Appreciating Philadelphia’s Mural Arts @ 30

In this blog entry, David Updike, co-editor of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts @ 30, offers his thoughts on the book and what he learned about Mural Arts along the way.

I think it’s safe to say that over the last thirty years, Philadelphia has become a city of murals. As you crisscross the city, you find them in just about every neighborhood, often where you’d least expect them. They’ve become a part of our landscape, and something that people here and elsewhere associate with Philadelphia. A lot of the credit for that goes to Jane Golden, because it wouldn’t have happened without her energy and her vision, but it also wouldn’t have been possible if the city itself hadn’t embraced the idea that public art matters. And it matters, not just because it improves our aesthetic environment, but more importantly, because it has a lasting impact on the people who participate in the process.

The Mural Arts offices are a buzzing hive of activity. In the hallways you pass a steady stream of people coming and going, to and from mural sites, or classes, or canvassing neighborhoods. And these are people who, to borrow an old phrase from Bill Clinton, look like Philadelphia. They’re young and old, they’re black, white, Asian, Hispanic. And they all carry themselves with a sense of purpose. In the gallery downstairs you’ll see exhibitions of art—some of it quite remarkable—made by everyone from elementary school students to inmates serving life sentences at Graterford. And then there’s the room upstairs with the very skylight under which Thomas Eakins painted The Gross Clinic. And I suspect that our city’s greatest painter, were he alive today, would approve of this populist endeavor, which seeks to embrace the city he loved in all of its aspects.

I’m very fortunate to work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of our city’s other great cultural institutions. And it occurred to me as I started working on this book that, in a way, the Art Museum and the Mural Arts Program have opposite but entirely complementary missions. At the Museum we work very hard to get people to come to us and experience great art. But Mural Arts brings art to the people in the places where they live and work. And what Mural Arts brings to these communities is not a particular product or aesthetic. Rather, it’s a process of engagement and dialogue and co-creation that takes place over months and years, and whose effects remain long after the paint on the walls has dried.

Phila Mural Arts 30_smThis book seeks, above all else, to document what takes place off the walls. And really, this gets to the heart and soul of what Mural Arts does. Yes, it’s about transforming places, but mostly it’s about transforming people. We wanted to look at that process and its effects through many lenses, so we brought together a diverse group of authors from different disciplines—social sciences, public health, art education, restorative justice—to paint as broad a picture as possible of what a socially engaged art practice looks like, and what it can do, especially when it works in tandem with other organizations to address big issues like homelessness, youth violence, or urban blight.

In the book, Jeremy Nowack aptly refers to what happens in the course of creating a mural as a kind of “social contract” that arises between all of the stakeholders involved in a project—neighbors, business owners, community leaders, schools, artists. And the key word here is “stakeholders.” People feel a sense of investment and ownership in the murals. They take pride in them. They show them off to visitors. New stories and rituals grow up around them. People now ride the Market-Frankford El in West Philly just to see Steve Powers’ 50 Love Letters unfold. Inspired by the murals, couples have gotten engaged and even married on that 20-block stretch along Market Street.

Other stories around the murals are more painful, more challenging, but also rewarding in ways that aren’t necessarily visible to someone looking only at the end result. A particularly poignant example is James Burns’s Finding the Light Within, which took on the issue of youth suicide, not just with a very powerful and personal mural, but also with community meetings, writing workshops, collage workshops, and a participatory blog, all of which provided safe, supportive spaces in which survivors could share their stories. More than 800 people participated in those activities, and hopefully found some measure of healing in the process.

Elizabeth Thomas begins her essay with a provocative question: “Who makes culture?” In other words, Who decides what messages we see and read and hear? Whose stories count? Every day we’re bombarded by images and messages that tell us what we should wear, eat, drink, watch, listen to. But how often do we see our own struggles and achievements reflected in our environment, or our own stories projected into the public discourse? Socially engaged art practice has begun to address this problem of who gets represented—and who does the representing—in public culture. It’s happening in different ways in different cities around the country, but in Philadelphia its most visible proponent is the Mural Arts Program.

Much of the work that Mural Arts has done in recent years has sought to expand the definition of what a mural is and what it can do. For the mural project called Peace Is a Haiku Song, the poet Sonia Sanchez initiated what became, in essence, a citywide collaborative poem cycle. She began with a mental image of haiku by children hanging like cherry blossoms from the trees in Philadelphia. This evolved into an invitation to people of all ages to contribute poems in a series of community workshops and through a dedicated website. The poems didn’t end up hanging from the trees, but many of them ended up on posters around the city that were created by youth working with graphic designer Tony Smyrski.

The experience of seeing your own words and your own images projected into the world is an empowering one, especially for young people. As Cynthia Weiss points out, kids participating in mural projects often gain practical, real-world skills, like photography and graphic design. But they also gain a sense of agency that may be hard to come by elsewhere in their lives. And that type of experience can have a lasting impact on a person’s life in ways that we’re really only beginning to understand.

This is the essence of what Mural Arts does. It’s about creating situations in which people are drawn out of their everyday selves and both challenged and empowered to reach for something more. So while this book marks a milestone in the history of the Mural Arts Program, our hope is that it also points the way forward for others who want to use the power of art to change things for the better.

To listen to a podcast of David Updike and Jane Golden’s presentation at the Free Library of Philadelphia from March 26, click here: http://libwww.freelibrary.org/authorevents/podcast.cfm?podcastID=1216

Questioning French Republican Politics

In this blog entry, Jennifer Fredette, author of Constructing Muslims in France, writes about Marine Le Pen’s reaction to Muslim soldiers who gave their lives for France during WWII.

French president François Hollande recently paid his respects at a memorial in Paris dedicated to the 100,000 Muslim soldiers who gave their lives for France during the First World War. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, responded by saying, “It makes me vomit.”

Strong words, to be sure.

What was it that made Le Pen vomit? In her words, it was the very idea of “dividing the French” along the lines of religion: these soldiers should be celebrated as soldiers, and as French; their religion should be immaterial.

On its surface, Le Pen’s statement reflects the French way of doing politics, the “republican tradition.” Americans are accustomed to hearing political leaders speak openly about race, gender, and religion. In fact, our political leaders even appeal to such group identities for the purpose of elections (consider “Women for Hillary” or the “Moral Majority”). French republicanism, however, abhors the recognition of difference. French republicanism is a political philosophy that demands that people engage in politics purely as a citizen, leaving their other identities and affiliations (such as race, gender, religion) at home. Why the distaste for identity politics? The short answer French republicanism offers is that identity politics rip a nation apart. They make it impossible for citizens to appreciate one another as equals, sharing a nation and its future together.

Constructing Muslims_sm We really need to examine Le Pen’s comment a bit deeper, however. After all, Le Pen is no difference-blind republican. She is the head of a xenophobic, anti-immigration political party whose manifesto boldly announces that France’s national culture is profoundly influenced by Christianity. In 2010, Le Pen equated Muslims praying in the street (a result of insufficient prayer space, not religious fanaticism) with living in Nazi-occupied France. True, French republicanism would criticize those who pray in the streets for bringing religion into the public sphere in a highly visible way; but equating them with Nazis was a rhetorical flourish all Le Pen’s own, suggesting that Muslims are dangerous outsiders seeking to invade and even oppress France.

Beneath the surface, Le Pen’s comments about the memorial communicate something else: the power of political omission. Le Pen says these soldiers should be celebrated as French, not Muslims. But many of these soldiers fought for France as French colonial subjects. To celebrate them simply as “French” is to conveniently forget France’s participation in the systematic domination and oppression of parts of the Muslim world. Furthermore, media coverage and political discussion of French Muslims today often portrays them in a negative light, questioning their Frenchness and depth of “integration.”

A 2012 French Institute of Public Opinion poll indicates that nearly half of the French would describe Muslims in France as a threat to national identity, and the National Consulting Committee for Human Rights recently warned that Muslims are increasingly subject to violence at the hands of their fellow citizens. In light of this highly charged and certainly not difference-blind climate, it seems a problematic oversight to celebrate these soldiers without recognizing that they happened to be Muslim, and that Muslims have indeed contributed to the betterment of the nation.

Temple University Press staff selects the Books of the Year to give, get, and read

As we wish everyone Happy Holidays and happy reading, the staff at Temple University Press selects the memorable titles of 2013.

Micah Kleit, Executive Editor

The Press published a bounty of riches this year, from Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer’s Envisioning Emancipation to Dean Bartoli Smith’s Never Easy, Never Pretty, an exciting account of the Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl win. But the book I’d most like to give as a gift is Philipp H. Lepenies’ Art, Politics, and Development: How Linear Perspective Shaped Policies in the Western World. It’s the kind of work that represents, to me at least, the best of what university presses do in advancing scholarship.Art, Politics, and Development_sm

I’d love it if someone bought me a copy of Boris Kachka’s Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.  It’s just the kind of inside-publishing book that reminds me of why I love what I do!

The book I’m planning to read over the holiday — in preparation for the “sequel” that’s due early this Spring –  is Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists.  It’s one of his earliest novels, and I’m excited that he’s returning to this story and continuing it, since it speaks (like so much of his work) powerfully to the ideas of what makes up the American character.

2013 was a great year for big novels from emerging and established writers, and the very best I read this year had to be Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, a book that was at once really economical in style but epic in scope: about 70s radicals, motorcycles, Italy and America.  I don’t think I’m the only one who thought of Don DeLillo when reading Kushner’s wonderful novel.

Sara Cohen, Rights and Contracts Manager

G-000865-20111017.jpgThe best TUP book to give?   My loved one are going to have to wait until Presidents’ Day to receive their Christmas gifts so that I can give them Thomas Foster’s Sex and the Founding Fathers.

The book I most want to receive for the holidays? The first book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. A friend sent me Zadie Smith’s New York Review of Books piece “Man vs. Corpse,” which cites My Struggle, and I’ve been looking forward to reading it ever since.  I also hope to receive a vegan cookbook (maybe Veganomicon)  so that I can start the new year off with good dietary intentions.

The book I plan to read over the break?  I’m supposed to be reading A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn with my husband and one of our friends.  I’m going to spend the break trying to catch up to the two of them.

Aaron Javsicas, Senior Editor

MoreMuralsEarlier this year I read and very much enjoyed Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford. It’s engrossing historical fiction about what it might have been like to live in the Khrushchev-era Soviet Union, and to feel real optimism about the country’s future even while beginning to see cracks that would spread and destroy it.
I look forward to reading and giving Temple University Press’s Philadelphia murals books Philadelphia Murals and the Stories they Tell, and  More Philadelphia Murals the the Stories They Tell, as a new volume, Philadelphia Mural Arts @ 30,  is forthcoming in 2014. I’m from Philadelphia but only recently moved back, after thirteen years in New York, to come on board at the Press. The terrific Mural Arts Program expanded a great deal while I was gone, and I’m excited to catch up with it through these beautiful books.

Charles Ault, Production Director

This year I read A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, which is now on my all-time favorites list. Ruth Ozeki is a 40-ish Buddhist priest who lives with her husband on an island near Vancouver, Canada. Her book features a writer named Ruth who lives with her husband on an island near Vancouver. She discovers the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl in a waterproofed bundle that washes up on the shore. The girl is contemplating suicide and has decided to write down the story of her grandmother, a Buddhist nun, as her last act. We (the reader) read pieces of the diary as Ruth does and then we read Ruth’s reaction to the same thing we just read (and reacted to). But I haven’t mentioned the Zen philosophy and ritual that pervades the story. Or the discussion of quantum mechanics. Or contemporary Japanese pornography….

Joan Vidal, Production Manager

Justifiable Conduct_smThe best TUP book to give: If you have a group of friends who like to read and discuss books, I recommend Erich Goode’s Justifiable Conduct . Filled with examples from the memoirs of public figures who seek absolution for their transgressions, this book is sure to spark conversation.

The book I most want to receive for the holidays: I would like to have The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss, by Theodor Geisel.

The book I plan to read over the break: Next on my list is Waiting for Snow in Havana, by Carlos Eire.

Ann-Marie Anderson, Marketing Director

Don't Call Me_smThe best book I read this year?  The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. This year’s National Book Award fiction winner is the wild story about John Brown and his raid, narrated by a freed slave boy masquerading as a girl.  It’s hilarious.

The best TUP book to give? Don’t Call Me Inspirational, Harilyn Rousso’s compelling memoir.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry.

The book I plan to read over the break: I will finish Edwidge Dandicat’s
Claire of the Sea Light and begin Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck.

Brian Murray, Marketing Assistant

How We DIe Now_smThe best TUP book to give this season is Never Easy, Never Pretty by Dean Bartoli Smith. My father has been a Ravens fan his whole life and reminisces about going to games with his father when he was growing up. This book is perfect for him and perfect for any other Ravens’ fan or football fan in general.
The book I plan to read over break is Karla Erickson’s  How We Die Now. What better way to celebrate the holidays with my immediate family and older relatives than to evaluate my own mortality and the cost of living longer? Also a perfect gift for my great Aunt Lenora who will be celebrating her 82nd birthday this January.

Gary Kramer, Publicity Manager

WHAT I WILL GIVE: Music, Style, and Aging by Andy Bennett. Because holidays should be filled with sex, drugs, rock and roll and reading, right? Music Style Aging_sm

WHAT I WILL READ: Ink, by Sabrina Vourvoulias (one of the co-authors of 200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia by the staff of Al Día). Ink looks at immigration issues through multiple lenses and I really admire Vourvoulias’ work.

THE BEST BOOK I READ IN 2013: Night Film, by Marisha Pessl, is not so much a book you read as a story you investigate. It involves a disgraced journalist and a cult filmmaker, whose daughter has died—or possibly been murdered. What’s intriguing is not just the mystery, but the format of the book: an impressive collection of photographs, website downloads, dossiers, missing persons reports, institution assessments, and created articles. It’s a fascinating interactive experience.

WHAT I WANT TO READ: I’m almost ashamed to admit that I really want to read James Franco’s Actors Anonymous.  I’m an unabashed  Francofile and a completist. I’ll also likely see his film adaptation of As I Lay Dying over the break as well.

Maybe Alligators Don’t Mind Toxic Pollution

In this blog entry, Stephanie Kane, author of Where Rivers Meet the Sea, offers advice on how to clean up Guanabara Bay for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Alligators thrive along Rio de Janeiro’s coastline and even the most famous beaches are subject to swimming advisories for pollution. Although the Brazilian constitution promises the right to clean water and habitat, up and down its coast, wherever urbanized rivers meet the sea, industrial and household toxins and sewage degrade water habitats. Brazil is not unique. Worldwide, cities destroy the habitats and hinterlands upon which they depend.

That statement did not constitute news until November, when a story came across the AP newswire: Sailors, who had begun training in Guanabara Bay, became more than a little concerned about the bay’s pollution; the visuals startled them although the contaminants that frighten health professional are visible only through microscopes, especially fecal coliform bacteria that could cause dysentery and even cholera. Rio organizers pledged to clean up and monitor Copacabana, the designated swimming venue. But consider: INEA, the state environmental agency, “has classified nearly all the 13 bayside beaches it monitors as ‘terrible’ for 12 years running. . .” AECOM, the company that built London’s Olympic Park, designed the Olympic Park site for Rio 2016; although lovely, as Oliver Wainright noted,  the design does not convey the stagnation of the surrounding Jacarepaguá lagoon. The video-plan evokes AECOM’s  “water strategy” with a visual gloss of rainfall—captured, filtered, recycled and revitalized. Really?  Carlos Minc, state secretary for the environment, says for 20 years, everyone has known that the “bay is rotten.”  This time, he adds, there is something new in the government’s response.  Landfills around the bay have been closed (at least legal landfills), some industrial pollution has been “curbed” and programs to collect floating garbage and install “river treatment units (RTUs)” are in the works. Built over rivers, the RTUs are meant to filter garbage and human waste as it slides by on the way to open water. But contaminated water flows everywhere, above and below ground, through the dense, diverse human development spreading outward from the bay’s edge. How can AECOM’s site-specific water strategy possibly trigger significantly cleaner water for the Olympian swimmers and sailors in 2016  or more importantly, the people of Rio who will still be there in 2017? Will there be RTUs installed on every stream and river? Can RTUs substitute for centralized urban garbage and sewage infrastructures that retrieve and manage waste before it befouls the water?  Even if those responsible manage to keep the water looking clean enough for a few days, is that really a good enough aim? Couldn’t the “legacy” of Rio 2016 be a serious effort toward functional urban infrastructure and to implement and enforce anti-pollution laws?

Where Rivers_smThe special few apparently believe that they are protected from regional water degradation. Earthworks, filtration, labs to monitor fecal pathogens, gestures toward environmental law enforcement—this infrastructure sustains an unequal, exclusionary and paranoid security logic: urban elites wall themselves off within zones deemed free of toxins and criminals and wall out the masses who are left to struggle, to effect real change, to invent and extend sustainable habitat—or merely to withstand and survive. Although well-funded materialized illusions  may make it seem so, islands are not separate.  Rain, mist, subterranean fossil water, cycles, tides, and surges—water brings back whatever we give.

The image of Olympian athletes skimming along the murky surface, intermingling with the city’s disgusting outpourings warns of a dangerously unhealthy situation requiring either sure action or speedy retreat. Surely, the catastrophic air pollution in the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a clue: the environment cannot be ignored. Who knows? Out of pure pragmatism, the International Olympic Committee could actually transform itself into a global engine for start-up urban environmental sustainability projects that could lead to larger projects after the Olympians have gone home (like Bahia Azul, a project that cleaned up the Bay of All Saints in Salvador). Political will and imagination is what is needed here, installing a few RTUs simply won’t cut it.

A Strange Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the JFK Assassination

In this blog entry, Art Simon, author of Dangerous Knowledge: The JFK Assassination in Art and Film, ponders provocative commemorations and the meanings of the JFK assassination.

With the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination coming up this Friday, the air and cable waves have been jammed with recollections, profiles and anecdotes about the slain president and his administration. PBS devoted four hours to JFK on the American Experience, NOVA took another look at the logistics of the killing, The New York Times reported on the meaning and on-going sequester of Jackie’s blood stained pink dress. Even the AARP Newsletter ran a piece by Bob Schieffer about his experience of being in Texas on that fateful day. The list goes on and on

But one of the stranger commemorative events is taking place at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth in an exhibition featuring the art that was collected and displayed in Suite 850 of the Texas Hotel where the Kennedys spent their last night together. The curators, while not wanting to re-create the room exactly, have brought together works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, and Kline that were no doubt put on display to let the well bred first couple know Texans were not totally ignorant about high culture.

Dangerous Knowledge 2e_smThis strikes me as among the strangest forms of reenactment yet for an event that has been subjected to all kinds of re-creation, from The Warren Commission, to Hollywood versions in JFK and In the Line of Fire to an episode of Seinfeld (or was that a reenactment of a reenactment?) to a 2004 video game called JFK: Reloaded that places the player in Oswald’s alleged sixth floor window with the rather perverse object being to re-create the shooting just as The Warren Commission described it.

Somewhere Sigmund Freud has a knowing smile as the nation cannot break free of its own repetition compulsion and the killing of JFK. But with the art exhibit in Fort Worth we have moved away from reimagining the public space of Dealey Plaza and into conjuring the private aesthetic experience of the first couple. Why? Having heard from virtually everyone involved in the assassination, from Secret Service agents to Governor and Mrs. Connolly to witness-bystanders, and having participated in the question posed by virtually everyone alive at the time—do you remember where you were when you heard the news?—the only experience not yet tapped is that of the Kennedys. And since we can not get to the heart of their experience, we might substitute for it their experience of the hotel that morning, their waking up to a wall of 20th Century masterpieces.

As I have written about the culture of the Kennedy assassination over the years, I have always been reluctant to speculate about mass psychology, resisting the impulse to diagnose the various national obsessions around JFK and his killing. But with another nod in Freud’s direction, it does seem as though the art exhibit in Fort Worth is one more example of our 50 year old fetish, a need to find substitutes for what we don’t know but wish we did—about the Kennedys, about Oswald’s motives or those of his accomplices (depending on your opinion), about exit and entrance wounds and about what the Sixties might have been had the assassination not happened. We respond to the absence of knowing with a glut of images, recycled footage of Camelot, yet another examination of the Zapruder film, another memoir by someone who claims to have known the private side of the President.

And yet turning our attention to art on this 50th anniversary is not a bad idea. I would suggest however that we look not to what hung in the Texas Hotel but to what got produced within weeks and then within a couple years of the assassination, namely the silkscreen portraits created by Andy Warhol and the underground film masterpiece Report made by Bruce Conner. Indeed, pop artists at the time offered a fascinating reply to the assassination and its afterlife in the pages of Life magazine, the Warren Report and American culture generally. It’s a shame that in the media blitz now attending to JFK’s death, these works are being overlooked. Nearly 50 years after their making, they still present a compelling and visually provocative commentary on the meaning of the JFK assassination, both in its time and ours: Who gets to write the history of an event like this? Who profits from its telling and re-telling? How should we understand the moving image as evidence and window onto the past?

Decent Care

In this blog entry, Karla Erickson, author of How We Die Nowwrites about the big step toward decent care taken last month when home health care aides were granted federal protection.

In the late 1990s, a McJob—a low paid job with few future prospects like a fast-food job– was the most common way to earn a living in the United States. Quietly and quickly, the fastest growing job category has shifted to a form of work that is far less visible and, until now, far more precarious: home health aide.

For many of us, the mention of home health aide may bring to mind a bouncy 18-year-old girl in a candy striper uniform, but we would be wrong. Home health aides are overwhelmingly female, overwhelmingly women of color, and are women, not girls, often with families of their own. Up until now they have worked in the shadow economy: a barely regulated space lacking all of the protections of even a McJob. No insurance, no minimum wage, and no overtime protection.

Up until September 17, 2013, this work has been treated as not work, or at least not work that rises to the level of receiving federal protections for workers. This shadowy, off-the- record approach to home health work has had several costs. First, it linked home health aides’ labor to a long history of underpaid, indentured and enslaved labor in the home. Second, it reduced the complex work of caring for dependent adults to something that women—and particularly women of color–are naturally good at doing. Why pay well for work that is intrinsically rewarding? And finally, it was indecent. Failing to offer even the most minimal support and defenses to the people who work to care for the most frail among us is a sorry statement on our society. It devalues care, the home, and frail people in one fell swoop.

How We DIe Now_smSo thanks to a suit brought by Evelyn Coke, home health workers will now have federal rights. Coke worked for most of her life in other people’s houses to make sure their bodies were clean, clothed, safe, and fed, but she never had the protection of the Fair Labor Standards Act. This moves her and her compatriots one step away from servants, and elevates them to the status of a McJob.

This major victory is one more step toward decency. Labor rights activists often work toward dignity, and I’m not sure we are there yet, but decency, yes. Home health aides link back to a tradition of capitalizing on the caring labor of racial minority women in homes by paying poorly or not paying at all for their service and sometimes-loving care. Racial minority women and particularly recent immigrant women have often been employed in informal labor arrangements that included extraordinarily long days, working over holidays, wages well below the minimum wage, and absolutely no access to recourse if they were treated unfairly. This act is one step away from that history.

The work that home health aides do is intimate, but working in the shadow economy has routinely put them in danger of exploitation, injury, and abuse. We talk about decent service, decent care, but until the passage of this law, we have not had the decency as a society to protect or even recognize the emotional, spiritual, psychological, and physical labor of the people who work in our homes and aide us in being people. Home health aides are the quiet assistants who ready us for living if we are recovering from an injury or need help with the activities of daily living and the management of disease. They ride buses, and drive their own cars to the homes of mainly elderly, but any person who needs some help to get through their day. They spend hours bent over, raising and turning bodies, cleaning sheets, changing clothes, ministering to others. Today they did not get their due. But they did move a giant step closer to being treated decently, which after all, is what we expect and ask from them everyday.

Last month’s decision will be remembered for years to come. It is a huge victory. Here’s hoping we use this moment of decency to honor, and begin to offer support for, the people who care for us during our most vulnerable stages of life.

Profiling Black and Latino Kids as “Ghetto Thug” Criminals

In this blog entry, Elaine Bell Kaplan, author of “We Live in the Shadow”: Inner-City Kids Tell Their Stories through Photographs, gives voice to her students who use the photovoice methodology in her book to tell their stories.

The deadly shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was on the minds of the 30 social workers at my book talk in late July.  They believed that George Zimmerman’s perception of Martin was provoked by the popular image of inner-city kids

That dehumanizing image as kid criminals certainly prevailed when I was growing up in Harlem. I remember thinking I was just like other kids who played Simon Says, Jumping Jacks and other street games. That idea was shattered by comments like, “those kids are playing street games today will be robbing us tomorrow.”  As an inner-city kid, I quickly learned that negative images tracked kids like me.

In fact, as I write in my book, inner-city kids “have been set apart and that there’s no will in this society to bring these kids into the mainstream.” A blogger, quoted in my book, responded to the question, “What should be done about these kids?” “Send them to Iraq!”

We Live_smI wrote We Live in the Shadow,” to look at the significant social problems faced by inner-city kids,

The group of seventy-four 12-15 year-olds interviewed in the book, attended after-school programs. The kids credited these programs with making them feel safe from the gangs and drug dealers that roam their neighborhoods.

In order to capture these kids’ sense of their world and not that of adults who usually write about them, I gave each a $5.00 disposable cameras and asked them to, “Take photos of whatever it is you want to tell me about your life. “

Instead of giving in to negative stereotypes, the kids used their cameras to capture another view of themselves. Thirteen-year-old Kyle put it best:

“Most ‘people see kids like me as inner-city–gang bangers.  I don’t wanna be a gang banger.  That judges me and how I act. I don’t do that stuff. It makes the community look pathetic.  Um, like some people say that, like where you live, says how smart you are how dumb. But I don’t think that’s possible because I live in, like, a pretty bad neighborhood, but I’m still, like a bright kid.”

The kids’ photos and stories of South Central neighborhoods revealed homes desperately in need of repair, rats in the lunchrooms, teachers who did not teach and bathrooms that were, ” messy, dirty, they stink.” As 12-year-old Jessica, said about her photo showing what she called the “filthy bathroom and unflushed toilet at my school.  Look at what we have to put up with. We get blamed for this, but nobody cleans it up.”  What did the kids learn from this experience: “Don’t go unless it’s an emergency.”

Unflushed toiletThirteen year-old Cesar’s photo of his family’s car led to a story of being carjacked and threatened by a gang.  Oscar’s photo of his father cooking Tamales led to stories of late-night dinners because parents worked late or had two jobs. Other photos showed kids working on homework in a classroom or wearing sweaters with a college logo —the kids’ way of showing their desire to well in school.

I had this conversation with Max, a student in one of my classes who had read my book.

“I could not help but feel like you were writing about me. Each turned page was like a memoir of my experiences at Los Angeles Unified School District public schools. The kids of this book and their stories are real. I am them, and they are me. Even though they are little bit younger than me, I understand their pain and frustration. I dreaded going to class each day. My school was like a dropout factory. It was extremely over-crowded, ridden with racial tension, violence, trash, and graffiti.”

The worst part of the matter was the collective of faculty and staff who seemed to care more about their selfish endeavors rather than teaching their students. Not to say that there were not good teachers.

Max said, “Maybe if the odds were not stacked so hard against us, we would all be scholars.” Instead, as the kids in my book said: “No matter what I do I will still considered to be a ghetto thug.”

The social workers and others I talked to agreed. For Trayvon Martin’s, Kyle, Max, and even me, there is no escape from being racially profiled. The bad news is that these kids can’t defend themselves from this assault. Nonetheless, I am excited that they knew to use photos to tell their stories.  Still, the key question remains, when will the rest of this society hear them?

A review of the new film PARKLAND

In this blog entry, Temple University Press publicist Gary Kramer, reviews Parkland the new film about the JFK Assassination.

Released weeks ahead of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Parkland tells several stories—based on true events—that unfolded in Dallas during the horrible days in history that were November 22-25, 1963. Writer/director Peter Landesman (adapting Vincent Bugliosi’s book Four Days in November) introduces the players and their stories efficiently. Charles “Jim” Carrico (Zac Efron) is a doctor at Parkland hospital where the president is transported after he is shot; Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) shoots the famous home movie of the president’s assassination, which Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) asks him to hand over; Bob Oswald (James Badge Dale) learns that his brother Lee Harvey (Jeremy Strong) has been arrested for the shocking crime, and visits his brother and his mother (Jackie Weaver), who shares wild theories about her son; and James Hosty (Ron Livingston) is an FBI agent who was following Oswald at the time of the assassination.

parklandParkland uses these interlocking stories to present microcosms of grief that show how JFK’s death affected these individuals separately and collectively and, by extension, the nation as a whole. However, the parts here are greater than the sum. The urgency of the assassination is not nearly as striking as the scenes in the O.R. as Carrico works to save the president’s life. As the doctor tries to revive his patient, even as the flatline indicates death, the scene manages—albeit barely—to evoke some emotion, then goes overboard when Jackie Kennedy (Kat Steffens) arrives.

The rest of the film is equal parts hit or miss. A dispute that arises when the local medical examiner insists on keeping the body in Texas, as per law, is an interesting diversion, but it serves  mostly to illustrate that Parkland is a series of loosely connected anecdotes that never build to any great crescendo. When one character remarks, “Nothing is ever going to be the same,” the line has no impact.

Even moments that revolve around one character are uneven. The early scenes of Zapruder reacting to the shooting are played broadly, whereas Landesman achieves a more graceful moment in a scene that shows the assassination footage reflected in Zapruder’s eyeglasses. The image of the man watching the striking footage he shot effectively conveys his emotions to viewers.

Landesman nicely incorporates the archive footage of Kennedy with the Zapruder video, given the small scale and narrow focus of the film, but he also includes cringe-inducing scenes of Secret Service men trying to accommodate the president’s coffin on the plane. A sequence that cross-cuts between Oswald’s burial and Agent Hosty burning his file on Oswald is also heavy-handed.

Even the acting ranges from subtle—James Badge Dale gives a rather poignant performance in his difficult role—to over-the-top in Jackie Weaver’s case. Zac Efron is miscast as Carrico here; he just seems out of his league; Marcia Gay Harden, the head nurse, easily upstages him. Even Paul Giamatti, who is well suited to his role, fares poorly, sabotaged by the lame script.

Dangerous Knowledge 2e_smUltimately, Parkland is an earnest effort that is more leaden than solemn.  

For a more exacting analysis of the JFK Assassination in art and film, one should read Art Simon’s Dangerous Knowledge, which was recently reissued by Temple University Press. While Simon does not cover Parkland in his book, he discusses public fascination with celebrity deaths and recent assassination-related media—from documentaries to scholarly books to the scandalous video game JFK Reloaded. He shows that the assassination continues to inspire writers, artists, and filmmakers.  Dangerous Knowledge examines the seminal works of art associated with the assassination, including Andy Warhol’s silk screens, the underground films of Bruce Conner, and provocative Hollywood films like The Parallax View and JFK. Simon’s investigation places assassination art and images within a historical context—one that helps us understand what the assassination has meant to American culture.

Remembering 9/11

On the 12th anniversary of September 11th, we offer a trio of Temple University Press titles that put the 9/11 tragedy in context.

History and September 11th edited by Joanne Meyerowitz; The contributors to this landmark collection set the attacks on the United States in historical perspective. They reject the simplistic notion of an age-old “clash of civilizations” and instead examine the particular histories of American nationalism, anti-Americanism, U.S. foreign policy, and Islamic fundamentalism among other topics. With renewed attention to Americans’ sense of national identity, they focus on the United States in relation to the rest of the world. A collection of recent and historical documents—speeches, articles, and book excerpts—supplement the essays. Taken together, the essays and sources in this volume comment on the dangers of seeing the events of September 11 as splitting the nation’s history into “before” and “after.” They argue eloquently that no useful understanding of the present is possible without an unobstructed view of the past.

Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11 by Lori Peek; As the nation tried to absorb the shock of the 9/11 attacks, Muslim Americans were caught up in an unprecedented wave of backlash violence. Public discussion revealed that widespread misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Islam persisted, despite the striking diversity of the Muslim community.
Letting the voices of 140 ordinary Muslim American men and women describe their experiences, Lori Peek’s path-breaking, award-winning book, Behind the Backlash presents moving accounts of prejudice and exclusion. Muslims speak of being subjected to harassment before the attacks, and recount the discrimination they encountered afterwards. Peek also explains the struggles of young Muslim adults to solidify their community and define their identity during a time of national crisis.
Abuse of Power: How Cold War Surveillance and Secrecy Policy Shaped the Response to 9/11 by Athan Theoharis; Theoharis, long a respected authority on surveillance and secrecy, shows that the events that occurred 11 years ago are still felt everyday by Americans in the sense of government security. Passionately argued, this timely book speaks to the costs and consequences of still-secret post-9/11 surveillance programs and counterintelligence failures. Ultimately, Abuse of Power makes the case that the abusive surveillance policies of the Cold War years were repeated in the government’s responses to the September 11 attacks.

Considering indefinite detention at Guantánamo Bay

This week in North Philly Notes, Rajini Srikanth, author of Constructing the Enemy, wonders: What if each of us could imagine being a detainee at Guantánamo Bay?

In June 2004, a Supreme Court ruling gave lawyers access for the first time to the detainees at Guantánamo Bay since their capture in 2002.  The over 700 Muslim men being held there, who had until this ruling been denied the right to any legal challenge of their detention, were thrust into the consciousness of our country as possessing voice, as being human. This outcome was the result of a case filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which at the time of the original filing in 2002 had received hate mail and death threats for upholding one of the most fundamental rights of Western law and of the U.S. Constitution – the right of every individual to challenge one’s detention in court and to ask why one is being held.  The Supreme Court ruled (6 to 3) that Guantánamo Bay was for all practical purposes under the control of the United States (though owned technically by Cuba) and so the detainees being held there had habeas corpus rights and could challenge their detention in court.  This reaffirmation of a basic and fundamental legal right prompted hundreds of lawyers, many from the private bar, to come forward to offer their services pro bono to represent the detainees against what they considered to be the Bush administration’s egregious violation of the U.S. Constitution and disregard for the rule of law.  The Center for Constitutional Rights in New York became the nerve center for these lawyers, and the long and arduous process of detainee representation began.  Due almost entirely to the efforts of the lawyers, the detainee population, at its height over 700 men, has been reduced to 166 (at last count).

Constructing Enemy smAmong the remaining detainees, there are more than 50% who have been cleared for release because they are deemed to pose no threat to the United States, but these men are still confined, caught in a bizarre and nightmarish situation in which their life is akin to death – forgotten by the citizens of the very country that holds them in confinement and condemned by the elected representatives of this country not to be released.  We use their incarceration to feed our need for a false sense of security; their indefinite detention (since 2002) stands as evidence of our ability to control what we see as a world that is unpredictable and unknowable.  It is no wonder that 103 detainees are currently on hunger strike; 41 of them are being force-fed. Who could live day after day knowing that one is confined without cause, knowing that there is no process by which one can expect to be released, because the Congress and the people of the country that holds them have abdicated their moral responsibility and tossed aside their ability to think rationally?

Three years ago, as part of my research for Constructing the Enemy, I interviewed several lawyers who were working on behalf of various detainees at Guantánamo Bay. One of them remarked that the lawyers’ intervention was crucial, because the American people seemed not to care: “we are holding the legal line until the politics kick in,” he said. But the politics have still not kicked in. In fact, if anything, despite President Obama’s declarations that he wishes to close the Guantánamo Bay facility because it stands as evidence of our egregious disregard for basic human rights and seriously besmirches our reputation as a nation based on the rule of law, we the people and our Congress refuse to acknowledge our complicity in the cruel and inhumane confinement of people who are no more guilty than you or I, even by the military’s own reckoning.  Law professor Mark Denbeaux and journalist and film director Andy Worthington have carefully and meticulously documented that the detainees were picked up under the most problematic circumstances – leaflets were dropped from the sky in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the early months of 2002 with promises of large amounts of money if people turned in “the foreigners” among them. Afghanis and Pakistanis responded to this allure of quick money, and hundreds of innocent and unsuspecting travelers from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China were handed over to the U. S. military as Al-Qaeda affiliates. One lawyer remarked that we filled Guantánamo Bay through good old-fashioned capitalist rhetoric.

Northeastern University law professor Mike Meltsner’s play, In Our Name: A Play of the Torture Years, includes a scene that reveals the hollowness of our democratic fabric and the entire absence of integrity and rational thought.  A reporter asks a citizen if he is worried that water boarding is torture.  The citizen responds, “Not if the guy is a terrorist.” The reporter counters, “But how do we know who is a terrorist?” The citizen answers, “He wouldn’t be water boarded if he wasn’t” (71-72).  My students almost always gasp at the circularity of the argument; how can a person with even a modicum of analytical sense come to such a conclusion, they wonder.  And yet, through our virtual silence about the unlawful indefinite detentions at Guantánamo Bay, we are complicit in assuming that simply because someone is a detainee there, he must be a terrorist.

It would appear that Attorney Marc Falkoff, who collected and published poems written by the detainees (Poems from Guantánamo : The Detainees Speak) in an effort to stimulate empathy for them among the public, was unduly optimistic.  The truth is that most Americans don’t really care about the detainees, and many most likely believe that they are the unfortunate but necessary “collateral damage” of the times in which we live.   But we are all responsible for these 166 men. Our fear and paranoia put them there, and our fear and paranoia keep them there. Some of them likely pose a threat to the nation, but most of them do not: this latter group has, in fact, been cleared for release.  So why are they there? It’s easy to blame the Congress for stoking the public’s fears that should these detainees be released to their home countries or elsewhere, they will begin a campaign of terror against the United States.  But it’s not just Congress that is to blame. We are deeply at fault as a people.  We are unwilling or unable to imagine these men as individuals like us.  But what if we were the ones at Guantánamo Bay? What if we had simply been in the wrong place and the wrong time? What if we were never going to see our families? What if all we had before us was the prospect of years and years of such an existence?

The lawyers I interviewed were not at the outset motivated by empathy for the detainees. Their initial zeal came from their desire to uphold the U.S. Constitution or perhaps to take on the biggest legal challenge of their careers. But each of these lawyers quickly came to realize that the detainees are sons and fathers and brothers with desires and aspirations identical to ours; they have developed deep admiration for the detainees’ fortitude.  The lawyers speak of never giving up in the fight to seek their clients’ release.  Some have testified before Congress, some have written newspaper editorials.  The lawyers have met the detainees personally, an opportunity that the rest of us will not have.  But are we so emotionally impoverished or so imaginatively constrained that we cannot envision the absolute despair and unending bleakness of unjust and indefinite detention?  What is the point of being a member of a democracy if we do not exercise our capacity for independent thought?  At the very least, we should write our congressmen and congresswomen and ask them to close down Guantánamo Bay, to release those who have been cleared for release, and to try in our courts those who might pose a threat. It is our minimum obligation as citizens of a democracy.

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