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.

video

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, Truthdig.com).
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.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Values for Sale: Whatever, U.S.A.

Sometimes it feels that everything is for sale in our country—including us. That we are unwitting soldiers in a marketing war being waged by giant companies. We wear uniforms of the companies to whom we pay allegiance—Nike, Polo—their logos emblazoned on our chests like flags marking territory: the precious advertising space of our lives. In one class I taught last week, about 1/3 of the students were wearing shirts with the names of colleges (the schools themselves increasingly positioned within the framework of big business). I'm certainly not above this either. Many of my clothes bear the stamp of a business, too. I just don't like feeling like a walking billboard. The physical space around us also feels increasingly tainted by the stench of advertising dollars.

I was thinking about this the other day while watching a baseball game on TV. The Giants, who play in AT&T Stadium, use just about every square inch of the stadium for advertising, including the holographic ads behind home plate which are now part of every pitch. (The only area not smothered in ads is the actual playing field—and you know that's coming!).

Crested Butte, Colo. or "Whatever, USA"

I guess this is why a recent New York Times story caught my eye. Crested Butte, Colorado has decided to take advertising possibilities to a whole other level, temporarily (one hopes) re-branding itself "Whatever, U.S.A." and turning the entire town into a beer ad. The streets and street lamps have been repainted the color of Bud Light cans and in exchange the Anheuser-Busch company has given the town half a million dollars. The company also brags it has brought plenty of new jobs to the town. But at what cost? As one resident says near the end of the article, "I really value my quality of life, and I’m afraid, as we allow these kinds of events to happen, we may be losing it."

Have we gone so far off the rails that we can now only measure the quality of our lives in monetary terms?  

Friday, September 12, 2014

Separate is not equal

In class, we've been thinking about the context of the photo The Soiling of Old Glory. While some people may think that desegregation ended with the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, educational segregation persisted. According to Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, rather than embrace integration,"much of the South translated" the phrase with all deliberate speed "loosely to mean whenever they got around to it." Shockingly, "one county in Virginia closed its entire system for five years, from 1959 to 1964, rather than integrate." Chickasaw, MS, she reports, "didn't integrate until 1970. Private schools sprouted up all over the country to create a de facto segregation that complied with the de jure integration the Court had endorsed.

Sadly, such responses were not limited to the the 60's or the 70's or even to the South. In fact, we may see similar battles being fought right here in Chicago today.

In an article in last year's Reader, Steve Bogira argues that "the vast majority of CPS students are still in schools that are highly segregated, racially and economically." Incredibly, "85% of all CPS students are [classified to be] low income" and "nearly one-third of [CPS] schools have enrollments that are at least 95 percent low-income...[those schools] are also 97 percent Hispanic and African-American." In part this segregation is attributable "to middle- and upper-class families enrolling their kids in private schools or moving to the suburbs once their children reach school age." Sound familiar?

Since the link between low income and low test scores is well documented, Bogira offers a bold proposal: "Rather than concentrating on raising test scores, school and city officials should focus on sharply reducing CPS's low-income proportion. Do that, and test scores and graduation rates will take care of themselves." Low income students would not be the only winners in an integrated school system. Middle and upper-class white students would benefit, according to an education analyst in the article, since "it's good for their children to be in a more diverse environment."

How possible, how plausible, is Bogira's proposal?  To what extent can we say we've made progress as a nation on this issue of education?