Saturday, 16 October 2010

News: Public Discussion Series

So Containing Multitudes blog posts are like buses - two exciting announcements about the School of American Studies on the same day. Starting next week, AMS is pioneering a series of public discussions at the Forum in Norwich. You can find out more here, but here are some details to whet your appetite:

From art after 9/11 and stateside civil liberties to the end of the American Dream, a new series of discussion cafes will be launching in the Forum next week. Five hour-long public events will focus on contemporary American issues, bringing them to the public arena for discussion.

The free series has been organised by the university’s community engagement project CUE East in collaboration with final year American Studies students as part of a module entitled ‘The New American Century: Culture and Crisis’.

The course has been designed and run by Dr Wendy McMahon and is the subject of her research. She said: “This will be a great opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to engage in discussion about the pressing issues of our time, which concern not just America but people in the UK too, as well as to engage with what we do in the School of American Studies at UEA.”

The first discussion, 'Globalisation: is the world becoming more American?' takes place on Wednesday, October 20.

Then on November 3, the subject will be 'Should artists and writers depict 9/11 and war in their work?'.

'Civil liberties and America: the land of the free?' will be discussed on November 17, followed by 'Should America be leading the world in protecting the environment?' on December 1.

The final café takes place on December 15 on the subject of 'Financial crisis: the end of the American Dream?'.

All discussions are free, open to the public, and take place from 2.30pm-3.30pm. To find out more contact Dr Wendy McMahon,

Conference: American Identities on Stage

Things are going to be a little quiet around here over the next semester. But fear not: we'll be back in full effect come 2011. In the meantime, expect news snippets like this. The School of American Studies is very excited to be hosting an international conference marking the centennial of Tennessee Williams. You can find out more information here or visit the official conference website here. Here's the call for papers:

Celebrating 100 Years of Tennessee Williams (1911-2011)

American Identities on Stage:
20th Century American Drama International Postgraduate Conference

To commemorate the Tennessee Williams’s centennial, the School of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, will host a one-day international conference on 26 March 2011, focusing on theatrical representations of American identities. The invited keynote speaker is Professor Stephen Bottoms (University of Leeds).

On the day of Tennessee Williams’s 100th birthday, the 20th Century American Drama International Postgraduate Conference looks to revisit the theatre produced in the last century, considering a plurality of approaches from literary to theatre and performance studies, film, gender and GLBTQ studies, reflecting on the most recent critical and academic canon. Stressing the importance of Tennessee Williams, the conference hopes to be an international point of intersection for all those interested in Williams’s work and 20th century American drama in general. Topics of individual talks or collective panel discussions might include, but are not limited to:
  • Identity authenticity, representation, construction, and performativity;
  • Identity permanence, plurality, multiplicity, fluidity, and fragmentation;
  • Private versus public identity;
  • Identity and the other;
  • Dissidence and identity;
  • Selfhood and identity;
  • Identity now and then;
  • Identity and identification;
  • Aspects of/informing identity, such as age, class, culture, gender, politics, race, religion, and sexuality;
  • Theoretically inflected discussions of identity (Psychoanalytic, Feminist, Queer, etc.);
  • Contesting/Subverting prescribed identity constructions.
The conference will commence with a plenary speech, followed by the different panels, and will conclude with a round table discussion, which will consider themes arising from the day. Please send a titled abstract between 200-300 words (for 20-minute paper presentations) and a brief CV to by 17 December 2010.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Guest Post: Alex Jenkins

We're emerging from our annual summer hiatus to provide you with a special guest post from AMS student Alex Jenkins. Hope you're all having a good summer - see you in September.

Homeric Nods and Matters of Agreement

…et idem indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus

(And yet I also become annoyed whenever the great Homer nods off)

Horace, Ars Poetica

Since I’m both a rabid fan of David Foster Wallace’s work, and an incorrigible grammar snob, I was delighted to come across this in-class grammar worksheet he devised. There are ten sample sentences, each with one fundamental grammatical error. Spot the mistakes, without cheating, and follow the link to see if you’re right. I managed five. One could justifiably argue that example two is disorienting even when corrected, and that eight becomes stilted when the split infinitive is fixed. But the fact remains that these are supposedly basic usage errors, and I seem to be screwing up at least 50 percent of the time.

Didacticism is never a becoming trait, and the dour yet strident pedantry of grammar purists is particularly unpleasant. No one can avoid using language, but its usage is paradoxically complex and commonplace. H.W. and F.G. Fowler, two doyens of linguistic prescriptivism, spend nearly twenty pages discussing the intricacies of using shall and will correctly, and even then concede that “southern Englishmen” have the best chance of instinctively using the correct term. [1] Granted, this conundrum is archaic (I have never lived outside East Anglia, and my shall/will instinct is non-existent), but there are still plenty of examples where “correct” usage is counter-intuitive. And in some instances correctness is jarring. Take the following sentences from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe: ‘Come out, sons and daughters of Adam. It’s all right! It isn’t her!’ [2] They seem straightforward, sensible, and certainly comprehensible. Nevertheless, “to be” is a linking verb (copula), and so technically the antecedent pronoun should be nominative, i.e. I, They, We, He, or She; the sentence should therefore be rewritten as “It isn’t she!”

To make matters worse, the grammatical terms used to describe parts of language rely on nomenclature that seems arcane and irredeemably tedious. What is an ergative verb? What is a modal auxiliary? [3] Moreover, why do the edicts of traditional grammatical usage even matter? This last question is the real kicker, and one to which Wallace devotes considerable attention in his review-cum-essay “Authority and American Usage.” [4] Wallace articulates several arguments for adhering to what is called “prescriptive” usage, and he rightly argues that many of its confusing rules exist to preserve linguistic distinctions, to eliminate ambiguity, or to foster maximal readability. And, unpalatable as it may be, a significant percentage of potential readers will be distracted by gratuitous split infinitives, and denigrate any author who uses them. A point that Wallace underplays, however, is that knowing these principles, and applying them carefully, signals, in an understated and classy way, a writer’s expertise. Just as a layperson will trust the specialist knowledge of a mechanic or surgeon, a reader will trust a writer who understands the mechanics of writing, whereby words, even synonyms, have their own discrete identities. A precisely chosen word is engaging because it offers a window on the infinitely expanding, polysemous nature of language, a linguistic network that fizzes and crackles with latent significance. In a sense, all words are loaded words: all ineluctably relate to, and derive meaning from, each other. Yet some words are semiotically richer than others. Traditional prescriptive grammar therefore functions as a safety net and comfort blanket. It signals to a reader that the writer can puncture the solipsistic bubble of her own thoughts and can communicate, via prescribed grammatical rules, with authority, wit, and humanity.

It sounds mystical and abstract, but this is necessarily so. It exemplifies what Wallace called “compassion” for the reader, and compassion, like love and hope, is so abstract it can perhaps only be discussed through art. But compassion involves a generosity of spirit, which, in writing, means that what is written rewards the reader’s attention. Language is not private but communal (q.v. Wittgenstein’s The Philosophical Investigations), and is the mechanism by which private thought becomes public, but it is meaningless unless it follows public rules. If I want someone to take what I write seriously, it should show awareness of long-established usage conventions. Or, to put it another way, if I decide to use “that” when I really mean “which”, I had better ensure a reader realizes it is a conscious decision, and not merely carelessness.

The question of meaning has occupied philosophers for millennia, and is convolved and dizzyingly metaphysical. But there is an important related point that is concrete and easily recognisable: what one says may bear little relation to what one means. Suppose you are a parent with a teenage son. You ask him how he is and he says, “fine,” but the reply is sarcastic and dripping with existential affront, indicating, remarkably succinctly, an intractable Weltschmerz, which feeling is recognisable but irremediable, so why exactly bother and why-did-you-even-bring-it-up just shut up already. So the obvious point: none of the aforementioned is spoken, but is instantly recognisable because of vocal inflection, facial grimacing, and fatalistic posturing. Spoken language allows participants to recognise these extra-linguistic cues; writing, however, must rely on the words themselves to provide context and meaning. The upscale term for this is that speech inheres a metaphysic of presence – writing, a metaphysic of absence: the reader is usually physically absent when an author writes, and the writer absent when her work is read. This is one reason deconstructionist critics consider writing a more accurate representation of language’s ambiguities and complexities: the focus has to be on the words themselves and what they signify because writing cannot correct readers if its meaning is misconstrued.

This is pertinent, because a common rejoinder to grammar precisians’ criticisms is to say, “Oh, everyone else will know what I meant.” This is often true, but does not obviate genuine linguistic confusion or ambiguity, the classic example of which is the sentence, “There are many reasons lawyers lie, some better than others.” And even when one does know what the writer means, the error can still be irritating. Those persons with unusual names must be resigned to their frequent mispronunciation – lingual mangling, erratic ictus, or some other prosodic wincer. They will usually know what their would-be interlocutors mean, but the error – which now, as a consequence of its countless previous iterations, causes an involuntary, abreactive cringe – is still exasperating. The rather lengthy point being made here is that prescriptive usage is the grammatical equivalent of getting someone’s name right; and it’s usually simpler and more considerate to one’s readers to do so.

Happily, however, where such consideration is evident, and the consequent trust is earned not arrogated, many “errors” can be excused. [5] The Roman poet Horace coined the proverbial phrase “Homeric Nod” to refer to continuity errors in the Iliad, but no one would argue such mistakes affect its literary merit. Likewise, consistent grammar expiates many sins, and those solecisms that remain, and are commented upon, may be justified by recourse to Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism: ‘Those oft are Stratagems which Errors seem/Nor is it Homer Nods, but We that Dream.’ [6]

Notes and References

[1] H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, The King’s English, 3rd edn., (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), pp. 142-161. The former Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage is often upheld as the vade mecum of prescriptive British English grammatical usage. “Prescriptive” usage advocates certain rules for “correct” writing, but what constitutes correctness is naturally subjective. To paraphrase Wallace, and to save a lengthy note, one can no longer claim to be an “authority” on language ex officio; authority is now granted according to the persuasiveness of one’s arguments.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Complete Chronicles of Narnia, 2 (London: Collins, 1989), p. 98.

[3] For those sufficiently interested, an ergative verb is one that can be used both transitively and intransitively (the kettle boiled vs. I boiled the kettle), and a modal auxiliary expresses necessity or possibility, e.g., must, shall, will, should.

[4] David Foster Wallace, “Authority and American Usage”, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (New York: Little, Brown, 2005), pp. 66-128.

[5] This includes the archaic proscription of sentence adverbs, such as happily, sadly, etc., though I’m still uncomfortable starting a sentence with hopefully, e.g., “Hopefully, I’ll see you soon” (do I hope to see you soon, or will I see you soon while full of hope?).

[6] Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism”, Poet’s Corner – Bookshelf [accessed 6 August 2010] (lines 179-180).

Monday, 21 June 2010

News: Thoughts on Twitter

This is, in some ways, a long way of saying: follow us on twitter. We're @americanstudies. You can keep in touch with our blog posts, get some bonus content, and join the happy 100 who are already experiencing the fun. Failing that, you can keep your eye on the twitter box in the sidebar.

But it's also an excuse to highlight some of the ways in which twitter is increasingly making its mark on popular culture - indeed, on lives. This is the week, after all, when, in 140 characters or less, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff announced the execution of Ronnie Gardner and a South Korean man left a digital suicide note.

1. First, prolific and creative twitterer Roger Ebert (@ebertchicago) spent some time thinking about the unexpected ways in which the social network has impacted on his life. He writes:
I vowed I would never become a Twit. Now I have Tweeted nearly 10,000 Tweets. I said Twitter represented the end of civilization. It now represents a part of the civilization I live in [...] When you think about it, Twitter is something like a casual conversation among friends over dinner: Jokes, gossip, idle chatter, despair, philosophy, snark, outrage, news bulletins, mourning the dead, passing the time, remembering favorite lines, revealing yourself.
2. Second, Susan Orlean (@susanorlean), for the New Yorker (@newyorker), had a twitter experience which got her thinking about the future of book publishing:
I woke up thinking about Ron Hansen’s majestic, mournful book “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” The book had gotten into my head the way some songs do, repeating its rhythms and tones over and over. On a whim, I mentioned it on Twitter, added the searchable hashtag #booksthatchangedmyworld, and sat still for a moment. About three seconds later, the flood began—dozens and dozens of other people started listing books that had changed their worlds.
3. Third - and this is old news, but still interesting - the Library of Congress (@librarycongress) announced in April that it was going to become the repository of twitter's entire archive - everything tweeted, ever. The New York Times notes, "They contain more observations, recorded at the same times by more people, than ever preserved in any medium before."

Still a twitter naysayer? Or convinced of its utility and interest? Either way, let us know - here, or if you prefer, @americanstudies.

Monday, 7 June 2010

News: BBC Americana in the Gulf

Looking for a quick and easy way to get up to speed with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? This week's BBC Americana (always worth a listen) came from Louisiana:
From the inside of T-Pops coffee and bait shop in Golden Meadow, Louisiana Matt Frei talks with shop regulars who have family ties to fishing and oil about how they are making sense of the spill.
Joan Walsh, Editor in Chief of, joins us to discuss the political impact of the oil continuing to gush into the Gulf of Mexico and how the United States may pursue its energy policy and upcoming national election campaigns.
And Pulitzer Prize winning author and southerner Rick Bragg shares his eulogy to the shoreline, a look at the view from Mobile Bay, Alabama.
Available on the iplayer, itunes, etc.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

News: Summer School

Sure, exam season has just finished and studying isn't high on your agenda. But if you are thinking about how to occupy the coming months, how about Summer School? How about Summer School at Yale? Or Harvard? Without leaving the house?

Increasingly, universities are opening up some of their banner courses for public consumption. Fancy studying the Civil War and Reconstruction with David Blight at Yale? Well, you can access everything you'll need here. If you want to watch his lectures online, go here. Alternatively, you can download the audio from itunes and enjoy it all on the move - and all for free. If that doesn't grab you, how about boning up on your literary theory or getting to grips with contemporary literature? Maybe you've got your own recommendations - leave us a comment.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

News: Film Screening and Panel Discussion

UEA postgraduates Stephanie Leal and Lucien Giordano, both 2nd Air Division Memorial Scholarship holders, are hosting a film screening and panel discussion at The Curve at the Forum in Norwich.

Here's a synopsis of Bedford: The Town They Left Behind:
"During World War II, men from all over the United States went into combat, but it was Bedford, Va., that earned D-Day's most chilling distinction: the country's highest losses per capita. Directors Joe Fab and Elliot Berlin [...] tell the story of Bedford, whose local National Guard unit was once considered a good way to make a few bucks during the Great Depression. But then the country was drawn into war that same Guard unit was the first to come under withering German fire on Normandy's beaches. This documentary recalls that solemn history but also places it in contemporary context: In 2004, Bedford's National Guard troops were called up for the first time since 1945. They were sent first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq."
The screening will be followed by a discussion panel featuring Professor Richard Crockatt (UEA / School of American Studies); Wing Commander Bryan Lewis (Ret), an RAF veteran of D-Day; and David Bedford, Superintendent of Cambridge American Cemetary.

All are welcome, but you'll need to e-mail Lucien to get on the guest list.

When: 7 June, 2010. 7pm.
Where: The Curve, ground floor of the Forum.

Friday, 21 May 2010

News: School of American Studies Annual Postgraduate Review Symposium

The AMS PGR Annual Review Symposium will be taking place on Tuesday 29th June. The symposium is an opportunity for all postgraduate students (full-time and part-time) in the School of American Studies to meet and discuss their research ideas and perhaps develop new areas of thought or enquiry. This symposium - the first of what will hopefully be an annual event - is designed to facilitate an exchange of ideas and discussion within the school. It is also anticipated that several new members of the PGR community who will be registering in September 2010 will attend the event so this is your opportunity to meet with them and showcase what AMS does!

Abstracts for 20 min papers should be forwarded to Dr Rebecca Fraser ( via email by 28th May. Papers will then be arranged into panels. For further information concerning the event feel free to contact Dr Fraser or Francisco Costa, who originally developed the idea.

Further details and a registration form can be sourced at:

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

News: Exam Special

As you all know far too well, it's exam season. We trust that your experience is not being reflected in the image above. But however your exam season is going, one thing that's not recommended is following the example of Adam Wheeler. Wheeler is accused of faking his way into and through Harvard, defrauding the institution to the tune of $45000 in scholarships, and attempting to do the same for Fulbright and Rhodes scholarships. As The Times makes clear, "His application claimed that he had not only received perfect grades while at Harvard but had also co-authored numerous books, given lectures and even taught courses." And it almost worked. But not quite - he's currently on bail. So remember: things could be worse. The Atlantic examines reactions in the blogosphere, and Gawker, as you'd expect, explores the gossip behind the news.

And for those who will soon be leaving us, the New Yorker gives some advice on how your nearest and dearest should treat the newly graduated. Good luck to all.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

News: Mark Twain Centenary

Mark Twain died one hundred years ago this week. Whilst reports of his death are no longer an exaggeration, a century later Twain is still capable of generating a wealth of comment. Here's a sampling:
Below, silent footage of Mark Twain taken by Thomas Edison in 1909 not long before his death.

And finally, a cartoon from the Baltimore American, April 23 1910 - Uncle Sam grieving at Twain's bedside:

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Friday, 9 April 2010

BAAS 2010 - Liveblog

Professor Wai-Chee Dimock and Professor Susan Castillo speaking at the
Norwich Forum.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Letter from America: Lemara Lindsay-Prince

AMS student Lemara Lindsay-Prince is currently spending her year abroad at Temple University in Philadelphia. On March 7th, Lemara travelled to Alabama to commemorate a key moment in Civil Rights history. Her account of her experiences was initially published on her own blog, here. We're very pleased to be able to share it with you:
On March 7th 1965 lines of African Americans walked across a bridge in Selma, Alabama. They were walking with a purpose to get the then Governor Jim Clark to give African Americans their voting rights. It’s no secret that African Americans had been disenfranchised since they were brought to America and one aspect of the Civil Rights Movement for black equality involved voting.

The date of March 7th is cemented in Civil Rights history as that innocent action of walking across a bridge was met with the most horrific violence.

If you're not familiar with the events of Bloody Sunday click my Videos tab for a small clip from the mini-documentary I am currently putting together about my trip [or see below]. I was invited by Brother Nate as I like to call him to go to Alabama for the weekend and not just re-enact the march across the bridge but to meet some of the pioneers of the movement, who walked across the bridge 45 years ago that day.

Jubilee weekend was set up by Rose and Hank Saunders in order to commemorate the bravery and remember that fateful day. Jubilee Weekend consists of a celebration of exceptional people in today’s struggle for Civil Rights. Being honoured that weekend was Winnie Mandela.

Walking across the bridge early on in the day before the cameras and television crews got there was a very sobering experience. I was happy to be there, to witness and experience it, but at the same time something sunk heavy in me.

History is a powerful thing to read, learn and see.

The struggle for black equality jumped off the page that whole weekend as I met and talked to the original people who walked across the bridge that day forty five years ago.
Lemara is currently putting together a short documentary about the event. Here's a snippet:

And Lemara is also at work on a series of posts about the Black Experience in the US and the UK - "A Different Kind of Black." Read it, and leave her a comment.

News: British Association for American Studies Conference 2010 - Final Programme

The 55th Annual British Association for American Studies Conference April 8-11 2010, hosted by the School of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, is fast approaching. We plan to document the conference here on Containing Multitudes, so stay tuned for updates. In the meantime, you can take a look at the full and final conference programme here. Enjoy - and see you in April.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Research Seminar: Steven F. Lawson

The Little Rock Nine Return to Central High School, via the New Yorker

At this week's research seminar, Steven F. Lawson (Rutgers University, currently Senior Mellon Visiting School, Cambridge University), author of Civil Rights Crossroads: Nation, Community and the Black Freedom Struggle (University Press of Kentucky, 2006) will be speaking about: "The Long Origins of the Short Civil Rights Movement".

Wednesday March 17th. Arts 2.51. 4pm. All welcome.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Research Seminar: Karen Jones

At this week's research seminar, Karen Jones (University of Kent), author (with John Wills) of The Invention of the Park: Recreational Landscapes from the Garden of Eden to Disney's Magic Kingdom (Polity Press, 2005), will be talking about: "'The Old West in Modern Splendor': Frontier folklore and the selling of Las Vegas."

Wednesday 10th March. A2.51. 4pm. All welcome.

Friday, 5 March 2010

News: Levi's on Campus

We've been visited by an icon of Americana: the promotional film for Levi's Spring 2010 collection was filmed on campus. You can watch the video here. And then you can learn a bit about the company's history - dating back to 1853 in San Francisco - here.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

News: Debating American Exceptionalism

Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru's essay for National Review Online - "An Exceptional Debate" - is generating a lot of online heat. They claim:
Our country has always been exceptional. It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth. These qualities are the bequest of our Founding and of our cultural heritage. They have always marked America as special, with a unique role and mission in the world: as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary.
And they argue that President Obama is attacking the very qualities that make America "exceptional". Others have disagreed. Damon Linker, writing for The New Republic, argues: "While its authors clearly mean it to stand as a manifesto for a resurgent conservative moment, the essay far more resembles a lullaby—a comforting compilation of consoling pieties set to a soothingly familiar melody." And the Economist's "Democracy in America" blog questions the claim "that America is "freer" or "more democratic" than literally every other society on earth."


Research Seminar: Nancy Hewitt

At today's research seminar, Nancy Hewitt (Rutgers University, currently Pitt Professor 2009-10 at Cambridge University), editor of No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of US Feminism, will be talking about: "The Long U.S. Suffrage Movement, 1776-1965."

Wednesday March 3rd, Arts 2.51, 4pm. All welcome.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Research Seminar: Laura Pollard

At this week's research seminar, Laura Pollard (University of East Anglia), will be talking about:
“How Can They See With Sequins in Their Eyes?”: Nostalgia, Celebrity and Showbusiness in Chicago (1975).

Wednesday February 24, Arts 2.51, 4pm. All welcome.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Letter from America: Mardi Gras in New Orleans

AMS student Betsy Porritt is currently spending her year abroad at Tulane University in New Orleans:

So THAT was Mardi Gras. During the week long extravaganza I lost my voice, dignity and about three whole days. New Orleans takes it’s partying seriously. Seriously enough to give the city days off work to watch gaudy floats roll by and allow the people to scream hysterically for bright beads and trinkets you normally couldn’t pay me to take home. The festival season this year started with a bang as the home football team, the Saints, won their first ever Super Bowl. Coupled with a landslide victory for Mitch Landrieu, voted in as a mayor who promises to usher in a new era of order and growth, the victory in Miami was lauded as an almost divine sign that this isn’t a sinking city.

When I first said I wanted to come to New Orleans most people were either worried for my safety or the future health of my liver. Others only knew the city as a place still devastated by hurricane Katrina with little or no culture left, if there was any there in the first place. I wanted an adventure, to challenge my middle class white girl sensibilities and to really see a place that had existed in my imagination for so long.

There are a few things that struck me initially and still continue to make me smile. Firstly, that there really is music everywhere. I lie in my bed and hear my neighbours practicing trumpet; walk down the street and a second line parade passes the block; step out of class and a three piece band is quietly jamming on the porch of the academic advising building. Secondly, that this is a place that refuses to take itself seriously and at the same time is deeply earnest in everything it does. This is probably one of the only places left in the world where tie-die is an acceptable form of clothing decoration, and where dancing in the street is not only enjoyed by all totally without inhibition, but non-participants are shunned and reviled as outsiders. Yet, at the same time, the externally flamboyant and effeminate Mardi Gras Indian practice of dressing in the most feathery, glittery, brightly-coloured suit possible, is a sign of the wearer’s complete masculine domination over those less gaudy and brilliant.

And this is the third thing: the deep seated love of the city and a tenacious clinging to the customs which made it, no matter how politically incorrect they seem to outsiders. On Mardi Gras morning I stumbled, blinking, out of a bar into the sunshine and crowds filling the pavements and neutral ground down St Charles avenue to watch the Zulu parade. This all black parade was started officially at the dawn of the 20th century. Its history reaches back into the era of slavery and the social aid and pleasure clubs which were essentially local insurance groups which aided black communities, families and individuals in times of crisis. The parade holds a long and proud tradition and has carried Louis Armstrong as king. However, it was still shocking to me to see African Americans decked out in grass skirts with painted black faces throwing coconuts. The Krewe faced near closure during the 60s when ‘black awareness’ jarred with the highly racialised images, but it clung on and today a Zulu coconut is one of the most prized possessions of the entire carnival period. I realized how much collective social memory can count towards the meaning of something. On the surface the ideas behind the parade seem racist and outdated but in reality the riders are acknowledging a deep history and embracing a past riddled with controversy rather than pretending it never happened. The historically white parades themselves are just plain strange, masked and cloaked, often on horseback, overwhelmingly linked to Grecian or Roman mythology. I was inevitably reminded of old footage of Klan members parading down streets. And don’t even get me started on the dubious relationship between the masked, middle aged ‘Rex’ of the Krewes and the sweet southern belle, never out of her twenties, who is presented to him as queen. And yet I screamed for beads.

A few streets away, past the huge St Charles mansions, in alleys where the waters of the broken levees lapped the walls for weeks, the Mardi Gras Indians were meeting. My friend and I jumped on our bikes and set off to find them. Here is a side of the city I never even knew existed before I arrived. The Indians have a strange and unclear history. Part embracing of the relationship between the bayou Native Americans and the escaped slaves, part utter fantasy, and part empowerment and embodiment of all Voodoo, Christian, African, European, American gumbo that makes this city, the Indian chiefs hold a power in the backstreets of the city that is untouched by law and Americanisation. In the stunning documentary ‘Tootie’s Last Suit’ by Lisa Katzman, the head of the Yellow Pocahontas, Tootie Montana, talks of the past Indian fights which were bloody and violent and how he enforced the ritual of the suit as power - the shared social memory of a past, embodied in the most elaborate and detailed beaded designs, made over 365 days, which determine essentially who is a man and who is not. Here in the quiet, sitting on the curb with a bowl of red beans and rice, I saw two chiefs meet; their various spyboys dance and signal and one great feathered head bows to another. I can’t say I fully understand it but somewhere between the frenzy of the external parade madness, and the solemn dignity of the Indian tribes, I think lies the secret of the big easy and evidence of a stronger current of culture than I really knew existed.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Research Seminar: Daniel Williams

At this week's research seminar, Daniel Williams (Swansea University), author of the forthcoming Transatlantic Exchange: African Americans and the Welsh 1845 – 1945 (University of Wales Press), will be talking about: "Paul Robeson, Jazz and the Cold War."

Wednesday February 10, A2.51, 4pm. All welcome.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

News: Super Bowl

Super Bowl 2010 has arrived, and the New Orleans Saints face off against the Indianapolis Colts later today in Miami. For the first time, the BBC is screening it live - 10.55pm on BBC1. So how are things shaping up?
  • For the Indianapolis Colts, all eyes are on quarterback Peyton Manning. The San Francisco Chronicle discusses the significance of victory for Manning's reputation as one of the greatest of all time; the Kansas City Star looks into his "beautiful mind".
  • For the New Orleans Saints, focus remains on the symbolism of victory, five years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Newsweek asks "Can The Saints Really Save New Orleans?"; the New Orleans Times-Picayune declares that America has become a "Who Dat" nation.
  • And the rest: half-time entertainment will be provided by The Who; the Huffington Post reviews previous half-time shows; and NPR gives of a run down of this year's Super Bowl Ads.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Research Seminar: Geoffrey Morgan

At this week's Research Seminar, Geoffrey Morgan will be talking about "Black American G.I.s in WW2 Britain".

Wednesday February 3rd, A2.51, 4pm. All welcome.

News: R.I.P Salinger, Zinn

R.I.P J. D. Salinger. The New Yorker leads the tributes, gathering encomiums and remembrances from, amongst many others, Dave Eggers, Wes Anderson and Lillian Ross. But maybe The Onion said it best:
In this big dramatic production that didn't do anyone any good (and was pretty embarrassing, really, if you think about it), thousands upon thousands of phonies across the country mourned the death of author J.D. Salinger, who was 91 years old for crying out loud.
Also R.I.P Howard Zinn - a tribute by Alice Walker and NPR.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Research Seminar: Douglas Tallack

Alvin Langdon Coburn

At this week's research seminar - the first of the semester - Professor Douglas Tallack (University of Leicester), author of New York Sights (Berg, 2005), will be talking about: "One walked of course with one's eyes greatly open' (Henry James): London Sights in Alvin Langdon Coburn, Henry James and Joseph Pennell".

Wednesday January 27th, A2.51, 4pm. All welcome.

Joseph Pennell

Monday, 18 January 2010

News: MLK Day

It's Martin Luther King day, and as The Caucus blog sagely notes, "For the first time, a black president will observe the holiday [...] President Obama and the first lady, Michelle Obama, will participate in a community service event in Washington. They will attend the annual “Let Freedom Ring!” concert at the Kennedy Center." Plenty of media outlets - like Salon - are using the event to meditate on Obama's first year as President, and to comment on the upcoming Senate race in Massachusetts.

Fox, on the other hand, leads with news of a new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press:
70 percent of white Americans and 60 percent of black Americans “believe values held by blacks and white have become more similar in the past decade.” Those numbers are unprecedented. Clear majorities of black and white Americans are saying that the divide born or racial, cultural and educational divisions is closing fast.
They also complain that "the New York Times and Washington Post did not find space in their news columns to tell this uplifting story." In the Guardian, however, Lola Adesioye responds:
A more revealing place to look, certainly more so than polls or media firestorms, is at the fact and figures of minority life in America. There is the 16% African-American unemployment rate, which is expected to soon reach a 25-year high. There is the fact that while the president works on passing a healthcare reform bill, people of colour continue to die at disproportionate rates from diseases such as cancer and heart disease. There is a US education system which continues to fail minority children. While the picture is not all doom and gloom it is clear that the issues which most negatively affect the quality of life of a large number of minority citizens still persist in spite of an African-American president.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

News: Pardon?

Jack Johnson; John Brown

As we begin 2010, the issue of pardoning is in the air. First, in the New York Times, David S. Reynolds called for a posthumous Presidential pardon for John Brown on the 150th anniversary of his hanging:
Justice would be served, belatedly, if President Obama and Governor Kaine found a way to pardon a man whose heroic effort to free four million enslaved blacks helped start the war that ended slavery. Once and for all, rescue John Brown from the loony bin of history.
Second, Senators John McCain and Peter King have been leading a campaign to secure a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson:
"A posthumous pardon would represent a final vindication to Mr. Johnson's family and to the ignominious stain on our nation's history," McCain and King wrote, "and highlight the achievements of an athlete who was forced into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice" (via the Huffington Post).
But even though both houses of Congress passed resolutions urging a Presidential pardon for Johnson, the Justice Department has recently made it clear that this will be unlikely.

Indeed, the San Francisco Chronicle, has highlighted "Obama's Pardon Drought":
Obama has yet to grant a single clemency petition. He also has yet to deny one. Among past presidents, only four - George Washington, John Adams, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush - have taken longer than Obama to grant their first pardon.
Writing in the Huffington Post at the end of December, Jacob M. Appel went even further, putting out a call for mass clemency for America's incarcerated:
Our nation is long overdue for a mass clemency of non-violent felons and those unlikely to re-offend. Such a collective pardon and commutation would reunite hundreds of thousands of families, save billions of dollars in incarceration costs, and might foster a national spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Is there anyone that you think should receive a pardon, posthumous or otherwise?