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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Magnus Hirschfeld at 150: Sexual Rights and Social Wrongs

This week in North Philly Notes, Heike Bauer, author of The Hirschfeld Archives, blogs about Magnus Hirschfeld’s impact as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth.

This year marks the 150th anniversary since the birth of Jewish sexologist and sexual activist Magnus Hirschfeld. Born on May 14, 1868 in the small Baltic town of Kolberg, Hirschfeld, a trained doctor, is one of the founders of the modern homosexual rights movement in the West. He is best known today for his efforts to decriminalize homosexuality in Germany and for his foundational studies of what he called “transvestism,” a term he coined to distinguish gender from sexuality, anticipating the later trans vocabulary.

In 1919 Hirschfeld founded the world’s first Institute of Sexual Sciences. Housed in an imposing building in central Berlin, the Institute was a place for research, political activism and public education. Here Hirschfeld and his colleagues worked on all kinds of questions relating to sex and gender. The Institute was a clinic and research facility, hosted public talks, and provided sex education and counselling services. But the Institute was not only a place of work. It was also a home. Hirschfeld lived there with his partner Karl Giese; other rooms were rented out to permanent and temporary staff and visitors from around the world, most famously perhaps the American writer Christopher Isherwood who gave an account of his time at the Institute in Christopher and His Kind (1976). Hirschfeld’s widowed eldest sister Recha Tobias for a time hosted lodgers in her rooms at the Institute including the philosophers Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, although they did not engage with the Institute’s activities. Another famous inhabitant, Willi Münzenberg, the press officer of the German communist part, similarly remained detached from the sex researchers, but his partner, the journalist Babette Gross, noted that the busy, reform-oriented Institute environment was a great place to conduct semi-secret meetings of the Komintern, the communist international.

Hirschfeld Archives_smThe Institute of Sexual Science encapsulates what was new about Hirschfeld’s sexological work: unlike his medico-forensic predecessors, he was overtly politically motivated, believing that science could bring about social change and justice. As a socialist who engaged little with party politics, his sexual activism focused especially on the decriminalization and destigmatization of homosexuality. Hirschfeld produced, for example, the first surveys about suicide among homosexuals, using the data to support his argument that persecution could make lives feel unlivable. On a more practical level, Hirschfeld and his colleagues supported those whose bodies did not match their assigned gender.

The Institute’s doctors were among the pioneers of ‘sex change’ procedures. One former patient, Dora, who was born Rudoph Richter, was employed at the Institute as a maid, providing her with a secure income whilst maintaining, as the historian Katie Sutton has pointed out, fairly bourgeois domestic arrangements at this in many ways radical home.

Given Hirschfeld’s focus on supporting those whose bodies and desires did not match the norms of their time, it is no surprise that his name has become a byword for sexual activism. Today there exist numerous LGBTIQ organisations that have adopted his name. In Philadelphia, for example, a Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund was set up in 2004 for HIV/AIDS activism and to support the LGBT community. In Germany, there is a Magnus Hirschfeld Society dedicated to his legacy whilst in 2011 the German state itself set up a foundation in Hirschfeld’s name, the Bundesstiftung Magnus Hirschfeld. It aims to foster ‘acceptance’ for people who are not heterosexual and stop the discrimination of LGBTIQ people.

The Bundesstiftung has organised a special ceremony to celebrate Hirschfeld’s 150th  birthday. Featuring scholars and senior politicians, its focus lies on Hirschfeld’s achievements, especially, as the related publicity material suggests, on his homosexual rights efforts. The Bundesstiftung recognizes elsewhere that sexual politics go beyond same-sex rights when it includes intersex people in its mission statement. While there is some debate about whether or not intersex should be included in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer rainbow, such visibility matters because intersex people still remain marginalized in many political debates. The artist DEL LAGRACE VOLCANO has long worked to challenge this absence in the VISIBLY INTERSEX project [http://www.dellagracevolcano.com/gallery/visibly-intersex-35548944]. In the U.K., a new exhibition entitled Transitional States: Hormones at the Crossroads of Art and Science, currently on display at the Peltz Gallery in London, asks questions about gender and the uses of hormones in defying or upholding social norms.

Such interventions are vital given that many intersex infants to this day are subjected to the violence of “corrective” surgeries that conform to social expectation rather than medical need and are undertaken without consent of the young person subjected to them. Hirschfeld did not see young children in his clinic, but he did gather a large collection of photographs of the genitals of intersex people. These photographs are reminders of the emphatic limits of Hirschfeld practice. They reduce people to their bodies. Hirschfeld’s related writings on intersex add little context about the persons under scrutiny, reinforcing their sense of isolation, which stands in marked contrast to the affirmative emphasis on community and collective identity that characterizes Hirschfeld’s work on homosexuality.

In my book, The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death and Modern Queer Culture I turn attention to these today lesser-known aspects of Hirschfeld’s work. They complicate straightforward celebrations of his achievements. 150 years after Hirschfeld’s birth, it remains critical to remember that the struggle for homosexual rights was not a fight for social justice per se.

 

 

 

Books about Moms and Motherhood for Mother’s Day

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase Temple University Press books about Moms and motherhood for Mother’s Day. 

The Paradox of Natural Mothering, by Chris Bobel

1581_regSingle or married, working mothers are, if not the norm, no longer exceptional. These days, women who stay at home to raise their children seem to be making a radical lifestyle choice. Indeed, the women at the center of The Paradox of Natural Mothering have renounced consumerism and careerism in order to reclaim home and family. These natural mothers favor parenting practices that set them apart from the mainstream: home birth, extended breast feeding, home schooling and natural health care. Regarding themselves as part of a movement, natural mothers believe they are changing society one child, one family at a time.

Author Chris Bobel profiles some thirty natural mothers, probing into their choices and asking whether they are reforming or conforming to women’s traditional role.

Mothers, Daughters, and Political Socialization: Two Generations at an American Women’s Collegeby Krista Jenkins

2236_regMothers, Daughters, and Political Socialization examines the role of intergenerational transmission—the maternal influences on younger women—while also looking at differences among women in attitudes and behaviors relative to gender roles that might be attributed to the nature of the times during their formative years. How do daughters coming of age in an era when the women’s movement is far less visible deal with gendered expectations compared to their mothers? Do they accept the contemporary status quo their feminist mothers fought so hard to achieve? Or, do they press forward with new goals?

Jenkins shows how contemporary women are socialized to accept or reject traditional gender roles that serve to undermine their equality.

My Mother’s Hip: Lessons from the World of Eldercare, by Luisa Margolies

1721_regAfter her mother’s double hip fracture, Luisa Margolies immersed herself in identifying and coordinating the services and professionals needed to provide critical care for an elderly person. She soon realized that the American medical system is ill prepared to deal with the long-term care needs of our graying society. The heart of My Mother’s Hip is taken up with the author’s day-to-day observations as her mother’s condition worsened, then improved only to worsen again, while her father became increasingly anxious and disoriented.

Weaving Work and Motherhood, by Anita Ilta Garey

1360_regIn American culture, the image of balancing work and family life is most often represented in the glossy shot of the executive-track woman balancing cell-phone, laptop, and baby. In Weaving Work and Motherhood, Anita Ilta Garey focuses not on the corporate executives so frequently represented in American ads and magazines but, rather, on the women in jobs that typify the vast majority of women’s employment in the United States.

Moving beyond studies of women, work, and family in terms of structural incompatibilities, Garey challenges images of the exclusively “work-oriented” or exclusively “family-oriented” mother.

Pushing for Midwives: Homebirth Mothers and the Reproductive Rights Movement, by Christa Craven

2073_regWith the increasing demand for midwives among U.S. women, reproductive rights activists are lobbying to loosen restrictions that deny legal access to homebirth options. In Pushing for Midwives, Christa Craven presents a nuanced history of women’s reproductive rights activism in the U.S. She also provides an examination of contemporary organizing strategies for reproductive rights in an era increasingly driven by “consumer rights.”

By framing the midwifery struggle through a political economic perspective on reproductive rights, Pushing for Midwives offers an in-depth look at the strategies, successes, and challenges facing midwifery activists in Virginia.

 

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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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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