Thursday, December 19, 2013

Black and White TV

A new Writers Guild of America report on women and minorities in television offers some 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?

Here is a recent picture (see right) 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, December 08, 2013

TV Tokenism

Just how much TV do you watch in a given week? No need to out yourselves here. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "After work and sleep, TV viewing is the most commonly reported activity in the U.S., taking up just over half of all leisure time." Does it affect how you see others? Most people would say that watching TV doesn't have a profound effect on themselves, though the very same people believe it has a great effect on others.

If you're like most Americans, you watch a lot of TV, and if you own a mobile phone, about half of you are using it while watching the "boob tube", sometimes texting and tweeting during commercials and content. Advertisers and researchers have coined the term, "Connected Viewers", as a more sophisticated term for these screen zombies.

And speaking of zombies, the mid-season finale of AMC's smash hit drama, The Walking Dead aired last week, so I guess I now have time to write this post tonight :) I thought of this series specifically because I saw a particular tweet from a celebrity fan:
Of course, if you haven't seen the show, a lot of this Twitter-speak may seem confusing. But I was struck by the final hashtag, "please develop Michonne's character". Played by Danai Gurira, who also is a film actor and a writer, she is one of the few prominent African-American characters on the show since it began three years ago. But what's Kelly Choi complaining about? The Walking Dead has featured an African-American character since the very first season. Isn't that a mark of progress?

My guess is that characters like "Michonne" simply serve as "tokens": racial minority actors who are featured as 2-dimensional characters just so the show's creators (or perhaps the network) can claim they are being inclusive and "diverse". Consider the quote below and ask yourself if you think Gurira's characterization of the USA as "open" is actually true.

"I find it distressing that stories about African people who are in this country and people of African descent can sometimes be marginalized. It doesn't make any sense to me. I think we're in a place as a world, as a country, where we are open to a lot of other stories.... If the story's good, the themes are universal."

Friday, November 29, 2013

Mythmaking Thanksgiving

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


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 the traditional painting embedded in this post as another contributor to the Thanksgiving mythology.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Proclaiming Emancipation

Martin Luther King

In your presentations on Frederick Douglass's Narrative(s) last week, many groups discussed the failures of Reconstruction efforts designed to help disenfranchised and exploited African Americans — especially those efforts that intended to "speed up" equality after hundreds of years of enslavement and exploitation. That context is necessary to truly understand two of Martin Luther King's most famous texts: his Letter from a Birmingham Jail and his I Have a Dream Speech, delivered later that summer, 1963.

Dr. King was in that Birmingham jail, in part, because he non-violently refused to comply with racist laws. His letter is an attempt to answer his critics who questioned his actions. Many said to King and his colleagues that "the action [King and his colleagues] have taken in Birmingham is untimely." Dr. King, like many of you saw this argument as specious and cruel. Haven't African-Americans waited long enough? As King puts it in his Letter:
                          
"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'"

Dr. King picks up on this idea at the start of his most famous (Dream) speech. First he echoes Lincoln's Gettysburg Address by saying recognizing the 100th anniversary: "Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation." Then he launches into his main claim, "one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free."  

Perhaps because the main text of his speech — racism and inequality — does not fit our comforting progress narrative, Dr. King's speech has been remembered for its uplift — as if the promised land were not a place to strive toward, but a land upon which we already stand.  

Fifty years farther on, I'd like to raise this question again: Are we any closer to equality? Given the gross disparities in income, education, housing, criminal prosecution, etc., Are African-Americans — and all people of color — free today? And is it possible to be free if you are not economically free?  

Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist wrote about this question earlier this year. There are some encouraging signs to be sure — but some deeply troubling ones as well. Blow ends his article by quoting Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: “Today there are more African-American adults under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

Your turn. How would you answer the questions in bold above?  

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?


Monday, November 04, 2013

"Where's the proof?" #anamericanstudies

The latest exemplars from #anamericanstudies. This week's winner:

"Where's the proof?" by Jack O.

And this week's honorable mention:

"So Many Choices" by Jayce


Sunday, October 27, 2013

What is your Columbian Orator?

Nearly four years ago, historian Howard Zinn died of a heart attack at the age of 87. I was surprised how emotionally affected I was by his passing -- I certainly didn't know him, but saw him speak on several occasions, most notably at Northwestern University, days before the Iraq War in 2003.

I believe Zinn's death had such an impact on me because his writings and life were so formative in how I began to finally think for myself. Although most of us are familiar with Zinn's seminal A People's History of the United States, the book I always reference is the lesser-known Declarations of Independence, which has been since renamed.

This work always reminds me of a passage from Frederick Douglass' Narrative, in which he had secretly obtained a book, The Columbian Orator while in the depths of despair about being a slave for life. He wrote: "Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book....[It] gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance"(23-24). That's what Declarations was for me: an affirmation of the "interesting thoughts of my own soul": my own deepest-held beliefs. His book thus provided a model for expressing them openly. Zinn had subtitled his book, "Cross-examining American Ideology", and challenged every one of the assumptions listed below.

‘Be realistic; this is the way things are; there’s no point thinking about how things should be.’

‘People who teach or write or report the news should be objective; they should not try to advance their own opinions.’

‘There are unjust wars, but also just wars.’

‘If you work hard enough, you’ll make a good living. If you are poor, you only have yourself to blame.’

‘Freedom of speech is desirable, but not when it threatens national security.’

‘Racial equality is desirable, but we’ve gone far enough in that direction.’

‘Our Constitution is the greatest guarantee of liberty and justice.’

‘The United States must intervene from time to time in various parts of the world with military power...[to] promote democracy.’

‘If you want to get things changed, the only way is to go through the proper channels.’

‘There is much injustice in the world but there is nothing that ordinary people, without wealth or power, can do about it.’

What is your Columbian Orator?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Images of Emancipation

Please take a few minutes to watch the video below. Consider the words (below) of Frederick Douglass as you view the photos before we analyze them in the classroom. How did Douglass feel about the "new" medium of photography? {Inspired by a post written by Maurice Berger of the New York Times Lens Blog}
“Negroes can never have impartial portraits, at the hands of white artists. It seems to us next to impossible for white men to take likenesses of black men, without most grossly exaggerating their distinctive features. And the reason is obvious. Artists, like all other white persons, have adopted a theory respecting the distinctive features of Negro physiognomy. We have heard many white persons say, that ‘Negroes look all alike,’ and that they could not distinguish between the old and the young. They associate with the Negro face, high cheek bones, distended nostril, depressed nose, thick lips, and retreating foreheads. This theory impressed strongly upon the mind of an artist exercises a powerful influence over his pencil, and very naturally leads him to distort and exaggerate those peculiarities, even when they scarcely exist in the original.”

 
Images of Emancipation from Spiro Bolos on Vimeo.
Music by Nils Frahm. "Si" from Screws

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Pete Seeger: American Hero

Since we've been thinking about life stories this quarter and since we also considered the pantheon of New Trier's Hall of Fame, I started thinking about my American heroes. My top choice is Pete Seeger, the great folk singer, activist, and peace lover. Pete recently sang at Farm Aid alongside Eddie Vedder, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp -- a feat all the more amazing when you consider that Pete Seeger is 94 years old!  You may already know about his work with his buddy,Woody Guthrie, who wrote This Land Is Your Land. You can learn more about Seeger on a recent NPR piece, profiling his extra-ordinary life.

In this post, I'd like to hear about the American heroes you admire and why. If you can, please provide examples of their heroism. I'll go first:


I first heard Pete when my wife — then my college girlfriend — and I went on our first date to...where else? A Pete Seeger concert! But Pete's not just a folk music hero in my house; he's also a man of tremendous principle, who has truly lived his convictions. Some examples: He married a Japanese woman in the 1940's when our country was throwing over a hundred thousand Japanese-Americans (most U.S. citizens) in prison camps. He fought tirelessly for civil rights, singing with the great African-American baritone, Paul Robeson, when it nearly cost him his life. He inspired many famous civil rights leaders, including Julian Bond, who credits Seeger for opposing Jim Crow laws long before "the Movement" really got underway. Pete even wrote some of the lyrics to "We Shall Overcome." He fought for unions and for the common working man — and woman (since he also advocated equality among the sexes). Check out his song "I'm Gonna Be an Engineer" on our homepage virtual iPod (below, right column). And think about the stories that women are able to tell.  Last, Seeger traveled the world, recording and archiving world music like no one had ever done before.

For these actions he was branded a Communist and banned from appearing on TV for 17 years just when he had reached the height of his popularity. When the ban was finally lifted he shocked everyone by singing an anti-Vietnam War song called "The Big Muddy." Since then he has sung to end apartheid in South Africa and almost single-handedly galvanized efforts to clean-up the Hudson River. He's 94 now, but as recently as four years ago he was nominated for yet another Grammy Award in the category of folk music.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Did he get what he deserved?

While watching Werner Herzog's documentary, Grizzly Man, I noted the words of one man interviewed who claimed that Timothy Treadwell, someone who studied and lived with grizzly bears, "got what he deserved".

What do you think of this statement?

In Roger Ebert's review of the film, he quotes the director, Herzog, as saying, "I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder." I wonder what this statement reveals about the director's feelings toward his subject?

Ebert goes on to reveal his own opinion of Timothy Treadwell:
I have a certain admiration for his courage, recklessness, idealism, whatever you want to call it, but here is a man who managed to get himself and his girlfriend eaten, and you know what? He deserves Werner Herzog.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Making Medicine of Our Grief

The website of On the Media (a WNYC radio podcast) featured a fascinating photo (see lower left) taken on the infamous morning of 9/11/01 by Melanie Einzig. The background of the picture shows some familiar sights: the perfectly blue sky, smoke billowing from the Twin Towers. The middle of the photograph shows some horrified spectators, presumably looking on with incredulity and awe. But it is the foreground that really makes this photograph unique. There, a UPS man is delivering a parcel, apparently oblivious to the horrifying spectacle behind him. That he is walking toward the camera, and that the narrow street seems to corral him in an alley of shadow (is he literally in the dark?) offer competing details to the all-too hideous  scene behind him.




I think it would be a mistake to read this man as unfeeling. It seems to me he is simply doing his job (and doing his job simply): he is not paid to gawk. His uniform is striking — a contrast to the casual clothes of the people behind him — reminding me of Paul Fussell's book Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear. Is he merely a company man, a victim of institutionalization? Remember Thoreau: "If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell whistles, why should we run?"  This man lets nothing deter him from his task. He is a mail carrier and, while on duty, he will [only] think of the mail, which he cradles in his right hand.

The photographer, Ms. Einzig, felt it would be unfair to release this photograph too soon after 9/11. Its narrative is hard to read, and similar "life-goes-on" photos led to stormy controversy. But to what extent might this photograph be useful in capturing the day's events? What images are clearest in your mind? Why are those images so clear? Who chose to feature those pictures and how do they frame the story of that day's events?

Monday, September 09, 2013

An American Studies: Photos




"Heading West" by madsterr1

"Untitled" by middlenorthamerica

"Untitled" by cbungles606

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Is Teaching English a Form of Imperialism?

NOTE: Lizzy is a New Trier American Studies "grad", currently studying abroad in Mendoza, Argentina for the semester, trying to become fluent in Spanish through immersion. We are thrilled to have her guest-post [edited for length]. As we have discussed how difficult it is to examine our own society in a critical manner, think about how her experience in another country gives her a novel perspective on the USA (OC and Mr > B). 

Since apparently being bedridden with a strange Argentine flu...I am not going to be allowed to volunteer at an elementary school during my time here....But now I am going to try to tutor some kids in English, as a favor to a friend....

All of the locals seem to want to know more about American culture and they all want to practice their English whenever they talk to me. At the weekly “cultural exchange” night, I am routinely asked if Americans really eat bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning (Nope. I don't, at least.) And if college is really like the movies (usually not, but occasionally yes). And once I got on the wrong bus with a couple of friends around the time that middle schools were letting out, and we ended up hanging out with a bunch of very loud 13 year-olds and being barraged with questions about what different dirty English phrases meant. I assume these questions stemmed from watching TV, YouTube videos, and listening to "Blurred Lines". 

It was pretty funny to be asked these kinds of questions while so far from what I would call “United States culture”. But really, the mass culture of the US is everywhere with[-in] an internet connection. And seeing Walmart and McDonald’s here bothers me. But before, I was always just tickled by hearing peoples’ broken English — it made me feel better about my own Spanish abilities. It did, at least, until a girl from my program (who is American, but whose parents were born in South America) told me that she considers the spread of English to be a spread of American imperialism. Yes, it’s funny that it’s from the “British Council”.

And I have to say that I agree with her. American culture is flashy and it’s easy to get young people from other countries hooked on it. But the opportunity cost is that they have less energy to devote to their own heritage. It’s especially a big issue in places where there are indigenous languages that are dying out because English is perceived as a more worthwhile thing to learn.

The spread of English and the culture of the United States is gobbling up the culture and language of other places. But does this mean that I am not going to teach English? No. Every day, I have people here tell me that I am blessed to be a native English speaker. With English, they say, you can travel anywhere. To be a doctor here, you have to learn English. To be a scientist, you have to learn English. To be a businessperson? English. There are entire majors in the university built around “technical English”. 

And it is not for me to decide that I have the right to know the language, but that, as it is destroying other cultures, I also have the right to try to prevent that by refusing to teach. Practically thinking, there are plenty of other willing English teachers. But also, who am I to tell someone to be content with who they are and that they have the responsibility to preserve their culture for future generations? That is not my decision to make for them. Because for me to make that decision would be just another manner of me imposing my values on others.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

"This is Water"

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys. How's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes 'What the hell is water?'"
 David Foster Wallace, Commencement Address at Kenyon College, 2005

Welcome to An American Studies (see post below). Hopefully, the above question is one you will be asking (and attempting to answer) yourself throughout the year and beyond this class. As you embark upon writing for a new medium, the blog, it is your job to identify the "water" in which you live, be it the North Shore "bubble" or the United States at large. For example, look at the following photo:

"The First Adirondack Was Too Big" by John S. O'Connor

Ask yourself how this photo is emblematic of America at the micro or macro level. Like many photos you view, it has been modified from the original snapshot, and could be said to represent a look through the photographer's "window of self-expression", to borrow a phrase from photographer Eikoh Hosoe. So, even though the camera cannot technically depict what isn't there, Hosoe would argue that the photographer can still show us, through this visual medium, "what lies unseen in his memory."

Please join us in our exploration of distinctly American themes and feel free to contribute your own photographs on the Instagram using our hashtag, #anamericanstudies. When you tag the photo, it will automatically appear in the sidebar on this blog. And don't forget to leave your own thoughts below in the comments section of this post regarding the photograph.

Why our blog is called "An American Studies"

We decided on this name because words matter and this blog's title can be read three different ways:
  1. AN American Studies (as opposed to American Studies or THE American Studies) suggests that this just one attempt at making sense of a vast topic...
    Photo by Spiro Bolos, taken at New Trier High School
    ...And anyone who thinks they are covering everything essential to this enormous enterprise in a year long course — or perhaps in over the course of their lives — is just kidding him or herself.
  2. This blog will reflect the "studies" — gathering, questioning, and trading information with a community of scholars — of one American. Millions of people are approaching the topic of "America", but we don't presume to speak for them.
  3. An American [is a person who] studies. While this does not happen always (maybe it is an impossibility), it is necessary for our country to achieve its highest ideal — that all of its citizens can achieve self-fulfillment. Studies — in the broadest possible sense of that word — must be part of this achievement.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Television: In Black and White

A new Writers Guild of America report on women and minorities in television offers some 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?

Here is a recent picture (see right) 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, May 12, 2013

Between the Lines: Covering (and Uncovering) Sports


Things really seem to be progressing. Take, for example, the responses to Jason Collins, the first openly gay male athlete in a major professional sport.

(We like the "first ever..." narrative so much we seem quick to forget about women athletes such as Martina Navratilova, who came out over 20 years ago or even male athletes such as boxer Orlando Cruz or the professional lacrosse player Andrew Goldstein since they did not compete in the so-called "big four sports"). Collins received enthusiastic support from almost everyone. He even got a call from the President thanking him for his bravery. High-fives all around. But, to what extent does Collins' brave articulation of his identity really represent progress? The answer may be found in those very high fives.


Consider the case of Glenn Burke, the man who invented the high five: an article on "the origins of the high five." The article itself is fascinating, particularly in light of our consideration of stories and storytelling. Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Dodgers and later the A's invented the phenomenon, but the behind-the-scenes stories are where the real action lies here.

You see, Burke was a gay man at a time when no professional athlete in "major sports" had ever come out. That Burke -- and presumably many other gay athletes -- had to keep his orientation secret in 1978 may come as no surprise. After all, many gay professional athletes still think they must keep their identities secret for fear of hateful reactions from teammates and fans and the loss of advertising revenue. (Think of recent ex-pro athletes Tualo Esera in the NFL, Billy Bean in the MLB, and Jon Amaechi in the NBA, who came out when their careers were over).

So, do you see Jason Collins' announcement a cause for celebration or an opportunity to lament the pain of earlier -- and current -- athletes who could not come out? Some, including Josh Levin at Slate  have even seen a new form of homophobia in the responses to Jason Collins' announcement.  Levin cites a chorus of people who aggressively shout "I don't care" or "This means nothing" as a means of shutting down the coverage altogether.

How are the storylines of sports are being managed today? Whose stories are privileged? Whose stories are silenced? Are the lines drawn differently for men and women? For athletes of different races, classes? Do we see in the case of Jason Collins and others reasons to be optimistic for the future of sports?

Monday, May 06, 2013

Having Plenty of Green

We've been considering markers of social class this year, focusing on language, dress, and location. Here's a new site my wife passed on to me that thinks about trees and social class. Yes, trees!  

One of the first pairs of photos shows Hyde Park, a wealthy area on the south side of Chicago (remember our field trip?!) and under it a very poor neighborhood to the immediate south, Woodlawn. The photos are staggeringly different, aren't they?  

Here's my own pairing: Kelvyn Park (in Chicago) followed by Winnetka:  






I chose this pairing since our school is in Winnetka and our Social Service Board has partnered with Kelvyn Park. Even a color blind guy like me can see that the difference is all in GREEN (money, trees, green lights!).

It turns out the pattern seems pretty universal: "Old Money" areas -- think East Egg or the North Shore -- are loaded with incredibly mature trees that have stood for 100 years or more; whereas, less affluent areas have little to no forestation. This is not to suggest that you can't find a poor stretch of Appalachian forest in Kentucky, for example... only that trees in any area seem to offer a key clue of relative wealth.    

Though the photos on the site (above) are aerial views, it seems likely that you can infer the wealth of a town or  even a neighborhood within Chicago, say, by counting trees.  Saplings are relatively inexpensive but slow growing.  Mature trees are extremely expensive to plant.  Yet, trees not only connote wealth, but they also provide shade, invisibility, and privacy, a particularly important commodity among American aristocrats.   

Neighbors near where I live just planted a perimeter of 90 trees around their property. When Michael Jordan bought his new Palm Beach home, as he did with his $28 million dollar Highland Park home -- he immediately landscaped with "a literal forest of trees," offering "little or no glimpse of his mammoth 28,000-square-foot home, together with 3 separate structures; a guard house, guest house and pool house." Why is this? Why does American wealth manifest itself in withdrawal from the larger population? Why is it so rooted in exclusivity? (Think: Charles Foster Kane -- "NO TRESSPASSING!") To what extent should trees be considered a public resource?  

What other markers of social class are you aware of?  

Sunday, May 05, 2013

White Trash


This image does not come from a post-Katrina Gulf-scape. No, it is instead a shot from the annual "spring cleaning" event on the Northshore.


Residents clean house and put their unwanted goods — especially large items that the garbage men might not take — on the street. Then huge numbers of people, driving ancient cars and flat bed trucks that you would never see at any other time of year in these parts troll the streets for goods.  (In Fitzgerald's terms, think of them as "Ash-gray men...stir[ring] up an impenetrable cloud, which [usually] screens their obscure operations from your sight"). One man's trash is another man's treasure, the saying goes, and the interlopers are either treasure seekers or garbage pickers, depending on who you talk to.

Some of my neighbors love this event. One told me that it was "the best kind of recycling" since the goods people leave out at the curbside are often used by other people. Then "why not donate those goods to a children's hospital or the Purple Hearts veterans?" another neighbor countered. "Those groups are always looking for donations."

Part of what's on display in this spectacle is the enormous disparity between the roaming trucks and the everyday residents. It's not just their cars that look different. Every other marker of social class we've discussed in class is also on display here: clothing, noise, mannerisms, wealth, and race. 

The class disparity seems heightened to me these days given the contentious debate over affordable housing in Winnetka. Winnetka appears to open its doors — or its curbs! — to outsiders for one week each year. Do you see a connection between the "spring cleaning"/trash removal and the housing issue?  Are the issues contradictory? How do you reconcile them?

Sunday, March 03, 2013

TV Tokenism

Just how much TV do you watch in a given week? No need to out yourselves here. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "After work and sleep, TV viewing is the most commonly reported activity in the U.S., taking up just over half of all leisure time." Does it affect how you see others? Most people would say that watching TV doesn't have a profound effect on themselves, though the very same people believe it has a great effect on others.

If you're like most Americans, you watch a lot of TV, and if you own a mobile phone, about half of you are using it while watching the "boob tube", sometimes texting and tweeting during commercials and content. Advertisers and researchers have coined the term, "Connected Viewers", as a more sophisticated term for these screen zombies.

And speaking of zombies, AMC's smash hit drama, The Walking Dead airs tonight. I thought of this show specifically because I saw this tweet from a fan:
Of course, if you haven't seen the show, a lot of this Twitter-speak may seem confusing. But I was struck by the final hashtag, "please develop Michonne's character". Played by Danai Gurira, who also is a film actor and a writer, she is one of the few African-American characters on the show since it began three years ago. But what's Kelly Choi complaining about? The Walking Dead has featured an African-American character since the very first season. Isn't that a mark of progress?

My guess is that characters like "Michonne" simply serve as "tokens": racial minority actors who are featured as 2-dimensional characters just so the show's creators (or perhaps the network) can claim they are being inclusive and "diverse". Consider the quote below and ask yourself if you think Gurira's characterization of the USA as "open" is actually true.

"I find it distressing that stories about African people who are in this country and people of African descent can sometimes be marginalized. It doesn't make any sense to me. I think we're in a place as a world, as a country, where we are open to a lot of other stories.... If the story's good, the themes are universal."

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Forgotten King

video

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 everyone alive is familiar with King's "I Have A Dream" speech. However, as we wrap up the semester, having recently explored the writings of another notable civil rights activist, Frederick Douglass, 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. 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).

Although it 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 07, 2013

Proclaiming Emancipation

Slavery:  everyone's talking about it. I've read more about slavery in the mainstream media the past two months than at any time in my life. This is due, in part, to the pair of Oscar-bound movies released this fall. Lincoln, the Spielberg movie chronicling the legislative triumph of the 13th Amendment and Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's entertaining revenge fantasy. So, who did free the enslaved people? Daniel Day Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, or Jamie Foxx?

Renewed interest in slavery is also due in part to a recent anniversary. January 1st not only ushered in 2013, it also marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a document issued during the middle of the Civil War. As we've talked about in class, this document has its own complicated history.

A recent op-ed by Eric Foner — yes, THAT Foner, OUR Foner — argues that the document served as an important step in the evolution of President Lincoln. Early on in the War (August, 1862), Lincoln "seemed to blame the presence of blacks in America for the conflict: 'but for your race among us there could not be war.' He issued a powerful indictment of slavery — 'the greatest wrong inflicted on any people' — but added that, because of racism, blacks would never achieve equality in America. 'It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated,' he said. But most blacks refused to contemplate emigration from the land of their birth."

Soon after, a number of events (thousands of enslaved people bravely running away; the stalemated war; the desperate need for manpower in the Union army — remember the film Glory?) conspired to bring Lincoln to a new position. This, Foner says, is "the hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness" and by December of 1862 — less than a month before the Proclamation — Lincoln writes: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present,” he wrote. We must disenthrall our selves, and then we shall save our country.” Foner responds: "Lincoln included himself in that 'we.'" (See how he analyzes the word "we" here for his readers?). Here, Foner suggests, Lincoln frees his past self from his own earlier position on slavery. And on January 1st, he proclaimed the freedom of the vast majority of the nation’s slaves (those enslaved people living in states of rebellion).   

Look again at the image the opens this post. According to Backstory's recent podcast on the history of emancipation, this is the Emancipation Memorial created by Thomas Ball after Lincoln's assassination. The idea of a monument came from the Freedman's Bureau and the original design was a gigantic (60' tall) monument created by a woman that featured the seated (read: fallen) Lincoln and a proud and standing African-American soldier. But, without the money to pay for that statue, the decision went to an all-white charitable organization that settled on the present design. 

Lincoln holds in his right hand the Emancipation Proclamation. The figure kneeling at his feet is Arthur Alexander, a formerly enslaved person living in Missouri, a border state. (Remember: the Proclamation only "freed" enslaved people living in states of open rebellion).

The document holds no meaning whatsoever to the fate of this enslaved person.  

Can you see a connection between the tension in these two memorial designs and the two movies I mentioned at the top of this post? In one movie, Lincoln is the benevolent Emancipator, the one with agency (in other words, the one who gets to do something). In the other, the "star" is African-American. There is no mention of Lincoln and agency is utterly within the hands of a black man (forgetting for the moment that the director of that movie is white and that Foxx did not receive a Golden Globe nomination but that his two white co-stars did!). 

In a follow-up post, I'll examine what emancipation looks like — what it would look like and what it has looked like. Until then, enjoy this video from Mr. B:
Music by Nils Frahm. "Si" from Screws