Friday, January 26, 2007

Serena! + Lighter Richer, Darker Poorer + Spinning Into Butter?

I never tire of watching Serena Williams play; in addition to her heartstopping talent, singular fashion sense, and on-court expressivity, she always carries about her person and career the requisite amount of drama, and her performance at this year's Australian Open did not disappoint. After missing nearly all of 2006 with one of the many injuries that have increasingly plagued her in recent years (and also provided her with time to begin her acting career and hit the town with the likes of Rick Fox), and with many of the tennis world's pundits decrying her lack of fitness and declining abilities, the 25- year-old star and two-time champ returned to Melbourne unseeded, and proceeded to plow through the field of ranked women, becoming only the second unseeded woman in the history of the Australian Open to do so. In the final, against the new international darling, Maria Sharapova, Serena put on a demonstration clinic, serving and acing her opponent 6-1, 6-2, which brought her a 3rd Australian Open title, and her 8th Grand Slam victory. During the trophy presentation (pictured above, AP Photo/Rick Stevens), she was as charming and gracious as possible, and dedicated the win to her slain older sister Yetunde Price ("I love her very much" was Serena's moving tribute). Serena's elder, diffident, cygnine sister Venus, the pioneer of the sisters' winning ways, with back to back Wimbledon and US Open wins half a decade ago, was absent as well, suffering through her own spate of injuries and thus unable to participate , though anyone who's followed these two for more than a hot minute could easily imagine they'd probably decided that this major tournament was Serena's to walk away with. And, being the embodiment of fierceness, she did.


A study by Joni Hersch, a law and economics professor at Vanderbilt University, confirms something that I've always figured, and which makes perfect sense given the history and ongoing problems of our society: the lighter-skinned (and taller) an immigrant, the more she or he will make. As Travis Loller reports in his article, "Study Says Skin Tone Affects Earnings," in today's Washington Post, Hersch controlled for other factors and found that skin-tone still appeared to be the key in earnings differences. Yet despite the fact that many cultures have a bias towards lighter skin tones and hues, the key factor according to the study was a US preference, above and beyond that of the immigrant's original culture or society. Quoting the article:

"On average, being one shade lighter has about the same effect as having an additional year of education," Hersch said.

The study also found that taller immigrants earn more than shorter ones, with an extra inch of height associated with a 1 percent increase in income.

Other researchers said the findings are consistent with other studies on color and point to a skin-tone prejudice that goes beyond race.

Hersch took into consideration other factors that could affect wages, such as English-language proficiency, education, occupation, race or country of origin, and found that skin tone still seemed to make a difference in earnings.

That means that if two similar immigrants from Bangladesh, for example, came to the United States at the same time, with the same occupation and ability to speak English, the lighter-skinned immigrant would make more money on average.

"I thought that once we controlled for race and nationality, I expected the difference to go away, but even with people from the same country, the same race _ skin color really matters," she said, "and height."

Although many cultures show a bias toward lighter skin, Hersch said her analysis shows that the skin-color advantage was not due to preferential treatment for light-skinned people in their country of origin. The bias, she said, occurs in the U.S.

Economics professor Shelley White-Means of the University of Tennessee at Memphis said the study adds to the growing body of evidence that there is a "preference for whiteness" in America that goes beyond race.

The Post article contains more specifics about Hersch's methodology and sample size, and notes that it correlates with a study that William Darity Jr., an economic professor at the University of North Carolina, conducted on skin tone and wages among Black people. (I would even go so far as to venture that were similar studies conducted in every nation in the Americas, the results would be similar.) Hersch will be presenting her findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco next month, and suggested that this might be another route for legal redress (though I do believe there have been some skin-color suits in the past). Finishing this article, I thought again of discussions, with friends and acquaintances, as well as pieces I've come across online and elsewhere, on the persistence of skin-color discrimination, both within specific groups (African Americans, Latinos, etc.) and of course in the broader society, pointing to an enduring racist and supremacist social logic that all the expressions and performances of Black Is Beautiful or overt and covert acts of resistance, assertion and counterargumentation won't dispel, at least not any time soon.


Last quarter, the university's Center for Writing Arts brought playwright Rebecca Gilman to campus to speak about her work. I ended up only catching a small part of the talk because of a prior engagement, but I did purchase one of her plays, the highly praised Spinning into Butter, which explores the crisis that ensues at small Vermont college when someone starts posting anonymous, racist letters on the door of one of the college's few African American students. The situation is not, however, as it initially seems, as the college's administrators soon eventually discover. I haven't finished the play, but I was curious to find out if any Jstheater readers had seen the play staged and what your impressions were. I also saw on that Mark Brokaw's film version of the story, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Miranda Richardson, Beau Bridges, Mikelti Williamson, and Victor Rasuk, has completed filming and may hit screens later this year. That's another incentive to finish the play....

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

70000 Visitors + Audiologo Event + The Oscars + Whose SOTU?

I usually don't check the stat counter at the bottom of the Jstheater page, but the blog has now had 70,000 visitors, and so far this month, there have been nearly 3,000 page loads, comprising 2,244 unique visitors, 1,799 first-time visitors, and 445 returning visitors, a small number, but exciting nevertheless.

In addition to the current daily pages, in the past most of the first timers have pulled up a page from 2005 or so featuring a photo of Destiny's Child (Beyoncémania is far from dead, I realize), but in recent months the main draws have been the January 2006 archives, the November 2005 archives, the Alice Coltrane mini-tribute, the link to excerpt from the Idris Elba interview, my commentary on MTV's True Life: I'm Dead Broke, and the short Autumn in January-Charles Rangel post from a few weeks ago. An eclectic list, to say the least.

Jstheater visitors are primarily accessing the site from the US, but there have first-time views and returning visitors from all over the globe. Just today, as of 3 pm, people (or autobots?) from, in descending order, the US, Bahamas, the Netherlands, Germany, Mexico, France, Portugal, UK, Poland, Italy, India, Dominican Republic, Slovakia (Hi Francisco!), and Spain have popped by--to an old post so far. I wish I could keep up the daily posting schedule I achieved two years ago, but with my current workload, it's just not possible. I am trying to maintain a semi-regular stream even of tiny posts, including quotations, photos, drawings, and the like, though, so we'll see how it goes. I also am trying to cut down on all the errors, but I'll willingly admit that these days, it's a miracle if I can look at a computer screen, let alone a book, for longer than 10 minutes without my eyes tiring (and yet the stack of required reading material steadily grows).

To all the Jstheater readers out there, I offer a deep thanks!


For those in and near Princeton, Audiologo will be screening one of her works tomorrow night. She writes:

The re-screening of my sound/video work "Tarry On/Because I Must" is set for the following time
and location:

Thursday, January 25th, 7pm - 8pm
Woolworth Center (Music Building),
Room 106 (first floor).

There will be light refreshments.

I wouldn't miss it if I were nearby.


Jennifer Hudson I was happy to see that President Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth had been nominated for two Academy Awards, one for Best Documentary, and one for Best Song, "I Need to Wake Up," sung by Melissa Etheridge. I still haven't seen the film, but it's next in my Netflix queue, so I think I'll be able to catch it before the awards presentation show.

As has been the case for the last decade or so, I haven't seen most of the contenders for the top prizes. Once upon a time I tried to see every one of the major award contenders despite having not a dime to my name, but then life impinged, and now I'm lucky if I catch even a handful. (I did see the best nominated film last year, Brokeback Mountain, which didn't win.) I did see Dreamgirls, and while I enjoyed it (and reviewed it here), I didn't think it was as great as many critics I've read. Nevertheless I'm glad that it did receive a number of nominations, particularly for its music, art direction, costumes, and for its chanteuse extraordinaire, Jennifer Hudson (at left, with her Golden Globe Award), I have a feeling that she'll win the Best Supporting Actress award, and Beyoncé Knowles will win Best Song, for the beautifully sung but not so great "Listen," and the Motion Picture Academy will pat itself on the back for not fostering the very discord the film portrayed.

I also saw Volver, which I hope to review eventually, but Penélope Cruz sizzled in her Anna Magnani-esque star turn. The film itself was a mess in terms of plot and characterization, with enough melodrama for a dozen telenovelas, but Cruz blazed through the folderol, and made it clear to me that with the right script, she has real acting talent. She's up against Meryl Streep (who's won it several times already), Helen Mirren yet again channeling a Queen Elizabeth (and the Motion Picture Academy loves things British and royal, and Mirren's a great actress anyways), the always outstanding Judi Dench (who may cancel Mirren out), and Kate Winslet, who's blond, talented and foreign (canceling out both Dench and Mirren), so perhaps Cruz has a chance, though I doubt it.

Among the Best Actor nominees, I am torn between the award going to two performances I haven't seen; I almost would like to see Peter O'Toole win because he's been nominated so many times and is still around, but then everyone says that Forrest Whitaker terrifyingly inhabits his Idi Amin role in The Last King of Scotland, so perhaps he should win. I want to catch Whitaker's performance, though, before Oscar night. As for the other actors, I'm delighted that Will Smith was nominated, but was his performance that great? Everything about The Pursuit of Happyness reeks of Hollywood, which is one reason I haven't gone near it yet, though I usually will watch anything that Smith is in. Also, can we have a yearlong moratorium on nominations going to people impersonating or engaging in mimicry of other real people, living or dead, for a change? Do Hollywood screenwriters even remember how to write excellent non-biopic roles any more? (Yes, yes, I know, cf. Winslet, Wahlberg, etc.)

Djimon HounsouAmong the Best Foreign films, I did see Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, and thought it one of the best movies I've seen in the last year. I hope to review it soon, so I'll only say that it was so imaginative, well acted, superbly structured, and thematically grounded that it had me thinking about the possibilities of cinema (and literature, for that matter) as an art and as a means for addressing history and politics for several days after I'd watched it.

With the other awards, I have to say I really don't care, though I think that Eddie Murphy is probably going to get the Best Supporting Actor award, but Djimon Hounsou (at right) should win on general principle, or if the voters see them as canceling each other out, it'll go to Mark Wahlberg in the Martin Scorsese vehicle, The Departed, another film I haven't seen, though I used to be a Scorsese enthusiast. His last few movies have broken me of that, though. I imagine he'll receive the Best Director award for his body of work. And I hope Gore wins for his documentary, just on general principle; maybe it'll be the catalyst for his entering the race and winning the office that was stolen from him 7 years ago, saddling us with the mad bull who, horrible to say, still has nearly two years left to smash up everything in sight, which is to say, to continue to completely misgovern.


I missed the emperor decider's speech last night, as I was in class until 9:30 pm Chicago time, but today I got C's appraisal and read a little about it online. I had to conclude that as I already knew, I hadn't missed a thing. In addition the usual vomitus of mendaciousness about the Iraqmire and the GWOT™ (which I think was renamed), there was the horrendous proposal to further screw up the health care system by further subjecting it to bad conservative/neoliberal ideological tinkering, as a way of providing more money and power to the insurance industry and yet another tax break to rich people, and there was the national ID system to increase the tracking of citizens and facilitate immigrant slave force. (Ahem--why won't the mainstream media discuss the fate of those immigrants arrested in the Swift Co. raids, or where they're being housed? Does anyone know where the "detention facilities" that Halliburton received the contracts for were built?) Given the sheer awfulness of these ideas, along with the rest of the exceedingly banausic tripe issuing from the ed's tongue-poked lips, I had to wonder why the networks even kept the cameras on, though I realized after reading about Dana Milbank's and others' most recent rounds of silliness today that it was to catch Hillary Clinton "daydreaming," Barack Obama "barely lifted his head" from his copy of the remarks, and Mrs. Speaker Nancy Pelosi blinking furiously. Saint John "Surge" McCain slumbering at his dear decider-pal's twaddle, however, was not worthy of the MSM's concern.

I did, however, catch James Adomian's hilarious version of the speech ("I believe this nation continues to be strong in its own steadfast"), which includes a very brief Democratic response, culminating in slapstick, by an actor who has Obama's voice down, going up against a pseudo-Clinton.

Then I both watched and read Virginia's junior, Democratic Senator James Webb's excellent response. Perhaps the networks should have just gone with Webb and done the country and the world a huge favor.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

More Democratic Candidates

Hillary Rodham ClintonThe Democratic field grows larger by the day. As has been widely predicted for several years, New York's junior Senator and the first First lady ever to serve in Congress, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has launched an exploratory committee to run for the presidency. As she states it, she "in it to win it," but then anything less would be out of character. Democratic hack Terry McAuliffe--who as head of the DNC presided over years of electoral losses before ceding the post to Howard Dean, who helped to engineer this past fall's electoral comeback--has already begun suggesting that her campaign will be Thatcherian in nature--Lord help us! Nevertheless, I'm excited by the possibility of her history-making run and possible win, because by every conceivable measure Hillary Clinton and the constellation of politicians, policy makers and administrators around her would leave a positive legacy, even with the (remnants?) of the Iraq War overshadowing at least her first few years. Yet I'm also concerned that were she to win, we'd experience a return domestically of the previous Clinton administration's DLC-tinged rhetoric, small-bore policies and triage politics that effectively constituted one of the more successful moderate conservative administrations in the last 50 years. After 8 years of Bushism, a more radical course of action is necessary. Overall, I find the prospect of a forthcoming Clinton campaign very exciting, and am eager to hear her goals for getting out of Iraq and for her governance, and witness how she deals with the expected attacks and outrageousness coming from the media, the right, and even some in her party. Whitewater, for which she and her husband were fully exonerated was, I'll never forget, a creature nurtured and propelled primarily--at least in its early stages--by the "mainstream media."

Bill RicharsonIn addition, today New Mexico's governor and former Congressperson, Clinton administration Energy Secretary and US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson announced he'll run for president as well. I view Richardson, who'd become the first Latino president of the US, as one of the less likely primary winners, but given the crowded field and his moderate-to-progressive stances, his victory in the primaries isn't inconceivable. Two landslide gubernatorial wins in 2002 and 2006 point to a strong, effective and popular campaigner, his successful infrastructure initiatives show that he can push through efficacious policies, and his brokering of the cease-fire in Darfur indicate that even as a governor, he not only has an interest in international affairs, but hasn't lost his diplomatic skills. I'm particularly interested to hear his views on how to extricate ourselves from the debacle in Iraq (and the unfolding, preventable one in Afghanistan) and rebuild our ties to allies, as well as improve our international standing, especially in the Muslim world. As with Clinton and Obama, I'm excited that he's in the race, and can't wait to see how it all unfolds over the next two years.

Speaking of Democratic candidates and the expected media attacks (that keep coming), Fox News has launched its own, ignorance-laden smear against Barack Obama. As I said a few posts ago, it'll only get worse.


The other day, Raw Story provided a link to one of the strangest and most disturbing stories in recent memory; yet I could also see this as a Todd Solondz movie. (Just so long as Bruce LaBruce or Gaspar Noe doesn't get ahold of it first.)

On a different continent, extremists in Nigeria, who seem to be endlessly focused on everything but the real problems facing that country, are agitating to ban anything and everything gay....


Two coaches made NFL and US sports history today: Lovie Smith led the Chicago Bears to the NFC Championship over the New Orleans Saints, while Tony Dungy coached the Indianapolis Colts to the AFC Championship over the New England Patriots, thus each becoming the first African-American coaches ever to take teams to the Super Bowl, and just as historically, at the same time!

The Bears defeated the league's Cinderella team on a superb ground game by running back Thomas Jones and their game-transforming defensive unit, to finish 39-14, while the Colts roared back from a 21-6 deficit under the steady arm of star quarterback Peyton Manning, and sent the Patriots packing 38-34.

The wins are a great vindication for both Smith and Dungy; the soft-spoken Smith is the lowest-paid head coach in the NFL and is in the final year of a 4-year contract, while Dungy, who weathered the suicide of his son last year, was fired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers despite leading them to the conference championship in 1999, and nearly won the conference championship in 2003 with Indianapolis.

Congratulations to both teams, and, pace St. Louis Rams, GO CHICAGO BEARS!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Short Prose: José Balza

BalzaSome years ago, an acquaintance traveled to Venezuela, and as a gift, he brought back a collection of stories by José Balza (1939-, photo at right,, whom he was told was one of the most important literary figures in that country. I hadn't taught myself enough Spanish to read or understand even a paragraph at the time, but was so excited to receive the gift that as soon as I had it, La mujer de espaldas (Monte Avila Editores, 1986) in hand, I set out not only to try to read but translate a few of the stories, in order to see what I could appreciate beyond mere comprehension. Just getting through several of the stories, none of which were very long, taxed all my powers, but in addition to being deeply impressed by Balza's style, I was able to write out several translations that I later showed to a Spanish speaker who felt they passed muster. Nevertheless, I decided to set Balza's book aside until I knew enough Spanish to read it without pausing after every other word, and since that was a benchmark for the then-distant future, it disappeared from my active bookshelf. So I hadn't thought about Balza, who is still writing and publishing, and is a professor at the Universidad Central de Caracas, or the translations until recently, when I was trying to organize my computer files yet again, and came across one of them, "Enlace" ("Link"). In it, Balza directly cites a writer who was his obvious inspiration throughout the story collection, Jorge Luis Borges, and the text is a Borgesian piece, in theme and tone, but condensed in method. In contrast to the moment when I first translated it, the story feels very close to my current personal experience. I am posting it below. (Click here to read an interview with Balza, in Spanish.)


For Sael Ibánez

In spite of all these years, I still fall prey to that vivid and dense anxiety that arises on contact with my students. I have always conceived of each hour of my classes as a castle of a thousand doors which uniquely permit me, each at the same time, to enter.

Among my students there have tended to predominate the naive, the easy believers, and those incapable of imagination. Sometimes, for certain exams, I recommended various bibliographies (that is to say: different exams, multiple approaches to a theme); and among each group of students (and recommended texts) I slipped, as a tribute to Borges, an imaginary author and a non-existent book.

One day, the least bold of them not only chose precisely this very volume, but even more unreal to me, focused his exam on a synthetic treatment of this book: he centered it on an adaptation of this book, and then, established principles that could only have been extended from this text. Before signing his own name, the student wrote down a textual citation. No one had known about this passage until today. I don’t know if my invention coincided with something real; I did not want to know if the student created a theory and an author so as not to deceive me (himself) or if, astonishingly, he was (is going to be) the mysterious author of this ambiguous bibliography.

Copyright © José Balza, Monte Avila Editores, 1972, 1986, translation by John Keene.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Celebrating Toni & Setondji + Barocas at Powell's North + Other Countries Reading

Here are some photos from two recent Chicago events I attended: the celebration and open mic at Muse Café for Toni Asante Lightfoot and Setondji Gbegan's nuptials, and the Barocas/Palmer/Hanafi reading at Powell's North.
On Monday I dropped by Muse Café to celebrate Toni's and Setondji's wonderful news and hear a host of poets perform and offer tributes. I congratulated Toni and Setondji then, but let me just say congratulations again, and may the radiance of both of your spirits combine and shine forth.

People chilling at Muse Café before the festivities; multivalent artist Michael Warr is sitting at left, and Eliza Abegunde Hamilton is at right.

Another shot of the café, and Toni getting things going at the mic

Folks listening to the reading (Krista Franklin, Eliza, Tracy Hall, and Emily Evans are in front)--Setondji, in back, has on the brown-and-white striped sweater

The beautiful Toni performing--beautifully, of course!

Setondji and Toni, the lovely couple, at the mic

What would a celebration be without dancing?

Or (just after) a kiss?

(I'll post more photos when I can!)


Last night, after a loooooonnnnng day at the university, I drove down to Powell's North to see Zach Barocas and two writers I'd never heard of, Justin Palmer and Amira Hanifi, read their work. I usually stay away from Powell's, not because it's not a great store, but because it has such a dizzying array of titles (I counted at least 16 just last night after a cursory review of a few of the flats and shelves) calling my name that I find it dangerous to go in there. (I've found some fascinating and obscure books in there as well, such as a volume of probate records of African Americans in Boston from the 1700s and early 19th century, to name just one.) It was a great reading, and someone brought delicious cakes, wine, soft drinks (do people even use this term any more), and these lozenge-sized pretzels that were filled with sweet mustardish filling--only in Chicago!

Justin Palmer, the first reader; his long, lyric piece led listeners on a humorous journey.

Amira Hanafi, the second reader, read a long poem, with extensive critical material on environmental degradation, that put me in mind of a humming factory floor.

Zach read from his first collection, Among Other Things: Poems and Proposals, which gathers his characteristically short, almost apothegmatic yet wide-ranging poems and poem-proposals that often serve as, well, quiet proposals about the lyric itself. One of my favorite is "There's Nowhere Left to Go But Home." A few years ago he (co?-)established the Cultural Society, which features a great website and has published a number of broadsides over the years, as well as his book. One of the poets he dedicated a poem to was Peter O'Leary, who's also in Chicago.

One of his best poems was dedicated to his wife, Kimberley, who ran one of my favorite stationery stores in the West Village. She now has a store and company, Letterbox, in Minneapolis.

He's reading one of his proposals: Among Other Things is a poem-proposal definitely worth checking out.


Other Countries IIITomorrow's upcoming event, from lisa moore, the founder and publisher of redbone press, on behalf of Other Countries III: Voices Rising: Celebrating 20 Years of Black Lesbian, Gay and Transgender Writing (G. Winston James and Other Countries, editors):

the men of Other Countries have organized a book
launch in New York City for this Saturday, 7 p.m. at
South Oxford Space, 138 S. Oxford St. in Fort Greene,
Brooklyn. Call 917-364-1491 for more information. I've
attached a pdf with the event information for you to
pass to your friends; also attached is a jpg in case
you'd like to post it to your blog.

your contributors' copies arrive Monday, so i'll be
shipping them to you all next week. i'll include a
letter about upcoming publicity, discounts if you
purchase through RedBone Press, etc.

the books will be available on and barnes
and, and through (my
Alongside the poetry, stories, essays, reflections, recollections, and other pieces by the 60 contributors, one of my early stories, from about exactly 10 years ago, is in the collection.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Wells on Blackness in Brazil

I caught Zach Barocas's gig at Powell tonight, and I'll post photos from it and from the celebration (with open mic!) for newlyweds Toni Asante Lightfoot and Setondji Arnaud Gbegan tomorrow (I hope).

Tonight I'll post a link to an article on one of my inexhaustible interests, Brazil. More specifically, yesterday's article, by Mark Wells, is entitled "Blackness's Fear and Stigma Make Brazil a 6% Black Country." As I read the title I recalled the now infamous and possibly apocryphal encounter, early in W's presidency when, during a meetinng with Brazil's then-president, scholar Fernando Henrique Cardoso, he blurted out "Do you have Blacks too?" Supposedly National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice had to explain to him that Brazil has the largest Black population outside of Africa. But what exactly does that phrase, "the largest Black population," mean in the Brazilian context exactly? Wells interrogates this supposition by asking, as others (such as Eduardo Telles, Livio Sansone, my former colleague Michael Hanchard, and many others before--David Haberly, Anani Dzidzienyo, etc.--have done) whom exactly are people who speak of Brazil's "Black" population referring to and marking by this term? Who's considered Black, who considers herself or himself Black, how is Blackness socially produced, and where do the empirical versus non-empirical (contextually contingent, performative, etc.) boundaries really lie in a country that has lived, for nearly its entire history (including back to the 1500s and "New Lisbon") with its own racial fantasies and assumptions, very few of which have been beneficial to people of phenotypically obvious people of African descent? I also think of the comment by Marcelo Cerqueira, head of the Grupo Gay da Bahia, who noted in my interview with him that the culturally grounded gay pride celebrations in Salvador weren't surprising because Bahians were "all black here," by which I think he meant, the city and state were predominantly Black and pardo (mixed-race), but perhaps also that the spirit of Bahia was strongly "Black." This is something that Brazil itself now touts, to some extent, to draw in tourists.

And yet, as Sansone and others have shown, and as C and I witnessed with our own eyes, a color hierarchy exists in Bahia as well, with whites dominating the political and economic structure as surely as in other states in that country. I asked our cabdriver why there weren't more Black (by which I think I rather crudely meant Black-looking) political candidates--because we were there during an election--and his comment simply was that Blacks didn't vote for Blacks. Bahia's last governor, Paulo Souto, and its current one, Jacques Wagner, would both, I imagine, consider themselves White Brazilians (Souto is also of Arab descent). Other states have elected "Black" politicians; Rio most famously had its only Black and first female governor, a favelada Benedita da Silva, who served from 2002 to 2003, who in 1994 was also the first Black female Senator elected , in the history of that country (Carol Moseley Braun's similar pioneering election occurred just two years before in 1992).

At any rate, Wells tries to untangle the rhetoric on race, in the process showing how historically, socially produced hierarchies, combined with racial ancestry, discursively and productively tend to mark Brazilians, regardless of their self-definitions. He also cites Sansone's research and book, which shows that some younger Brazilians are choosing to define themselves as negro (black) rather than pardo, and that this increases with education, a counterintuitive notion, given that higher education used to be a path towards whitening. A final point he makes that I find fascinating is the use of the off-on switch, so to speak, between self-definition as negro vs. mulato. As I read this, I thought of a really stupid exchange the other night on Chicago Tonight, a local PBS show, in which the segment host challenged a journalist from Ebony on whether Barack Obama (yes, here we go) wasn't "biracial" and not "African American." Instead of simply stating that one could easily satisfy both categories, she flubbed and basically agreed with them man.... Sigh. Okay, despite the fact that there are no "pure" races and so no one could really be "biracial," and despite the fact that Obama calls himself "African American" and "Black," I thought the subtext of this exchange, particularly from the host's standpoint was twofold. If Obama isn't viewed as really, authentically (sigh) African American, he's more palatable (to White people?), and if enough pundits and media people can keep questioning his authenticity, maybe it'll delegitimate him in Black people's eyes (not working), or at least make them feel better and less likely to resort to calling him a crypto-Muslim?...anyways, this off-on notion is provocative, and he mentions Internet guru Omar Wasow, who is (and calls himself) Black, though some would consider him "biracial"...and my colleague Dwight McBride has written about the flight from Blackness on the Internets and the resort of other kinds of racial markers but "Black, which connects with Alondra Nelson's and others' discussions of race and the cyberworld...but now I've wandered far from Mr. Wells, so I'll let you read what he has to say. Some paragraphs:

In the context of racial mixture, being black possesses various meanings that result from the choice of racial identity that has African ancestry as origin (African-descendent). Or in other words, to be black, is, essentially a political position, where one assumes a black racial identity (13).

University of São Paulo social anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz also makes reference to the idea of black identity as a political position highlighting the difference between the terms preto and negro:

"Even during the slave years the etymological usage of these apparently synonymous terms already revealed differences in sense: Negro referred to the disobedient, rebellious slave, while Black (preto) denoted the loyal captive. A news story that appeared in the Correio Paulistano (The São Paulo Post) in 1886 demonstrates this clearly in employing the terms as if they referred to two wholly distinct realities:

"One particular day, the black João Congo was quietly working on his master's farm when he noted that two fugitive negroes were approaching, who soon said - 'Leave this life behind, old black (preto), it's not for you' to which the loyal (preto) black replied - 'I'm not going to go wandering about here and there like some runaway negro.' Irritated, the negroes retorted - 'Die, then, you black coward'" (14)

In the context of Brazilian terminology and folklore, 'old black' refers to the folkloric figure of the preto velho, the old, docile, submissive, black slave that is somewhat reminiscent of the American Uncle Tom figure. Considering these last two statements, it becomes obvious that a black identity goes beyond just one's phenotype or physical appearance.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Upcoming Readings & Art Events + Ashbery w/ Solomon

Zach Barocas recently wrote to say that he'll be reading tomorrow at 7 pm in Chicago. Here's the info:

I'll be reading poems in Chicago with Justin Palmer & Amira Hanafi on Thursday, January 18th at Powell's Books, 2850 N. Lincoln Ave. You can get the scoop here or call Powell's at 773 248 1444. I look forward to seeing you there.

Zach, a former New Yorker, lives in Minneapolis, has been publishing broadsides and books for several years, and is a poet and critic. His first book, Among Other Things: Poems and Proposals, appeared this past year from the Culture Society.

I haven't been to a reading at Powell's in a long time, so I'm looking forward to catching it.


Speaking of poets, I was surprised to see John Ashbery the subject of a Deborah Solomon profile, "Well Versed," in this past Sunday's New York Times. Notable poets still regularly pass under the media's radar, which is why, to give one example, Natasha Trethewey's appearance last spring on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer was so refreshing. Ashbery is wry throughout, with a touch of camp. When Solomon asks him where he turns for consolation, he replies, "Probably to a movie, something with Barbara Stanwyck." You won't hear that coming out of Ted Kooser's mouth....


Freelon:Universal LanguageMaya Freelon writes that she'll be in two exhibits in New York soon:

Access:A Feminist Perspective
Rhonda Schaller Studio
New York, NY
1/18/07 - 2/10/07 (Reception January 20th, 3-5pm)
Rhonda Schaller Studio
547 West 27, Suite 529
New York, NY 10001

Casa Frela Gallery
New York, NY
2/5/07 - 3/31/07 (Reception February 18th, 12-8pm)
47 West 119th Street
New York, New York 10026

She's a talented young multigenre artist who "interrogates social issues by juxtaposing traditional and contemporary media," to quote her website. Her visual works, with their vibrant color and sensuous textures, shimmer across genre boundaries in their aim of evoking and provoking a "universal language" (Pictured above, Historical Significance, Tissue Paper and Ink, 16"x12"x2", 2006). If you're in New York, check her shows out.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Obama's In!

He's in!

Now, if only you'd stop falling into mushy Lieberman-speak and resurrect the progressive spirit and policies you were espousing before you entered the US Senate. Your party's in power and the American people gave you all a vote of confidence; you weren't asked to do the soft-shoe and wait for your kick in the pants. We already have several "moderates" planning to run on the Democratic ticket, Mr. Senator, and the major one still hasn't unequivocally made up her mind about Iraq.

Monday, January 15, 2007

MLK Jr. Day

Here's a small excerpt from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Beyond Vietnam" speech, which he delivered to clergy and lay people concerned about the war, at Riverside Church in New York City, on April 4, 1967. Rereading it, I felt like it was especially appropriate for our current national and international moment.

The full text of this remarkable oration, as well as more of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches and other materials on his life and work, are available at the Martin Luther King Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

Let's also remember Dora E. McDonald, who was Rev. Dr. King Jr.'s longtime assistant; she worked closely with him for most of the 1960s, and also worked with Andrew Young and Dr. Benjamin Mays, the former president of Morehouse College.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Remembering Alice Coltrane + Books Tossed + Zadie Smith on Imperfection and the Novel

I've been so bogged down in reading that I haven't had a moment to blog, but so much as always is happening in the world that I want to thank all the other bloggers out there who've been able to capture and comment on some of it.

ColtraneOne thing I heard today via email was that Alice Coltrane had passed away. The widow of one of the greatest musicians of all time, John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane was a extremely talented harpist and keyboardist who became one of the important (and unfortunately still rare) major female solo instrumentalists in jazz, yet also a spiritual visionary who created a new music stream. She marked out her own musical aesthetic in a number of works from the late 1960s that often comprised lush, string-heavy, avant-garde melodies, showing a wide range of influences from indigenous African and South Asian musics to the classical European tradition, which she played on harp, organ, piano, and eventually Indian instruments, and which were increasingly underlined by an intense spiritual focus.

Born Alice McLeod in Detroit, she began her career working with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs. She married Trane in 1965, replacing McCoy Tyner as the pianist in her husband's combo, and played with him until his death. Several years later, Alice Coltrane began to study under Swami Satchidananda, who became her spiritual guru, and eventually she became a spiritual teacher herself, assuming the name Swamini Turiyasangitananda and founding the Vedantic Center in Los Angeles. Aspects of Satchidananda's philosophy and her own syncretic vision can be found on most of her recordings from Huntington Ashram Monastery (1969) on, but it would be true to say that a spiritual quality suffuses her music from the beginning. Perhaps her greatest album was Journey in Satchidananda (1970), a tribute to her guru that also includes the tune "Something About John Coltrane," but many others, including A Monastic Trio (1968), Ptah the El-Daoud (1970), Universal Consciousness (1972), World Galaxy (1972), Reflection on Creation and Space (1973), Turiya Sings (1974), and Translinear Light (2004, with her son Ravi Coltrane, shown at right, from AMS Artists), show her musical range and gifts, including her singing and chanting, to great effect. She recently played with Ravi at a rare concert, held last year at Newark's New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts, to great acclaim. (What I would have given to have been back in New Jersey to catch this event!) Some of my favorite Alice Coltrane tunes are among her best known, including "Blue Nile," "Journey in Satchidanda," "Atomic Peace," "Shiva Loka," "Gospel Trane," "Turiya," "Turiya and Ramakrishna," "Galaxy around Olodumare," and her rendition of Trane's "A Love Supreme."

It's a total cliché to say she was an "original," but she was. Rest in peace, Alice Coltrane.


A few posts ago I noted that the Fairfax County Library system was culling and disposing of books that no one had taken out in at least two years in order to make space for more "popular" texts. Below is just one list of the books have been sold off or jettisoned. I think it's fair to say that there's a huge qualitative difference between most of these works and the output of Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Mitch Albom, Michael Crichton, Whitley Strieber, and John Grisham, to name just a few of the regular best-sellers--prodigious authors all of them. But the librarians have decided the people must get what they (think they) want, thus the jettisoning. I personally believe the library's (potential) readers will be the poorer for what's lost, but that's just me.

From Jon Swift's site, which includes a hilarious take on this excision:
The Works of Aristotle Aristotle (Centreville)
Sexual Politics Kate Millett (Centreville)
The Great Philosophers, Karl Jaspers (Centreville)
Carry Me Home, Diane McWhorter (Centreville)
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (George Mason Regional)
The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy (George Mason Regional)
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (George Mason Regional)
Desolation Angels, Jack Kerouac (George Mason Regional)
Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (George Mason Regional)
Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust (George Mason Regional)
Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well, Maya Angelou (Chantilly Regional)
The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams (Chantilly Regional)
Writings, Gertrude Stein (Chantilly Regional)
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (Chantilly Regional)
Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe (Chantilly Regional)
Great Issues in American History, Richard Hofstadter (Chantilly Regional)
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein (Chantilly Regional)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Pohick Regional)
Babylon Revisited: And Other Stories, F. Scott Fitzgerald (Reston Regional)
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (Reston Regional)
The Aeneid, Virgil (Sherwood Regional)
The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot (Fairfax City Regional)

He notes that you can contact the Fairfax County Library or email its board to let them know your thoughts on this.


Zadie Smith, the wunderkind author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man, and On Beauty, published a cogent essay on novel-writing and its disappointments, in yesterday's Guardian Unlimited. It's a long piece that I've only skimmed, but I'd love to hear others' thoughts on it. An excerpt:

A great novel is the intimation of a metaphysical event you can never know, no matter how long you live, no matter how many people you love: the experience of the world through a consciousness other than your own. And I don't care if that consciousness chooses to spend its time in drawing rooms or in internet networks; I don't care if it uses a corner of a Dorito as its hero, or the charming eldest daughter of a bourgeois family; I don't care if it refuses to use the letter e or crosses five continents and two thousand pages. What unites great novels is the individual manner in which they articulate experience and force us to be attentive, waking us from the sleepwalk of our lives. And the great joy of fiction is the variety of this process: Austen's prose will make you attentive in a different way and to different things than Wharton's; the dream Philip Roth wishes to wake us from still counts as sleep if Pynchon is the dream-catcher.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Poor Pessimists + Publish or Perish

Just the other day I posted James Howard Kunstler's pessimistic criticism and referred, without specific sources, to the idea that pessimism is considered bad for your health. Lo and behold, in today's New York Times, Dr. Richard Friedman confirms this: Don't worry, be happy, or else. "Yet Another Worry for Those Who Believe the Glass is Half-Empty" describes a 10-year Dutch study showing that people who are temporary pessimists--temporary, mind you--are more likely to die of heart disease that people who are "by nature" optimists. Friedman explores the issue pessimism in relation to depression, and wonders if treating depression specifically might help to ensure longer lives, but his ultimate assessment, as I read it, is that while pharmacological and other forms of treatment probably won't change physiological outcomes, they may help depressed people be less depressed, which is to say, be a bit happier and more productive, even if they fall dead sooner than people who silver linings to every cloud and half-full glasses and a loss as just a transition to a new stage, etc. Depending upon how you look at it, it's enough to make one...


As for depression, at least for those in academe, here's a doozy, though not anything that anyone already teaching in the humanities didn't already know: either you publish books or you get to stepping. The Boston Globe's Christopher Shea reports in "Monographomania" that, according to a two-year study of English and foreign-language departments just issued by the Modern Language Association, younger professors have to produce books--and in many cases, not just one, which is to say, the dissertation as a book--if they want tenure. While the book requirement once was the case at research universities (and not even uniformly at all of these), it's increasingly the standard at other universities and colleges, including ones with teaching, advising and administrative duties that make publishing difficult to the point of nearly impossible. Whereas several published articles might have once sufficed, now junior professors coming up for tenure are expected to have published a book or secured a publishing contract at the very least, and at many universities, to have another one on the way, while also publishing scholarly articles. In most cases, people are expected to publish sooner rather than later, and more rather than fewer works are always better. The problem with this logic is that publishers are publishing fewer scholarly monographs rather than more--the article notes that sales for some have fallen to 250 copies sold in some cases, and since even university publishers are under a financial gun, they have cut back sharply--making it harder for many young scholars to secure publication. Additional issues include the fact that some books take years to write (to take only one example, I taught selections from Renato Poggioli's famous text, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, last quarter, and I believe this landmark work, now somewhat superannuated by later theorists, was a late career distillation of his ideas; perhaps he could have produced it earlier, but likely not, since it bears the hallmarks of years of learning and thought), and some works produced out of pressure aren't worth reading even a year later; and as Shea also states, many English and foreign language departments no longer consider other forms of scholarship--bibliographies, annotated texts, works for general audiences, translations, and so on, all of which are crucial to the life and development of the humanities--to suffice for untenured professors, at least in the absence of a book. (Depending upon your department, of course, that book must be published by one of the "top" university or trade presses, as well. It also helps if you're writing in a hot field, have a new or interesting methodology, are really smart or insightful, or all of these and more. Publishers tend to be more willing to look at books that satisfy most or all of these criteria, but there's still no guarantee.)

Shea notes that this has led some in the MLA to question what the effects are on younger scholars, on faculties, on the humanities, and on classroom teaching, but he also points out that few departments at schools that are strictly organized on teaching lines (and even some of those follow these same rules) want to step outside the corral, for obvious reasons. (There is the related issue of being promoted after tenure, which also requires books, awards, etc.--though books is the surest means in this pathway too.) For prior generations of humanities scholars--well, people who got jobs by the early 1980s, say, before the job market began to contract--this was less of an issue, but now that the situation has taken hold acrosss the board, Shea suggests that the MLA doesn't think things are going to get better anytime soon, though they've made some very good recommendations. I've heard the idea of electronic publications bandied about for several years, and I hope it takes off, especially given the situation in publishing (New Press publisher André Schiffrin talks about the shift in university publishing in his concise and informative The Business of Books), but I think it's going to take another (half?-)generation for this to fly, creating for far too many. In the meantime, I think of the friends I have who were or wanted to be humanities or social science scholars who ended up leaving academe because of their struggles first over their dissertations and later over their books, which led to other problems in their lives. Perhaps the MLA will pay for counseling, and work closely with universities, colleges, and rich foundations like Mellon (which has encouraged some excellent initiatives over the last decade in this area) to ensure that the situation changes, and sooner rather than later, for more rather than fewer.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Autumn in January + Rangel's The Man

I usually am the first one to complain about Chicago's January temperatures, which often dip into the low digits, and with the wind chill, sometimes below zero. I've never been a winter enthusiast, and have tended to associate the period from early December through early March with shoveling snow, frozen extremities, and wearing enough clothing to keep two people warm, or put another way, wearing an extra person on my back. After I started teaching in Chicago, I had to redefine my sense of "frozen" upwards (or downwards, in terms of climate). St. Louis had cold winters and some snow; Boston actually got blizzards galore; Virginia suffered ice storms that shut everything down, and I mean everything; and New York and New Jersey have had winters that would make you want to hibernate. But Chicago is by far the coldest place--or was the coldest place--I'd ever lived. Usually right after Christmas, and especially if C and I've taken a trip somewhere tropical, I begin preparing myself for the coming freeze, because while multiple layers of woolens and a car really do go far, there still is little to psych you up for a windy, wintry -5F blast barreling off Lake Michigan, even if lasts no longer than the short trip between one building and another. This year, however, all indications pointed to an unseasonably warm winter not only on the Eastern seaboard but also in many parts of the Midwest, and so far, it's turned out to be just that here. While the thermometer didn't reach 70F this Saturday, as it did in parts of New York and New Jersey, it was noticeably mild and around 50F or so. I attributed the lack of higher temperatures to the haze, like a gigantic tarpaulin, that stretched grayly above the horizon. When I put on my parka on Saturday night, mainly as armor for the wait on the El platform as I was headinng to catch a movie, I realized I could have gotten away with a fall jacket. It was chilly, but not really cold. A brotha on the platform wanted to chat, and remarked about the weather. He said he'd run out of the house in only a hoodie and was worried that he'd been freezing, but he felt fine. "But I see you're bundled up, and as my mother always said, this is flu weather," he pointed out to me, and I nodded, because I'd always heard that too. I snapped a few pictures, which I'm posting below, but I think my exhalations barely condensed. By the time I got out of the movie, around midnight, it was still not too cold, and if it weren't so late and the distance to the theater so formidable, I'd have considered walking half the way back.

A nail shop on Diversey

El car window reflection

Interior of a bar on Ravenswood (shot surreptiously through the front window)

An alleyway, Rogers Park

The other day, in the comment section, Bernie wrote in to note that his gregarious and pugnacious Congressman, Charlie Rangel, whom C and I once met on the street in Manhattan ("Where's the barbecue?" was one of his unforgettable lines), is set to become the first Black Chairperson of the Ways and Means Committee. Tomorrow's NY Times has an article by Robin Toner, titled "After Many Years, It's Rangel's Turn at the Helm," on the 76-year-old legislator's ascension, which he's been awaiting for some time. He doesn't take much BS, so he'll be one of the many correctives to the proto-fascist claque that occupies the big white house on Pennsylvania Avenue. Do you think visions of tax rollbacks and income indexes, wrapped up in sugarplums, are dancing through his dreams?

Friday, January 05, 2007

James Howard Kunstler's Jeremiads

More picturesWe're told that a pessimistic attitude is bad for our health, and that we should aim for an optimistic viewpoint on the world, which on balance is probably best for longterm physiological and psychological well-being. Philosophically, routine pessimism without some leavening aspect, such as humor or a sense of hope, can degenerate into nihilism, but it's also the case that pessimistic critique that's edged with purpose and possibility, with a vision of a better world, that aims to serve as a corrective for absence of critical thought, is undeniably necessary. James Howard Kunstler is just such a critic.

I've read some of his provocative essays in the ever-alarmist Atlantic Monthly, and have often nodded in agreement with his perceptiveness, usually shorn of any of the many useful theoretical underpinnings that are common in academic writing, about our national state of affairs, though his nostalgia and Cassandraesque predictions occasionally go too far. Today, while netsurfing for images of MIT's post-post-modernist Simmons Hall (at right, Andy Ryan, the immense spongiform dormitory designed by Steven Holl that initially drew rapturous reviews but which has since turned out to be a maintenance nightmare, I happened upon his site,, which is a virtual warehouse of his acid assessments of the ravenously consumptive, house-of-cards society that the United States has become. (A few months ago I was telling C about how we were living in the "lottery" economy, and now Kurt Andersen, in New York Magazine, is saying that it's a "casino" economy, with revolutionary drumbeats beginning offstage.)

One of the highlights is Kunstler's Clusterfuck Nation column, apparently updated every Monday. It consists of acerbic jeremiads on some aspect of contemporary American life, though a recurrent theme involves our national pursuit of unsustainable modes of living, and our blindness to what's to come if we stay on the same paths. The most recent one, from this past Monday, assesses his gloomy forecasts for 2007, as America's suburbanization economy teeters and the world increasingly suffers from higher oil prices, global warming, and other problems. Other tart links include his Daily Grunt blog, the Eyesore of the Month (which is where an image of Simmons Hall turned up, along with a number of awful urban, suburban and exurban houses that bear the anti-aesthetic (and not anesthetic, unfortunately) marks of the dwelling that is being erected next to our home in New Jersey, as well as some architectural structures that I find quite beautiful, like the CalTrans headquarters), and links to his books, including The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century, and Cities in Mind (which talks about the "fiascos" of contemporary Atlanta and Las Vegas, among other things).

Here's a quote from his New Year's Day 2007 entry on the current state of things:

The inertia part of the story is that this collective hallucination (that jive-capital was real) was sustained through 2006 by the sheer massive weight and flow of jive capital and its ability to elude scrutiny by countless chimerical conversions from one abstruse form to another -- from loan, to bond, to bet, to position, to Christmas bonus. . . . The final result, though, was a nation with an increasingly impoverished middle class, a bankrupt public treasury, and all remaining wealth (notional or residual) creamed off by a racketeering upper crust of logrolling insiders who, for the moment, could convert their dollars into multiple mansions, private jet planes, and sky boxes at the gladiatorial combats du jour.

The rest of the US economy was increasingly composed of a suburban development hyper-boom that amounted to little more overall than a colossal misinvestment in a living arrangement with no future (and the irreparable destruction of the remaining US landscape). The building-and-selling of suburban houses and the ancillary accessorizing of them with collector highways, strip malls, and big box stores, fast food huts, and all the jobs associated with constructing, lending, evaluating, selling, servicing, and staffing these things, along with additional rackets like home equity withdrawal refinancing to keep the cash registers ringing in the Wal-Marts and Home Depots -- these were the activities supposedly keeping the "regular" (i.e. lumpenprole) economy chugging along. If you subtracted all this "housing bubble" activity from the rest of this economy since 2001 there was very little left besides, hair-styling, fried chicken, and open heart surgery.

Yet, marvelous to relate, the whole toxic, entropy-laden, creaking, reeking cargo of shit-and-deceit that comprised this system just managed to keep rolling along for another year without collapsing under its own stinking, fantastically stupid weight.

The luck part of the story came partly from the weather -- there was barely any hurricane activity in US territory last year and global warming was so advanced that the northern states set records for warm winter temperatures -- which redounded into the fossil fuel part of the 2006 story.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

A Day for the History Books + Classes Resume

Ah, back to days past--when my Mozilla browser zapped out I lost a long post on the new Democratic-led Congress, so I'm not even going to try to replicate it. It was great to see photos of Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), wearing her best suffragette purple (which actually looks maroon in the photo at left), take the reins as the first female Speaker of the House in US history, putting her third in line for the presidency. She also made a point of posing with the first Muslim member of Congress, Keith Ellison (D-MN), both their hands, along with his wife's, on Thomas Jefferson's two volumes of the Koran. As Reggie H. noted in the comments, two Buddhists were also seated as Congresspeople. (Ellison even sought out, greeted and invited for coffee the crackpot Republican, Virgil Goode (R-VA), who's been slandering him and attacking Muslim immigrants in general.) The contrast between the diverse Democratic caucus, which has a 30-seat advantage over the mostly male and monocolor Republicans, couldn't have been starker. Pelosi and the Democrats have launched their 100-day agenda, which they aim to enact with minimal Republican interference and maximum GOP and media carping and clamor (perversely enough, for Pelosi to "save" Bush's presidency, as if that were humanly possible), but the country will be better for it. Ms. Speaker really should rescind her edict about not impeaching Bush, who grows ever more dangerous. Without any fanfare, he arrogated to himself the right to search Americans' private mail, in yet another of his infamous signing statements, which was attached to a postal reform bill that purported to legislate just the opposite! And then there's his escalation....

A new and spirited air also filled the floor of the smaller, clubbier Senate, now led by soft-spoken but steely Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada; the majority of female Senators, two of the three Latinos, the two Asian-Americans, and the lone African-American (whom the right wing and its media apparatchiks are currently focused on) are all part of the Democratic caucus, as is new, very progressive Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is a self-described socialist. New York's junior but super-Senator Hillary Clinton's husband, former president Bill Clinton, provoked a hubbub by showing up at her symbolic swearing in, and 90-year-old Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia, entering his 9th term, whooped and hollered before nearly collapsing, then recovered to cheer Sanders on. Like Pelosi and her House caucus, Reid put forward 10 bills immediately, some already passed, with Republican support, that have a small-bore progressive edge. It's likely most will pass, and it'll be interesting to see if Bush signs or vetoes them. He's a lame duck and occupies a place in history as the worst president ever, so he has nothing to lose either way.

photosA Democrat also made history today in Massachusetts. Deval Patrick was inaugurated as the first African-American governor of that state, which was the first to enact chattel slavery in 1641, and also command central for abolitionism in the 19th century. Surrounded by a sea of onlookers eager to witness the groundbreaking ceremony, and joined by four former Massachusetts governors (though not his retiring predecessor, Republican Mitt Romney), as well as the country's first Black governor, L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, Patrick took the oath of office with his hand on a Bible that some of the victorious Amistad Africans had presented to former Congressperson and President John Quincy Adams, then offered a stirring outline of his progressive vision for the Bay State. He faces a number of challenges, however, from a $1 billion deficit to a somewhat more conservative Democratic legislature. I sincerely hope that he can succeed in enacting many of his measures. I also realize that, having lived in Boston for 10 years and witnessed some of the uglier aspects of its racist side up close, I probably would have wept had I been standing amid his huge crowd of supporters, because I couldn't have imagined this day would come so soon.


In other, less positive political news, America learned today that infamous right-wing Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist was a confirmed drug addict on a drug ironically named Placidyl for nearly a ten-year period, during which he sat on the nation's highest court and issued rulings, many of them dissents. There's more incredibly disturbing material in the article. I couldn't make this crap up if I tried. Among other things, it confirms my sense of the media's utter bankruptcy. Was there not a single reporter from a major media outlet who knew about or had heard about this back in, oh, 1986? Not one? Of course there was, and of course they protected this awful person, who was a pick both of Richard Nixon and Ronald Raygun. Should people with known drug addictions--known, that is, at least to somebody at the FBI--be placed at the head of one of the most vital branches of our government (and no, John F. Kennedy and Dr. Feelgood don't count)? Yes, I know the answer to this question, and we all know that only certain people--cf. right wing Republicans--can get away with this sort of outrageous nonsense. Anyways, I always knew the man was a poisoned apple, I just didn't realize how toxically he was laced.

And then there' s Jose Padilla, who has literally been psychologically destroyed while in government custody since nutcase and former Senator and Attorney General John Ashcroft hastily called a press conference, from Europe, to trumpet Padilla's arrest. It turns out that the US government (may have illegally?) listened in on Padilla's calls, and in the audioclips they have at no point does he discuss the "radioactive dirty bomb" that Bush Ltd. claimed he was planning; the entire episode was one of many unfortunately effective propagandistic attempts to whip Americans into yet another white froth of fear. Instead, he can be heard discussing his Egyptian bride, a dream he had, other sundry matters. And for this this American citizen been held in custody and tortured for THREE YEARS, leaving him a psychological basketcase; that man is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome now. His defense counsel has said that his treatment is "so outrageous as to shock the conscience" and that he has been turned into a "piece of furniture." Now Bush Ltd. is in a quandary as to what to do, because their case against Padilla isn't holding up in the slightest, and as with the WMDs excuse for Iraq, they keep castinng about for crimes to assign to the poor man. But back to the state violence enacted upon him. There is absolutely ZERO justification, on any grounds--legal, ethical, moral, you name it, except for tyrannical ones--for what this man has been subjected to. And God and we know, he's not the only one. I seriously don't give expect the Democrats to do a damned thing about this, so call me cynical, but if there is any real recourse for Padilla and others who've encountered anything akin to what he has endured, let it be revealed and enacted as soon as possible.


On a completely different note, today was my first day of classes. I had two, full of eager young writers (several of whom are scientists, several journalists, several budding artists in other genres, and one a graduate business student!). We talked about what constituted fiction, especially in light of the literary scandals of the last few years (and fascinatingly enough, though I was sure they'd have heard of both James Frey and JT Leroy, many hadn't), what the standard elements of conventional good and great fiction might be, read a snippet of my colleague Stuart Dybek's exquisite short story "Pet Milk," and then they started on their first exercise. I was wiped by the end of the day (which also included a departmental faculty meeting), but also energized.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Plus Ça Change + Nichols on Ellison & Jefferson's Koran

And so it continues:

(Note the irony of the "related" headline at bottom right:)

Yahoo! has no official comment about the screw up.... (Thanks TPM Café)

Nichols on Ellison and Jefferson's Qu'ran
In The Nation, John Nichols blogs about Muslim Representative Keith Ellison's (D-MN) decision to use a Koran at his private swearing-in ceremony, and the symbolism and significance of his selection of Thomas Jefferson's personal copy. I am sure this is making Virginian US Representative Virgil Goode (R-VA), who has been sounding off with increasingly ignominy of late about Muslims and his own religious intolerance, burst into flames just thinking about it, and, although Nichols is convinced that Jefferson would be proud of Ellison's actions, given the abysmal esteem in which the sage of Monticello held Negroes, I'm not so sure. (If you doubt me, just take the sage of Maryland Benjamin Banneker's word for it.) I'm very happy for Ellison, whose politics strongly recommend him, and would love to be in Washington to see him sworn in. (My own new representative is Albio Sires, of West New York, who won in a landslide to replace the newly minted Senator Bob Menendez.) Perhaps someone will be kind enough to regularly forward Mr. Goode photos of the Hon. Mr. Ellison's hand on that Koran on a daily basis, just for good measure.

Quick News: Lula 2.0
Brazil's scandal-plagued president, (former?) Socialist Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, inaugurated his second term on Monday, though with almost no foreign dignataries present. He promises to do more to aid the poor of his country, though his conservative economic policies have benefited and delighted the country's bankers and its debtors. Several of his social programs, such as "Zero Hunger," have strengthened the national safety net, and their effectiveness and his broad popularity were enough to overcome several waves of outrageous Workers' Party-related scandals and the challenge from former São Paulo mayor Geraldo Alckmin. He'll have to work with a less-than-cooperative Congress, however, to make some of his more ambitious progressive initiatives law.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

MSM Contra Obama + What the (Library) People Want + Fainting Foils Ontime Trains + Wikiing

MSM Contra Obama Redux
Last month I reported on the mainstream media's nascent campaign against Illinois's junior Democratic US Senator, Barack Obama, one of the presumptive leaders in the 2008 campaign. In addition to members of the media fixating on Obama's Arabic middle name, "Hussein," and joking about how close "Obama," his Luo family name is to "Osama," CNN's Jeff Greenfield compared his style of dress to that of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a right-wing columnist, Debbie Schuessel, in a fit of bizarre pseudo-psychoanalysis, suggested that he might be a Muslim Manchurian candidate. After a series of critical blogabaloos, most, though not all of the offenders apologized or feinted as if they had. But of course it wasn't over. We've got a year and 11 months to go, and Obama's fame and popularity aren't waning, they're waxing.

So it didn't take one day to pass in the New Year before the media, in this case CNN, started up its hijinks again, running the tag line "Where's Obama?" over an image of Al Qaeda's unaccountably still-free leaders Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden during Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room show. As soon as I saw this on DailyKos's site, I fired off an email to CNN's "Situation Room" site, and apparently enough other people did that both anchor Soledad O'Brien and Blitzer himself apologized on air to Obama today. The senator was gracious in his response, seeing "no malicious intent," but he also made sure to thank bloggers for holding CNN to the fire for its shoddy, tendentious journalism, which it is claiming was an error, though the "B" key is far enough away from the "S" key, and there should be enough production control to ensure that such "gaffes" don't occur. I doubt they'll end, however; no matter how far he moves to the right, he'll still be unacceptable to the vested interests now running and ruining the country, so vigilance will be the byword for him and every other Democrat or progressive candidate until November 2008 rolls around. The disinformation campaign hasn't ended by a long-shot.

Clearing the Shelves
Half a decade ago, writer Nicholson Baker wrote an impassioned, eye-opening book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (Random House, 2001), about the deaccessioning policies of some of the United States's major public libraries, a process that began in the post-World War II years but accelerated with the increasing domination of electronic media. Baker brooked a great deal of praise and some sharp criticism for expending nearly 300 pages on a topic that struck some as obscure and in a manner deemed obsessive, but his emphatic focus and tone were oracular in describing a practice that has only worsened, to the dismay of book lovers and the general populace. Baker's main critique centered on libraries' problematic decisions to replace books with supposedly more long-lasting microfilm and other technologies, based on a series of arguments he revealed as specious. For example, while any number of books, and even some newspapers and other print materials, if properly taken care of, have lasted for centuries (cf. the Book of Kells and other illuminated manuscripts, to take only a few examples), Baker showed that microfilm is comparatively far less robust (as well as more difficult to read without 20-year-old eyes), yet many of the librarians still pushed to move to the newer technologies.

Nearly six years later, Lisa Rein writes in the Washington Post about a related problem, which is the deaccessioning--removal--of sometimes "classic" books, or as the article goes on to point out, any books from libraries because no one has taken them out in a year or given period. This awful practice, which is motivated by the same neoliberal, market-inspired worldview that has infested nearly aspect of our society, and which is abetted by new software, has meant that a host of books that no one happens to check out may no longer be around when someone learns about and realizes they (once) exist(ed). Rein notes that the Fairfax County library system's model is a private, profit-based business, such as Barnes & Noble, despite the fact that, well, it's supposed to be a public, not-for-profit institution that caters to a far wider range of tastes and interests, and it's subsidized by all the tax-payers, unlike private bookstores. Library director Sam Clay makes the argument, as many did in Baker's book, that space is one of the major issues, stating that "a book is not forever. If you have 40 feet of shelf space taken up by books on tulips and you find that only one is checked out, that's a cost." Yet the result is worse, because instead of emphasizing an electronic replacement, his "ruthless" take is, if people don't want it now, it's not important. I need not argue how short-sighted and simplistic this argument is, but Rein points out that it's held more widely than just in Fairfax; the head of the American Library Association, Leslie Burger, states that "There is a sense in many public libraries that popular materials are what most of our communities desire. Everybody's got a favorite book they're trying to promote."

Well, yes, popular materials may be what most people desire--isn't that conceptually self-evident?--but public libraries, at least since the Carnegie era, have existed to serve broad constituencies. Or did. The US once had mainly private libraries; one of those, the Astor Library, provided the basis for the what became one of the greatest collections in the world, the New York Public Library. Now, it's the race to the market-driven bottom--and when this material ceases to hold the public's attention, it'll be sold off and the newest material will fill the shelves. Are we assume that in the future public libraries will carry only diet and cooking, business, and fashion books, pornography, comic books and a narrow amount of young adult literature, and religious, spiritual and pseudospiritual texts? Aren't we ignorant enough as a nation? If Baker's book is right, librarians might not have to wait to remove the newer media, because they'll just disintegrate before anyone has the opportunity to sell them or toss them out. Meanwhile, works that don't have champions and don't meet the necessary criteria will go (back) into private hands, if they aren't pulped entirely....

One option: you can go to your local public library and check out a number of books that probably aren't being checked out regularly. I'm sure it'll take the worker bees a little bit of time to figure out that you're doing this. Keep them for a day or two, or perhaps a week. In the meantime, it'll give the books a temporary stay. Tell others to do so as well. Now, please go get your cards ready and starting culling from those thinning shelves.

Works to start with: all early-American and slave narratives; late 19th-century American novels; works of history; travel guides; Victorian and Edwardian-era nonfiction; books on philosophy, foreign languages, mathematics, and chemistry; any work of poetry that looks like it hasn't been touched in a while; all foreign books; and any books of maps that can be checked out.

A related story: The New York Times's Tina Kelley reports on some libraries' plans to shut down during peak afternoon hours because of rambunctious adolescent patrons. Despite the lack of guidance and supervision these young people are expected to act like angels, naturally, and because they won't, instead of figuring out a way to provide or develop the needed guidance and supervision, the libraries are going to shut down. Just brilliant, really. And when the children years later harbor negative feelings about the library system and as taxpayers refuse to provide funding, these same people will be carping and crying....

"Kids, what's the matter with kids today...?"

Dieting Women Cause Subway Delays--Oh Come On
More nuttiness for the new year: the MTA is claiming dieting women are causing a sizable percentage of its delays. I seriously doubt this. Realistically, how many fainting Twiggy-wannabees could there be on all the lines? But then I don't have any figures to go on and haven't ridden the subway on a semi-regular basis in years. I do know that the MTA's word, like many metro transit agencies, has to be taken about as seriously as a grain of sand. These are the people who were racking up surpluses yet refused for years to address a wide range of transit worker, rider and infrustructure needs, creating a state of crisis. So pardon me if I'm skeptical. How long before the CTA decides to use this excuse as well?

Wiki Wiki Wiki
Not counting a few entries and corrections on Wikipedia, the world's largest and not-so-accurate encyclopedia/dictionary, I'm pretty late to the multifarious wiki world, but last fall I set up a test site for my undergraduate literature class on pbwiki, which I ended up not really using, since I'd already included nearly all the articles I wanted in the source book and didn't assign any presentations for the students to post. I've since designed new pages which I'm considering using this upcoming quarter, and as I proceed, I'll post on here about how the process goes. As a wonderful colleague told me several years ago, the basic wiki technology is free and easy to use, and really flexible. One seemingly simple thing I haven't figured out is how to configure html for wiki pages yet; on the WikiStyle sheet, it says that html is fine for more elaborate page construction, but doesn't explain where or not it needs to be placed in Css style sheet pages or somehow reconfigured to work directly on a wiki site.