Living amidst constant disruptions that keep on taking new forms.

This week in North Philly Notes, Ghassan Moussawi, author of Disruptive Situations asks, What kind of everyday life strategies can we use in these times?

Since March 2020, we have been living in uncertain and troubling times due to COVID-19, where our lives, everyday routines, and sense of safety have been heavily impacted. However, as we have witnessed, the global pandemic has and continues to affect peoples’ lives differently, where the most precarious people have most been affected by the pandemic. For example, there are higher death rate among communities of color, especially Black, Indigenous, undocumented, queer and trans people of color and communities in the U.S.

What came as a shock to many is the sudden interruption of everyday life as we know it. People are lost, confused, and mourning the loss of their routines and the stability in their lives. While some might say, we are living in “a new normal;” the definition of “new” and “normal” keep changing to the extent that the term “new normal” fails to account for the moment we are living in. The majority of people living in the U.S. today have not encountered such sudden shifts and disruptions in their everyday lives. For queer people and communities of color, however, pandemic and government neglect are familiar; the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s wiped out an entire generation while the Reagan and Bush administrations looked the other way.

We think of these as exceptional times, however, how do scholars account for people’s lives in places where everyday life disruptions and uncertainties about the present and future are normal and normalized? What kind of everyday life strategies can we use in these times?

Disruptive Situations_smMy book Disruptive Situations answers the question above, by looking at the everyday life strategies of LGBT people living in post-civil war Beirut. I ask readers to take a step back and think about what it means to live amidst constant everyday life disruptions that keep on taking new forms. Disruptive Situations comes at a time when we are all experiencing a sense of loss and disorientation, and my hope is that the book might shed light on how people survive constant and imminent disruptions, caused by wars, civil unrest, and everyday violence.

The idea for the book started in 2009, when I found many Euro-American media outlets advertising Beirut as a new destination for gay tourism. Though life in Beirut remains highly precarious, such representations downplayed such realities. My book looks at the period 2005-2016, which was marked by a series of assassinations, an Israeli war in 2006, suicide bombings, a shortage of basic services (such as electricity and clean water), and a garbage crisis. Drawing on fieldwork I conducted in Beirut among LGBT people between 2009-15—during the height of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s suicide bombings in Beirut and Lebanon—I ask how we can account for people’s everyday lives amid uncertainty and violence that has no beginning and no end. People in Beirut have devised the term al-wad’ or “the situation” to capture the complexity of these everyday violence and disruptions.

Using the concept of al-wad’, or “the situation,” I raise questions about spaces beyond Beirut, by asking what it has to say about queer life in contexts where precarity and disruptions are the conditions of everyday social and cultural life. Though the book draws on LGBT people’s strategies, these queer strategies are not necessarily enacted only by LGBT people.

Disruptive Situation highlights these and other issues:

  • How and in what ways has Beirut been marketed as a “gay friendly” destination? For whom, is it “gay friendly? It is class and race—and not gay friendliness—that determines who is able to experience Beirut as “gay friendly;” In Beirut—as now amid the COVID pandemic—race and class primarily determine who gets to experience safety and precarity
  • LGBT individuals’ various negotiations or “queer strategies” in navigating everyday disruptions, with a focus on mobilities and access to space. These includes movements within and across the city, to crossing neighborhood borders, and access to “gay-friendly” spaces and communities of organizing
  • Queer strategies that people use, like accepting contradictions, and creating bubbles as both metaphorical and physical spaces of respite to negotiate life
  • What can everyday queer tactics tell us about the local and regional politics, and everyday life violence and uncertainty? This current pandemic also illustrates how it affects LGBT communities differently based on race, class, gender, and documentation status. Similarly, State and interpersonal violence in the U.S. remain heavily determined by marginalization, with Indigenous and Black communities particularly targeted even in the midst of the pandemic
  • What does it mean to conduct ethnographic research at times of violence and disruption? What does it mean when one’s research gets constantly interrupted and one has to leave their research site due to violence and bombings?

I hope Disruptive Situations will help us better understand both how people negotiate constant major life disruptions and how we can come up with creative ways to conduct research when we live in uncertain times, such as the ones we are currently experiencing.

What the American Irish faced in the nineteenth century

This week in North Philly Notes, Howard Lune, author of Transnational Nationalism and Collective Identity among the American Irish, writes about Irish immigrants in America.

Before I got too far into my early research on Irish nationalism, and before I had recognized the nature of transnational organizing efforts in supporting the long campaign for Irish independence, I was curious about the surprising success of the American Irish in public service fields such as police and firefighting squads. The answer to that puzzle turned out to center on fairly straightforward jobs-for-votes deals with the Democratic Party. But looking into widespread anti-Irish, anti-Catholic activism in the United States in the nineteenth century I was stuck by two patterns. The first was that the language and tactics of “othering” the Irish strongly resembled the tactics used to deny African Americans freedoms and citizenship rights at the same time. The second was that the same ideas have been resurrected with only slightly different language to attack other immigrant groups and African Americans under the present American regime. The continuing existence of discrimination is not surprising. I guess I just expected that we would develop more sophisticated forms of it.

The essential starting point for all of these organized acts of hostility is to present an unquestionable assumption that whenever we say “we” in America we all know that “we” are white, Christian men. Of course, in the 1800s, Christian meant Protestant while Catholic was part of the other, but they still preferred the term Christian. Few nativists ever argued that America was supposed to be white. They simply argued that the non-whites were “invading,” “taking over,” and “replacing” us. They never had to say “our kind” is supposed to dominate in all social, economic, and political institutions. They only had to say that “those people” would be infiltrating all of our spaces if we didn’t stop them. This business of the unexamined “we” sounded like a call to community, solidarity, and fellow-feeling while actually building walls, mobilizing violent mobs, and, especially, preventing others from voting.

Transitional Nationalism_smOther familiar patterns followed. “We” destroyed their schools and claimed that we couldn’t help them when they were so ignorant. We denied them jobs and claimed that we didn’t want such poor people bringing down the quality of life in our cities. We held up the example of the most successful of the whole (in this case, the wealthy Irish Protestants) in order to claim that the rest could obviously succeed too if they weren’t so lazy, or criminal, or whatever frightened us at the moment. We relegated them to slums and then said that no one who lived like that should be trusted with civic responsibility. We passed new laws about labor, vagrancy, and debt to target them, and then declared that they were mostly criminals and scofflaws. Our people raise families. Their people “breed.” And, in the more extreme publications that were commonly read but rarely acknowledged, we lamented the threat to the sexual purity of our white women if those people were allowed to run free.

In the 1800s we depicted the undesirable other as drunks. Today we describe them as probably using drugs.

These patterns, and so many others, demonstrate that the white, Protestant, male center of American life hasn’t really got any tangible complaint with any particular other group. If it did, then we would focus on different supposed attributes of each group pertinent to any given time period. Rather, it seems that the privileged core of the nation desperately fears having to share with others. This fear seems to be just as strong among those who have too much and those who have too little. Either way, the smallest excuse, the least supportable claim, and the most minor differences are enough for members of the culturally dominant group to band together to collectively degrade anyone and anything that could threaten the idea of their dominance. We are willing to allow anyone into college now, as long as they don’t get to be our bosses. We feign shock at each and every obvious example of racist violence but we hate it when people try to address “systemic” inequalities. We admit that the justice system isn’t always just, but we built it up that way in order to keep other people in their place, and we’re not planning to change that. We don’t hang signs that say “no Irish need apply” anymore, but try getting a corporate job interview without a white-sounding name. The Irish are accepted as white now, which almost implies that we have improved as a culture. Yet, with increasing globalization, we have no shortage of “other” people to casually disregard or openly hate. As a people, we are remarkably similar to our forebears, in the worst sense of the comparison.

An interview with author Ryan Pettengill about Communists and Community

This week in North Philly Notes, we interview author Ryan Pettengill about his new book, Communists and Community, which enhances our understanding of the central role Communists played in the advancement of social democracy throughout the mid-twentieth century.

You trace community activism in Detroit during the years 1941-1956, which is during the downslide of the American Community Party [CPUSA]. What accounts for this time frame for your book?
Quiet honestly, the CPUSA had always had a knack for community activism. There have been other scholars that have written about this topic, but much of their attention is concentrated on the period from 1935 to 1939. This era, known as the Popular Front period in which communists made important alliances with liberals and progressives in the struggle against international fascism, was thought to have ended by 1940, largely a casualty of the alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. While the CPUSA did, in fact, enter into a new period in its history, the activism it pursued – especially at the local level in centers like Detroit – largely remained the same. The alliances that communists made with religious and civic organizations that were dedicated to social and political equality remained intact. Moreover, the nature of their activism, in which they would flood City Hall with letters, march in demonstrations throughout neighborhoods, boycott bowling alleys that insisted on Jim Crow policies, or establish “labor schools” for the training of the next generation of activists remained the preferred mode of activism long after World War II ended. Taking this community activism into account helps us understand the CP in a different light. It also helps demonstrate that leftists were central in keeping militant activism alive in the postwar period before it would become much more visible in the early 1960s with the coming of the civil rights movement.

Can you discuss why you focused on post-war Detroit? Sure, it was motor city with a huge industry in America at that time, but what made this city a valuable crucible
Detroit is just…fascinating. I developed an interest in the city as a graduate student and it never really stopped. But to the point of this question, Detroit is outside of the local context in which American communism is typically examined – New York City.  Examining communists and the activism that they sponsored demonstrates that at the local level in places like Detroit there was a level of autonomy in which activists were afforded a chance address local challenges in the way they saw fit despite what the “party line” may have dictated.

Communists and Community_smYou write about how the CPUSA helped underrepresented groups, working toward socioeconomic betterment, creating multiracial workforces, and protecting the foreign-born. Can you discuss this little-known history of Communists playing a central role in the advancement of social democracy and civil rights?
I think communists, with their insistence on analyzing the role that class played in American life, were able to see the unmistakable connections to race. Other scholars have noted that the CP was the only predominantly white institution that took up the matter of systemic racism during the 1930s, ’40s, or ’50s. To that end, it attracted civil rights activists like Reverend Charles Hill and Coleman Young, the first African American to be elected mayor of Detroit. As Young put it, the communists and Reverend Hill (an African American Baptist minister) were the only ones even talking about racism in the 1940s.  Young never apologized for running around with radicals so long as it meant the socioeconomic betterment of the black community.

There are interesting stories about housing projects, racism and racial segregation, police brutality, as well as issues involving wages and unionism, etc. What challenges, setbacks, and successes did the CP and its members have?
This may sound obvious but it was the Second Red Scare that accounted for the biggest challenges and setbacks for the CPUSA in Detroit and elsewhere. As I point out throughout the book, the Red Scare and McCarthyism compromised the alliances built between the labor-liberal-leftist coalition that had flourished in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Anticommunists like Joseph McCarthy had built careers on red baiting and liberals who had once been allies of leftists were forced to demonstrate their patriotism by ridding them from unions and civic organizations. That said, I think that what the communists achieved – especially throughout the 1950s – was keeping the concept of militant activism alive in the minds of Detroiters. The 1950s is so often portrayed as a politically tame period and it is no coincidence that McCarthyism was raging throughout the country at the time. The activism that communists sponsored in the postwar period helped lay the foundation for future activism in the 1960s and beyond.

 What observations do you have about the white ethnic backlash and rise of conservatism in the face of the CPUSA’s efforts? (Sounds kind of timely….)
In a perfect world, I would like my book to be read in conjunction with studies that chronicle the postwar economy, the rise of conservatism, and the long descent of the New Deal order. If you read Communists and Community in conjunction with, say, Daniel Clark’s Disruption in Detroit, for example, you can clearly see that the postwar economy was anything but stable and for the bulk of Detroit’s industrial workforce, simply having steady work took absolute precedent over the communist brand of activism that addressed the integration of Detroit’s neighborhoods or reforming policing practices throughout the city. If there is one thing writing this book has taught me is that the working class existed in the abstract and workers did not always want the same things. So, along comes someone like George Wallace who can speak the language of the working class in locales like Detroit and is able to portray himself as the “law and order” candidate and, thus, fracture the working-class coalition that the UAW, leftist activists, and other progressives worked so hard to establish throughout the war years.

How did the radicalism and politicization that gained momentum during that time continue in the decades after? You write that the decline of community activism within organized labor [is] a casualty of the Cold War; that anticommunism played a key role.
I generally think of Carl Winter, Helen Alison-Winter, Nat Ganley, and Billy Allan as placeholders for the future leftists who would come to mainstream protest and dissent in the 1960s and early 70s.  It wasn’t always easy to defend their radicalism but these individuals did so anyway.  When the Michigan Council for Peace led a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to petition the federal government to peacefully coexist with the Soviet Union, they opened themselves up to all sorts of criticism from the right.  But Reverend Hill led the pilgrimage anyway.  By the 1960s, with the fading of McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare, radicalism was once again a permissible form of political expression.  The activists comprising what might loosely be called the “old left” essentially preserved the institution of community activism.

 

Stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past

This week in North Philly Notes, Manan Desai, author of The United States of Indiawrites about a network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals.

In 1916, fresh off a tour across the United States, the exiled Indian nationalist Lajpat Rai penned what he described as a “Hindu’s Impressions and a Study” of America from his adopted home in Berkeley, California. After visits with prominent figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Margaret Sanger, and Booker T. Washington, and stops throughout the country, Rai concluded that “the problems of the United States were very similar to those that face us in India.” As unlikely as that comparison seems, Rai was not alone in making it. During his time in the U.S., Rai became a part of a network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals, who actively imagined themselves as part of a shared project of anticolonialism. For the Americans with whom Rai and other Indian expatriates formed lasting friendships and alliances, the encounter with the Indian cause had shifted their perspective and left a lasting impression. Agnes Smedley, a working-class radical from Missouri who was mentored by Rai, would later write that her acquaintance with the Indian expatriate scene had led her to apprehend world events “through the eyes of men from Asia—eyes that watched and were cynical about the phrases of democracy.” W.E.B. Du Bois himself held onto the promise of Indian decolonization for decades to come, declaring in 1947 that India’s independence was “the greatest historical date of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” By comparing one another’s conditions, this band of writers came to reconsider not only how “the problems” of the U.S. and India were similar, but how such friendships and affinities formed across national and racial lines could foster new visions for a decolonized future.

United_States_of_IndiaThe United States of India reconstructs this network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals, and examines vision they shared, during and immediately after the First World War. Organizations like the New York-based India Home Rule League, the radical San Francisco-based Gadar Party, the Friends for Freedom of India, and national student groups, produced periodicals, newsletters, pamphlets, and books, advocating for the rights of Indians under colonial rule as well as Indian migrants in the U.S.

But one of the critical goals in this book is to take seriously the contradictions that such comparisons opened up, how imagining one form of freedom at the expense of another. To return to Rai, for instance, we might ask: How could a white settler nation at the cusp of global dominance actually resemble a British colony in the East? What real comparison could be drawn from the structures of colonial dominance in India and the metropolitan world of the U.S.? What gets left behind in such comparisons?

These contradictions are particularly important when considering the relevance of early histories of South Asian America to our contemporary moment. To name just a few explored in the book: We see how in navigating discriminatory laws, Indian immigrants like Bhagat Singh Thind formally made claims to whiteness, but in doing they espoused a “racist response to racism,” as Sucheta Mazumdar describes it, that reinforced a system of white supremacy. We see how upper-caste Indian writers would acknowledge the violence of the caste system (from which they benefited), but just as quickly disavow it by foregrounding their experiences of racism in the United States and India. Lajpat Rai, who could be so sharp and cutting in his critiques of colonialism, also upheld Islamophobic ideologies and forms of Hindu nationalism that we see horrific repercussions of today.

As important as it is to engage the stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past, it may be an even more critical task to engage its contradictions, because they continue to persist and shape our present.

Books that can start the conversation about race

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase a selection of Temple University Press titles about understanding racism. Get 30% off these and other books about race on our website: tupress.temple.edu/subjects/1092 (Use Promo Code T30P at checkout) 

Silent Gesture
The Autobiography of Tommie Smith
Tommie Smith and David Steele
Sporting series
The story behind an image of protest that will always stand as an iconic representation of the complicated conflations of race, politics, and sports.

The Possessive Investment of Whiteness
How White People Profit from Identity Politics
Twentieth Anniversary Edition
By George Lipsitz
An unflinching but necessary look at white supremacy, updated to address racial privilege in the age of Trump

The Man-Not
Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood
Tommy J. Curry
Black Male Studies Series
“[A] provocative discussion of black masculinity by critiquing both the social and academic treatment of killings of black men and boys in the US….”—Choice  

The Great Migration and the Democratic Party
Black Voters and the Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Century
Keneshia N. Grant
Frames the Great Migration as an important economic and social event that also changed the way Democratic Party elites interacted with Black communities in northern cities

Invisible People
Stories of Lives at the Margins
Alex Tizon, Edited by Sam Howe Verhovek
Foreword by Jose Antonio Vargas
Epic stories of marginalized people—from lonely immigrants struggling to forge a new American identity to a high school custodian who penned a New Yorker short story. 

Look, a White!
Philosophical Essays on Whiteness
George Yancy
Returning the problem of whiteness to white people, Yancy identifies the embedded and opaque ways white power and privilege operate

Resurrecting Slavery
Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France

Crystal Marie Fleming
Bringing a critical race perspective to the study of French racism, Fleming provides a nuanced way of thinking about the global dimensions of slavery, anti-blackness, and white supremacy

FORTHCOMING IN NOVEMBER

Do Right by Me
Learning to Raise Black Children in White Spaces
Valerie I. Harrison and Kathryn Peach D’Angelo
A conversation between two friends—about how best to raise black children in white families and white communities—after one adopts a biracial son 

ALSO OF INTEREST

Tasting Freedom
Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America
Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin
The life and times of Octavius Catto, a civil rights pioneer [felled by a bullet] fighting for social justice issues and voting rights more than a century ago

 

Women and Political Candidacy

This week in North Philly Notes, the editors of Good Reasons to Run describe their new book, a collection of essays about women with political ambition.

2018 saw a record number of women run for public office in the U.S.  If current trends continue, 2020 may break those records.  The numbers of women’s political candidacies are soaring — at least, on the Democratic side of the aisle.  And in this moment of crisis, women leaders have emerged as heroes in many countries.

Yet women historically and even in the recent past few decades have been reluctant to declare themselves political candidates.  Even when more qualified, women lag way behind similarly-situated men in “political ambition,” the desire to run for or hold office.

How do scholars make sense of the long-term trend of men showing more political ambition, but also account for the recent spikes in women running?  Why have the gains been so one-sided in terms of party, with Republican women falling further and further behind?  How might answers to these questions differ if we look at racial subgroups or at women outside the U.S.?

Good Reasons to Run_smThis timely collection of research essays explores these and other questions through a five-part structure, with top scholars in the women and politics field presenting original research.  For those interested, there is an extensive methodological appendix online, with entries for many of the chapters.  But the editors and contributors to this volume wanted it to be useful to the public as well as to scholars, and they present the research findings in an accessible, narrative style. (For a sample from the editors’ Introduction, click here.)

Ultimately this book speaks to the power of context, motivation, recruitment, and assistance (especially financial) in helping women become candidates. Political ambition, it concludes, is not something with which most candidates are simply born; it is often created (or not), nurtured (or not), and brought to fruition (or not) by specific factors in the campaign environment.  Each of the 18 substantive chapters illuminate certain of these factors through new research, according to five main themes (“Who Runs?,” “Why Run?,” “Why Not Run?”, “How Nonprofits Help Women Run for Office,” and “The Special Role of Money”).  Together these investigations help us understand how and why people become candidates, with a special focus on gender and with some attention also to race-gender intersectionality, the role of party, and the question of how we might encourage a more diverse crop of candidates in both parties in the future.

Unveiling Temple University Press’s Fall 2020 Catalog

This week in North Philly Notes, we announce the titles from our Fall 2020 catalog

Are We the 99%?: The Occupy Movement, Feminism, and Intersectionality, by Heather McKee Hurwitz
Intersectionality lessons for contemporary “big-tent” organizing

Becoming Entitled: Relief, Unemployment, and Reform during the Great Depression, by Abigail Trollinger
Chronicles Americans’ shift in thinking about government social insurance programs during the Great Depression

The Defender: The Battle to Protect the Rights of the Accused in Philadelphiaby Edward W. Madeira Jr. and Michael D. Schaffer
A vibrant history of the Defender Association of Philadelphia—dubbed “the best lawyers money can’t buy”

Do Right by Me: Learning to Raise Black Children in White Spaces, by Valerie I. Harrison and Kathryn Peach D’Angelo
Invites readers into a conversation on how best to raise black children in white families and white communities

From Collective Bargaining to Collective Begging: How Public Employees Win and Lose the Right to Bargainby Dominic D. Wells
Analyzes the expansion and restriction of collective bargaining rights for public employees

Giving Back: Filipino America and the Politics of Diaspora Giving by L. Joyce Zapanta Mariano
Explores transnational giving practices as political projects that shape the Filipino diaspora

Globalizing the Caribbean: Political Economy, Social Change, and the Transnational Capitalist Classby Jeb Sprague
Now in Paperback—how global capitalism finds new ways to mutate and grow in the Caribbean

Graphic Migrations: Precarity and Gender in India and the Diaspora, by Kavita Daiya
Examines “what remains” in migration stories surrounding the 1947 Partition of India

The Health of the Commonwealth: A Brief History of Medicine, Public Health, and Disease in Pennsylvania, by James E. Higgins
Showcasing Pennsylvania’s unique contribution to the history of public health and medicine

Immigrant Crossroads: Globalization, Incorporation, and Placemaking in Queens, New York, Edited by Tarry Hum, Ron Hayduk, Francois Pierre-Louis Jr., and Michael Alan Krasner
Highlights immigrant engagement in urban development, policy, and social movements

Implementing City Sustainability: Overcoming Administrative Silos to Achieve Functional Collective Action, by Rachel M. Krause, Christopher V. Hawkins, and Richard C. Feiock
How cities organize to design and implement sustainability

The Misunderstood History of Gentrification: People, Planning, Preservation, and Urban Renewal, 1915-2020, by Dennis E. Gale
Reframing our understanding of the roles of gentrification and urban renewal in the revitalization of Amer
ican cities

Modern Mobility Aloft: Elevated Highways, Architecture, and Urban Change in Pre-Interstate America, by Amy D. Finstein
How American cities used elevated highways as major architectural statements about local growth and modernization before 1956

Motherlands: How States Push Mothers Out of Employment, by Leah Ruppanner
Challenging preconceived notions of the states that support working mothers

Philadelphia Battlefields: Disruptive Campaigns and Upset Elections in a Changing City, by John Kromer
How upstart political candidates achieved spectacular successes over Philadelphia’s entrenched political establishment

Prisoner of Wars: A Hmong Fighter Pilot’s Story of Escaping Death and Confronting Life, by Chia Youyee Vang, with Pao Yang, Retired Captain, U.S. Secret War in Laos
The life of Pao Yang, whose experiences defy conventional accounts of the Vietnam War

The Refugee Aesthetic: Reimagining Southeast Asian America, by Timothy K. August
Explores how refugees are represented and represent themselves

Revolution Around the Corner: Voices from the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, Edited by José E. Velázquez, Carmen V. Rivera, and Andrés Torres
The first book-length story of the radical social movement, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party

Salut!: France Meets Philadelphia, by Lynn Miller and Therese Dolan
Chronicling the French presence and impact on Philadelphia through its art and artists, as well as through the city’s political and social culture

Undermining Intersectionality: The Perils of Powerblind Feminism, by Barbara Tomlinson
Now in Paperback—a sustained critique of the ways in which scholars have engaged with and deployed intersectionality

Temple University Press authors reflect on making PBS’s Asian Americans

This week in North Philly Notes, Shirley Jennifer Lim, author of Anna May Wong, and Winifred C. Chin, author of Paper Sonrecount their experiences making the 5-part PBS documentary series Asian Americans.

Anna May Wong is having a moment, by Shirley Jennifer Lim

Anna May Wong is having a moment. In 2020 she has been featured in numerous documentaries, television shows (Netflix’s Hollywood), and, as a Google doodle. The landmark PBS documentary series, Asian Americans, tells Wong’s story at the end of Episode 1. Wong epitomizes someone who fought racial stereotypes and sought to improve the lot of Asian Americans.

Anna May Wong_smOne of the pleasures of the Asian Americans Episode 1 is that it contains rare archival footage of Wong’s performances. On screen, her expressive talents shine. When you watch the documentary, compare Luise Rainer’s flat affect as she says “I am with child” (The Good Earth) with Wong’s face when she says “Perhaps the white girl had better be looking out!” (One likes to think this is a not so hidden message to all of the white actresses who won Asian roles instead of her). There is almost no need to hear her words for her face says it all. Or the clip of Wong saying “No love now. No jealousy. Just merciless vengeance.” Her intonation is priceless and makes the viewer almost believe that words can kill. Rainer, as the documentary makes clear, won the leading role in the Good Earth over Wong and an Academy Award for playing the role (in yellowface). Never daunted, after The Good Earth casting rejection, Wong hired her own cinematographer and made her own film about China. Although Asian Americans does not have time to discuss Wong’s self-directed and produced film, but moments from the film are on screen at the end of the segment. (For my discussion of this film read Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern Chapter 5 and Epilogue). You see footage of Wong holding the camera up to her eye as she films Chinese street scenes. It would be wonderful if this interest in Wong translated into more of her films being made widely available.

Paper Son in the filming of Asian Americans, by Winifred C. Chin

When I was first approached by the PBS Asian Americans research team, I did not anticipate the key role that Paper Son, One Man’s Story would have in Episode 3: “Good Americans,” in which Asian Americans are heralded as the “model minority” while simultaneously living as “perpetual foreigners.”

PAPERSON_Certificate of Identity of Tong Pok Chin (Front) (1) (1)

Tung Pok Chin age 19 arrival in US.jpg Paper Son is the story of how my father, Tung Pok Chin, entered the United States in 1934 with false papers that declared him the “son of [a] native.” Due to restrictions of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943) this method was the only way he and others could escape dire poverty in China and come to the U.S. But China had turned to communism by 1949, and Tung Pok Chin was writing for a Chinese newspaper that the FBI branded as pro-communist. Our family soon came under federal investigation with the McCarthy Era.

Episode 3 is entitled “Good Americans” for a reason. Living in the United States, Tung Pok Chin gave his best to assimilate into American society; he learned English and served in the U.S. Navy during WWII; after the war he married and raised a family; he became a member in good standing at True Light Lutheran Church; and he wrote poetry to record his sentiments about the Chinese homeland — all while working in a laundry to support his family. In spite of all this, Tung Pok Chin remained the “perpetual foreigner” due to his status as a paper son and his writings in a newspaper that did not sit well with the U.S. Government.

In working with my father on Paper Son our aspiration for the text was simple: that the previously unknown “paper” method of entry into the United States and the effects of McCarthyism on the Chinese American community would be recognized and studied as a part of American history. Yet it was in filming Episode 3 that I started seeing Paper Son on a grander scale.

The questions that filmmaker S. Leo Chiang asked were thought-provoking and prodded me to dig into my own childhood to reflect on growing up Chinese in America. I soon realized that my experiences were not limited to myself, just as Paper Son is not limited to the experiences of Tung Pok Chin alone. Instead, my father’s experiences and those of my own speak for numerous other “paper sons” and for the generations of Chinese Americans and Asian Americans who rest precariously on the edge of a country where we try our best to be “Good Americans” yet can never fit in — because looking like the enemy in a time of crisis, be it during WWII, McCarthyism or the World Trade Center attack, will always arouse suspicion, distrust and hence rejection, no matter how “Good” we are.

Unorthodox Captures Many Truths of Leaving Hasidic Communities

This week in North Philly Notes, we repost Degrees of Separation author Schneur Zalman Newfield’s recent article from The Society Pages that considers the Netflix series, Unorthodox, about exiting ultra-Orthodox communities, the subject of his new book.

Like many who left ultra-Orthodox communities in which they were raised, I eagerly awaited the release of the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox, loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s first memoir by the same title that chronicles her journey out of her Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and her efforts to join the broader secular society. I was curious to see in what ways the narrative of the miniseries would reflect the experiences of the 74 ex-Hasidic men and women I interviewed for my PhD dissertation and forthcoming book, Degrees of SeparationIdentity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Hasidic communities adhere strictly to Orthodox Jewish law, members tend to marry young and have large families, and generally shun non-Jewish culture and outsiders.

Degrees of Separation_smThe miniseries revolves around the attempt of Esty Shapiro—brilliantly portrayed by Shira Haas—to leave her socially and culturally isolated Williamsburg community and start a new life in Berlin, Germany. The miniseries is deeply compelling and captures many truths about the lives of the people I interviewed as well as many others who make the complex journey out of ultra-Orthodoxy.

The miniseries highlights Esty’s traumatic experiences inside her Hasidic marriage. Although Esty rejects the term “escaped” to describe her journey and protests that her community was not “a prison,” she did suffer a lot. As Esty reflects at one point about her life in Brooklyn to her new friends in Berlin, “God expected too much from me.” She is perplexed when informed just before her wedding of the basic mechanics of sex and the complex details of the “family purity” laws that require her to chart when she is menstruating and to abstain from sex during those times and for a week afterwards. Esty cries through the sheering off of all her lush hair the morning after her wedding and is terrified and alienated when she visits the ritual bath (mikvah) and immerses herself in order to make herself “pure” and available to have sex with her husband. She also suffers extreme physical pain when having sex with her husband and after months of trying, they are only able to engage fully in intercourse a single time. The physical pain is only heightened and given an added sting by her nosy and insensitive mother-in-law’s intrusions into her sex life aimed at securing her another grandchild. Ultimately, her mother-in-law encourages her son to divorce Esty because it is believed she will never be able to get pregnant.

I will focus on three themes of the exit process from religion that are significant in my own research and are all dramatized in Unorthodox: the dire warnings from community members to potential exiters; the maintenance of religious beliefs and practices by exiters even after they exit; and the hybrid technique of integrating aspects of an exiters’ past into their present and future.

While still in Williamsburg, Esty secretly took piano lessons for several years from a non-Jewish woman who rented an apartment from her grandfather. Before Esty leaves Brooklyn, the music teacher gives her student a small compass to help her find her way once she exits her community. Indeed, it is an extremely difficult task for exiters to create a new life for themselves once all the rules, norms, expectations that they grew up with are discarded. These communities tell those contemplating or suspected of contemplating leaving that it is impossible to do so, that all who leave are crazy and end up with ruined and dysfunctional lives. It is clearly a lie, but for those inside the community lacking information about the outside world and those who make it out, this can be a very compelling argument to stay.

One of the most powerful scenes occurs shortly after Esty clandestinely travels from Brooklyn to Berlin and finds herself on a beach, surrounded by scantily clad carefree swimmers splashing around and enjoying their time in the sun. Esty is still wearing her Hasidic garb, including her conservative long skirt, thick opaque brown tights, and wig (sheitel). We feel Esty’s internal struggle, her desire to be “normal” and join in the fun, while being simultaneously horrified that people could expose so much of their bodies to total strangers. She has internalized the teachings of her community that stipulate that the body, especially a woman’s body, must always be covered up in order to protect its sanctity and the purity of those around her. Esty wavers for a moment, but then gathers her courage. She takes off her opaque tights and walks into the lake fully clothed. As she enters the shallow waters, she pulls off her wig and releases it. It floats away. This emersion is a sort of reverse mikvah, a ritual cleansing of her former life and a symbolic rebirth into her new secular identity.

Esty’s internal struggle mirrors what many of my interviewees grapple with once they leave their community but still hold onto numerous religious practices and beliefs from their old community, such as an aversion to eating pork—which is strictly forbidden by Jewish law—and the persistence of belief in God, and conservative views of gender and race. These practices and beliefs can prove difficult, if not impossible, to jettison.

One of the best techniques that Hasidic exiters have found for integrating into the broader secular society is taking a hybrid approach to their life. That is, to find a way to incorporate elements of their past into their present and future. This approach is powerfully exemplified in the final scene of the miniseries when Esty auditions for entrance to a prestigious Berlin music institute. Esty first sings a short piece from Schubert entitled “An die Musik,” and does a competent job. Then she is asked to sing another song and chooses a Hasidic one with Hebrew words that was chanted at her wedding. She sways (shuckles) just as Hasidic Jews typically do when lost in a melody.  Her rendition is soul stirring. The viewer is mesmerized by Esty’s blending of classic European and Hasidic music. In that moment she has decided not to ghettoize her past but to allow it to blend into her present and future. In my book I call this “embracing a hybrid identity.” It’s not a brief transitional phase, but a long term strategy for pursuing a life that is deeply different from the life one was raised and trained in. Examples of hybridity include schuckling, like Esty in Unorthodox, while engaging in secular activities such as studying American law, or occasionally taking the time to study a passage of Talmud while pursuing a doctorate in French literature.

The main weakness of the miniseries is its inclusion of a spy-like theme that distracts from its beauty and authenticity. This theme begins in the opening scene of the miniseries with Esty surreptitiously collecting hidden items from around her bedroom—a wad of cash from inside a foam wig holder—in preparation of her departure. The covert ops continue with a scene where Esty is taken by an aunt to a kosher supermarket so that her prospective mother-in-law can furtively inspect her, like a piece of meat at a butcher shop, to see if she passes muster. This entire scene makes no sense. The mother-in-law doesn’t know her from around the small and close-knit neighborhood?  She can’t ask a friend? The espionage intensifies when the Rebbe, the spiritual leader of the Hasidic community, orders Esty’s sheepish husband Yanky, accompanied by his cousin Moshe, a thuggish character and former renegade himself, to travel to Berlin to track down and bring back Esty. Moshe even receives the obligatory box with a pistol when he checks into his Berlin hotel. Who does he get the gun from and what exactly is he supposed to do with it once he meets up with Esty?

This espionage subplot seems truly absurd. It makes Hasidic Jews and those who leave their community seem entirely foreign to the viewers who are finally coming to know this “exotic” community through shows like this one and to see them for the normal human beings they are, albeit living a wildly different lifestyle.

Sociologically speaking, exiting from strict religious communities is an example of the broader phenomenon of personal transformation and resocialization, similar to the processes people experience after a divorce and when immigrating to a new country. Leaving a religion is traumatic and complex, but not unrelated to other kinds of social experiences. It is helpful to think of religious exiters in relation to other forms of exiting. This helps humanize religious exiters and helps us realize that the process of resocialization is a more common one than we might otherwise imagine. People from all walks of life may need to engage in resocialization at some point or another.

Ironically, the actress who plays Esty, Shira Haas, starred in the international hit show on Netflix Shtisel, which was a huge success because it made the ultra-Orthodox appear normal, or more accurately, as troubled and complex as everyone else. They have distinct religious dress, beliefs, and rituals, but they too have romantic problems, marital disharmony, financial woes, struggles to find a career, and disappointments from their children.

Notwithstanding the distraction from the spy element, Unorthodox is a powerful series that celebrates the human capacity for personal transformation. It affirms that birth is not destiny, and gives voice to a group of survivors that are often marginalized in mainstream culture.

Schneur Zalman Newfield is an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Social Sciences, Human Services, and Criminal Justice at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. Visit him online at zalmannewfield.com.

Celebrating Earth Day

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate Earth Day with a handful of recent Temple University Press titles about nature and the environment.

2470_reg.gifIn Defense of Public Lands: The Case against Privatization and Transfer, by Steven Davis
Debates continue to rage over the merits or flaws of public land and whether or not it should be privatized—or at least radically reconfigured in some way. In Defense of Public Lands offers a comprehensive refutation of the market-oriented arguments. Steven Davis passionately advocates that public land ought to remain firmly in the public’s hands. He briefly lays out the history and characteristics of public lands at the local, state, and federal levels while examining the numerous policy prescriptions for their privatization or, in the case of federal lands, transfer. He considers the dimensions of environmental health; markets and valuation of public land, the tensions between collective values and individual preferences, the nature and performance of bureaucratic management, and the legitimacy of interest groups and community decision-making. Offering a fair, good faith overview of the privatizers’ best arguments before refuting them, this timely book contemplates both the immediate and long-term future of our public lands.

2474_reg.gifSinking Chicago: Climate Change and the Remaking of a Flood-Prone Environment, by Harold L. Platt
In Sinking Chicago, Harold Platt shows how people responded to climate change in one American city over a hundred-and-fifty-year period. During a long dry spell before 1945, city residents lost sight of the connections between land use, flood control, and water quality. Then, a combination of suburban sprawl and a wet period of extreme weather events created damaging runoff surges that sank Chicago and contaminated drinking supplies with raw sewage. Chicagoans had to learn how to remake a city built on a prairie wetland. They organized a grassroots movement to protect the six river watersheds in the semi-sacred forest preserves from being turned into open sewers, like the Chicago River. The politics of outdoor recreation clashed with the politics of water management. Platt charts a growing constituency of citizens who fought a corrupt political machine to reclaim the region’s waterways and Lake Michigan as a single eco-system. Environmentalists contested policymakers’ heroic, big-technology approaches with small-scale solutions for a flood-prone environment. Sinking Chicago lays out a roadmap to future planning outcomes.

Gone_Goose_SM.jpgGone Goose: The Remaking of an American Town in the Age of Climate Change, by Braden T. Leap

Sumner, MO, pop. 102, near the Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, proclaims itself “The Wild Goose Capital of the World.” It even displays Maxie, the World’s largest goose: a 40-foot tall fiberglass statue with a wingspan stretching more than 60 feet. But while the 200,000 Canada geese that spent their falls and winters at Swan Lake helped generate millions of dollars for the local economy—with hunting and the annual Goose Festival—climate change, as well as environmental and land use issues, have caused the birds to disappear. The economic loss of the geese and the activities they inspired served as key building blocks in the rural identities residents had developed and treasured. In his timely and topical book, Gone Goose, Braden Leap observes how members of this rural town adapted, reorganized, and reinvented themselves in the wake of climate change—and how they continued to cultivate respect and belonging in their community. Leap conducted interviews with residents and participated in various community events to explore how they reimagine their relationships with each other as well as their community’s relationship with the environment, even as they wish the geese would return.

Ecohumanism_and_the_Ecological_Culture_SM.jpgEcohumanism and the Ecological Culture: The Educational Legacy of Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg, by William J. Cohen

Lewis Mumford, one of the most respected public intellectuals of the twentieth century, speaking at a conference on the future environments of North America, said, “In order to secure human survival we must transition from a technological culture to an ecological culture.” In Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture, William Cohen shows how Mumford’s conception of an educational philosophy was enacted by Mumford’s mentee, Ian McHarg, the renowned landscape architect and regional planner at the University of Pennsylvania. McHarg advanced a new way to achieve an ecological culture―through an educational curriculum based on fusing ecohumanism to the planning and design disciplines. Cohen explores Mumford’s important vision of ecohumanism—a synthesis of natural systems ecology with the myriad dimensions of human systems, or human ecology―and how McHarg actually formulated and made that vision happen. He considers the emergence of alternative energy systems and new approaches to planning and community development to achieve these goals.

Latinx_Environmentalisms_sm.jpgLatinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the Decolonial, Edited by Sarah D. Wald, David J. Vázquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra, and Sarah Jaquette Ray.
The whiteness of mainstream environmentalism often fails to account for the richness and variety of Latinx environmental thought. Building on insights of environmental justice scholarship as well as critical race and ethnic studies, the editors and contributors to Latinx Environmentalisms map the ways Latinx cultural texts integrate environmental concerns with questions of social and political justice. Original interviews with creative writers, including Cherríe Moraga, Helena María Viramontes, and Héctor Tobar, as well as new essays by noted scholars of Latinx literature and culture, show how Latinx authors and cultural producers express environmental concerns in their work. These chapters, which focus on film, visual art, and literature—and engage in fields such as disability studies, animal studies, and queer studies—emphasize the role of racial capitalism in shaping human relationships to the more-than-human world and reveal a vibrant tradition of Latinx decolonial environmentalism. Latinx Environmentalisms accounts for the ways Latinx cultures are environmental, but often do not assume the mantle of “environmentalism.”

Untitled-1.jpgThe Winterthur Garden Guide: Color for Every Seasonby Linda Eirhart
Intended as a guide for the everyday gardener, The Winterthur Garden Guide offers practical advice—season by season—for achieving the succession of bloom developed by Henry Francis du Pont in his garden. This handy book highlights the design principles that guided du Pont and introduces practical flowers, shrubs, and trees that have stood the test of time—native and non-native, common as well as unusual. Lavishly illustrated, with new color photography, this handbook features close-ups of individual plants as well as sweeping vistas throughout. Whether addressing the early color combinations of the March Bank, the splendor of Azalea Woods, or the more intimate confines of the Quarry Garden, The Winterthur Garden Guide presents the essential elements of each plant, including common and botanical names; family origins and associations; size, soil, and light needs; bloom times; and zone preferences—everything the gardener needs to know for planning and replicating the “Winterthur look” on any scale.

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