Donald Sterling

madmen_fullbodyniteoutDoes anyone else feel like he’s a Mad Men character (Donald Draper/Roger Sterling) who showed up forty years late with ideas that are seventy years out of date?  Every time I hear his name it’s like I’m in a meeting at Sterling Cooper Draper Price.

Junot Diaz on MFA vs. POC

Junot Diaz, an alum of the Cornell University MFA program, on MFA vs. POC:  “Lately I’ve been reading about MFA vs NYC. But for many of us it’s MFA vs POC.”  He continues,

I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact by the start of my second year I was like: get me the fuck out of here.

So what was the problem?

Oh just the standard problem of MFA programs.

That shit was too white.

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Some of you understand completely. And some of you ask: Too white … how?

Too white as in Cornell had almost no POC—no people of color—in it. Too white as in the MFA had no faculty of color in the fiction program—like none—and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of color as a big problem. (At least the students are diverse, they told us.) Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc). In my workshop there was an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force (it’s class!). In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area—at all. Shit, in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that “race discussions” were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.

.       .       .       .       .

In my workshop what was defended was not the writing of people of color but the right of the white writer to write about people of color without considering the critiques of people of color.

Oh, yes: too white indeed. I could write pages on the unbearable too-whiteness of my workshop—I could write folio, octavo and duodecimo on its terrible whiteness—but you get the idea.

Continue reading

Being Cliven Bundy

cowgirlhaybarnModupe Labode, Assistant Professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, sent out a tweet yesterday: “Where are the analyses of Cliven Bundy & race from western and/or public historians? Was looking for my students and found v. little.”  This anti-racist, feminist, fake cowgirl has been looking around too and found little beyond stuff on political blogs and websites.

Now that the work week is officially over, it looks like I just might have to start mucking out this nasty little stall, as it seems to have a great deal to do with the stuff I’ve written a lot about from the other end of North American history:  guys, guns, whiteness, and gender.  You know what those cheese-eating surrender monkeys say, mes amis:  plus ca change. . . plus c’est le meme chose.  Or to quote William Faulkner, a dude who doesn’t get a lot of airplay on this blog, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  Although I am loathe to direct any more attention to this failed rancher who nevertheless has figured out how to whip up the rubes to his defense, I have a few things to say about Bundy’s recent bout of whistling Dixie. Continue reading

Josephine Baker’s postwar/Cold War “rainbow tribe”

The book that kept Matthew Pratt Guterl indoors all last summer was published last month by Harvard University’s Belknap Press.  Rebecca Onion gives it a nice rundown here at Slate:

Baker was born in St. Louis but moved to France in 1925. Her danse sauvage, famously performed in a banana skirt, brought her international fame. During World War II, she worked for the Red Cross and gathered intelligence for the French Resistance. After the war, married to her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon, she struggled to conceive a child. Meanwhile, her career waned. Guterl’s book is about this period of Baker’s life, as she built her large adopted family, became ever more active on behalf of the nascent civil rights movement in the United States, and re-emerged into fame.

Baker purchased her estate, known as Les Milandes, after marrying Bouillon in 1947. In addition to the chateau, the property boasted a motel, a bakery, cafés, a jazz club, a miniature golf course, and a wax museum telling the story of Baker’s life. As Guterl makes clear, the place was over-the-top, but its ostentation was a political statement. Les Milandes, with its fairy-tale setting, announced to the world that African-American girls born poor could transcend nation and race and find wealth and happiness.

Guterl makes it sound like Baker’s family was kind of a multicultural Trapp Family Singers or a Partridge Family, crossed with the Dionne QuintupletsContinue reading

In memorium: Stephanie M. H. Camp, 1967-2014

scampStephanie Camp died two weeks ago.  I know many of my readers know this already, as a few notices have appeared on Twitter and other blogs as well as everywhere on Facebook.  I wanted to wait to post a notice until I could link to a formal obituary and also pass along information for those of you who might want to write to her family members or to donate to the causes she supported in her lifetime.  Here’s the obituary last week from the Seattle Times:

She was a well-known feminist historian who wrote a groundbreaking book on enslaved women in the antebellum South, and a social-justice activist who dared to take controversial stands. But Stephanie Camp was also known for her love of popular culture and her sense of adventure and for hosting great parties.

The University of Washington history professor died April 2 of cancer at the age of 46.

Professor Camp’s book, “Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South,” which is in its second printing, led to a new understanding of how enslaved women resisted their captivity in the 19th century. It was cited not only for the quality of its scholarship but also for the beauty of the writing.

The book “transformed the field of American social history,” said Chandan Reddy, an associate professor of English at the UW.

That’s not hyperbole.  It’s a book that every time I recommended it to a graduate student or assigned it in class was a revelation to my students.  They raved about Closer to Freedom because of the ways in which it challenged our traditional understandings of slave resistance and made convincing arguments about how women’s lives and work in slavery demanded that we take a broader view of what “counted” as resistance to enslavement. Continue reading

Women’s historians told “you’re history” during Women’s History Month by the National Women’s History Museum

cowgirlcensoreddumbHow’s that for irony?  That’s what the Scholarly Advisory Council was told by the National Women’s History Museum’s President and CEO Joan Wages last month, according to former SAC member Sonya Michel.  (You can see the NMWH’s announcement of the SAC’s walking papers here.)  Michel, for those of you who don’t know her or her work, is an eminent scholar of gender, povery, and social welfare.  She writes:

Last month’s dismissal of the scholars followed yet another example of a museum offering that embarrassed those of us who were trying to ensure that the institution was adhering to the highest standards in our field. In mid-March, the museum announced that it had launched a new online exhibit, “Pathways to Equality: The U.S. Women’s Rights Movement Emerges,” in conjunction with the Google Cultural Institute. Never informed that the exhibit was in the works, much less given an opportunity to vet it, we were appalled to discover that it was riddled with historical errors and inaccuracies. To pick just one example: Harriet Beecher Stowe was described as having been “born into a family of abolitionists” when, from the time of her birth through her young adulthood in the 1830s, her family actively opposed the abolitionist movement. “Pathways to Equality,” noted Kathryn Kish Sklar, the nineteenth-century specialist who pointed out the error, “could have been written by a middle-school student.”

Actually, if I were Sklar, I would have said that “a middle-school student who had consulted my prizewinning biography of Catherine Beecher could have put together a stronger online presentation.”  Continue reading

The author, the work, and “the objectivity question.”

Claire Potter (aka Tenured Radical) has an interesting post on her book blog about the assumptions that audiences make about the politics of historians based on their subject matter choices.  She writes:

It isn’t uncommon that, when hearing about the research I have done on the history of anti-pornography feminism, audiences assume that I must be an anti-pornography feminist too.But do you know that? Do you even have the right to ask? Should I tell you?

My hope for this book is that you will be so compelled by my scholarship that you will never know my private views on this question.

I found the assumption really interesting, in that the vast, vast, vast majority of feminist intellectuals I know and have worked with are far from anti-porn feminists.  Maybe my experiences are idiosyncratic, but in my experience academic feminists–much as most of us are disgusted by mainstream pornography–tend also to be First Amendment absolutists.

Potter continues with a meditation about identity politics and historical subject matter that is really worth the read:

Making assumptions about intellectuals based on superficial knowledge of their research interests is fairly common, but honestly? I think it happens to women, queers and people of color more often. I have a friend and colleague who is African-American, and writing a history of African-American conservative thought. That colleague is frequently assumed to be a conservative, much as I am often presumed, on the basis of nothing, to be an anti-pornography feminist. Continue reading