Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Blackface and the VMAs

Earlier this week MTV held its VMA (Video Music Awards) ceremony and there was a slight bit of controversy when Will.I.Am of Black Eyed Peas fame arrived to the show with his face painted black (I don't own the copyright of a photo so to avoid legal issues, click here to see one).

Immediately this was condemned as a "blackface" performance by the media and there was a small bit of outrage over it, accusing Will.I.Am of being a racist, or setting back the clock or race relations in the US, however, those making the accusations, I believe, are completely off base.

So yes, his face was painted black, and although his fashion sense may be suspect, this was clearly not an example of blackface. Blackface Minstrelsy, once one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the US and now regarded as ignorant and racist (rightfully so), requires much more than just a blackening of the face.

Blackface performers were whites who would blacken their faces using make-up and then perform highly stylized versions of black speech and culture for white audiences. Yes, their faces were blackened, yes,'s face was blackened, no, they're not the same thing.

The blackening of his face does not make Will.I.Am's performance blackface because he was not intentionally performing highly stylized stereotypes of white perception of black culture for his audience. He was attempting some sort of futuristic look in which he was painted all black, the fashionistas can argue whether or not this was a wise choice, that's not my field.

If you want to be mad at Will.I.Am for something from these VMAs, your anger would be more appropriately focused at his tweet responding to accusations in which he says "I where" when in actuality he means "I wear," this, I believe, is the far grosser offense which was committed that night.

And now for a bit of unabashed self-promotion; Come see Amsterdam Abortion Survivor this Thursday, Friday or Sunday at the Soho Playhouse, I am the tech guy for this uproarious one man comedy show, and tickets are only $18!

Monday, September 13, 2010

On Education: Do We Need a Hero?

During one of the last hot days of August, I found myself in Brooklyn, where I finally had the opportunity to visit the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co.- which I’ve been hoping to do ever since I saw this Dave Eggers TED talk on the idea (entitled “Once Upon a School.”)*

In case you haven't heard of the center, Dave Eggers was inspired to open the center when he lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He had grown up surrounded by educators, and now, as he worked the unpredictable and irregular hours of a writer, he was aware of many others in Park Slope working similar schedules. Recognizing the need for one-on-one attention that teachers simply couldn't provide in their overpacked classrooms, he wished to create a center that would bring together writers- with their flexible schedules, their passion for creativity, and their wish to contribute to the community, and students- who otherwise might not get any one-on-one time with an educator.

But his idea didn't stop there. He moved to San Francisco, where he rented a space that would serve as both a tutoring center and a place that both adults and children would be attracted to, at least to stop by and visit. They also had to contend with the fact that the space was zoned for retail- so as a solution, they turned the front half of the space into a Pirate Supply Store, with a tutoring area in the back. The Superhero Supply Co. in Brooklyn followed suit, as did the Echo Park Time Travel Mart in LA, and Fighting Words in Dublin, Ireland, among others -and the energy behind all these centers comes from the idea that one-on-one attention makes all the difference.

Not only is it a fun space to visit (try not enjoying the Capery, the containers of "salted bravery," and the series of clocks along the wall telling the time in the five boroughs) but I have been thinking a lot about this project since my visit, and I think it is a really exciting development, and a positive way to respond to the extremely complicated and difficult matter of contending with our contemporary education system.

By getting professionals and students excited about what can happen when a student is given just a little extra attention, the Once Upon a School Project is helping get the communities they work with invested in the public education system, which is empowering, fun, and, it seems, pretty effective.

And sure enough, I soon encountered another link between education and heroism, when I saw this preview and then read this review of the upcoming documentary, Waiting for Superman. The film comes out on September 24, and they are using the website as a forum to pledge to see the film, with different companies promising to make donations to public education based on the number of pledges they receive.

I am hoping to learn more about the public education system, so this film looks like something I am interested in seeing, as well as consulting the future educators among my friends, including one over in Urban Studies whose thesis this year will be about charter schools. It is hard for me to tell whether the film will be explicitly pro-charter or take a stance on teacher's unions. I hope it stays true to what Thomas Friedman's New York Times Review calls its core thesis: "for too long, our public education system was built to serve adults, not kids," but that it also recognizes the need for teachers' needs to be met to keep as many good teachers as possible in the classroom.

The makers of the film have localized sites for particular cities (ie. New York's, found here) that, like "Once Upon a School," seek to make people both aware and active in public education in their home city. I am looking forward to seeing the film, and think it will provide a bit of background to my growing interest in the public education system. While it is probably purely coincidental that these two recent observations involve heroism, it doesn't seem entirely unreasonable to say that heroes might be what we need to fix the education crisis.

*If you are unfamiliar with the TED (Technology/Entertainment/Design) series, check out their archive here. Their conferences "bring together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes.)"

American Studies Aslant: Musings on Riots in Mozambique

8 September 2010

I have been driven around town this afternoon. It’s a cool Wednesday, and you would not know that summer is approaching in Maputo, Mozambique. We have a sea breeze, and the light is lovely. It is hard to believe that just a week ago I was sitting inside my house, unable to go out as mass protests spread around me. Billowing black smoke rose from the tires protesters were burning to block the road, and shots were coming from all directions around my house.

On Wednesday, September 1, riots broke out in Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique. People spilled into the streets to protest the rising cost of living. The government had raised prices on basic necessities—bread, water, electricity, gasoline. The local currency had also weakened making much of the city’s food that is imported from South Africa increasingly costly.

Why riots? Why now? Who was on the streets? These are the questions that have preoccupied Mozambicans since the riots ended last Friday, and they would be questions any student of American Studies would ask. Riots are a time-honored form of protest from “below,” and we often seek to explain them in those ways. Paul Gilje, author of Rioting in America, reminds us that riots have a rationality, and are not irrational explosions of antisocial behavior.

I have thought of the Boston Tea Party--the eighteenth-century one--as I read recent news reports here. The government dismissed the protestors as malcontents and “marginais”—marginal persons—not so different from how leading authorities in eighteenth-century Boston viewed those protestors.

In Mozambique, I see the protests as expressions of frustration and rage at the difficulties so many face here. In 2009, Mozambique ranked 172nd of 182 countries on the human development index formulated by the United Nations. This index combines measures of income, life expectancy, and access to education. (UNDP--Mozambique 2009 Human Development Report) Officially, Mozambique has a 54% unemployment rate.

The frustration and rage engendered by poverty has been compounded by glaring contradictions between ideology and daily experience that Mozambicans have faced. The government, officially socialist in its ideology, has benefitted handsomely from business investment in the country. The president is currently the wealthiest man in the country. So when President Armando Guebuza responded to the rioters that the people have to join together in “a luta contra pobreza”—the war against poverty—many saw only hypocrisy. It was painfully jarring.

Yesterday the Mozambican government backtracked, in a major way. It reversed virtually all of the announced price hikes. The protests have subsided for now. The lingering question remains: will these measures stem the tide of disillusionment, and can they be sustained to alleviate meaningfully the spreading urban poverty in Maputo?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"We Have To Remember What Happened Here"

(Visitors looking out at Ground Zero)

Today, one day and nine years after the tragic events of September 11th 2001, I thought it would be timely and relevant to blog on the recent controversy surrounding the building of an Islamic Center near Ground Zero.

(Here: a New York Times Article on the heated debate:

But after a visit to Ground Zero today, it seems completely inappropriate to do just that.

I hopped on the Downtown 1 and took a visit to the Tribute WTC Visitor Center, which is less of an institution and more of a memorial. A documentary video that plays inside the center reminds us that the towers were icons: both symbols of the American dream of financial success and unity, as well as a home-away-from-home for all those who worked there every single day.

Tribute WTC emphasizes a “person-to-person history”: embracing the subjective and intimate perspectives of what happened that day. Our tour guide prefaced the tour by reminding us that just as on September 11th 2001, when there were no answers, still today there are no answers.

While the news and media reports (researching for underlying causes and revealing statistics), the people at Tribute realize that although nothing can be truly explained, something can indeed be learned.

Desiree, a survivor and guide at the center says, “We have to remember what happened here. We need to remember the people here.” Desiree lost nineteen colleagues (and friends) from her office space (the 101st floor of the South Tower) on 9/11.

At the center, you will find no information on the terrorists of 9/11 and the employees and volunteers at Tribute all respectfully refuse to make any political statements.

(Two of the many postcards written by visitors displayed in the center's gallery)

One of the guides said if there is one word to keep in mind from this event it is, “Intolerance.” His message was: “The point is that hatred caused this. This was intolerance, if we have the same kind of intolerance, we aren’t learning the lesson. Difference is the beauty of our world.”

I met a couple from Queens on the tour, Alex and Gerry (which was a delight, because Desiree said that it’s rare for local New Yorkers to visit the center.) Alex works for the Fire Department and lost many friends in the attacks. Gerry recalls that although “Strange and sorrowful” that day was great in that you got to connect with other people, “...on that day you really had to look at each other, no one had any other choice--cell phones didn’t work, no one knew what was going on.” Her advice? “Take a look around.”

(Alex's Hat)

As students and scholars we critique and analyze the past, but often at the cost of missing the human side of events: the stories, the faces, the narratives that make up both the history and reality of the American experience.

Whether or not you have your own story of 9/11, it is a truly eye-opening experience to visit the center here in New York City.

(Visit the website here:

Friday, September 10, 2010

Introducing our other bloggers for 2010-2011

In Fall 2010 the Fordham American Studies blog greets one new student blogger and welcomes back two continuing students as well as two ongoing guest bloggers, in addition to Professor Swinth, who was introduced in a previous posting.
Continuing as guest bloggers are:
  • Martin Northrop, who is a Ph.D. student in the English department working on gay and lesbian pulp fiction. Many of you will remember Marty as the American Studies graduate assistant last year. He posted over the summer about his experiences at the "Futures of American Studies" institute.

If any Fordham American Studies undergraduates are interested in becoming regular contributors to the blog, please contact me. Becoming a regular blogger requires a commitment to post on a schedule. I am also trying to create a balance between campuses, class years, and other factors, so being accepted is not automatic. You can also propose a guest blog on a particular topic.

I'm also soliciting faculty for guest blogging gigs; please contact me if you're interested.

Introducing Kirsten Swinth

I'd like to introduce guest blogger Kirsten Swinth, who is an Associate Professor in the History department at Fordham and directed the American Studies program from 2003 to 2008. She is working on a study of the gender revolution accompanying the rise of a postindustrial service economy in the United States (Competition and Care in the New Economy: The Making of the “Working Family”, forthcoming). She has also written about the American art world, the Progressive Era, and social reform movements. She is currently on leave from Fordham, living and writing in Maputo, Mozambique with her two children and her husband, who works for the United Nations Development Program there.

I'm very much looking forward to seeing how Professor Swinth brings an American Studies perspective to a situation in Mozambique that--as you know if you're following the news--is fascinating and volatile.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Kagan Court

The Supreme Court begins its new term in a few weeks, and court watchers like myself will be eagerly searching for clues about how Elena Kagan’s recent confirmation will affect the Court.

Unfortunately, the confirmation hearings this summer were not much help. To no one’s surprise, Kagan proved to be just as skilled as other high court nominees at deflecting the senators’ questions about her policy views.

And really, who can blame her? While Kagan, in previous writings, has stated that she would like nominees to the high court to be more forthcoming about their policy views, in practice this type of candor was only likely to hurt her. Opponents of her nomination would have quickly branded her an activist and used her statements to build the case for a filibuster.

Now that the confirmation hearings are over, the only way we can learn about what sort of justice Kagan will be is by observing her behavior on the bench.

And, unfortunately, we will have to wait a while.

Supreme Court justices have stated that it takes about five years for them to adjust to the work of the Court. Developing a coherent judicial philosophy can take even longer, particularly for someone like Kagan who has never been a justice before. Recent reports indicate that the judicial philosophy of the Roberts Court is just beginning to cohere. So it could be many years before we know what sort of influence Kagan is likely to have on the Court.

At the moment, Justice Kagan is probably just trying to adjust to the staggering workload. Around this time of the year, the justices return from their summer recess and sift through the mountains of certiorari petitions that come in over the summer, making tough choices about which cases the Court will decide in the coming term. Even for seasoned justices, the workload is heavy, so for a new justice like Kagan much of her energy right now is likely to be devoted to sorting through all of these filings.

Once oral arguments begin on the first Monday of October, we may get some clues about Justice Kagan’s approach to the law. Most likely, though, we will see a deft questioner who will pepper opposing counsel on both sides with probing questions. It is often very difficult to predict how a justice will vote based on their comments at oral arguments.

More revealing will be Kagan’s votes on the merits, which we will learnwhen the decisions are handed down months later. Although freshman justices are usually assigned to write their first opinions in relatively noncontroverisal cases, in which the justices are all in agreement about the outcome, Kagan will have a vote in every case, and from these votes we can make inferences about her policy views.

Still, it will probably be at least five years, maybe more, before we will have a good understanding of what sort of justice Kagan will be. It would have been easier if, last summer, she had just told us.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Summer at the New York International Fringe Festival

So I ended up this summer working as a Venue Production Assistant for the New York City International Fringe Festival. For those of you who are unaware of it, the NYC Fringe festival this year was 197 shows in 18 different venues downtown over two weeks every August ( The festival is known for presenting audiences with new and exciting theatre (Like Jurassic Parq a musical retelling of the movie from the point of view of the dinosaurs which you can still see in encores this month). For the first time in the festival's history that some of the venues had Production Assistants, of which I was one.

I was assigned to work at the Soho Playhouse, which despite being an amazing little performing space has a history of being a Tammany Hall hangout, and was once under the direction of Edward Albee. As the PA I was responsible for getting the venue prepped before the festival started, which included hanging and focusing the festival light plot as well as installing a new light board and speakers to the venue, and then during the venue I was available to be hired by the thirteen shows in the venue to run sound or lights for their five performances and I was on standby in case anyone ran into any technical problems.

(A few notes on how the Fringe Festival runs- each show can store their set pieces, costumes, and props in an allotted storage space in the venue, in our case in the basement dressing room. Each show may enter the theater thirty minutes before their showtime, they have fifteen minutes to get their materials out of storage and set on the stage, the house is then open for fifteen minutes for seating and the show starts on time- always. Since the shows are usually understaffed and all hands are on deck prepping the stage, light and sound tests don't usually get done until the last minute of prep time so usually if something goes wrong the Stage Manager of show will come running down to the bar in the basement (where I am always to be found) frantically yelling about X, Y or Z not working at which point I would have to run upstairs scramble up a ladder and fix the problem in under thirty seconds so that the festival could stay on schedule, only once did I encounter a problem that caused us to hold the house.)

I ended up meeting a lot of great people during the festival, including my Venue Director who was in charge of keeping all of the shows on schedule and giving a house speech before every performance, and Joan Rivers who came to see one of the shows in my venue Just In Time: The Judy Holliday Story, which has also been selected for encores so you can still catch a performance (did I mention that all tickets for Fringe Festival shows are a mere $18?).

One of my personal favorite shows to run in the Soho Playhouse this Festival was Dear Harvey a show based on letters and memories of Harvey Milk the first openly gay man to be elected to a public office in the United States whose story was recently the subject of the Gus Van Sant film Milk. The cast of this production were some of the nicest to come through the Soho during the festival (to be fair, all of the casts were friendly and courteous, but these men and women were especially so) and the production won an award for ensemble performance at the closing night ceremonies.

The festival proved to be a great learning experience for me since (as my Venue Director would attest) I don't consider myself a "sound guy" but had to become one for festival (thank goodness usually the sound problems were usually the channel being muted or something being unplugged). Also I made some great connections within the Technical Theater world (which is a world I might be inhabiting in a year's time) and saw some great theatre. For the next two weeks there are encore performances of shows that were chosen by a panel out of the 197 total shows for the festival so I recommend trying to get downtown and check some of them out (I get in free with my staff badge, Jurassic Parq here I come).