Celebrating America on the Fourth of July

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate the Fourth of July with books on American History.

American History Nowedited by Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr

American History Now sm compAmerican History Now collects eighteen original historiographic essays that survey recent scholarship in American history and trace the shifting lines of interpretation and debate in the field. Building on the legacy of two previous editions of The New American History, this volume presents an entirely new group of contributors and a reconceptualized table of contents.

The new generation of historians showcased in American History Now posed new questions and developed new approaches to scholarship to revise the prevailing interpretations of the chronological periods from the colonial era to the Reagan years. Covering the established subfields of women’s history, African American history, and immigration history, the book also considers the history of capitalism, Native American history, environmental history, religious history, cultural history, and the history of “the United States in the world.”

American History Now provides an indispensable summation of the state of the field for those interested in the study and teaching of the American past.

Upon the Ruins of Liberty by Roger C. Aden

Aden_2.inddThe 2002 revelation at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park that George Washington kept slaves in his executive mansion in the 1790s prompted an eight-year controversy about the role of slavery in America’s commemorative landscape. When the President’s House installation opened in 2010, it became the first federal property to feature a slave memorial.

In Upon the Ruins of Liberty Roger Aden offers a compelling account that explores the development of this important historic site and the intersection of contemporary racial politics with history, space, and public memory. Aden constructs this engrossing tale by drawing on archival material and interviews with principal figures in the controversy—including historian Ed Lawler, site activist Michael Coard, and site designer Emanuel Kelly

Upon the Ruins of Liberty chronicles the politically charged efforts to create a fitting tribute to the place where George Washington (and later John Adams) shaped the presidency as he denied freedom to the nine enslaved Africans in his household. From design to execution, the plans prompted advocates to embrace stories informed by race and address such difficulties as how to handle the results of the site excavation. Consequently, this landmark project raised concerns and provided lessons about the role of public memory in shaping the nation’s identity.

Tasting Freedom by Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin

Tasting Freedom_AD(12-16-09) finalOctavius Valentine Catto was a second baseman on Philadelphia’s best black baseball team, a teacher at the city’s finest black school, an activist who fought in the state capital and on the streets for equal rights, and an orator who shared the stage with Frederick Douglass. With his murder during an election-day race riot in 1871, the nation lost a civil rights pioneer—one who risked his life a century before the events that took place in Selma and Birmingham.

In Tasting Freedom Daniel Biddle (winner of the Pulitzer Prize) and Murray Dubin painstakingly chronicle the life of this charismatic black leader—a “free” black man whose freedom was in name only. Born in the American South, where slavery permeated everyday life, he moved north, where he joined the fight to be truly free—free to vote, go to school, ride on streetcars, play baseball, and even participate in Fourth of July celebrations.

Catto electrified a biracial audience in 1864 when he called on free men and women to act and to educate the newly freed slaves, proclaiming, “There must come a change.” With a group of other African Americans who called themselves a “band of brothers,” he challenged one injustice after another.

Tasting Freedom presents the little-known stories of Catto and the men and women who struggled to change America. This book will change your understanding of civil rights history.

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas A. Foster

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Biographers, journalists, and satirists have long used the subject of sex to define the masculine character and political authority of America’s Founding Fathers. Tracing these commentaries on the Revolutionary Era’s major political figures in Sex and the Founding Fathers, Thomas Foster shows how continual attempts to reveal the true character of these men instead exposes much more about Americans and American culture than about the Founders themselves.

Sex and the Founding Fathers examines the remarkable and varied assessments of the intimate lives of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris from their own time to ours. Interpretations can change radically; consider how Jefferson has been variously idealized as a chaste widower, condemned as a child molester, and recently celebrated as a multicultural hero.

Foster considers the public and private images of these generally romanticized leaders to show how each generation uses them to reshape and reinforce American civic and national identity.

The Spirits of America by Eric Burns

spirits of america PB“Thousands of years ago, before Christ or Buddha or Muhammad…before the Roman Empire rose or the Colossus of Rhodes fell,” Eric Burns writes, “people in Asia Minor were drinking beer.” So begins an account as entertaining as it is extensive, of alcohol’s journey through world—and, more important, American—history.

In The Spirits of America, Burns relates that drinking was “the first national pastime,” and shows how it shaped American politics and culture from the earliest colonial days. He details the transformation of alcohol from virtue to vice and back again, how it was thought of as both scourge and medicine. He tells us how “the great American thirst” developed over the centuries, and how reform movements and laws (some of which, Burn s says, were “comic masterpieces of the legislator’s art”) sprang up to combat it. Burns brings back to life such vivid characters as Carrie Nation and other crusaders against drink. He informs us that, in the final analysis, Prohibition, the culmination of the reformers’ quest, had as much to do with politics and economics and geography as it did with spirituous beverage.

Filled with the famous, the infamous, and the undeservedly anonymous, The Spirits of America is a masterpiece of the historian’s art. It will stand as a classic chronicle—witty, perceptive, and comprehensive—of how this country was created by and continues to be shaped by its everchanging relationship to the cocktail shaker and the keg.

Celebrating Gay Pride Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate Gay Pride. Temple University Press has a long history of outstanding and award-winning LGBT titles. Each title documents and explores the struggles and victors of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender community as we reflect on the strides the community has made and the work still needed to be done.

December 17, 2014

This week in North Philly Notes, Yolanda Prieto, author of The Cubans of Union City discusses President Obama’s landmark Cuban policy change, while reflecting on her own experiences as a Cuban American.

As a Cuban American who favors the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, I choked up with emotion when watching President Obama’s historic television address on December 17, 2014 announcing that he was changing the policy of isolation towards Cuba. After all, Obama explained, more than 50 years of acrimony between the two countries had not accomplished anything. Instead, engagement could lead to a more fruitful relationship, and it could possibly bring economic improvements and more freedoms to the Cuban people. Americans could also travel to Cuba under a broader range of categories, which could generate more contact and understanding between the two countries. These changes would happen even though the economic embargo, imposed by the United States on Cuba in 1962, would remain in place. To lift the embargo, Congress would have to repeal the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which strengthened and extended the existing embargo on the island. Regarding the embargo, Obama urged lawmakers in his speech to lift it because the law was anachronistic and it no longer served any real purpose.

At exactly the same time, President Raul Castro made the same announcement on Cuban television. In both countries, the news was received with great surprise. The road ahead would be difficult, but these steps marked a historic beginning.

Cubans of Union CityIn Cuba, people were elated. Praise for President Barack Obama abounded, and American flags were displayed on balconies and bike taxis. In Miami, where most Cubans outside of Cuba reside, the reaction was mixed. Many Cubans approved of President Obama’s plans, but many others disapproved. Relations with Cuba, they think, would only serve to enrich the coffers of the Cuban government in Havana.  But the majority of Miami Cubans favor normalization of relations. A survey conducted by Bendixen and Armandi International in March, 2015 revealed that 51 percent of Cuban Americans support the efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, while 49 percent do not. Approval for the politics of normalization is growing among Cubans who do not live in Miami; 69 percent of Cuban Americans who live outside of Miami support normalization.

Although approval is high among younger generations of Cuban Americans, it is declining among the older population. Disapproval is also vociferous among Cuban American Congress members. In Cuba, some dissidents oppose normalization while others welcome it. It is also possible that some in the Cuban government do not agree, especially those hard-liners that see any contact with the United States as detrimental to Cuba.

What led to this change in the American position toward Cuba? According to William Leogrande and Peter Kornbluh’s book Back Channel to Cuba, there has been ongoing, secret, often surprising, dialogue between Washington and Havana. Along with the invasions, covert operations, and assassination plots, there have been efforts at rapprochement and reconciliation. However, most of these efforts had fallen through the cracks. Discussions between the two governments have been largely limited to specific problems, mainly in times of crisis, such as migration talks and more recently, talks about drug trafficking.

Recently, there were rumors that President Obama might tackle the U.S.-Cuba relations issue during his second term. Many believed that the incarceration of Alan Gross, the American contractor employed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was the main obstacle to a change in policy. He was arrested in Cuba in 2009 and then prosecuted in 2011 for bringing sophisticated telecommunications equipment into the island against Cuban law.  At the same time, there were three Cubans jailed in the United States. They were part of the Cuban Five, a group of Cuban nationals convicted in Miami in 2001 for conspiring to commit espionage and for conspiring to commit murder. Two had already been released.

The December 17. 2014 announcements were preceded by 18 months of secret talks between U.S. and Cuban officials.  They met in Canada and in the Vatican. Canadians helped, as did Pope Francis, who wrote letters to Obama and Castro urging them to work for an end to the impasse. Finally, on December 17, Cuba and the United States announced that they had agreed to exchange prisoners: Cuba would free Alan Gross and a high-level Cuban working for the Americans serving time in Cuba for espionage. The United States would in turn free the three jailed Cubans. Additionally, Cuba would free 53 Cuban political prisoners.

Since December 17, 2014 there have been talks between U.S. and Cuban officials to work out the details of normalization of diplomatic relations. There have been two meetings in Havana and two in Washington, with an additional one scheduled for May 21 in Washington. One topic of concern has been the reopening of the embassies. Simultaneously, a flurry of activity has taken place. Trips and delegations of politicians, businessmen, artists, have arrived in Cuba looking for their space in this new climate. Representative Nancy Pelosi went down with a delegation early this year. Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, visited the island in April accompanied by business leaders, including some executives from pharmaceutical companies. A number of officials, from government to private industry are urging that the embargo be lifted to completely normalize relations. Other major changes have taken place or are in the works. For example, President Obama recommended that Cuba be removed from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. There have been advances in the area of telecommunications, banking, trade, U.S. exports to the private sector in Cuba, and travel, both by air and sea.

Among recent visitors was French President Francois Hollande who met with Raul and Fidel Castro.  He also urged the United States Congress to lift the embargo.  More recently, Raul Castro met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. The reason for his visit was to thank the Pope for his efforts to promote rapprochement between Cuba and the United States and to prepare the way for the upcoming visit of the Pontiff to the island in September, 2015.

Who benefits from normalization? First and foremost, the Cuban people. One expectation is the increasing economic development of Cuba through investment and trade. Hopefully, ordinary Cubans will gain through an improvement of the economic situation, both in terms of greater possibilities for consumption and possibly the creation of jobs, especially for the poor, who lack material resources due to meager salaries and lack of money through remittances from relatives abroad. The very poor and non-whites are often the ones who do not have family in the United States. There is also a very positive effect on Latin American regional relations. Obama probably had that in mind all along, as the Summit of the Americas in Panama revealed. Most Latin American countries wanted the return of Cuba to the Latin American family. The United States had opposed that. The meetings in Panama showed how the change in the U.S. position positively altered the climate among all nations.

Finally, these changes could be very beneficial for the Catholic Church, other religious groups, and other members of Cuba’s civil society. The Catholic Church already participated in talks with the government in 2010 to release political prisoners. Before and after those talks, the Catholic Church and the government have maintained a constructive dialogue. In the words of Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega, “for the church, the improvement of bilateral relations will be very beneficial… It will be easier to obtain help that we receive from other world churches to do our charity work in Cuba. The dialogue between church and state will not be broken, it will continue.”

Normalization of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States will not be an easy journey. For one thing, the U.S. embargo of Cuba presents legal obstacles to many of the changes that the two governments want to implement. But the process has already started, and it seems that there is no way back.

A Woman Out of Time

New Freedom and the Radicals book

The New Freedom and the Radicals
Woodrow Wilson, Progressive Views of Radicalism, and the Origins of Repressive Tolerance
by Jacob Kramer

This week in North Philly Notes, Jacob Kramer, author of The New Freedom and the Radicals, writes about Hillary Clinton and the issue of income inequality.

As Occupy Wall Street and the ground-breaking book by Thomas Picketty have shifted the national conversation in the direction of income inequality, Hillary Clinton is now claiming the issue as her own.  Clinton has a long record of advocacy for the poor, though she has not always chosen to make it her principal focus.  The change in her emphasis over the years is not simply a matter of inconsistency.  Rather, it reflects a progressive tendency to take a strategic position in order to achieve long-term objectives.  At times, Clinton’s ideals have seemed to suffer at the expense of political expediency.  But the context is now more suited to her fundamental hopes.

Much like Clinton more recently, in the early twentieth century progressives tended to modify how they viewed politics to their left depending on the circumstances.  Sympathetic to socialism before the First World War, progressives publicly kept their distance during the repression that followed the American intervention, yet they defended the rights of radicals during the 1920s.  100 years later, the political trajectory of Clinton is a good illustration of a similar tendency.

Looking back at her 1969 commencement speech at Wellesley, what is striking is not Clinton’s youthful idealism, but her attempt to harness student radicalism to practical ends.  Speaking in the context of student protest on the one hand and the idealism of the space race and civil rights movement on the other, she said, “We feel that for too long our leaders have used politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.”  Articulating her classmates’ frustration at the “gap between expectation and realities,” she called, in the words of Nancy Scheibner, “not to save the world in a glorious crusade,” but for the essentially progressive notion of “The art of making possible.”

As first lady, by contrast, Clinton seemed to overestimate the readiness of the public for sweeping health care reform.  Defending her 1993 universal health insurance proposal before two congressional committees, for instance, she at times blurred the distinction between the public and private sectors.  Questioned by Illinois Republican Dennis Hastert whether the proposal would introduce rationing, she said, “right now we have rationed care throughout this country.”  When asked about price limits, she suggested that there was already control over prices on the part of insurers and government.  Nearly a century earlier, progressives like Walter Lippmann also sought to break down the distinction between corporations and government, but Clinton scared people.  The failure of health care reform and the excess of idealism she exhibited seemed to convey a lesson that she carried with her in her two terms as United States Senator from 2001 to 2009.

Like progressives during the intervention in World War I, Clinton faced a fundamentally changed context after 9/11.  It was very difficult to oppose the president or defend civil liberties, much as it had been to oppose Woodrow Wilson or defend radicals during World War I.  With 29 other Democratic senators she voted in favor of the authorization of the use of force in Iraq and was one of the nearly unanimous Democrats in the chamber—all except Russ Feingold of Wisconsin—who voted for the Patriot Act.

These votes, especially the former, came back to haunt her in the 2008 presidential primary campaign, by which time the political sands had again shifted.  In the wake of the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis, and growing frustration with the war in Iraq, Barack Obama put together a remarkable coalition calling for an end to the war and economic reform and outmaneuvered Clinton for the Democratic nomination.  Obama seemed to herald the passing of the pro-business centrism previously associated with the Clintons.

Clinton now seems determined to keep in step with the times.  Like progressives in the 1920s, she is re-asserting her connections with her more egalitarian roots.  No doubt she will be criticized for being both inconsistent and too far to the left.  And as with progressives, one must ask at what point a step away from the left made for strategic purposes becomes a difference in substance.  But a majority of the public may now be ready to hear about her long-standing goal of helping the least well off.

The Political Power of Music in Chile

In this blog entry, J. Patrice McSherry, author of Chilean New Song, explains how this music revolutionized Chile’s cultural scene.

Can music be a testament to, and record of, a historical period? Can it be a motivating force in the mobilization of people for a common cause? Can music speak to, represent, and translate the dreams and hopes of people for progressive social change?

Chilean New Song_smIn Chilean New Song, I show how the Chilean New Song movement did all of these things. The music was born in the 1960s, blending traditional Chilean and Latin American folk rhythms, indigenous Andean music, and classical influences with original songwriting, new forms of harmony and chord progressions, and ancient indigenous instruments. Many of the young musicians were talented songwriters and poets, and in Santiago during this epoch there was much interaction, experimentation, and collaboration among them. A major contribution of New Song was the wealth of original music and beautiful poetry produced by the artists. The music of New Song revolutionized Chile’s cultural scene at the same time as large numbers of Chileans were actively engaged in a peaceful political and social revolution. Social sectors long excluded from political participation were demanding, and winning, more social justice and a larger political voice. The New Song movement was born of, and expressed, the struggle for the deeper democratization of Chilean state and society. These popular movements, of which New Song was an organic part, converged and grew stronger, and in 1970 succeeded in electing democratic socialist Salvador Allende as president.

Violeta Parra, Víctor Jara, Patricio Manns, Ángel and Isabel Parra, Quilapayún, Inti-Illimani, and so many other groups and soloists were well-known and beloved figures of the musical movement, and their songs embodied the ideals and the hopes of millions. As Víctor Jara said in 1973, “It was song that was born from the necessities of the country, the social movement of Chile. It wasn’t song apart from that.” The New Song movement inspired masses of people to visualize alternative possibilities and act to achieve them, helping to create, and not just reflect, the social mobilization of the epoch. The musicians’ singing, their performances on street corners, at festivals and political rallies, at campaign stops, before gatherings of unions and students: all these musical events became part of the political mobilization of the era in Chile.

Ángel and Isabel Parra had founded la Peña de los Parra in 1965 as an intimate venue for the new music, which was met with indifference by most major media and industry outlets. Students in universities and popular organizations quickly followed with their own peñas from the north to the south of Chile. Peñas and the new music appeared in schools, community centers, working class neighborhoods, small municipalities, and union locals, moving beyond intellectual circles and into the popular sectors. The peñas were the first innovation from the grassroots that allowed the movement to supersede the blockages of the mass media.

The Allende government, committed to reducing social inequalities in the country, instituted new social programs and nationalized large monopolies. The administration faced increasing enmity from the upper classes, industrialists, and the military. The Nixon administration had tried for years to prevent Allende’s election, and then worked to undermine his government. The Chilean armed forces staged a bloody coup on September 11, 1973. Tens of thousands of Chileans were “disappeared” and tortured, some 3000 killed, and hundreds of thousands forced into exile. The dictatorship outlawed the music and even the indigenous instruments associated with New Song. Its acts to silence, exile, torture, and kill the musicians demonstrated the military’s fear of the political power of music.

Víctor Jara was one of the regime’s first targets. Jara was taken with thousands of other government supporters to Chile Stadium, where he was tortured and killed. The perpetrators of that crime, which horrified the world, have never been tried or sentenced. Only in the past few years have Chilean judges issued warrants and detained suspected perpetrators. In April 2015, a U.S. judge ruled that one officer, Pedro Barrientos, who has been living in Florida for decades, should stand trial for the torture and extrajudicial killing of Víctor Jara.

The artists of the New Song movement, through their music, honored the lives and struggles of ordinary people, communicated their hopes and aspirations, denounced unjust power relations and the stark conditions of the vast majority, and challenged the prevailing system. The 17-year Pinochet dictatorship was unable to erase New Song from the hearts and minds of the people of Chile. Tens of thousands of students—young people not yet born in the 1970s—sang the New Song anthem “El Pueblo Unido” during the massive 2011 marches to demand quality and free public education. New Song is alive still because it continues to express through its stirring and beautiful music the solidarity and determination of social movements, and continues to evoke dreams of a different future. Perhaps most important, it conveys a profound commitment to the lives of el pueblo, the vast number of people who still experience social injustice.

What happens when the protests end?

In this blog entry, Harold McDougall, author of Black Baltimore, looks at growing civic infrastructure from family and neighborhood connections to show the “powers that be” that little people matter

Recent events in Baltimore are a reminder of the need to build “civic infrastructure” in inner-city communities like Sandtown, the neighborhood in which Freddie Gray lived, a neighborhood I studied closely when writing Black Baltimore, more than twenty years ago.

Sandtown then was home to many community-based, self-help efforts that provided examples of what participatory democracy, on a small scale, should look like. News reports from Sandtown in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death show they are still there—Rev. A.C. Vaughn’s Sharon Baptist Church, the New Song Community school, the Sandtown-Winchester Improvement Association, ”helicopter” parents and grandparents, trying to guide their kids through the maze.

black baltimoreI celebrated the indigenous social capital of these small-scale efforts in the book, calling them “base communities” because they reminded me of the Christian study circles organized by liberation theologists in Latin America. Groups of no more than twenty, seminar-size, where people could connect, reason together, figure things out and take action.

Friends and colleagues challenged my idea, arguing that while intimate and powerful, these small groups were not scaled to solve the problems they could see. Employment? Education? Police misconduct? Environmental damage? How could a group of twenty people respond to such large-scale issues?

So I went back to the drawing board, trying to figure out how to take base communities to a scale large enough so they could impact the issues people in neighborhoods like Sandtown face without sacrificing the intimacy and trust that made them so powerful, so important, so precious.

It was quite an undertaking, assisted by serendipity and caring people as much as by scholarship and hard study. It’s taken a long time.

The process started at a National Civic League annual meeting I attended, where former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley gave a speech comparing American society to a three-legged stool. There is a government leg, a business leg, and a community leg, he said. Bradley got the audience’s attention by declaring that the government and business legs are very long while the community leg is very short, making the stool—and the society—unstable.

How can community be lengthened, strengthened, so that it can balance business and government? Episodic flare-ups, through demonstrations, protests and other forms of mobilization, are not enough. Once grievances have been addressed, or the protesters silenced or co-opted, activity tends to subside. Civil society needs an ongoing civic infrastructure if it is to impact government beyond periodic elections, and business beyond individual consumer choice.

But how to build that infrastructure, how to knit those base communities together?

Then I met Don Anderson, a lawyer and social activist who was also an African-American descendant of Thomas Jefferson. He had come across some of his ancestor’s writing on “Citizen’s Assemblies.” The assemblies were to be sized to a Congressional district, and would select their Member through a series of caucuses. The Assembly’s most intriguing aspect, however, was its structure, and its potential to do a lot more than elect a Member of Congress.

The building block of Jefferson’s assembly was a neighborhood council of seven families, comprised of one representative from each family. Each council in turn selects its own representative, and these seven people meet as a “conference” representing seven councils (49 families). Finally, each conference sends a representative to an assembly representing all the conferences in the congressional district. The assembly conveys information—and instructions—from the constituent base to the member of Congress. (The model’s democracy was apparently a bit too direct for the Founding Fathers, and it never left the drawing board.)

This was what I was looking for.

Today, Sandtown numbers approximately 9,000 people. A Sandtown Citizen’s Assembly could aggregate families directly, and empower the people of the neighborhood. Such an Assembly could hold local government more closely accountable—schools, the police, elected officials—not from the distance of the voting booth but up close and personal. The Assembly could also perform some functions parallel to government, such as community mediation. (I called this the “politics of parallelism” in Black Baltimore)

The Sandtown Citizen’s Assembly could also check businesses and banks engaging in exploitative or high-handed practices. Past examples include the boycotts and selective buying campaigns of the civil rights movement, and labor’s boycotts and public shaming campaigns. Co-ops such as those Gar Alperovitz has described [http://democracycollaborative.org/] could round out the Assembly portfolio, creating “social” businesses, micro-enterprises, and other “off-the-grid” sources of income.

Protests emerging from the hassles people in neighborhoods like Sandtown face every day have erupted all across the country.  These protests are, at bottom, about a political and economic system that just doesn’t care about little people until, like Lilliputians, they get organized.

Addressing the dynamics of bullying on screen and in schools

This week in North Philly Notes, Laura Martocci, author of Bullying, pens an open letter about the recent film A Girl Like Her about teenage bullying. 

To Whom It May Concern:

Bullying is hardly a new topic—in fact, it is so well-worn that most teens roll their eyes at the word. They know what we want to hear, and what answers they need to give before we’ll let them go back to their iPhones.

Perhaps this is because we try to speak, without ever really having listened.
Amy Weber, writer/director of A Girl Like Her, listened—and it is obvious in the movie she made and the characters she created.

downloadAvery (Hunter King), Brian (Jimmy Bennett), and Jessica (Lexi Ainsworth), cast in the roles of bully, bystander, and victim, respectively, bring complex, often conflicting motivations to their characters. As viewers, we get to watch the drama unfold from each of their perspectives. Ms. Weber garners sympathy for the “over-the-top” behavior of her antagonist (bully) through a plot device that puts a video-diary in her hands. We not only get a glimpse of how Avery sees things (mostly, her narcissism doesn’t allow her to see them at all) but also come to understand her choices through the context of her family. While this may not be enough to exonerate her, it does make her much more than a mouthpiece, and situates her choices as important “talking points” in the movie. 

Do her choices ring true?

What would the bully at your school do?

Similar questions surface around Brian, Jessica’s supportive friend. Brian not only listens, he enables Jessica to take actions that document the bullying. Hidden-camera videos at first help sustain Jessica by preventing her from slipping into denial about the abuse. However, Jessica ultimately cannot negotiate the onslaught, and takes drastic action. Attempting to come to terms with what Jessica has done, Brian is torn between his loyalty to her and a community desperately seeking answers.

Bullying_smBystanders do not need to witness a drastic action in order to wonder what they should do, whom they might tell, and what/how much they should say. How they think about and sort these questions is another important talking point that is facilitated by the film. Is telling someone “tattling” or “supporting the victim”?

Finally, there is Jessica, the victim. We see her torment, and in itself, this is a talking point. Would anyone at your school ever be victimized like this? (Hint, the ready answer is, of course, “No.” “No” is the start of the conversation.)

A Girl Like Her understands that bullying is not only—or even primarily—about specific bad behaviors, but about the dynamics that support these behaviors, the conflicts that paralyze action, and the nuances through which teen dramas are played out.  Our children cannot engage bullying as a topic unless the conversation around it is authentic. Weber’s film captures the complexities that signal authenticity, making it a very good place to start that conversation.

This is an important movie, one I would not only want my daughters to see, but to see in an environment that would facilitate discussion around it.

Sincerely,

Laura Martocci

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