Friday, May 17, 2019

A Few Scattered Reflections at Mid-Career

Full Professor...

I just got word that the Board of Trustees approved my promotion: I am to be a Professor of English. Not Assistant, not Associate any longer: Full Professor.

Woohoo... but this post is not exactly a victory lap. Humanities fields are at a crossroads right now, and there are some serious issues to contend with. Some of what follows are some things that have been on my mind this year as I've been considering what comes next for us all as humanists.

To begin with, what does "Full Professor" mean? Friends and family have been asking me this over the past year or so since I submitted my file. (I am the only academic in my extended family -- and actually, the first and only Ph.D.)  In the short run, all it means is that I don’t have to submit any more files listing all my activities for review by the university. Over the years, I put together three pre-tenure reappointment review files, two tenure review files (long story), two post-tenure triennial review files, and a full professor promotion file. Both the tenure review files and the full promotion files were also sent out to anonymous readers at other institutions who had to write letters. Every senior member in my department also had to write letters of support on my behalf; my chair had to write letters of support; the tenure and promotion committee did its own evaluations. At this point -- finally -- there are no more files to do, and no more evaluative letters have to be written on my behalf. I've apparently been evaluated enough!

In the long term, being full professor means you’re eligible for certain leadership roles in the department and in the university as a whole. It also means you’re a full citizen of the university and pretty much committed to the institution.

“Committed to the institution” should not be a shock, since I’ve now been on the faculty at Lehigh University for seventeen years! I am of course deeply grateful to everyone who helped me along the way. (For some particular names, see the acknowledgments page of my Mira Nair book. It could as well be an acknowledgments page for the past few years as a whole.)

I am lucky… I survived. 

I know how very lucky I am. I came out of a prestigious Ph.D. program and had a good amount of momentum going into the job market. I was also lucky to be doing it in a time of relative plenty in terms of job availability. I do not know how someone with my unwieldy dissertation project would fare if I had to do it again today. And the department where I landed has been flexible and supportive -- I didn’t really realize the extent of that support until I went up for tenure.

Admittedly, I have some war stories (I think we all do). Some of them I wrote about earlier, and I won’t rehash them here. My job is now pretty secure. But what about our graduate students, who face an academic job market that has been consistently shrinking? What about subsequent generations? Even as I celebrate getting this far, it’s hard not to think that the road ahead is troubled.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Syllabus: "New Brown America: Race and Identity in the 21st Century"

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Spring 2019
Instructor: Amardeep Singh, English Department

Short Description

What does it mean to be brown in America in 2019? How have recent historical events -- from 9/11 to the election of Donald Trump -- impacted the status of immigrant communities? This course will explore a range of contemporary texts from popular culture, including novels, memoirs, films, stand-up comedy albums, poetry (both on the page and performed), and musical recordings, all of which explore the changing nature of identity. Many of our primary texts will explore points of intersection between different ethnic and racial groups, including black/Latino/Asian intersections, multiracial identities, and the broad, trans-racial appropriation of hip hop culture. We will also read from critical race theorists who will help students develop a conceptual vocabulary to engage these issues. In terms of performance, starting points will be Hasan Minhaj, Trevor Noah, Sharmila Sen, Eddie Huang, Rupi Kaur, and Mohsin Hamid. Students will be encouraged to bring their own interests and suggested materials to the course.

January 22       First Day of Class: Welcome.

What does Hasan Minhaj mean when he uses the phrase, “New Brown America”? How might his concept – which is poetic and moral – align with demographic trends, showing how a growing number of immigrants might be changing American society? Is the U.S. becoming more ‘brown’, or is it more accurate to say that ‘brown’ immigrants will eventually become ‘white’ – following the path of earlier immigrant communities?
                       
                        In class: Hasan Minhaj, Homecoming King: clips

                        U.S. Census Document, “Race & Ethnicity” (Definitions)
                        https://www.census.gov/mso/www/training/pdf/race-ethnicity-onepager.pdf


January 24       “New Brown America”: Defining Terms
           
                        What do we mean when we describe some groups as ‘races’ and others as
‘ethnicities’? What exactly do sociologists mean by ‘ethnicity’? Second, what
exactly are the immigration trends that have conservative Americans so
disturbed? Is the U.S. becoming more ‘brown’ or is it more accurate to say that
new immigrants are becoming ‘white’?

Omi and Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: Preface and Introduction (2014 edition) (PDF CourseSite)
                       
Pew Research: “Facts on U.S. Immigrants, 2016”
                        http://www.pewhispanic.org/2018/09/14/facts-on-u-s-immigrants/

                        Thomas Edsall, “Who’s Afraid of a White Minority?”


January 29       Blackness/Whiteness

Where do the concepts of Whiteness and Blackness come from in American culture? How did waves of European immigrants ‘become’ white? How are white and black identities defined dialectically, historically? What might it mean to say that “whiteness is a lie” (as Baldwin and Coates both claim)? If whiteness is a lie, what does blackness mean?

Read: Claudia Rankine, Citizen (poetry)

Read: James Baldwin, “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies” (1984) (PDF
CourseSite)

Woody Deane, “Rethinking Whiteness Studies” (2014) (PDF CourseSite)             

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Some Brief Notes on Sharmila Sen's "Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America"

I picked up Sharmila Sen's book, Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America, as I was beginning to prepare for my upcoming spring class, "New Brown America: Race and Identity in the 21st Century." I have been looking for writers who help us theorize an emerging concept of 'brownness' as an identity formation in the U.S. Here are some of the other books I've been looking at:

  • Kamal Al-Solaylee's Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means
  • Richard Rodriguez's Brown: the Last Discovery of America, and 
  • Steve Phillips' Brown is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority.

These are of course very different books. Phillips' book is really a political strategy essay -- pointing out how immigrant groups tend to lean democratic, and what this ought to mean for the Democratic party going forward. And Rodriguez' book is more a literary essay and memoir than it is a broadly applicable 'theory' of brownness as an emergent racial formation. Finally, Kamal Al-Solaylee's Brown -- a book I would actually strongly recommend -- is more globally focused than it is an account of race and ethnicity in the U.S.  Al-Solaylee's book looks at migrant movements around the world and notes a striking pattern: there are 'brown' migrants working in the middle east (think of the South Asians in Qatar and UAE) and Chinese cities like Hong Kong (many of them Filipina maids and nannies), as well as in the U.S., Canada, and the UK. These workers are 'brown' mainly relationally: their brownness is a sign of their subordinate and migrant status. But they don't form a group or an identity; by and large they are defined only by their relationship to dominant communities wherever they are.

Taken together, these books, along with essays by people like Jose Munoz (who surely would have published his own book on brownness by now had he lived) and the performance and creative writing of people like Hasan Minhaj (Homecoming King), Elizabeth Acevedo (see "Afro-Latina"), Suheir Hammad, and others, are giving us a critical mass of conversation about an emerging 'brown' cultural moment.

As I see it, Sharmila Sen's book is an important part of that unwieldy, wide-ranging, and sometimes awkward conversation. As a community of writers and teachers, we don't quite know what we mean by 'brownness' yet -- but we're increasingly using the term in our conversations nonetheless. We don't quite know what the implications of demographics changes will be on American concepts of race and ethnicity yet (think: "Waiting for 2042"), and we don't yet know whether Trumpism will remain in place in our system (specifically after Trump himself is gone) as a counter to those changes.

In the interim, brownness remains an awkward subject position, a coalitional politics more than a coherent identity. (We need to keep working on it.)

Monday, January 07, 2019

A Long List of Works Now Out of Copyright: Let's Digitize Them?

Updated: thanks to everyone for their suggestions and additions. The list is now significantly longer than it was when I first started putting it together. 

A Note on Method: This list is cobbled together from magazine articles related to Public Domain Day, Wikipedia lists of books published in 1923, and Balfour Smith's extensive spreadsheet of works.

Works published in 1923 are now out of copyright (the reasons for this are complicated; look up the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act for more, or see this article in Smithsonian Magazine for a quick primer). I expected there would be a big rush of digitization to coincide with "Public Domain Day," but thus far there doesn't appear to have been all that much activity.

Perhaps one reason is that many texts now entering the public domain can already be viewed online in page view / PDF at Hathi Trust (see links below). A couple of Edgar Rice Burroughs novels show up at Project Gutenberg Australia. But the number of working plain text or HTML editions at sites hosted in the U.S. is quite small. Moreover, a number of major texts appear to have no digital versions available at all at present (see especially e.e. cummings' Tulips and Chimneys and Wallace Stevens' Harmonium).

It seems worth mentioning that a lot happened in 1923. The British authorities seized a copy of Ulysses in the mail and declared it obscene in January. The pulp magazine Weird Tales published its first issues. Sean O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman had its debut, as did George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. The Surrealists and the Dadaists had a riot in Paris, and decided to part ways. And all of the books below were published!

Here's a longish list of texts that were published in 1923, and that are now out of copyright. Where I've been able to find Hathi Trust, Gutenberg, or Archive.org links I've provided those. I will add to this list as I learn of more.

Works Published in 1923 -- Now in the Public Domain

Poetry

Jean Toomer, Cane (Hathi Trust). UPDATE: My bare-bones digital edition here.
e.e. cummings, Tulips and Chimneys (no edition as of yet)
Joseph Conrad, The Rover (Hathi Trust)
Robert Frost, New Hampshire (Gutenberg Edition: January 4, 2019)
Robert Frost, Selected Poems
William Carlos Williams, Spring and All (Wikipedia)
Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (Wikipedia)
Carl Sandburg, Rootabaga Pigeons (Hathi Trust)
Willa Cather, April Twilights and Other Poems
Vachel Lindsay, Collected Poems
Vachel Lindsay, Going-to-the-Sun
Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems
George Santayana, Poems, revised

Fiction (literary)

Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay (Hathi Trust)
D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo (Hathi Trust)
D.H. Lawrence, Three Novellas (The Fox, The Captain's Doll, The Ladybird)
D.H. Lawrence, Birds, Beasts and Flowers
Ernest Hemingway, Three Stories and Ten Poems (Wikipedia)
Katherine Mansfield, The Doves' Nest and Other Stories (Hathi Trust) 
Katherine Mansfield, Bliss and Other Stories
Edith Wharton, A Son at the Front (Hathi Trust)
H.G. Wells, Men Like Gods (Hathi Trust; Wikipedia)
Willa Cather, A Lost Lady (Hathi Trust)
William Carlos Williams, The Great American Novel 
Samuel Hopkins Adams (publishing as Warner Fabian), Flaming Youth (Wikipedia Entry. Hathi Trust lists this as published 1924)
Sherwood Anderson, Many Marriages (Hathi Trust; Wikipedia entry)
Sukumar Ray, Abol Tabol (Wikipedia)
Dhan Gopal Mukerji, Jungle Beasts and Men
John Dos Passos, Streets of Night
Carl Van Vechten, The Blind Bow-Boy
Djuna Barnes, A Book
Gertrude Atherton, Black Oxen (Gutenberg link.)
Arnold Bennett, Riceyman Steps (class study involving shell shock; Wikipedia)
Elizabeth Bowen, Encounters (Archive.org; short stories)
John Galsworthy, Captures
John Galsworthy The Burning Spear
Rudyard Kipling, Land and Sea Tales for Boys and Girls
Vita Sackville-West, Grey Wethers
Olive Schreiner, Stories, Dreams and Allegories
Virginia Woolf, "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street" (short story that would later feed into Mrs. Dalloway [1925])

Translations

Anton Chekhov, Love and Other Stories (trans. Constance Garnett)
Jules Verne, The Castaways of the Flag (first English-language edition)
Jules Verne, The Lighthouse at the End of the World (first English-language edition)
Colette, Green Wheat
Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers (trans. Philip Shuyler Allen)
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls (trans. Constance Garnett)
Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat and Other Stories (trans. Constance Garnett)
Maxim Gorky, My University Days (trans. Louis P. Lochner)
Knut Hamsen, Victoria (trans. Arthur G. Chater)
Heinrich Heine, Poems (trans. Louis Untermeyer)
Emond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac (trans. Brian Hooker)

Notable Nonfiction

Dhan Gopal Mukerji, Caste and Outcast
Bertrand Russell, The Prospects of Industrial Civilization
G.K. Chesterton, Fancies Versus Fads
Winston Churchill, The World Crisis
Jessie Conrad, A Handbook of Cookery for a Small House 
Arthur Conan Doyle, Our American Adventure
Theodore Dreiser, The Color of a Great City
E. M. Forster, Pharos and Pharillon 
James G. Frazer, Folk-lore and the Old Testament (abridged edition)
Aldous Huxley, On the Margin: Notes and Essays
D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature
David Lloyd George, Where Are We Going?
H.L. Mencken, The American Language, 3rd revised edition
Thorstein Veblen, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times: The Case of America
Woodrow Wilson, The Road Away from Revolution

Popular fiction and Genre Fiction


L. Frank Baum, The Cowardly Lion of Oz
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan and the Golden Lion (Gutenberg Australia)
Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Girl From Hollywood (Gutenberg Australia; Wikipedia Entry)
Agatha Christie, The Murder on the Links
Marie Corelli, Love and the Philosopher
Austin Hall, People of the Comet (Science fiction serialized in Weird Tales in 1923)
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (Gutenberg)
Herman Hesse, Demian (first English-language edition)
Dorothy Sayers, Whose Body? (Wikipedia)
P.G. Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves (Archive.org)
P.G. Wodehouse, Leave it to Psmith (Hathi Trust)
P.G. Wodehouse, Mostly Sally
Maxwell Bodenheim, Blackguard
Thomas Alexander Boyd, Through the Wheat (an American World War I novel; Wikipedia entry)
Max Brand, Seven Trails
John Buchan, Midwinter (Gutenberg Australia)
James Branch Cabell, The High Place: a Comedy of Disenchantment (Wikipedia entry)
Hall Caine, The Woman of Knockaloe
Susan Ertz, Madame Claire
Jeffery Farnol, Sir John Dering
J.S. Fletcher, The Charing Cross Mystery (Gutenberg Canada)
Zona Gale, Faint Perfume
Garet Garrett, Cinder Buggy
Philip Gibbs, The Middle of the Road
Talbot Mundy, The Nine Unknown (orientalist fantasy involving the Emperor Ashoka and Kali worshippers)
Liam O'Flaherty, Thy Neighbour's Wife
Olive Higgins Prouty, Stella Dallas (Wikipedia entry)
William MacLeod Raine Iron Heart 
Rafael Sabatini, Fortune's Fool
May Sinclair, Uncanny Stories (illustrated by Jean de Bosschere)
James Stephens, Deirdre
Margaret Wilson, The Able McLaughlins (Wikipedia)
Anzia Yesierska, Salome of the Tenements



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 Amazon.com

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?"
-Heems

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  
-Heems 

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 Jazz in "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 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 (see: the image above from the film). But Gosling's character doesn’t fill in the rest of the blanks in the story or name the parts played by whiteness and blackness. When he talks about Kenny G.’s approach to jazz, he is talking about a white musician. Tellingly, when he mentions a jazz musician 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 critic Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, that 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 much bigger than this one particular film. Still, the film seems strikingly effective as an entry point to a problem that is very broad and deep in American life. (Maybe because its 'politics' otherwise seem to be benign?) 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 Willa 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 scholars 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 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 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!")