Tuesday, January 31, 2006

RIP: Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King (b. Marion, Alabama, 1927 - d. Atlanta, Georgia, 2006)

A major figure in her own right, a civil rights and human rights activist, a partner, a mother, a wife, a spiritual mother, a sister, an aunt, a footsoldier, a friend and mentor, a fundraiser, an organizer, a leader, a visionary, one of the consciences and engines of a movement, a symbol of what we have achieved and that we have left to achieve.

Afro-Netizen: Coretta Scott King
AOL Black Voices: Coretta Scott King
Hartford Courant: Coretta Scott King
New York Times: Coretta Scott King
Yahoo! News: Coretta Scott King

Monday, January 30, 2006

RIP: Paik + Wasserstein + Politics Ties & Hidden Biases

More quickish posts.
Mendi O. of SWEAT and Tisa B. alternately sent word today about the passing of artist and video pioneer Nam June Paik (1932-2006). I always think of Paik's work (such as the Evolution.Revolution, 1989, at left, courtesy of PaikStudios) as emblematic of the major technical shifts in the artworld of the 1970s, though he actually got started in the late 1950s. In 1963 he was participating in Fluxus performances, and by 1965 he'd purchased the first portable video recorder (it's hard to believe they've been around that long!). Paik was very conscious of the importance of the visual to our culture and of the increasingly mediat(iz)ion of our lives, and his works across a range of media reflected this. His site, PaikStudios, is definitely worth visiting.

SWEAT's post on Paik is up too.

This afternoon, driving back from the airport, I thought I heard what sound like a memoriam for playwright Wendy Wasserstein. A check later online confirmed what I'd heard; that she'd died after a battle with lymphoma. I can't say I'm that familiar her work beyond the Heidi Chronicles and the Sisters Rosenzweig, but I do know that she was a critical figure in the rise of female playwrights on Broadway in the late 1970s, and that numerous figures in the drama appreciated her friendship and activism, which extended to the development of new audiences, including working-class teenagers from the five boroughs of New York City. I believe she may have been the first American woman to win a Tony, and later the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1991. Ten years later, in 1999, at age 48, she decided as a single mother to have a child, who survives her, as do her siblings, mother, many beloved plays, books of essays, and forthcoming novel.


Why is almost everyone on United Airlines flights always coughing and sneezing? Do UA planes do double duty as airborne Petri dishes? Why hasn't anyone taught most of these spraying flyers that when you cough or sneeze, you should cover your mouth or nose with your hand, or better yet, the inside of your elbow? I swear I learned this by the time I was 4 years old, but I sat behind a man who sneezed like clockwork every 15 or so minutes and never once covered his nose. He was easily over 4, had two hands, two elbows, and any of the four could have covered his schnoz. The large gentleman next to me kept sneezing and coughing as well. Another man walked down the aisle sneezing as if conducting benedictions. By the time I got off the plane I felt like I had a cold coming on. But then, what are you supposed to do? You very well can't get on a plane with a surgical mask these days and slathered in Purell these days...


One of my graduate students mentioned after class tonight that she translated technical documents into and from Spanish and Portuguese. So we chatted about this a little bit. She learned her Portuguese from a gaúcho (a resident of the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, which is like another country altogether), I from an Azorean (who found 100 different ways to dissuade me from anything having to do with Brazil but had me reading Portuguese writers after only a few weeks). We compared notes about pronunciations and so forth. She said that the gaúcho had told her that if she went to Bahia she'd never want to go back home. A fair warning. He suggested instead going to visit Porto Alegre. She mentioned her boss was in São Paulo. Then she noted that in reading some of the Spanish in her piece and passages in Junot Díaz's work I'd pronounced it "with a Caribbean accent." That made my night.


On a different note, here's an article I could not have made up. In the (ever rightward-listing) Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam pens "Studies Ties Political Leaning to Hidden Biases." I'll say no more beyond that the Raw Story's link came from the great pull quote that "Study: Bush backers more likely racist." Sound overblown?

For their study, Nosek, Banaji and social psychologist Erik Thompson culled self-acknowledged views about blacks from nearly 130,000 whites, who volunteered online to participate in a widely used test of racial bias that measures the speed of people's associations between black or white faces and positive or negative words. The researchers examined correlations between explicit and implicit attitudes and voting behavior in all 435 congressional districts.

The analysis found that substantial majorities of Americans, liberals and conservatives, found it more difficult to associate black faces with positive concepts than white faces -- evidence of implicit bias. But districts that registered higher levels of bias systematically produced more votes for Bush.

"Obviously, such research does not speak at all to the question of the prejudice level of the president," said Banaji, "but it does show that George W. Bush is appealing as a leader to those Americans who harbor greater anti-black prejudice."

Vincent Hutchings, a political scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said the results matched his own findings in a study he conducted ahead of the 2000 presidential election: Volunteers shown visual images of blacks in contexts that implied they were getting welfare benefits were far more receptive to Republican political ads decrying government waste than volunteers shown ads with the same message but without images of black people.

In other news, the filibuster attempt to stop ScAlito's ascension to the US Supreme Court is dead. Kaput. Muerto. A day late and a dollar short, as the phrase goes. The New York Times profiles how the right-wing Federalist Society schemed two decades ago to put Alito and Roberts on the court and transform American jurisprudence to conservative ends. At least my two New Jersey Senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez (it sounds so strange to utter his name in conjunction with "Senator")--and the two from Illinois, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama--were willing to put their necks on the line. But 19 Democrats, including the one and only Joe Lieberman, enabled the GOP once again. Their motto: stomp on us and come again. A heck of a job: Green Party, did you call?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

On Haiti and Religious Groups and AIDS Funds

I don't have time to post anything extensive today, so I'm linking to two stories I found interesting today.

Scott Nelson/World Picture News, for The New York Times

The first is a long piece, by New York Times reporters Walt Bodganich and Jenny Nordberg on the US's role in the current turmoil in Haiti. "Mixed U.S. Signals Helped Tilt Haiti Toward Chaos" lays out clearly what I and others have been saying all along, and belies its wishy-washy title; the International Republican Institute, a Warrantless Wiretapper-affiliated outfit that had championed the overthrow of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela played an active role in the intransigence of the opposition and in democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's ouster. It's beyond disheartening, but offers clear parallels to the debacle in Iraq. Read it while it's still online.

The second, by AP writer Rita Beamish was on Yahoo! News. It's title is "Religious Groups Get Chunk of AIDS Money." It was a more disturbing read than I imagined. (As Keguro points out in the comments section, there's a corollary article on American missionaries in Africa on yesterday's New York Times Magazine, by Daniel Bergner, called simply "The Call." I read about two paragraphs and put it down, but I'll read it through either tonight or tomorrow. Kai in NYC responds that the New York Review of Books featured a number of articles on the AIDS pandemic in Africa, a number of which I read and highly recommend. Here are a few: Helen Epstein's 2000 article on "The Mystery of AIDS in Africa"; Helen Epstein and Lincoln Chin's 2002 piece, "Can AIDS Be Stopped?"; Keith Hansen's and Nancy Scheper-Hughes's response and Epstein's response, in 2003, to an Epstein article, "AIDS in South Africa: The Invisible Cure"; and Helen Epstein's 2005 piece, "The Lost Children of AIDS.")

Check both out. Thoughts?


And for something completely different, Ego, how huge can you grow? Mr. Champion of the World himself, Kanye West. Don't hate the playa, hate the...well, you know. (Thanks, Byron, for the link!)

Photograph by David LaChapelle

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Campus Notes: Guinier and Kripke

This week's New York Observer features an article by Anna Schneider-Mayerson, on Columbia Law School's current efforts to recruit major scholars, including Lani Guinier (at left, photo courtesy of Cornell Chronicle), the eminent Harvard Law School professor and leading scholar of progressive civil rights policies and practices, such as proportional voting systems. The piece covers the sort of ground that once would have been the purview of the now defunct magazine Lingua Franca. It discusses Columbia Law's creation of a new center civil-rights center and its desire to vault its intellectual reputation (back) into the topmost ranks with Yale's, Harvard's, and Stanford's law schools, in part via the intellectual and cultural work of Guinier.

What interested me most about the article beyond the tidbits about Columbia's institutional anxieties and the cultivation process of star faculty members was its recitation of the infamous episode in 1993 when right-wingers caricatured Guinier's scholarship and theories, labeling her "Quota Queen" and causing such a brouhaha that Bill Clinton, who'd nominated her to be Assistant Attorney General, withdrew the nomination. (Another aspect to this story that I'll never forget, beyond Bill Clinton's cowardice, was how super-operator Hillary Clinton's supposedly addressed Guinier, her former Yale Law School classmate and friend, in a white House hallway after her public humiliation and the president's rescission of the nomination: instead of consolation, the Senator and presidential wannabe flippantly and patronizingly called out, "Hey Kiddo!") Few Republicans in the White House, Congress or among the chattering class will admit to their shameful behavior towards Guinier or her ideas and work, or towards numerous other worthy, outstanding Clinton Cabinet and judicial nominees, which is one reason I laugh at their whining about legitimate Democratic Congressional inquiry into and opposition to the extremist views and rulings of Alito. One of the GOP lackeys claimed that Senator Ted Kennedy's questioning of Alito's membership in the Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP) was "nasty," "unfair" and "mean," among other ridiculous statements (especially given that Alito could remember his rulings perfectly but not only lied about not remembering his association with CAP, but recited Republican National Committee talking points about his desire to support ROTC--which had returned to Princeton by the time he joined CAP), but nothing that came out of Kennedy's or any other Democratic Judicial Committee's mouths has approached the nasty, distorting--mendacious--comments made about Guinier. The partisan poisoning of the well, so to speak, during the Clinton years has only worsened in recent years, with the Swift Boating of John Kerry and most recently Congressman John Murtha, and the character-assassination of any critics of the Warrantless Wiretapper.

Meanwhile, Guinier didn't look back. She went on to become the first Black woman tenured to the Harvard Law School faculty, and has continued to produce the kinds of important work that has so interested Columbia Law School. Voting systems much like the ones that brought her right-wing condemnation are in place throughout the world, and increase democratic representation were they in place across the United States.

Today's New York Times Arts Section included a piece on another eminent figure in academe, the philosopher Saul Kripke (at right, courtesy of UNICAMP, Brazil), formerly of Rockefeller and Princeton Universities and now a distinguished professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, which recently spent two days celebrating his achievements. The article, a two-page affair by Charles McGrath, titled "Philosopher, 65, Lectures Not About 'What Am I?' but 'What Is I?'," opens with a recitation of Kripke's boy-genius story--the son of an Omaha rabbi, he was publishing important philosophical papers while in his teens and teaching MIT graduate students while a Harvard undergraduate (though there's no mention of his having briefly been the roommate of the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski)--then goes on to describe, in impressionist terms, Kripke's method and his lecture, while managing to say only a little about his important work in modal logic and the philosophy of language, which is the source of his cultlike appeal. (He also includes a rather Eurocentric quip about how an ideal philosopher should look, which is hardly surprising given that this is McGrath piece.)

Kripke's most famous text is Naming and Necessity (Harvard, 1975, 1980, 2005), which collects three lectures from the early 1970s. Among its other accomplishments, this text detailed a causal theory of reference, as against the standing descriptivist theory of reference set forth by Sir Bertrand Russell and others, with respect to proper names; according to Kripke's reading, a name refers to an object as a result of a causal connection with the object, as mediated by a chain of reference through a community of speakers. As a result a proper name constitutes a rigid designator, which holds for what it refers regardless of any particular facts about the holder of the name and in all possible worlds. It was this particular Kripkean insight that dazzled me some years ago. (The other assertions in the book, on a posteriori necessities, were over my head.) Once I'd understood I thought I'd somehow entered some magical community of understanding, though after trying to properly restate the outlines of the theory to others, I quickly disabused myself of that. But I also became fascinated in Kripke's story, and, after reading Brent Staples' account of tracking Saul Bellow around the campus of Chicago (which I continue to believe Bellow transposed into the utterly indelible and racist confrontation scene in Mr. Sammler's Planet), I thought of writing a screenplay, titled (KRIPKE), that turned on a young (Black) man who was so fascinated by Kripke's philosophy that he literally followed Kripke around his lecture circuit across the US, recording his experiences with reference to Kripke's theories and discussions, with the tale culminating in his finally meeting and chatting with Kripke on a walkway in Princeton (but not at the University). One of the people I'd mentioned this to was a musician and author I knew, Sean H., who was familiar with Kripke's work, but he agreed with me that it perhaps was not the most dramatic story (even in documentary form), and that it would be difficult to convey Kripke's ideas in cinematic terms, and that in any case once I'd solved all the technical and formal script problems, there was the issue of salability. Who on earth would produce such a film? Not that I've completely given up the thought, but... I do wonder if transcripts of Kripke's fascinating-sounding talk will be part of a future volume edited by someone at the CUNY Grad Center.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Quote: Sophie Calle

Calle"I saw him for the first time in December 1985, at a lecture he was giving. I found him attractive, but one thing bothered me: he was wearing an ugly tie. The next day I anonymously sent him a thin brown tie. Later, I sent him in a restaurant; he was wearing it. Unfortunately, it clashed with his shirt. I was then that I decided to take on the task of dressing him from head to toe: I would send him one article of clothing every year at Christmas. In 1986, he received a pair of silk grey socks; in 1987, a black alpaca sweater; in 1988, a white shirt; in 1989, a pair of gold-plated cufflinks; in 1990, a pair of boxer shorts with a Christmas-tree pattern; nothing in 1991; and in 1992, a pair of grey trousers. Someday, when he is fully dressed by me, I would like to be introduced to him."
--from artist Sophie Calle, An Appointment with Sigmund Freud (Thames & Hudson, 1999)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Meeting Nalo Hopkinson + Oprah on Frey + Gukira on W/Kibaki

HopkinsonYesterday, after a full day of student conferences, I hopped in my car and drove halfway down Chitown to DePaul University to meet Nalo Hopkinson (at left), a writer whose work I admire tremendously, and which I really enjoyed teaching last fall. She was reading and talking about her work at DePaul's Center for Diasporic Studies from 3-5 pm, but I wasn't able to get down to Lincoln Park until right around 4:50 pm or so, and anyone who knows crosstown traffic in this huge city understands that whether you take Sheridan Road to Lake Shore Drive south and cut east, or try one of the north-south arteries like Ashland or Western, it can be a trial.

Nevertheless I did make it in time (arriving at the same time as writer and scholar Rone Shavers) to introduce myself and chat with her briefly about one of her books, The Salt Roads, which I'd featured as my Recommended Book for November 2005. I can't speak highly enough about the imaginative and innovative formal and conceptual architecture of this work, which links storylines set in three distinct historical moments (Roman Alexandria, revolutionary Haiti, mid-19th century France) and featuring three different protagonists (one of whom is the Black Venus, Jeanne Duval, French poet and critic's Charles Baudelaire's great muse), through rich, convincing characterizations and dramatizations. The book is also notable for its Afro-futurist-feminist-inspired rethinking and rewriting of narratives of the self, the body, and subjectivity, of desire and sexuality, of identity, nation and home, and its approach to the concepts of diaspora, circulation, fluidity, and translation.

One of the most exciting aspects of the work is Hopkinson's use of the Haitian loa/lwa Erzulie/Ezili (in all her aspects), as a figure and trope, a symbol and spirit, and as a character herself/selves; Erzulie, always in motion, animates and moves in and out of time, across and through narratives, narrative spaces and places, in and out of bodies and minds, functioning as the interstices themselves, while breaking down and re-membering--in a manner that reminded me of the fractal poetics of Wilson Harris-- (Afro-)(Caribbean-)(Canadian-)(diasporic) novelistic discourse. Erzulie, as Freda, as Ge-Rouge, as La Siren, speaks/break-beats into being the novel's conceptual ground and its formal structure. When I mentioned some of this to Hopkinson, she told me how difficult the book had been to write, how she wasn't sure where she was going, but what she achieved, I think, is an artistic and culturally productive marvel.

I didn't get a chance to talk at length with her (though we did invoke Harris's name and she told me about a woman down South, I believe, who wanted the ban the book because of its candid sexual depictions--I think the woman only got to the midway point and couldn't go any further!), or even discuss her other wonderful books, like Brown Girl in the Ring, Midnight Robber, MOJO, or Skin Trade, the first two of which I suggested to a professor there who wasn't as familiar with her work as the texts to start out with. Meeting her provided a good spur to continue to bring her and others to the university, where I know they'll be enthusiastically received.


I only learned about Oprah Winfrey's live, public mea culpa and interrogation and dismissal of A Million Little Pieces fabulist James Frey, and his pompous editor, Nan Talese of Random House, after it had broadcast. Had I known about it in advance I'd have taped it for my class. (Did anyone out there tape it?) We nevertheless discussed the story and the most recent events a bit today. C. and I had agreed right after the story initially broke that Oprah (pictured above with Frey, photo George Burns/Harpo Productions, via Associated Press) should probably apologize for her role in promoting the runaway best-seller, especially given that, as it now turns out, her staff had been warned in advance that there were serious questions about the veracity of the text (though she claimed to have checked with Random House, who assured her there were no problems). Instead, she went ahead and trumpeted the fact that it was "very real" (nothing sells like authenticity and empathy, especially when championed by a cultural authority of her stature), and then made her dramatic show-ending call to Larry King Live, where she again defended Frey's tome of lies as providing the "essential truth."

At that point, however, it was clear that his story simply wasn't holding water, and despite his publishing house's continued support, the growing number of lawsuits against Frey and the new round of criticism and debunking by people associated with the Hazelden Foundation addiction treatment facilities in Minnesota, as well as the sustained criticism from Oprah's Book Club fans, may have led Oprah to conclude that only her live personal atonement and avowal of truth and honesty, as well as an excoriation of Frey and Talese, would stem any further damage to her reputation and powerful imprimatur. I know the publishing industry was holding its collective breath. At any rate, props to Oprah, I have to say--many figures of her stature couldn't be dragged kicking and screaming to an apology, let alone a direct and non-backhanded one, particularly one which represents a public--though temporary--loss of face.

Her second new-Book Club selection, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel's acclaimed Holocaust survival "memoir" Night, has also been questioned in the past on various truth-claims grounds. Any bets on whether she'll ask him if he made up stuff, and what he might have exaggerated? She could also have a show featuring Frey, Leroy and Nasdijj, and really go to town. Perhaps it really is time for her to return to works of fiction that their authors call "fiction." I can think of several she might begin with (cf. above, first topic, or prior entries).


Today Gukira has an excellent post comparing the misrules of the "Smiling Texan" (our very own Warrantless Wiretapper, who in perfect Goebbelsian* fashion--because at this point the term and ideas embodied in "Orwellian" have become superannuated with WW and his crowd--continues to defend his illegal actions and state that they were legal, in yet another effort--which I hope for once fails--to talk lies into truth) and the "Muthaiga Golfer," who I believe is Mwai Kibaki, the president of Kenya.
*Or is it Goebbelsish (Goebbelsich?)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Wednesday Rambles

I want to begin this post by thanking everyone who's visited Jstheater. I noticed yesterday that I'd passed 20,000 page hits, which utterly amazes me! Despite the frequently recondite nature of my posts, the near absence of memes, and the only ghostly presences of American and global celebrity culture, I've averaged about 61 page hits per day (20,200/329 total posts). As I've said before, I also appreciate the comments, which are often provocative and informative, and have led me to rethink my assumptions on many points. My original goal was to post on a daily basis for a year or 365 straight posts, whichever came first, and I'm rapidly approaching that marker. I'm not sure if I'll continue after the blogaversary, since it's extremely difficult to balance home life, writing, work responsibilities, commuting, and everything else, but we'll see.


BuckhanonYesterday I had the pleasure of lunch with Kalisha Buckhanon, a sparkling young woman whose first novel, Upstate (St. Martin's Press) appeared last year to strong reviews. Upstate, which I've only had an opportunity to browse, successfully portrays in epistolary form the developing relationship between a Black male and female in Harlem; when the novel begins, the young man is imprisoned in Upstate New York. Kalisha was on campus, as a guest of the Kaplan Center for the Humanities, to conduct a workshop and give a talk, which I had to miss because of my evening class, entitled "Loving Our 'Best Things'; Black Women (Re)Write Family and Reproductive Politics." As she recounted her interest on the topic, she'd originally begun to think about the ways in which Black women had tell the stories of their own and other Black women's lives and the legal and political, economic and social constraints placed upon them after thinking about the miniseries version and original novelistic versions of Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, as well as Sapphire's novel PUSH. I enjoyed our discussion quite a bit, and not only look forward to reading her novel, but also the paper she delivered. I hope this blossoms into a study, though I also gathered that in the best artistic fashion, many of her critical interventions will be woven into the text of her forthcoming novel, which I believe is titled Conception.


I've been wanting to jot a few lines about how exhilarating last weekend's Black Queer Studies conference was. Although I wasn't able to attend every panel because of previously scheduled duties, I did get to hear parts of superb papers by Kevin Mumford on Joseph Beam's activism, Devon Carbado on rethinking approaches to identitarian rights, biologistic versus performative constructions, and antidiscrimination law, and Natasha Tinsley on reframing and resituating Black queer studies within a diasporic framework. Their colleagues, graduate students and conference attendees offered challenging responses to their talks. Natasha's paper in particular really sparked a number of things for me, not least because she referenced the work of a writer I greatly admire, Dominican-American novelist and activist Ana Lara, and used Ana's forthcoming novel as a methodological tool to under diasporic pathways, notions of fluidity and circulation, and unexplored subjectivies and identity formations, in order to expand the analytical and theoretical possibilities of what is an exciting and developing field. My wonderful department-mate Jennifer Brody briefly and thoroughly wrapped up of the proceedings, and the marvelous and generous imprint of Dwight McBride, who heads the African American Studies program, was evident throughout. One of my favorite experiences at conferences like this is the informal conversations that occur over lunch, during breaks, and at dinner. There really are too many people to give shout outs to, especially since Chicago has become one of the key sites for Black LGBT/sgl/queer intellectual work and practice, but I did want to say that I especially enjoyed finally meeting Dr. Mae Henderson, whom I'd only interacted with phone many years ago. The volume she edited with another of my wonderful colleagues, E. Patrick Johnson, is sure to go down as a landmark contribution to this important field.


BarrusStranger than fiction: if you thought the Frey affair, which continues to suffer aftershocks, were the final word on the serious problems with memoir as a genre, think again. The most recent case, it appears, involves Nasdijj, a self-styled half-Navajo, half-White abuse survivor, single parent and award-winning Native American author who, it turns out something else altogether. As reporter Matthew Fleischer details in his current LA Weekly article "Navahoax," Nasdijj is really a 56-year-old White Lansing, Michigan native, born Timothy Barrus, who played an important role in what Barrus named--and what is now known as--"leather lit." Fleischer gives all the details and really breaks down the un/truth(s) about Barrus, who also styled himself a Vietnam veteran, who recently offloaded his rant-laden blog (when you get into trouble, you can always go after Jews or Blacks or both), and whom renowned Native American author Sherman Alexie even accused of plagiarism. Fleischer also links Barrus's problematic identity performances, which the American publishing industry lapped up, to other figures such as Ward Churchill and, going further back, Ku Klux Klansman-turned Native Asa Earl Carter.

One quote:

Indeed, in the long history of Indian appropriation by whites, the Navajo have become the primary target. Of particular ire to the Navajo is mystery writer Tony Hillerman. For the past several decades Hillerman has written detective stories from the perspective of his Navajo protagonists, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Though not actually claiming Navajo ancestry, Hillerman infuses healthy doses of Navajo spirituality into the story through his characters — sometimes accurately, sometimes not. Hillerman’s appropriation is well known and disliked across tribal lines and was the subject of parody in Sherman Alexie’s book Indian Killer. But despite the criticism from Alexie and other Native writers, Hillerman’s success has sparked imitators. So much so that Morris claims the existence of at least 14 white authors living in nearby Gallup, New Mexico, writing Navajo murder mysteries.

Having tracked down the elusive Nasdijj (sound familiar?), Fleischer closes the piece with down the author's strange and pathetic (non-)response.

Field's BookYet another book I plan to add to my booklist is poet Edward Field's The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag: And Other Intimate Portraits of the Bohemian Era (Wisconsin, 2006). San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Joy Parks describes the book by noting that Field's "unflinching--and sometimes outright nasty--portraits of a generation of literary geniuses is [sic] wonderfully entertaining." In addition to Sontag and Alfred Chester, whose life and work Field is an authority on, the book also presents lively--and according to Parks, sometimes vicious--portraits of other figures of that era, including May Swenson, Paul and Jane Bowles, and Alma Routsong (Isabel Miller). Parks also suggests that one of the most interesting aspects of Field's book is one of his premises: that gay liberation may have destroyed the closed, bohemian space that had developed in post-World War II Greenwich Village. Now that's a supposition worthy of quite a few books. I also am curious to read Field's prose voice. I've always liked his singular, fresh poetry (Variety Photoplays, with its evocation of a late 1950s and early 1960s New York demimonde, is the first book that comes to mind), and I also recall writer Lisa Glatt telling me how delightful and open Field was when she got to know him.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

In Memoriam: Nellie McKay + Guillaume Dustan

McKayToday I got word via email that Nellie Y. McKay, one of the leading scholars of African-American women's writing and African-American and American literature and culture, had died after a long illness. McKay had been chairperson of the African-American Studies department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she'd taught since 1978. In recent years, she'd also held the Evjue-Bascom Chair in American and African-American Literatures. The author, editor or co-editor of eight books, she is probably best known to the public as the co-editor, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, which first appeared in 1997 and has subsequently become the canonical survey text for this field.

For those in the profession, she is considered to be one of the pioneer figures in establishing African-American literature by women as a subject of study. Though she wrote her dissertation at Harvard on Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer and published her first book on his work (Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936: North Carolina, 1984), her later studies and collections mapped out vital critical space for the study of Black women's cultural and aesthetic production, and Black literary and cultural production more broadly. Her works include one of the major early critical edited volumes on Toni Morrison and an important study, with Robert L. Harris, Jr. and my eminent colleague Darlene Clark Hine, which analyzed the developing field and institutional position of Black studies (Black Studies in the United States: Three Essays: Ford Foundation, 1990).

McKay was a crucial teacher, advisor, mentor, and friend to several generations of scholars and writers. A friend of mine who went to Wisconsin for graduate school always spoke highly of McKay and stated more than once that she strove to create a welcoming and nurturing community. I primarily had very limited contact with her through an editorial position I held years ago, and met her once, at a conference. In every instance, she was gracious. Her passing is a tremendous loss, to Wisconsin, to her students and colleagues, to her fellow scholars and to writers, and to American and African-American literatures and literary studies. The Norton volume, her leadership and the program she helped to build at Wisconsin will be among her many legacies.

The Newshour with Jim Lehrer on PBS featured an online conversation with Nellie McKay in 1997 upon the publication of the Norton Anthology. It's worth reading and can be found here.

One quote:

Sometimes readers complain that all the "good" literature is sad and tends to be about the sufferings of people. That's not completely accurate, but "great" literature is often about the ability of the human spirit to rise or not rise above great trials in life. African American literature has much of that quality and since black women suffered equally with black men they also expressed their strength of will and humanity through literature. One thing they also understood from the beginning: there are great differences between how men see their world and how women see their world. Knowing that, black women have fought to have their voices heard as much as black men have fought to be heard. As Anna Julia Cooper, one of the nineteenth century black women included in The Norton Anthology points out, women do not want to have themselves spoken for by black men. So they have produced a literature of their own. Today more black women writers than ever before have access to publishing and they are taking advantage of that. The reading public seems to like what they are doing and their books are selling well. I think that one reason for their popularity is their willingness to write about things that are close to the hearts of many ordinary people. There is a freshness in their works that brings into the public spaces women's perspectives on such issues as concerns for the lives of women and girls, of families, and others whom they love.

She established the Lorraine Hansberry Visiting Professorship in the Dramatic Arts at the University of Wisconsin. To honor her memory, you can donate directly c/o University of Wisconsin Foundation, US Bank Lockbox, Box 78807, Milwaukee, WI, 53726. Checks may be made out to the "UW Foundation, with "In Memory of Nellie McKay" written in the subject line.

Per her suggestion, you may also make a donation to the Children's Defense Fund, 25 E Street NW, Washington, DC, 20001. They ask that checks be made out to "Children's Defense Fund" with "In Memory of Nellie Y. McKay" written on the subject line.


DustanI also recently learned via an email from Ariel Kenig, the French author of the novel Camping Atlantic (Denoël, 2005), a sometime reader of this blog and friend of Swiss writer and artist Nicolas Pages (whose work I've translated), that Guillaume Dustan, one of the most controversial figures in recent French literature, passed away in October of last year. Last summer I wrote about the demise of the Éditions Balland imprint Le Rayon Gay, which Dustan edited for several years beginning in 1996, and which was my first introduction to him. It would not be too hyperbolic to say that for a brief moment during that period, as French gay and queer life were coming into their maturity, Le Rayon Gay assumed a central role as one of the most important presses for many of the emerging writers of this community. In addition to Pages, Dustan edited and published other younger French and Francophone queer writers such as Erik Rémès, Frédéric Huet, Béatrice Cussol, Laure Ly, Djallil Djellad, Julian Thèves, and Michel Zumkir, as well as translations of non-Francophone writers such as Dorothy Allison, Persimmon Blackledge, and Eve Ensler. At one point I contacted Le Rayon to inquire about possibly publishing Pages's work in a literary journal, and Dustan wrote me back, rather quickly I must add, to say that doing so would be fine. There was no wrangling, no quibbling, rien comme ça.

Dustan's reputation and notoriety rest, however, on his fiction and essays, as well as his extraordinary public persona. He was one of the major exponents of what might be termed autofiction, a genre of writing that blurs and complicates the fixed line between autobiography and fiction (he rejected this term), and, as was evident from his earliest novels, of autopornographie (autopornography), a related, self-evident genre. Born William Baranès in 1965, he was a practicing magistrate by the age of 23, and during the next seven years balanced his professional life with the the charged nocturnal existence that would become the grist for his early novels, under the assumed pseudonym Guillaume Dustan. After learning he was HIV positive, he quit his judgeship, moved to Tahiti, and published three exemplary autofictional works in swift succession, Dans ma chambre (In My Room: POL, Serpent's Tail Press, 1996) and Je sors ce soir (I Go out Tonight: POL, 1997), and Plus fort que moi (Stronger Than I: POL, 1998). These works detail with clinical precision and zero sentimentality a testimony of relentless graphic and raw sex, partying and drugtaking, serial relationships, and a laceratinng philosophical temperament and ethos that I would describe as equal parts Paterian, Nietzschean and Heideggerian. He also began engaging in public polemics, as a proponent of condomless sex, to the horror of Act-Up, while also chronicling his experiences as a person with HIV/AIDS.

Subsequent novels include the Prix de Flore-winning Nicolas Pages (Balland, 1999, and named after the above-mentioned artist who became the object of Dustan's interest), Génie Divin (a dazzling performance, in journal form, in which he takes up once more his advocacy of barebacking), and XLiR (2002) all of which militate, as his Libération obituary notes, against, "heterosexism, orthography, intelligentsia in general, and that of gays in particular." Dustan also staged and participated in public artistic performances, and had a confounding stint on TV. In 2oo4, he published Dernier roman (Last Novel, Flammarion), and followed this with Premier essai: chronique du temps present (First Essay: A Present-Day Chronicle, Flammarion, 2005) in 2005. His projected biography of Andy Warhol remained unfinished at the time of his death at age 40, and as of this writing, most of his novels have yet to be translated into English.

The French online journal Fluctuat.net conducted an interview with Dustan in 2000.

As with Sade, Genet, Colette, Klossowski, Bataille, Foucault, Deleuze, Hocquenghem, and other significant figures from the French tradition, Dustan's writings in years to come will serve as testaments to a fearless and gifted explorer of the outer realms of human desire, pleasure and agency.

Monday, January 23, 2006

African Cup of Nations

A prelude of sorts to this year's World Cup in Germany is playing out in Cairo, where the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament began on Friday. The tournament pits the continent's sixteen top teams against in each other in four groups of round-robin play.

Among the contenders are African World Cup participants Tunisia, which survived poor first-half play to defeat Zambia 4-1 in their opening match; civil-war wracked Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast); Togo, which is suffering from intra-team conflict; Ghana; and Angola. Other qualifying teams include host Egypt; former World Cup fan pleasers Nigeria and Cameroon, neither of whom qualified this go-round; South Africa; Guinea; Senegal; Morocco; Libya; and two countries better known for their ongoing internal sociopolitical crises, Zimbabwe and Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire).

Group D, comprising Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, and Zimbabwe, is considered the toughest unit, and any of the first three teams could win the championship, though Senegal has fallen off since its 2004 World Cup success, Nigeria has been known to self-destruct despite having some of the most talented players in the world, and Ghana, a four-time winner of the Nations Cup, will have to outscore Senegal and Nigeria to advance, a tall order. None of the other three draws has as many contenders. Other potential winners include host country Egypt, which has also won 4 Nations Cups and had the most appearances over the tournament history, Tunisia, and Ivory Coast. Togo's coach, Nigerian native Stephen Keshi, and star player, Emmanuel Adebayor, are at loggerheads, and will have to make up if they're to advance out of their group, and down the road, to succeed in Germany. If you're really up on African soccer, you can predict the winners on the BBC's interactive site.

Some photos from before and during the tournament (the official site's photo section is awful):

Tunisia striker Chawki Ben Saada, center, vies with Ghana's Stephan Appiah, left, and Daniel Idouzai, right (AFP, Fethi Belaid)
Tunisia's Kaies Ghodhbane, left, takes the ball past Ghanaian defender Samuel Kuffuor in Tunis (AFP, Fethi Belaid)
The Ivory Coast team train at Cairo football stadium (AP, Ben Curtis)
Angola's Flavio celebrates goal against Cameroon during African Nations Cup match in Cairo (Reuters, Tara Todras-Whitehill)
Congo's Lomana Tresor Lua Lua, right, challenges for the ball with Togo's Emmanuel Matthias at the African Nations Cup soccer match between Togo and C (AP, Ben Curtis)
Arsenal defender Kolo Toure, right, and Arouna Kone of PSV Eindhoven, both playing for the Ivory Coast team, challenge for the ball during a training session (AP, Ben Curtis)

Morocco's Talal El Karkouri and Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba, right, fight for the ball during the African Nations Cup soccer match between Ivory Coast and Morocco (AP, Ben Curtis)
Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba celebrates his penalty goal during the African Nations Cup soccer match between Ivory Coast and Morocco (AP, Ben Curtis)
Tunisian Jaidi Radi waves to supporters as his team was qualified for this year's World Cup finals in Germany after a qualifying match against Morocco (AP Photo/Jalil Bounhar)
Egypt in red, vs. Libya in Green (©Mena, Cup of Nations site)
Nigeria's Jay-Jay Okocha, past international sensation, now on the verge of retirement from international play (BBC)

Guinea's Ousmane Bangoura, center, celebrates his goal with teammates Pablo Thiam, left, and Kanfory Sylla, right, during the African Nations Cup soccer match between South Africa and Guinea (AP, Ben Curtis)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Roe v. Wade Anniversary

Today is the 33rd anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, in which the US Supreme Court, headed by Warren Burger, ruled that a woman, in consultation with her doctor, has a constitutionally protected right to an abortion, before fetal viability.

The Warrantless Wiretapper who presided over 152 state executions while governor of Texas (more than any other governor in recent history), and who's decision to launch a war of regime change in Iraq (also known as Iraqmire) is directly responsible for the deaths of over 2,200 US and coalition servicepeople and tens of thousands of Iraqis noncombatants, proclaimed today "National Sanctity of Human Life Day, 2006."

According to the highly respected Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortion providers has fallen, from around 2400 in 1992 to around 1800 in 2000 (under a pro-choice president, no less), and states enacted 52 laws restricting abortion in 2005 alone. Many states have also seen a drop in abortion providers, and there are populous counties in some red states that have no abortion provider at all.

Correlative with this, Feministing.com points to a study by the National Center for Health Statistics that "about 14 percent of recent births to women 15-44 years of age in 2002 were unwanted at time of conception, an increase from the 9 percent seen for recent births in 1995," and that "61 percent of women 25-44 years of age with less than a high school degree reported having had an unintended birth (either mistimed or unwanted at time of conception), compared with 18 percent of women with college degrees."

Meanwhile, right-wing federal appeals court judge Samuel A. Alito, who has gone on the record with his staunch opposition to the Roe v. Wade decision, is encountering stiffening Democratic opposition to his nomination, with Democratic 2nd in command Senator Dick Durbin refusing to rule out a filibuster. The New York Times ("Judge Alito's Radical Views") and New Republic ("Restraining Order") are running strong editorials opposing the confirmation of Alito, who managed to say about as little that was relevant to his potential job as possible during his recent Senate dumbshow, with the complete complicity of the Senate Republicans and the mainstream media, while conveniently suffering attacks of Alzheimers concerning his membership in the ultraconservative, retrograde Concerned Alumni of Princeton.

While I think there may be enough Democratic votes to sustain a filibuster, the real danger would come immediately upon Alito's, or a similar Borkian originalist's ascension to the nation's highest court, particularly on the issue of women's rights, personal bodily autonomy, and possibly contraceptive rights. It would only take Anthony Kennedy, the Roman Catholic, Republican jurist appointed by Ronald Reagun, to join confirmed right-wingers Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Alito or someone like him (all men, no less) in overturning Roe; despite Kennedy's recent judicial decisions falling towards the left side of the legal and ideological spectrum (to the utter enragement of extremists like Phyllis Schlafly and Tom DeLay), there is no guarantee that he would not revert to or vote to enable the far-right quorum.

No one should forget that before Roe v. Wade, as the decision's legal text enumerates, almost every US state (as well as many US territories and the Kingdom of Hawai'i) had enacted anti-abortion laws, some dating as far back as the 1820s and 1830s. Despite the availability of prophylactics, spermicides and contraceptives, and prescription abortifacient drugs, women across the country still need access to safe and legal abortion services. Were Roe to be abolished--even in spite of the basic fact that a majority of Americans support the legal right to abortions--there's no guarantee that many states would not enact anti-abortion laws, let alone enact pro-choice legislation. As we know historically, the absence of pro-choice laws, doesn't guarantee no abortions, it ensures that there will be unsafe, illegal ones.

If you believe in women's right to choose, by which I mean the right of access to legal abortions, the right of women to have abortions without criminal penalties, the right of doctors or other qualified and licensed healthcare providers to provide safe abortions without criminal penalties, and the right to personal bodily autonomy, please contact your elected officials, especially your US Senators, who are set to vote on Samuel Alito, and let them know what you're thinking.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

On the Bookshelf: Winter 2006

On the bookshelf (when I get a free moment):

Neal's Book
Achmat Dangor, Kafka's Curse (Kwela Books, 1997)
James Elkins, editor, Art History vs. Aesthetics (Routledge, 2006)
E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson, editors, Black Queer Studies (Duke, 2006)
James Kirwin, Sublimity (Routledge, 2005)
Anders Monson, Other Electricities: Stories (Sarabande, 2005)
Mark Anthony Neal, New Black Man (Routledge, 2005)
Mikki van Zyl and Melissa Steyn, Performing Queer: Shaping Sexualities 1994-2004 (Social Identities in South Africa Series: Kwela Books, 2005)
Flora Veit-Wild and Dirk Naguschewski, Body, Sexuality, and Gender: Version and Subversions in African Literatures 1 (Rodopi, 2005)
Paul Virilio, Negative Horizon (Continuum, 2005)

Friday, January 20, 2006

Black Queer Studies Conference at Northwestern University

Today, for those in the Chicagoland area:

The Northwestern University Department of African American Studies, Department of Performance Studies, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, School of Communication, and the Diaspora Institute present:

Black Queer Studies: A Symposium and Book Launch

January 20, 2006
Norris Campus Center
The Northwestern Room
1999 Campus Drive
Evanston Campus

8:00-9:00: Continental Breakfast

9:00-9:30 Opening Remarks
Dwight A. McBride, Chair and Leon Forrest Professor of African American Studies, Northwestern University
Mae G. Henderson, Professor of English, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
E. Patrick Johnson, Associate Professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies, Northwestern University

9:30-11:00 Sharon Holland, Associate Professor of English and African American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago
"What is 'Queer' about Our Critique?: Some Thoughts about New Directions in (Black) Queer Studies?"
Moderator: Sandra Richards, Professor of African American Studies, Theater, and Performance Studies, Northwestern University
Respondents: Barnor Hesse, Associate Professor of African American Studies, Political Science, and Sociology, Northwestern University
Tasha Hawthorne: Graduate Student, Department of English, Northwestern University

11:15-12:45 Kevin Mumford, Assistant Professor of History, University of Iowa
"Joseph Beam and Re-Writing the History of Sexuality"
Moderator: Darlene Clark Hine, Board of Trustees Professor of African American Studies and History, Northwestern University
Respondents: Martha Biondi, Associate Professor of African American Studies and History, Northwestern University
Jeffrey McCune: Graduate Student, Department of Performance Studies, Northwestern University

2:00-3:30 Devon Carbado, Professor of Law, University of California, Los Angeles
"Black Rights, Gay Rights, Civil Rights: What Makeup Has To Do With It?"
Moderator: Cathy Cohen, Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago
Respondents: Marlon Bailey, U.C. Chancellor's Postdoctoral Fellow in Gender and Women's Studies, University of California, Berkeley
Tamara Roberts: Graduate Student, Department of Performance Studies, Northwestern University

3:45-5:15 Natasha Tinsley, Assistant Professor of English, University of Minnesota
"Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: An International Framework for Black Queer Studies"
Moderator: Alex Weheliye, Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies, Northwestern University
Respondents: Darrell Moore, Associate Professor of Philosophy and African & Black Diaspora Studies, DePaul University
Coya Paz, Graduate Student in Performance Studies, Northwestern University

5:15-5:30 Closing Remarks
Jennifer DeVere Brody, Associate Professor of English, African American Studies, and Performance Studies, Northwestern University

5:30-7:30 Reception and book signing by Dr E. Patrick. Johnson and Dr. Mae G. Henderson
Norris Center Michigan Room

Cosponsored by: The Department of English, the Program in Gender Studies, the Graduate School, and the Department of History.

This event is free and open to the public.
For information on local accommodations or for further information on the symposium, please call the Department of African American Studies at 847-491-5122.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Representing Blond(e)s + the Racially/Ethnically Mixed

For a long time I've wanted to write something about what I see as the American obsession with blond(e)s and blondeness, a fixation this country's media actively inculcate into our national and individual consciousnesses (I never tire of Alexander Kluge's and Oskar Negt's conceptual term, "industrialize"), while also exporting to all corners of the world through Hollywood and TV shows. But in the past, when I've begun, I just can't muster the interest or stamina to finish it, because it seems there's just so much to say; untangling the knot of social, political and cultural (white) American imaginaries (in Edouard Glissant's broader sense of the term, not Jacques Lacan's) and their related discourses and and discursive practices and productions; the history of racial representations, particularly racial iconography and imagery, both before and after the advent of photography, then cinema and later television; the semiology, economy and il/logic of white supremacy; corporate America's (including Hollywood and the visual media's) marketing and commodification systems, and so on, would require more brainpower and energy than I have at the moment. So I'm going to post two articles by others (and link to one I linked to a while ago). But, let me say first:

What initially provoked the unfinished entries were several things: first of all, whenever I teach my introductory fiction classes, one of the things I notice when I have my students create a fictional character that they'll carry through several different subsequent narrative exercises is how often they make the characters "blond(e)." I find that this tends to be the case for most (but not all of) my White students, as well as my Asian-American students (except the South Asian-American female students), but fairly rare for my African-American and Latino students (I actually have taught very few Latino students). (It also is less of an issue with my honors-level student writers, who have almost to a person written complex texts that challenge and push nearly every fictional convention, from the level of language itself to the thematics and structure.) Most of my students, at least if I'm recollecting right, are from a range of European ethnicities, with varying shades of brown, but while the authors I assign describe a range of characters and physical types--be it James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, Junot Díaz, Toni Cade Bambara, or Jhumpa Lahiri--it seems the interior ideation is (a) blond(e). Or, if my student writers are blond(e)s and I require everyone to create a character with different physical characteristics from themselves, inevitably the blond(e) students will create another central or important character who's (a) blond(e). Usually the students will make the most desired or attractive or "beautiful" characters "blond(e)." Blond(e)ness, in conjunction with thinness, wealth, and other markers of social and cultural capital becomes a signifyer for desirability and social and aesthetic importance. This is especially the case with female characters, though blond male characters also predominate. It also turns out that many of my graduate students also are writing about blond(e)s as well. In the new quarter, of two stories I've read, one had a protagonist who was, during her college years and at the height of her attractiveness...blonde. I encourage my students to write what they want to write, and I want to make it clear that I'm not casting aspersions on or criticizing their choices. But over the years I've begun to note this blond preponderance, which I see as a reflection and symptom of larger societal issues at play.

(Sometimes things go overboard. A few years ago I had one young man who wrote a story in which a young blonde woman was threatened by a Black male, and was saved a by a blond male "angel"-type character, who emasculated the Black male character in response. That led to a very serious but civil class discussion about racial depictions, stereotypes, violence in narratives, the need to take responsibility for one's work, and so on. A few of the students were horrified to silence by the text, several glossed right over the racial aspects, and the author never returned to the class after that.) Sometimes the only characteristics in terms of physical descriptions of characters, regardless of attractiveness, desirability or not, will be that the character is "blond(e)," although in the last few years I've had several students write about "red-heads" (they usually have been "redheads"). In counterpoint, several years ago I had a few stories in which the "unattractive" characters were described as having "dark" hair or were fat. In every introductory and graduate fiction class I discuss stereotypes (and archetypes, as this is a standard element of understanding characterization), and in my sociology of writing class last year we broached this question of the "blond" imaginary (again, think Glissant, not Lacan); most of the students (fine writers all of them) who were prone to doing so admitted that they hadn't even thought about it, or weren't aware of the recourse to "blond(e)s" and "blond(e)ness."

Then, last spring, I had a White female graduate fiction student come to my office to meet with me. I had never taught or worked with this person before, but as is the case with our graduate program in creative writing, which is fairly new, I and other professors supervise graduate students in our genre area (mine is fiction) for an independent study or for thesis work. We agreed that we would meet, she'd bring me her work, and we'd figure out if I could work with her. This particular student came to the office, and after expressing momentary surprsise when she saw me, she took and seat and we began chatting. The conversation engaged us both, I thought, though after our discussion I wasn't convinced that I'd be right to work with her, but I said that I'd read her submissions through. When we reached a pause toward the end of the meeting, she began to tell me that she was surprised when I'd opened the door. Given my name, she said, she'd expected me to be "tall" and "blond." I think she may also have thought I'd be older, but I've blocked that out. I was a bit taken aback--years ago I'd had an older Black woman at a scholarship committee tell me that she thought, given where I was enrolled for my undergraduate education, that I'd be "taller"--???--and I imagine that some students may be surprised to have a Black fiction or literary studies professor walk into the room if they've never studied with me, but I've never had anyone voice this, let alone say they expected me to be "blond." To my face, no less. I responded with a joke about being tall (well, I'm almost 6' but the Midwest is the land of giants), and with a short comment about how in fact a former coworker, a gregarious Italian-Irish-American, had gone to Ireland years ago and when he returned, eagerly told me he met my close relative drinking in a pub--the famous Irish writer and author of The River, John Keane, after which this student scrunched up her face, apparently in confusion. At this point, I rose and she realized it was time to leave.

Of course I'm not conflating these teaching experiences with the America as a whole, but I do see great resonances between the students' blond(e) imaginary, so to speak, and my third prompt, which is the persistence in the mainstream media and entertainment industry of the obsession with blondes. I've already written about the Natalee Holloway fixation and the her function as a sociopsychological victim-prosthesis, and I need not catalogue the numerous examples, large and small, with which we're bombarded with images of blondness as equalling or approximating beauty, and serving as a proxy for idealized Whiteness. One could talk even about blondness's irruptions in Black American cultural production; for example, as a signifier of a kind of mute idealized femininity in an all-Black film like Set It Off, where the femme girlfriend of Queen Latifah's butch never speaks and sports a blond close-cropped cut; or the blondness of Beyoncé, who after she broke away from Destiny's Child kept getting blonder and blonder, with even her skin tone blanched out in some advertisements; or any number of hiphop and R&B stars who went "blond" for a spell or for good, like Li'l Kim, Mary J. Blige, Eve, and so on; or J-Lo, who had short, dark tresses when on In Living Color, then long, lightened (but not blonde, if I'm remember correctly) hair during her breakout hit period and her relationships with P-Diddy and Chris Judd, but eventually became a blonde (often photographed with matte, very light foundation) during her superstar moment with Ben Affleck (as Bennifer or J-Fleck), before she returned to a more ethnically marked appearance after hooking up with singer and fellow Boricua Marc Anthony. Et cetera.

I know little about the history of blondness and America's obssession with and iconographic emphasis on female blondes, though I know there are books out there on this topic that I should check out. Obviously it goes quite far back, at least in cinematic terms, to early silent-film stars like Lillian Gish, who if I can recall correctly (and I'm quite bad at recollecting specifics of movies I haven't seen in years) in Birth of a Nation (1915) is the blonde Northern woman (Elsie Stoneman?) who is rescued from the licentious lieutenant governor, Silas Lynch and the rampaging Black Reconstructionists (and their Northern White "carpetbagger" and "radical" allies) in the film, by no less than the Ku Klux Klan. To take another notorious example, there's the iconography of the original King Kong, which I watched on Turner Classic Movies down in DR! In it the blonde, played by Fay Wray, is to be sacrified by the Black "savages" of the island to the monstrous super-gorilla, Kong, and...well, no need to go there. I hadn't realized, however, until reading a Village Voice review, that it was Hitler's favorite film and was retitled King Kong and the White Woman when it played during the Nazi period. (I won't even get into Nazi and Nazi-related propaganda.) Hollywood's emphasis on blonde female stars has been fairly consistent, it appears, especially since Greta Garbo, with the apogees perhaps being Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Carol Lombard, Joan Blondell, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Holliday, Grace Kelly, Lana Turner, and Doris Day, though there have been some major brunettes, red-heads and dark-haired White female stars (Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Hedy Lamarr, Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Debby Reynolds, Audrey Hepburn, etc.), but it strikes me that in recent years Hollywood has returned to its blonde female fixation with a vengeance. In terms of male stars, it seems that many of the major male stars from the silent era on through the 1980s weren't blondes, with some exceptions (Joel McCrea, then later James Dean, Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue in the teen hearthrob films of the 1950s), and Hollywood has never pushed male blondness as relentlessly as female blondness. Wasn't the ideal even "tall, (not too) dark and handsome?" (Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, John Gavin, etc.) But even the new James Bond--a role defined by the swarthy Sean Connery, and subsequent brunets Roger Moore (unspeakably dull, that one) and Pierce Brosnan--is now--you got it, a blond! (I can't remember his name.) But TV it seems has been a bit different, especially since the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially once the conservative political triumphs under Ronald Reagan took hold, with blond males abounding. I don't have stats, though, and this is just my impression. (I should add that I realize that the contemporary blond(e) obsession is of a piece with other larger cultural movements, and I am not forgetting some of the perceptive arguments of colleagues like Dwight McBride, in his collection Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch.)

Anyways, having written all of that, let me now link to the article I came across in Yahoo! News's opinion section, by Sheryl McCarthy, from USA Today. It's entitled "'Blonde is beautiful' mystique," and raises some interesting points, connecting the blond(e) fixation to the larger issues of racism, colorism, classism, and so on. A quote:

"Is it politically correct for us to see King Kong?" a friend joked when the latest version of the movie classic opened. A movie clip that shows Kong staring mesmerized at the fair Ann Darrow, played by Naomi Watts, caused me some uneasiness because it's hard not to see the subliminal racism in a story about a big black beast falling tragically in love with a pale blonde beauty.

But lured by reviews touting the special effects and the dramatic story, I went to see the movie anyway. While it certainly has racial overtones, I was more disturbed by its gender message: that fair-skinned blondeness is the essence of female beauty, so powerful an aphrodisiac that it can tame a savage beast.

King Kong is just the latest ripple in a cultural tidal wave of celebrations of a certain kind of Caucasian beauty. Pick up a newspaper or magazine, or watch the entertainment shows on television, and you're bombarded with a profusion of blondes: Paris, the Nicoles (Ritchie and Kidman), Scarlett, Charlize, Ashlee, Gwyneth, Mary-Kate and Ashley, to name a few. Even the African-American hottie of the moment, Beyonce, has golden skin and flowing blonde hair, while Halle Berry, the African-American actress most celebrated for her beauty, is fair with white features. Even in movies with predominantly black casts, the female objects of desire are consistently fairer than their male counterparts.

As I said, she goes on to make related points that I think are pretty interesting. What do you brilliant readers think?

An interesting counterpoint involves a psychological study in Australia, which showed that "mixed" raced people were rated more "beautiful" than ethnically or racially pure (though no such category exists, of course) people. As Deborah Smith, the science editor at the Sydney Morning Herald writes in "She's got the look, and science can prove it": "Caucasians and Asians rated average Eurasian faces as more attractive than average faces of either race. They also judged Eurasian faces to be healthier, giving credence to theory that beauty is not solely determined by culture and the media, but has biological origins." The article continues, with a healthy does of orientalism (unironically):

Ben Lilley, the head of Sydney ad agency Smart, said advertisers risked appearing old-fashioned if their models were not exotic-looking. He said young Australians tended to have friends from many different racial backgrounds and celebrated this diversity. "So we try very hard to ensure we use an interesting cross-section of youth, rather than the Anglo-Saxon Australian stereotype."

Dominique Longheon, the general manager of Chic Model Management in Sydney, said blonde models no longer dominated the Asian model market, particularly in Hong Kong and Singapore. "Once, every ad had your typical Swedish girl, but the flavour for the past two years has been Eurasian," he said.

The article goes on to make the claim that though the health of the Eurasian people used in the study wasn't known, "there is evidence that having parents from very different ancestries may reduce the chances of inheriting two copies of harmful genetic mutations." Yet a New York Times article a while back noted that many African-Americans had inherited from their European ancestors a gene, long common in parts of Europe and thus , that might lead to heart attacks.

One immediate question I had about this concerned "mixed" race people in this hemisphere--most Latinos (Mestizos, Afrolatinos, etc.), most African-Americans (who have African, and varying degrees of European and Native American ancestry), mixed-raced "White" people (who have some Native American, or submerged African ancestry), self-described "mixed" race people (including Latinos, "biracials, etc.), Eurasians/Amerasians, mixed African-South Asian people from Trinidad and Guyana, and so on. How applicable would such a study be here, for example, would the same sort of outcome occur, and what might the role of cultural and aesthetic biases play? What other aesthetic criteria would come into play? How overtly "mixed" would a person have to look to fit the criteria? Would people from a society (the USA, let's say) relentlessly weaned on a particular physical-aesthetic ideal, like blond(e)ness, make the same or even similar choices? Just wondering.