Searching for Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro

This week in North Philly Notes, it’s “Carnaval in Rio!” Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, pens an entry on this year’s annual celebration in Brazil.

CARNAVAL is a summons to enjoy ourselves. It is supposed to bring easement, at the very least a few brief days to forget personal and collective worries. It’s out with the Apollonian, in with the Dionysian. Above all, Carnaval means dancing. So what does an old gringo like myself do in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval? The easy and obvious thing is to be an observer and to watch the televised transmission of the escolas de samba or samba schools as they parade in the Sambodromo of Rio de Janeiro. If you follow the selling of Carnaval in Rio, especially to tourists, the Sambodromo is where it largely takes place. This venue is a couple of long city blocks of viewer stands (there are also VIP boxes), and parade grounds designed by Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012), Brazil’s master architect and designer of the buildings of modernist Brasília. The complex was completed in 1984, expanded in 2012, and has space for 108,000 spectators. They come to watch 12 schools parade, each of which will be graded on the quality of its performance. Two nights starting at 10 pm and finishing at dawn are necessary so that each school gets 90 minutes but no more to perform. The school with the highest score is the champion. These 12 belong to the “Special Group” membership in which is by no means permanent. Each year the two schools with the lowest scores will fall out to be replaced by two from a group that strives “for access” to the Special Group. Competition between the samba schools in the Special Group, and among schools striving for access is fierce.
Layout 1As a friend pointed out, a samba school parade is a great dancing opera. A visual wonder of luxurious costumes and floats, with dancing and music making provided by several thousand participants. Every year each school offers a new production. There must be a new theme, and a new theme song. You need not join a samba school to participate. Anyone including a foreigner can buy a costume and take part in the performance. But this entails months of rehearsals including at the Sambodromo.

The samba schools and their parades in the Sambodromo have been marketed as the glory of  Rio de Janeiro Carnaval, and they go a long way to allowing the city to claim it has the greatest celebration and party in the world. But there have been troubling issues. A recurrent one has been sponsorship. Many  schools are sponsored by gamblers or bicheiros who virtually own them. Bicheiros originally organized a version of the local numbers racket. However, people bet on animals (bichos) rather than numbers. Everyday there is winning animal. Winning bettors bring their receipt and leave with their payoff. No wait, and no bureaucracy. There is more to gambling in Rio de Janeiro than this popular betting game which though illegal is nonetheless allowed partly because it is said to be rooted in Brazilian culture. However, illegality has led to a corrupt relationship between bicheiros, police and public officials. So it is that gambler sponsorship of samba schools, and the purported influence of bicheiros on samba schools becomes a reason to criticize and even investigate samba schools. There is also an issue of foreign sponsorship. In 2006, Venezuela led by its president Hugo Chavez sponsored the winning Vila Isabel school with the theme “Soy loco por ti America.” It was a  Spanish, not Portuguese title which some people questioned. But sponsorship money and the popularity of Hugo Chavez spoke louder. Nor was Spanish an obstacle to winning. Vila Isabel was judged as having the most original and best realized parade performance, and became that year’s champion. This year the Beija Flor (Humming bird) school, a perennial favorite to win the competition, was criticized for accepting money–an estimated $4.5 million at the current exchange rate–from oil rich Equatorial Guinea. But Equatorial Guinea is governed  by a decades old personalist dictatorship widely condemned by human rights organizations though now striving  to improve its image. Beijo Flor spokespeople argued its script was meant to celebrate west Africa, not Equatorial Guinea, and that the importance of west Africa for Brazil long preceded Equatorial Guinea’s appearance as an independent nation in l968. Would this sponsorship prevent Beijo Flor from being selected once again champion of the Special Group? In fact, Beijo Flor won the prize with a characteristically impeccable parade performance enhanced by sumptuous costumes and imaginative floats (carros alegoricos). However, the contradiction of a substantial gift from a notorious dictatorship to a samba school where participation and creative freedom are supposed to be prime examples of popular democracy was glaring, and the controversy has continued.

While always enjoyable, even astonishing as spectacle, anyone who only watched the Special Group samba schools on parade would miss much, even most of Carnaval in Rio. With all their opulence, artistry and creativity in choreography, samba schools are only part of the party. A bigger part is mass participation in blocos. These are community organized street dancing groups that materialize during Carnaval. In fact, as the famous samba schools have become more commercialized, so have blocos grown in importance and number in reaction to excessive commercialization. Sambodromo commercialization works to exclude rather than include popular classes among the spectators. The high price of admission can reach a thousand dollars and more for the best seats if purchased from scalpers. The samba schools on parade at the Sambodromo are no longer within easy reach of middle and lower class wage earners.

There are currently more than 94 registered blocos scattered throughout Rio de Janeiro and its suburbs, and still more uncounted “rebel” groups not yet registered. Blocos are easy enough to locate by consulting listings in newspapers that state where and when they will gather. Each day of Carnaval, thirty or more will be on the street. Participation is open to everyone, and it doesn’t cost anything. Carnaval for me finally became a matter of seeking, finding and participating in one, then another, then another bloco.

Braziliancomprevgreen_071008.indd

If you are interested in Brazilian music, check out this related Temple University Press book, The Brazilian Sound, by Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessnha

Each bloco at the very least has a band, a male singer (some version of a tenor), and a sound truck. Everyone seems to wear some sort of costume (fantasia). None of my blocos required a fantasia which can be as simple as headgear, perhaps a wig, feathers, a pirate’s hat or a king or queen’s crown. I wore an old pink and green hat of the famous Mangueira samba school. And not without some trepidation. The hat is at least 30 years old, a relic that might be better off in a display case. Given its age and good condition, might it not be coveted by a fanatic follower of Mangueira recognizing the hat as something  different from today’s Mangueira paraphernalia, something from the past, and therefore of special interest. History counts when discussing the samba schools. Might someone snatch this cherished hat off my head? As I walked along the street on my way to the first bloco, one car slowed and people cheered this gesture celebrating Mangueira. Other people noticing the hat smiled, gave the thumbs up sign, waved. Nothing untoward happened.

The bloco prepares to move and dance down the street. The musicians and singer warm up, the revelers or foliões keep arriving, and the loud speaker primes us: “Just five more minutes, and we’re on our way.” Finally, there is movement. I decided I wouldn’t shy away from strenuous dancing if I fell in with others who were doing it. I was soon to be tested when a handful of young people dressed as harlequins placed themselves at the head of our bloco and danced with vigor and imagination, and with some improvised steps I had never seen. Some of us picked up the enthusiasm wanting it to continue. Suddenly I was dancing with an energetic woman in her mid, or perhaps late 30’s. Certainly she was much younger than myself. Could I keep up? You watch and match the other’s steps. I even tried to incorporate a step of our dancing  harlequins. This stimulated my partner, and we danced on for a while. Great fun. Finally, I found what I was seeking in the joy and participation of the bloco. 

The neighborhood blocos are more and more becoming the heart and soul of  Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval. They are magnets that attract large numbers of revelers all over the city. They have I think added vitality to the Rio de Janeiro carnaval, as they are doing in other large Brazilian cities notably São Paulo. Some occupy a special niche such as the Cordão da Bola Preto which was said to attract a million people on the early Friday morning in downtown Rio, even in sun drenched 100 plus degree heat. At the other end of the spectrum is the bloco of Carmelitas (Carmelites) much smaller, but the object of growing interest. The bloco pays homage to the cloistered nuns in the local Carmelite convent with a simple, highly appropriate story that has captivated followers. A Carmelite nun suddenly flees the convent to join the revelers. People start looking for her including the Pope. The bloco does this part of the story on Friday, the first day of Carnaval. On Tuesday, the last day of Carnaval, the bloco is on the street for a second time when the nun returns undetected to the convent. Of course, the bloco is largely celebrating the escaped Carmelite nun and wishes to protect her identity. How?  With their fantasia: a veil of the Carmelite order. “Genial” (ingenious) as Brazilians might say.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go (as a Temple University Press author)

This week in North Philly Notes, Laura Katz Rizzo, author of Dancing the Fairy Tale, describes “a crazy couple of weeks” in her life as she promotes her book at various events. 

On March 5, I will speak at the Pennsylvania Ballet’s annual Luncheon and Dress Rehearsal, which is being held at 11:00 am at Estia restaurant, across the the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. The event is an opportunity for dance enthusiasts to have a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of ballet. Emceed by CBS 3’s Jessica Dean, the luncheon includes a presentation of my new book, Dancing the Fairy Talewhich concentrates on the important contributions women have made to the development of American classical ballet. I hope that Arantxa Ochoa, the principal of the company’s newly established school, and former principal dancer, will be there so she can hear what I have to say about how women bring the heart and soul to American ballet schools and companies. The lunch will be followed by a dress rehearsal of Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake at the Academy of Music.

Dancing the Fairy Tale_sm

Soon after this event, I am taking a group of 10 undergraduate and 5 graduate students to the Northeast Regional American College Dance Festival, at Westchester University, where I will be teaching ballet, partnering and variations…obviously from The Sleeping Beauty. With the research I did for my book on that ballet, as well as the accumulated experiences from my own performance career, I want students to dance the solos I write about. In embodying the protagonist role of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, students will get a great entry point into understanding the arguments at the heart of the book: that performers infuse life into characters, and that without the agency of dancers, the roles of the classical ballets would never come to life.

LKR1I will also present some of my new research on “The Architecture of Space as embodied in Neo-Classical Dance Choreography,” work that has emerged from my organization of an interdisciplinary workshop and exhibition featuring the work of New York City Ballet’s photographer, Paul Kolnik and former dancer, Kyra Nichols. This event will take place at Temple’s Center for the Arts on April 16th.  Part of my job as the Temple representative at the American College Dance Festival Association will also be driving a van full of students from North Philadelphia to Westchester, running rehearsals, checking in on students, and making sure the theater crew has all of the needed technical cues from our students.  Honestly, as long as I don’t have to call any cues, I will be OK.  Calling cues is my least favorite job in the theater!

Barbara WeisbergerAfter returning from ACDFA, I have a quick trip to the Society of Dance History Scholars’ Conference at the Peabody Institute at John’s Hopkins University where I will discuss the life of Barbara Weisberger, (in photo at left), the founding matriarch of the Pennsylvania Ballet. She was at all the right places in all the right times in order to be part of many of the significant developments in American Ballet throughout the 20th century.

Baltimore will be followed by a trip to New York City to see the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix and conduct a recruitment audition for any competitors interested in studying dance in higher education!  In the meantime, I am trying to keep up with teaching my classes at Temple University (my favorite activity) as well as work on new research in which I am exploring the intersections between ballet and entertainment wrestling. This semester I am teaching a repertory class where senior jazz musicians and sophomore dance majors are creating a collaborative piece together. I am also teaching a graduate seminar for master’s students about best practices and strategies for teaching dance.

LKR2My new research topic, that of entertainment wrestling, has taken the shape of both a performed wrestling match en pointe in concert dance venue (so much fun to both float across the stage and body slam my partner in the same ten minutes) as well as a book chapter in an upcoming volume entitled Wrestling and Performance. If you had asked me five years ago if I though The Sleeping Beauty had connections to the WWE, I’d certainly have had different answers and a changed perspective from how I see the practices today. Go figure…the world of dance studies takes me to unexpected places each day!

Remembering Dean Smith

This week in North Philly Notes, Gregory Kaliss, author of Men’s College Athletics and the Politics of Racial Equality reflects on Dean Smith’s legacy of promoting racial integration.

With the death of Dean Smith on February 7, the world of college sports lost one of the giants in its history, a man who was the standard of consistent excellence during his thirty-six years as the head coach of men’s basketball at the University of North Carolina. With a career 879-254 record, thirty-five winning seasons, eleven Final Four appearances, two national championships, and one Olympic gold medal, Smith clearly excelled on the court.

But, as many have observed, the nation at large has lost someone much more important than just a basketball coach.  For all of Smith’s innovations, from his early adoption of advanced statistical metrics to his creation of the point zone, the Four Corners offense, the huddle at the free throw line, and the tradition of pointing to the passer on a made basket, Smith’s legacy was defined by his contributions off the court.

This Black History Month, it is especially worthwhile to remember Smith’s courage in promoting racial integration in the South.  As a little-known assistant coach in the late 1950s, Smith and his white minister brought a black friend to a popular segregated restaurant in Chapel Hill for lunch.  They were served.  In some ways, that act was as impressive as some of his later stands: with little clout and a tenuous position as an assistant, Smith challenged the racial mores of the community because of his sense of moral rightness.

When Smith became head coach at UNC in 1961, he followed through on his desire to bring black players to Chapel Hill and to the South in general. Although his first attempt to bring a black player onto the team did not work out when the player decided to focus on academics instead, Smith recruited Charles Scott, a tremendously-gifted athlete from New York who played his high school basketball in Laurinburg, North Carolina.

Not only was Scott the first black basketball player at UNC, he was also the first star-caliber black player in the Atlantic Coast Conference during his career from 1966 to 1970. Although the University of Maryland had signed black players prior to UNC, Scott’s stardom made him an iconic figure. In subsequent years, the other schools in the ACC followed suit.

But Smith did more than simply make use of Scott’s basketball skills. In later years, Scott effusively praised Smith for caring about him as a person and for helping him survive the years of racial abuse and social isolation he experienced. Smith also took a courageous stand in encouraging Scott’s political activism with the on-campus Black Student Movement. Many frowned on athletes getting involved in political activism, especially in relation to controversial subjects such as racial equality, but Smith told Scott to follow his beliefs and get involved, a remarkable decision given the turbulence of the 1960s and the still-fraught nature of race relations in Chapel Hill and the South at large.

In later years, Smith pursued a number of activist initiatives that alienated some supporters: from his opposition to pornography and to the sale of alcohol at college sporting events, to his protests against nuclear power and the death penalty. Through it all, he maintained the courage of his convictions and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Let us remember, then, the death of a man who sought to make the world a better place according to his sense of justice—a man who just happened to be an excellent basketball coach as well.

The Super Super Bowl

This week in North Philly Notes, Ray Didinger, author of The New Eagles Encyclopedia, discusses Super Bowl XLIX.

It is unfortunate that so much of the conversation following Sunday’s Super Bowl focused on a bizarre decision by the Seattle coaching staff. It was a bad call by the Seahawk coaches — perhaps the dumbest call in NFL history given the stakes — but to dwell on that one storyline misses a larger point, that is, Super Bowl XLIX was a great game.

It was a dramatic contest with the New England Patriots overcoming a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win 28-24. It was the fourth Super Bowl victory for Patriot quarterback Tom Brady, tying him with Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw. It also was the fourth Super Bowl for head coach Bill Belichick which tied him with the late Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers) for that lofty honor.

It was a game between teams that were clearly the best in their respective conferences, one the defending champion (Seattle) and the other the last team to win the title in back to back years (New England) and it came down to the final minute with the ball on the one-yard line. You couldn’t script a better finish that that. And it even had a Cinderella hero in Malcolm Butler, a rookie free agent, who came out of nowhere to make the game saving interception.

It was a great football game and it continued a recent trend of highly competitive Super Bowls that keep the vast TV audience on the edge of its seat right to the very end. Nine of the last 14 Super Bowls have been decided by six points or less. The only blowout was last year’s game in which Seattle buried Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos, 43-8. Take that game out of the equation and the average margin of victory in the last eight Super Bowls is 5.4 points.

That’s what you are hoping for in a one-and-done championship scenario. Remember, the NFL isn’t like the other pro leagues where championships are decided by a best of seven series. In the NFL, it is one game with everything on the line. An entire season builds to that one winner take all contest and if its a one-sided bust it is an enormous letdown.

For many years that’s how it played out. Far too many of the early Super Bowls ended in lopsided routs. In the first ten Super Bowls, the average margin of victory was 13 points, more than two touchdowns. The margin actually went up in the next ten years to 17 points.

There was a particularly awful stretch from 1984 (Super Bowl XVIII) through 1990 (Super Bowl XXIV) when six of the seven games were decided by 19 points or more and the average margin of victory was a staggering 26.7 points. That was a time when the NFC was dominant and its champion routinely crushed the AFC representative in the big game. It felt more like an anti-climax than a true championship game. Remember the Chicago Bears pounding the Patriots, 46-10, in Super Bowl XX? Two years later, Washington demolished Denver, 42-10. Two years after that, Denver returned to the Super Bowl only to lose to San Francisco 55-10.

Those were the days when Super Bowl Sunday was more about the parties — how many chicken wings were being consumed across America? — and the commercials that aired during the telecasts than the game itself. We have been fortunate in recent years that the games were compelling enough to hold our interest. Sunday’s game certainly did.

Brady took his place among the greatest quarterbacks in football history. It was his sixth Super Bowl start, the most for any quarterback, and he walked off with his third Most Valuable Player Award tying Montana — who just happens to be his boyhood idol — for that honor. Brady set a Super Bowl record by completing 37 passes and he led two long scoring drives in the fourth quarter against a great Seattle defense to pull out the victory. It was a masterful performance under enormous pressure by Brady who at age 37 knew it could be a last shot at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

Regarding the Seattle coaching decision: It is almost impossible to defend. The Seahawks had moved the ball inside the one yard line and they had Marshawn Lynch, a bruising 220-pound runner, who was running through the Patriots all day. With just 30 seconds to go, the obvious call to simply hand the ball to Lynch one more time and let him punch it into the end zone. But the Seattle coaches out-thought themselves. They knew the Patriots would be expecting the run so they decided to throw the ball. The result: Russell Wilson’s pass was intercepted.

Game, set, match.

Since then the decision has been endlessly discussed and dissected and coach Pete Carroll has been flogged on every sports talk show in America. Hopefully that will subside in time and people will take a step back and see it for what it was — just one act in a truly wonderful drama.

Live Twitter Chat @TempleUnivPress on Gender and Political Campaigns

@TempleUnivPress will host its first live Twitter Chat on February 20 from 12noon – 1:00 pm EST.  This week in North Philly Notes, Kelly Dittmar, author of Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns, previews her upcoming Live Twitter Chat and the participants.

The topic under discussion is:  Will a woman run for president in 2016? If so, what role might gender play in her campaign or the campaigns of her opponents?

Dittmar_2.inddIn my book, Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns, I argue that campaigns are gendered institutions where political candidates – men and women – are expected to adapt to the gendered rules of the game. For male candidates, stereotypic expectations of gender (masculinity) and candidacy coincide, while women candidates are expected to meet often disparate voter expectations of both femininity and candidacy. As a result, men and women candidates navigate differently gendered terrain en route to Election Day.

Male and female candidates typically navigate this terrain under the guidance of campaign professionals – practitioners and consultants who make their livings by planning, running, and advising campaigns. In Navigating Gendered Terrain, I survey and interview these political practitioners to better understand the ways in which gender informs campaign strategy and decision-making, noting that their perceptions of voters’ gender expectations often inform the ways in which they run campaigns. Moreover, the strategic and tactical decisions they make matter beyond winning or losing; they also have the potential to replicate or disrupt gender norms in electoral politics.

On Friday, February 20th (12pm-1pm ET), I will be joined by the following experts in a Twitter chat about gender and political campaigns. Veteran political consultants Christine Matthews (Partner, Burning Glass Consulting) and Martha McKenna (Partner, McKenna Pihlaja), as well as Debbie Walsh (Director, Center for American Women and Politics) will lead a conversation about how gender informs campaign strategy, how voters perceive male and female candidates, how strategy informs voters’ gender expectations, and what this all means for women running for and winning elective office. Please join us in this Twitter chat, hosted by Temple University Press (@TempleUnivPress), by following the Twitter handles listed here and using the hashtag #genderpolitics.

The participants include:

  • Christine Matthews (@cmatthewspolls) is President of Bellwether Research and Partner at Burning Glass Consulting. She has been conducting public opinion research for over twenty years at her own firm and as a partner at other top Republican polling firms. She served as an advisor for both Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’ campaigns, including his re-election against a Democratic woman candidate in which he won 56% of women. In 2014, Campaigns & Elections magazine named Christine as one of their top 50 influencers shaping campaigns and the future of the industry.
  • Martha McKenna (@mmckenn) is a partner in the Democratic political media-consulting firm McKenna Pihlaja. Recently named one of Campaigns & Elections magazine’s “Influencers to Watch in 2014,” she has been integral to Senate gains made by Democrats over the last 3 cycles. After a decade of work with EMILY’s List, Martha successfully engineered U.S. Senate campaigns for Democratic candidates as the political director at the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. She then ran the DSCC’s Independent Expenditure operation in 2012 through her consulting firm. Martha is also the co-founder of Emerge Maryland, an organization for Democratic women seeking state and local office.
  • Debbie Walsh (@debbiewalsh58) is director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. She joined the CAWP staff in 1981. As director of the Center, she oversees CAWP’s research, education and public service programs. She is frequently called upon by the media for information and comment and speaks to a variety of audiences around the country on topics related to women’s political participation. First as director of CAWP’s Program for Women Public Officials and now as the Center’s director, Walsh has led the Center’s extensive work with women officeholders and organized more than a dozen national conferences for women officials.
  • Kelly Dittmar (@kdittmar) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University–Camden and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. She is the author of Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns (Temple University Press, 2015), as well as multiple book chapters on gender and American politics. Her esearch focuses on gender and American political institutions with a particular focus on how gender informs campaigns and the impact of gender diversity among elites in policy and political decisions, priorities, and processes.  In addition to her academic work, Kelly works with CAWP’s programs for women’s public leadership and has been an expert source and commentator for media outlets including MSNBC, NPR, Huffington Post, and the Washington Post.

Honoring Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the International Olympic Committee’s Woman of the Year

This week in North Philly Notes, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, co-editor of Equal Playresponds to being named the 2014 Woman of the Year by the International Olympic Committee.

The International Olympic Committee presented the 2014 Women & Sports Trophy for the Americas to Nancy Hogshead-Makar during the general assembly in Monaco. Hogshead-Makar was recognized for her life-long advocacy for access and equality in athletics, and her legal expertise on women’s sports issues. Hogshead-Makar is a scholar, frequent speaker, and winner of three Gold Medals in swimming in the 1984 Olympics. She is the co-author of Equal Play; Title IX and Social Change, with Andrew Zimbalist.

Equal Play smallThe Trophy came with $37,000 in prize money for a project that will forward women’s sports issues. Hogshead-Makar will create an on-line training platform for Title IX education, specifically targeted towards coaches. Additional on-line training programs on legal issues involving women and sports are expected later in 2015, including sports administrators, families and law school students.

In 2014, Hogshead-Makar launched Champion Women to lead targeted efforts to aggressively advocate for equality, with expertise in topics include sport access and equal treatment, sexual harassment, sexual abuse and assault, employment and pregnancy and legal enforcement under Title IX and the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act.

Hogshead-Makar has testified in Congress numerous times on the topic of gender equity in athletics, written numerous scholarly and lay articles, and has been a frequent guest on national news programs on the topic, including 60 Minutes, Fox News, CNN, ESPN, NPR, MSNBC and network morning news programming. She serves as an expert witness in Title IX cases, has written amicus briefs representing athletic organizations in precedent-setting litigation, and has organized numerous sign-on position statements for sports governing bodies. From 2003 – 2012 she was the Co-Chair of American Bar Association Committee on the Rights of Women. Sports Illustrated Magazine listed her as one of the most influential people in the history of Title IX.

Hogshead-Makar said,

“Winning this award from the International Olympic Committee is as meaningful and powerful as the day I touched the wall in 1984 to win a gold medal. The men and women of the IOC are using the Olympic platform to enhance gender equity globally – throughout society. The stand they’re taking is changing the world; women’s sports participation breaks down stereotypes that hold women back.

Of course there are hundreds of people I’ve worked with shoulder-to-shoulder that I’d like to thank, but in particular I’d like to thank Scott Blackmun, CEO of the USOC for nominating me, Duke Professor Jean O’Barr for inspiring me intellectually, Anita DeFrantz, IOC Executive Board Member for supporting me, and Donna de Varona, 1964 Olympic for sparking this pursuit in my heart back in 1984.”

Remembering the absences of history

This week in North Philly Notes, Roger Aden, author of Upon the Ruins of Liberty, writes about how absences in history can yield surprising tensions and stories.

I was reading a story the other day about a former college basketball coach who had in his possession an immensely valuable historical document: the text used by Martin Luther King, Jr. when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall in 1963. Stunningly, the most memorable portion of the speech did not appear in the text. Instead of concluding his remarks as planned, King both ad-libbed and drew upon previous orations as he shared his dream with the nation. The coach’s prized possession thus gains much of its symbolic power not just from its provenance, but also from the striking absence of language that still resonates in memory half a century later.

Our nation’s stories are full of absences. While we rightfully treasure historical artifacts in which powerful remnants of the past are embedded, we also tightly grasp the stories, memories, and events which remain meaningful to us even if we have few, if any, physical reminders of them. That’s what makes the stories of the President’s House site in Independence National Historical Park so compelling for me. Here, on the front porch of a new building dedicated to remembering and displaying one of our nation’s most treasured historical icons (the Liberty Bell), and less than a block away from a colonial-era structure in which the Declaration of Independence was approved, lies the site in which the revered George Washington dodged Pennsylvania law to ensure that the enslaved Africans toiling in the executive mansion in Philadelphia remained in bondage to him and his wife. We have little physical evidence about the lives of those enslaved Africans nor have we historically devoted many resources to telling the stories of any enslaved Africans in the national commemorative landscape, yet those stories have nonetheless lingered on the periphery of national memory. The excavation of these stories at the President’s House provided powerful reminders that the seemingly absent is always present and that our national embrace of liberty was imperfectly enacted—even in its birthplace.

Aden_2.inddIn Upon the Ruins of Liberty, I explore how this tension between absences and presences manifested itself throughout the development of the site. From the park’s initial reluctance to disrupt its relatively seamless stories of the triumph of liberty and the potency of American exceptionalism, to the dedicated efforts of historians, community activists, and dedicated political leaders to give a presence to the stories of liberty denied, even the initial controversy about how to handle Edward Lawler, Jr.’s discoveries about the site and all of its inhabitants sparked a great deal of soul-searching about the inclusion and exclusion of stories in the park, the commemorative landscape, and the nation’s history. Both the inertia of history and the passion of those whose stories have lingered on the edges of that history starkly emerged in the early stages of the controversy about what to do with Lawler’s revelations.

Nor did the inertia and passion dissipate during, and ever after, the completion of the first federal site dedicated to telling the stories of slavery. Every step in the project’s development—deciding what to do at the site, picking a design for a memorial installation, revising that design after the surprising results of an excavation revealed remnants of the original structure, and telling the stories within the design—featured discussions about how to make present, in the national historical park nicknamed “the cradle of liberty,” the absences of the past. I explore those tensions in Upon the Ruins of Liberty, while drawing upon the insights of those intimately involved with the project and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering which led to the site’s development as it stands today. And, because the stories of history are always open-ended, I illustrate how the completed site remains a place of controversy because of what it includes and excludes in its telling of history. The President’s House site and, I hope, the book which tells the story of its development prod us to remember that the absences of history are not forgotten, but nor are they easily integrated into narratives which possess the inertia of centuries of sharing. The story of the quest for liberty in America, as Dr. King reminded us, is a story we should continue to embrace, while we also work to make present and remember all such quests pursued by the people of the United States.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 80 other followers

%d bloggers like this: