yet either. But can we start to visualize an ethnically unspecific Americanness, built around aspects of identity not tied to skin tone, facial features, or heritage?"

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

Monday, May 22, 2017

Slides and Links for LVAIC Scalar Workshop (5/24)

I'll be doing a presentation at Lehigh for an LVAIC workshop later this week. The topic will be an introduction to Scalar. My slides are below. Also below are some links mentioned in the presentation

Google Drive folder for hands-on component.

Scalar website:

Examples of Good Scalar Projects: 

New Media and American Literature:

Black Quotidian: the Everyday in African American Newspapers

Bad Objects 2.0. Games and Gamers

Vimala Pasupath: Writing With Substance

Scalar Projects at Lehigh: 

Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer

Women in Sherlock Holmes

My colleague Michael Kramp and I have been using it for class projects.

My Scalar Projects:

The Kiplings and India:

Harlem Shadows: Claude McKay’s Early Poetry.

Timelines in Scalar:

Google Maps Integration in Scalar

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Mimicry and Hybridity in Plain English (Updated and Expanded)

This essay is a sequel of sorts to an earlier blog post essay I wrote a few years ago, introducing Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism for students as well as general readers. I do not know if this post will prove to be as useful, in part because these concepts are considerably more difficult to explain. At any rate, I would appreciate any feedback, further examples, or criticisms.

Update from April 2017: I added a new section called "Close Reading Bhabha's 'Signs Taken For Wonders.'" The original version of this essay did not engage very directly with Bhabha himself, and I thought the time was ripe to correct that. 

* * *

When the terms “mimicry” and “hybridity” are invoked in literary criticism, or in classrooms looking at literature from Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean, as well as their respective diasporas, there is usually a footnote somewhere to two essays by Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” and “Signs Taken For Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” But students who look at those essays, or glosses of those essays in books like Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, generally come away only more confused. Though his usage of a term like “hybridity” is quite original, Bhabha’s terminology is closely derived from ideas and terminology from Freud and French thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan. I do respect the sophistication of Bhabha’s thinking -- and the following is not meant to be an attack on his work -- but I do not think his essays were ever meant to be read as pedagogical starting points.

What I propose to do here is define these complex terms, mimicry and hybridity, in plain English, using references from Bhabha's own writings, but also from other sites -- from specific cultural contexts, historical events, and works of literature art that aren't under Bhabha's purview. The point is not to tie the ideas up nicely, the way one might for an Encyclopedia entry, for example. Rather, my hope is to provide a starting point for initiating conversations about these concepts that might lead to a more productive discussion in the classroom than Bhabha's essays tend to do alone.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Fateh Singh Makkar, 1924-2017

I recently delivered a eulogy for my grandfather, who passed away at the age of 92. This is a slightly edited version, with most names removed to protect my relatives' privacy.

My grandfather and me, at the Air and Space Museum, 1982

Thank you all for coming today to help us remember and honor my grandfather, Doctor Fateh Singh Makkar. (We called him “Bhapaji.”)  Bhapaji passed away in Ludhiana, Punjab last week at the age of 92; my parents were there to be with him in his last few days, as were my father’s sisters. It happened right around the 11th anniversary of the death of my grandmother Bhagwant Kaur, and they had come together in Ludhiana in part as part of the family's annual commemoration of her death.

Bhapaji was a larger-than-life figure for us -- a big man with a huge personality, beloved by four generations in a large family with that is now mostly dispersed over northern India with a couple of branches here in the U.S. Today I'm going to talk for a couple of minutes about his life and give some details that help give a sense of who Bhapaji was with a somewhat historical, documentary angle (others today will speak more "from the heart").

I think of people of Bhapaji's generation -- there are fewer and fewer of them with each passing year -- as a bridge in some ways to our collective history as people of South Asian descent. Bhapaji, born in 1924, lived through the last years of the British Raj, the Partition, and then essentially the whole of postcolonial Indian history up to this point. We don't, I don't think, pay enough attention to the lessons of that history.

Like many Sikhs, our family history started in what is today Pakistan. Bhapaji was born and raised in a Muslim-majority village called Musakhel in a rural part of western Punjab; his own father was a kind of village doctor -- in Indian languages, a Hakim. I once asked him if he remembered anything about his own grandfather. He told me that he too was a hakim -- so the medical tradition goes back a long way in our family (my own father is a doctor). Bhapaji later moved to a village called "Chak Number 90," where my father was born. As much as that area of Punjab was home, politics interceded, and with Partition approaching it became abundantly clear that they couldn't stay. In 1947, the family migrated on foot from Pakistan into India, covering an astonishing 160 miles with a nine month old baby -- my father -- in their arms in the midst of terrible violence.

After a brief time in a refugee camp, the family resettled in the town of Bharatpur, Rajasthan, where Bhapaji set up a medical practice and a dispensary. He soon became known and respected throughout the town. He was the head of the local Sikh Gurdwara society in Bharatpur, but he was so well respected by the local Hindu community that he was also elected head of the Bharatpur Punjabi Hindu temple.

I felt that sense of importance when I would go to visit Bharatpur as a child. It's not an especially nice-looking town; there's an old Mughal fort there, but otherwise it's a forgettable place in the middle of the desert. But when we went there we felt like VIPs. My family had what felt like a huge compound there, with high walls and lots of rooms and pathways. (I haven't been back in many years, so it's possible that it seemed bigger to me as an eight year old than it actually was.) I was in awe of the cavernous main hall where we would play cards and chess for hours, and I was amazed at all the wild animals one would see in the streets and alleys of the town -- pigs, goats, dogs, cows. When we slept on cots on the roof during the hot summer months (no air-conditioning back then), we had to watch out for aggressive monkeys that came out at dawn to harass us poor humans. I was in awe, too, of Bhapaji’s antique shotgun, sometimes used for hunting game, though in the midst of the riots of 1984 Bhapaji had to fire it in the air to dispel a murderous mob that had gathered at the doors of the compound. 

It happened again: a place that felt like home suddenly didn't. The family was shocked by 1984 -- by the sense that neighbors could turn on them without warning -- and decided to move to Punjab for the greater sense of security and belonging. (My mother’s parents did something similar at that time after going through a similar experience, relocating from Delhi to Chandigarh.) Bhapaji and my father's brother settled in Ludhiana, where Chachaji opened up a medical practice of his own.

Even as he seemed to remind us of our past, Bhapaji also enjoyed and embraced modernity -- whether it was modern medicine or modern technology. He enjoyed getting to know young people; I was always impressed by how good he was at sizing people up and debunking the kind of hot air and bloat that Indian men of a certain age are sometimes prone to. I remember one relative at a dinner once bragging about how many Crores of Rupees he was supposedly making in his factory; Bhapaji laughed it off: Bhaisaab, you must be confusing Lakhs for Crores. And when another relative seemed to get a little too carried away reminiscing about the Kulchas that are famous in Amritsar, he gently chided, "You should eat to live, friend; don't live to eat." 

Another sign of his modernity was his respect for women; Punjabi men of his generation tended to be intensely patriarchal. And yes, both of Bhapaji's sons became doctors, but one of his daughters too is a practicing doctor in Lucknow; another is a teacher (now retired). In the 1960s and 70s, it wasn't so common in traditional Punjabi households like ours for daughters to get post-graduate degrees. And more recently Bhapaji showed great respect for the women in the younger generation who are working professionals, including my wife and my brother's wife.  

Bhapaji had six children -- two sons and four daughters. All are thriving, with twelve grandchildren (my generation) as well as, now, eleven great-grandchildren. Of the six children, three ended up in medicine as well -- my father, my father’s sister (my Bhuaji) in Lucknow, and my Chachaji in Ludhiana. In the next generation again (my generation) there are three doctors too. So the long and proud tradition of medical work in our family continues. (And yes, neither my brother nor I went to medical school; perhaps one of my kids will find their way back to the family "line.") 

Many of us in the room are getting older. Bhapaji taught us how to age gracefully and to enjoy life’s later years. He lived healthily in spite of longstanding issues with heart disease -- he had his first heart attack at age 57 and underwent what was then (this was 1982) a rather risky bypass operation. It worked; he went on to live well, by and large, for another 35 years. Even after becoming a widower a decade ago, he continued eating extremely carefully, doing yoga, and going for regular constitutional walks until just the last year of his life, when his health started to falter. That discipline is incredibly impressive. I think of my own struggles to eat healthy and exercise. Bhapaji didn’t need an app or a device to get him to be healthy. He just had the discipline and did it.

Bhapaji was the last of my four grandparents. He was also the grandparent my brother and I knew best, in part because he spoke the best English of any of the four. That said, I had wished many times that my Punjabi was better so I could have experienced the full force of his legendary wit and humor. Bhapaji expressed the desire that my kids and my brother's kids grow up speaking better Punjabi than we did. We’ve been trying to honor that request.

Near the end of his life, Bhapaji and my father went back to Musakhel in Pakistan -- the village he had left behind now more than 70 years ago. The village is still there; the house is still there, and the old folks in that village, remarkably, still remembered Bhapaji. It was remarkable to my father on that trip to see how quickly Bhapaji could reconnect with old childhood friends he hadn't seen in so long; it says something pretty profound about Bhapaji's personality and how well he was loved. But I think it also tells us something about the way time can heal wounds. The bridge between two communities that was broken in 1947 can be mended; it wouldn't be that hard to do. And we can begin to move forward, together.