A Reading List is Not a Syllabus, Part III

See part I and part II.

A steam powered train from the early 20th century, moving from left to right across the image.
There were a lot more trains in the Olden Times

Another text I found to be impactful and which might enhance an anti-racist reading list is Ralph Ellison’s posthumously published short story “Boy on a Train.” It is a somewhat unique story in its switching of perspectives, and it centers on a young boy on a train ride from Oklahoma City, OK to McAlester, OK with his mother and baby brother. It is a story told with gentleness and a sharp understanding of the way children see and feel the world around them, while emphasizing the danger and pain of Jim Crow. Because this story is so emotional and so realistic, students respond effectively to its portrayal of Jim Crow oppression and the generational trauma it caused.

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A Reading List is Not a Syllabus, part II

For the first book post in this series about the anti-racist reading list, I’d like to discuss Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which you can find and read for free on the Internet. Almost more than any other text, it is this one which white students – particularly women, which I’ll discuss in a moment – remember and comment on. It has a real effect on readers, in the way it tells a clear story and highlights an intersectional (before that word was ever coined) understanding of enslavement and history.

Harriet Jacobs was born enslaved, although she writes that she did not know this until she was 5 or 6 years old. After she was freed she wanted to have her memoir published, and through contacts, sent an outline of her story to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe refused to write Jacobs’ story, but did ask if she could use details of the outline in future work – Jacobs said no, and determined to write her story herself. Because of her concerns regarding sexual ethics and her children’s parentage, Jacobs changed all the names to pseudonyms, becoming “Linda Brent” in the narrative. This complicated scholarly understanding of the text for almost a century.

Because it was published in 1861, Incidents was not widely read, although it was acclaimed by critics. In fact, it almost disappeared from popular literature altogether by the 20th century, and those who read it assumed it was a novel, possibly written by Lydia Maria Child. No one could track down “Linda” or any of the other characters, so that seemed a reasonable assumption. It was not until the scholarship of Jean Fagin Yellin in the 1980s that Jacobs was recovered as the writer, and her story as a true enslavement narrative.

So why does Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl belong on an anti-racist reading list, and why does it seem to affect students so powerfully?

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A Reading List is Not a Syllabus

This has been a dreadful week, as protests for justice have faced repeated attacks and brutality from law enforcement across the country. (Note: if you’re reading this and the police who murdered Breonna Taylor have not yet face accountability, click here for ways to help.) One result of the continued turmoil seems to be requests/demands for materials to read or watch about racism, racist institutions, and the general racist history of the United States. In response, many writers and scholars have created reading lists, often labeled “anti-racist” reading lists or “Black Lives Matter” syllabi, etc. If you google either of these terms, many items will turn up, including the official BLM syllabus materials. However, there’s been a bit of discussion about the purported value of such reading lists, which I thought was interesting.

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SpaceX & the Ghosts of Space Travel’s Past

Image of the SpaceX white space craft docking with the ISS. The nose cone has opened to reveal docking port.
The unmanned SpaceX “Crew Dragon” craft docking with the ISS in 2019. (NASA image)

This week, SpaceX will make history as its first manned flight will launch from Cape Canaveral on Thursday with the intent of delivering 2 astronauts – Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken – to the International Space Station (ISS). The crew capsule will remain docked to the ISS for an as yet undetermined amount of time, then ferry the astronauts back to earth, splashdown style. NASA is partnering with SpaceX to see this mission to success, but it will be the first private company launch into orbit, as well as the first (non-tourist) manned launch from the US since 2011. This is certainly exciting news, and will no doubt attract a lot of media attention, due to the novelty of the event and due to the truly weird, truly controversial SpaceX founder, Elon Musk.

What draws my attention to this, though, is the worrisome framing of this mission I have seen in a few high profile articles about the launch. Readers may remember that I am very interested in organizational culture, especially at NASA (read here and here), and in particular, the way their organizational culture lead to mistakes and tragedy like the Challenger accident. I am far less familiar with the organizational culture at SpaceX/Tesla/Musk’s Life, but given the behavior of Musk himself, I would not be surprised to learn it was Not Good. I just don’t have any research to go on either way.

What I do have are some articles discussing this launch that spend an inordinate amount of time on aesthetics and almost-complete testing on key components of the flight matériel. This all seems foreboding to me, so I’d like to break down the concerns I have about the way this mission is being framed in some media.

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Samurai, Ronin, Accountant?

Black and white image of the film poster for THE 47 RONIN; one samurai committing seppuku, and one kneeling next to him
Film poster for THE 47 RONIN

I recently watched Kenji Mizoguchi’s film The 47 Ronin, released in two parts in 1941 and 1942, and based on a play cycle written by  Seika Mayama. The film tells the historical tale of 47 (or 46, depending on the version of the tale) samurai who avenge their master’s death. That description is an oversimplification of the film’s plot, which I will summarize more thoroughly below, but I want to discuss the nature of samurai as depicted in the film – not as highly trained military men, but as “counselors” or “retainers,” as they are called in the film. Essentially, samurai became household administrators by the turn of the 18th century, when the action of The 47 Ronin takes place.

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Using the Sacred to Calm the Profane

This is not going to be a post about COVID-19 and the unprecedented amount of upheaval and death it is causing in the US right now. You have plenty of news and social media sites for that.

This is not going to be a post about how to cope with suddenly teaching online or working from home. You have plenty of emails and instructions from your administrators for that. (Though I will just point out that if some of y’all had gotten on board or at least familiar with online pedagogy before now, it might be a smoother transition for you. That’s all.)

I just know that we are all feeling new and challenging amounts of stress and anxiety. No matter what you’re doing, you are under stress. This kind of stress is exhausting and upsetting and not at all easy to live with, day in and day out. So please – find something that works for you in helping to mitigate, even a little bit, the effects of stress on your body.

One thing I am diving into is religious choral music, specifically the albums of the Tallis Scholars. Their music can be found on most music streaming platforms. When I write and grade (especially if I am writing a lot of comments or revision notes on assignments), I need to listen to music without words, or with words I don’t understand. Enter: Latin! The Tallis Scholars are the preeminent singers of Renaissance/Early Modern polyphonic music. (Polyphony = different melodies sung simultaneously.)

It is lilting, calm, beautiful, and I don’t understand what they are singing, so it’s been perfect for these trying times. Additionally, the group is suffering financially right now, as they make their livings by constant touring, which is off the table right now, and so even streaming their stuff gives them some royalties. So give it a try! At first, don’t be surprised if all of the music sounds pretty much the same – that’s how I felt, as well. Over time, with repeated listens, the music makes itself more present to you, and you can discern the varied strands much more effectively. Try either 2015’s John Taverner: Missa Corona spinea/ Dum transisset Sabbatum I and II or 2007’s Allegri: Miserere/ Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli and Motets. Those are both very chill, very stunning compositions from start to finish.

But above all else, just get by. Just do your best, which is all any of us are (hopefully) doing. You were never prepared for this. You didn’t expect it. So don’t worry about not achieving great things right now. Staying healthy and present of mind is enough of a job as it is. So focus on that. You can do it.

The above mentioned 2015 album

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New Article Published!

I’m happy to report that my latest article, “‘Were They the Ones We Were Waiting for?’: The TWWA and the Performance of Solidarity” has been published in the January 2020 issue of Theatre Survey.

This was a piece I worked on for quite a awhile, and it underwent significant revisions over the course of the publication process. The piece became much stronger through this process, and TS was a terrific journal to work with on it. It is exciting to finally see it all come together after so long!

You can see a preview of it here, or check with your institution/library.

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2019 in Books

The last time I wrote up a post about what I read over the past year, it was for 2017! I really should have done this sooner – so the list that follows likely contains books I read in both 2018 and 2019, but mostly for the last year. It can be a real challenge for me to read during the school year, and I tend to focus mostly on non-fiction, since fiction is my daily teaching job. But it’s fun to review what I made time to read, and a list helps me recall what I learned and what I actually enjoyed!

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A Disappointing HARRIET

Over Thanksgiving break, I went with my sister to see the film Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Cynthia Erivo. After we left the theater, my sister asked, “why did I find that so disappointing?” Her point was that it is a compelling story – Harriet Tubman has one of the most exciting and significant lives in American history, after all – and a great cast of actors, so why wasn’t the film better? Overall, the film suffered from stilted dialogue and bafflingly fast pacing to get through Tubman’s narrative at the expense of interesting character development. However, the more glaring problems I had with the film really rested on its somewhat lukewarm historical treatment of real persons. The film wasn’t brave enough to be more fictional, and not precise enough to be truly historical. The result, in some cases, was an ethical lapse on the part of the filmmakers.

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Quick Hit: From the Files of “You Just Can’t Win”

As I was reading the Eric Schlosser book Command and Control this summer, I came across the unusual story of a Cuban citizen named Eduardo Guerra Jimenez.

FBI Most Wanted poster for Eduardo Guerra Jimenez with Mug Shots
He’s still in Cuba, Probably. (from FBI dot gov)

In 1969, he flew a Soviet built MiG jet from Cuba to Florida, landing at Homestead Airfare Base. Schlosser was mainly interested in this event as an illustration of how poorly prepared and trained the Air Force has been at various times throughout history – Jimenez landed the plane not far from Air Force One, which had just brought President Richard Nixon to town and was refueling. No alarms sounded, no one saw the MiG on radar (apparently, he made the entire journey flying quite low over the ocean’s surface), and no one seemed to notice Jimenez’s arrival. But this story also points to other important issues in the US that are still pertinent, mainly those of immigration, extradition, and the war on drugs.

When Jimenez arrived in the US, he was initially hailed as a political dissident, although he later admitted he came to the US more for “personal reasons” having to do with a recent breakup rather than political reasons. Only in his mid-20s and having served in the Cuban military, Jimenez was ready to start a new life as a pilot in the US, but no airline would contact or hire him.. Later, he told The New York Times that although “the United States Government had provided him with a total of $4,000 during his first months in this country, he had never been able to find a ‘permanent, decent job’.” He did a series of jobs from dish washer to factory work to try and support himself and his dog, but ultimately couldn’t make ends meet. So he starting selling marijuana and got arrested by NYC cops in 1971. He maintained that he never sold harder drugs, only marijuana, and the charges against him were dropped because the police search that turned up the weed was deemed illegal.

Eventually, the lack of opportunity for Jimenez in the Land of Opportunity became too much for him to handle. In 1979, he hijacked a Delta flight to Fort Lauderdale and diverted it to Havana, Cuba. He surrendered to Cuban authorities once there. No one was hurt during the hijacking. The US decided not to seek extradition in 1979, but the FBI apparently still considers him a dangerous terrorist, to be considered armed and dangerous. Jimenez’s status remains unknown to the US, as far as I can tell.

This story just strikes me as a profoundly sad one – a young man risked everything to come to the US and despite years of struggle, ultimately made the equally risky choice to go back to his home country which he had once found impossible to live in. And because of our lack of resources, Jimenez sold marijuana to get by. And then we took even that away from him. How much better might his life have been had we helped him get meaningful work and find community?




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