Mourning the loss of lindy hopper and author Norma Miller

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post the obituary from the May 5 issue of the New York Times that celebrated the life of Norma Miller, author of Swinin’ at the Savoy

By Robert D. McFadden

swingin at the savoyNorma Miller, who danced the Lindy Hop on Harlem sidewalks as a child, and as a teenager dazzled crowds on international tours in the 1930s and early ′40s doing the same kicks, spins and drops that had made it a Jazz Age jitterbug craze, died on Sunday at her home in Fort Myers, Fla. She was 99.

Her longtime manager and caretaker, John Biffar, announced her death.

Among the cultural prodigies who arose after the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh’s “hop” from New York to Paris in 1927 — hence the dance’s name — Ms. Miller, known as the “Queen of Swing,” was the youngest recruit and last survivor of the original Lindy Hoppers, the all-black Herbert White troupe that broke in at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom and popularized the Lindy Hop in Broadway shows, on tours of Europe and Latin America, and in Hollywood films.

In the movies, she danced and sang in memorable black-cast numbers in the Marx Brothers’ “A Day at the Races” (1937) and in the madcap Olsen and Johnson comedy “Hellzapoppin’ ” (1941). She later thrived as a choreographer, comedian, television actor and author, and was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003 as a conservator of the Lindy Hop.

With her own black companies, the Norma Miller Dancers and Norma Miller and Her Jazzmen, she joined early fights to undermine segregation in the nightclubs and casinos of Miami Beach and Las Vegas, where black entertainers — even stars like Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. — drew big crowds but afterward had to leave through the kitchen and stay in segregated accommodations.

A child of poverty whose father died before she was born, Ms. Miller lived with her mother and sister in a cramped, noisy Harlem apartment, whose back windows looked out on the ballroom that would be her steppingstone to stardom. On the horizon were professional friendships with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Artie Shaw and other musical legends.

She was discovered on Easter Sunday 1932 by the great swing dancer Twist Mouth George Ganaway as she flashed her moves on the sidewalk outside the Savoy, a blocklong rhythm factory on Lenox Avenue between West 140th and 141st Streets. She was only 12, too young even to get into the swanky, mirrored emporium of swing that Langston Hughes called “the heartbeat of Harlem.”

“I was a precocious youngster,” Ms. Miller said in “Queen of Swing,” a 2006 documentary on her life. Mr. Ganaway spotted her performance and gave her a Coca-Cola. From inside the Savoy, a swing band’s hard-driving sound beat its way to the sidewalk, and there she and Mr. Ganaway danced.

“He swung me out,” she recalled. “I don’t know if I ever hit the floor. He just flew me all around.”

Norma, wiry and nimble, already knew some Lindy Hop moves: the swing out, the hip-to-hip, the side-flip, the sugar push. Mr. Ganaway was impressed. He took her into the Savoy, ignoring the technicality of her age, and they were soon captivating the regulars with through-the-legs slides, over-the-head flips and acrobatic aerial lifts. Later, they won a Lindy Hop contest at the Savoy.

She continued to improve. After watching her win the Harvest Moon Ball dance contest at the Apollo Theater in 1934, Herbert White invited her to join his new troupe, the Lindy Hoppers. She agreed, and at 15 came under the tutelage of Mr. White’s choreographer,  Frankie Manning, the master of swing-era dances, who was the inspirational coach of the Lindy Hoppers.

What followed over the next few years was the professional education of a dancer: the wider world of hard work and the excitement and grind of travel to faraway places, of dancing in Broadway shows and on a seven-month tour of Paris, London and other European cities, then performances across America with Ethel Waters and a girl’s first adventure in Hollywood.

She was not quite 18 when she met the Marx Brothers, Allan Jones and Maureen O’Sullivan on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot and made her film debut in “A Day at the Races.” She danced and sang with the Lindy Hoppers in the well-known black-cast barn scene number, “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm,” which featured Ivie Anderson and Duke Ellington’s orchestra. The Lindy Hop sequence was nominated for an Academy Award for dance direction.

Ms. Miller and the Lindy Hoppers were showcased in the Broadway musical revue hit “Hellzapoppin’ ” in 1938 and in 1941 appeared in the Hollywood version, both of which starred Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson and Martha Raye. It was a slashing satire of show business, with slapstick mayhem, horned demons, collapsing staircases and fun house slides that led straight to hell.


In a sequence widely regarded as the best example of the Lindy Hop on film, four couples in backstage-workers’ get-ups swing out, one after the other, into acrobatic shines at a frenetic tempo. Ms. Miller and Billy Ricker, dancing in chefs caps like animated rag dolls, execute breathtaking flips, slides, kicks, splits, lifts and lightning moves that seem to defy gravity and human speed limits

After completing the filming, the Lindy Hoppers flew to Brazil and were performing in Rio de Janeiro when the bombing of Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II. Unable to find transportation home, the troupe toured for six months in South America before returning home exhausted and nearly broke.

With the war on, the Lindy Hop began to fade as musical tastes changed. In 1942, Ms. Miller made her last tour with the Lindy Hoppers, appearing in New York, Washington and Baltimore. When her dance partner was drafted into the military, she left the troupe, which disbanded soon after. While her career went on for decades, it never returned to the high notes of her early years.

The Savoy Ballroom, which opened in 1926 and brought blacks and whites together in an era of racial segregation, was torn down in 1958 to make way for a housing project. On any given night, thousands had packed its hardwood floors as swing music by Ellington, Basie or Chick Webb inspired the Norma Millers.

“Black girls didn’t have many outlets,” she told a Florida radio station in 2015, eight decades after her heyday. “You had laundry. You had hairdresser. Or teacher. Now, I didn’t qualify for any of those. I could dance. I could just do it naturally.”

Norma Miller was born in Harlem on Dec. 2, 1919, the second daughter of Norman and Alma Miller, immigrants from Barbados. Her father, a shipyard worker, died of pneumonia a month before her birth, and her mother worked as a charwoman to raise her and her sister, Dot. Norma was fascinated with dance, and her mother, though struggling to pay rent, enrolled her in Saturday dance classes. Norma danced at her mother’s “rent parties,” as friends chipped in.

In the Roaring Twenties, music was everywhere in Harlem, but after 1929, when the Millers moved into a tenement apartment on West 140th Street, swing from the Savoy boomed nightly through their back windows. Looking out on the ballroom’s rear windows, Norma saw dancing patrons as shadows moving behind the curtains, doing the Charleston and the Lindy Hop.

She and her friends practiced the dances in the gym at her school, P.S. 136, and after church on the sidewalk outside the Savoy, where Mr. Ganaway discovered her. As her talents grew, she was enrolled at the Manhattan School of the Arts on the Upper West Side.

After her meteoric Lindy Hop career, Ms. Miller reinvented herself in 1952. She founded and choreographed the Norma Miller Dancers, a jazz-dance troupe that toured America and Australia for two years, then joined Count Basie on a national tour. In the pervasive racial segregation of the day, Ms. Miller and her group faced daily reminders of their secondary status in renting rooms, riding in the back of buses, dining in black eateries and sometimes confronting white protests.

In 1957, the Norma Miller Dancers played long-running engagements in Miami Beach and Las Vegas as part of an extravagant production called the “Cotton Club Revue.” The show, starring Cab Calloway and a 48-member all-black cast, drew huge nightly audiences for months. But it also stirred racial unrest, as had been anticipated: Every cast member was given an identity card issued by the police, and after each show had to retreat to a “colored” hotel.

“We were to be the first all-black show to play the Beachcomber in Miami Beach,” Ms. Miller recalled in “Stompin’ at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer” (2003, with Evette Jensen). “During rehearsal, racial tensions surfaced. The day of our big dress rehearsal, there were headlines in The Miami Sun telling Murray Weinger” — a Miami nightclub owner — “that they didn’t want his colored show on the beach.”

Ms. Miller lived in Las Vegas for much of the 1960s and ′70s. She did comedy routines in clubs with Redd Foxx and taught children’s dance classes. In 1972, she entertained American troops in Vietnam. She had roles in three of Mr. Foxx’s NBC sitcoms: “Sanford and Son” in 1973-74, “Grady” in 1976, and “Sanford Arms” in 1977.

Besides “Queen of Swing,” John Biffar’s documentary on her life, Ms. Miller appeared in at least nine other documentaries on dance, black comedy and other subjects, including Ken Burns’s PBS series “Jazz” (2000). She was the subject of a children’s book by Alan Govenar, “Stompin’ at the Savoy: The Story of Norma Miller” (2006). Her own books include “Swing Baby Swing” (2010, with Darlene Gist), a chronicle of swing dancing over her century.

Ms. Miller, who never married and left no immediate survivors, had a long-term relationship with fellow Hellzapoppin’ performer Roy Glenn, who died in 1971. She traveled widely to appear at swing and jazz festivals and give talks on her dancing days. “The Savoy was our community,” she told Bobby White in one interview in 2016, “and the dance floor was the place we found freedom.”

In 2018, Ms. Miller appeared at the Herrang Dance Camp in Sweden, an annual gathering since the 1980s of Lindy Hop lovers from around the world. “A place like this is unbelievable,” she said. “It’s like Brigadoon” the musical about a Scottish village that magically reappears once every 100 years.

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Why Everyday Life Matters

This week in North Philly Notes, Ulka Anjaria, author of Reading India Now, explains the importance of reading literature to understand the Indian present and its political futures.

The Indian general elections are once again upon us. Like the upcoming U.S. election, this one too is fraught with anxiety about whether the country will re-elect the right-wing party of its incumbent prime minister. As part of legitimate fears about a global right-wing turn, this is the brief period when Indian politics becomes global news. But what is happening in India between globally-significant elections? What is the daily life of this fast-changing country beyond institutional politics, what are the stories that might never make global headlines? How are people coming to terms with recent changes – not only at the voting booth, but as they imagine their everyday lives?

When I spent a fellowship year living in Mumbai in 2015-16, one of the many things I was struck by was how distant both scholarship and the news media are from everyday life in India. There were several disturbing and violent, national-level events that occurred that year, such as the assassination of Kannada writer M. M. Kalburgi in August and the Award Wapsi movement that followed, where dozens of writers protested the government’s increasing indifference to mob violence by returning their national literary awards. A beef ban was instituted in Maharashtra, exposing the encroachment of Hindu hegemony on eating practices in the supposedly secular nation. Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student, committed suicide in Hyderabad, revealing the continuing casteism that plagues even university campuses. But in between these events, daily life went along at an everyday rhythm, much as it does around the world. Looking around to see where I could begin to read about this everyday rhythm, I found that it was largely absent in the news media and in scholarly accounts. While the news media, in both India and abroad, focuses mostly on party politics and violent events, scholarship tends to take a longer view, uncovering the influence of historical forces such as colonialism and Partition on the Indian present. While both of these are important tasks, I found that I had to turn to literature, specifically contemporary Indian literature, to begin to understand the contours of the Indian present.

Reading India Now_SMFor in fact, India is experiencing a massive expansion of its publishing industry, with some anticipating that India will be the world’s largest English-language publisher within a decade. This means that whereas in the 1980s and 1990s, many Indian authors had to gain legitimacy by publishing first in the US or UK, now Indian publishers have made it much easier to publish as an Indian writer. This has resulted in an expansion of what genres authors can publish in, such as fantasy fiction, mysteries and detective fiction, romance, chick lit, self-help fiction, graphic novels, and so on. Most of these new works are geared toward Indian readers rather than, as was in the past, international ones. This is coinciding with an expansion of the English-language readership in India beyond those who are western-educated, to first-generation English readers who might otherwise be reading in the bhashas (Indian vernacular languages).

Reading India Now, looks at the implications of this publishing boom for rethinking what is important in the study of India. Much of this new fiction is written for young people trying to make their way in a new India, and are thus local stories for local readers. As such, they do not often engage with historical analysis or with who is in power, but address issues of more local importance: what is the meaning of success, what are the possibilities and limitations of the new capitalist economy, what are the new social and sexual mores of the new India, and so on. If read as complex works rather than just simplistic, market-oriented fictions, these new books tell us a huge amount about the kind of daily life that never makes the headlines.

Celebrating Temple University Press Books at the Urban Affairs Association conference

This week in North Philly Notes, we spotlight our new Urban Studies titles, which will be on display at the Urban Affairs Association conference, April 24-27 in Los Angeles, CA.

On April 25, at 3:30 pm, Latino Mayors, edited by Marion Orr and Domingo Morel, will be the subject of a panel discussion.

On April 26, at 2:05 pm, Alan Curtis, co-editor of Healing Our Divided Society, will participate in a presentation entitled, The Kerner Commission 50 Years Later

Temple University Press titles in Urban Studies for 2018-2019

Architectures of Revolt: The Cinematic City circa 1968, edited by Mark Shiel
Coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the worldwide mass protest movements of 1968—against war, imperialism, racism, poverty, misogyny, and homophobia—the exciting anthology Architectures of Revolt explores the degree to which the real events of political revolt in the urban landscape in 1968 drove change in the attitudes and practices of filmmakers and architects alike.

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

Contested Image: Defining Philadelphia for the Twenty-First Century, by Laura M. Holzman
Laura Holzman investigates the negotiations and spirited debates that affected the city of Philadelphia’s identity and its public image. She considers how the region’s cultural resources reshaped the city’s reputation as well as delves into discussions about official efforts to boost local spirit. In tracking these “contested images,” Holzman illuminates the messy process of public envisioning of place and the ways in which public dialogue informs public meaning of both cities themselves and the objects of urban identity.

Courting the Community: Legitimacy and Punishment in a Community Court, by
Christine Zozula
Courting the Community is a fascinating ethnography that goes behind the scenes to explore how quality-of-life discourses are translated into court practices that marry therapeutic and rehabilitative ideas. Christine Zozula shows how residents and businesses participate in meting out justice—such as through community service, treatment, or other sanctions—making it more emotional, less detached, and more legitimate in the eyes of stakeholders. She also examines both “impact panels,” in which offenders, residents, and business owners meet to discuss how quality-of-life crimes negatively impact the neighborhood, as well as strategic neighborhood outreach efforts to update residents on cases and gauge their concerns.

Daily Labors: Marketing Identity and Bodies on a New York City Street Corner, by Carolyn Pinedo-Turnovsky
Daily Labors reveals how ideologies about race, gender, nation, and legal status operate on the corner and the vulnerabilities, discrimination, and exploitation workers face in this labor market. Pinedo-Turnovsky shows how workers market themselves to conform to employers’ preconceptions of a “good worker” and how this performance paradoxically leads to a more precarious workplace experience. Ultimately, she sheds light on belonging, community, and what a “good day laborer” for these workers really is.

Democratizing Urban Development: Community Organizations for Housing across the United States and Brazil, by Maureen M. Donaghy
Rising housing costs put secure and decent housing in central urban neighborhoods in peril. How do civil society organizations (CSOs) effectively demand accountability from the state to address the needs of low-income residents? In her groundbreaking book, Democratizing Urban Development, Maureen Donaghy charts the constraints and potential opportunities facing these community organizations. She assesses the various strategies CSOs engage to influence officials and ensure access to affordable housing through policies, programs, and institutions.

Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture: The Educational Legacy of Lewis
Mumford and Ian McHarg, by William J. Cohen, With a Foreword by
Frederick R. Steiner
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.

Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years after the Kerner Report, edited by Fred Harris and Alan Curtis
Outstanding Academic Title, Choice, 2018

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

Latino Mayors:  Political Change in the Postindustrial City, edited by Marion Orr and Domingo Morel
As recently as the early 1960s, Latinos were almost totally excluded from city politics. This makes the rise of Latino mayors in the past three decades a remarkable American story—one that explains ethnic succession, changing urban demography, and political contexts. The vibrant collection Latino Mayors features case studies of eleven Latino mayors in six American cities: San Antonio, Los Angeles, Denver, Hartford, Miami, and Providence.

Painting Publics: Transnational Legal Graffiti Scenes as Spaces for Encounter, by
Caitlin Frances Bruce
Public art is a form of communication that enables spaces for encounters across difference. These encounters may be routine, repeated, or rare, but all take place in urban spaces infused with emotion, creativity, and experimentation. In Painting Publics,
Caitlin Bruce explores how various legal graffiti scenes across the United States, Mexico, and Europe provide diverse ways for artists to navigate their changing relationships with publics, institutions, and commercial entities.

Celebrating Temple University Press Books at the Association for Asian American Studies conference

This week in North Philly Notes, we spotlight our new Asian American titles, which will be on display at the Association for Asian American Studies conference, April 25-27 in Madison, Wisconsin. Several Temple University Press titles will be celebrated at a reception for new books on Thursday, April 25, at 6:00 pm in the Madison Concourse Hotel.

But wait, there’s more!…

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Temple University Press is hosting a reception at 2:00 pm on Friday, April 26 to celebrate 50 years of publishing. Our Asian American History and Culture series editors are expected to attend.

 

Temple University Press titles in Asian American Studies for 2018-2019

From Confinement to Containment: Japanese/American Arts during the Early Cold Warby Edward Tang, examines the work of four Japanese and Japanese/American artists and writers during this period: the novelist Hanama Tasaki, the actor Yamaguchi Yoshiko, the painter Henry Sugimoto, and the children’s author Yoshiko Uchida. Tang shows how the film, art, and literature made by these artists revealed to the American public the linked processes of U.S. actions at home and abroad. Their work played into—but also challenged—the postwar rehabilitated images of Japan and Japanese Americans as it focused on the history of transpacific relations such as Japanese immigration to the United States, the Asia-Pacific War, U.S. and Japanese imperialism, and the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans.

Anna May Wong: Performing the Modernby Shirley Jennifer Lim, re-evaluates the pioneering Chinese American actress Anna May Wong who made more than sixty films, headlined theater and vaudeville productions, and even starred in her own television show. Her work helped shape racial modernity as she embodied the dominant image of Chinese and, more generally, “Oriental” women between 1925 and 1940. Lim scrutinizes Wong’s cultural production and self-fashioning to provide a new understanding of the actress’s career as an ingenious creative artist.

America’s Vietnam: The Longue Durée of U.S. Literature and Empireby Marguerite Nguyen, challenges the prevailing genealogy of Vietnam’s emergence in the American imagination—one that presupposes the Vietnam War as the starting point of meaningful Vietnamese-U.S. political and cultural involvements. Examining literature from as early as the 1820s, Marguerite Nguyen takes a comparative, long historical approach to interpreting constructions of Vietnam in American literature. She analyzes works in various genres published in English and Vietnamese by Monique Truong and Michael Herr as well as lesser-known writers such as John White, Harry Hervey, and Võ Phiến. America’s Vietnam recounts a mostly unexamined story of Southeast Asia’s lasting and varied influence on U.S. aesthetic and political concerns.

Where I Have Never Been: Migration, Melancholia, and Memory in Asian American Narratives of Return, by Patricia P. Chu. In researching accounts of diasporic Chinese offspring who returned to their parents’ ancestral country, author Patricia Chu learned that she was not alone in the experience of growing up in America with an abstract affinity to an ancestral homeland and community. The bittersweet emotions she had are shared in Asian American literature that depicts migration-related melancholia, contests official histories, and portrays Asian American families as flexible and transpacific. Where I Have Never Been explores the tropes of return, tracing both literal return visits by Asian emigrants and symbolic “returns”: first visits by diasporic offspring. Chu argues that these Asian American narratives seek to remedy widely held anxieties about cultural loss and the erasure of personal and family histories from public memory.

Sticky Rice: A Politics of Intraracial Desire, by Cynthia Wu, examines representations of same-sex desires and intraracial intimacies in some of the most widely read pieces of Asian American literature. Analyzing canonical works such as John Okada’s No-No Boy, Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt, H. T. Tsiang’s And China Has Hands, and Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging, as well as Philip Kan Gotanda’s play, Yankee Dawg You Die, Wu considers how male relationships in these texts blur the boundaries among the homosocial, the homoerotic, and the homosexual in ways that lie beyond our concepts of modern gay identity. Wu lays bare the trope of male same-sex desires that grapple with how Asian America’s internal divides can be resolved in order to resist assimilation.

Art in the Age of Magnetic Reproduction

This week in North Philly Notes, Laura Holzman, author of Contested Image, appreciates a magnet of Thomas Eakins’s painting The Gross Clinic, one of the artworks featured in her new book.

GrossClinic1-575x715I have a Gross Clinic magnet on my refrigerator. That’s right—a reproduction of Thomas Eakins’s celebrated 1875 painting helps keep coupons, family photos, and wedding invitations in their place. When I reach for the yogurt I see Dr. Samuel Gross leading a surgical procedure to remove infected bone from his patient’s thigh. If I glance up while chopping carrots, I see a body on an operating table. How did an image that was once deemed too gory for display in an art gallery come to be a regular view during meal prep?

My dad gave me the magnet a few years ago. He knew that I had been studying the painting, so when he saw the magnet in the gift shop at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he couldn’t resist. He’d picked out other magnets for me in the past—usually from national parks where he’d gone hiking. But this one surprised me. I did an amused double-take when he put it in my hand. It wasn’t that a famous artwork had been reproduced on an everyday object—anyone who’s been to a museum gift shop has seen the likenesses of notable works of art printed on mugs, t-shirts, umbrellas, and more. I was struck instead by this particular image. In The Gross Clinic, doctors perform an innovative operation while an audience observes from their seats in the surgical theater. Visually, the striking contrast between deep shadows and bright highlights directs a viewer’s attention to the lead surgeon and the patient. A team of doctors hold the patient still, keep him sedated, and probe the incision in his leg. There is blood on Dr. Gross’s hands. A cringing woman averts her eyes. The medical team focuses on their work. This is undeniably an intense scene. It’s apparently also one that makes a good souvenir from a visit to the museum.

The Gross Clinic has taken on different meanings since Eakins completed it. It has been rejected from and embraced in fine-art settings. It has been used to tell stories about the artist, the period when he lived and worked, the history of art, and Philadelphia. Eakins conceived of the painting as a submission to the Centennial Exhibition, the 1876 world’s fair held in Philadelphia. The organizers of the festival, concerned about the raw imagery, decided that it was more appropriate for display in a medical exhibit than in an art gallery. By the time Eakins died in 1916, the painting had been included in prominent art exhibitions, and essays memorializing the artist gave the painting high praise. For more than 120 years the painting was part of the collection of Jefferson University, the medical school where Dr. Gross had been a beloved faculty member. In 2006, when Jefferson University announced plans to sell The Gross Clinic—potentially to an out-of-state collector—the painting acquired yet another layer of meaning. Local audiences who helped the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts jointly purchase the painting embraced it as a city icon that belonged in Philadelphia and nowhere else.

Contested Image_smThe fundraising and public relations campaign to keep The Gross Clinic in Philadelphia is one of the key episodes I examine in Contested Image: Defining Philadelphia for the Twenty-First Century. The book demonstrates how passionate, wide-reaching public conversations about where art belongs in the city were tied to Philadelphia’s changing reputation around the year 2000. By examining the public discourse surrounding The Gross Clinic sale and by looking closely at the painting itself, I show how the identity of the painting and the identity of the city became intertwined.

This important part of the painting’s recent history affects how viewers today encounter The Gross Clinic. In the museum, visitors are invited to connect the story of the sale with their understanding of the artwork because the credit line on the object label acknowledges the thousands of people who contributed to the fundraising campaign. At home, there’s no credit line to provide that context, but the magnet itself reframes the nineteenth-century artwork depicted on its surface. The diminutive scale—just 9 by 6.5 centimeters—and the flatness of the print discourage close looking. When I see the magnet, I recognize the image as The Gross Clinic, but I don’t look carefully the way I would look at the actual painting. Downplaying the artwork as object shifts the emphasis to what it represents: Eakins’s artistry, medical excellence, a trip to the museum, the city of Philadelphia. When I look at the magnet, I don’t see the bloody wound. I see a reminder of a place (Philadelphia) and an activity (visiting the museum, raising money to keep the painting local). In that way it’s not so different from the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone magnets that hang on the door nearby.

Exploring Public Art Worlds

This week in North Philly Notes, Caitlin Frances Bruce, author of Painting Publics, writes about the transnational graffiti art scenes she discovered. 

Those of us who live in the United States are experiencing the daily effects of a media and political sphere that is deeply polarized due to ideological but also algorithmic frameworks that make transformative dialogue difficult, if not impossible. As we are bombarded with images of white supremacist violence, environmental catastrophe, and warnings about social alienation, it is not surprising that many are drawn to histories of political intervention that are spectacular and dramatic. We need such interventions. But, I would argue, and many other public theory scholars have, such a focus on the drama of revolutionary praxis elides the ordinary labor and infrastructure maintenance that often goes on behind the scenes.

Painting Publics_SMWhile Painting Publics is focused on graffiti, a rich and engaging scene for scholarly study and creative practice, its insights go beyond legal graffiti worlds. It emerged out of homesickness. When I moved to Evanston, Illinois for undergraduate studies I was in a new suburban environment and acutely missed the density, heterogeneity, and intensity of New York City. When I went into Chicago it was a surprise to be met by gargantuan blocks and, in the downtown Loop, a distinct lack of the kind of dwelling and use of parks that was common in my native Inwood, Manhattan. I was lucky to take a course on Urban History from Gergeley Baics and Contemporary Art from Hannah Feldman where I learned about different philosophies of urban planning and development that helped to explain how and why cities like New York and Chicago evolved differently, producing different possibilities and models of encounters, and why different frameworks for artmaking and relationships to site and publics shifts the meaning of the work in public space. With some funding from Northwestern I conducted a survey of murals in Puerto Rican, Mexican, and other Latin American neighborhoods in Chicago: Humboldt Park, Logan Square, and Pilsen. This was in 2006 when intense debates about Tax Increment Funding and gentrification were going strong. It was after the displacements caused by UIC’s expansion, but before the creation of the 606 walking trail that seems to have cemented a new kind of dispossession in South and West Chicago. Though graffiti came up in my interview with Jon Pounds of the Chicago Public Art Group who framed it as a kind of evolution of muralism, I was unsure of how to meet or understand an art form that primarily seemed to be based on anonymity and illegality.

In 2009 a colleague in Art History, Angelina Lucento, invited me along for a mural tour led by Kymberly Pinder. On the tour, which largely focused on iconic murals from the Chicago Mural Movement and the Black Arts Movement Pinder mentioned a legal graffiti festival: the Meeting of Styles. I went to the Chicago iteration of the festival in September, 2010, and my whole definition of graffiti, of public art, and of site specificity changed. At the festival, I was met with boisterous publicity, racial heterogeneity, and a kind of deep connection to site by artists who practiced a form of public communication (graffiti writing) that was often condemned as thoughtless vandalism, empty words, visual pollution. After attending my first Meeting of Styles in Chicago, between 2010 to 2017 I attended different iterations of this festival in Mexico City/Ciudad Neza, Mexico, Chicago, Illinois, Perpignan, France, and Wiesbaden, Germany where I met and interviewed about 100 artists.

Through exploring public art worlds in Chicago, and then in Mexico, France, and Germany, I learned about global frameworks for mentorship, friendship, solidarity, and worldmaking. Following scholars like Lauren Berlant, Bonnie Honig, Jessica Greenberg, Éduoard Glissant, Chantal Mouffe, Jacques Rancière and Robert Hariman, this project seeks to explore how public intimacy, public objects, social practice and public visual cultures oriented towards abundance create more mid-level but important scenes of creativity and solidarity. Such spaces are crucial in creating a renewed sense of possibility in the wake of structural violence and the long shadow of the given.

The festival, part of a transnational network, reveals scenes of “spaces for encounter”: “spaces for encounters across difference” that might be “contact, convergence or conflict…routine, repeated, or rare. It is infused with contingency…a physical or virtual locale that is framed in such a way as to encourage transformative engagements, even when its initial purpose may have been very different.” Painting Publics, which explores scenes of publicity and public making through visual culture seeks to expand conversations in visual communication beyond a focus on official/vernacular, resistance/cooption, text/image, and icon/ordinary binaries to attend to the “grey areas” and social processes that are also part of the rhetorical warp and weave of public life. Encounters are crucial if we are to “meaningfully address social and political inequalities and forms of violence, micro and macro, because spaces for encounter function to reactivate the sense of the contingent in social and political space.”

 

 

Applying Black Radical Thought to Palestinian film and media

This week in North Philly Notes, Greg Burris, author of The Palestinian Idea, writes about Black-Palestinian solidarity.

When I look at Israel today, I see Jim Crow. But when I look at Palestine, I think of Black liberation. The potential for such comparisons is evident in the words and actions of three figures in the U.S. who have recently come under fire for their support of Palestine: Ilhan Omar, Angela Davis, and Marc Lamont Hill. Omar was accused of being an anti-Semite after she took to Twitter to criticize AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). Davis had a civil rights award from an institute in her hometown of Birmingham revoked as a result of her long-standing advocacy of Palestinian liberation. Hill was fired from CNN after he called for a free Palestine in a speech before the United Nations. Besides their support for Palestine, however, these three figures also share another important feature. They are all Black.

By vocally championing the Palestinian cause, each of these people is building upon a foundation of Black-Palestinian solidarity first laid over half a century ago by figures and groups like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panther Party. While in the past these radical ties were developed through traditional media and the printed word, today they are more often forged through YouTube videos, Instagram photos, and Facebook friend requests. In the hyper-connected, social media-saturated, wireless-enabled world in which we live, Black-Palestinian solidarity has gained new visibility.

The Palestinian Idea_061818_smIn recent years, this web of transnational solidarity has received growing scholarly attention, resulting in the proliferation of journal essays, conference panels, and even book-length treatments. In my book, The Palestinian Idea: Film, Media, and the Radical Imagination, I seek to contribute to this solidarity network but not in the way one might expect. Only one chapter is specifically about Black-Palestinian solidarity, but this powerful cocktail of radical thought permeates the entire book. Thus, while the subject of The Palestinian Idea is Palestinian film and media, I tackle it through the lens of Black radical thought. Peppered throughout the book are the words and insights of thinkers like James Cone, C.L.R. James, Audre Lorde, and Assata Shakur, and the book’s theoretical foundation is based largely on the work of my late mentor Cedric Robinson, theorist of the Black Radical Tradition. Thus, while other books chronicle Black-Palestinian solidarity empirically, The Palestinian Idea seeks to take our analysis underground. That is, the book asks how these two powerful traditions of insurgency can speak to each other at the subterranean level, the level of theory, ontology, and epistemology. Exciting things can happen when Palestinian liberation rubs shoulders with Black Power.

As a young, white kid growing up in the post-Jim Crow South, I was greatly troubled by the black-and-white pictures I saw of angry white mobs terrorizing righteous Black heroes. Just twenty years before I was born, the white community of my own hometown had viciously tried to prevent Black students from integrating the local high school and college. Those snapshots of white hatred haunted me, and I remember wondering if I would have had the courage to stand up against it had I been alive at the time. Today, Jim Crow speaks Hebrew. Indeed, how else are we to make sense of the growing network of segregated streets and apartheid walls, the destruction of houses and theft of indigenous lands, the language of ethnic supremacy and hierarchical division. The Israelis even have a word for it: hafrada or separation. Just as Jim Crow had its Black resistors, Zionism has its Palestinian freedom fighters. If we can compare one, why not compare the other?

Thus, today’s Black advocates for Palestine—people like Ilhan Omar, Angela Davis, and Marc Lamont Hill—are doing important work. The hyperbolic reaction their words received proves what we all know to be true, that criticizing Israel is still a dangerous endeavor. Indeed, for some, it can even be career-ending. But there is another lesson here as well, and their words also demonstrate that Black-Palestinian solidarity is still going strong. If today’s racists build walls—whether in Palestine or on the U.S.-Mexico border—it is our job to tear them down. Indeed, that is what the Palestinian Idea is all about.

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