A Q&A with author and political pundit Michael Smerconish

This week in North Philly Notes, Michael Smerconish talks about how he came to politics, his opinions, and his new book,  Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

How did you develop your role as a political commentator?
I was interested in Republican politics and benefitted from some unique experiences at an early age. I was an assistant GOP committeeman, elected alternate delegate to a national convention and state legislative candidate all before age 25. By the time I was 29, I was appointed to a sub-cabinet level position in the George H.W. Bush Administration. Those experiences put me on the radar of some Philadelphia local network television affiliates who then began to call upon me for election commentary.

How did your background in politics shape your opinions, and how did it influence your approach to writing about local and popular culture?
I’ve always enjoyed writing about both political and cultural topics. As I look at the breath of my work as a columnist, it is pretty evenly divided between the two. I’ve written about a variety of 9/11 related issues, war, political candidates, and the economy. I’ve also written about yard sales, holiday decorations, and family pets.

You are always looking for a “good story” to turn into a column. In this age of “click bait” journalism, what makes a “good story,” or motivates you to think critically and provide thoughtful analysis?
A good story to me has nothing to do with the Red State/Blue State divide. What I most enjoy are telling those stories that are Seinfeldian, a slice of life that may (or may not) highlight areas of different opinion but not along the partisan divide. The kind of issues we enjoy talking about and maybe laughing about without being at each other’s throats.

Clowns to the Left of Me_smCan you describe the criteria you used to whittle down the more than 1000 articles you published to the 100 in the book?
Like Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography, “I knew it when I saw it.” By my count, I published 1,047 columns for the Daily News and Inquirer between 2001 and 2016, and although I was making some swaps until the final submission, for the most part I had an easy time picking what I wanted to re-visit. Some things I got right and wanted to crow about, some things I got wrong but wanted to own, and others just plain stood the test of time and were insightful.

What observations do you have about the Afterwords you wrote for each entry? In some cases, you apologize for things you wrote, and in others, you show how your thinking on a topic has evolved.
I think most of us evolve over time with regard to our thinking. What separates me from many is that my opinions are all chiseled in granite, er, newsprint. And so you can easily discern how I viewed literally more than 1,000 issues. As I re-read everything I have published, there were certainly areas where my views have changed and I wanted to explain why. But there were plenty of times when I looked at what I’ve written and concluded that the times have changed, not me.

You write about everyone from Fidel Castro to Bill Cosby. You write about paying more money for a Cat Stevens concert than you care to admit. Who impressed you the most—or the least?
While I have been immensely fortunate to interact with many household names, those aren’t often the encounters that created the most meaningful columns. Yes, I interviewed Barack Obama and wrote about him, and Bill Cosby, and had a funny encounter with Led Zeppelin and Pete Rose—but the columns I’m most proud of are those I wrote about an old college professor, a woman who worked for our family in a domestic capacity, and a guy I went to junior high school with who today is a tomato farmer. Real people with compelling stories.

Do you have a favorite column that you published?
I once wrote a Daily News column—with my thumbs on a Blackberry—while standing in a 2-hour viewing line as it snaked through South Philadelphia. I think the headline was “Requiem for an Era.” I’m very proud of that column.

You are donating your author proceeds for the book to the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center. Can you explain why this charity is so important to you?
CCTC exists to serve children who are victims of trauma. If you hear a heartbreaking story about something that has happened to children, chances are, CCTC is involved. My wife is on the board and I wanted to highlight their good work.

About the author:
Michael A. Smerconish
is a SiriusXM radio host, CNN television host, and Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper columnist. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Lehigh University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, he is of counsel to the law firm of Kline & Specter. He resides in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he and his wife have raised four children.

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Honoring Mexico on Cinco de Mayo

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase books about Mexico in honor of Cinco de Mayo.

urban leviathanUrban Leviathan: Mexica City in the Twentieth Century by Diane E. Davis

Why, Diane Davis asks, has Mexico City, once known as the city of palaces, turned into a sea of people, poverty, and pollution? Through historical analysis of Mexico City, Davis identifies political actors responsible for the uncontrolled industrialization of Mexico’s economic and social center, its capital city. This narrative biography takes a perspective rarely found in studies of third-world urban development: Davis demonstrates how and why local politics can run counter to rational politics, yet become enmeshed, spawning ineffective policies that are detrimental to the city and the nation.

effects of the nationThe Effects of the Nation: Mexican Art in an Age of Globalization edited by Carl Good and John V. Waldron

What is the effect of a “nation”? In this age of globalization, is it dead, dying, only dormant? The essays in this groundbreaking volume use the arts in Mexico to move beyond the national and the global to look at the activity of a community continually re-creating itself within and beyond its own borders.

Mexico is a particularly apt focus, partly because of the vitality of its culture, partly because of its changing political identity, and partly because of the impact of borders and borderlessness on its national character. The ten essays collected here look at a wide range of aesthetic productions—especially literature and the visual arts—that give context to how art and society interact.

Ethical Borders sm compEthical Borders: NAFTA, Globalization, and Mexican Migration by Bill Ong Hing

In his topical new book, Ethical Borders, Bill Ong Hing asks, why do undocumented immigrants from Mexico continue to enter the United States and what would discourage this surreptitious traffic? An expert on immigration law and policy, Hing examines the relationship between NAFTA, globalization, and undocumented migration, and he considers the policy options for controlling immigration. He develops an ethical rationale for opening up the U.S./Mexican border, as well as improving conditions in Mexico so that its citizens would have little incentive to migrate.

Sounds Modern Nation smallSounds of the Modern Nation: Music, Culture, and Ideas in Post-Revolutionary Mexico by Alejandro L. Madrid

Sounds of the Modern Nation explores the development of modernist and avant-garde art music styles and aesthetics in Mexico in relation to the social and cultural changes that affected the country after the 1910-1920 revolution. Alejandro Madrid argues that these modernist works provide insight into the construction of individual and collective identities based on new ideas about modernity and nationality. Instead of depicting a dichotomy between modernity and nationalism, Madrid reflects on the multiple intersections between these two ideas and the dialogic ways through which these notions acquired meaning.

MinichCompFinal.inddAccessing Citizenship: Disability, Nation, and Cultural Politics of Greater Mexico  by Julie Avril Minich

Accessible Citizenships examines Chicana/o cultural representations that conceptualize political community through images of disability. Working against the assumption that disability is a metaphor for social decay or political crisis, Julie Avril Minich analyzes literature, film, and visual art post-1980 in which representations of nonnormative bodies work to expand our understanding of what it means to belong to a political community. Minich shows how queer writers like Arturo Islas and Cherríe Moraga have reconceptualized Chicano nationalism through disability images. She further addresses how the U.S.-Mexico border and disabled bodies restrict freedom and movement. Finally, she confronts the changing role of the nation-state in the face of neoliberalism as depicted in novels by Ana Castillo and Cecile Pineda.

Mexican Voices Border Region compMexican Voices of the Borders Region by Laura Velasco Ortiz and Oscar F. Contreras

Mexican Voices of the Border Region examines the flow of people, commercial traffic, and the development of relationships across this border. Through first-person narratives, Laura Velasco Ortiz and Oscar F. Contreras show that since NAFTA, Tijuana has become a dynamic and significant place for both nations in terms of jobs and residents. The authors emphasize that the border itself has different meanings whether one crosses it frequently or not at all. The interviews probe into matters of race, class, gender, ethnicity, place, violence, and political economy as well as the individual’s sense of agency.

Mexican American Women Activists: Identity and Resistance in Two Los Angeles Communities by Mary Pardo

mexican american women activistsMexican American Women Activists tells the stories of Mexican American women from two Los Angeles neighborhoods and how they transformed the everyday problems they confronted into political concerns. By placing these women’s experiences at the center of her discussion of grassroots political activism, Mary Pardo illuminates the gender, race, and class character of community networking. She shows how citizens help to shape their local environment by creating resources for churches, schools, and community services and generates new questions and answers about collective action and the transformation of social networks into political networks.

nothing nobodyNothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake by Elena Poniatowska

September 19, 1985: A powerful earthquake hits Mexico City in the early morning hours. As the city collapses, the government fails to respond. Long a voice of social conscience, prominent Mexican journalist Elena Poniatowska chronicles the disintegration of the city’s physical and social structure, the widespread grassroots organizing against government corruption and incompetence, and the reliency of the human spirit. As a transformative moment in the life of mexican society, the earthquake is as much a component of the country’s current crisis as the 1982 debt crisis, the problematic economic of the last ten years, and the recent elections.

Musica Nortena sm compMúsica Norteña: Mexican Migrants Creating Community Between Nations by Cathy Ragland

Música norteña, a musical genre with its roots in the folk ballad traditions of northern Mexico and the Texas-Mexican border region, has become a hugely popular musical style in the U.S., particularly among Mexican immigrants. Featuring evocative songs about undocumented border-crossers, drug traffickers, and the plight of immigrant workers, música norteña has become the music of a “nation between nations.” Música Norteña is the first definitive history of this transnational music that has found enormous commercial success in norteamérica. Cathy Ragland, an ethnomusicologist and former music critic, serves up the fascinating fifty-year story of música norteña, enlivened by interviews with important musicians and her own first-hand observations of live musical performances.

New ImageSurviving Mexico’s Dirty War: A Political Prisoner’ s Memoir by Alberto Ulloa Bornemann

This is the first major, book-length memoir of a political prisoner from Mexico’s “dirty war” of the 1970s. Written with the urgency of a first-person narrative, it is a unique work, providing an inside story of guerrilla activities and a gripping tale of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Mexican government.

Alberto Ulloa Bornemann was a young idealist when he dedicated himself to clandestine resistance and to assisting Lucio Cabañas, the guerrilla leader of the “Party of the Poor.” Here the author exposes readers to the day-to-day activities of revolutionary activists seeking to avoid discovery by government forces. After his capture, Ulloa Bornemann endured disappearance into a secret military jail and later abusive conditions in three civilian prisons.

Temple University Press Titles the Organization of American Historians Conference

This week in North Philly Notes, we highlight the books and authors at the Organization for American Historians Conference, April 12-14 in Sacramento, CA.

Visit us at Booth #210!
Titles on Display include:

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

This timely volume unites the interests of minorities and white working- and middle-class Americans to propose a strategy to reduce poverty, inequality, and racial injustice. Reflecting on America’s urban climate today, this new report sets forth evidence-based policies concerning employment, education, housing, neighborhood development, and criminal justice based on what has been proven to work-and not work.

“A Road to Peace and Freedom”:  The International Workers Order and the Struggle for Economic Justice and Civil Rights, 1930-1954by Robert M. Zecker

A Road to Peace and Freedom_smMining extensive primary sources, Robert Zecker gives voice to the workers in “A Road to Peace and Freedom.” He describes the International Workers Order’s economic goals, commitment to racial justice, and activism, from lobbying to end segregation and lynching in America to defeating fascism abroad. Zecker also illustrates the panoply of entertainment, sports, and educational activities designed to cultivate the minds and bodies of members.

Against the Deportation Terror: Organizing for Immigrant Rights in the Twentieth Century, by Rachel Ida Buff

Buff approved 032017.inddDespite being characterized as a “nation of immigrants,” the United States has seen a long history of immigrant rights struggles. In her timely book Against the Deportation Terror, Rachel Ida Buff uncovers this multiracial history. She traces the story of the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born (ACPFB) from its origins in the 1930s through repression during the early Cold War, to engagement with “new” Latinx and Caribbean immigrants in the 1970s and early 1980s. By tracing the work of the ACPFB and its allies over half a century, Against the Deportation Terror provides important historical precedent for contemporary immigrant rights organizing. Its lessons continue to resonate today.

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On the Stump: Campaign Oratory and Democracy in the United States, Britain, and Australia, by Sean Scalmer

Scalmer_6 x 9_new ST_030717.indd“Stumping,” or making political speeches in favor of a candidate, cause, or campaign has been around since before the 1800s, when speechmaking was frequently portrayed as delivered from the base of a tree. The practice, which has been strongly associated with the American frontier, British agitators, and colonial Australia, remains an effective component of contemporary democratic politics. In his engaging book On the Stump, Sean Scalmer provides the first comprehensive, transnational history of the “stump speech.” He traces the development and transformation of campaign oratory, as well as how national elections and public life and culture have been shaped by debate over the past century.

Sinking Chicago: Climate Change and the Remaking of a Flood-Prone Environment, by Harold L. Platt

Sinking ChicagoSMIn 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. Sinking Chicago lays out a roadmap to future planning outcomes.

Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation,” by J. Mark Souther

Believing in Cleveland_smSouther explores Cleveland’s downtown revitalization efforts, its neighborhood renewal and restoration projects, and its fight against deindustrialization. He shows how the city reshaped its image when it was bolstered by sports team victories. But Cleveland was not always on the upswing. Souther places the city’s history in the postwar context when the city and metropolitan area were divided by uneven growth. In the 1970s, the city-suburb division was wider than ever.  Believing in Cleveland recounts the long, difficult history of a city that entered the postwar period as America’s sixth largest, then lost ground during a period of robust national growth.

Constructing the Patriarchal City: Gender and the Built Environments of London, Dublin, Toronto and Chicago, 1870s into the 1940s, by Maureen A. Flanagan

Flanagan_to AMA_062217.inddConstructing the Patriarchal City compares the ideas and activities of men and women in four English-speaking cities that shared similar ideological, professional, and political contexts. Historian Maureen Flanagan investigates how ideas about gender shaped the patriarchal city as men used their expertise in architecture, engineering, and planning to fashion a built environment for male economic enterprise and to confine women in the private home. Women consistently challenged men to produce a more equitable social infrastructure that included housing that would keep people inside the city, public toilets for women as well as men, housing for single, working women, and public spaces that were open and safe for all residents.

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Celebrating National Poetry Month with Temple University Press books

This week in North Philly Notes, we highlight our books featuring and analyzing poetry in honor of National Poetry Month

1215_reg.gifMayan Drifter: Chicano Poet in the Lowlands of America, by Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate

In Mayan Drifter, Juan Felipe Herrera journeys to the Maya Lowlands of Chiapas on a quest for his Indio heritage and a vision of the multicultured identity emerging in America. He attempts to shed the trappings and privileges of his life in California in order to reduce his distance from the dispersed and shrinking Mayan population. In Mexico, Herrera seeks a deeper understanding of his homeland’s history, its exploitation, and looks to realize his own place in relation to the struggle of his people.

Like the Mayan drifter, the text crosses and extends boundaries. In a variety of narrative voices, poems, and a play, across time, Herrera recounts how the Maya have been invaded by the Spanish, the government, the multinational corporations of the petrochemical industry, and anthropologists. The Maya survive and resist as their numbers dwindle and the forces that mount against them become more powerful.

Inspired by the Maya’s resilience, Herrera envisions the disappearance of borders and evokes a fluid American self that needs no fixed identity or location.

Forthcoming in July from Temple University Press…

Who Will Speak for America? edited by Stephanie Feldman and Nathaniel Popkin

The editors and contributors to Who Will Speak for America? are passionate and justifiably angry voices providing a literary response to today’s political crisis. Inspired by and drawing from the work of writers who participated in nationwide Writers Resist events in January 2017, this volume provides a collection of poems, stories, essays, and cartoons that wrestle with the meaning of America and American identity.

THEFT 2502_reg.gif

Fran Wilde

–For Mia

That morning the officials
stole all the words

We bit into apples sliced thin
and drank coffee, not noticing
that the table had disappeared,
the window
even as we talked and chewed and laughed.

Friends wrote columns of blank space
demanding a return
of sense and empathy

and the officials heard the
and saw the

Then they returned our words
in sacks. Gave them back
to us upside down.

So we sit at the thin
and sip at a table

And we bite into windows
The brittle glass stinging our tongues
and we refuse to stop chewing

Also of interest….

On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan by Carlos Bulosan, edited by E. San Juan, Jr.

A companion volume to The Cry and the Dedication, this is the first extensive collection of Carlos Bulosan’s short stories, essays, poetry, and correspondence. Bulosan’s writings expoun1184_reg.gifd his mission to redefine the Filipino American experience and mark his growth as a writer. The pieces included here reveal how his sensibility, largely shaped by the political circumstances of the 1930s up to the 1950s, articulates the struggles and hopes for equality and justice for Filipinos. He projects a “new world order” liberated from materialist greed, bigoted nativism, racist oppression, and capitalist exploitation. As E. San Juan explains in his Introduction, Bulosan’s writings “help us to understand the powerlessness and invisibility of being labeled a Filipino in post Cold War America.”

Yo’ Mama!: New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes and Children’s Rhymes from Urban Black America edited by Onwuchekwa Jemie

Collected primarily in metropolitan New York and Philadelphia during the classic era of black “street poetry” (i.e., during the late 1960s and early 1970s) these raps, signifyings, toasts, boasts, jokes and children’s rhymes will delight general readers as well as scholars. Ranging from the simple rhymes that accompany children’s games to verbally inventive insults and the epic exploits of traditional characters like Shine and Stagger Lee, these texts sound the deep rivers of culture, echoing two continents. Onwuchekwa Jemie’s introductory essay situates them in a globally pan-African context and relates them to more recent forms of oral culture such as rap and spoken word. 1453_reg.gif

I HATE BOSCO

I hate Bosco
It’s no good for me
My mother poured some in my milk
To try and poison me
But I fooled my mother
I poured some in her tea
Now I don’t have no mother
To try and poison me

Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River by Beth Kephart

The Schuylkill River — the name in Dutch means “hidden creek” — courses many miles, turning through Philadelphia before it yields to the Delaware. “I am this wide. I am this deep. A tad voluptuous, but only in places,” writes Beth Kephart, capturing the voice of this natural resource in Flow.

An award-winning author, 1909_reg.gifKephart’s elegant, impressionistic story of the Schuylkill navigates the beating heart of this magnificent water source. Readers are invited to flow through time-from the colonial era and Ben Franklin’s death through episodes of Yellow Fever and the Winter of 1872, when the river froze over-to the present day. Readers will feel the silt of the Schuylkill’s banks, swim with its perch and catfish, and cruise-or scull-downstream, from Reading to Valley Forge to the Water Works outside center city.

Flow‘s lush narrative is peppered with lovely, black and white photographs and illustrations depicting the river’s history, its people, and its gorgeous vistas. Written with wisdom and with awe for one of the oldest friends of all Philadelphians, Flow is a perfect book for reading while the ice melts, and for slipping in your bag for your own visit to the Schuylkill.

Yellow Fever
It was a low-flying sheen that I could hardly see through.
It was a murderously persistent whine.
The eggs were slime.
I was too shallow.
Forgive me.

Can Vets win more votes? Depends on when and where

This week in North Philly Notes, Jeremy Teigen, author of Why Veterans Runpenned an essay on the recent victory by Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania.

Democrats’ victory in Pennsylvania’s special congressional election last week made great waves in the media for a few reasons. Primarily, news cycles focus on special elections as a barometer of national sentiment, though their ability to predict the future should be viewed with care. Yet, the race between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania grabbed my attention for another reason. Both candidates served in the armed forces.

Saccone, 60, served in U.S. Air Force counterintelligence units. The much younger Lamb was a JAG in the Marine Corps. While neither are combat veterans, both served as officers. Both campaign websites featured the candidates’ military experience on online bios while media accounts of the candidates frequently referred to their service. A typical example: “While Saccone has a compelling biography—like Lamb, he served in the military—the outside groups have found that introducing him to voters …has proven challenging.” Other headlines focused specifically on the fact that two veterans vied for the seat despite declining numbers of veterans in the electorate.

This 2018 special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district is not the first time that an off-schedule congressional election attracted national media attention in part because of a candidate’s military service record. In southwestern Ohio near Cincinnati (a city named for a very notable military veteran), a 2005 U.S. House special election featured a Democrat with Iraq War experience who sought to occupy a vacancy. Paul Hackett lost by a whisker, but he outperformed the baseline partisanship of the district substantially. At one point he called President George W. Bush a “chickenhawk” for avoiding Vietnam in the 1960s, which implicitly highlighted his own time as a U.S. Marine in war. Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry had only earned about 35% of the district’s presidential votes the year before, but Hackett put some fear in GOP hearts by almost upsetting expectations with over 48% of the vote. Had he won, he would have been the first OIF veteran congressman.

Lamb also outperformed the baseline partisanship of his district last week. Donald Trump exceeded Hillary Clinton’s support by 20% in 2016 in PA-18 while Barack Obama trailed Mitt Romney in 2012 by similar margins. That makes it clear that Lamb was able to persuade independents and perhaps some Republicans to vote for him, in addition to raising far more funds than Saccone. Despite a last-minute campaign assist from President Trump himself, Saccone underperformed in GOP-friendly territory. Trump specifically commended Saccone’s Air Force service on his visit.

Teigen _approvedrev_042117.inddHaving two veterans run against each other in House contests is not common. In my book, Why Veterans Run: Military Service in American Presidential Elections, 1789-2016, I compiled a decades’ worth of House election data to see if there is a quantifiable advantage that veterans enjoy at the ballot box. Looking only at the 315 contests in 2016 where there was a Republican and a Democrat in the race (omitting California and the other states with “top two” primaries), only 14 featured a general election with two veterans running against each other. But what really matters is where and in which districts parties choose to nominate military veterans.

Democrats won a special election with a veteran in a competitive but GOP-leaning district in the heart of where Trump was able to carve out an Electoral College win in 2016. If Democrats are hoping to retake the House this November, and aiming to do it with veterans, they need to nominate veterans in purple districts rather than in longshot races. While this week’s special election is atypical because it was an open seat, we can look to a normal cycle of House elections and look for military experience patterns among each party’s challengers.

As I wrote last year, Democrats do not have a track record of nominating veterans in places where they can beat incumbent Republicans.  In 2016, Democrats tended to nominate veterans in uphill races. Democratic nonveteran challengers ran in districts where Obama’s votes averaged 42.3%, but in races where Democrats nominated a veteran, Obama’s support was more than three points lower. In contrast, Republicans in 2016 nominated their veteran challengers in friendlier territory.

Signs look good for the Democrats going into the 2018 regularly scheduled midterms. And early signs show that Democratic veterans are emerging in more competitive places compared to two years ago. If challengers such as Mikie Sherrill, a female Naval Academy grad and pilot in the very purple NJ-11 district, represent a new strategy for Democrats, the success they have with veterans will mark a change from the past.

Jeremy M. Teigen, Professor of Political Science at Ramapo College (@ProfTeigen)

Fernando Ortiz Today

This week in North Philly Notes, Robin Moore, editor of Fernando Ortiz on Music, writes about the relevance and influence of Ortiz’s writing on Cuban music, history, and culture

Who is Fernando Ortiz, why should anyone care about what he wrote, and what does he have to offer to readers today? Those are important questions, especially given that Ortiz lived and wrote many years ago; that his writings focus primarily on black music in other countries; and that—as an author trained in late nineteenth-century Europe—he inherited many biases toward Afro-descendant expression. As such, some of his observations sound dated or even racist by the standards of the present day. The relevance of his writings in 2018 may not be immediately apparent to everyone.

I first became acquainted with a few of Ortiz’s books as a graduate student at the University of Texas in the early 1990s. I planned to write a dissertation on Cuban music, and Ortiz loomed large as an individual who undertook the first detailed studies of Afro-Cuban culture in that country, based in large part on ground-breaking ethnographic excursions and interviews. His work was impressive in many respects: he published tremendous amounts of material, many thousands of pages over the course his career, and on a wide array of topics. He read widely in half a dozen languages. His knowledge of Cuban history and access to primary and secondary sources supporting such work were extraordinary. Fernando Ortiz on MusicSMIt became clear to me that countless individuals interested in black history, African-influenced languages in the new world, drumming and dance traditions, Afro-descendant religions, the Atlantic slave trade, and other topics had drawn heavily on Ortiz as they pursued academic work in the US, the Caribbean, South America, and elsewhere. Those influenced by his work in the U.S., for example, include the dancer Katherine Dunham; the anthropologist and founder of black studies in the United States, Melville Herskovits; and the art historian Robert Farris Thompson. Simply put, Ortiz was very influential; and if his work had written in English rather than Spanish, I am certain that it would have met an even more enthusiastic reception internationally.

Cuba, along with a few other Latin American/Caribbean countries, has a unique cultural profile because of the large numbers of enslaved Africans brought the island, and the fact that many of them arrived rather late (clandestinely the slave trade continued there well into the 1870s). In broad strokes, Cuba and the United States share a history of European colonization, the decimation of local indigenous populations, and the use of slave labor. Yet the fact that free and enslaved Africans and their descendants have constituted a majority of the island’s population for most of the past two centuries, and that African-derived traditions have been re-created in overt ways there, means that Cuba looks and sounds very different from the United States. I find that the study of Cuban music and history suggests interesting points of comparison for those based in the U.S. It helps us recognize similar Afrodescendant cultural influences in our own country. Cuba’s music and dance traditions that blend influences from West Africa and Europe are quite similar to our own, providing insights into processes of cultural fusion and how Afro-descendant cultures manifest themselves in repertoire such as black gospel. Reading about Cuban and Caribbean history helps us situate US history within a broader framework and makes us realizes that our “unique” cultural forms — from rap to blues to jazz — emerged out of broader processes.

Not only do I find the ethnographic data in Ortiz’s work still broadly relevant, but I consider even his ideological flaws and limitations to be instructive. The post-WWII period, which represents the apex of Ortiz’s career, was one in which leading authors throughout Europe and the Americas began to seriously question racist beliefs about non-European people for the first time. Much of this soul-searching was inspired by the Nazis and their horrendously racist views of non-Arian people, of course, as well as political challenges to colonial rule in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. Ortiz’s struggles with entrenched Eurocentric points of view, notions of racial and cultural hierarchy, and the “proper place” of Afrodescendant culture within his country represent a corollary to similar debates taking place throughout the Western world and beyond. Including Ortiz in the study of racial debates of the era expands our understanding of such discourse beyond the spheres of U.S. and European academia. It helps “decenter” that literature by underscoring the important contributions and perspectives of those in developing countries. And it helps us better appreciate the true extent of slavery’s impact on politics, culture, and ideology throughout the Western hemisphere.

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