Reviewing women-centric cinema in Bangladesh

This week in North Philly Notes, Elora Halim Chowdhury, author of Ethical Encounters: Transnational Feminism, Human Rights, and War Cinema in Bangladesh, writes about female representation in Muktijuddho films.

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A modern remake of Ajoy Kar’s 1961 film Saptapadi, Shameen Akhtar’s film Rina Brown (2017) unfolds intimate geographies of love and loss among individuals from India, and West and East Pakistan. One of few independent women filmmakers in Bangladesh, Akhtar offers a tale about unfulfilled dreams of love and freedom, set in contemporary Bangladesh (or, Dhaka City), that traces the return of Rina, an Anglo-Christian, to the now-independent nation that she left during the Bangladesh Liberation War (or, Muktijuddho). Forty years after the war’s end, Rina comes back to participate in a seminar about women in conflict. She seeks out her adolescent love, Darashiko, a Bengali Muslim freedom-fighter-turned-business-executive. Over the course of a long afternoon, the two reminisce about the fading aspirations of the nationalist struggle and its unreconciled trauma.

Though Rina’s past is indelibly linked to the history of Bangladesh, she is now a stranger whose suffering is incomprehensible to the post-war generation. As the couple look out on the sweeping urban landscape of Dhaka City, and think about what could have been, a vacant footbridge bereft of pedestrians serves as a metaphor to all that the war has torn asunder and imaginary borders, intractably entrenched. War changed everything, yet as Darashiko expresses forlornly, “We could not change the country.”

The poster for Rina Brown

I begin with this vignette from Akhtar’s film—a woman-centered Muktijuddho film—because it highlights what the essays in Ethical Encounters strive to do: reimagine a Muktijuddho gender ideology that through visual culture engages with, disrupts, and incites a new imaginary for gender justice. The collection defies conventional readings of the aesthetics and politics of Muktijuddho narratives. They tell stories of the birth of a nation from its margins, constructing a ‘Bangladeshi’ identity that embraces Bengali Muslims, as well as non-Muslims and non-Bengalis, coalescing into a national cinema that crystallizes an emergent Bangladeshi modernity. Yet at the same time, this modernity also relies on a middle-class and masculinist reading of the nation and its history. Ethical Encounters, inspired by women-centric cinema in Bangladesh, illuminates a feminine aesthetic as well as the politics of disruption and agency, healing, and reconciliation.

The poster for Meherjaan

The attempt to memorialize the varied experiences of women in the Liberation War is a way to advocate for and ingrain their complex, agential roles into the national history. Notably, instead of primarily focusing on state-level negotiations or masculine combat, films in this genre highlight the intimate, domestic, or “feminine” sphere as the site of struggle and meaning. By a “feminine” sphere, I mean those spaces that are usually considered feminized—and thus subordinated—within dominant patriarchal ideology. However, reframed, they can also be read as portrayals of nonconformity, mutuality, and solidarity. By allowing the viewer to remember, imagine, and work through traumatic events such as war and conflict through a feminine aesthetic, cinema can encourages appreciatiation of the moral choices and interpretive acts of women, previously consigned to only the “feminine” sphere, cast as passive victims or witnesses. Women in these films instead make unexpected, sometimes jarring, choices: nursing a wounded enemy soldier; seeking the assistance of a sympathetic Pakistani soldier after having been raped by others like him; and embracing a child of rape even when the nation rejects them. Recognizing these moral choices is a legacy of the war that viewers learn to appreciate through the cinematic medium, and these films are an evolving archive where diverse women’s stories are memorialized, as significant and precious as the memorials and museums the state erects to commemorate martyrs.

These films redefine what humanity, loss, and justice mean for victims, and reconfigure relationships between viewer, witness, and ally. They point to the open wound that 1971 still is, especially for women. This foundational trauma remains constitutive of the nation, and Muktijuddho cinema plays a pivotal role in constructing—and disrupting—the gendered subjectivities beget by the war’s legacy. Women’s cinema, and human rights cinema, capture more broad, transnational visions of feminist filmmaking. They recast the relationships of women to war—as plunder of the nation, as dislodged women from that nation—and question the terms of what constitutes the human in these fraught circumstances.

Ultimately, women-centric Muktijuddho films emplot global human rights narratives and aesthetics that defy reductive and monolithic renditions of social reality. They offer complexity and nuance beyond just a tussle between victims and aggressors, loss and triumph, and colonization and liberation. Simultaneously, they strive for more ethical recognitions, drawing on a multiplicity of histories, struggles, and experiences. Woman-centered films provide an alternative reading toward decolonizing notions of agency, freedom, and justice; they imagine a new kind of feminist knowledge-making.

Announcing Temple University Press’ Spring 2022 Catalog

This week in North Philly Notes, we are pleased to present our forthcoming Spring 2022 titles (in alphabetical order).

Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures, edited by Grant Farred
A provocative collection committed to keeping the dynamism of the Africana Studies discipline alive

Beethoven in Beijing: Stories from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Historic Journey to China, by Jennifer Lin, with a foreword by Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin

An eye-opening account of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s unprecedented 1973 visit to the People’s Republic of China

Before Crips: Fussin’, Cussin’, and Discussin’ among South Los Angeles Juvenile Gangs, by John C. Quicker and Akil S. Batani-Khalfani

A historical analysis of South Los Angeles juvenile gang life as revealed by those who were there

Elusive Kinship: Disability and Human Rights in Postcolonial Literature, by Christopher Krentz

Why disabled characters are integral to novels of the global South

Ethical Encounters: Transnational Feminism, Human Rights, and War Cinema in Bangladesh, by Elora Halim Chowdhury

Illuminates how visual practices of recollecting violent legacies in Bangladeshi cinema can generate possibilities for gender justice

Exploring Philly Nature: A Guide for All Four Seasons, by Bernard S. Brown, Illustrations by Samantha Wittchen

A handy guide for all ages to Philly’s urban plants, animals, fungi, and—yes—even slime molds

If There Is No Struggle There Is No Progress: Black Politics in Twentieth-Century Philadelphia, edited by James Wolfinger, with a Foreword by Heather Ann Thompson

Highlighting the creativity, tenacity, and discipline displayed by Black activists in Philadelphia

It Was Always a Choice: Picking Up the Baton of Athlete Activism, by David Steele

Examining American athletes’ activism for racial and social justice, on and off the field

Just Care: Messy Entanglements of Disability, Dependency, and Desire, by Akemi Nishida

How care is both socially oppressive and a way that marginalized communities can fight for social justice

Letting Play Bloom: Designing Nature-Based Risky Play for Children, by Lolly Tai, with a foreword by Teri Hendy

Exploring innovative, inspiring, and creative ideas for designing children’s play spaces

Loving Orphaned Space: The Art and Science of Belonging to Earth, by Mrill Ingram

Providing a new vision for the ignored and abused spaces around us

Model Machines: A History of the Asian as Automaton, by Long T. Bui

A study of the stereotype and representation of Asians as robotic machines through history

Public Schools, Private Governance: Education Reform and Democracy in New Orleans, by J. Celeste Lay

A comprehensive examination of education reforms and their political effects on Black and poor public-school parents in New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina

Regarding Animals, Second Edition, by Arnold Arluke, Clinton R. Sanders, and Leslie Irvine

A new edition of an award-winning book that examines how people live with contradictory attitudes toward animals

School Zone: A Problem Analysis of Student Offending and Victimization, by Pamela Wilcox, Graham C. Ousey, and Marie Skubak Tillyer

Why some school environments are more conducive to crime than safety

Warring Genealogies: Race, Kinship, and the Korean War, by Joo Ok Kim

Examines the racial legacies of the Korean War through Chicano/a cultural production and U.S. archives of white supremacy

Water Thicker Than Blood: A Memoir of a Post-Internment Childhood, by George Uba

An evocative yet unsparing examination of the damaging effects of post-internment ideologies of acceptance and belonging experienced by a Japanese American family

What Workers Say: Decades of Struggle and How to Make Real Opportunity Now, by Roberta Rehner Iversen

Voices from the labor market on the chronic lack of advancement

What will work eventually look like?

This week in North Philly Notes, we focus on our new and forthcoming Labor Studies titles in honor of Labor Day.

 Workforce Development 

The Many Futures of Work reframes the conversation about contemporary workplace experience by providing both “top down” and “bottom up” analyses.  

America in the 20thcentury

Becoming Entitled examines Americans’ shift in thinking about government social insurance programs during the Great Depression.

Communists and Community shows what role Communists played in the advancement of social democracy. 

Elaine Black Yoneda (forthcoming) presents a critical biography of the Jewish labor activist and feminist pioneer. 

Industrial histories

“A Road to Peace and Freedom recounts the history of the International Workers Order.

From Collective Bargaining to Collective Begging analyzes the expansion and restriction of collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Social justice and social welfare 

Motherlands challenges preconceived notions of the states that support working mothers. 

Labor economics 

Daily Labors and its examination of Black and Latino day laborers’ experience on an NYC street corner.

Sociology of work 

A Collective Pursuit argues that teachers’ unions are working in community to reinvigorate the collective pursuit of reforms beneficial to both educators and public education.

Policing in Natural Disasters shows how disaster work impacts law enforcement officers and first responders.

Making Their Days Happen (forthcoming) explores the complexities of the interpersonal dynamics and policy implications affecting personal assistance service consumers and providers.

For all of our Labor Studies

Announcing the new issue of Kalfou

This week in North Philly Notes, we feature the new issue of Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies

One highlight from Vol. 7 No. 2 (2020) is that the issue contains a special collection of articles dedicated to the impact of Lorgia García-Peña‘s work on scholarship and civic life. Harvard’s denial of tenure to her in 2019 sparked an intense nationwide discussion of how ethnic studies is devalued in the academy, and this issue mounts a defense of both her pioneering intersectional work in theorizing Blackness, Afrolatinidad, and dominicanidad as well as of the contemporary necessity of the field of ethnic studies more broadly.

Table of Contents:

Kalfou: A JOURNAL OF COMPARATIVE AND RELATIONAL ETHNIC STUDIES

VOLUME 7, ISSUE 2 • FALL 2020

SYMPOSIUM ON THE SCHOLARSHIP AND TEACHING OF LORGIA GARCÍA-PEÑA

THE PRESENT CRISIS

Ethnic Studies Matters • Lourdes Torres

Shattering Silences: Dictions, Contradictions, and Ethnic Studies at the Crossroads • George Lipsitz

When Your Mentee Is Denied Tenure: Reflections on Lorgia García-Peña’s Work • Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández

Three Essays toward Care in and beyond Academia • Camara Brown, Eun-Jin Keish Kim, and Massiel Torres Ulloa

Your Mirada. Gracias. Siempre: Afro-Asia, Intimacies, and Women-of-Color Feminisms • Catherine R. Peters

DOMINICANIDAD AS A CRUCIBLE OF NEW KNOWLEDGE

Latinidad, Dominicanidad, and Anti-Blackness: Two Nations under U.S. Empire • Laura Briggs

Bringing Dominican History from the Footnote to the Center of the Page • Elizabeth S. Manley

FEATURE ARTICLES

Susto, Sugar, and Song: ire’ne lara silva’s Chicana Diabetic Poetics • Amanda Ellis

“The Blackness That Incriminated Me”: Stigma and Normalization in Brothers and KeepersAdam Burston, Jesse S. G. Wozniak, Jacqueline Roebuck Sakho, and Norman Conti

Contesting Legal Borderlands: Policing Insubordinate Spaces in Imperial County’s Farm Worker Communities, 1933–1940 • Stevie Ruiz

IDEAS, ART, AND ACTIVISM

TALKATIVE ANCESTORS

Gloria E. Anzaldúa on the Illusion of “Safe Spaces”

KEYWORDS

The Knowledge of Justice in America • Julie J. Miller

LA MESA POPULAR

Discovering Dominga: Indigenous Migration and the Logics of Indigenous Displacement • Floridalma Boj Lopez

ART AND SOCIAL ACTION

Three Films of Yehuda Sharim • John T. Caldwell

Songs That Never End: A Film by Yehuda Sharim • George Lipsitz

TEACHING AND TRUTH

Situating Blackness and Antiracism in a Global Frame: Key Works for a Study of the Dominican Republic • Elizabeth S. Manley and April J. Mayes

About the journal:

Kalfou is published bi-annually by Temple University Press on behalf of the University of California, Santa Barbara. It is focused on social movements, social institutions, and social relations. Kalfou seeks to build links among intellectuals, artists, and activists in shared struggles for social justice. The journal seeks to promote the development of community-based scholarship in ethnic studies among humanists and social scientists and to connect the specialized knowledge produced in academe to the situated knowledge generated in aggrieved communities.

Why We Turn to Intersectionality to Confront Anti-Asian Violence

This week in North Philly Notes, we repost, with permission from Northern California Grantmakers, an essay by Alice Y. Hom, coeditor of the forthcoming Q & A, about the recent anti-Asian violence.

This has been a hard week of swirling emotions since I learned six Asian women and two other people were shot in Atlanta amidst the rise of anti-Asian violence here and nationwide. The names identified so far are: Soon Chung Park (74), Suncha Kim (69), Yong Ae Yue (63),Hyun Jung Grant (51), Xiaojie Tan (49), Daoyou Feng (44), Paul Andre Michels (54), and Dalaina Ashley Yaun (33). I am sending my deep condolences to their loved ones, families, and communities. Rage, grief, and sadness course through me as I wake up and tend to my work, check in with kin and kindred, read the news, and skim social media. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed.  

I am not surprised the shooter, a white man, denied that race motivated his attacks against three massage parlors and spas. But I’m angry at the denial and the shortsightedness of law enforcement, the media, and others who relay the shooter’s explanation and enable the claim that racism doesn’t play a role in his actions.  

Instead, let this be a moment to challenge the idea that anyone might ever be entitled to inflict violence on the pretext that they are driven by “sexual addiction.” This violence should be understood as the deadly expression of racialized and sexualized stereotypes of Asian women, specifically migrants who work at massage parlors and spas whose low income and status as immigrants expose them to risk. Our country’s wars and military operations throughout Asia and the Pacific Rim have, over many years, reinforced sex trades and racialized sexual violence toward Asian women.  

Here we must challenge ourselves to consider race, gender, heterosexuality, and class not as separate forms of identity, but interacting together, to deepen our understanding of the deaths of these women and our Asian elders here in the Bay Area. This concept of interlocking identities is not new and comes from Black lesbian feminists organizing in the 1970s under the Combahee River Collective.  

The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, who explains, “It’s basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these.”  

This approach helps us make sense of the violence against Asian women and the way it’s connected to violence faced by women of color, Black and Indigenous women, in particular.  I hope the following articles, statements, and interviews provide some insight and support you taking action to strengthen our collective fight against the intersecting oppressions of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism.  

In these moments, we draw strength by calling upon the rich connections of our movements, the power of our voice, and the resources for social justice over which we have influence.   

Books that honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This week, in North Philly Notes, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, we focus our attention on our books, new and old, that speak to a dedication to civil rights and human struggles.

The Civil Rights Lobby: The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Second Reconstruction, by Shamira Gelbman, investigates how minority group, labor, religious, and other organizations worked together to lobby for civil rights reform during the 1950s and ’60s. Shamira Gelbman explains how the diversity of this interest group coalition both hindered and enabled lobbyists to generate broad-based support for reforms that often seemed risky to legislators. They coordinated their efforts by identifying common ground among member organizations, developing coalitional positions on substantive and strategic questions, and exhorting organizations to mobilize professional and grassroots lobbying resources accordingly. The result was to “speak with one booming voice” to ultimately help secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Black Identity Viewed from a Barber’s Chair: Nigrescence and Eudaimonia, by William E. Cross, Jr., revisits his ground-breaking model on Black identity awakening known as Nigrescence. Cross connects W. E. B. DuBois’s concept of double consciousness to an analysis of how Black identity is performed in everyday life, and traces the origins of the deficit perspective on Black culture to scholarship, dating back to the 1930s. He follows with a critique showing such deficit and Black self-hatred tropes were always based on extremely weak evidence. His book sets out to disrupt and agitate as Cross attempts to more accurately capture the humanity of Black people that has been overlooked in previous research.


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

Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion by Bettye Collier-Thomas, is a groundbreaking book that provides a remarkable account of the religious faith, social and political activism, and the extraordinary resilience of Black women during the centuries of American growth and change. As co-creators of churches, women were a central factor in their development and as Collier-Thomas skillfully shows, Black church women created national organizations to fight for civil rights and combat discrimination.


God Is Change: Religious Practices and Ideologies in the Works of Octavia Butler, edited by Aparajita Nanda and Shelby L. Crosby (forthcoming in June) examines Octavia Butler’s religious imagination and its potential for healing and liberation. In her work, Butler explored, critiqued, and created religious ideology. But religion, for Butler, need not be a restricting force. The editors of and contributors to God Is Change heighten our appreciation for the range and depth of Butler’s thinking about spirituality and religion, as well as how Butler’s work—especially her Parable and Xenogenesis series—offers resources for healing and community building.

The African American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America, by David Howard-Pitney, shows that Black leaders have employed the jeremiad, a 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.

Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years after the Kerner Report, edited by Fred Harris and Alan Curtis examines inequality in America. The 1968 Kerner Commission concluded that America was heading toward “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” 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. 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.

Who Will Speak for America? edited by Stephanie Feldman and Nathaniel Popkin, collects passionate and justifiably angry voices providing a literary response to today’s political crisis. Inspired by and drawing from the work of writers who participated in nationwide Writers Resist events in January 2017, this volume provides a collection of poems, stories, essays, and cartoons that wrestle with the meaning of America and American identity. Who Will Speak for America? inspires readers by emphasizing the power of patience, organizing, resilience and community. These moving works advance the conversation the American colonists began, and that generations of activists, in their efforts to perfect our union, have elevated and amplified.

A Q&A with Valerie Harrison and Kathryn Peach D’Angelo

This week in North Philly Notes, the coauthors of Do Right by Me talk about how they developed their book-length conversation about how to best raise Black children in white communities.

Is Do Right by Me just for white parents of black children?
Both: No, the book is useful not only for white adoptive parents of black children but also for anyone engaged in parenting and nurturing black children, including black or interracial families of origin. Do Right by Me also provides insights and tools to a broad audience of social scientists, child and family counselors, community organizations, and other educators who engage issues of transracial adoption or child development or who explore current experiences in the areas of social justice and institutionalized racism. All readers will learn how race impacts the way the world interacts with a black child, and the way they as adults can provide all black children with the knowledge and awareness to resiliently face these challenges.

Do Right by Me is designed to “orient par­ents and other community members to the ways race and racism will affect a black child’s life, and despite that, how to raise and nurture healthy and happy children.” It’s less a “how to” and more of “what to know or learn.” Can you explain your approach?
Katie: My husband Mike and I are white, and we adopted a beautiful biracial boy at birth in 2011. It was clear to us that white parents of black children want to parent well but have real questions and concerns about racism, culture, and identity. Unlike parents who buy into a “color-blind” or “post-racial” ideology, Mike and I had to confront head-on the reality that we would need to equip our biracial son for an experience far more complex than anything we had experienced. Do Right by Me is designed as a back and forth exchange between Val and me. Val has a doctorate in African American studies and lived experiences as a black woman. We engage the world through the lens of our experience, informed by our professional lives as educators. Each chapter includes a story from our personal experience supported by research and offer practical tips to put ideas into action.

How important are cross-racial relationships to a better understanding of what’s happening in America now?
Both: Dialogue about racism can be difficult and benefits from a knowledge of history, as well as a vocabulary of ideas and practice. Essential to the task is an understanding of racism and how systems continue to perpetuate privileges and disadvantages that black people have to navigate in ways that white people may never have had to. The safety and security of a 20-year friendship allowed us to have that difficult conversation. 

You have known each other for 20 years. How did you become such good friends?
Val: Katie and I have worked together at Temple University for almost 20 years. What began as a professional relationship grew into a close friendship. We talk almost every day. We each were one of the handful of supporters sitting in the room as the other defended a doctoral dissertation. Katie was the person in the room taking notes as surgeons spoke too fast and with terminology too unfamiliar for me to fully grasp how they would remove the cancer from my body, but she got it all down. We share secrets. I am her lawyer, and she is my uncredentialed therapist.

How did you approach topics of black hair, the black church, and Gabe’s experiences playing on a soccer team where “no one looked like me”—that cause someone discomfort?
Both: We guide readers on this journey using both of our voices, each in turn. When one of us presents a new idea, the other will recall a scenario that shows how it works in real life; when one of us remembers a question she faced, the other will jump in with the research and insight to put it into perspective and help readers think through it.

There are discussions of the challenges race and racism present for a black child, particularly challenges related to self-esteem. Can you discuss your focus on this factor in a child’s life?
Both: The health and well-being of a black child depend on the extent to which they feel positively about being black. A poor sense of one’s self as a black person results in low self-esteem and hinders the academic and personal achievement of black children. Conversely, positive racial identity results in high self-esteem and academic performance, as well as a greater ability to navigate racism. If parents don’t work on constructing a positive Black self-identity for their children, our culture will construct a negative self-identity around their blackness for them.

You write throughout the book about the importance of developing a positive racial identity and cite that transracially adopted children often struggle to develop a positive racial/ethnic identi­ty. Can you describe a few of the ways to do that and some of the pitfalls to avoid as you encourage readers to navigate the racism that is entrenched in American society?
Both: There are a number of forces at work that threaten positive identity in black children. One example is the creation and proliferation of negative images of black people. News reports exaggerate negative portrayals of black people, overrepresenting them in stories about poverty and crime and underrepresenting them in positive stories about their leadership, community involvement and family life. Shielding black children from negative and imbalanced messages while saturating them with positive and balanced counterimages have been found to be effective in building positive black identity and self-esteem while reducing the negative impact of racism on identity development.

Katie, I like that you explain that your worldview and cultural paradigm shifted after Gabriel. Can you talk about that process?
Katie: I was operating within a different cultural paradigm. One that was more Eurocentric and imposed upon its participants a notion that you are only good enough and have enough if you measure up to a predetermined set of standards, largely informed and dictated by the white people who designed them. And one that judged others as inferior in order to feel superior. Gabriel helped me see more clearly that the worldview and value system that I feel most at home in, is neither the only one available, nor the best. The mindset that I inherited certainly wasn’t doing me any good, and my desire to shift gears brought me the greatest gift of my life.

Do Right by Me includes info on “The Talk.” In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, what observations (and optimism) do you have about social change and awareness?
Katie: If anything, this moment (the murder of George Floyd) may finally dispel the myth that we are living in a post-racial America. It is only now as a mother that I understand how very different it all was for me because of the color of my skin. My husband and I understand that our decisions and behaviors, that were read as assertive or a normal testing of boundaries, may be read as disorderly, defiant, or even threatening if we were not white. Our world does not give our son the privilege of acting like us, and it places the burden unfairly on him to manage how others feel about him.

An interview with author Ryan Pettengill about Communists and Community

This week in North Philly Notes, we interview author Ryan Pettengill about his new book, Communists and Community, which enhances our understanding of the central role Communists played in the advancement of social democracy throughout the mid-twentieth century.

You trace community activism in Detroit during the years 1941-1956, which is during the downslide of the American Community Party [CPUSA]. What accounts for this time frame for your book?
Quiet honestly, the CPUSA had always had a knack for community activism. There have been other scholars that have written about this topic, but much of their attention is concentrated on the period from 1935 to 1939. This era, known as the Popular Front period in which communists made important alliances with liberals and progressives in the struggle against international fascism, was thought to have ended by 1940, largely a casualty of the alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. While the CPUSA did, in fact, enter into a new period in its history, the activism it pursued – especially at the local level in centers like Detroit – largely remained the same. The alliances that communists made with religious and civic organizations that were dedicated to social and political equality remained intact. Moreover, the nature of their activism, in which they would flood City Hall with letters, march in demonstrations throughout neighborhoods, boycott bowling alleys that insisted on Jim Crow policies, or establish “labor schools” for the training of the next generation of activists remained the preferred mode of activism long after World War II ended. Taking this community activism into account helps us understand the CP in a different light. It also helps demonstrate that leftists were central in keeping militant activism alive in the postwar period before it would become much more visible in the early 1960s with the coming of the civil rights movement.

Can you discuss why you focused on post-war Detroit? Sure, it was motor city with a huge industry in America at that time, but what made this city a valuable crucible
Detroit is just…fascinating. I developed an interest in the city as a graduate student and it never really stopped. But to the point of this question, Detroit is outside of the local context in which American communism is typically examined – New York City.  Examining communists and the activism that they sponsored demonstrates that at the local level in places like Detroit there was a level of autonomy in which activists were afforded a chance address local challenges in the way they saw fit despite what the “party line” may have dictated.

Communists and Community_smYou write about how the CPUSA helped underrepresented groups, working toward socioeconomic betterment, creating multiracial workforces, and protecting the foreign-born. Can you discuss this little-known history of Communists playing a central role in the advancement of social democracy and civil rights?
I think communists, with their insistence on analyzing the role that class played in American life, were able to see the unmistakable connections to race. Other scholars have noted that the CP was the only predominantly white institution that took up the matter of systemic racism during the 1930s, ’40s, or ’50s. To that end, it attracted civil rights activists like Reverend Charles Hill and Coleman Young, the first African American to be elected mayor of Detroit. As Young put it, the communists and Reverend Hill (an African American Baptist minister) were the only ones even talking about racism in the 1940s.  Young never apologized for running around with radicals so long as it meant the socioeconomic betterment of the black community.

There are interesting stories about housing projects, racism and racial segregation, police brutality, as well as issues involving wages and unionism, etc. What challenges, setbacks, and successes did the CP and its members have?
This may sound obvious but it was the Second Red Scare that accounted for the biggest challenges and setbacks for the CPUSA in Detroit and elsewhere. As I point out throughout the book, the Red Scare and McCarthyism compromised the alliances built between the labor-liberal-leftist coalition that had flourished in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Anticommunists like Joseph McCarthy had built careers on red baiting and liberals who had once been allies of leftists were forced to demonstrate their patriotism by ridding them from unions and civic organizations. That said, I think that what the communists achieved – especially throughout the 1950s – was keeping the concept of militant activism alive in the minds of Detroiters. The 1950s is so often portrayed as a politically tame period and it is no coincidence that McCarthyism was raging throughout the country at the time. The activism that communists sponsored in the postwar period helped lay the foundation for future activism in the 1960s and beyond.

 What observations do you have about the white ethnic backlash and rise of conservatism in the face of the CPUSA’s efforts? (Sounds kind of timely….)
In a perfect world, I would like my book to be read in conjunction with studies that chronicle the postwar economy, the rise of conservatism, and the long descent of the New Deal order. If you read Communists and Community in conjunction with, say, Daniel Clark’s Disruption in Detroit, for example, you can clearly see that the postwar economy was anything but stable and for the bulk of Detroit’s industrial workforce, simply having steady work took absolute precedent over the communist brand of activism that addressed the integration of Detroit’s neighborhoods or reforming policing practices throughout the city. If there is one thing writing this book has taught me is that the working class existed in the abstract and workers did not always want the same things. So, along comes someone like George Wallace who can speak the language of the working class in locales like Detroit and is able to portray himself as the “law and order” candidate and, thus, fracture the working-class coalition that the UAW, leftist activists, and other progressives worked so hard to establish throughout the war years.

How did the radicalism and politicization that gained momentum during that time continue in the decades after? You write that the decline of community activism within organized labor [is] a casualty of the Cold War; that anticommunism played a key role.
I generally think of Carl Winter, Helen Alison-Winter, Nat Ganley, and Billy Allan as placeholders for the future leftists who would come to mainstream protest and dissent in the 1960s and early 70s.  It wasn’t always easy to defend their radicalism but these individuals did so anyway.  When the Michigan Council for Peace led a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to petition the federal government to peacefully coexist with the Soviet Union, they opened themselves up to all sorts of criticism from the right.  But Reverend Hill led the pilgrimage anyway.  By the 1960s, with the fading of McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare, radicalism was once again a permissible form of political expression.  The activists comprising what might loosely be called the “old left” essentially preserved the institution of community activism.

 

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.

Time to Remember French AIDS Activism

This week in North Philly Notes, Christophe Broqua, author of Action = Vie, writes about Act Up-Paris.

Since the end of 2018, large-scale mobilizations in France by activist groups have challenged the authorities and demanded more social justice. The “Yellow Vest” movement holds demonstrations every Saturday in Paris. Among the streets that they have regularly occupied—sometimes without providing advance notice to the Prefecture (as prescribed by French law)—is the famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées, which stretches from Place de la Concorde to Place de l’Étoile, where the Arc de Triomphe is located, an area largely inaccessible for street demonstrations.

Action=Vie_SMTwenty-five years earlier, on December 1, 1993, the AIDS organization Act Up-Paris braved the difficulty of demonstrating in this same area by placing a giant condom on the Obélisque de la Concorde. They also blocked the top of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées on December 1, 1994, an action illustrated by the photo on the cover of Action = Vie: A History of AIDS Activism and Gay Politics in France. At the time, Act Up-Paris was considered one of the major social movements in France. The organization met with considerable success in terms of mobilization as well as media coverage and political impact—contrary to the predictions of failure that it had initially inspired.

Indeed, when Act Up-Paris was formed in 1989, the vast majority of local commentators thought the organization, based on the American model, could not succeed. They reproached it for being a lame copy, unsuited to the French context. That it was linked to the gay and lesbian community undoubtedly added to mistrust and discrediting of the organization. The success of Act-Up-Paris, however, continues the long French protest tradition—it reached its peak in the mid 1990s. The criticism was indicative of the tense relationship between the French and the United States, rather than of the relevance (or not) of political activism in the face of the epidemic in France. Indeed, France is dominated by an ideology that claims to reject “communitarianism” in favor of “republican universalism,” but which, in reality, fears political organization of oppressed or stigmatized minorities more than anything.

Nevertheless, the success of Act Up-Paris had some limitations, particularly when new treatments led to a drop in HIV/AIDS-related mortality, at least in the Global North. Little by little, without ever disappearing, the organization got smaller, while the other dominant AIDS organization in France, AIDES—inspired by the Gay MHC (New York) and the Terrence Higgins Trust (London)—succeeded due to their commitment to helping individuals. In contrast, Act Up defined its actions as strictly political. In the 1990s, Act Up-Paris had become a major player in the AIDS fight and gay rights movements, but lost its media visibility in the following decade and was virtually unknown to new generations.

MV5BZWM2NTcxM2QtOTYxMC00OTllLWJhN2MtODBjNjA2Y2FjYmU1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzQzNzQxNzI@._V1_UY268_CR3,0,182,268_AL_This progressive erasure and oblivion slowed in 2017 with the release of the film, BPM (Beats Per Minute). Directed and co-written by Robin Campillo a former member of Act Up-Paris, the film retraced the first years of the organization in a fictional but very realistic way. It also included a tragic love story between two activists, Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Debuting at the Cannes Film Festival, the film won the prestigious Jury Grand Prize. From the outset, critics were ecstatic in their support of the film and the emotions it stirred. When it was released in cinemas, it was a huge success; in just a few months more than 800,000 tickets were sold. This tremendous response to a past that was largely forgotten, especially among the new generation, was impressive. For younger viewers, it was the discovery of a heroic past that many people did not know about; for older viewers, the film stirred memories of difficult times or the feeling of having missed out on history.

Overall, the film enabled society to indulge in a kind of collective redemption in the face of what it had not wanted to see—i.e., an epidemic affecting stigmatized minorities who used forms of political action to survive. Far from being an isolated phenomenon, the movie success was part of a larger remembrance process affecting both the history of the fight against AIDS as well as the mobilization of sexual and gender minorities in various European and North American countries.

Alas, this rediscovery of Act Up-Paris was focused mainly in France, as the film BPM did not enjoy the same commercial success in the United States, though it fared well critically.

French history is strongly connected to American history: the founder and several important activists of Act Up-Paris went through Act Up New York, which also represented an important model for the French group. Later, Act Up-Paris became the largest Act Up group in the world.

Now that time has passed, will its history finally be discovered beyond the French borders?

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