What the Temple University Press staff are reading while sheltering at home

This week in North Philly Notes, we ask the staff what they are reading while self-quarantined.

Shaun Vigil, Acquisitions Editor

While acclimating myself to the Press’s frontlist, it was a special pleasure to discover Kimberly Kattari’s Psychobilly, due for publication this spring. As a longtime fan of the genre — as well as a voracious reader of books on musical subcultures — nothing could have better signaled that my arrival at Temple. This book is truly a perfect match. Kattari’s in-depth accounts have not only helped to launch me into a world outside of my apartment during quarantine, but have also inspired me to pick up my Gretsch guitar and start brushing up on my picking!”

Kate Nichols, Art Manager

I just finished the design/layout of the first pass pages for Amy Finstein’s Modern Mobility Aloft: Elevated Highways, Architecture, and Urban Change in Pre-Interstate America, forthcoming in October. The book focuses on New York, Chicago and Boston and includes 103 halftones and 12 maps. I read a bit as I work, but I primarily focused on the images. Having spent a lot of time living in both New York and Boston, I was very interested in the historic photographs. Once published, I will give this book to my brother who is an architect in Boston.

As for a non-Temple book, I just began reading The Overstory by Richard Powers.

Ann-Marie Anderson, Marketing Director

I didn’t bring any recent TUP books home. It was too short notice, so along with new book projects, I’m reading and relaxing with James McBride’s Deacon King Kong. Luckily, I bought it before the pandemic hit and since the book is new, there are loads of reviews of it online. Being a former Brooklynite I’m enjoying an escape into a hilarious sixties Brooklyn neighborhood, told in McBride’s usually captivating way.

Aaron Javsicas, Editor-in-Chief

I’m reading Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which is just the right kind of escapism for me right now — a voice from another world, in which records and relationships somehow managed to command center stage. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back?

Mary Rose Muccie, Director

I just finished The Clockmaker’s Daughter, by Kate Morton. I’m a big fan of how she interweaves the past and present around a transformative event, usually a death.  I’ve started an older book of hers, The Secret Keeper. 

Gary Kramer, Publicity Manager

Before our offices closed, I grabbed a copy of our recently published book, Action = Vie, by Christophe Broqua about the history and accomplishments of Act Up-Paris. It is an interesting title to read during the pandemic. I had read (and seen) and been inspired by David France’s How to Survive a Plague, so I am seeking similar inspiration from Broqua’s Action = Vie.

 

Imagining attending the OAH conference

This week in North Philly Notes, we surveyed a handful of Temple University Press authors who might have attended the cancelled Organization of American Historians conference.

Knowledge for Social Change_smIra Harkavy, John Puckett, and Joann Weeks, three of the co-authors of Knowledge for Social Change, reflected, Some of us remember our co-author and dear deceased colleague Lee Benson’s powerful controversial 1981 keynote paper at the OAH on “History as Advocacy,” in which he called on historians to abandon value-free history and social science and to study and write history to change the world for the better. That argument is at the center of Knowledge for Social Change, which argues for and proposes concrete means to radically transform research universities to function as democratic, civic, and community-engaged institutions.

Shirley Jennifer Lim, author of Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern observed, I was looking forward to attending the OAH, catchingAnna May Wong_sm up with friends and colleagues, and presenting at my panel “Racial Rogues of Hollywood,” with Anthony Mora and Ernesto Chavez.

In addition, I am honored that my book was a finalist for the OAH’s Mary Nickliss Award, especially since March is Women’s History Month. (From the Prize Chair: The Committee was extremely impressed by the book’s extraordinary research, eloquence, originality, timeliness, and depth of analysis; undoubtedly Anna May Wong will have a substantial impact on the field of women’s and gender history and we commend Professor Lim for this tremendous accomplishment.)

 

Howard Lune, author of the forthcoming Transnational Nationalism and Collective Identity among the American Irish, opined, All things considered, I’d rather not be attending a conference right now. But, as a sociologist writing on socio-historical topics, I need a certain amount of engagement with American historians to keep me from making any serious errors. I find the dialogue between the two fields to be necessary to our shared areas of interest, which is why I am disappointed to miss out on the OAH meeting.

Transitional Nationalism_smIn researching and writing Transnational Nationalism, I periodically emerged from my archives and photocopies to run my thoughts by actual historians. In this work I am looking at the continuity of certain ideas about collective identity, nationalism, power, and citizenship among the Irish from 1791 to 1921. My particular focus is on the transnational dimension—the back and forth between the Irish in the U.S. and those in Ireland—from an organizational perspective. I find that the emergent vision of twentieth century Irish independence was both rooted in 18th century Irish activism and nurtured in abeyance through American organizing during times of repression. All of that was supported by the historical records left by the organizations in question. But my constant fear was that I remained unaware of key historical events or crucial moments that threw all of this into question. I remain grateful to the several scholars who looked at early drafts or just sat around with me talking about Irish identity while the work was in progress. Hopefully I will have a chance before too long to take this conversation to a more public level.

Masumi Izumi, author of The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Lawwas keen to present her paper entitled, “Keepers of Concentration Camps?: Federal Agents who Administered Japanese Americans during World War II” She writes:
Rise and Fall of America's Concentration Camp Law_smThe wartime mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II is generally perceived as wrongful exclusion and detention of American citizens based on racial prejudice. While the racist nature of this historical incident is unquestionable, I scrutinized the implications of Japanese American (JA) incarceration in the light of the wartime/emergency executive power regarding American civil liberties in my book, The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Law. I found out that the JA internment heavily affected the postwar debates on civil liberties and anti-communist security measures. To continue my investigation, I was going to focus at the OAH annual meeting on the Federal agents who administered Japanese Americans in the camps during World War II. My paper particularly focuses on the directors of the War Relocation Authority, Milton Eisenhower and Dillon Myer, and contextualize their choices in the light of the agricultural policies utilizing theories such as settler colonialism and racial liberalism.

Ryan Pettengill, author of the forthcoming Communists and Community, offers these thoughts: One of the biggest reasons I wrote this book was to further the Communists and Community_smconversation as to what unions and other working-class organizations do. Throughout the book, I try to establish the concept that debates involving equality, civil rights, and a higher standard of living took place in a community setting; they took place through a public forum. Now, more than ever, the study of history is proving to be critical to the preservation of our democracy. I have always found the Organization of American Historians conference to be a wonderful convergence of academics, students, as well as members of the general public with an interest in an examination of the past. The feedback I have received at conferences has proved essential in the revisions of papers that later ended up in scholarly journals but more importantly, conversations involving how working people have advocated for themselves and pursued equality is a timely debate. To that end, I am deeply sorry to not be able to attend the conference this year.

Meanwhile, Richard Juliani, author of Little Italy in the Great War reflected on writing his book. 

Several people have already asked me why I wrote this book.  I prefer to see the question as why I had to write this book.  The answer is complicated.

Little Italy in the Great War_smFirst, years ago, when I was working on my doctoral dissertation on The Social Organization of Immigration: The Italians of Philadelphia, I spent much time in interviewing elderly Italians about their life in America.  One of the questions that I usually asked them was why they had chosen to come. Much to my surprise, a few of them had included—among other reasons—that they did not want to serve a compulsory military obligation in the Italian army. But they also often went on to say that they ended up serving as an American soldier on the Western Front during World War I. In later years, I often thought about that answer as I continued in my research and writing to explore Italian immigrant experience.

Much more recently, while I was trying to put my most recent book into a broader perspective, I found myself thinking about those comments again. I realized that those men went into the war as Italians, often unable to even speak English, but by coming back to Philadelphia as veterans of the American army, they returned as Italian Americans. But if they had been changed as individuals, their “Home Front” in Little Italy, by its involvement in the war, had also been altered from a colony of Italian immigrants to an Italian American community. What gives it scholarly significance is the fact that when we study assimilation, we often refer to an abstract but somewhat vague process to explain individual and collective transformation, while my study was really focusing on a specific mechanism that served as a concrete pivot for that outcome.

One last point: while I was growing up, I often heard my father talk about his experiences as a veteran of the Italian army during that war. By becoming a part of my own intellectual formation, it enabled me to connect my personal and profession life in later years.

And this is what this book is about.

Celebrating Black History Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we provide a roundup of some of the Press’s recent and classic Black History titles. 

The Great Migration and the Democratic Party: Black Voters and Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Century, by Keneshia Grant

The Great Migration and the Democratic Party frames the Great Migration as an important economic and social event that also had serious political consequences. Keneshia Grant created one of the first listings of Black elected officials that classifies them based on their status as participants in the Great Migration. She also describes some of the policy/political concerns of the migrants. The Great Migration and the Democratic Party lays the groundwork for ways of thinking about the contemporary impact of Black migration on American politics.

Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans at the End of Slaveryby Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer

In their pioneering book, Envisioning Emancipation, renowned photographic historian Deborah Willis and historian of slavery Barbara Krauthamer have amassed 150 photographs—some never before published—from the antebellum days of the 1850s through the New Deal era of the 1930s. The authors vividly display the seismic impact of emancipation on African Americans born before and after the Proclamation, providing a perspective on freedom and slavery and a way to understand the photos as documents of engagement, action, struggle, and aspiration.  Envisioning Emancipation illustrates what freedom looked like for black Americans in the Civil War era. Filled with powerful images of lives too often ignored or erased from historical records, Envisioning Emancipation provides a new perspective on American culture.

Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith, by Tommie Smith and David Steele

At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and his teammate John Carlos came in first and third, respectively, in the 200-meter dash. As they received their medals, each man raised a black-gloved fist, creating an image that will always stand as an iconic representation of the complicated conflations of race, politics, and sports. In this, his autobiography, Smith fills out the story around that moment–how it came to be and where it led him. Smith engagingly describes his life-long commitment to athletics, education, and human rights. He also dispels some of the myths surrounding his famous gesture of protest: contrary to legend, Smith was not a member of the Black Panthers, nor were his medals taken back by the Olympic Committee. Retelling the fear he felt in planning and carrying out his protest, the death threats against him, his difficulty in finding work, and his determination to live his values, he conveys the long, painful backlash that came with his fame, and his fate, all of which was wrapped up in his “silent gesture.”

Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War Americaby Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin

As Philadelphia prepares its first monument in honor of Octavius Catto, a little-known civil rights activist, the publication of a new paperback edition is especially timely. In Tasting Freedom Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin chronicle the life of the charismatic black leader, a free black man whose freedom was in name only. A civil rights pioneer–one who risked his life a century before the events that took place in Selma and Birmingham, Catto 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.

The Battles of Germantown: Effective Public History in America, by David W. Young
David Young, a neighborhood resident who worked at Germantown historic sites for decades, uses his practitioner’s perspective to give examples of what he calls “effective public history.” The Battles of Germantown shows how the region celebrated “Negro Achievement Week” in 1928 and, for example, how social history research proved that the neighborhood’s Johnson House was a station on the Underground Railroad. These encounters have useful implications for addressing questions of race, history, and memory, as well as issues of urban planning and economic revitalization.

Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years after the Kerner Report, edited by Fred Harris and Alan Curtis

In Healing Our Divided Society, Fred Harris, the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission, along with Eisenhower Foundation CEO Alan Curtis, re-examine fifty years later the work still necessary towards the goals set forth in The Kerner Report. This timely volume unites the interests of minorities and white working- and middle-class Americans to propose a strategy to reduce poverty, inequality, and racial injustice. Reflecting on America’s urban climate today, this new report sets forth evidence-based policies concerning employment, education, housing, neighborhood development, and criminal justice based on what has been proven to work—and not work.

Mediating America: Black and Irish Press and the Struggle for Citizenship, 1870-1914, by Brian Shott

Mediating America explores the life and work of T. Thomas Fortune and J. Samuel Stemons as well as Rev. Peter C. Yorke and Patrick Ford—respectively two African American and two Irish American editor/activists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Historian Brian Shott shows how each of these “race men” (the parlance of the time) understood and advocated for his group’s interests through their newspapers. Yet the author also explains how the newspaper medium itself—through illustrations, cartoons, and photographs; advertisements and page layout; and more—could constrain editors’ efforts to guide debates over race, religion, and citizenship during a tumultuous time of social unrest and imperial expansion. Black and Irish journalists used newspapers to recover and reinvigorate racial identities. As Shott proves, minority print culture was a powerful force in defining American nationhood.

The Parker Sisters: A Border Kidnappingby Lucy Maddox

In 1851, Elizabeth Parker, a free black child in Chester County, Pennsylvania, was bound and gagged, snatched from a local farm, and hurried off to a Baltimore slave pen. Two weeks later, her teenage sister, Rachel, was abducted from another Chester County farm. Because slave catchers could take fugitive slaves and free blacks across state lines to be sold, the border country of Pennsylvania/Maryland had become a dangerous place for most black people. In The Parker Sisters, Lucy Maddox gives an eloquent, urgent account of the tragic kidnapping of these young women. Using archival news and courtroom reports, Maddox tells the larger story of the disastrous effect of the Fugitive Slave Act on the small farming communities of Chester County and the significant, widening consequences for the state and the nation.

Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public Memory, by Roger C. Aden

The 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.

 

Time to Remember French AIDS Activism

This week in North Philly Notes, Christophe Broqua, author of Action = Vie, writes about Act Up-Paris.

Since the end of 2018, large-scale mobilizations in France by activist groups have challenged the authorities and demanded more social justice. The “Yellow Vest” movement holds demonstrations every Saturday in Paris. Among the streets that they have regularly occupied—sometimes without providing advance notice to the Prefecture (as prescribed by French law)—is the famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées, which stretches from Place de la Concorde to Place de l’Étoile, where the Arc de Triomphe is located, an area largely inaccessible for street demonstrations.

Action=Vie_SMTwenty-five years earlier, on December 1, 1993, the AIDS organization Act Up-Paris braved the difficulty of demonstrating in this same area by placing a giant condom on the Obélisque de la Concorde. They also blocked the top of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées on December 1, 1994, an action illustrated by the photo on the cover of Action = Vie: A History of AIDS Activism and Gay Politics in France. At the time, Act Up-Paris was considered one of the major social movements in France. The organization met with considerable success in terms of mobilization as well as media coverage and political impact—contrary to the predictions of failure that it had initially inspired.

Indeed, when Act Up-Paris was formed in 1989, the vast majority of local commentators thought the organization, based on the American model, could not succeed. They reproached it for being a lame copy, unsuited to the French context. That it was linked to the gay and lesbian community undoubtedly added to mistrust and discrediting of the organization. The success of Act-Up-Paris, however, continues the long French protest tradition—it reached its peak in the mid 1990s. The criticism was indicative of the tense relationship between the French and the United States, rather than of the relevance (or not) of political activism in the face of the epidemic in France. Indeed, France is dominated by an ideology that claims to reject “communitarianism” in favor of “republican universalism,” but which, in reality, fears political organization of oppressed or stigmatized minorities more than anything.

Nevertheless, the success of Act Up-Paris had some limitations, particularly when new treatments led to a drop in HIV/AIDS-related mortality, at least in the Global North. Little by little, without ever disappearing, the organization got smaller, while the other dominant AIDS organization in France, AIDES—inspired by the Gay MHC (New York) and the Terrence Higgins Trust (London)—succeeded due to their commitment to helping individuals. In contrast, Act Up defined its actions as strictly political. In the 1990s, Act Up-Paris had become a major player in the AIDS fight and gay rights movements, but lost its media visibility in the following decade and was virtually unknown to new generations.

MV5BZWM2NTcxM2QtOTYxMC00OTllLWJhN2MtODBjNjA2Y2FjYmU1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzQzNzQxNzI@._V1_UY268_CR3,0,182,268_AL_This progressive erasure and oblivion slowed in 2017 with the release of the film, BPM (Beats Per Minute). Directed and co-written by Robin Campillo a former member of Act Up-Paris, the film retraced the first years of the organization in a fictional but very realistic way. It also included a tragic love story between two activists, Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Debuting at the Cannes Film Festival, the film won the prestigious Jury Grand Prize. From the outset, critics were ecstatic in their support of the film and the emotions it stirred. When it was released in cinemas, it was a huge success; in just a few months more than 800,000 tickets were sold. This tremendous response to a past that was largely forgotten, especially among the new generation, was impressive. For younger viewers, it was the discovery of a heroic past that many people did not know about; for older viewers, the film stirred memories of difficult times or the feeling of having missed out on history.

Overall, the film enabled society to indulge in a kind of collective redemption in the face of what it had not wanted to see—i.e., an epidemic affecting stigmatized minorities who used forms of political action to survive. Far from being an isolated phenomenon, the movie success was part of a larger remembrance process affecting both the history of the fight against AIDS as well as the mobilization of sexual and gender minorities in various European and North American countries.

Alas, this rediscovery of Act Up-Paris was focused mainly in France, as the film BPM did not enjoy the same commercial success in the United States, though it fared well critically.

French history is strongly connected to American history: the founder and several important activists of Act Up-Paris went through Act Up New York, which also represented an important model for the French group. Later, Act Up-Paris became the largest Act Up group in the world.

Now that time has passed, will its history finally be discovered beyond the French borders?

A Feminist Post-Liberal Future

This week in North Philly Notes, Judith Baer, author of Feminist Post-Liberalism,  writes about how feminists and liberals can correct each other’s characteristic errors.

Basketball great Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2020. Early media coverage consisted mostly of eulogies. They stressed his five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, his two Olympic gold medals, and his commitment to equality in race relations and women’s sports. These stories, like the one in my local paper, ignored the worst incident on his record: an accusation of rape in 2003. (Criminal charges were dropped; a civil suit was settled out of court.)

Once this information emerged in postmortem coverage, all hell broke loose on social media. Fans accused critical commentators of bad taste and cruelty to the families of the crash victims. Bryant’s defenders also pointed out that he had made restitution and apologized, urging critics to put the episode behind them. Some, assuming without evidence that all women who criticized Bryant were white, accused them of ignoring the fact that black men are more likely than white men to be punished for rape and the long history of white women’s false accusations of black men. These commentators urged the critics to confront their own racism.

What does all this have to do with feminist post-liberalism? In my book, I suggest how these two belief systems can correct each other’s characteristic errors and how feminist ideas can break the connection between liberalism and male supremacy. The issues I explore include mass incarceration and cultural appropriation, both of which are relevant to the Kobe Bryant discussion.

Feminist Post-LiberalismA 40-year “war on crime” that began when Richard Nixon became president gave the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. (We used to be third, after the USSR and the Union of South Africa.) This mass incarceration, which many liberals supported,  disproportionately harms African Americans. So many lose the right to vote that a “new Jim Crow” negates the effects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Twenty-first century liberals want to end mass incarceration. But they fail to ask how fewer and shorter sentences might affect victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Most rapists, whatever their race, get away with it. Feminism gets lost in the dialogue.

Cultural appropriation occurs when writers or artists use material from a culture not their own, especially without understanding or respect. Those who advised Kobe Bryant’s critics to face their own racism echoed the accusations an argument that goes back at least to 1932, when the poet Langston Hughes criticized the children’s book Little Black Sambo. Feminist critics of male authors have done likewise. Critics of Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt have accused the African American author of appropriating the experience of undocumented Mexican immigrants—accused her so angrily that the publisher canceled Cummins’s promotion tour in fear for her safety.

Commentators who have jumped on the cultural appropriation bandwagon have abandoned a central tenet of liberalism: its commitment to reason. Passion does not turn an opinion into a fact or a difference of degree into a difference of kind. To lose these distinctions frustrates rational discourse.

Feminism and liberalism are distinct but tangled philosophies. Modern Western feminism developed logically and historically from liberalism. A belief system that replaced faith with reason, divine right with representative government, and hierarchy with equality invited critical scrutiny of male supremacy. Defenses of women’s rights appeared in Great Britain, France, and North America during and after the democratic revolutions in these countries. So did anti-feminist tracts. Jean-Jacques Rousseau found gender equality incompatible with motherhood. Some anti-revolutionary Frenchwomen opposed equality on religious grounds. French radicals rejected feminism because they considered a decent standard of living more important than legal rights. All these arguments existed by 1800 and still thrive today. Conservative critiques of feminism continue to emphasize religion and the family. Radical critiques insist that class and/or race is the primary, and gender a secondary, determinant of inequality.

Feminism and liberalism are compatible belief systems, but not all feminists are liberals and not all liberals are feminists. Both belief systems are complex and diverse. Feminists do not all think alike. Neither do all liberals. Differences of opinion and emphasis exist within both groups, as they do among conservatives and radicals. I devoted much time and space to distinguishing among various types of feminism and liberalism.

My first draft envisioned a feminist post-liberalism free of male supremacy and misogyny. I argued that the two sets of theories could correct characteristic errors, like some liberals’ emphasis on human rights at the expense of human needs and some feminists’ acceptance of gender roles. I also discussed characteristic errors that feminist and liberals shared, like a predisposition to guilt. My optimistic tone jarred with reality in the form of the 2016 election, which decisively rebuffed both feminism and liberalism.

A progressive feminist woman lost the presidency to a billionaire outsider. A coalition of conservatives, capitalists, and fundamentalist Christians was born. Enough people in enough states preferred a misogynist to a woman and a political novice to a seasoned legislator and diplomat. Enough people in enough states sat out the election to give Donald Trump the victory. Enough voters wanted change, and did not see a woman insider as an agent of change. Instead, we got reactionary change. Conservative ideas dominate the executive and judicial branches of the federal government. Feminists and liberals have a great deal of work to do.

Discovering How Student Activism Matters

This week in North Philly Notes, Matthew Williams, author of Strategizing against Sweatshopswrites about what he learned by studying college students engaged in strategically innovative activism to help sweatshop workers across the world.

When I began working on the research for my new book, Strategizing against Sweatshops, if you had asked me, I’m sure that I would have said student activism is important. But I suspect I would have been somewhat vague about the specifics of why and how it is important. In interviewing members of United Students Against Sweatshops, a college student group that is one of three oStrategizing against Sweatshops_smrganizations that I focus on, I gained a much better understanding of how and why student activism matters. Student activists’ position on college campuses puts them in a place where they are more opportunities for success as a social movement than many other movements have. And this gives student activists a chance to break new ground in changing social norms and structures in the wider society, using college campuses as beachheads of progressive change.

If you’ve ever engaged in social justice activism, you know that it is often thankless work. It’s not simply that people outside the social justice community often look at the value of what you do with some degree of skepticism, but that you must be in it for the long haul to see the results of your actions—and those results are often unclear. When political and business leaders make reforms that movements have sought, they rarely give credit to movements for influencing them. The chain of cause and effect is not always clear. Certainly, it’s rare that any particular action your group takes, no matter how dramatic, can be clearly connected with causing some particular policy change.

Student activists face some of these same frustrations. But things do change somewhat when working on the scale of a college campus. The somewhat enclosed, clearly defined boundaries and small scale of a college campus create opportunities that don’t exist elsewhere. Compared to officials in positions of government and large businesses, college administrators are relatively accessible to students. Student activists can reasonably expect to get meetings with top-level campus officials. Even if a college president has an antagonistic view of what student activists are doing, the norms of college life are such that they are expected to tolerate such activism and give the students doing it some hearing. This is particularly striking given that colleges are much less democratic than government bodies. Even for faculty, principles of shared governance have significantly eroded and college administrations have increasingly limited accountability to faculty. There are generally no democratic mechanisms on college campuses for students to keep administrators in check. And yet the small scale and norms of the college campus make it possible for student activists to directly engage with high level administrators.

Student activists have other advantages as well. Doing the sort of movement-building necessary to successfully pressure administrators to change policy (and not simply meet with students) is relatively easy within the contained arena of a college campus. Though economic pressures mean this is less true than it once was, students still have a larger amount of biographical availability—free time to engage in activism—than older people who must hold down full time jobs and may have family obligations. The existence of student newspapers and the ease of organizing an educational event such as hosting a speaker or panel makes getting out the word about one’s cause relatively easy. The density of social networks on campus—in dorms, in student groups, among informal friendship circles, etc.—makes it relatively easy to recruit people.

Finally, the small scale of the college campus makes it relatively easy to exercise leverage over those in power and see concrete results from one’s action. A number of USAS members I interviewed told me stories of sit-ins, hunger strikes, or simply a series of escalating protest actions resulting in administrators making major concessions to them.

None of this is to say that successful student activism is easy—it still requires a lot of dedication and hard work. It is simply an easier arena in which to engage in social activism that many other contexts social justice activists find themselves in.

USAS was able to use these circumstances to help sweatshop workers on the other side of the world unionize and otherwise improve their conditions. They were able to do this because so many colleges and universities have licensing agreements with major apparel firms like Nike and Champion, where the companies are allowed to produce clothing with the school’s name and logo on it and the school gets a cut of the resulting profits. Apparel companies value these deals because it gives them access to a captive audience for marketing and they believe they can use this to build lifetime brand loyalty. This gave student activists potential leverage over these companies. USAS pushed administrators to put in place pro-labor rights code of conduct for their licensees and to require the companies to allow inspections by the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring organization, to verify compliance—and they have pushed colleges to threaten to suspend or cancel their licensing agreements when licensees are found to be violating the codes of conduct.. This has forced companies like Nike and Champion to address problems when they are caught red-handed using sweatshop labor.

USAS is not unique in being able to use the small scale of the college campus to exert wider influence. Our society’s slowly changing attitudes towards sexual harassment, assault and what qualifies as consent have been significantly influenced by activism on college campuses, whose small scale allowed student activists to more easily challenge sexist norms there. And those changes in norms have slowly radiated outward from college campuses. During the 1980s, students were at the forefront of the movement to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa by pushing college administrators to divest from companies doing business in South Africa. A parallel movement is now pushing colleges to divest from the fossil fuel industry, an industry that must be dismantled to protect our planet’s fragile ecosystem and climate.

Student activism matters both because it is easier to engage in successful activism on college campuses and because victories on college campuses can have important effects on the wider world.

Tipping toward possibility: an alternative framing of identity

This week in North Philly Notes, Milo Obourn, author of Disabled Futures, writes about the thorny issues of identity politics. 

A recent episode of NPR’s 1A featured a story about the great divide in political thinking that blamed, you’ll never guess, identity politics.

Bob Garfield, co-host of WNYC’s On the Media was arguing that the U.S. has an “identity obsessed culture” which “erodes the ideal of e pluribus unum” and inevitably leads to authoritarianism. Identity politics in this reading is factionalism that keeps us from working together, not the result of long histories of resistance to very targeted and explicit violences and discriminations. I could not help but think of the images that circulated after the 2017 Women’s March of a person I read as an older woman looking bored and holding a protest sign that reads, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” The image is now a poster, pin, and T-shirt you can buy on Amazon. Even the wry commentary on the never-ending cycle of the same political and social arguments is commodified into the never-ending cycle of capitalist incorporation of political and social arguments. How to get out?

Disabled Futures_022719_smThis question of “how to get out” underlies many of the theoretical moves I make in Disabled Futures: A Framework for Radical Inclusion. In this book, I explore the concept of “racialized disgender” as a way of framing identity that is not about a series of contemporary differences but rather a complex and nuanced framework of power in which ideologies of ability inform and construct our understanding of gender. A framework of power in which racism and constructions of dis/ability and its use to do violence to bodies are inextricable. A framework of power in which no one living in contemporary U.S. society is unaffected or unharmed by the ways race, gender, and dis/ability are assigned to our material selves. And finally, a framework in which no one couldn’t use their own experience to start to unpack how all oppression is, to quote Staceyann Chin, connected.

My first book Reconstituting Americans: Liberal Multiculturalism and Identity Difference in Post-1960s Literature was a way for me to deconstruct the fear of an “identity politics” that looms in popular culture as a force of divisiveness that causes those with historically marginalized identities to cling to our pain and/or is criticized for being empty politically correct nonsense—the kind of identity politics that turned “diversity and inclusion” into buzzwords translating into serving tacos in school cafeterias to represent Mexican culture. I wanted in this first book to think about how narrative and literary representation can help readers understand the ways American liberalism has eroded or put up barriers to our understanding of the politics surrounding identity oppression as offering us actual avenues for justice, knowledge, and ways to thrive in this world. It was a “how we got distracted” after all this work kind of book. Our world is full of these distractions—instead of wondering why things are so deeply inequitable we focus on Black people and Jewish people not getting along; instead of wondering how to make people feel more valued, safe, and included we argue about whether we should call it a “safe space” or a “brave space;” instead of asking why we have so many homeless trans youth and trans women of color being murdered every year; we focus on whether it’s okay to allow people in bathrooms and the struggles cis parents have understanding trans kids.

When I started writing Disabled Futures, I was ready to move beyond why we get stuck and look at models for how to frame our work toward greater justice in relation to inextricable intersections not just between marginalized identities but between systems of power that impact us all. What made me ready? Two things. First, I lost a child in infancy, I got very depressed, and the only thing that I could manage to do productively was work related to implementing active change based on knowledge from my academic research. Need a workshop on white privilege and how white people can process and own that? I was on it. Build a team to offer trainings on why respecting names and pronouns is important? I’m your trans person. The loss of this baby, Woolf, made any more critique without implementation feel like yet another distraction. I wanted a more potentially realizable (if still complex and very challenging) framework for understanding questions of identity and justice. The second and related thing was that I stepped in as Brockport’s Interim Chief Diversity Officer and found myself excited to be in a different relation to the immediate systems around me, to have my focus be big picture systems and the communities that inhabit them, as well as building connections with students outside of the classroom where I could mentor them in self advocacy that was not draining and distracting, but helpful to their ability to flourish in their academic life as well.

As an academic, I have been trained in critique. I have not been formally trained to present solutions. Disabled Futures is not a solution per se. But I felt at the point I was writing it that I needed the perspective of solution to survive and to thrive and that is the perspective I carried into my writing. I am committed in Disabled Futures to the idea that analyzing complex representations of race, gender, and dis/ability closely offers shifts in perspective that can keep us out of the cycle of distraction and argumentation, without devaluing the political and social knowledge that comes from living with and advocating from our social identity positions.

Years ago, when I discovered disability theory it gave me the seeds of some of the connections I make in this book. It let me talk about woundedness and impairment without shame or feeling like I had to isolate the harm of violence from the power of processing and living through it. To me this was applicable not only to disability as we understand it in our current moment but to the ways disability and ability form and inform all of our identities. It was a way to talk about whiteness and identity without fear that it would become white supremacy (the only choice according to the 1A interview with Garfield); a way of thinking about how dominant social identities work in complex collaboration with marginalization, not as its opposition, and not in ways that leave any of us unscathed by history. It was a way of connecting to myself and to years of academic study that I hadn’t known before and it became the platform for a theory of possibility. I hope that readers will leave this book tipping slightly more in the direction of possibility.

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