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.

 

Writing Latinx Environmentalisms

This week in North Philly Notes, Sarah D. Wald, David Vázquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra, and Sarah Jaquette Ray, co-editors of Latinx Environmentalisms, tell “A Story of Inspiration and Acompañamiento.”

Latinx Environmentalisms is a collection of original essays and original interviews that explores the challenges and possibilities of bringing the environmental humanities and Latinx* studies together. The collection seeks to account for the variety of ways in which Latinx cultures are often (although certainly not always) environmental, but hardly ever identify as environmentalist. In this book, we argue that Latinx art, literature, film, and other forms of creative productions redefine and broaden what counts as environmentalism, even as they sometimes reject the term entirely. Part of how Latinx artists redefine these terms is by pointing out the racism inherent in some of the assumptions of environmentalism. We argue that Latinx art, literature, film, and other creative works hold the potential to make visible key aspects of the exploitation of the Earth, and in particular the ways in which colonization and capitalism exacerbate it. Latinx creative works often offer deep and significant insights about environmental issues, environmental ethics, and the intertwining of environmental ills with the social ills of racism, capitalism, and colonialism.

Latinx Environmentalisms_smAlthough the book seeks to build new bridges in environmental humanities and Latinx studies scholarship, it is just as much a story of building collegial and friendship bridges between the editors and contributors. In this post,we share how the book is also a story of collaboration, of how academic life looks and feels behind the pages of our scholarly products. We might even say that we offer this collection as a product of “acompañamiento.” Anthropologist Mariela Nuñez-Janes describes the concept as a process of creating networks of support and solidarity in a way that extends notions of kinship.

The story of this collaboration begins at a couple of different conferences in 2013: both the First Biennial Latina/o Literary Theory and Criticism conference at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) held at the University of Kansas. The four of us had known and admired each other for some time. We met to discuss the idea of producing an edited volume together. Although each of us knew about pockets of environmental humanities work that considered Latinx literature and culture, and a very tiny group of Latinx studies scholars who thought about the environment, we kept talking about how much there was to say about literary authors such as Helena Maria Viramontes, Ana Castillo, Cherrie Moraga, and Gloria Anzaldua, visual artists such as Ester Hernandez, and filmmakers such as Alex Rivera. Our initial conversations got us to realize that there was a huge and largely untapped archive of material that had unique things to say about the environment.

We also realized that there was a growing body of scholarship in Latinx studies that was already doing some of this work. Scholars such as Kamala Platt and María Herrera-Sobek had pioneered thinking about environmental themes in Chicana/o/x literature. Social scientists Laura Pulido and Devon Peña were also early leaders in thinking about Chicana/o/x environmentalisms, as was Robert Melchior Figueroa in the discipline of philosophy. We looked to some of our contributors, such as Randy Ontiveros, Gabriela Nuñez, and Jennifer García Peacock who identified their work as environmental, and others such as Paula Moya and Richard T. Rodríguez, who didn’t identify as doing environmental work, but who were clearly engaging with important ecocritical concepts.

Our question then became: how do we put these people into conversation with one another in order to highlight the innovative environmental thinking they identified in their works? 

Our collaboration was aided by some key developments in our individual scholarship. Priscilla wrapped up her book project, Writing the Goodlife (Arizona UP, 2016), which made an important intervention in how Chicanx/Mexican American cultural production is treated in the environmental field. Rather than focusing on texts where mainstream environmental ideas appear in Mexican American writing, Writing the Goodlife asks us to redefine “environmental” to see long-standing traditions, identities, cultural sensibilities, and forms of resistance as environmental, and to interrogate the exclusion of these expressions in the mainstream environmental canon.

Sarah D. Wald’s book, The Nature of California (Washington, 2016), was also just coming out. In it, she examined the ways writings of Japanese American, Filipino, and Mexican American farmers and farmworkers contested their exclusion from national identity through depictions of nature and land. Like Priscilla, she was redefining where and how we look for environmental ideas and what environmentalism may entail.

David, too, was realizing that much of his interest in urban literary expression and Latinx identity had environmental resonance, but only if we redefined what that meant– not only “wilderness” but also a sense of space, negotiations of ecological costs and benefits, etc.. David became particularly interested in how some communities bring a keen sense of “environment” to how they inhabit places, particularly in laying claim to cultural ownership over urban neighborhoods like New York’s Spanish Harlem.

And Sarah Jaquette Ray’s research in The Ecological Other (Arizona UP, 2013) on how environmental discourse can define immigrants as threats to American national security vis-a-vis its borderland ecosystems also situated her work as pushing this intersection.

All told, the four of us found each other through this research on Latinx environmentalisms, which kept landing us in the same places, such as the John Jay Latinx Literary Theory and Criticism Conference, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment Executive Council meetings (on which Priscilla and Sarah W. both served as Diversity Officers, Sarah R. served as Vice President, and Sarah R. and Priscilla as executive council members), the American Studies Association conferences, the Latino Studies Association conferences, and David and Sarah W’s home institution, the University of Oregon, having conversations about where the field might go, and laying the groundwork for working together.

We are so grateful to these conferences and professional organizations for providing the infrastructure for us to have these early exploratory conversations.

In other settings– especially in our classrooms, communities, and committees– we sensed a great interest in this intersection of Latinx and environmental concerns, but knew there was a dearth of scholarship on it. We were particularly struck by the enthusiasm our students shared with us. For example, in David’s courses on Latinx Sci-Fi and Environmental Thinking and Sarah W’s Environmental Humanities 203 courses at the University of Oregon, students were wildly enthusiastic about analyzing canonical authors like Leopold and Thoreau through lenses of race and ethnicity, as well as reading authors that had not been in the environmental canon through environmental lenses, such as Viramontes and Castillo. Both of the Sarahs and Priscilla led a 2015 ASLE workshop on Latinx Environmental Pedagogies, which reinforced our sense that students were pushing these boundaries.

We landed on the notion of “recovery” as a correction to the “diversity” approach of second-wave environmental literary criticism–which just adds more seats to the environmental table without challenging the very structure of the table –and had lots of ideas about how our project might take up these questions. Early in the process we recognized that some of the most sophisticated analysis of Latinx environmentalisms occurred within the fiction, non-fiction, and poetry of Latinx writers, especially among those writers who identified as Chicana feminists. This led us to talk directly to many of the Latinx authors whose work was foundational to our own inspiration.  Even more gratifying was the reception we got from scholars whose work was already pushing these fields in exciting directions. Quite simply they started to come out of the woodwork as we were beginning these conversations. That’s how the project started. Many of the insights in our Introduction to the book came from the various conversations that we had at conferences in our field and on panels with our contributors.

What is not obvious is how a project like this builds over time–in our case, five years of working together– and the details of collaboration. We learned how to step up and step back based on our strengths and weaknesses, and filled in for each other when our personal lives became distracting; we learned how scholarship never happens without tragedy, celebration, frustration, generosity, heartbreak, and mundane intrusions (like sick pets and home maintenance issues) on the intellectual process.

We met several times as a group to just sit in silence and write together. We became more acquainted with Google Docs and Dropbox than we ever thought possible. We spent what amounts to about 50 hours together on four-way Skype conference calls, watching each other’s lives carry on in the background– children growing up, family members moving in and out, seasons and health issues coming and going, the material realities of life moving through different places and stages.

The boundaries between our academic, friendship, and personal lives became increasingly blurred, and each editor would probably say that the book is a reflection of both collegial synergy and personal friendship. The work of pulling something like this together is both dramatic and unglamorous, intellectual and material, urgent and slow. To us, the process has been as illuminating as the product.

It is a true honor to share this book with audiences that are interested in not only these topics, but also the story of what academic life is about, what it means to produce scholarship in collaboration with others, and the thrills and concerns of pushing the boundaries of our disciplines.

Less than mapping these intersections, our hope is that the book opens a door for more thinking and more imagining of what could be. We want to lift voices, but also to scrutinize the liberating, and also oppressive, cultural work of environmental discourse. We continue to think about these issues, but also want to push it further to ask, for example, what implications do these conversations have for the other work we do at our institutions, such as our work with students and our efforts to create structures of inclusion and equity? 

We hope that others will not only carry this project in ever more diverse directions, but also be moved to embark on a similar kind of collaboration, where intellectual and personal worlds merge, and both are profoundly changed in the process.


*A note on terminology: We define Latinx studies as the comparative study of race, identity, and culture in U.S. communities with roots in Latin America (for example, Puerto Rican, Mexican American, or Central American communities). We use the term Latinx as a gender-neutral alternative to Latina or Latino in solidarity with LGBTQ+ communities. We also use the “x” to mark the indigenous peoples and knowledges that we will never know due to the conquest of the Americas. We also note that in using the term Latinx, we are deliberately operating from a comparative, interethnic perspective. What this means is that the essays and interviews we include focus on multiple Latin American-origin communities in the U.S. (Mexican American and Dominican American, for example), and that we compare and contrast the environmental ideas that emerge from these disparate communities. 

 

On the anniversary of the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950

This week in North Philly Notes, Masumi Izumi, author of The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Lawwrites about the McCarran Internal Security Act, which was enacted on September 23, 1950. 

Four years ago in late September, I spoke to a small attentive crowd and many indifferent passersby in a street protest held at one of the busiest intersections in the city of Kyoto. We were protesting the passage of the national security related bills that were steamrolled the day before. The overwhelming majority of constitutional scholars considered that the bills violated the nation’s pacifist constitution because they allowed the government to send its Self Defense Force troops abroad to take part in military actions unrelated to the defense of the territory of Japan. Tens of thousands of citizens gathered in protest in major cities. Thousands surrounded the Diet building every evening. I took part in a rally in Tokyo, joined a couple of demonstrations in Osaka, and walked with my daughter in several marches in Kyoto.

Over many years as a historian, I had interviewed Asian North American grassroots social activists. I wrote papers about political and cultural activism in the postwar Japanese American and Canadian communities. But I was not an activist myself. On that day at the protest rally, I asked the crowd and the passersby: “After the 9/11 attack, the U.S. government passed the Patriot Act and told people that everyone needed to be under surveillance because terrorists might be hiding among them. Then the U.S. government attacked Iraq on an accusation that later turned out to be a lie. Today, the Japanese government is telling us that we are threatened by our neighboring countries, that we need to remilitarize, and that we need to give up our liberties because excessive freedom jeopardizes our nation. But isn’t it our freedom that protects us, because it is our inalienable human rights that hold our government accountable?”

Since the return of a conservative cabinet led by an ultra-nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party prime minister in 2012, I have found myself living under a reactionary regime that imposed a series of repressive legislations. The LDP-Komei Party coalition passed the Specially Designated Secrets Act in 2013, steamrolled the National Security Acts in 2015, and made “conspiracy to commit a crime” a criminal offense in 2017. When the Security Acts passed, it felt as if the protective shield for our land and our people – our pacifist constitution – lost its effect.

Rise and Fall of America's Concentration Camp Law_sm_borderIt was around this time that I restarted my effort to publish the book based on my Ph.D dissertation. In The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Law: Civil Liberties Debates from the Internment to McCarthyism and the Radical 1960s, I chronicle the passage and repeal of the Emergency Detention Act, or Title II of the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 (hereafter Title II). I elucidate how Japanese American wartime mass incarceration provided a legal precedent for this law. Through discourse analyses, I show how Japanese Americans were discursively placed outside the constitutional protection of civil liberties. The analyses requires a revision in historical interpretations of Japanese American incarceration that it was not only important as an example of mass incarceration of a racial minority but it also was a sinister legal precedent for preventive detention of individuals considered potentially dangerous for national security. I do not mean that Japanese Americans posed threat to national security. In reality they did not. But the Executive Order 9066 granted the military a sweeping power to designate any part of the U.S. to be a defense zone from which it could exclude anybody in the name of national security. This expanded the government’s war power, and it led, in the Cold War period, to the authorization of the government to detain any person whom the government considered might engage in acts of espionage or sabotage. The book also depicts how a Japanese American grassroots movement to repeal Title II, or the “concentration camp law,” led Americans to reflect on their nation’s past and present racism and political oppressions in a critical light in the late 1960s.

When I wrote my dissertation, I meant to write about the past in a foreign country. Now, as I see my book come out in print, I am engaged in an actual struggle to halt the governmental efforts to undermine civil liberties and human rights in my country. I am also witnessing intense protests in the United States against immigrant detention, and I see global movements arising against neo-liberal economic policies and calling for actions to stop the climate change. If I had a choice, I would rather be a historian chronicling activisms in the past, because it feels much safer to study what happened in hindsight. I realize how scary it is to be active when we do not know the consequences of our actions or inactions. But perhaps only through our own struggles, we can understand the fears and hopes experienced by the past activists whom we write about.

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.

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.

Considering gay economies of desire, intraracial romance, and sexual intimacy

This week in North Philly Notes, Cynthia Wu, author of Sticky Rice, writes about issues of race and sexuality, the subjects of her new book, a critical literary study.

Last month, Sinakhone Keodara, a Lao American actor, screenwriter, and entertainment executive, made headlines when he announced on Twitter his plans to file a class-action lawsuit against Grindr, a popular geosocial networking app for men interested in dating other men. The problem? The commonplace declarations that announce “no Asians,” which are allowed by moderators to remain on user profiles. Those who broadcast this restriction are mostly, but not exclusively, white.  Their ubiquity creates a hostile climate for Asian American men.

In a separate statement, Keodara clarified that white men should not “flatter [themselves]” to imagine that Asian American men need to convince them of their appeal. Rather, these outward expressions of racial loathing tap into a larger historical fetch of inequities leveled against people of Asian descent—from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the World War II Japanese American internment, and the Department of Homeland Security’s present-day profiling of Arab and South Asian Americans.

Keodara’s refusal to uphold white men’s primacy in the gay economy of desire resonates with the premises of Sticky Rice: A Politics of Intraracial Desire.  “Sticky rice” is a term coined by gay Asian American men to denote those amongst them who prefer intraracial romantic and sexual intimacies. As the logic goes, Asian American men who stick to themselves—like the types of rice grains favored by many Asian cuisines—disrupt presumptions about their aspirations to both whiteness and heteronormativity.

Sticky Rice_smMy book is not an ethnography of these men, however. It is a literary critical study that borrows from their language of intraracial bonding to revisit some of the most widely read selections in the canon of Asian American literature. In so doing, it revises an origin narrative about this body of work that has taken the heterosexuality of its seminal texts for granted.

John Okada’s 1957 novel, No-No Boy, presents a key example of how returning to old texts with new lenses produces a more nuanced story about the rise of an Asian American arts and culture movement. The novel, ignored upon its publication, was later championed by an all-male vanguard of separatist cultural producers in the early 1970s. These novelists, poets, and playwrights were known for their public condemnation of femininity and queerness. Okada’s work, they asserted, portrayed a shining model of politicized Asian American manhood in line with their stringent ideals.

No-No Boy, set in the period right after World War II, tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two Japanese American men, a disabled veteran and a nondisabled draft resister. The former holds the approval of the United States for his patriotic sacrifice to the nation, while the latter is condemned for his refusal to join the Army from within the confines of an internment camp.

The novel is often read as a treatise on the impossibility of choosing between a violent and—ultimately—fatal assimilation and a resistance that could not be realized in the midst of the Cold War. What has been overlooked in the literary criticism on No-No Boy is the erotic and sexual attraction between the main characters. I argue that the bond between the two men dissipates the either-or dichotomy that divided Japanese Americans during and after the war. Moreover, it calls into question the favorability of proximity to whiteness and heterosexuality alike.

That men of color could afford or would want to turn away from these trappings of legitimacy is often unthinkable. The lawsuit Keodara is threatening against Grindr, after all, is a reaction to the social acceptability of rejecting Asian American men on racially discriminatory grounds. We all know that a common response to rejection is more impassioned efforts at inclusion.

However, rather than compensatorily clinging to mainstream standards, the male characters in Asian American literature’s seminal texts show that we need a wholesale rethinking of love, intimacy, justice, and community. Their bonds with one another and their relentless intent to stick together become the basis on which we can imagine a different order of values.

Fernando Ortiz Today

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

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

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

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

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

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