Living amidst constant disruptions that keep on taking new forms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disruptive Situation highlights these and other issues:

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

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

Stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unveiling Temple University Press’s Fall 2020 Catalog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Q&A with Temple University Press’s newest Acquisitions Editor, Shaun Vigil

This week in North Philly Notes, we get to learn more about Temple University Press’s newest acquisitions editor, Shaun Vigil. 

Shaun Vigil joined Temple University Press’s editorial team in late March, just as the press started working remotely. He will be acquiring titles in Asian American studies, gender and sexuality studies, disability studies, literary studies, African American Studies, Latinx Studies, as well as regional interest. So we wanted to get a better sense of his reading habits, likes, and obsessions.

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What were your past publishing jobs?
I started my publishing career as an Editorial Intern at Columbia University Press. From there, I spent my Editorial Assistant/Assistant Editor years at Cambridge University Press supporting university press publishing legend Lewis Bateman on the Political Science, History, and Jewish Studies lists. I made the leap to Editor when joining Palgrave Macmillan, where I served in the Humanities as Editor for Cultural and Media Studies as well as, for a period, Literature. I was fortunate enough to commission a myriad of titles from across the spectrum of my scholarly interests in American Studies, Asian Studies, Comics Studies, Critical Race Studies, Games Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Latin American Studies, and Music Studies.

What book(s) are you currently reading?
My preference is to dive headfirst into a book and read it cover to cover without interruption, but the current state of quarantine has allowed me a bit more space to juggle multiple books. First, I’ve been dipping into Don J. Unser’s Chasing Dichos through Chimayó (University of New Mexico, 2014) a little bit every day to keep my mind connected with my roots in New Mexico while sitting in my East Coast apartment. Second, I’ve finally begun reading Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin, 2019). Needless to say, I can only echo all of the praise the book has rightfully received.

What’s the last great book you read?
Without question, Eve Ensler’s The Apology (Bloomsbury, 2019) has reached into my core more deeply than any other book I’ve read in years. Ensler did more in just over 100 pages than do many tomes, and I’ve found new depths to Ensler’s processing of her experience with every phrase and paragraph I’ve revisited.

Shaun VigilWhat book made the greatest impact on you?
My spouse and I first bonded over a shared love of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens (Workman, 1990/HarperTorch, 2006). As such, I would be remiss to name anything else!

Which writers do you love (or hate) the most?
A few writers whose works I could never tire of include Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Matt Kindt, Marjane Satrapi, and Kurt Vonnegut. While I hesitate to say that there are many widely recognized authors whose writing I truly hate, I would be just fine if I never came across a Bret Easton Ellis or Jonathan Franzen book ever again.

When and how do you read?
Under normal circumstances, I tend to read during my commute and on the weekends. Given quarantine, I’m reading intermittently throughout the day when not working. It’s rare for me to read anything other than unpublished manuscripts or some comics on an e-reader, so I’ve honed a few methods in avoiding tipping over in a crowded train while still keeping my book open. In the warmer months, nothing beats sitting in the sun.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
It wouldn’t come to a surprise to anyone that has spent more than a couple of days around me, but Ian Christe’s Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal (HarperEntertainment, 2003) might shock a few. I am totally and unironically a metalhead, so my bookshelf really wouldn’t be complete without it. Of course, what kind of metalhead would I be if I didn’t mention that there are a number of highly esoteric details I feel could have been corrected or better addressed before publication?

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine?
I wrote my undergraduate thesis on The Amazing Spider-Man comics of the 1960s-80s, so I’d really be lying if I answered with anyone other than the web-slinger himself.

What Temple University Press book has particular meaning to you?
Paul Lopes’ Demanding Respect: The Evolution of the American Comic Book was a vital resource when writing the aforementioned thesis, and to this day remains one of the books I recommend most to people seeking an entrypoint to the area.

What Temple University Press book would you recommend to someone?

Milo W. Obourn’s Disabled Futures: A Framework for Radical Inclusion, is not only one of the most important interventions to the field in recent memory, but also a lucid read. Further, I’d just learned of the book’s publication when I saw the opening of the Temple role. I thought to myself, “That’s exactly the kind of text I want to help find its audience.” Simply put, it helped to confirm that Temple would be the right place for me.

What book will you read next?
I’ve just placed an order via IndieBound for Cherríe Moraga’s Native Country of the Heart: A Memoir (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019). I’ve long admired Moraga’s writing, and from all accounts I’ve seen it looks to be especially powerful. Naturally, it doesn’t hurt that Obourn’s book engages with Moraga’s work. I also added J.J. Anselmi’s Doomed to Fail: The Incredibly Loud History of Doom, Sludge, and Post-Metal (Rare Bird Books, 2020) to the IndieBound order, so I’ll definitely be blasting a soundtrack with appropriately downtuned guitars while reading that one.

What three writers would you invite to a dinner party?
I tend to err on the “don’t meet your heroes” side of things, but one author I would love to share a few bowls of New Mexican red chile with is Rudolfo Anaya. Synonymous with New Mexican literature, I would relish the opportunity to thank him for his gorgeous, poignant depictions of New Mexico that have captured its essence and brought it to the rest of the world so many times over.

Celebrating Earth Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Distancing with Shakespeare

This week in North Philly Notes, Jeffrey Wilson, author of Shakespeare and Trump, writes about why people are cycling experiences with coronavirus through Shakespeare.

First came the meme to wash hands for the duration of Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot” speech.

Soon society was shutting down. “I’m worried about Covid-19 causing theatres to go dark,” tweeted theater-maker @MediocreDave on March 9, 2020. “Not because I’ll lose income, but because we’ll inevitably be subjected to opportunistic Shakespeare scholars making smug but superficial analogies to the playhouse closures of the late Elizabethan plague years.” That’ll be the end of that, I thought.

The next day, Slate ran a piece from Ben Cohen, “The Infectious Pestilence Did Reign: How the Plague Ravaged William Shakespeare’s World and Inspired his Work, from Romeo and Juliet to Macbeth.” Two days later, Shakespeare scholar Emma Smith was historicizing appropriations of Lady Macbeth’s hand-washing scene for Penguin Books. Another two days, and The Atlantic ran Daniel Pollack-Pelzner’s “Shakespeare Wrote His Best Works During a Plague.”

The content of these essays—Shakespeare born in plague, shuttered theaters prompting his poetry, Romeo and Juliet derailed by quarantine, playwrights sustained by wealthy patrons, disease threatening rival acting troupes, great art created in isolation—is not as fascinating as the questions raised by their method. Why are people cycling experiences with coronavirus through Shakespeare? What do we gain from comparisons between social distancing in Shakespeare’s time and in ours? How might our experiences with social distancing help us better understand Shakespeare’s? How can these examples help us think about academic work in 2020?

On March 14, @rosannecash caused a collective groan by tweeting, “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.”

Twitter did its thing. “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” wrote @sydneeisanelf. “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he masturbated incessantly,” said @emilynussbaum.

With doors shuttered, some theaters offered plays and programming online, free to the public, including Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theater, the Public Theater, and the Folger Shakespeare Library. Then came pop-up performances like Patrick Stewart’s #ASonnetADay and The Two Gentleman of Verona on Zoom. What is the value of art in times of social distancing? How is social distancing changing the way art is done? Based on the analogy to Shakespeare, what might the art that comes out of coronavirus look like?

Academics followed suit. On March 23, Andy Kesson, Callan Davies, and Emma Whipday launched A Bit Lit, featuring open-access, of-the-moment interviews with early-modern literary scholars. What is the role of humanistic thought and conversation in times of social distancing? What is the importance—if any—of studying Shakespeare when society is in such turmoil?

Social distancing with Shakespeare soon became A Thing. Kathryn Harkup in The Telegraph on March 15; Andrew Dickson in The Guardian on March 22; James Shapiro on CNN on March 30. The genre was common enough to call for satire. On April 1, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner wrote “What Shakespeare Actually Did During the Plague” for The New Yorker: “Day 25: Definitely too dark. Keep the mood light! No one wants to see a tragedy after a plague.”

Emma Smith tackled that tension with a straight face in the New York Times, arguing that “[Shakespeare’s] fictions reimagine the macro-narrative of epidemic as the micro-narrative of tragedy.” Is our experience with coronavirus tragic? What makes something tragic?

Elsewhere in the New York Times, Ian Wheeler cited Shakespeare to argue that, in America, “We need a better patronage system for artists.” In The New Yorker, James Shapiro lobbed Coriolanus-shaped bombs at the Trump administration: “The casual insults, the condescension, and the refusal to accept responsibility will be familiar to anyone who has lately tuned in to the daily White House briefings on the coronavirus pandemic.”

Shakespeare and Trump_smThese various ShakesTakes sift into terms developed in Shakespeare and Trump, my recent book about the surprising—and bizarre—relationship between the provincial English playwright and the billionaire President of the United States. There are the ShakesMemes. There are the Politicitations. And there is the Shaxtivism.

Above all, the Shakespearean gloss on social distancing shows the power—and pitfalls—of Public Shakespeare, where scholars eschew peer-reviewed academic writing in favor of public engagement.

I come not to bury Public Shakespeare, nor to praise it. I want to ask what it is, where it comes from, how it works, and why it elicits simultaneous enthusiasm and nausea. What is behind the push in some scholars to filter current events through Shakespeare? What is behind the tendency in others to get annoyed when they do?

Why are Shakespeareans suddenly authorities on everything—from presidential politics to social distancing? At a time when Donald Trump nonchalantly disclaims, “I’m not a doctor,” then proceeds to use his power and platform to promote hydroxychloroquine, why are Shakespeare scholars going widely outside their areas of expertise surrounding a 400-year-old English playwright to comment on current events?

Four points:

  1. As an early-modern playwright who often represented medieval and ancient history, Shakespeare built into his texts the practice of engaging the present with the distant past.
  2. As artworks that often have scholarly sources, yet are performed for a broad audience of mixed social backgrounds, Shakespeare’s plays have public engagement built into them.
  3. The long tradition of modern-dress Shakespearean performance and adaptation provides a model for scholars looking to bring ideas that are old and artistic into conversation with current events.
  4. At a time when the humanities are said to be in crisis, Public Shakespeare gives scholars a platform to illustrate the practicality and utility of our field.

There is tremendous energy right now behind public-facing ShakesWork with an ethical if not activist edge. There is also legitimate skepticism of that endeavor. As @ClearShakes wrote on April 12, “Guys, sometimes there just isn’t a Shakespeare play that’s relevant to our situation.”

But recognizing Public Shakespeare as more closely related to Shakespearean performance than Shakespearean scholarship helps us understand why, like any show that takes creative risks, some cheer and some hiss.

 

Celebrating Black History Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we provide a roundup of some of the Press’s recent and classic Black History titles. 

The Great Migration and the Democratic Party: Black Voters and Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Century, by Keneshia Grant

The Great Migration and the Democratic Party frames the Great Migration as an important economic and social event that also had serious political consequences. Keneshia Grant created one of the first listings of Black elected officials that classifies them based on their status as participants in the Great Migration. She also describes some of the policy/political concerns of the migrants. The Great Migration and the Democratic Party lays the groundwork for ways of thinking about the contemporary impact of Black migration on American politics.

Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans at the End of Slaveryby Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer

In their pioneering book, Envisioning Emancipation, renowned photographic historian Deborah Willis and historian of slavery Barbara Krauthamer have amassed 150 photographs—some never before published—from the antebellum days of the 1850s through the New Deal era of the 1930s. The authors vividly display the seismic impact of emancipation on African Americans born before and after the Proclamation, providing a perspective on freedom and slavery and a way to understand the photos as documents of engagement, action, struggle, and aspiration.  Envisioning Emancipation illustrates what freedom looked like for black Americans in the Civil War era. Filled with powerful images of lives too often ignored or erased from historical records, Envisioning Emancipation provides a new perspective on American culture.

Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith, by Tommie Smith and David Steele

At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and his teammate John Carlos came in first and third, respectively, in the 200-meter dash. As they received their medals, each man raised a black-gloved fist, creating an image that will always stand as an iconic representation of the complicated conflations of race, politics, and sports. In this, his autobiography, Smith fills out the story around that moment–how it came to be and where it led him. Smith engagingly describes his life-long commitment to athletics, education, and human rights. He also dispels some of the myths surrounding his famous gesture of protest: contrary to legend, Smith was not a member of the Black Panthers, nor were his medals taken back by the Olympic Committee. Retelling the fear he felt in planning and carrying out his protest, the death threats against him, his difficulty in finding work, and his determination to live his values, he conveys the long, painful backlash that came with his fame, and his fate, all of which was wrapped up in his “silent gesture.”

Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War Americaby Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin

As Philadelphia prepares its first monument in honor of Octavius Catto, a little-known civil rights activist, the publication of a new paperback edition is especially timely. In Tasting Freedom Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin chronicle the life of the charismatic black leader, a free black man whose freedom was in name only. A civil rights pioneer–one who risked his life a century before the events that took place in Selma and Birmingham, Catto joined the fight to be truly free–free to vote, go to school, ride on streetcars, play baseball, and even participate in Fourth of July celebrations.

The Battles of Germantown: Effective Public History in America, by David W. Young
David Young, a neighborhood resident who worked at Germantown historic sites for decades, uses his practitioner’s perspective to give examples of what he calls “effective public history.” The Battles of Germantown shows how the region celebrated “Negro Achievement Week” in 1928 and, for example, how social history research proved that the neighborhood’s Johnson House was a station on the Underground Railroad. These encounters have useful implications for addressing questions of race, history, and memory, as well as issues of urban planning and economic revitalization.

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

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.

Mediating America: Black and Irish Press and the Struggle for Citizenship, 1870-1914, by Brian Shott

Mediating America explores the life and work of T. Thomas Fortune and J. Samuel Stemons as well as Rev. Peter C. Yorke and Patrick Ford—respectively two African American and two Irish American editor/activists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Historian Brian Shott shows how each of these “race men” (the parlance of the time) understood and advocated for his group’s interests through their newspapers. Yet the author also explains how the newspaper medium itself—through illustrations, cartoons, and photographs; advertisements and page layout; and more—could constrain editors’ efforts to guide debates over race, religion, and citizenship during a tumultuous time of social unrest and imperial expansion. Black and Irish journalists used newspapers to recover and reinvigorate racial identities. As Shott proves, minority print culture was a powerful force in defining American nationhood.

The Parker Sisters: A Border Kidnappingby Lucy Maddox

In 1851, Elizabeth Parker, a free black child in Chester County, Pennsylvania, was bound and gagged, snatched from a local farm, and hurried off to a Baltimore slave pen. Two weeks later, her teenage sister, Rachel, was abducted from another Chester County farm. Because slave catchers could take fugitive slaves and free blacks across state lines to be sold, the border country of Pennsylvania/Maryland had become a dangerous place for most black people. In The Parker Sisters, Lucy Maddox gives an eloquent, urgent account of the tragic kidnapping of these young women. Using archival news and courtroom reports, Maddox tells the larger story of the disastrous effect of the Fugitive Slave Act on the small farming communities of Chester County and the significant, widening consequences for the state and the nation.

Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public Memory, by Roger C. Aden

The 2002 revelation at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park that George Washington kept slaves in his executive mansion in the 1790s prompted an eight-year controversy about the role of slavery in America’s commemorative landscape. When the President’s House installation opened in 2010, it became the first federal property to feature a slave memorial. In Upon the Ruins of Liberty, Roger Aden offers a compelling account that explores the development of this important historic site and the intersection of contemporary racial politics with history, space, and public memory.

 

A Feminist Post-Liberal Future

This week in North Philly Notes, Judith Baer, author of Feminist Post-Liberalism,  writes about how feminists and liberals can correct each other’s characteristic errors.

Basketball great Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2020. Early media coverage consisted mostly of eulogies. They stressed his five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, his two Olympic gold medals, and his commitment to equality in race relations and women’s sports. These stories, like the one in my local paper, ignored the worst incident on his record: an accusation of rape in 2003. (Criminal charges were dropped; a civil suit was settled out of court.)

Once this information emerged in postmortem coverage, all hell broke loose on social media. Fans accused critical commentators of bad taste and cruelty to the families of the crash victims. Bryant’s defenders also pointed out that he had made restitution and apologized, urging critics to put the episode behind them. Some, assuming without evidence that all women who criticized Bryant were white, accused them of ignoring the fact that black men are more likely than white men to be punished for rape and the long history of white women’s false accusations of black men. These commentators urged the critics to confront their own racism.

What does all this have to do with feminist post-liberalism? In my book, I suggest how these two belief systems can correct each other’s characteristic errors and how feminist ideas can break the connection between liberalism and male supremacy. The issues I explore include mass incarceration and cultural appropriation, both of which are relevant to the Kobe Bryant discussion.

Feminist Post-LiberalismA 40-year “war on crime” that began when Richard Nixon became president gave the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. (We used to be third, after the USSR and the Union of South Africa.) This mass incarceration, which many liberals supported,  disproportionately harms African Americans. So many lose the right to vote that a “new Jim Crow” negates the effects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Twenty-first century liberals want to end mass incarceration. But they fail to ask how fewer and shorter sentences might affect victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Most rapists, whatever their race, get away with it. Feminism gets lost in the dialogue.

Cultural appropriation occurs when writers or artists use material from a culture not their own, especially without understanding or respect. Those who advised Kobe Bryant’s critics to face their own racism echoed the accusations an argument that goes back at least to 1932, when the poet Langston Hughes criticized the children’s book Little Black Sambo. Feminist critics of male authors have done likewise. Critics of Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt have accused the African American author of appropriating the experience of undocumented Mexican immigrants—accused her so angrily that the publisher canceled Cummins’s promotion tour in fear for her safety.

Commentators who have jumped on the cultural appropriation bandwagon have abandoned a central tenet of liberalism: its commitment to reason. Passion does not turn an opinion into a fact or a difference of degree into a difference of kind. To lose these distinctions frustrates rational discourse.

Feminism and liberalism are distinct but tangled philosophies. Modern Western feminism developed logically and historically from liberalism. A belief system that replaced faith with reason, divine right with representative government, and hierarchy with equality invited critical scrutiny of male supremacy. Defenses of women’s rights appeared in Great Britain, France, and North America during and after the democratic revolutions in these countries. So did anti-feminist tracts. Jean-Jacques Rousseau found gender equality incompatible with motherhood. Some anti-revolutionary Frenchwomen opposed equality on religious grounds. French radicals rejected feminism because they considered a decent standard of living more important than legal rights. All these arguments existed by 1800 and still thrive today. Conservative critiques of feminism continue to emphasize religion and the family. Radical critiques insist that class and/or race is the primary, and gender a secondary, determinant of inequality.

Feminism and liberalism are compatible belief systems, but not all feminists are liberals and not all liberals are feminists. Both belief systems are complex and diverse. Feminists do not all think alike. Neither do all liberals. Differences of opinion and emphasis exist within both groups, as they do among conservatives and radicals. I devoted much time and space to distinguishing among various types of feminism and liberalism.

My first draft envisioned a feminist post-liberalism free of male supremacy and misogyny. I argued that the two sets of theories could correct characteristic errors, like some liberals’ emphasis on human rights at the expense of human needs and some feminists’ acceptance of gender roles. I also discussed characteristic errors that feminist and liberals shared, like a predisposition to guilt. My optimistic tone jarred with reality in the form of the 2016 election, which decisively rebuffed both feminism and liberalism.

A progressive feminist woman lost the presidency to a billionaire outsider. A coalition of conservatives, capitalists, and fundamentalist Christians was born. Enough people in enough states preferred a misogynist to a woman and a political novice to a seasoned legislator and diplomat. Enough people in enough states sat out the election to give Donald Trump the victory. Enough voters wanted change, and did not see a woman insider as an agent of change. Instead, we got reactionary change. Conservative ideas dominate the executive and judicial branches of the federal government. Feminists and liberals have a great deal of work to do.

Tipping toward possibility: an alternative framing of identity

This week in North Philly Notes, Milo Obourn, author of Disabled Futures, writes about the thorny issues of identity politics. 

A recent episode of NPR’s 1A featured a story about the great divide in political thinking that blamed, you’ll never guess, identity politics.

Bob Garfield, co-host of WNYC’s On the Media was arguing that the U.S. has an “identity obsessed culture” which “erodes the ideal of e pluribus unum” and inevitably leads to authoritarianism. Identity politics in this reading is factionalism that keeps us from working together, not the result of long histories of resistance to very targeted and explicit violences and discriminations. I could not help but think of the images that circulated after the 2017 Women’s March of a person I read as an older woman looking bored and holding a protest sign that reads, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” The image is now a poster, pin, and T-shirt you can buy on Amazon. Even the wry commentary on the never-ending cycle of the same political and social arguments is commodified into the never-ending cycle of capitalist incorporation of political and social arguments. How to get out?

Disabled Futures_022719_smThis question of “how to get out” underlies many of the theoretical moves I make in Disabled Futures: A Framework for Radical Inclusion. In this book, I explore the concept of “racialized disgender” as a way of framing identity that is not about a series of contemporary differences but rather a complex and nuanced framework of power in which ideologies of ability inform and construct our understanding of gender. A framework of power in which racism and constructions of dis/ability and its use to do violence to bodies are inextricable. A framework of power in which no one living in contemporary U.S. society is unaffected or unharmed by the ways race, gender, and dis/ability are assigned to our material selves. And finally, a framework in which no one couldn’t use their own experience to start to unpack how all oppression is, to quote Staceyann Chin, connected.

My first book Reconstituting Americans: Liberal Multiculturalism and Identity Difference in Post-1960s Literature was a way for me to deconstruct the fear of an “identity politics” that looms in popular culture as a force of divisiveness that causes those with historically marginalized identities to cling to our pain and/or is criticized for being empty politically correct nonsense—the kind of identity politics that turned “diversity and inclusion” into buzzwords translating into serving tacos in school cafeterias to represent Mexican culture. I wanted in this first book to think about how narrative and literary representation can help readers understand the ways American liberalism has eroded or put up barriers to our understanding of the politics surrounding identity oppression as offering us actual avenues for justice, knowledge, and ways to thrive in this world. It was a “how we got distracted” after all this work kind of book. Our world is full of these distractions—instead of wondering why things are so deeply inequitable we focus on Black people and Jewish people not getting along; instead of wondering how to make people feel more valued, safe, and included we argue about whether we should call it a “safe space” or a “brave space;” instead of asking why we have so many homeless trans youth and trans women of color being murdered every year; we focus on whether it’s okay to allow people in bathrooms and the struggles cis parents have understanding trans kids.

When I started writing Disabled Futures, I was ready to move beyond why we get stuck and look at models for how to frame our work toward greater justice in relation to inextricable intersections not just between marginalized identities but between systems of power that impact us all. What made me ready? Two things. First, I lost a child in infancy, I got very depressed, and the only thing that I could manage to do productively was work related to implementing active change based on knowledge from my academic research. Need a workshop on white privilege and how white people can process and own that? I was on it. Build a team to offer trainings on why respecting names and pronouns is important? I’m your trans person. The loss of this baby, Woolf, made any more critique without implementation feel like yet another distraction. I wanted a more potentially realizable (if still complex and very challenging) framework for understanding questions of identity and justice. The second and related thing was that I stepped in as Brockport’s Interim Chief Diversity Officer and found myself excited to be in a different relation to the immediate systems around me, to have my focus be big picture systems and the communities that inhabit them, as well as building connections with students outside of the classroom where I could mentor them in self advocacy that was not draining and distracting, but helpful to their ability to flourish in their academic life as well.

As an academic, I have been trained in critique. I have not been formally trained to present solutions. Disabled Futures is not a solution per se. But I felt at the point I was writing it that I needed the perspective of solution to survive and to thrive and that is the perspective I carried into my writing. I am committed in Disabled Futures to the idea that analyzing complex representations of race, gender, and dis/ability closely offers shifts in perspective that can keep us out of the cycle of distraction and argumentation, without devaluing the political and social knowledge that comes from living with and advocating from our social identity positions.

Years ago, when I discovered disability theory it gave me the seeds of some of the connections I make in this book. It let me talk about woundedness and impairment without shame or feeling like I had to isolate the harm of violence from the power of processing and living through it. To me this was applicable not only to disability as we understand it in our current moment but to the ways disability and ability form and inform all of our identities. It was a way to talk about whiteness and identity without fear that it would become white supremacy (the only choice according to the 1A interview with Garfield); a way of thinking about how dominant social identities work in complex collaboration with marginalization, not as its opposition, and not in ways that leave any of us unscathed by history. It was a way of connecting to myself and to years of academic study that I hadn’t known before and it became the platform for a theory of possibility. I hope that readers will leave this book tipping slightly more in the direction of possibility.

Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This week in North Philly Notes, in honor of MLK Day, we showcase six books with connections to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

The End of Empires: African Americans and Indiaby Gerarld C. Horne

Martin Luther King Jr.’s adaptation of Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolent resistance is the most visible example of the rich history of ties between African Americans and India. In The End of Empires, Gerald Horne provides an unprecedented history of the relationship between African Americans and Indians in the period leading up to Indian independence in 1947. Recognizing their common history of exploitation, Horne writes, African Americans and Indians interacted frequently and eventually created alliances, which were advocated by W.E.B. Du Bois, among other leaders. Horne tells the fascinating story of these exchanges, including the South Asian influence on the Nation of Islam and the close friendship between Paul Robeson and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Based on extensive archival research in India, the United States and the United Kingdom, The End of Empires breaks new ground in the effort to put African American history into a global context.

Philadelphia Freedoms: Black American Trauma, Memory, and Culture after King, by Michael Awkward

Michael Awkward’s Philadelphia Freedoms captures the disputes over the meanings of racial politics and black identity during the post-King era in the City of Brotherly Love. Looking closely at four cultural moments, he shows how racial trauma and his native city’s history have been entwined. Awkward introduces each of these moments with poignant personal memories of the decade in focus, chronicling the representation of African American freedom and oppression from the 1960s to the 1990s. Philadelphia Freedoms explores NBA players’ psychic pain during a playoff game the day after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination; themes of fatherhood and black masculinity in the soul music produced by Philadelphia International Records; class conflict in Andrea Lee’s novel Sarah Phillips; and the theme of racial healing in Oprah Winfrey’s 1997 film, Beloved. Awkward closes his examination of racial trauma and black identity with a discussion of candidate Barack Obama’s speech on race at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center, pointing to the conflict between the nation’s ideals and the racial animus that persists even into the second term of America’s first black president.

The African American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in Americaby David Howard-Pitney

Begun by Puritans, the American jeremiad, a rhetoric that expresses indignation and urges social change, has produced passionate and persuasive essays and speeches throughout the nation’s history. Showing that black leaders have employed this verbal tradition of protest and social prophecy in a way that is specifically African American, David Howard-Pitney examines the jeremiads of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, as well as more contemporary figures such as Jesse Jackson and Alan Keyes. This revised and expanded edition demonstrates that the African American jeremiad is still vibrant, serving as a barometer of faith in America’s perfectibility and hope for social justice. This new edition features: • A new chapter on Malcolm X • An updated discussion of Jesse Jackson • A new discussion of Alan Keyes

African Intellectual Heritage: A Book of Sources edited by Molefi Kete Asante and Abu S. Abarry

Organized by major themes—such as creation stories, and resistance to oppression—this collection gather works of imagination, politics and history, religion, and culture from many societies and across recorded time. Asante and Abarry marshal together ancient, anonymous writers whose texts were originally written on stone and papyri and the well-known public figures of more recent times whose spoken and written words have shaped the intellectual history of the diaspora.

Within this remarkably wide-ranging volume are such sources as prayers and praise songs from ancient Kemet and Ethiopia along with African American spirituals; political commentary from C.L.R. James, Malcolm X, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Joseph Nyerere; stirring calls for social justice from David Walker, Abdias Nacimento, Franzo Fanon, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Featuring newly translated texts and documents published for the first time, the volume also includes an African chronology, a glossary, and an extensive bibliography. With this landmark book, Asante and Abarry offer a major contribution to the ongoing debates on defining the African canon.

The End of White World Supremacy: Black Internationalism and the Problem of the Color Line, by Roderick D. Bush 

The End of White World Supremacy explores a complex issue—integration of Blacks into White America—from multiple perspectives: within the United States, globally, and in the context of movements for social justice. Roderick Bush locates himself within a tradition of African American activism that goes back at least to W.E.B. Du Bois. In so doing, he communicates between two literatures—world-systems analysis and radical Black social movement history—and sustains the dialogue throughout the book. Bush explains how racial troubles in the U.S. are symptomatic of the troubled relationship between the white and dark worlds globally. Beginning with an account of white European dominance leading to capitalist dominance by White America, The End of White World Supremacy ultimately wonders whether, as Myrdal argued in the 1940s, the American creed can provide a pathway to break this historical conundrum and give birth to international social justice.

Chapter 6: Black Power, the American Dream, and the Spirit of Bandung: Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Age of World Revolution

Black Power Ideologies; An Essay in African-American Political Thought, by John T. McCartney

In a systematic survey of the manifestations and meaning of Black Power in America, John McCartney analyzes the ideology of the Black Power Movement in the 1960s and places it in the context of both African-American and Western political thought. Starting with the colonization efforts of the Pan-Negro Nationalist movement in the 18th century, McCartney contrasts the work of Bishop Turner with the opposing integrationist views of Frederick Douglass and his followers. McCartney examines the politics of accommodation espoused by Booker T. Washington; W.E.B. Du Bois’s opposition to this apolitical stance; the formation of the NAACP, the Urban League, and other integrationist organizations; and Marcus Garvey’s reawakening of the separatist ideal in the early 20th century. Focusing on the intense legal activity of the NAACP from the 1930s to the 1960s, McCartney gives extensive treatment to the moral and political leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his challenge from the Black Power Movement in 1966.

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