Commentary

Bronzeville: Recommended reading for a new podcast

March 20, 2017
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Bronzeville: Recommended reading for a new podcast

Josh Olson’s new 10-part podcast Bronzeville, which stars Laurence Fishburne, Larenz Tate, and Tika Sumpter, chronicles the lives of players in the illegal lottery that swept the African American community in the 1940s before the game was taken over by the mob. If that’s not enticing enough, here’s a list of some recommended background reading on the city, then and now; how it become one of America’s most iconic black neighborhoods; and why its redevelopment—in which the middle class benefits as lower-income residents are pushed out—continues to matter, now more than ever. *** Derek S. Hyra’s The New Urban Renewal: The Economic Transformation of Harlem and Bronzeville explores the shared metamorphosis of these formerly notorious urban ghettos into two of our most iconic black communities, as the pressure of late-capitalist gentrification and a complicated web of factors—local, national, and global—shaped their remarkable revitalization. St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton’s Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, based on research conducted by Works Progress Administration field workers, is a sweeping historical and sociological account of the people of Chicago’s South Side from the 1840s through the 1930s, as path-breaking today as it was when it was first published in 1945. Diane Grams’s Producing Local . . .

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#ReadUPScience: A Digital Menagerie from The Paper Zoo

March 13, 2017
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#ReadUPScience: A Digital Menagerie from The Paper Zoo

American Scientist explores several centuries-worth of zoology on paper at the British Library in a review + “digital menagerie” from The Paper Zoo, an excerpt from which follows below. *** Historian Charlotte Sleigh’s book The Paper Zoo, which taps into the British Museum’s rich collection to explore and contextualize five centuries of zoological illustration (our sampler), leads one to conclude that the refrain’s origin can be traced back to 1659. Johann Amos Comenius’s elementary reader Orbis sensualium pictus (“The Visible World in Pictures”), Sleigh explains, “is commonly regarded as the first picture book for children.” By combining didactic text with illustrations Comenius had, with the stroke of a printing press, invented multimedia instruction. His petite depictions of animals, each appearing alongside a letter of the alphabet meant to represent the sound the animal makes, are clear and endearing without being especially cute. It’s easy to see how they would capture a child’s interest and, as Sleigh observes, ease memorization: Presenting the image of an animal next to a letter whose sound replicates the creature’s hooting, braying, growling, or hissing was an instructional breakthrough. In addition to their utility in the classroom, Sleigh notes, zoological illustrations helped far-flung naturalists keep up with discoveries made in . . .

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Alexandra Chasin on the history of the drug war

March 3, 2017
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Alexandra Chasin on the history of the drug war

Below follows an excerpt from “Our Aggressive ‘War on Drugs’ Is Not Actually about Drugs,” by Alexandra Chasin, author of Assassin of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger’s War on Drugs, at Alternet. *** Trump inherits a very old war on drugs in the United States, one with prisons almost as overpopulated as Duterte’s detention centers, where the “insanity” of the “purely repressive approach,” “counterproductive and cruel,” is the law and practice of the land. This war on drugs goes back before Nixon’s famous declaration and the Rockefeller Drug Laws of the 1970s.  Our national commitment to drug prohibition goes back almost as far as our commitment to alcohol prohibition, a thirteen-year disaster that dramatized all the perils of a strategy of suppression but somehow did not persuade us not to use the same one with narcotics.  With the installation of Harry J. Anslinger as Commissioner of the newly established Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, the federal government began a campaign of drug prohibition which, during his three decades in office, in making into federal law. So why, if it only took us thirteen years to prove that alcohol prohibition was both costly and ineffective, have we failed to . . .

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Every African-American restauranteur from the City of Charleston, 1880–1920

February 27, 2017
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Every African-American restauranteur from the City of Charleston, 1880–1920

David S. Shields, drawing upon his research for The Culinarians: Lives and Careers from the First Age of American Fine Dining (forthcoming; Fall 2017), and in honor of Black History Month, put together this list of every black restauranteur in the city of Charleston, South Carolina, from 1880 to 1920 (first printed in the Charleston City Paper, and now run in full below). Agnes, G. W. 89 St. Phillip 1908 Allen, F. A. 81 East Bay 1881 Allen, Paul 530 King Street 1896 Allen, W. I. 41 Market Street 1882 Alston, George 19 Queen Street 1917 Atkinson, L. J. 104 Columbus St. 1910 Baker, Anna 161 Market Street 1920 Baker, Stephen 161 Market Street 1919 Barron, J. F. 401 King Street 1911, 1912 Barron, Rebecca 3 State Street 1901 Barron, William G. 12 State Street 1883, 1884, 1886, 1887, 1888, 1889, 1890, 1891, 1892, 1893, 1894, 1895, 1896, 1897 3 State Street 1898, 1900 (dies) Baskin, Joseph 623 King Street 1919 Beckett, Ann E. 92 King Street 1886 Blake, Eliza 11 Tradd Street 1886 Bold, J. 161 Market Street 1883 Bonneau, S. 51 Lines Street 1910, 1911, Bonneau House 1914 Bowen, F. 524 King Street 1883 Brockington, Adele E. 16 Market 1915, 1916 . . .

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Yuliya Komska: Can civilians make borders better?

February 22, 2017
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Yuliya Komska: Can civilians make borders better?

“Can civilians make borders better?” by Yuliya Komska, author of The Icon Curtain: The Cold War’s Quiet Border (2015) *** Received wisdom contends that borders and walls are the work of states and supra-national bodies eager to regulate security, the movement of populations, and the flow of commodities. Not surprisingly, the construction and enforcement of these zones rely on weaponized technologies, substantial armed presence, and the use of surplus materials. Whether skimming the European Union’s southeastern edge, snaking between Israel and the West Bank, or cementing the line between the United States and Mexico, borders coalesce as militarized spaces, ostensibly antithetical to those inhabited by civilians in peacetime. The concomitant impression is that civilians can humanize borders by channeling creative energies to subversive effect. Think of the colorful graffiti on the western side of the Berlin Wall, or the works of the elusive artist Banksy, who brought the divided German city’s visual motifs (such as the iconic trompe-l’oeil barrier breech or the make-belief scenic vista) to Gaza in 2005. Consider also the shrines and crosses at the Mexican border, which commemorate the thousands who died in US Border Patrol operations, or the more choreographed incentives that reimagine this emergent border wall, several . . .

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An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story

February 20, 2017
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This April, Emmy Award–winning filmmaker Martin Doblmeier’s documentary about the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, debuts on public television. The film explores the life of Niebuhr, theological liberalism’s best-known promoter (author of the “Serenity Prayer”), and how he positioned himself as a voice of conscience during some of the twentieth-century’s most potent times of racial unrest, depression, and global conflict. Hal Holbrook reads as Niebuhr, and the film includes interviews with Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young, David Brooks, Cornel West, and others. You can read more at the Journey Films website, and in the interim, here’s a list of works by and about Niebuhr, published by the University of Chicago Press. *** The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense, first published in 1944, is considered the standard bearer of Niebuhr’s philosophy, which took up the timely question of how democracy as a political system could best be defended. The Irony of American History, cited by politicians as diverse as Hillary Clinton and John McCain, posits the incongruity between personal ideals and political reality as both an indictment of American moral complacency and a warning against . . .

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The Great Derangement: On fiction and climate change

February 15, 2017
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The Great Derangement: On fiction and climate change

From Lawrence Lenhart’s  recent review of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, at the Rumpus: The largest section of The Great Derangement examines “Story” (the consignment and suppression of literary forms), but Ghosh also looks at the impact of alternate histories and global politics on climate change discourse. He wags his finger at those who would blame Indian and Chinese modernization for bringing us to the tipping point; instead he points to western idealism and technophilia that created the myth that everyone can have two cars, a washing machine, and refrigerator, when in fact “modernity can only be practiced by a small minority of the world’s population… not because of technical or economic limitations but because the earth would asphyxiate in the process.” What’s more, Ghosh directs our attention to the irony that “the Anthropocene has reversed the temporal order of modernity: those at the margins,” Tuvaluans and southern Bangladeshis for example, “are now the first to experience the future that awaits all of us.” Elsewhere Ghosh takes exception to John Updike’s description of the novel as an “individual moral adventure.” This conception makes us more likely to tell stories about the fall of the Berlin Wall or the . . .

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1971: A Year in the Life of Color

February 13, 2017
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1971: A Year in the Life of Color

Darby English’s 1971: A Year in the Life of Color points to a moment when the self-representation of black American artists working in the wake of modernism manifested in two shows staged during a tumultuous period of cultural, political, and aesthetic change—Contemporary Black Artists in America, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and The DeLuxe Show, “a racially integrated abstract art exhibition presented in a renovated movie theater in a Houston ghetto.” *** Hyperallergic (in a piece by Jessica Bell Brown) has more commentary on what the convergence of these two shows meant for dismantling a homogeneous narrative of black modernist expression: Enter 1971, which takes as its starting point a most urgent year in aesthetic and racial politics. English’s object of study are two exhibitions essential to the ongoing relationship between black American artists and modernism: The Deluxe Show and the Contemporary Black Artists in America exhibition at the Whitney Museum, preceding Deluxe in the spring of 1971. In his book, English magnifies “an unprecedented brief swell of dissent within black political culture” that year, centering his study on the status and relevance of “color” as an aesthetic and social obsession. For so long, historians of African American art were unable . . .

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RIP Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

February 9, 2017
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RIP Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)—literary theorist, intellectual historian, and philosopher—died earlier this week; in particularly uncanny circumstances, our free e-book of the month happens to be his The Fear of Barbarians. Rather than link to an obit, we’re going to reblog a conversation between Todorov and media scholar WJT Mitchell—who had never met in person or previously exchanged correspondence—that unfolded over three days on our blog, back in December 2010, on the heels of the then-recent publications of Barbarians and Mitchell’s Cloning Terror. Little more than six years ago, and the topics they discuss—the politics of occupation, the war on terror, the then-emergent Wikileaks, Goya, the US State Department’s penchant for torture, Guantanamo, cloning—feel both like prescient observations from a time now past, and nearly enraging in their unfortunate contemporaneity. Below, you’ll find links to Parts II and III. Download your free copy of The Fear of Barbarians here. ** We’re kicking things off with a series of letters between Tzvetan Todorov, author of The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations and W. J. T. Mitchell, author of Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present on the visual imagery of the war on terror, our current global political climate, and the role of . . .

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Alice Kaplan on the origins of “Meursault”

February 8, 2017
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Alice Kaplan on the origins of “Meursault”

Meursault, the protagonist (or anti-hero) of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, is one of literature’s all-time classic characters—a French-Algerian, emotionally detached drifter who murders an Arab in a griefless rage. Below, Alice Kaplan, author of the National Book Critics Circle-nominated Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, writes at Wonders and Marvels on the origins of the character’s name, and her theory as to why Camus picked the epithet he did. *** For any French reader, that name can only signify the delicious and expensive white Burgundy wine. I was really shocked when I looked at the only surviving manuscript of The Stranger and discovered that Camus writes his character’s name without a “u” throughout. Where did that “u” come from? Some Camus experts claim he thought of the name change at a dinner party where he was served an especially good bottle of the Burgundy wine. Then there’s the story of the contest. Every November, a literary prize of 3,000 bottles of Meursault wine was awarded to a book celebrating the glory of the land. An ad for the prize appeared in the French press in November, 1941, as Camus was putting finishing touches on his novel. Although Meursault isn’t a very funny . . .

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