Listen Up! Temple University Press Podcast, Episode 6: Billy Brown on Exploring Philly Nature

This week in North Philly Notes, we debut the latest episode of the Temple University Press Podcast. Host Sam Cohn interviews author Bernard “Billy” Brown about his book, Exploring Philly Nature: A Guide for All Four Seasons, which provides a handy guide for all ages to Philly’s urban plants, animals, fungi, and—yes—even slime molds.

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About this episode

Bernard “Billy” Brown is a nature writer and urban herper—that’s someone who recreationally seeks out reptiles and amphibians. In this episode, he talks with podcaster Sam Cohn about his new book, Exploring Philly Nature, a guide to experiencing the flora and fauna in Philly.

This compact illustrated volume contains 52 activities from birding, (squirrel) fishing, and basement bug-hunting to joining a frog call survey and visiting a mussel hatchery. Brown encourages kids (as well as their parents) to connect with the natural world close to home. Each entry contains information on where and when to participate, what you will need (even if it is only patience), and tips on clubs and organizations to contact for access.

The city and its environs contain a multitude of species from the lichen that grows on gravestones or trees to nocturnal animals like opossums, bats, and raccoons. Exploring Philly Nature is designed to get readers eager to discover, observe, and learn more about the concrete jungle that is Philadelphia.

Celebrating 14 notable Black Philadelphians of the Twentieth Century

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase BLAM! Black Lives Always Mattered, a graphic novel project coordinated by the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University and distributed by Temple University Press.

BLAM! Black Lives Always Mattered! Hidden African American Philadelphians of the Twentieth Century is a graphic novel that combines vivid illustrations and compelling text to create a groundbreaking, exciting, and accessible book. BLAM! highlights the lives of fourteen prominent African Americans.  They are: Julian Abele, Dr. Ethel Allen, Marian Anderson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Crystal Bird Fauset, Ruth Wright Hayre, Alain Locke, Walter Lomax, Frederick Massiah, Cecil B. Moore, John W. Mosley, Christopher Perry, Reverend Leon Sullivan, and Father Paul Washington.

With a Foreword by Lonnie G, Bunch, III, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, BLAM! contains an Introduction by the Curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Dr. Diane Turner, and the Collection’s Librarian, Aslaku Berhanu, as well as statements by the writer, Dr. Sheena C. Howard, Associate Professor of Rider University, and by Art Director, Eric Battle, a renowned artist and illustrator.  Published by the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, BLAM! was created through the efforts and input of many people. It is a striking and powerful graphic novel which has the potential to have great educational impact on students, teachers, administrators, and on all those who read it.

BLAM! can be used as an important teaching tool in and of itself, yet also can be utilized in combination with other educational methods by educators in their classrooms. At the end of the graphic novel, there are pages of Assignments and Activities for Students, as well as Ideas for Research Projects that individual students or a whole classroom of students can pursue. Moreover, many teachers will want to develop their own lesson plans and assignments around each chapter of this graphic novel. BLAM! will engage and excite students, setting them on a path to a deeper understanding of African American history. BLAM! also encourages its readers to use critical thinking and analytical skills. All levels of students, as well as the general public, can benefit from BLAM! For those students with limited reading abilities, the book will help them develop and strengthen literacy skills. All readers of BLAM! will be able to expand their ability to discover and continue to learn about African American history in terms of the lives and experiences of the individuals profiled in its pages. BLAM! also has the potential to inspire readers to learn about other individuals and ethnic groups who have been hidden from history. BLAM! will also pique the interest of readers to learn more about the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection and its vast holdings on African American history and culture. They will find added value in visiting the collection and accessing the materials.

In this time of systemic racism, discord, disharmony, and racial misunderstanding, there are now efforts underway and laws enacted in some states to suppress the teaching of the difficult racial history of the United States. BLAM! is able to serve as a beacon of enlightenment, casting a light on the struggles and triumphs of the fourteen, prominent African Americans of the last century that are profiled in the book.  In its beautifully illustrated pages one learns about how these individuals contributed greatly to their communities, to their nation, and in some cases to the world. These individuals, whose legacies continue now and into the future, serve as sterling examples for all readers of BLAM! Their stories will inspire generations to come.

Temple University Press’ Fall 2022 Catalog

This week in North Philly Notes, we announce our forthcoming Fall 2022 titles.

Are All Politics Nationalized?: Evidence from the 2020 Campaigns in Pennsylvania, Edited by Stephen K. Medvic, Matthew M. Schousen, and Berwood A. Yost

Do local concerns still play a significant role in campaigns up and down the ballot?

Beauty and Brutality: Manila and Its Global Discontents, Edited by Martin F. Manalansan IV, Robert Diaz, and Roland B. Tolentino
Diverse perspectives on Manila that suggest the city’s exhilarating sights and sounds broaden how Philippine histories are defined and understood

BLAM! Black Lives Always Mattered!: Hidden African American Philadelphia of the Twentieth Century, by the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection

The historic accomplishments of 14 notable Black Philadelphians from the twentieth-century—in graphic novel form

Blue-State Republican: How Larry Hogan Won Where Republicans Lose and Lessons for a Future GOP, by Mileah K. Kromer

What the story of Maryland’s two-term Republican governor can teach us about winning elections

Bringing the Civic Back In: Zane L. Miller and American Urban History, Edited by Larry Bennett, John D. Fairfield, and Patricia Mooney-Melvin

A critical appraisal of the career of Zane L. Miller, one of the founders of the new urban history

Cultures Colliding: American Missionaries, Chinese Resistance, and the Rise of Modern Institutions in China, John R. Haddad

Why American missionaries started building schools, colleges, medical schools, hospitals, and YMCA chapters in China before 1900

Divide & Conquer: Race, Gangs, Identity, and Conflict, by Robert D. Weide

Argues that contemporary identity politics divides gang members and their communities across racial lines

Engaging Place, Engaging Practices: Urban History and Campus-Community Partnerships, Edited by Robin F. Bachin and Amy L. Howard

How public history can be a catalyst for stronger relationships between universities and their communities

An Epidemic among My People: Religion, Politics, and COVID-19 in the United States, Edited by Paul A. Djupe and Amanda Friesen

Did religion make the pandemic worse or help keep it contained?

Gendered Places: The Landscape of Local Gender Norms across the United States, by William J. Scarborough

Reveals how distinct cultural environments shape the patterns of gender inequality

A Good Place to Do Business: The Politics of Downtown Renewal since 1945, by Roger Biles and Mark H. Rose

How six industrial cities in the American Rust Belt reacted to deindustrialization in the years after World War II

Justice Outsourced: The Therapeutic Jurisprudence Implications of Judicial Decision-Making by Nonjudicial Officers, Edited by Michael L. Perlin and Kelly Frailing

Examines the hidden use of nonjudicial officers in the criminal justice system

Memory Passages: Holocaust Memorials in the United States and Germany, by Natasha Goldman

Now in Paperback—Considers Holocaust memorials in the United States and Germany, postwar to the present

The Mouse Who Played Football, Written by Brian Westbrook Sr. and Lesley Van Arsdall; Illustrated by Mr. Tom

Who would ever think that a mouse could play football?

Never Ask “Why”: Football Players’ Fight for Freedom in the NFL, By Ed Garvey; Edited by Chuck Cascio

An inside look at the struggles Ed Garvey faced in bringing true professionalism to football players

The Real Philadelphia Book 2nd Edition, by Jazz Bridge

An anthology of compositions by popular Philadelphia jazz and blues artists accessible for every musician

Reforming Philadelphia, 1682⁠–⁠2022, by Richardson Dilworth

A short but comprehensive political history of the city, from its founding in 1682 to the present day

Refugee Lifeworlds: The Afterlife of the Cold War in Cambodia, by Y-Dang Troeung

Explores key works that have emerged out of the Cambodian refugee archive

A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service, by Leth Oun with Joe Samuel Starnes

The remarkable story of Leth Oun, from overcoming tragedy and forced labor in Cambodia to realizing dreams he never could have imagined in America

Richard III’s Bodies from Medieval England to Modernity: Shakespeare and Disability History, by Jeffrey R. Wilson

How is Richard III always both so historical and so current?

The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Law: Civil Liberties Debates from the Internment to McCarthyism and the Radical 1960s, by Masumi Izumi

Now in Paperback—Dissecting the complex relationship among race, national security, and civil liberties in “the age of American concentration camps”

The Spires Still Point to Heaven: Cincinnati’s Religious Landscape, 1788–1873, by Matthew Smith 

How nineteenth-century Cincinnati tested the boundaries of nativism, toleration, and freedom

Teaching Fear: How We Learn to Fear Crime and Why It Matters, Nicole E. Rader

How rules about safety and the fear of crime are learned and crystalized into crime myths— especially for women

Toward a Framework for Vietnamese American Studies: History, Community, and Memory, Edited by Linda Ho Peché, Alex-Thai Dinh Vo, and Tuong Vu

A multi-disciplinary examination of Vietnamese American history and experience

Understanding Crime and Place: A Methods Handbook, Edited by Elizabeth R. Groff and Cory P. Haberman

A hands-on introduction to the fundamental techniques and methods used for understanding geography of crime

The Pitfalls of an All-Charter School District

This week in North Philly Notes, J. Celeste Lay, author of Public Schools, Private Governance, writes about how school choice in New Orleans hurt more than it helped.

The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on our lives in so many ways, but for children, one of its most important and potentially lasting effects has been in public education. The pandemic has been a boon for school choice advocates, who see in this disaster a means to push legislation that eases restrictions on charter schools, voucher programs, homeschooling, and more.

The parents and teachers of public school students in New Orleans know all too well how advocates can take advantage of a disaster to achieve long-term political goals. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Louisiana’s state legislature voted to strip the city’s school board of its authority over nearly all its public schools. In Public Schools, Private Governance, I examine the path that has led the city to become the nation’s first all-charter district, and its consequences on democratic values like representation, accountability, and participation.

Although many scholars and advocates place Katrina as the starting point for education reform in New Orleans, I contend that the hurricane merely sped along and expanded the scope of the already existing reform movement in the city. The book spotlights the decade prior to Katrina to reveal and examine the incremental policy changes that made it possible for the state to seize control of the city’s schools. In this period, state legislators—including many of New Orleans’s representatives—passed a school grading system, mandated annual standardized tests, eased the pathways to alternative teacher certification, created multiple types of charter schools, approved a state “recovery” district that could take over “failing schools,” and ultimately, in the year before Katrina, stripped the elected board in New Orleans (and only New Orleans) of most of its authority. By the time the city was draining the floodwaters in Fall 2005, all the state had to do was change the definition of a failing school for it to seize all but a handful of the city’s schools.

This movement largely excluded those who worked in the schools, as well as the parents of school children. This exclusion continued in the wake of Katrina and I show that it continues to the present day. In the all-charter system, parents theoretically have choices about where their children enroll in school. They must rank preferences in a Common Application and there are no neighborhood schools to which kids are assigned. They can go anywhere—in theory. However, in reality, as shown in my book many parents are confused by the system and do not believe it is fair. In particular, they see that the racial disparities that have long been a hallmark of New Orleans public schools continue in this new, supposedly better system. The few white children who attend public schools are enrolled in selective admission schools that require admission tests and other barriers to entry. Meanwhile, the Black children who make up most of the public school district  continue to attend low-performing schools that are predominantly Black institutions.

Although a generation of children have now gone through the new system, the district’s scores have remained well below the state average and only a small minority of schools are rated as “A” or “B” on the state’s A-F scale. Though overall test scores have improved slightly, Black parents do not believe their children are getting a great education and they believe they have little recourse to do anything about it. The elected school board is essentially a mere charter authorizer, and while it has opened and closed dozens of schools over the last 17 years, parents long for high-quality, neighborhood schools staffed by experienced teachers who understand and appreciate New Orleans culture and history. This elected board has almost no authority over school operations. Rather, privately selected charter boards govern school finances, select school leaders, and establish policies. My research shows that these boards are not representative of the city; they cannot be held accountable by voters, they display disdain for parents, and they do not comply with state laws about public bodies. They routinely withhold information they are required to disclose and yet the elected board never sanctions schools or networks for these violations.

For states that are considering an expansion of school choice due to the Covid-19 pandemic, my book offers a warning about the effects of considering schools as consumer goods. There is little improvement in overall school quality, but there is devastation to the local democratic character of public education.

Making a case for the “power” of theory

This week in North Philly Notes, Grant Farred, editor of Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures, writes about the precarity of Black life.

The precarity of Black life. In the U.S. we are reminded of this every day. At least that is how it seems. Police shootings are the worst of it, but not the whole truth of it by any means. In the Black diaspora at large, a similar situation obtains. Unseaworthy vessels sink and African migrants drown as they go in search of a better life in Europe. If they survive, new modes of hostility await them. The stranger is not welcome.

To think a theoretical future for Africana Studies under these conditions seems, if not pyrrhic, then Wordsworthian in tenor. It would be dissembling to suggest that Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures was not conceived against precisely this backdrop, one which recalls the Romantic poet’s lament. Wordsworth writes:

The world is too much with us; late and soon

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers

Against just such a world, where everything mitigates against Black life, Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures makes a case for the “power” of theory. That is because in this collection, theory is not understood as an abstraction or as a rarefied mode of thought. Instead, theory is mobilized in this collection as the work of imagining—of thinking for—a future for Global Black life where precarity is not the order of the day. Africana theory is providing, if not a blueprint, then a first sounding board for how combat the violence that so threatens Black life; a platform for not only resisting the onslaught against Black life, but for ensuring a future that can sustain and nurture Black life. Where Black life might even thrive.

The work of theory is thus to harness the “power” of Black thought in all its manifestations. This collection includes poetic reflection, philosophical contemplation, geo-political analysis and quasi-memoiristic recollection. The work that this collection assigns itself is to think for the futures of Black life. Futures rather than the singular future. That is, in order to create the conditions under which Black life might be sustainably lived there can be no one, single future that will speak to and address all Black needs. It is therefore necessary to think for the plurality of futures. To propose the logic of plurality rather than singularity is, a priori, to anticipate a series of new challenges in those futures. That is, the work of making a future(s) in which Black life can be sustained is, by its very nature, an incomplete project. Every new imagining of Black life, to say nothing of every new making of that life, will generate its own set of possibilities and difficulties.

It will thus always be necessary to develop new theoretical tools, to hone new philosophical skills, to produce new poetic insights, to imagine new geo-political formations and configurations, in order to sustain Black life. In this way Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures recognizes its historical location. It speaks out of, and for, a particular historical conjuncture. It understands its speaking as emerging out of the institutional facticity that is the 50th anniversary of Africana Studies in the American academy.

Rather than being declarative, then, the book offers itself as an invitation. The invitation to think for new theoretical futures, to produce new modes for Black being, to create new poetic articulations. The future of Africana Studies as a discipline is charged with always addressing the challenges that confront Black life, which history has shown to always be a condition overwritten by precarity—a way of being in the world that has always been “too much with us.”

Because Black life in the present is lived as an existential threat, the effect of such precarity is to lend urgency to thinking for theoretical futures. If nothing else, however, Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures reveals the many modes, the multiple registers, the variegated disciplines, in which this thinking might take place. And in this multiplicity, this collection makes evident, there is the imaginings of how Black lives might be lived.


Celebrating Pride Month

As Pride Month comes to a close North Philly Notes showcases three recent books by LGBTQ authors. You can check out all of our Sexuality Studies series titles here and all of our Sexuality Studies/Sexual Identity titles here.

Charles Upchurch, author of “Beyond the Law,”: The Politics of Ending the Death Penalty for Sodomy in Britain

PRIDE is about continuing, celebrating, and securing the work of past generations that has led to greater LGBTQ equality and inclusion within society. That work is sometimes advanced by those with access to political, economic, and cultural power, but this is of secondary importance to the work done by everyone who lives an authentic life, influencing those around them by their example. I have the privilege of being an academic historian, and my new book, “Beyond the Law,”: The Politics of Ending the Death Penalty for Sodomy in Britain, documents the first ever political effort to reform the laws that punished sex between men, which occurred in the early nineteenth century in Britain. At its core, it is a story about those who refused to go along with the vilification of individuals for engaging in private consensual acts. It’s a hopeful story, and while theoretically informed, it is also one that is written in accessible language to reach more people with an account of their rich past, perhaps inspiring them as they make a better future for us all. Happy PRIDE.

Martin Manalansan, coeditor of Q & A: Voices from Queer Asian North America

Q & A: Voices from Queer Asian North America is a forum of vibrant queer voices from Asian North America. At a moment of xenophobic anti-Asian violence and major anti-LGBTQ legislations, the essays, poems, and other creative works in this collection are offering experiences of struggle, exuberance, and survival. Q & A is a testament to the resilience of this  group of scholars, writers, poets and cultural workers whose works are forging hope and viable futures beyond the precarious present.  

Susan Krieger, author of Are You Two Sisters?: The Journey of a Lesbian Couple

During this Pride month, a great array of alternative identities and lifestyles are honored. The “L” word comes first in the list of LGBTQ+, but it is often an invisible identity, as the title of my book Are You Two Sisters? suggests. Particularly for that reason, I think, this new ethnography makes an important contribution.

Since the publication of Are You Two Sisters?: The Journey of a Lesbian Couple, I have been overwhelmed by the appreciation I have felt from readers and potential readers of the book. Studies of lesbian life are rare. As women, much of how we live and feel is invisible to others, and even invisible to ourselves. Aware of that invisibility, lesbian and queer women readers have been especially grateful for this account. I value their praise for the authenticity of the story and for the narrative as a contribution to “our lesbian herstory.”

I am also pleased to have reached a broader audience of Psychology Today online readers. My articles there draw from chapters in the book concerning lesbian invisibility in the larger world and dilemmas of identity within a lesbian couple. I am proud that the insights presented in Are You Two Sisters? may be of value for readers from a range of life experiences.

Honoring Juneteenth

This week in North Philly Notes, we honor Juneteenth with a look at Beverly Tomek’s Slavery and Abolition in Pennsylvania, and other African American titles.

Slavery and Abolition in Pennsylvania by Beverly C. Tomek, tells the complex story of the role of slavery in the founding and growth of the Commonwealth. 

Tomek corrects the long-held notion that slavery in the North was “not so bad” as, or somehow “more humane” than, in the South due to the presence of abolitionists. The book begins with the story of slavery in colonial Pennsylvania and then traces efforts to end human bondage in the state. It then explores the efforts of Pennsylvania reformers to reconstruct the state in a way that would make room for the newly freed persons. Finally, it traces Pennsylvania’s role in the national antislavery movement, debunking the myth that Pennsylvania faded into the background in the 1830s as Massachusetts abolitionists took center stage. The story Tomek offers is one of a state that was built upon enslaved labor but had a large enough reform community to challenge that system within the state’s borders by passing the nation’s first abolition law and then to try to spread antislavery throughout the country.  

Slavery and Abolition in Pennsylvania traces this movement from its beginning to the years immediately following the American Civil War. Discussions of the complexities of the state’s antislavery movement illustrate how different groups of Pennsylvanians followed different paths in an effort to achieve their goal. Tomek also examines the backlash abolitionists and Black Americans faced. In addition, she considers the civil rights movement from the period of state reconstruction through the national reconstruction that occurred after the Civil War, and she concludes by analyzing what Pennsylvania’s history of race relations means for the state today. 

While the past few decades have shed light on enslavement and slavery in the South, much of the story of northern slavery remains hidden. Slavery and Abolition in Pennsylvania tells the full and inclusive story of this history, bringing the realities of slavery, abolition, and Pennsylvania’s attempt to reconstruct its post-emancipation society. 

Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery, by Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer, illustrates what freedom looked like for black Americans in the Civil War era
Winner of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work—Non-Fiction, 2014
One of the Top 25 Outstanding Academic Titles, Choice, 2013

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.

Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public Memory, by Roger C. Aden, provides a behind-the-scenes look at the development of the memorial to slavery in Independence Mall.

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.


Following Artists into Orphaned Space

This week in North Philly Notes, Mrill Ingram, author of Loving Orphaned Spacewrites about providing a new vision for the ignored and abused spaces around us.

Recently I had the opportunity to launch my new book, Loving Orphaned Space, the art and science of belonging to Earth, at a Madison, Wisconsin based community arts organization called Art + Literature Laboratory. I was really pleased to be able to celebrate the book at a center dedicated to expanding community participation and access to the arts. The book is rooted in research I pursued on art-science collaboration, which revealed to me a new perspective on how we sideline the arts as an optional, even leisure pursuit. I’ve learned how the arts can assist all of us in navigating the everyday and imagining and enacting a better future. It’s also provided a powerful new perspective for my writing on the environment. Because so many of us don’t experience the power art can play, we often don’t recognize what we are missing. Sharing that insight was one of the reasons I wrote my book.

Following artists around is likely to pull a person out of their comfort zone. It certainly has done so for me. For example, in my writing, I am compelled to center emotional impulses and images I might have previously sidelined. The roots of this book lie in what began as a very personal preoccupation with the scattered bits of open space so many of us are surrounded by, much of it dedicated to infrastructure and often abused. Why did I care about these spaces? Why did I want to know more about each one of them? By following artists (literally) as they venture into such spaces, occupying them in a variety of ways, my personal, individual feelings expanded into something more social, that involved feelings of belonging and connectedness, respect, and responsibility, as well as delight and surprise. Wow! All that in a street terrace!

In the book I describe the energy and the politics of keeping infrastructure spaces such as drainages, stormwater basins, abandoned gas stations, right of ways, so policed and “empty.” It is an active process, an “orphaning” that quite literally, disappears space by keeping ecological and social relationships simple. This takes physical effort – I’m talking about fencing, channelizing, lighting, herbiciding, and cementing. Brownfields are orphaned by the toxicity of pollutants they are storing. I want us to think about what this purposeful disciplining of space costs us. I’m also talking about a psychic erasure. We literally do not recognize this space as Earth. Our culture normalizes so much land as a commodity, something anonymous, bought and sold, and with infinite possible futures but no history.

Open space is an enormous amount of territory, representing some 25% to over 40% of land in many cities. This is true around the world, as cities expand, and shrink, at different rates than their populations shift. In the wake of the pandemic, this kind of territory is being increasingly seen as a “solution” to problems like polluted stormwater, flooding, urban heat islands, lack of green space in neighborhoods. But I think there’s more here. I see these as spaces of struggle. Their distribution is deeply influenced by histories of racism and discrimination. Through my work with artists, I came to understand such spaces as portals through which people like me, our privilege revealed by how easily we disappear all this space, can catch a glimpse of important history and relationships and recognize potential for action.

I share stories of artists who’ve helped me to see this disappeared space in new ways, but also present a general framework to help us appreciate the work of art in building new connections and producing new results. I argue that the arts, by engaging with science and technologies of infrastructure in new ways, can transform those processes, shifting the purpose and the outcomes of technical endeavors for new benefits and ends, including ways to address inequities. In the book, I describe discoveries in phytoremediation, a process by which plants help dismantle soil pollutants, produced by a Chicago based artist, and a new model for capturing dirty water running off roofs and parking lots. I also celebrate ways in which artists build unconventional relationships, including with nonhuman beings, that can free us up to realize new projects and to experience and feel in new ways. I write about this kind of expansive and emergent relationship building as artists’ “diplomacy,” a term inspired by Isabelle Stengers.

It took me a while to put many of these pieces together in a way that felt coherent enough to deserve a book. In some ways the process of “loving” orphaned space is just beginning for me. I see them anew every day. In preparing for the talk at the book launch, for example, I looked at an image of open space distribution in St. Paul, Minnesota. For the first time, I put together the lack of open space in what is a very open city, with the I-90 corridor, which, when built in the 1960s, obliterated parts of a thriving predominantly Black neighborhood. Many businesses were lost and 1 in every 8 Black households in Minneapolis lost a home. The neighborhood lives on, still rich, but adjacent to a thundering expressway with the health threats, disconnectedness, and loss of property values that freeways bring.

This kind of recognition is the opening of the orphaned space portal. To venture in, and to occupy, involves many skills I learned from artists. They are certainly not the only ones doing this work, nor should they be. But for me, they’ve enabled me to shift my perspective on the land around me. They’ve provided me with examples of how careful listening, telling stories, and building relationships inside and out, can connect humans to each other and to other beings in new ways that transcend notions of a functioning system and enter the realm of loving.

What Representations of Disability Add to Postcolonial Literature

This week in North Philly Notes, Christopher Krentz, author of Elusive Kinship: Disability and Human Rights in Postcolonial Literature, writes about the significance and utility of disabled characters in novels from the Global South.

About two decades ago, the scholar Ato Quayson noted that postcolonial literature is full of disabled characters, an intriguing insight that sent me searching for examples. Among those I quickly found:

  • In Chinua Achebe’s classic novel about Nigeria, Things Fall Apart (1958), the Igbo clan’s formidable war medicine is associated with a one-legged woman;
  • A partially deaf, cracking, impaired character narrates Salman Rushdie’s Booker-Prize-winning Midnight’s Children (1981); incredibly, he connects telepathically with other children born in the first hour of India’s independence;
  • Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K (1983) focuses on a cognitively disabled man of color who traverses through a war-torn South Africa and is beset by hunger;
  • Edwidge Danticat’s story “Caroline’s Wedding,” from her collection Krik? Krak! (1996) tells of a beloved Haitian-American sister in New York City who has a missing forearm;
  • Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting (1999) recounts how an ungainly disabled daughter in small-town India is largely kept out of sight by her upper-middle-class family;
  • In Chris Abani’s short novel Song for Night (2007), the narrator is a boy soldier in a war in Nigeria who has had his vocal cords severed and communicates with others through an improvised sign language;
  • The narrator of Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (2007) is an exuberant boy in India who has a bent spine and goes around on all fours as a result of a chemical plant disaster;
  • The story in Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory (2015) is related by an albino woman in Zimbabwe who encounters both intense stigma rooted in traditional metaphysical beliefs and unexpected kindness.

And there are so many more examples! 

The examples made me realize that, far from being incidental, disabled characters are integral to the energy and vitality of literature in English from the Global South. These are great stories, and part of their greatness is how writers repeatedly deploy disability in creative, original ways. Through figures of disability, authors make any number of pressing topics more vivid, including such issues as the effects of colonialism and apartheid, global capitalism, racism and sexism, war, and environmental disaster. 

Furthermore, even at their most fantastic, such representations relate to the more than half a billion disabled people who live in the Global South, often in precarious circumstances. Disabled character can be both realistic and metaphorical.

In 2006, a few years after Quayson’s observation, the United Nations adopted its first human rights treaty of the twenty-first century: the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). I began to wonder if the prominence of disability in postcolonial literature should be linked to the gradual and global emergence of rights for disabled people—especially since both happened concurrently in the last half century or so. The representation of disabled people in this literature, I concluded, both directed and reflected this change in how disabled people are seen. 

In the last fifteen years, a new interdisciplinary field, the study of human rights and literature, has drawn connections and examined relations between fiction and human rights issues. As Joseph Slaughter puts it in Human Rights Inc., fiction—especially the bildungsroman in his case—is uniquely about rights as it typically serves to portray the relationship of an individual to society. Scholars in the field have used literature to explore the paradoxes surrounding human rights. Most of all, they show that literature can serve as a valuable form of witnessing human rights violations, making such issues more personal to readers in different times and places and compelling them to care. The first step in achieving rights, advocates realized back in the 1960s, is not laws or treaties but rather winning the public’s imagination.

While the study of human rights and literature has frequently dealt with postcolonial literature, it has not had much to say about disability. I hope Elusive Kinship can begin to fill that lacuna, enhancing our appreciation of literature in English from the Global South and nudging us toward making the world more hospitable for everyone.

Recommending a book that anticipated the 1619 project by more than 50 years

This week in North Philly Notes, William Cross, author of Black Identity Viewed from a Barber’s Chair, recommends a lost classic of African American writing. (That was alas, not published by Tempe University Press).

For those interested in the African American experience, I want to recommend Lerone Bennett, Jr’s generally overlooked masterpiece: Before the Mayflower, a History of the Negro in America 1619-1962I read it, at a much younger age, and although at the time, my consciousness was evolving; it was, nevertheless, too limited to fully appreciate that Bennettconsidered merely a historian who popularized history—evidenced what in fact was a level of historical consciousness the likes of DuBois, Herbert Guttman and others. 

As shown by the title, his book, published in 1966, anticipated the ongoing 1619 project by 56 years! Like the 1619 Project, Bennett’s narrative anchors the beginning of Africana within American history much sooner than is often argued. He links the accumulation of wealth from slavery that made it possible to capitalize the beginnings of industrialization in America as well as Europe. Bennett, much as anyone, captures in great detail, Abraham Lincoln’s tortured ambivalence and conflicting attitudes about race, Lincoln’s thoughts on the solution of the race problem through colonization, and the pressure put on Lincoln to sign the Emancipation proclamation. 

Bennett’s unique chapter on miscegenation interrogates the outrageous sexual lust and hypocrisy of the founding fathers that should be required reading in any contemporary history course. Most of the chapters are exciting to read because of his detailed, nuanced, elaborate, and telescopic narratives, as his words and phrases stimulate—within the mind of the reader—rich, colorful, dark as well brilliant images.  Time and again the writing creates in the mind of the reader, actions, verbal exchanges, and vivid descriptions that emote. Frankly, sections reflect the compositional style of an accomplished novelist. 

Ironically, he wrote to educate the average reader; but for those who are well informed, the book is an unexpected delight. Bennett helps one revisit familiar information and ideas and plays it back the way Miles Davis could transform a jazz standard. Given the disjuncture between how Bennett envisioned and narrated black history from what at the time was considered settled-history, the word that captures a great deal of the book is “daring.” 

History tends to favor “looking back” but Bennett’s narrative grounded the reader in the present, made it possible to understand the past in such a way as to make the future less surprising. Before the Mayflower is a hidden gem.

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