Thursday, March 26, 2015

Paginas en Blanco: Whitewashed Family Histories

Douglas Hale, Secrets (2014)
Recently we've been reading the Junot Diaz novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel that is profoundly concerned with storytelling and history. In describing the absences in both family and national history, Diaz uses the phrase "paginas en blanco" which he describes as a "blank be filled in with the truth" (90).

This year we, too, have been thinking about the relationship between national history and family history. So, we borrowed the model from the Post Secret project and invited the students in our class to each offer up a single pagina en blanco from their own families. We wanted to explore the secrets that remained hidden or the truths that were never talked about openly within family history in a project we call "Paginas en Blanco de Mi Familia". The rules were simple: a single sentence of text and evidence of thought in the graphic presentation of the "secret." Please check out the finished compilation below.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Dean Smith: An American Hero

Dean Smith and MJ: how young they once were! Basketball icons, both. In the photo (below, right) Michael Jordan is just about to start arguably the greatest basketball career of all time -- a career that will certainly make him the biggest sports celebrity of all time. His coach, Dean Smith, chose a different route, quietly revolutionizing basketball but also pressing some of the most important civil rights issues in the past 70 years.

Earlier this week I woke up to the sad news that legendary North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith had died at the age of 83. As a sports fan my whole life, I've lived through many sad sports stories, witnessed the deaths of many sports heroes. But no sports figure has ever affected me as personally as the loss of "The Coach," "Michaelangelo," Dean Smith.

Michael Jordan and Dean Smith
I have no personal acquaintanceship with Coach Smith, but I first fell in love with Tar Heel basketball in 1976 -- long before Michael Jordan played for the Heels -- when the US team won gold at the Montreal Olympics. (That's why I originally wrote this post in light blue!) While most people know his astonishing record as a coach -- the two national titles, the eleven final fours, his (then record) 877 career wins -- Smith's record as a teacher and as a man and as an American citizen is even more impressive.

  • Smith was a star on his high school team, or I should say ONE of his teams since his school had a white team and a black team. In 1949, recognizing the injustice, Smith used his status as a star athlete to pressure the principal to integrate the school. One of the black players was Oliver BROWN -- as in the 1954 landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, KS. Slate's Jason Zengle" puts it this way: "To Smith, racial justice was about much more than winning and losing. It was simply the correct thing to do." Smith, he continues, "understood this far sooner than many other white Americans." As a teenager in Topeka, Kansas, he’d persuaded his high school principal—five years before the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education -- to integrate the school’s basketball team.
  • Nine years later, as a mere assistant basketball coach at UNC, he integrated Chapel Hill when he invited a black divinity student to eat at the town's finest restaurant, which was then still segregated. Since the Tar Heels ate many meals there, Smith gambled that the restaurant wouldn't want to lose their business, saying he would not eat there if they wouldn't serve people of color. They were promptly served and the restaurant ended its practice of segregation.
  • Shortly thereafter he integrated the ACC, recruiting its first black player, Charlie Scott (below, right). That it took three years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act for this southeastern conference to allow a black player on court speaks volumes about the kind of environment in which "The Coach" set up shop.
  • In an age where celebrities and ordinary citizens alike are often afraid to speak up since it might hurt their reputation, their "brand," Smith exercised his First Amendment rights, speaking out against the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, and capital punishment (starts at 2:40 on the video). Can you imagine another major basketball coach taking on the Prison-Industrial complex? At the state capitol, as the video relates, Smith pointed his finger at the governor and said, "if you support capital punishment you are a murderer." Then, since he was never holier than thou, he pointed at himself and said, "And I am a murderer. Capital punishment makes murderers of us all." Would John Calipari risk his "brand" by taking a political stand? No chance!

Dean Smith and Charlie Scott
None of these views was popular in his home state of North Carolina -- especially in the perilous times of the 1960's and 70's -- but Smith always exercised his First Amendment right of speaking out for what is right. As Smith put it: "Don't be proud of doing what's right. Just do what's right." To put it another way he didn't "just do it," he "just DID it."

For these reasons Smith gets my vote for being an American hero. Whom would you nominate and why?

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Forgotten King

The title of this post is intentionally ironic. Everyone knows that we are away from school today because Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is commemorated by name with a national holiday. And just about every American alive is familiar with King's "I Have A Dream" speech.


However, as we wrap up the semester, we invite you to think about what you have previously learned about Dr. King when you were a younger student, in light of this particular speech. The subject of the talk was the Vietnam War, in an excerpt from a sermon given at Ebenezer Baptist Church, on April 30, 1967. During that very perilous time, consider the public response to his words back then:
...after giving the speech...King was dropped from Gallup’s annual list of the most admired Americans and was ridiculed by the New York Times, among too many others. Soon after, he was murdered (Robert Scheer,
As a kind of evidence, look closely at this 3-frame diagram of King's funeral photo which highlighted African-Americans using black dots, and whites, using red dots. Please click to enlarge the details.

"Life Magazine, April 19, 1968,” by Alfredo Jaar. (Copyright Alfredo Jaar)

Although the speech is over 20 minutes long, you are encouraged to listen to as much of it as you can (it's audio only). We know what amazing multitaskers you are. Press PLAY and have it on in the background as you message your friends and surf the net ;) Ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Why is this post titled, "The Forgotten King"?
  2. Why don't we Americans celebrate this speech?
  3. How does it relate to our course themes?
  4. Can you make connections to today?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Black and White TV Set?

Gina Rodriguez
Last night's Golden Globes may have offered some encouraging news for people interested in television diversity. Gina Rodriguez won a "globe" for a comedy called Jane the Virgin and later said that her award "represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes." Yet she was the only actor of color to win a globe last night. (Presenter Don Cheadle, was the only actor of color to win last year, also for a TV comedy).

And last year, a Writers Guild of America report on women and minorities in television offered what some also see as encouraging news. In the past 12 years, for example, the number of minority writers has roughly doubled moving from 7.5% of all writing jobs to 15.6%. The biggest increases were in the number  of Asian-American and Latino writers, especially those working in "multicultural dramas."

Similarly, the number of women writers has risen from 25-30% over the past decade, promising, perhaps, but still far less than the 50+% of the population women actually represent. Perhaps this is why, the authors of the report had considered subtitling the report "Pockets of Promise, Minimal Progress." Overall, the numbers look better — more representative of what our country looks like— but are these numbers truly encouraging?

Is there reason to be optimistic? Let's look closer at some of the numbers: "only 9% of pilots had at least one minority writer attached [to their writing staff] and just 24% of pilots had at least one woman attached, according to the report." Shockingly low, no?

A monolithic line-up of Emmy-nominated writers?
Here is a recent picture (above) of a panel of Emmy-nominated writers. Ask yourself who is represented? Who is not?

And the numbers are even more stark when you behind the camera. According to Think Progress, in an article called "TV Directors get Whiter and More Male," the percentage of episodes of television in the 2011-2012 television season directed by white men rose from 72 percent to 73 percent. White women directed 11 percent of episodes, the same as last year. And women of color and men of color basically traded work: men of color directed 13 percent of episodes, down from 14 percent last year."

With a disproportionately high percentage of white writers and directors, it perhaps not surprising that news for actors of color is similarly frustrating. Among actors on TV there had been reason to hope in 1998 when Andre Braugher took home a leading-actor Emmy in 1998 for his work on "Homicide: Life on the Street," becoming only the third black actor to win in that category (Bill Cosby and James Earl Jones got there first). But in the last 14 years, there has been only one minority nominee: Braugher again, for the swiftly canceled ABC medical drama, "Gideon's Crossing."

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Mythmaking Thanksgiving

As we contemplate consuming copious quantities of turkey, cranberries, and mashed potatoes, it may be instructive to consider what we really know about the origins of our Thanksgiving holiday celebration.

The First Thanksgiving, 1621 by Jean Ferris (1899)
According to historian James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, the Pilgrims did not start the Thanksgiving tradition; instead, east coast Indians had celebrated autumnal harvests for hundreds of years. In fact, our modern celebration only dates back to President Lincoln's 1863 proclamation of a national Thanksgiving holiday (during the perilous times of the Civil War), when the Union badly needed a boost of patriotism. The Pilgrims of New England were not even incorporated into the tradition for another 30 years.

There are literally only two brief primary sources that deal with what happened in the Fall of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The most familiar might be Edward Winslow's Mourt's Relation (modernized spelling below) in which he stated:
our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
What from the traditional holiday celebration is mentioned and what is left out?

Importantly, the above-mentioned quote lacks historical context. Think about it: why exactly were the Indians so willing to sit down with these "invaders"? Toward answering that question, some historians have argued that our yearly celebrations whitewash the permanent colonization of America that might have been impossible without the devastating (but unintentional) plagues that preceded the Pilgrim arrival. This onslaught of disease might have been the most important single occurrence in the history of America. Lastly, feel free to comment on how the depictions featured above in this traditional painting (click to enlarge) may have contributed to the Thanksgiving mythology.