Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Introducing Mira Nair: a slideshow video

I put this video together to help introduce folks to Mira Nair. Some people know her films well, but I've found in recent months that many friends -- even those who know their world cinema -- often don't know the full range of her work.

Many of the images in this slideshow are also screen captures I use as illustrations in my book on the filmmaker.

The Films of Mira Nair: Diaspora Vérité is now available in paperback from

Thursday, October 11, 2018

New Brown America: Revisiting Sepia Mutiny in 2018

[I'm giving the following as a conference talk at the Madison South Asia conference on Friday, 10/12/2018] 

I view Sepia Mutiny as a space where second-gen South Asian Americans worked on their identity issues publicly at a moment when a generation of talented artists and performers were on the cusp of emergence into the American mainstream. While the site is now defunct, I would argue that the debates occurring on the site have continued to be live since it went offline, often now in mainstream venues and an evolving set of social media frameworks.

Some of the key themes of Sepia Mutiny writing include:

1) The significance of emergent South Asian American identity in the broader North American context. What does it mean to be ‘brown’ in the U.S. in the early years of the 21st century? What terms do we use to name ourselves? (Do we, for example, use the word 'desi' or not?) How strong or weak are our alliances and affinities as a group (across religious, national, caste, and regional boundaries -- to name just four huge fault-lines)? How do South Asian Americans situate themselves against the white mainstream as well as other minority identities -- other Asian Americans, Arabs and Persian immigrant communities, African Americans, Latinos? What kinds of cultural and artistic products document that emergence and work through some of the key obstacles we’ve faced – including especially 9/11 and the election of Trump in 2016?

2. The many, many ways of being hybrid, mixed, split. South Asian Americans are notably defined by generational and intra-cultural variation, but one thing we all seem to have in common is a kind of internal culture clash. How to connect ‘home’ tastes and values to the versions of ourselves we perform in public? How to position ourselves both with respect to mainstream western cultural icons and South Asian aesthetic worlds -- from Indian classical dance to Bollywood/Bhangra? How much does your identity really mean if, as a second-gen, you don’t speak a South Asian language very well or at all? What is your relationship to ‘home’?

3. The ongoing problem of appropriation as an indirect mode of racism and cultural diminishment. In the mainstream, this could be in the form of western performers appropriating Indian cultural or religious symbolism: a pop star wearing a bindi, or the complex appropriation of Hindu devotional practices in westernized versions of Yoga. It could, of course, also be a matter of accent appropriation -- and here, our own frequent criticisms of western appropriation of bad Indian accents clearly anticipated the kind of critique Hari Kondabolu would later make of Hank Azaria and the creators of the Simpsons in his 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu. I also can't help but think of the "Macaca" controversy of 2006, the many, many examples of stereotyping and typecasting of South Asian Americans as either model minorities or terrorists.

* * *

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Shades of Brown: Notes for a South Asian American Media Studies Project

I'm starting a sabbatical, and hoping to restart this blog with a series of posts related to the thinking I'm doing over the summer and and into the fall. Here's the first of what I hope will be a series of meditations building towards what might become a new book project

What does it mean to be 'brown'? What are the parameters and limits of brownness -- as a skin complexion, as a racial category in American life? Many Latinx people identify as 'brown'; and slogans like "Brown Power" have been part of the Latinx and Chicanx political vocabulary since the 1970s. South Asians identify as 'brown' as well -- and there's as much complexional variance amongst South Asians as there are amongst Latinx people. Are South Asians the same 'brown' as Latinx people? We need to explore this; we need to have a conversation about what we mean by brown. When is it a term of pride? What are the different browns -- moreno/a, mestizo/a, Indio/a -- and east Indian shades of brown?
"Boricua morena
Boricua morena
Boricua morena..."
-Big Pun

Admittedly, as a color (and not necessarily as a complexion), brown has its own values and aesthetic legacy in English. Brown can suggest mud, it can suggest shit, it can suggest a combination of too many colors (when painting, a mess, or a mistake). To claim brownness as a political and racial category is to push back against the ways in which the color is devalued (though it should be noted that the negation of 'brown' is different from that of 'black'). Brown is also a natural, intermediate, and inclusive color -- not an extreme color defined by purity of one kind or another. Brown is the earth -- the ground, out of which other brown things grow. Only some of us can be white or black; potentially all of us have some shades of brown in our skin, including people who trace all of their ancestry to Europe. If brown is the American future, could 'brown' become the racial default, displacing 'white'?

Arguably, large numbers of biracial and multiracial people might be understood as 'brown'. Some of them have also been understood, sometimes awkwardly, as black (Tiger Woods). Others proceed in their careers with a degree of ethnic and racial ambiguity (Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel). If we're going to have a conversation about brownness, we need to have a conversation about multiracial identities as well, especially given the rapid increase in the number of families who identify as multiracial in the past three decades. If America is turning brown, it's doing so as much through intermarriage as through immigration (sometimes both at once).

Unlike blackness or whiteness, brownness seems to be a porous category -- not a term historically shaped (as blackness is) by the legacy of the American slave trade or the one-drop rule. Unlike whiteness or blackness, Brownness can continue to grow and evolve. 2042 is coming; what happens then?
"Listen made intently when you make the sound
Tell you that it's all love,
They care about the browns
The truth is when you down,
They be out making the rounds
Like, brown boy, brown boy, what's up with that sound, boy?"

Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, there were really two options for an aspiring South Asian diaspora performer -- mainstreaming (which usually entailed deracialization and assimilation to a state close to whiteness), or orientation to a small constituency of fellow South Asians (peforming for other browns -- other desis). Much of the South Asian diaspora fusion Bhangra music that circulated in the 1990s and 2000s operated in this model, with independent music labels and a subcultural nightclub circuit. It was anchored in a vibrant college scene, with dance clubs on many campuses and intercollegiate competitions like Bhangra Blowout.

In many ways the model for minoritization came from the African American community, and that imprint is not unimportant. Blackness and black culture is a huge part of South Asian diaspora media culture. The musical idiom with the most cachet since the 1990s has of course been hip hop, with the play between minoritization and mainstreaming that has been central to that subculture playing out in the South Asian version as well. For every mainstream, crossover success (i.e., Panjabi MC), there are figures like Bohemia and Dr. Zeus, who stayed underground. And a version of this might adhere with Latinx music as well, where Reggaeton in particular is deeply indebted to Afro-Jamaican dancehall reggae and hip hop. But hip hop is not just a musical idiom and a subculture; for 'brown' performers it's served as the primary pathway to mainstream legibility. 

(And we could talk about some of the interesting brown cross-references that have occurred, as for instance when the Cuban-American rapper Pitbull, in his breakthrough 2001 single, "Culo," used the "Coolie Riddim" -- a dancehall beat with an East Indian sound. Or, conversely, the influence of salsa and other Latinx musical forms in Bollywood music...)

The debt to hip hop is sometimes fraught, as Heems discovered when he received pushback for Tweeting lyrics to a song (by an African American rapper) that included the n-word. And, for her part, M.I.A. got into trouble when she questioned the racial singularity of the Black Lives Matter movement ("Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters? That's a more interesting question"). More broadly, though the advent of "brown rap" raises a question about the nature of the performance -- is a rapper like Heems performing "brownness" or "blackness" if and when he uses black vernacular phrases and cadences? What might it mean to engage with hip hop as a brown rapper and not attempt to mimic African American voices?

I'm not from here
Please be patient
I be ragin' face displacement
I'm obsessed with the space between spaces
Eh, f---ing racists
I get caged in a box cause I'm Asian  

Perhaps, sometime around 2008, a third option started to emerge in bits and pieces in mainstream American popular culture. That option might be described as the brown option. This option entails mainstreaming without necessarily disavowing ethnic or racial difference. Neither 'white' nor 'black' -- something else.

If you catch me at the border,
I've got visas in my name
-M.I.A., "Paper Planes" 

The year 2008 is imprecise, but it seems like a good yardstick. 2008 is the year Das Racist had its breakout hit with "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell"; in a more mainstream setting, 2008 was the year British South Asian pop/R&B singer Jay Sean signed to Cash Money records (he released "Down" in 2009 -- it went to #1 on the Billboard charts).  2008 is the year M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" was a hit on American radio stations (though the song was actually was released in 2007). Naveen Andrews was breaking hearts with his dreamy character Sayid on Lost in 2008.

2008 is just before Aziz Ansari hit the mainstream with Parks and Recreation (2009) and his cameo as "Randy" ("Raaaaaaaandy") in Funny People, though as of 2008 he was very much on the cusp. Kal Penn and John Cho's Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle was of course released earlier, but Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, the more explicitly politicized and highly improbable sequel to the multicultural stoner classic, was released in 2008.  Also in 2008, Aasif Mandvi was a regular correspondent on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart, while he was also playing prominent roles on shows like Jericho. Sendhil Ramamurthy was one of the break-out stars on Heroes. And Mindy Kaling was a star writer and actor on The Office -- she got her own show in 2012.

And of course 2008 is the year of the biggest 'brown' mainstreaming event one could imagine: the Presidential campaign and election of Barack Obama. This was a campaign where South Asians were prominently and consistently aligned with the biracial ('brown') Presidential candidate. Barack Hussein Obama shared the problem, which many people of South Asian descent feel acutely, of the 'funny' name -- a name people might struggle initially to pronounce. He still ran for president on his own name (he could easily have presented himself to the world as 'Barry' -- the nickname he used as a young man). And won.

And yes, alongside Barack Obama, we should duly note that 2008 was the year Bobby Jindal was sworn in as the governor of Louisiana -- the first Indian-American governor in American history. Arguably, however, if people like Barack Obama or Aasif Mandvi were finding ways to enter the mainstream while embracing their complex identities and backgrounds (their 'brownness' and, in Obama's case, 'blackness' as well), people like Jindal seemed to be downplaying any signs of racial or religious difference.

The political legacy of these events has been beautifully and comprehensively discussed in Sangay Mishra's groundbreaking book, Desis Divided: the Political Lives of South Asian Americans. Mishra also uses the dual pathways I have been describing, though he uses a slightly different vocabulary ("pluralizing"/"assimilationist" vs "racializing"/"minoritarian"). He also limits his scope to politics -- here I'll be primarily interested in media figures, including actors, musicians, and stand-up comedians. I'll be interested in in politicians like Jindal and Nikki Haley insofar as they perform versions of brownness in the American public sphere.

Through much of this period, I was writing about these issues on the internet with a very active group of readers and co-contributors. The site where we were having these conversations was a group blog called Sepia Mutiny. One of my goals, going forward, is to review the scope of the conversation we were having on Sepia Mutiny between 2005 and about 2010 to retrace our steps -- to find the contours of the evolving conversation about brownness and the emerging new forms of racialization in the American landscape.

Along the way I want to look at precursors to the 2008 moment -- the long tradition of South Asian American (and maybe also Latinx) media presence in the American landscape through the 20th century. And also think about what's happened since then -- Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project), Aparna Nancherla, Kumail Nanjiani, Hasan Minhaj, Hari Kondabolu. I'm also interested in Youtube stars like Lilly Singh and the Instagram poetry sensation Rupi Kaur. How do all of these artists, in their respective fields, navigate brownness in the new media landscape?

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!")

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

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.