Over the past few months, we have witnessed a surge of protests in response to police brutality against Black people, housing inequality, sexual harassment and assault, and in solidarity with frontline and essential workers (and this is just a microcosm of a network of issues being challenged). We are working within our college and institution to address and dismantle the various systems that marginalize people. These struggles are a collection of Gordian knots that will require us to continually commit to a practice of learning and reflecting, implementing, and acting.
Since starting at The Smart Set in 2016, I have always found our office embroiled in conversations about race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, nationality. They were spawned by essays we read, books we were reading, or a news item that really rankled us. The students we’ve worked with have also confronted us with important questions regarding the lines we draw between art and the artist, accountability, and representation. They left an imprint on us and this publication and even after moving on from The Smart Set, their work continually inspires us to be better.
I went through the archives and pulled pieces that remain relevant. These are stories that speak to lived experiences, power and resistance, and people or works within arts and culture that deserve more eyes. These experiences explore the banality of everyday life alongside massive ruptures. There are texts that challenge the status quo and provide different perspectives and options as to how to address. We are going to continue to audit ourselves, to ask ourselves hard questions, and ensure we are maintaining a positive experience for the writers who commit their words to our pages and our readers who read their work.
For Virginia Woolf, the sickroom reveals “undiscovered countries . . . precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers.” (I found during my own convalescence after receiving a kidney transplant that morphine helps with that.) Elisabeth Bishop’s poem, “12 O’clock News,” echoes Gaston Bachelard’s dictum: the “miniature is one of the refuges of greatness.” In it, she explores the uncanny topography of the writing room. An ashtray brimming with cigarette butts is a nest of “soldiers . . . in hideously contorted positions, all dead.” A gooseneck lamp is a moon above a typewriter, which is an “escarpment that rises abruptly from the central plain,” its “elaborate terracing . . . gleaming like fish scales.” The novelist Nicholson Baker is de Maistre’s soul brother when he asks in his essay “Rarity:” “Haven’t you felt a sort of peculiar worry about the chair in your living room that no one sits in?”
The term “Stonewall” for my own story is ironic because, as a verb, it can describe a trio of actions: “to be uncooperative, obstructive, or evasive.” But for the gay community, that word would take on the opposite meaning: it would be the catalyst for many LGBTQ+ souls to openly (without being evasive) take a stand against the oppression they were on the receiving end of just because their sexual proclivities didn’t mesh with the mainstream. Nonetheless, that same term made famous as a rallying cry for gay liberation, would for me, play out in Merriam-Webster fashion, as I would totally be uncooperative, obstructive, and evasive with the true nature of myself around the issues of sexual attraction.
The better men are at their best in these moments, padding back from the bathroom to fall against the pillows and talk in low voices. This is the time of greatest intimacy, more so when it is acknowledged that a one-night stand is nearing its end and that there are no undue expectations. It’s the quiet denouement to a comic-drama that began with a glance just hours earlier. The key ingredient, the beacon that draws me personally, is humor — that gleam in the eye, the mutual acknowledgment that sex is a ridiculous act and that we’re about to have a ridiculously good time.
Inattentional blindness. A cognitive behavior Siri Hustvedt describes in “Notes on Seeing”, an essay from her book Living, Thinking, Looking. It is blindness by virtue of focus; the more attention you pay to a particular subset of a whole, the more likely you are to completely miss another part of that whole. In “The Drama of Perception,” Hustvedt makes a strong case for time and looking: the more you look at a thing, the more you see; a theory I had been trying out in my writing for about a year. How is there more to see when you have looked at the same thing for 30 days in a row? Save the ever-changing mundaneness of living, a new face cap today, a different turban tomorrow, what new characteristics did time reveal about these three I had become strangely and aloofly familiar with?
Wandering through the cemetery, it dawned on me that there was the possibility, however slim, that I might stumble across a relative. In Glasnevin Cemetery, there are patches of brilliant color dotting the brown and green ground, freshly cut ribbons, and artificially vibrant foliage. Just as well, there are those thousands of plots whose once-tall headstones are no longer recognizable, whose engravings have been smoothed back into the blank faces they once had. My family has maintained a casual search for distant members stretching back to the antebellum era. Unlike the meticulous research compiled by the Glasnevin Trust, our family has very little to go on. We have an old surname, Pinkerton, distinct enough to be traceable to a single place of origin, and a current surname, Russell, which describes physical features, red hair, that no one in our family has. We are descendants of slaves and, by virtue of the terrible math that entails, slave owners, one of whom we suspect was Irish. Ostensibly, for us, this means we would also be people of Ireland.
This is the thing with memory. It accumulates, piling up to be remembered whether we ask it to or not, pieced together to create our present. The East Village is home now, and not so rough, but these memories cause my lives to collide, making me wonder about the way we story of ourselves into the world, combining seemingly random bits to create a sense of our self, digesting memory and experience to help us know who we are in this moment, in this place.
A small but growing body of research looks at the effects of precarious employment on how people function in the world. For a long time, sociological research on health has focused on genetics and lifestyle, and if it’s looked at the health effects of economic relations at all, it’s narrowly addressed physical risks. Recently, however, a few sociologists have begun to measure instability and vulnerability in employment conditions and the effects of those conditions on mental health, personal choices, and social relations.
As the years pass I find myself wondering more and more if what I remember about my childhood are the events themselves or merely a memory of those events. There is a half-awake feel about these memories, a sense of being twice-removed, as if somewhere along the way the direct chain of cause and effect had broken, replaced by a more vaporous connection.
My mind wandered away from the music that was supposed to get me hyped up for this moment, that would bookend my doubts. I knew I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t feel like a writer. It seemed like the kind of thing that had to be boasted on you by some higher authority. Like Zora Neale Hurston needed to come to me in a dream and say “You are the next great writer,” or that I would see a piece of art and think “I have to do this for the rest of my life,” or that I would have to do something, like get a tattoo, to proclaim it to the world. I would tell my grandchildren “The day I got this tattoo was the day I became a writer.” Even though it should have been when I went to see Hamilton four days ago.
The teachers explained to us that some of the children would face a fairly straightforward passage to America, while others would be detained and made to undergo further examination. Upon their arrival at the school, each student was given a card to wear around their neck. These cards, distributed randomly, specified their new name, country of origin, and age, and contained a special code that, unbeknownst to the kids, indicated whether, upon completion of their tests, they’d be sent to the auditorium for further evaluation or directly to the cafeteria.
I remember that day so clearly. I received a text from my youth group leader, a very close friend of my family, telling me I needed to tell my parents “my secret.” My brother picked me up from school and we drove home in utter silence. I could feel my heart climbing up my throat, wanting to jump ship before the impending conversation and clash. I arrived home. My dad was waiting outside for me. We stood in my front yard for what felt like hours as I sobbed, searching for words to explain how I felt.
They were pretty far from Detroit’s refurbished downtown. Years ago, this neighborhood had succumbed to the rot brought on by the crack wars. Inhabitants fled, homes were torched, and the long blocks, once designed for cars, were left sparsely populated. In 2015, it remained largely abandoned. Sometimes, there were residual flare-ups of violence and theft. Some ways down the road, there remained a crack house. In this quiet, largely forgotten place, however, adjacent to the vistas of empty lots, under the canopy of old-growth trees, there was a new community growing. They lived amongst the neglected red brick houses and chose to call themselves Fireweed, after the pioneer plant species that takes over the landscape after a forest fire.
Among the treasures found were collections of poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes; Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown; and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a small Dell paperback with its striking cover of Baldwin’s name in yellow letters and the title in orange set against a black background.
I remember reading Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands back in fourth grade. The follow-up to that was going to see the play at a local theater. Though lost on me at the time, I realize now that there was a reason why we were encouraged, as inner-city youth, to get into Ben Carson. He was someone the adults wanted us to look up to. He had “pulled himself up by his boot straps,” with the assistance of his illiterate mother and food stamps, of course. I was at the age where I was eager to collect role models, and I found most of them in books, so I kept Carson’s story in mind for encouragement, re-reading it on my own once or twice.
A few months ago, I decided to take a sentimental stroll through my old uptown neighborhood in New York City. It was about four in the afternoon that late autumn day when I exited the subway station at 145th and Broadway. Since it was cold, I wore a heavy leather coat, a black turtleneck with matching jeans, and black Timberland boots. Besides the McDonald’s on the corner, the one Jay-Z refers to on “Empire State of Mind,” little remains from those years when I was just another shortie growing-up along the way.
Seeing the potential of online vending, we immediately began selling anything we could get our hands on. I saw an escape route from the daily grind of going to a job of inputting data and I took it. Online vending became my “new hustle.” We opened an online store selling gently used clothing. Immediately, I had become an entrepreneur. Since then, my goal each month has been to sell enough clothing online to pay my bills and therefore afford myself the time to write. My new hustle, however, was not really all that new to me. In fact, when I thought about it, I realized that it was actually the culmination of the person I had started to become between the ages of nine and ten.
Nothing is gained debating with police. Up to this point I have no idea why I’m a person of interest. However, this is the US of A, and that does not matter. An armed state agent declared, loud enough for a diversity crew to hear, that his well-being was under threat. Therefore, everything that follows has the imprimatur of justice and fair play.
For several decades many readers of modern American poetry have believed that Countee Cullen was a lesser poet than Langston Hughes. This judgment is rather sharply at odds with how the two poets stood relative to each other during the Harlem Renaissance. Large numbers of readers in that period — from the elite to the newly enlarging community of “common readers” in the African American population — admired both men. Hughes himself described his status as that of the “poet low rate,” punning on the unofficial title of “poet laureate” which he gladly ceded to Cullen. The joke at once mocked the notion of laurels, and yet demonstrated that such categories had their social and literary critical function. But despite all the distortions (more of which in a moment) involved in assessing laurels and their correct bestowal, we can learn something about African American poetry and its merits and context by rehearsing the difference as well as the affinities, elective and natural, between the two men.
Yet there remains a curious sense that Hughes’s poetry has never received the respect it deserves among the art’s cognoscenti. Certainly, race and racism are key factors in explaining why so few critics have championed Hughes’s poetry over the decades. His crucial role in the Harlem Renaissance, political activity, diversity of output, and, most of all, the hugeness of his position as a symbol of the African American writer has often overshadowed going too deeply into the specifics of any one aspect of his writing. Added to this, many of the powerful critics and scholars whose anthologies made academic reputations and who acted as gatekeepers to prestige with the majority culture showed little interest in the culture of black America that inspired and was explored in Hughes’s poems.
Most of what we believe about the South, wrote W.J. Cash in the 1930s, exists in our imagination. But, he wrote, we shouldn’t take this to mean that the South is therefore unreal. The real South, wrote Cash in The Mind of the South, exists in unreality. It is the tendency toward unreality, toward romanticism, toward escape, that defines the mind of the South.
It was about five years ago. I was returning from Pakistan and standing in the immigration line at JFK, completely exhausted after a 20-hour flight. When my turn came up at the counter, the INS agent looked at my papers, typed a few things into his computer, and then asked me to follow him to a large room at the side of the immigration hall. I was informed that I was being detained. Two agents handcuffed me and led me to another smaller room. When I asked what I had done. They said things like, “Oh, you know what you’ve done. We know who you are.”
Jack Scott was a protégé of Harry Edwards, the Berkeley sociologist and author of The Revolt of the Black Athlete. The black-beret, tight pants, camouflage-wearing Edwards was pure guru material, the kind of guy who sucks others into his orbit and makes you wonder whether his intentions are, after all, so altruistic. Edwards cut a huge figure, influencing a generation of black athletes and activists. Scott, on the other hand, always surprised people by how little a figure he had. Slight, white, glasses-wearing, and balding — nicknamed “Mr. Peepers” by the press — he wore polo shirts and khakis and, while Edwards excoriated “pigs” and “honkies,” Scott called “cats” men.
Arbitrariness is one of the important features of totalitarianism. When I asked the women I interviewed about the cause of their detention, many of them laughed because there was no objective reason for it. Stalin wanted to create an atmosphere of fear and terror, in which anyone could become a victim.
In some cases, there was just a sentence without a trial. In others, there were fabricated accusations against them. The most common one was “a spy for the West.” In still other cases, the women were arrested as “daughters of an enemy of the people,” because their father, mother, or both parents had been jailed or killed in the previous purge, in the late ’30s.
The criminal justice data currently available to the public is generally not in great shape. Some states have unified court databases that record basic information about cases. Other states leave it up to the counties to record what they want, in whatever format they want. Different agencies and state courts use different terminologies and structures for recording data, they collect different data elements, and sometimes they do not collect data at all. So the quality and availability of data run the gamut from very good to incredibly poor. But even the very good data don’t mean anything to people who are not working with it intimately. It’s not like you or I could just go to a website, click click click, and figure out what the data can actually tell us about how things are going in my county or yours. At least until Measures for Justice came along.
I believe 92% of the top 250 box office movies released in the United States were directed by men. And we know movies directed by men, this is statistically proven, have fewer women in them, are more about the male protagonist’s story.
In American movies, I think 71% of the people we see on screen are male, and 29% are female. If movies are a mirror, to see only 29% of the world as female, this could be kind of a distorted view of the world.
I started teaching Title IX after I graduated college. I went on tour with another poet and we noticed as we toured colleges just as poets that people’s ears were perking up when the conversation went around sexual assault. Perking up meaning it was reaching an audience. In a really, I think, surprising way, and also learning simultaneously that part of that reason was because those conversations weren’t happening on college campuses, and when they were, they were happening in really toxic ways. We took it upon ourselves to create a lecture that was engaging and fun and interesting and also accurate and really kind of stern that teaches students about sexual assault in a way that they wanted to pay attention to. So we just did a lot of research around what kind of education was happening at the time, and we reached into our own work, and just started opening up that conversation.
I don’t know. A lot of times I do think that people in the industry get cast like who are plus-sized women of color. I’ve always thought of Hattie McDaniel as like the first person to really be like, “Okay, she’s going to play the nurse or the mama, the nanny.” That’s one thing that I had to keep in mind when I first found out about who she was, who Hattie McDaniel was, and not to let the industry typecast me.
The beauty is that we were shooting at home. It’s like if you were gonna shoot a short film in your house, like you kind of know, you know all the best ways to go about things and the way to ask for things that are important. You have a shorthand with the community there. You’re not really fighting with the weather or the city permits or anything like that. California and Oakland were just like, “For you, it’s 22 days. We’re gonna make everything as easy as possible to make your movie.” And it was fucking phenomenal.
I’m always thinking about how I can build community. How can I create space for people but in the same breath, I can’t be anyone else but me, right? But I don’t want to do it in such a way that it alienates people who could be within our community. It’s definitely going to alienate people who are in direct opposition to what I exist and stand for and I don’t care about them.
The standards that the court had set were so high to get a conviction reversed on those grounds. The courts would say things like, “The trial is the main event. Come complaining to us on appeal and on habeas, trial was your chance to prove you’re innocent.” It increasingly felt to me like if that’s what the courts are saying is the main event, then this is a system that seems unfair to me. Then let me go fight it at that level.
One of the things I pride myself on was that even after that, we had months of coverage of Ferguson, and now years of coverage of policing. I went [to Ferguson] to elevate the coverage, and then for the years since then, we’ve been able to continue to drive this conversation about race and policing in the United States of America. I think that we were given a unique platform and a unique attention to do that. I’m glad that we were able to achieve that.
I have become accustomed over the years to being the only black person in a lot of settings. Generally, I’m the only black person when I arrive and I’m not when I leave, or I’m not after a while, which is something that I kind of dedicate myself to.
I don’t think of myself as being there as a token, but I do think I’m very aware of myself being there as the only black person and the bringer of insights that my colleagues . . . I’m continually amazed at how little insight my colleagues have. To say to them, “You know, that character in the commercial who’s a basketball player — there’s another role for a doctor. You know, that person could be black too.” Never occurred to them. You know, that sort of thing happens to me a lot in that type of setting.
I was very young. But in the Dinka culture, where I come from, you are told fairy tales. You are told stories at a very young age. Since that day when you begin to talk, you are told the stories. Real stories. This is like the education, my experience. All these stories were told over and over again by your family members, you parents, your uncles, your aunties. It is through that informal education that makes who we become later in life. You are forced to constantly remember. I think that is actually the main reason that some of the things that I told Harriet are in the book. When I went back and would discover some of my extended family members, even my mother, were like, “You still remember that? I remember that. You were too young. How do you remember that?” I think there is a cultural thing, when I was growing up, that forces you to remember, even though I was very young.
Arts & Culture
Perhaps I knew even then that in white America we only accept the cool parts of black culture, adopting them as our own. There’s a reason Blondie hit number one on the Billboard charts long before any black rappers, the same reason Vanilla Ice — a name that managed to proclaim whiteness twice in two words — was the next to do it, followed by Marky Mark — who twice proclaimed himself “Mark.” “Rapture” wasn’t a rap song — it was a pop song with a rap part, a sample to see how it would be received. It would take ten years for rap music to make it anywhere close to mainstream.
Lil Yachty, Machine Gun Kelly, and xxxTentacion are probably not names you hear alongside The Clash or perhaps at all. They are, however, artists who have deviated from what is considered to be “standard” hip hop by adding other elements into their music styles and doing so outside of the constraints of the recording industry. Their hip-hop is punk. They are playful in their lyrics and sound, started producing and distributing their own content, and cultivating their music and image outside of the industry.
Angels in America takes place at the dawn of the AIDS crisis and was written during its height — the first play, Millennium Approaches, debuted in 1990 and the second play, Perestroika, in 1992. In these plays, Prior, the heart of the play, compared his post-AIDS-diagnosis reality to a story of a shipwrecked crew: “people in a boat, waiting, terrified, while implacable, unsmiling men, irresistibly strong, seize . . . maybe the person next to you, maybe you, and with no warning at all, with time only for a quick intake of air you are pitched into freezing, turbulent water and salt and darkness to drown.” An air of death, fear, and uncertainty surrounded an AIDS diagnosis in the 1980s and 1990s, but circumstances have since changed. Was the Angel’s playful roller skating entrance a sign of this changed reality?
Project Mayhem is there too, flowing around the edges of the crowd in small platoons, indissoluble and aching for a dust-up with the police, a breathless pack of young men, all lean, in their late teens and early 20s, wearing black clothes with black boots and black backpacks and red bandanas pulled up over their noses.
In the case of R. Kelly and Taz’s Angels, devotion plays a role on two levels. Firstly, there is the devotion that fans of the singer have had for years, managing to ignore allegations of child porn and statutory rape for the sake of a few catchy tunes. It is important to note, also, that R. Kelly’s fan base is largely women. Secondly, there is the devotion of the women involved in these situations to these men. Reports indicate that the situation at R. Kelly’s property is a harem or cult. The understanding is that six women between the ages of 19 and 26 live in a home owned by Kelly. Every aspect of their lives is controlled by the self-proclaimed “pied piper of R&B” including contact with their families, when they eat, and when, and with whom, they have sex. Sexual encounters are allegedly recorded and broadcasted among Kelly’s friends. In the case of the recent headline, it seems the young woman involved was lured into the house under the pretense that she would be given a music career. There have been welfare checks, but no charges have been filed because the women are of age and insist they are there willingly.
Now, I don’t know too much about horror movies, but I do know about the portrayals of stereotypical black men in movies. They’re always hyper-masculine, sex-driven, and entitled, but Chris is none of these things. His whole apartment is covered in prints of super artsy photos that he has taken. He has a small dog that is more hair than dog. He’s not the Birth of a Nation, King Kong, or The Perfect Guy type where you are constantly aware that he is dangerous. In fact, everything at the beginning of the movie signals that he is the one in danger. The film continuously counteracts these stereotypes by flipping them on their head and by showing you they still exist in the minds of many white people. This display constantly makes you hold your breath and brace yourself. You want Chris to survive, to be the step ahead that you are; you want to give him your anxiety and make him run. Maybe that’s why, in a room flooded with darkness, hearing everyone say, “Leave!” or laughing at Rod’s (Chris’s best friend) conspiracy theory made everything less scary. Even though we couldn’t see each other, we were thinking the same thing and all, passively, aiming for the same goal.
What chiefly sets Amiable off distinctively from other McKay novels is the presence of full-throated political disputes, most of which were burning heatedly in the 1930s, during the rise of fascism. Home to Harlem and Banjo, written in the late 1920s, both made room for politics, and in both places, the character of Ray served as McKay’s spokesperson and main political theorizer. But in Amiable, no character commands center stage, which means McKay can show everyone’s political views in all their complexity. But such complexity can also be read as a form of universal rejection. Many readers of this “new” novel will catch more than a whiff of McKay’s cynicism, if not a quiet nihilism. The entire novel is set in New York, and the bulk of it takes place in Harlem. But the date is 1937, so the Renaissance has begun to fade, and the Harlem riot of 1935 is also only lightly mentioned, and though some Depression culture appears, it registers only as a thin, indefinite shadow. But leftist revolution and anti-colonialism dominated the main questions of the day.
Sontag doesn’t attack, she exposes. And what is exposed? The shock and shame of real horrors versus the unintended voyeurism of those who perceive them. The difference between evoking horror via painting or drawing, and depicting it via a photograph.
The crowd continued to roar and as the final moments melted away, it certainly seemed that Cameroon was the champion and Argentina was just another team. When it was over, the final score was one to nothing Cameroon. The media called it “The Miracle in Milan.” Cameroon, a bunch of nondescript African journeymen who were never taken seriously, had upset the greatest team in the world led by the greatest player in the world. Said Omam-Biyak after the game, “We hate it when European reporters ask us if we eat monkeys and have a witch doctor. We are real football players and we proved this tonight.”
The birth of Herman Poole Blount on May 22, 1914 was, for him, the least significant of all his births. Blount begat Bhlount and Bhlount begat Ra and Herman begat Sonny and Sonny begat Sun. Sun Ra left Alabama for Chicago and Chicago for Saturn, until he never quite understood how he got to planet Earth in the first place. The name ‘Ra’ — the Egyptian god of the sun — brought him closer to the cosmos. Each rebirth erased the one before it, until Sun Ra’s past became a lost road that trailed off into nothingness. The past was passed, dead. History is his story, he said, it’s not my story. My story, said Sun Ra, is mystery. Sun Ra’s lived life between ancient time and the future, in something like the eternal now. He told people he had no family and lived on the other side of time.
In November 1948 Garry Davis stormed a session the United Nations General Assembly with 20,000 supporters in tow, calling for the UN to recognize the rights of Humanity. The following day, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed. “How very much better it would be,” wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in her My Day column, “if Mr. Davis would set up then and there a world-wide international government.” Garry Davis agreed. In 1953 he announced the formation of the World Government of World Citizens from the steps of the city hall in Ellsworth, Maine. No longer would people be citizens of this or that country. With one world government all people would be citizens of the World. It would be a place where people could travel freely, citizens all. A place that had eradicated the “plague of war.” With one world government there would be peace at last. Indeed, the very survival of humanity depended on it. Davis created a World Passport and before he was done issued over 750,000 of them. Albert Camus, E.B. White, Albert Schweitzer were among his supporters.
As I wander from “Africa” to “Northern Spaces” the images increasingly feel familiar, as if I have seen them before. And that is the point. Salgado’s eye is not particularly unique. It is an eye that composes nature in familiar ways, mirroring images found in National Geographic magazine, or in the 19th century landscapes of Carleton Watkins or Eadweard Muybridge. These are images that look like our idea of nature, familiar in their bland and white beauty and grandeur. It is also an eye that is deeply 20th century, looking for patterns and designs that reflect our visual, commercial culture. These are backdrops to advertisements, glossy images you might find in magazines. The commercial value of these images does not escape Salgado. The catalog for “Genesis,” a hefty 520-page portfolio published by Taschen, sells for $67.00. Part of the show features a limited edition catalog, encased in glass, which can be purchased for $4,000 (the two volume set comes in a specially designed wooden box “to preserve and protect them”). Online, there are other options, such as the two-volume catalog combined with an original print (the Marine Iguana’s scaled claw for example) for a mere $10,000. These images sell well. And this is the paradox of the “Genesis” myth: The photographs depend on their commercial appeal as much as they are meant to question our Western commodity culture. Consume me they say. But also, preserve me.
You could say that Run-DMC’s Raising Hell and the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill are companion albums. Both groups were hitting on some of the very same ideas at the same time. In fact, Run-DMC and the Beasties knew one another by then and they were both working with producer Rick Rubin. The rap world was still small enough that an innovation by one group could be heard at a show and used by another group in a song the very next day. It was like the Dutch and Italian painters of the late Renaissance. They were competing with one another, watching one another, grabbing at the latest idea and then trying to one-up that idea in the next painting. Raising Hell and License to Ill were released within a few months of each other in 1986. By their second album, Paul’s Boutique, the Beastie Boys had already learned from, synthesized, sampled, and moved on from what Run-DMC had thrown at them.
Published 30 years ago in 1981, An African in Greenland is a travel tale and it is also a story of naming. It’s the story of a man driven toward Greenland by an enthusiastically irrational desire to live among its people, a people he knows only through a travel book he found as a teen in a Jesuit bookstore in his native Togo. It’s not really so different from what motivates any of us to travel — longing mixed with a blurry impression of something we don’t know but we expect is different from what we do know, a desire simply to be taken out of our daily experience. In true gone-native style, Kpomassie adapts to the extreme cold of the country, devours seal blubber, learns to hunt Arctic fauna, and adopts furry Inuit fashions. He’s not shy about sharing numerous romantic escapades that the polite and less-involved traveler might have been horrified to have. (Early on he lands in the hospital “with a suspected venereal disease.”)
Lawrence did many series paintings: chronicles of the lives of important figures in African-American history such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and the African-American western pioneer, George Washington Bush; he did studies of places (“Harlem,” “Hospital”) and large-scale historical chronicles (“War” and “Struggle”). But his Migration series is, in my view, his masterwork. It encompasses an event in American history that is both singular and hugely variegated, central to the life of a particular ethnic group, while also experienced by many different sorts of people in different ways, associated with a period of three years but unfurling in time so that the end points beyond itself into the future.
“Look,” I say to her, and point out a long building not 10 yards away from where we stand. Only a chain link fence separates it from us. “That’s death row.” Kris lifts her hand to shield her eyes and squints into the sunlight, giving the building a good long stare, but she doesn’t say anything. I worry that I’ve offended her, that to point it out so plainly is crass. But that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? To look?
Inside, the museum is nearly empty. We are its only visitors. Two elderly people, a man and a woman, sit behind a glass case. They are volunteers, I know, like the retiree volunteers who sit in small town museums all across America, offering up tidbits of a town’s pride, of a town’s past. And Highway 66, which dead-ends at the prison gates, is a town itself, with an elementary school, a post office, and five Baptist churches. There’s even a shack with a hand-painted sign, “Beauty Parlor,” and briefly I wonder if that’s where the woman had her hair died crayon yellow and teased into its bouffant meringue. I say hello, and the two pause in their talking long enough to nod at us.
Kari invited me into the small square kitchen, where I took the seat at the table across from him. It was after 5 p.m., and the late autumn light outside was starting to fade. A small lamp mounted above the table glowed with our only light. The kitchen was tidy, and the clean appliances, though also more than 20 years old, sparkled like new. The counters held ceramic canisters painted to look like miniature bungalows. The kitchen table was white Formica with specks of gold, and the table top was wrapped with a thick metal band decorated with wide ridges. It reminded me of the table in my grandmother’s kitchen.
After graduating from Harvard, I crushed my father’s Americano-Chinaman dreams by working various social service jobs for $8.00 an hour, then volunteering with the Peace Corps, and finally, becoming a baker. Apparently, the Asian Father Consortium frowns upon baking and the word “non-profit.” But Dad was right: underneath my apron, my Peace Corps pin, I wasn’t a do-gooder. I was a writer.
The big question no one was asking in the 1980s was whether rap music could ever go that far. Was rap American enough to accomplish the Christmas song? When you do the Christmas song you are solid, you are in the club. Moreover, you are in the club to stay. A successful Christmas song will make it into a radio-cum-internet rotation that is beyond the vicissitudes of time. Think of “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses. No one has heard of the band, every person in the world hears that song dozens of times every December. When the season rolls around, the songs do, too.
It fell, thus, on the broad shoulders of Run-DMC to accomplish this singular and difficult task. Such tasks were always confronting the hip-hop boys from Queens. They had to get white college kids to listen to rap music. Mission accomplished with Raising Hell. They had to make rap seem like the heir to rock and roll. Witness the collaboration with Aerosmith in “Walk This Way.”
Recently, I was standing on a corner near Union Square in New York City. A delivery truck drove by and Rihanna’s “Umbrella” was blaring from its windows. The truck driver was singing the song; a group of twenty-somethings heard the song and started singing too, laughing to each other. The waitress in the café on the corner was also singing and doing a little head-bobbing number as she carried her tray. Summer Jam.
As I’ve intimated, there’s no way to analyze the summer jam definitively. There is no more reason to the summer jam than there is to the fact that there is Being and not Nothing. The summer jam is its own reason. But once you have a summer jam there are always a few things you can say about it.
T.V. Reed’s The Art of Protest sets a foundation for understanding political art. Reed credits the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s for the groundwork of contemporary progressive movements that use art — music, theater, literature — to build community, solidarity, and to counter rhetoric. At Philadelphia’s Charlottesville March and Rally, “Which side are you on?” was a frequent refrain. The title of a song originally written by Florence Reece in support of the Harlan United Mine Workers in 1931, it has been revised to challenge and enlist fence-sitters by activists from James Farmer for the Civil Rights Movement to Talib Kweli and 9th Wonder’s response to police brutality. The song’s verses are flexible, where the artist covering it includes the struggle they want to illustrate, be it labor or race or gender (Ani DiFranco’s version covers the gamut of issues), but the chorus remains the same regardless of version: Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
Or so the story of punk (particularly hardcore punk) goes. The reality is that Philadelphia’s punk scene has a much more complicated relationship with gender and with the representation of women in that scene. Looking at the broader landscape of punk today, it is not hard to see the legacy of early female punk bands, like the Slits or the more recent Riot Grrrl movement. Philadelphia is no exception to that, with many current bands that have significant female representation and have adopted overt third-wave feminist viewpoints. But this is not necessarily a new formation for Philly punk; the “institutions” of Philadelphia punk — show houses, basements, clubs, and radio stations — have been testing grounds for new and more progressive identity politics, which themselves have been reflections of broader social movements that account for feminist and queer perspectives, for decades.
The narrative of The Hunger Games can be compared in many ways to the city of Baltimore after Michael Brown’s shooting: They are both tales of dystopian fiction, but only one of them is seen as heroic. We are only allowed to see revolution as a positive thing when it is dressed up as an “attractive” young, white actor or actress. The irony is that there are people who live this reality who are not afforded the right to fight back and create a new nation. Who are not pretty enough to justify the carnage that they create. Who refuse to swallow the saying “all lives matter” because we know it is an act of discrimination against others. I have never once heard someone say, “Why can’t both the Districts’ and the Capital’s lives matter?”
The coup produced contradictory feelings. Walking the streets of my Istanbul neighborhood on a warm summer evening, it was hard not to sympathize with young covered girls with Turkish flags over their shoulders smiling and laughing, or an exuberant old woman waving a flag at cars passing in the street. As almost everyone agreed, the idea that the military should attempt to overthrow an elected government was unacceptable. Yet there was a hint of menace in these celebrations. Erdoğan and his supporters claimed to be on the side of a democratic and inclusive Turkey, but it seemed clear that the failed coup attempt was also a chance for payback. After years of living under the secularist doctrines initiated by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, those who believed in a more religious and conservative Turkey were now firmly in control. I felt concern for my Turkish friends and colleagues, the majority of whom were secularists committed to progressive social causes, and worried that as a non-Muslim foreigner, I would now be considered undesirable to this new version of Turkey.
In the decades after the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York, the struggle for women’s suffrage had repeatedly taken a backseat to other issues. The movements to end slavery, and, after the Civil War and Emancipation, to achieve black male suffrage, dominated the agendas of male and female reformers. By the 1910s, women were eager to fight for their own rights to full citizenship in the world’s largest democracy, often through the organization of various women’s clubs. The Women’s Club movement of the Progressive Era also gave rise to ardent temperance advocacy, maternal and child health initiatives, pure food and milk drives, and other public health issues concerning children and families. In these clubs, women learned public speaking, organizing, advocacy, and publicity skills; but they had no mechanism to enact meaningful policy change without the suffrage.
Anarchism would eventually fade as world wars, fascism, and communism, took its place as the greatest threats to peace and security, but for a time the ideology spoke to so many people in the underclass because it convinced them the established shibboleths of the 19th century — progress and technology — had been myths. It covered the messiness of reality and the incomprehensible complexity of modern society with all its changes and impersonal forces. Like anarchism, Islamism and radical jihadism see the Western model of the good society as spiritually empty, and their first marketing point to disaffected youth even of middle-class means is that political Islam will offer them a vision greater than themselves. This is why jihadists, whether they are converts or born Muslim, are “born again” into the religion with ready-made narratives that define their lives, hoping and searching for the perfect worlds of the Caliphate and paradise (whichever comes first).
We can draw some insight from this explosion of musical experimentation because we are seeing an analogous moment in higher education. During the late 70s, it may have been difficult to tell which bands were going to survive and which musical experiments were going to flourish in the moment; but, people knew something different was happening, and with some critical distance and hindsight, the true impact of punk became clearer. Similarly, we are in a moment where it is difficult to tell what the future of higher education might be. Perhaps the doom and gloom headlines are partly right. What seems certain, though, is that because of the challenges to the traditional institutions of academia, colleges and universities need to play with pedagogical conventions and offer students radical new forms of learning in order to persist, if not prosper. Yet, at the same time, the seeds of really productive transformations already exist on campuses and are only in need of the right kinds of disruptions to unleash their potential, much like punk helped to disrupt mainstream rock and blow open a window for more experimental music to flourish.
The night before, I had attended the occupation of Times Square with a friend, a fellow veteran of the post-Seattle anti-globalization movement. Those were the acronym years of the FTAA, the GATT, the WTO, and the G20; also, the black mask, the affinity group, the pepper spray compound, and the class-action lawsuit. Since then, time had done its work. By tiny imperceptible degrees, we had transitioned from crusty, black-clad youth into reasonable Harper’s-reading adults. But the experience with the movement informed our view of Occupy. It was disorienting to look out on all the angry teenagers and college students, drunk on their youth power and protesting the first time, none of them realizing that they were part of a lineage that stretched back to the beginning of time, each generation isolated and alone, getting older at their own speed; that they were just the latest model of youth that would soon be obsolete.
As one of the first cities to hold a Pride Parade, June 27, 1970, to commemorate the Stonewall Rebellion, Chicago holds a special place in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer history. Timothy Stewart-Winter’s Queer Clout gives its readers a history of queer Chicago that focuses on the 20th century. This is a must-read for anyone interested in Chicago neighborhood history, LGBT legal history, and USA LGBT history.
We are living in strange times. Under the Trump administration, the strides for social equality that LGBTQ people have gained are threatened. Writing this review in the shadow of Justice Kennedy’s retirement is hard because he is the author of the majority opinion on the case that legalized same-sex marriage, Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 US. June 2015. Without his swing vote on the court, if this decision was revisited it would likely be overturned. But even with his vote, we face an uphill battle towards equality under the law. The same court voted six-three in favor of a Colorado Baker who argued that he was treated with animus by the state’s Civil Rights Commission when they sanctioned him for refusing to bake a gay couple’s wedding cake. In North Carolina, the so-called “Bathroom Bill” HB2 became law in April 2016, which outlaws respecting gender identity in K-12 public education and extends to equal access in public accommodations, makes it illegal to expand on existing discrimination laws, as well as shortens the statute of limitations for pursuing a claim of discrimination to just one year from the initial incident. Similar laws are being debated in Texas. So, while Queer Clout is Chicago-centric, it is a text that aids queer folks in understanding how legislation affects our freedom, geographical space, and civic duties.
It’s been a little over a year since Ari Banias’s first poetry collection, Anybody, debuted to critical accolades and honors, including a nomination for the PEN America Literary Award. With all that has happened since 2016, this stunning, complicated book is worth revisiting and considering through the lens of our particular political moment. Donald Trump has fulfilled the divisive promises of his presidential campaign: Standouts among his many troubling actions are cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, attempts to ban immigration from Muslim-majority nations and bar trans people from serving in the military, and his support of U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, the bigoted, twice-fired Alabama judge and accused child molester. The #MeToo movement has also shed light on the systemic abuse of women by powerful men, including Trump himself, whose accusers are calling for him to be held accountable for alleged sexual assaults. At the same time, social media has amplified many historically marginalized voices, sparking crucial conversations on the national stage about racism, sexism, and LGBTQ+ discrimination. In this way, Anybody feels prescient. Not because it deals with any specific politics, but because it dramatizes the individual’s search for wholeness and community within a broken society.
The new essay collection, Can We All Be Feminists? addresses the complications and hardwork of being a feminist who is intersectional, meaning understanding the ways in which feminism can and does intersect with race, disability, immigration, labor, and sexuality (to name a handful). The range of essays, edited by June Eric-Udorie, covers a lot of ground and at times seems like nothing holds them together, until you come back to the anchoring point that feminism and feminists have to diversify their portfolios. To end sexism, examining immigration policies, as Wei Ming Kam does in “The Machinery of Disbelief,” is as necessary as Hollywood’s recent interest in wage equality. And within the rhetoric of equal pay activism, the continued reiteration that “women get paid less” must further be broken down by these other intersecting points: white women are typically paid less than their male counterparts, women of color are often paid less than that, and women with disabilities even less. “Women” cannot be an umbrella term and nor can “feminist.” We have to become more discerning.
The characters in Alagbé’s stories are all struggling to overcome the weight not just of their current plight — their solitude in a foreign country and ache for the life they knew — but of history itself, the racism and oppression formed ages ago that continues to prey on them, victims of a government and society that need but do not necessarily want them around. In the book’s final story, “Sand Niggers,” made expressly for this North America edition, Alagbé draws a line from the 1961 massacre to Donald Trump, shown signing executive orders designed to throw more and more people out of the U.S. The past, Alagbé reminds us, is always present.
No other figure from the world of 20th-century sports equals Babe Ruth’s folklore status — with only one exception: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed “greatest,” the heavyweight champion boxer who taunted his opponents, sang his own praises, and by turns charmed and infuriated the world, had his own Parson Weems moment, or rather a one-two combination of them, and fittingly, it was a combination of outrage and showmanship — and the Parson was a cop.
It’s hard for me to think of anything comparable. Coates, of course, is perhaps the preeminent writer on race and American society today. His columns for The Atlantic have deservedly won him widespread praise and a MacArthur Genius grant. His second book, Between the World and Me, garnered him a National Book Award. He is one of the most prominent literary figures in the country. The news that someone of his stature would be writing the adventures of one of the most recognizable black superheroes (though perhaps Storm, Luke Cage, or Cyborg could argue for more cultural cachet) is worth a bit of hullabaloo.
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