Archive for April, 2013

I remembered watching the series premiere of “The Newsroom” with my parents a while back, and our discussion in class about famous figures not having political views reminded me of this video. It’s a little long, but it’s a great look at what happens when a celebrity expresses what he thinks about his country and what happens when the truths that people believe are denounced. And this is the very first scene of the series.

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All semester, we’ve been talking about this idea of the American Dream. Who built it, who benefits from it, what it means, what it doesn’t mean, etc. Of course, most of that speaks to its dominant narrative – white immigrant comes from humble beginnings, finds success, loves America – and erases the experience of those that the dream forgot.

I recently watched Detropia, a documentary film by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (the duo behind Jesus Camp). The description begins thus: “Detroit’s story has encapsulated the iconic narrative of America over the last century – the Great Migration of African Americans escaping Jim Crow; the rise of manufacturing and the middle class; the love affair with automobiles; the flowering of the American Dream; and now…the collapse of the economy and the fading American mythos.” See what we’ve erased?

Here’s the thing – I’m not from Detroit, but my family is. My grandparents, first-generation Polish immigrants, have lived there the entirety of their lives in the States. Theirs would be the story typically embodied by our American Dream. My grandfather worked in manufacturing for decades after he returned from the war, my grandmother stayed home with the children, my mother was the first to go to college.

Shortly after the white European immigrant boom in Detroit, in the midst of World War II, another 350,000 people flocked to the city from the South, enamored with the prospect of higher-wage manufacturing jobs. This wave included that “Great Migration of African Americans escaping Jim Crow,” roughly 50,000 people total. The only problem was that Jim Crow came with them. Fighting over jobs and housing came to a head with the June 1943 Race Riot, which lasted for three days and resulted in 34 deaths and 433 injuries. The white working class of Detroit viewed the influx of working class African Americans, which was one-seventh the size of the influx of white Southerners, as the bigger threat to their security and stability.

No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver – no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of the American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.

But then you have Motown, and you have Elvis down in Memphis turning to traditionally black icons and styles of music for inspiration. You have the cultural co-option while black Americans still have no rights, still have to fight for jobs and housing, still feel unsafe wherever they go.

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bullets and bombs on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?

Detroit in the past few years has been reduced to cultural shorthand for ruin, decline, decay. Automobile bailouts. Unemployment. Crime. So much so, in fact, that we had to come up with a name for all of the New York Times articles about white flight and photographs of abandoned buildings – “ruin porn.” Again, the stories of those who go to photograph the decay or who abandoned it in the first place are the ones that we privilege. We applaud the young white artist-types who are now flocking to Detroit’s downtown and scooping up real estate while it’s cheap. We say that they are “pushing [Detroit’s] economic recovery” when they open coffee shops and galleries that only serve their insular community.

Detropia doesn’t pay much lip service to this crowd; instead, it focuses on the people who have stayed in Detroit through its ups and downs – largely people of color, whose stories so often get erased from the historical conversation. It makes me wonder again what America really is, what it means. If we can learn more from its silences than its professions, its outsiders more than its champions.

It’s the end of the semester, and I still don’t know what to think about the American Dream.



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Racism In Sports

video found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpfkC84Meqo

Although we have come a long way in decreasing discrimination within sports, racism still exists. Oriard’s article on Muhammad Ali discusses how one thing can have vastly different meanings to different people. When watching this video, I couldn’t help but to think about the way a particular mascot can represent both a cultural icon in football and racist ideas at the same time.

Christina Farrell

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On February 18th, 1964 Cassius Clay met the Beatles.  This is only a few weeks before Clay changes his name to Muhammad Ali, on March 6th.  Clay’s and the Beatles’ publicists had them meet before photographers in Clay’s training studio.  John Lennon is credited as saying that he didn’t want to meet Clay.  Instead, he wanted to meet Sonny Liston, whom Lennon thought would win the match.  Clay wasn’t too impressed with the Beatles either, according to this excerpt from Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World:

Cassius Clay and The Beatles climbed into the ring and, as if they just hadn’t met each other, they went through what seemed like a total choreographed routine. There are wonderful photographs of this, in which he pretends to hit the first Beatle and they all fall down like dominoes and scamper about the ring. Then they go off to their history and he goes off to his. Then, a few minutes later, he called me over and said, “So who were those little faggots?”

— Robert Lipsyte

Here are a couple of the pictures from the shoot:
Image   Image
 I think these pictures are really interesting.  Even though the Beatles (at least Lennon) weren’t excited to meet Clay, and Clay wasn’t even aware of who the Beatles were, they all very professionally mugged and joked for the camera, creating mutually beneficial publicity.  This is certainly an example of Ali’s showmanship.  Ali’s showmanship calls back to mind Apollo Creed from Rocky, and for good reason, because it was Ali’s showmanship that the creators of Rocky were parodying when they created the character.
Ali is a complex figure- at the same time that he is developing his identity as a black man in the 1960’s, he is developing his persona as a boxer.  I think that his place in society as a celebrity athlete as well as a public face of the black power movement is a combination that made people uncomfortable.

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I did a little bit of free association with food and America to get to the content of this post. It’s almost summer, a season that itself seems more American than the others. Summer means barbecues. Barbecues mean a lot of the foods mentioned already – hamburgers, hot dogs, apple pies, etc. For me, as someone originally from the Midwest, they also meant the most perfect, delicious, sweet cobs of corn. And really, what is actually more American than corn?

The crop, also known as maize, was first domesticated by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica thousands of years ago, and spread throughout the Americas relatively quickly through burgeoning trade networks. Our first point of reference for “America” America, of course, is the story of the pilgrims that gets passed around every year around Thanksgiving. Immigrants come to America, experience brief bout of kindness from native inhabitants, and everyone eats. Then the newcomers learned about corn, and they could eat forever – or something along those lines.

Centuries later, we have the tale of the small American farmer. Hard-working, back-breaking, truly American individuals. In the early 1920s there were the first few battles for farm legislation reform (side note: my friend Joe Hoey recently finished his senior thesis writing about the progressive involvement in farm legislation, particularly the McNary-Haugen bill). Then the Depression hit. Its aftermath throughout the 1930s would hit small farmers especially hard, with the price of corn often dropping to eight or ten cents per bushel. Many farmers went bankrupt trying to recreate the boom of World War I production.

Jump a few decades into the future, and again corn features prominently in the American landscape. It is, in fact, the top crop for agricultural subsidy payments. We use it for ourselves as food, for animals as food, and, of course, as a source of fuel. It has become a relatively controversial crop, as have those who farm, protect, and sell it.

The flexibility of corn’s identity and purpose throughout history renders it a uniquely American food. It is, in its own way, an immigrant story. It is the story of small town America. It is the story of hitting it big, of obtaining the elusive American dream. And, not least, it is the story of barbecues in the summer.

Edit: Sorry about the delay, I swear I had this written yesterday morning and it saved as a stupid draft instead of publishing for whatever reason. Anyway. Corn!

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Ali in France

Ali in France

This was imagine from a radical student group in France. What “work” is Ali and his image doing here? What Ali is represented? (Can anyone translate?)

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Twinkies are the seemingly indestructible food (actually not true).  But the fact of the matter is that a shrink-wrapped, spongecake stuff with vanilla icing is to the United States what Tastykake Krimpets are to Philadelphia.  I think the idea of the Twinkie is what makes them special – not the actual taste.  When Hostess filed for bankruptcy, there was a huge uproar to save the “make of Twinkies.”  There are plenty of alternatives for the snack, but the original Twinkie was what was most important.  It has been seen in multiple films and TV shows, including Family Guy during the apocalypse and WALL-E.  Zombieland also emphasizes Twinkies and their role in disaster survival.  

So if you wonder how Twinkies gained this cult-like status, I’ll tell you I have no idea.  But if i look at the idea of the Twinkie, it seems simple.  Being shrink wrapped, one would assume it does not spoil.  It was able to be mass produced, which falls in line with the American tradition of standardization.  It was survived World War 2 and parent company bankruptcy, showing resilience.  Unfortunately, I see the Twinkie as defining the obesity epidemic in the U.S.  It is an incredibly unhealthy snack, and I feel like it is now associated with the need for healthier eating.

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