Every Kiss Begins With Unwanted Touching and Threats

kay-jewelers.jpg

Did you guys see this story, in the Washington Post yesterday, about the pervasive culture of sexual harassment and gender discrimination at Sterling Jewelers, parent company of Kay and Jared Galleria? Apparently a class-action lawsuit involving SIXTY-NINE THOUSAND female workers has been going on for years but the documents involved, which had previously been in confidential arbitration, were just released last weekend.

If you thought the corporate culture in Mad Men was television hyperbole, check out this article for depictions of a culture of no-holds-barred sexual predation by upper management of young saleswomen.

Routine sexual “preying” at company events “was done out in the open and appeared to be encouraged, or at least condoned, by the company,” Melissa Corey, a manager of Sterling stores in Massachusetts and Florida between 2002 and 2008, said in her declaration.  Continue reading

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Keith Ellison, Allan Dershowitz, and the American Left

After a crisis of authority–who am I to have a hiphop blog?–I’m back, trying to find my public voice again, trying to reclaim it from the din of Facebook where I’ve produced what I’m sure is a very detailed data profile of my political opinions without ever having to write them out for myself.

But I have a lot of opinions. Let me state some of them here. I might not cite everything. If you don’t believe me, get googling. Now let’s talk about the DNC electing Tom Perez as chair on Saturday.

For going on forty years, Israeli apartheid has poisoned the coalition-building of the American Left. As far back as the 1970s, as soon as U.S. Black folks started standing in solidarity with dispossessed Palestinians, the Black-Jewish cooperation of the Civil Rights era was over.

[Update 2/28: If you haven’t yet, read Bernie Sanders’s speech to progressive Jewish American PAC J-Street now.]

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Stokely Carmichael speaking at Berkeley in 1966. Image via Radio Open Source.

Writing for The Hill last week, criminal lawyer and pro-Israel hawk Allan Dershowitz said that he would leave the Democratic Party if Keith Ellison was elected DNC chair, arguing that Ellison’s affiliation with folks like Louis Farrakhan and Stokely Carmichael made him an unrepentant anti-Semite.  Continue reading

#BiteTheBullet: It’s time to divest from guns

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 11.55.00 AM

From Reuters via the New York Times. Gun stocks from Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger have risen even faster than Apple over Obama’s presidential terms

In an interview last week with Essence, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza said, “if we’re serious about making the types of changes that need to happen, we need to be really serious about redirecting resources. Why are we paying tax dollars to departments that continue to murder our people? I don’t want to pay for people to kill us, and I don’t think anybody in our communities want that.”

Many have been wondering how to support the Movement for Black Lives. Garza points to a revolutionary option: stop paying our taxes. We need to educate ourselves, listen to voices of color, attend protests, and voice concerns to elected representatives. But for those who have financial resources, there’s another action you can take today that entails financial, not civil, disobedience:

Move your money out of guns. Today.

Read the rest on Medium.

To all the folks like, “This Presidential primary race is unprecedented!”

I humbly remind you of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s…

When, after a decade of deregulation and rising wealth inequality exploded in a market collapse and a decade of economic depression, lowest-common-factor politics produced two options: fascism and socialism. While Germany elected Hitler, we elected Roosevelt, who, deemed a socialist, brought us the New Deal.

#history

White @BernieSanders Supporters, We Need to Embrace #BlackLivesMatter

from seattleglobalist.com

On Friday afternoon, Black Lives Matters protestors disrupted a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle.

From the crowd there were calls that the protestors should be arrested or even tased, prompting Black Lives Matter Seattle founder Marissa Janae Johnson to declare, “I was going to tell Bernie how racist Seattle is, but you already did this for you.”

Since then, discussion has raged over Black Lives Matter-Seattle’s choices. Bernie’s defenders have wondered aloud: Why interrupt the most left candidate? Why not protest the Republican debate? Why not interrupt Hillary Clinton? And, more defensively, don’t the protestors understand Sanders is their best bet? Don’t other peoples’ concerns matter? Is this kind of raucous misbehavior the real way to get change? And supporters of BLM-Seattle have replied: Yes. There is no time for respectability or patience when Black people are being murdered every single day.

I am writing to other white supporters of Bernie Sanders — because yes, I support him, and I am white — to say that we need to embrace #BlackLivesMatter.

Keep reading on Medium.

Homely Genres and the Michael Brown Autopsy Report

first page of the Michael Brown autopsy report, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

first page of the Michael Brown autopsy report, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

On Tuesday night, as I was checking my Twitter feed just before sleep, the autopsy report on Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown was released. How strange, to see this boy’s death described in the vague and also explicit detail of a bureaucratic, quasi-medical discourse. Someone had sat down and written this. I wondered who.

Now that I look at it again I see it was written by Wendell Payne, Medicological Investigator. Oddly, it does not seem to be dated, even though the first words of the prose narrative are “At 1330 hours.”

My immediate response was to screenshot each page, because, as Kanye once said, “They gonna take this off the internet real quick.”

The document contains a lot of information that we already knew, that Michael Brown lay in the street for hours while the crowds gathered, the panic rising—but here they are conveyed in the clear, firm language of the government:

There I was met by numerous officers of the St. Louis County Police Department and they directed my attention to the deceased who was located in the middle of the roadway with his head pointed west and his feet east….The deceased was lying in the prone position.

The deceased was cool to the touch. Rigor mortis was slightly felt in his extremities.

In the freshman composition class I teach we are researching “homely” genres, those genres people write in every day without even thinking about it as writing: e-mails, text messages, facebook posts, but also professional genres like case files, medical reports, and broadcast scripts, not to mention application forms and essays, tax forms, letters to contest parking tickets, and so forth.

What homely genres have you written in lately?

The term “homely” comes from Carolyn Miller’s seminal 1984 article “Genre as Social Action,” in which Miller consolidates previous rhetorical and discursive study of genre and lays the foundation for a given genre to be analyzed, beyond its language, format, or situation, “on the action it is used to accomplish.”

To consider as potential genres such homely discourse as the letter of recommendation, the user manual, the progress report, the ransom note, the lecture, and the white paper, as well as the euology the apologia, the inaugural, the public proceeding, and the sermon, is not to trivialize the study of genres; it is to take seriously the rhetoric in which we are immersed and the situations in which we find ourselves. (Miller)

After the release of the autopsy report that night, the tweets came out fast and furious. Was the report fabricated? Lying? Was the medical examiner biased?

These questions matter, but they won’t be answered by this report. But this report is important: very, very important. Miller writes that “as a recurrent, significant action, a genre embodies an aspect of cultural rationality.”

That is: this autopsy report tells us about the logics and movements of our culture. It gives a text, an example of a genre–that is, the medical autopsy report produced by a police force–what is natively labeled “Narrative Report of Investigation”–an artifact about which we can ask, “Who wrote you, and for what audience? How were you circulated? Who typed you, printed you, held you, e-mailed you, handed you off? Who leaked you? And, in your original function, what were you supposed to accomplish?”

When I read the report last night, I gasped. I covered my mouth. I was horrified. But that is not the report’s intention, because I am not its audience. This genre wants everything to seem normal–or at least, accounted for. And it is, accounted for, for the most part. The report describes how Michael Brown was arrayed in the street according to the compass rose, it describes what he was wearing and what he objects were near him, like his flip-flops, and it describes his nine (9) gunshot wounds, and his “abrasions.”

detail from Michael Brown autopsy report, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

detail from Michael Brown autopsy report, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Stamped below this description, in the bottom margin of the page, in red ink: NOT FOR SECONDARY RELEASE.

What is not known is how exactly Officer Wilson’s weapon discharged nine times into the dead man’s body, only that “during the struggle the Officers weapon was un-holstered. The weapon discharged during the struggle.” The report continues:

The deceased the ran down the roadway. Officer WILSON then began to chase the deceased. As he was giving chase to the deceased, the deceased turned around and ran towards Officer WILSON. Officer WILSON had his service weapon drawn, as the deceased began to run towards him, he discharged his service weapon several times.

As this is preliminary information it was not known in which order or how many time the officer fired his weapon during the confrontation.

Let’s pause with the language. Officer WILSON has a name, but Michael Brown does not. In this report, Michael Brown is a zombie, a “deceased” who can run away from a skirmish and then run back towards the officer who has already discharged his weapon at least once. He must be a zombie, this deceased, because what kind of person charges a police officer whose weapon is drawn and which weapon has already fired at least once, when they were tussling while the officer was still inside his squad car?

This is genre functioning, that tiny, crucial decision to call the dead person not by their name but by “the deceased.” A question for further research might be whether medical examiner reports of people who were not shot by police officers are also called “the deceased.”

last page of the Michael Brown autopsy report, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

last page of the Michael Brown autopsy report, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The last line of the report notes, “Any additional information will follow in the usual supplemental manner.”

The usual manner. This is the power of this genre: to usher its subject matter, that is the state-sanctioned murder of an unarmed teenage boy, into a file in a filing cabinet to which other documents can be added and consulted and called forth and held secret from the press and marked “Not for Secondary Release,” this stream of documentation and memo and language and mostly correct spelling and grammar and headers and signatures and case numbers that say everything is accounted for and is being handled and nothing is wrong in the universe where the correct papers have been filed.

Of course, everything is wrong. Everything is wrong! I can use all caps and expletives and images and links and embedded tweets all day long, but nothing in this blog post can make that report seem as abnormal as it makes itself, its own existence and the “preliminary information” it contains normal, filed, stamped, sealed, delivered, accounted for.

Last class I asked my students to read a blog post and then copied them my own homework by mistake, and none of them e-mailed me to say the link seemed weird. Only when I went into our discussion board and saw student after student comment how confusing it was, did I check the link and see I’d had them read about ancient greek rhetorician Aspasia of Miletus by accident, that the title was not the title on the syllabus or even on the link, let alone that the content was nonsensical in the context of our class. But words pass by our eyes and we are so used to them being there we don’t even ask what they are or why they’re there or who wrote them or what they are supposed to do, we just accept that this is the language that fills the homework and these are the papers in the Brown, Michael file.

These papers, this stream of memos, this is the stuff of colonial land treaties and apartheid laws and illegal wars and vast coverups of abuse: a series of memos pushed by paper pushers, filed by paper filers, read but not really read, injustice furthered again in that “genteel bureaucratic way” that injustice has of reinstantiating itself.

There is more to say, there always is, but this is a blog post, and blog posts are supposed to be short. Til soon.

Shame and Shamelessness: What I’ve Been Reading This Week

In National Journal, NPR’s Michel Martin brings race to the gendered discussion of “having it all” in her nuanced “What I’ve Left Unsaid.”

On her tumblr Rebgold, my day school classmate Rebecca’s beautiful images and words about the current crisis in Gaza, centering on the universal image of “Mayim-Agua-Water-Wasser.”

In the New York Times Magazine, Nicola Twilley’s fun and thoughtful “What do Chinese Dumplings Have to Do with Global Warming?”

On Open Democracy, an interview with philosopher Judith Butler about her controversial, anti-violence position on Israel-Palestine.

Shuhada Street, via theAtlantic.com (Nayef Hashlamoun/Reuters)

Shuhada Street, via theAtlantic.com (Nayef Hashlamoun/Reuters)

On BuzzFeed, Anne Helen Petersen’s “Down and Dirty History of TMZ” and its founder Harvey Levin.

In the Atlantic, Megan Garber talks the capitalistic genius of Kimmy K in “Kapitalism and Kim Kardashian”–and I’ll have more to say on this one soon, I think.

On HNN, U of M history professor Juan Cole’s post on the geopolitical history of Israel-Palestine, in response to a skirmish on theAtlantic.com between Andrew Sullivan and Jeffrey Goldberg spurred by an earlier blog post by Cole.

Also in The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky interviews @FeministaJones on her anti-harrassment campaign #YouOkSis, which centers black women’s experiences in this conversation.

Finally, in HaAretz, Amira Hass’s “Israel’s Moral Defeat Will Haunt Us for Many Years,” and in the Atlantic, Ayelet Waldman’s “The Shame of Shuhada Street.”

#WeCantStop Appropriating Blackness: A Bibliography

Y’all, it is a bull market out there for appropriating Black culture. Sell, sell, sell, ’cause folks are buying. You got twerkers on hand? Set them around a white lady and open the auction. Miley was just the beginning. It’s a bonanza out there.

a still from Miley's video "We Can't Stop," via vimeo.com

a still from Miley’s video “We Can’t Stop,” via vimeo.com

For a few months now people have been asking me when I’m gonna blog about Miley Cyrus–her VMAs performance, her recent music videos, her appropriation of ratchet cultural signifiers–it all seemed so in my cultural wheelhouse. There was only one thing standing in my way: I don’t like Miley Cyrus, and I don’t like her music. No special offense, really, to Miley. It’s just, I’m a busy lady, so when I blog about something it’s because, even if I find it problematic, I am attracted to the music or the star enough to spend my free time researching, listening, and writing around them. Continue reading

A Holiday D’Var Torah for Syria

On Thursday morning I attended Rosh Hashana services at a Conservative synagogue in Dewitt, NY, neighbor to my new home of Syracuse. While it was odd to attend a new synagogue by myself, I appreciated this congregation’s open services policy and far preferred it to the option of visiting the Hillel on the University campus where I am a graduate student.

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a still from Emad Burnat and Guy David’s “5 Broken Cameras”

Before the Torah reading, the woman who would be reading gave a short d’var Torah, or commentary, on that morning’s reading: Genesis 21 through—27? 28?–, which covered the birth and binding of Isaac. In her short speech, the woman reflected on the moment when the matriarch Sarah, finally a mother, tells her husband Abraham to cast out his slave Hagar and their son Ishmael. She compared this moment to those columns in magazines which proclaim, “Stars: They’re just like us!” According to this shul’s Torah reader, it was reassuring to see the stars of the Torah behaving in imperfect ways. As a mother, this woman said, she understood Sarah’s selfish desire to save all her husband’s wealth for her own son, and send her husband’s first son and son’s mother, their slave, packing into an unforgiving desert.

As the woman chanted this fundamental story from the Torah, I read through the passage in English. And I was struck, not by Sarah’s relatability, but to her cruelty at a time of family celebration. Continue reading

“That’s Retarded, Sir” : Miley Cyrus v. Rachel Jeantel

via popdirt.com

via popdirt.com

Jezebel had a nice piece on Miley’s twerking and cultural appropriation: On Miley Cyrus, Ratchet Culture and Accessorizing With Black People. The title is pretty self-explanatory, but the idea is that Cyrus’s new video and general new ‘tude are a disrespectful appropriation of black southern culture, a move rooted in Cyrus’s privilege to “accessorise” with minority accoutrements but still move in privileged spaces with money and clout. Continue reading

Here Are the First 15 Pages of My Unpublished Novel, THE NIGHTS

THE NIGHTS

“Night is deliverance.”

– Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

A scene:[1]

She took her to Toledo to seduce her.

Toledo, Spain, that is, not Ohio, and she being Aisha and the other she being Lena, my older sister, the eldest of us four Kahanes.

Let’s try that again.

Aisha took my sister Lena to Toledo, Spain, to seduce her. This was back in spring of 2006, when they had been living in Berlin for a year, working diligently (too diligently, actually, thus the trip) on their modern American English-language translation of the Thousand and One Nights, and not sleeping together, which is not what Aisha had had in mind. They lived and worked in a storefront flat in Kreuzberg, the Turkish neighborhood the hipsters loved, but back then they still sat at their desks with papers spread around them, and the Persian rug Aisha stole from her husband sat unused on the floor, dotted with cushions, a kid of leisure-lounge area. (Eventually they would eschew the desks and spend all their time on the floor, lounging. But we’ll get to that.)  In spring of 2006, you recall, the two American wars were dragging on and Katrina had recently doused New Orleans and Dubya’s approval rating hovered around twenty percent.

But Lena, my sister, wasn’t concerned with American current events. She had graduated from Princeton with a degree in Linguistics and was living in Europe with her favorite professor, Aisha Wasila, and together they were rewriting The Nights for a modern American audience. It was going very well: if nothing else, those four years at Jersey’s fanciest country club had imparted to Lena excellent writing and research skills, and military-grade study habits, a work ethic the nation’s premier Presbyterian university could be proud of, in a Calvinist, good-works sort of way.[2] In their first year in Berlin, Lena and Aisha had categorically sifted through the thousands of Xeroxed pages of multiphonic versions of The Nights Aisha had copied from many dozens of manuscripts and anthologies in the tri-state area over the past seven years, then schlepped across an ocean in seven boxes when they moved. Now the copied tales were laid out along the southern wall of the apartment, organized by provenance and subject, Toledo, Istanbul, Paris, Algiers across, Sindbad, Aladdin, Scheherezad down.

It was from this well-lit, well-organized enclave of healthy work habits and professional relationships that Aisha looked up one morning from her work table and turned innocently to Lena, her charge, and asked, “Have you ever even seen a Medieval Arab city?”

“No,” Lena scoffed. She lived plumbly in the ahistorical present, in a converted storefront apartment in the formerly East Berlin, with a woman who had been her professor and would be her lover, but for now was only her roommate, and her boss. “Have you?”

“Only my hometown,” Aisha replied, but did not give its name. She looked at Lena’s profile, its cameo sheen: the long white neck, the subtle nosey bump, the black shadow of hair. The girl was ready for the next step. “You don’t find this problematic?” Aisha went on. She clutched at the papers that littered her desk. “That you will write Basra with never having seen it?”

“I’m not going to Iraq,” Lena said.

“No.” Aisha looked out the wide front windows at the chic Berliners ambling by. “I suppose no one is, save your soldiers and your tanks. No, we will go to Toledo.”

“They’re not mine,” Lena whined. She was still looking at her computer screen, where she’d been typing out a new draft of the Hunchback’s Tale. “You’re American, too.”

“Citizen, not ethnicity.”

“There is no American ethnicity. I’m Jewish.”

“Don’t remind me,” Aisha said. She stood up, closed her laptop, and smoothed her hair. “Come, we must pack.”

[1]               It always opens with a scene.

Or perhaps use a question:

How does one begin a story like this? With a scene:

Or maybe I could allude to the beginning of The Thousand and One Nights, which opens at the bedside of a dying king.

No: Too soon. Patience, storytelling is all about Patience, Nathan (I tell myself: I being Nathan, your humble narrator.)

Let’s leave it as it is: A scene. The rest is implicit: every story opens with a scene. Even the first one: big bang, om, tsimstum, breishit bara, heaven and earth, lingam and yoni, Krishna and Shiva, the opening dance.

All right, okay, I get it: a scene, sure, but my God, make it grand.

[2]               This would be in sharp contrast to my own experience at Princeton, where I gleaned the alternative skill set of hobnobbing and substance abuse, a charted course which would eventually see me duly punished, freeing me up to narrate the unusual tale of my sister’s escape to Germany (an 21st century inversion of the typical holocaust-era tale).

——-

A plotter, Aisha had already bought the tickets. Aisha was cunning, but she was organized about it. Had she even pushed Lena and Ted together, that first day in Arabian Nights class? I don’t know. And if she was already researching the Nights at that time, she redoubled her efforts, so that by the time Lena graduated four years later, Aisha had a foreign fellowship all lined up. All she needed was an assistant who could read Turkish, Arabic, French, and Greek. Luckily, she had trained her protégé well. Now Lena watched as Aisha packed for a long weekend escape: two cashmere sweaters, a black cardigan and a white pullover; three t-shirts, black, white, and tan; one pair of slacks and one pair of jeans; two brassieres, one black and one beige; five pairs of underwear, three briefs and two thongs; four pairs of socks, one wool; one pair of water-resistant boots and one pair of loafers; and a small cosmetic case containing mascara, lipstick, a toothbrush, toothpaste, conditioner, shampoo, and a hotel-sized bar of soap. Then she separated out the boots, the jeans, one sweater, one t-shirt, one set of underthings, and looked up at Lena, who had stood above her, watching, and said: “For the plane. Plus jewels. Well? Go pack.”

Lena put some clothes in a bag and soon they were on the airplane. The Eurozone crisis was a vague forethought in the some corners of the universities and Spain and Germany had nothing to say one another. The metro on both sides was good, but Berlin’s was better. When they arrived, Aisha could speak Spanish. They took the Metro to the Atocha station and Aisha bought their commuter rail tickets to Toledo and they killed an hour in the atrium, drinking espressos. Around them under the filtered sunlight milled dark women with their sleep ponytails tied into elaborate knots and this was what Lena had thought Italy would be like, and did, until a few months later when they went to Rome.

The commuter rail sped south and to Lena, who had never seen Spain, or any other arid landscape, the blank plateau seemed designed by Miguel Cervantes himself for the express contextualization of Quijote’s interminable quest. Looking out the window, Lena recognized that for the Knight of La Mancha, son of this flat, expressionless land, delirious fantasies were the only recourse for spiritual survival. On the train car with she and Aisha was a large group of schoolchildren shepherded by two school teachers, one old and one young, who turn turns ignoring the children. Aisha sat in the aisle seat reading a magazine in Spanish and periodically looked up at the window to deliver Lena a disquisition on how the Mideival Moorish occupation of Spain had brough not only Scheherezad but also algebra, astronomy, and Aristotle to Europe.

Then, in an hour, it was eight hundred years ago. From the train Lena watched Toledo rise out of the plain like a city built atop a giant turtle’s back, all the stone and brick the same color as the earth itself, the buildings like barnacles stuck to a shell. From the train station at the outskirts of the city they took a taxi to the studio apartment of an absent person Aisha knew from somewhere. (In every European city they went, and this was the first of many, Aisha would know a missing person. So Lena never met any of them, never found any witnesses to fill in the gaps about Aisha’s life. Lena got to know Aisha’s friends by their houseplants, their foreign woven rugs, their furniture, stark or plush, the painted details on their dinner plates.) The cab wound up into the city through narrow streets, and the locals hugged stone walls to let it pass. Their apartment was on the third floor of a building undifferentiated from its neighbors, denoted only by a numeral alongside the narrow wooden door set into the stone, which opened to a surprising formica liner on the stairs. Inside, bright white walls and a window box that needed watering, suspended over the view of a beautiful alley. In one corner a kitchenette, in another a loveseat, in a third, a narrow futon with sleeping space only for one.

For two days they walked. Munching on marzapan bought made in a convent by nuns, they entered every synagogue and cátedral and mosque. They saw suits of armor in shop windows and children’s swords for sale and above every streetred streamers were hung as though a festival had just ended, or was about to begin. Each church boasted its own Goya, the jazz-age faces wracked with grief, the heavenly light dissolved among the jewel-toned villagers and hills. In an ancient mosque-cum-synagogue with faded Coptic Jesus on the wall, Lena caught her breath and hoped those were tears in her eyes.

Lena insisted they go to the Jewish museum, tugged by some vague unstoppable internalization of our mother and her mother and hers: You went to Europe and not to the Jewish museum (there was always one, wasn’t there)? Ach! Go! Go! Go!

Inside the retiring synagouge the walls were covered, floor to triple-high ceilings, with Hebrew script. Lena stood under the light emitted by the rose-cut windows in the high stone and felt like a black ant inside a Torah scroll, ecstatic, trapped. On the second floor, the women’s section had been converted into a gallery for dead Jews’ things. Lena stood at a map of the post-inquisition diaspora and watched as the Jews to whom she was least related fled Spain for Paris, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Algiers. These Sephardic Jews were not our Jews. When the Temple fell, they went east, into Europe, while we middled in Germany, inventing Yiddish, before schlepping east.

A fat Spanish woman with hair dyed red approached smiling and asked, “Eres Judeo?” and Lena said, “Si,” and when Aisha appeared the woman included her in her broad beatific gaze. “Hermosas?” “No,” Aisha said, “somos investigadoras de la historia Judaismo,” and the woman smiled sadly and nodded her grey roots and drifted away.

Aisha led Lena by the elbow to a glass case holding shawls and candlesticks begging to be used, but locked away instead. “The Megillat Ester,” she said, indicating a tiny scroll unrolling into endless miniature Hebrew script. “Orientalists suggested—mostly notably in the 1912 Encyclopedia Brittannica entry on the Nights—that Scheherezad and Queen Esther were the same woman, both second wives to an ancient, insomniac Persian king, both with unusual sway over such a powerful man.”

“Is that true?” Lena asked. She peered into the glass case, looking for answers.

“Are the texts true?” Aisha stood close beside Lena, matching her breath. “It doesn’t matter if they’re true. They’re symbolic. They’re true mythology. Look at the symbolism in the first few lines.” And she offered an approximatae translation. “And there, in the time of Ataxerxes—he Ataxerxes, who reigned then from India to Ethiopia, and so forth, in the third year of his reign, and seven chamberlains, and the seven princes.”

“It’s a lot of sevens.” Looking closely, Lena could see the repetition of the Hebrew word seven, שבע , across the first few lines, the mythic three-pronged ש, the little crowns rising off its slick calligraphy. Lena turned and walked to the banister and looked out over the empty shul. Here in the women’s section the light from the rose windows hovered at eye level on the far wall, igniting the calligraphy with flames. On the ground floor, three steps led up to an ark that stood open and empty, the velvet cushions long gone, the Torah scrolls adopted or burned.

That night, after tapas and Tempranillo on Zocodaver square, Lena and Aisha returned to the absent friend’s flat. The night before they had slept chastely side-by-side, but tonight Aisha had other plans. Of course, I wasn’t there. But I can imagine. Did they stand at the window, watching the moon hover over the narrow streets, downing another glass of wine? Did Aisha brush a tendril of my sister’s long hair from her face, did she whisper entreaties of love? Or perhaps it was a roving foot, a meandering hand, that reached for my sister’s body when they were already tucked into the narrow bed. She must have expected it, in some way. Aisha was a highly sexual person. Lena was a year gone from Ted, her first and last true love. Who knows what her body needed, or could settle for, in that heady moment, head swimming with intellectual excitement, her body hot with the day’s excercise and wine. I imagine a few tender kisses in a foreign city was all it took, the first finger pulled (if I may say so) from the dyke. When they returned to Berlin, to their shared apartment, Lena was Aisha’s, at least until now.

 * * *

Phew! Call it Freudian, but for me writing and shitting have a lot in common. Both involve dropping my pants (figuratively in the former sense), my most private self exposed, and dedicating myself the difficult work of self-excavation with extreme purpose and single-mindedness. I really have to push. In both cases I must identify hidden interior material, composted and compacted after its long, winding journey through my being, and eject it (moaning and groaning all the while) into some blank white receptacle of my distress. If Geertz suggested that delayed gratification is the central psychological feature of the modern world (not to mention the modern novel, am I right? Bueller? Cervantes? Anyone?” then I am not ashamed to declare myself the first to proclaim (if  not downright discover) that constipation just might be the governing metaphor of mankind’s contemporary, technologically mediated existence.

Of course, if Lena were here, she would object that our world’s first novel, if we are defining the novel by its embrace of the conceit of delayed gratification (which is to say, suspense), is not Don Quijote but rather that endlessly iterated collection of tales to which my sister would insiste the Quijote is obviously, indeed explicitly, indebted, Nathan, that is, The Thousand and One Nights. But returning to an earlier point, the invocation of The…Nights, in whose pages waiting strikes a decidedly sexual tenor, allows us to infer that the action of delayed gratification is an inherently sexual or preferably sensual act. By which I mean—the holding it in—before, you know, letting it out—I mean—it feels good.

And woe to you if you call them “The Arabian Nights,” since as Lena will tell you (O for she has studied—under, literally under!—such a venerable scholar of The Nights) these tales traveled the Silk Road from Africa to China, and were originally recorded by the Persians, and have been transposed into all the world’s great languages, soon to be including (no offense to the Briton Burton) American English.

I know what you’re thinking—what, suddenly with a BA and three years of private cunning linguistic lessons from Aisha, Lena’s the master of the modern American idiom? Ahem?! Narrator here!

Far be it from me to protest that she doesn’t even live in America, because, then again, neither do I.

But I oughtn’t apologize: this is my story, even if they’re Lena’s facts, and so what if I’m cramped up in a moldy bathroom on the repossessed Israeli shores of the Mediterranean. (Yes, despite Aisha’s protestations, this story is Jewish. But at least my heritage offers the literary precedent of Portnoy, Sr., for my cramped-up kischkes.) And sheesh, if Lenaa told this tale, you’d miss the whole delicious context: that is to say, our family, the Knight-Abraham-Kahanes. As much as Lena may have thought running away from us all to Germany exempted herself from this grand Jewish-American tale of which she is a necessary part, it didn’t. Why do you  think she ran away in the first place?

I’ll tell you why: it’s because she fell in love with a schvartze. A black.

Ted.

Ted Knight, no relation.

Tadik “Ted” Knight, whose Arabic-inflected given name didn’t help matters as far as the social hostilities unleashed by Lena’s miscegenation were concerned, despite everyone’s protests that the issue wasn’t that Ted was black but simply, defensibly, that he was a goy.

Yeah, right. The old shaygetz excuse.

Of course, ours is a contemporary American family, so our bigotry was never so explicit (except in a few instances, when it was), but Lena was a good girl and a good daughter, played soccer in high school and excelled in her studies, she went to Princeton for Chrissakes, and so after years of satisfying my parents’ every wish for her this last, enormous failure needed only to grate on her for a few years before the bough cracked and she split.

It didn’t help that he asked her to marry him. What was she supposed to say, yes?

Aisha was the wild card. Aisha, who had been watching Lena and Ted since the first day they met, who then, when Lena was at her most vulnerable, pounced. She carried my sister away to Berlin, business class, where they still stay, living, working, and fucking even now, as we (figuratively) speak.

But, in Lena’s case, every trip has to come down eventually. Even now, as dusk falls over Berlin, the rumblings of her next abandonment are beginning to break the placid surface of her socialist work-life-conflation with Aisha. (Aisha, who, like any adulteress, hadn’t minded Lena’s fickleness when it was she Lena was leaving for.) If Lena had anything to say on the matter, she would insist that bad luck has followed her from the get-go, that she’s not a leaver but a loser, not the schlemiel spilling soup but the schlemazel unto whose lap it is spilled.

Oh, fuck her and her long hair.

Forgive me. As the eldest of her three brothers, I am not impartial. I am also among those whom Lena has left.

This is all easier to tell than show, but I know that isn’t the way. I won’t waste any more of your time hypothesizing as to the roots of Lena’s commitment-phobia, whose infinite set of possible originary causes begins with our parents’ divorce and extends back to the Russian pogroms, the destruction of the Second Temple, the eviction from Paradise itself.

And here I get ahead of myself, or more precisely, behind. I’ve all but already declared that storytelling takes patience, takes time—from both of us, reader, you and me, so stick around and I’ll explain it all. Just picture me the hare, plodding forward one step at a time, while fleet-footed Achilles (standing in for my plot) advances upon us from the starting line. Movement may be impossible—I know, I know, tell it to my bowels—but it is certainly probable (thank God!), that is, difficult to avoid. Zeno’s protestations notwithstanding, I promise the story will catch up with us in time.

And anyway, it’s midnight here, and I’ve been perched on the toilet too long, and I know you’re eager to get to Berlin, where my sister and Aisha lay sprawled on a woolen carpet embroidered with a rendering of Eden (whose potent symbolism will presently be revealed).

Could it be? I think I feel something stirring down below. If you’ll excuse me, I have pressing business to attend to. Ah, the armchair historian sinks to a new low.

Exeunt.

Oh, Kanye, You Always Know Just What to Say

Kanye West wants to be heard.

Kanye on the Crown Fountain at Chicago's Millennium Park

Kanye on the Crown Fountain at Chicago’s Millennium Park

He also wants to be seen, hyped, talked about, gathered around,  re-tweeted/tumbled/blogged/televised, experienced. And the man knows how to give us what we want, namely: primary source material. In the era of the chattering classes, when everyone with a BA and a smartphone thinks she’s Roland Barthes reincarnate, 10 minutes of Halftime Beyonce–shit, 10 seconds of “Bow down, bitches”–produces a Talmud’s worth of critical writing.

And into this media environment swaggers Kanye, who knows how to debut a motherfucking album. One tweet:

And then, last Friday, his new video and song debuted in 66 locations across the world–not the country, mind you, but the world–and then on Saturday he was on Saturday Night Live to rearticulate his vision for network TV where your ten-year-old kids could see him, even if on Friday they were already in bed, or, worse, in the suburbs.

As Meaghan Garvey wrote on her tumblr Sensitive Thug (and hers was the best post on the new release, and from it I shall quote heavily),

Chief Keef isn’t white America’s worst nightmare. Because while he scares the living shit out of them in person, he fits neatly into the trope that many racist white Americans need young black men to fit into: violent, uneducated, aimless. They expect this kind of character, and in turn know how to strip him of his humanity, dismiss him, and avoid him.

Kanye West is white America’s worst nightmare. Because as much as one may attempt to dismiss him—by calling him an asshole or classless or deranged or various other adjectives that fill the comment sections of literally every article about him—you still have to turn on your regularly scheduled late night comedy program and stare him in the face. You can’t avoid Kanye. He’s made very sure of that.

And, as Garvey chronicles, commentators high and lo spent the weekend trying to dismiss Mr. West. Garvey sorts their dismissals into three categories: “He’s A Hypocrite, This Isn’t New, and He Wants Attention.” She does a really, really great job of showing how all protestations are leaden with BS – indeed, leave this post now and go leave her post. (And yeah, she beat me to it, and she did a really, really good job.) I’ll summarize her main thesis a bit: Kanye’s been aware of his participation in consumerist culture from the very beginning, all the way back to “All Falls Down” when he rapped, “But I ain’t even gon’ act holier than thou/ Cuz fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou/ before I had a house and I’d do it again/ Cuz I wanna be on 106 & Park pushin a Benz” (qtd Garvey).

Now, I’m a little late on the uptake here, so instead of continuing to repeat what others have said I’m gonna direct you to various points in the conversation-thus-far, and then add some thoughts where I can.

In the Chicago Sun-Times, film critic Richard Roeper left me missing Ebert all over again when he wrote, “[S]top bitching….nobody embraces capitalism, consumerism and crass commercialism more than Kim and Kanye.”

MTV News actually did a nice job rooting Yeezy’s politicism in his earlier work. And over at Vice, Ernest Baker suggests the song is more trenchant if you’re actually black.

Over at The Week, Keith Wagstoff responded to the political content of “New Slaves,” especially its indictment of government and private sector complicity in a failed drug war. Wagstoff also directed readers to similar pieces in the ThinkProgress, Salon, and the New Jersey Star Ledger, and highlighted Michael Moore’s amazed tweet at Kanye’s political forthrightness on primetime TV.

At the Ledger, Tris McCall did a nice job contextualizing Kanye’s politicization among some of his earlier tracks as well as within contemporary rap reactions to the prison-industrial complex.

And Alyssa Rosenberg’s piece at ThinkProgress was most notable for its failed critique of Kanye’s turn toward misogyny at the end of “New Slaves.” After blasting the DEA+CCA, Kanye threatens to come to “Your Hamptons house/I’ll fuck your Hamptons spouse/Come on her Hamptons blouse/And in her Hamptons mouth.” A more trenchant gloss of those lines might have eschewed mere moralizing and instead noticed that in the face of a faceless war on poor people of color by the most powerful Americans, West’s only recourse is to sexist rhetoric. Indeed, given his reference to himself for dating a white woman as “King Kong” in “Black Skinhead,” West’s lyrics are aware that by resorting to threats toward an implicitly white woman he plays into the very sexual-racial stereotypes white America already wants to hold against him.

What I want to add to this discussion is a focus on this video being projected on walls all over the world, and especially on its appearance on the Crown Fountain at Milennium Park, the flashy civic space in downtown Chicago where white-collar workers can go in the summer after work to see Andrew Bird for free, but which doesn’t have a basketball court.

Because it’s almost like this video was made for that park.

I opened this piece by mentioning that the diversity of media experiences this debut created was an innovation made for the moment. What makes Kanye’s “guerrilla marketing technique” so incredible to my eyes is not that the video was played all over the world–it has been well noted by playa-haters and fanboys alike that after the first thing aired in Tokyo or whatever, everyone could stay home and watch someone else’s iPhone footage from their own boring bedroom.

What’s really amazing here, in this era of critical excess, is that these separate viewings unmediated by a centralized TV camera cockpit created hundreds of individual pieces of primary source material for us aspiring scholar writer types to gush over. We can hear kids react to their first sight/sound of “New Slaves” in New York, Chicago, Toronto, in French, English, Japanese, Portugese, and so on, and we can close read all that shit. That’s cultural innovation that’s not arbitrary but directly responsive to the environment in which it functions.

On the Prada Store in Manhattan, as the video opens up with colorful 1950’s-esque graphics with the words SPECIAL $3.99 printed on a green rectancular background, NOT FOR SALE on a yellow circle, $1.75 NEW handwritten over red, NEW SLAVES like a dog tag, NEW MART $21.86 on a lime-green square, a barcode, and we hear a female spectator ask, quite reasonably, “Is that an advertising spot?”

On the side of Wrigley Field, the image projected over Chicago Cubs graphics, the video’s high-resolution imagery seemed designed for this kind of imperfect medium, especially in a white, wealthy neighborhood like Lakeview. As Kanye’s starkly black face faded into the background, the image asked, can you see me? can you hear me? Or aren’t my white teeth and my chain all you see anyway? “See its that rich nigga racism…all you blacks want all the same things.”

And oh, oooohhhhh, on the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park. I remember when this park opened, thinking how dope this fountain was. On either end of a granite reflecting pool in which children play barefoot in the summer are two towers made of glass bricks through which huge videos of Chicagoans play. The videos are one-minute close-ups of Chicagoans of all ages and races, old men and women, kids, teenagers, young people, blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, looking straight at the camera. At the end of the minute, they purse their lips, and a stream of water comes out of the column where their mouth is and flows into the reflecting pool.

Now imagine that, last Saturday night, in the warm May evening, you stood around the pool under a clear sky and watched this glass tower: a figure of an elderly Asian man appears, then a white teenage boy, then a Latina kindergartner, smiling gently at the camera, blinking slowly, pursing their lips as in a kiss at you, and water pours into the fountain. How delightful.

Then a black man’s face appeared. Oh shit, it’s Kanye West. Kanye does not blow a kiss at you. Kanye starts rapping, and his message is angry. In the context of the Crown Fountain, his language acquires new meaning. It says, “Fuck your pat multiculturalism.” Yesterday the unelected Board of Education, all appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, voted to shut down 49 Chicago Public Schools, all in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. “Fuck your race-blind rhetoric.”  Now the mayor wants to build a taxpayer-funded arena for the DePaul basketball team and continue opening privately-controlled charter schools. “Fuck your school-to-prison pipeline.”

I know that we the new slaves

I see the blood on the leaves

I see the blood on the leaves

I see the blood on the leaves…

Get your piece today.

And then, at the close of the song, Kanye stops speaking his own words, which already called on the legacy of black protest music with the quotes from Billie Holliday and Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” and begins lip-synching to vocals which to me sound like, “We can’t get too high, we can’t get too  high, again, Oh no, so low, so low…” These words are a clear retort to folks like Richard Roeper who tell Kanye to “stop bitching.” West alludes to  My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which opens by asking, “Can we get much higher?” Here he seems to answer, “No.”

Meaghan Garvey decodes Kanye’s attachment to black suffering:

Questioning why a rich black man has a right to express anger at the plight of less rich black people is essentially asking, “Well, you’re gonna be okay, so what’s the problem?” Kanye’s wealth and participation in consumerist culture …cheapens his message to certain critics. This is because they are approaching the hyper-consumerist culture Kanye references when he says “What you want a Bentley, fur coat and diamond chain?/ All you blacks want all the same things”  as a force that is very bad, certainly; but not as a force that has enslaved them, personally, into a permanent underclass and then gone on to laugh at them for accepting the ideals and signifiers of this culture.

Kanye has transcended the class that is bearing the brunt of the issues at hand in “New Slaves”, and thus is expected to gratefully shut the fuck up and let it slide (“throw him some Maybach keys/ Fuck it, c’est la vie”). He now belongs to the same social class that has essentially trapped his people…. Kanye is not a “new slave” in the same sense as the victims of the prison industrial complex, but he is still trapped in a world that expects him to not only be complicit with the struggle of his people, but to be appreciative that he is not one of them. And on top of all that, while he gets to exist in the world of the 1%, having the money and signifiers of success still aren’t enough to make his (white) 1% peers actually even respect him.

As always, Kanye is begging us to really hear him. In tapes of his Friday night debuts you can hear kids already singing along with him: “I know that we the new slaves/I know that we the new slaves.” Besides the one official video and the official SNL video, there are dozens of tapes on YouTube of the same music video played against the backdrop of real cities where real people are suffering real injustice.  “Niggas is going through real shit, man, they out of work/ That’s why another goddamn dance track gotta hurt.” His video played on Wrigley Field, on a Prada store, on the safely-philanthropy-funded Crown Fountain. But Big Money’s complicity in Kanye’s debut isn’t ironic, it’s the whole point. As he rapped a decade ago on “All Falls Down,” “We all self conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” We’re all guilty, we all know what’s going on, we’re all participating in the systems that enslave us. At least Ye has the guts to stand up there and say it. Not For Sale. Of course he’s for sale. But aren’t you? Aren’t we all?

Invisible Men of Color at Obama’s Chicago Speech

Obama speaking in Chicago on 2/15/13

Obama speaking in Chicago on 2/15/13

President Obama just gave a really bland, boring speech in Chicago which some optimistic folks among us thought might directly address the problem of inner-city gun violence, in the wake of shooting death of Hadiya Pendleton. It quickly became clear, however, that Obama was in stump mode–this speech was almost identical to his State of the Union address, except this time he didn’t smile, and I assume the audience was more diverse than that of our assembled legislators.

I had already been interested in the gender politics of Obama’s (and our whole country’s) response to the death of female non-gang member Hadiya Pendleton. We are outraged over Hadiya; we are outraged over Sandy Hook; but we still aren’t outraged over the thousands of young men killed by gang violence each year. We don’t seem able to take responsibility for young men in gangs, wielding weapons, being killed, as also our children, as also a tragedy, as also victims, victims of larger structural problems perhaps, but deserving of political sight nonetheless. Our compassion stops there. So I was surprised-not-surprised to see Obama standing in front of an array of only female high school students. I didn’t think he was speaking at an all-female school.

Of course, the speech contained ample messages about “encouraging fatherhood,” which if this was at the RNC convention we’d call a “dog whistle,” and plenty took to Twitter to bemoan Obama’s selective amnesia about mass incarceration. Then, this amazing moment happened where Obama hollered at some young men in the audience he’d spoken to–he asks them to stand so that “we can all see them.” The President looks off-stage, tensely, as though trying to mind-jedi communicate he wants them to be on TV. But the cameras stay on him. We don’t see them. Obama says “these guys are no different from me,” only he had a stronger safety net–but what these young men look like, whether they look like Obama or not, I don’t know. We don’t see them.

Only then, at the end of his speech, as Obama physically moves to reach out to the young men in the audience, do I realize there is a tall African-American teenage boy standing directly behind the President, surrounded by about a dozen girls. You can see him in the screenshot above. Could he tell the President was directly between himself and the camera? Did he wonder why he was surrounded by a moat of females? I sure did. This image speaks to the huge oversights in Obama’s speech. Even when President Obama tried to be compassionate and inclusive toward young men of color, they were still off screen, hidden from our sight just as they will be when they are incarcerated, or disenfranchised, or criminalized.

In his last few huge speeches – DNC, SOTU — Obama has begun crafting a theoretical framework around the value of citizenship, a vision that values participatory democracy through individual works and cooperation. Mr. President, are these young men not also citizens? Are drug users citizens? Is Anwar Al-Awlaki’s son? While I appreciate your vision of citizenship, as progressives it is our duty to expand the polity and the ranks of the enfranchised. Keeping young men of color off our TV screens isn’t the right way to start.

 

Loving Kimye: An Exploration (part II)

In my first post on this subject, I considered two important questions: why care about celebrities at all, and why care about Kimye when there are Mr. and Mrs. Sean Carter? For the first question I used the work of star studies scholar Anne Helen Petersen to suggest, as she does, that “when we’re talking about stars, we’re really talking about ourselves.” Celebrities resonate with us, and divining why a certain star becomes a superstar is a project in self-understanding and cultural scrutiny.

My second question held Kim and Kanye up to Beyonce and Jay, their natural foils. I suggested that loving the former more than the latter, as I do, is a function of their lives’ messiness and mistakes. In reflecting my own life’s messiness and mistakes, Kimye’s love is fragile and human in my eyes. I am invested in it because I too have made mistakes and been judged harshly, and if their love can last then perhaps so will mine.

***

When Kim and Kanye began dating in earnest, I was very, very excited. They were on the cover of the Chicago Sun Times and I still have that paper next to my writing desk. Remember when people threw royal wedding-watch pajama parties for Will and Kate? I didn’t. I don’t care about Will and Kate. But when Kim and Kanye hooked up I would tell anyone who would listen that when they got married I would throw a party about it. Think: Grown N’Sexy KIMYE Wedding Bash! I would wear stilletos and a metallic dress in their honor and we would listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on repeat until it got late enough to switch to R. Kelley and Notorious B.I.G.

But before the engagement announcement arrived, Kim got knocked up. And I have to tell you, I was disappointed. I wanted to throw my engagement party. I wanted them to do it in the order you’re supposed to do it. Bey and Jay did it! Hell, they got married in secret! What happened to “first comes love, then comes marriage”?

And in noticing my reaction to Kim’s pregnancy, I realized that even though I loved this couple because their lives were messy, I still wanted their relationship to be neat.

***

Ye's banned MBDTF artwork with painting by G. Condo

Ye’s banned MBDTF artwork with painting by G. Condo

In America, Kim and Kanye’s coupling represents a deviant sexuality on almost all possible fronts. In almost all the ways a heterosexual couple can fit into America’s historical portrait of deviant sexuality, Kim and Kanye fit the bill:

1.Kim’s curves are objectified (the sense is,k by her, for money). Also, she made a sex tape, which reads pornography. Her body + the sex tape both read  prostitute.

2. Kanye is a black male rapper, which reads criminal/violent/drug dealer (not–as we might hope–“poet/artist”).

3. Kanye is a black man attracted to a white woman, which reads “Birth of a Nation” lascivious, hypersexed, dangerous black man out for your white daughters.

4. Kim is a white woman attracted to a black man (and, in the past, other black men) which means she’s addicted to sex, dirty, somehow animalistic, somehow less white and more Armenian, i.e., Arab. (SNL: “And to all our boyfriends, Happy Kwanzaa!

5. Kim allegedly married basketballer Kris Humphries for financial gain in the form of royalties from her television show and televised wedding special on E!, which reads that she sells her intimacy for money, which reads prostitute. See derogatory phrase: “fame whore.”

6. Kim is an adulteress with a capital scarlet A: she started dating Kanye and is now impregenated by him while still legally married to Humphries.

I don’t have the energy to defend that all the above are extant American prejudices or taboos. Watch “Barack and Curtis” or “Birth of a Nation” or read some of the suggested’s before. What I’m interested in here is how all of these taboos become coopted into a heteronormative, pro-marriage and pro-family narrative when we as a culture become invested in these two sullied individuals’ relationship. Even this morning there was an article in the New York Times about some prominent conservatives’ shift towards a pro-marriage (any marriage, gay marriage) agenda. And in rapper Macklemore’s video for “Same Love,” a celebrated pro-gay marriage song, we see a similar move, the normalization of gay people through marriage: “same love,” not “I respect your different love.”

Kimye on the Chicago Sun-Times front page (on my bulletin board), April 6 2012

Kimye on the Chicago Sun-Times front page, April 6 2012

Interestingly,when Kim and her ex Kris Humphries first called their marriage quits, the media (see SNL, below) demonized Kim as a woman who would sell her intimacy for the price of a televised wedding special on E! But now that Kim is pregnant, the narrative has switched to a demonization of Kris for refusing to give Kim a divorce because of his “desperate need for revenge” and “power.”  Whether this new narrative arises from the power of Kim’s publicity or America’s genuine affection for Kimye, I don’t know. But the fact remains that as a culture we seem to want Kim and Kanye to stay together and get married–a triumph of our conservative, pro-family values, and a testament to those values’ ability to somehow cleanse what we view as sexual sins like prostitution, miscegenation, adultery.

In her book Terrorist Assemblages, Jasbir Puar suggests that the recent welcome Americans have showed to homosexual couples in mainstream culture  has been accompanied by the shaming of a new set of bodies, namely Arab bodies who have been branded as “terrorists”  (Puar mentions The L Word and Six Feet Under, 132, to which we could add Modern Family and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy). Writing in 2007, Puar argues that our nation still uses sexualized humiliation and violence to mark criminalized sexuality. In the Jim Crow south, to be a black man whistling at a white woman or even just a black man was a sexuality that marked its owner’s body as available for state-sanctioned violence and murder. These days, Kanye can rap about “30 white bitches” and we all laugh. But Puar suggests this is the illusion of progress. While we pat Kanye on the back, out of sight, at Abu Graib, new bodies are available for state-sanctioned violence.

I’ve started already to extend Puar’s arguments on queer bodies to extend the kind of non-normative sexuality we see in the coupling of Kim and Kanye: a sexuality that invokes sex work, laciviousness, interracial coupling. Puar argues that queer sexualities are absorbed into the national project as a way to manage threats to the social order. She writes,  “homonormativity is both disciplined by the nation and its heteronormative underpinnings and also effectively surveils and disciplines those sexually perverse bodies that fall outside its purview. Thus the nation not only allows for queer bodies, but also actually disciplines and normalizes them” (49). That is, a normalized homosexuality is still heteronormative–that is, pro-heterosexual practices and behaviors. But by accepting homosexual behavior of a certain kind, the nation is able to regulate and control those behaviors. Meanwhile, what is unaccepted and unregulated has shifted to a new target: in Puar’s argument, terrorist bodies, who are not welcome in our polity and instead still subject to violence, not cooptation.

I want to suggest that interracial relationships and even in some senses sex work are being “surveiled and disciplined,” and therefore normalized, in the persons of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, through our insistence on their marriage.  Let’s take a look at Kim Kardashian’s appearance on The View in September, when she and Kanye had been dating for 6 months (my Sun-Times, above, is from April of last year). Feel free, first off, to note that Barbara Walter’s first question for Kim is what part of her body she doesn’t like. Way to build a girl up, Barb. But it’s this later moment that’s more interesting to me:

Around 2:12 – –catch that? Barbara asks, “What about marriage? Do you want his child? Where are we?” Everyone laughs at Barbara’s candor, Joy says “No rush,” but Barb pushes on, claiming, “You gotta ask!” Why, Barbara Walters, why have you gotta ask? Kim demurs: “Well technically I’m still married.” Barbara is undeterred. THese are the terms of her acceptance of Kim as our Armenian-American darling. “You’re divorced, undivorced, whatever,” Barb pushes on. “Are you really thinking in terms of a permanent relationship?…Have you talked about children?”

At this point, Whoopi Goldberg, bless her heart, flops over in her chair and says, “Jesus.”

Kim starts explaining how she does want kids, and she wanted them before but “didn’t take the time” to pick the right person.

Whoopi  interjects, a voice of reason.”You move too fast, you move too fast.”

“Exactly,” says Kim.

Now, imagining that Kim Kardashian is a real person with real feelings who really moves too fast, Barbara and Whoopi sort of represent our two impulses with Kim. We want her to slow down and get to know herself and be patient with her decisions, but we also want her decision to be marriage, ideally to Kanye. It’s healing: it feels good as a nation to celebrate the interracial coupling of an amateur sextress and a guy who insulted two national darlings, George W. Bush and Taylor Swift, on national TV.

If Puar was here, she might ask what violence our celebration of Kimye is obscuring? Who don’t we love when we love Kimye?

…and this one I’m struggling to answer. The families destroyed by drone strikes or the prison-industrial complex? The children killed not in mass suburban shootings but by daily inner-city gun violence?  What don’t we see when we bathe in the starlight of Kimye? I am thinking of the New Jim Crow, of the families whose lovers and fathers and mothers are in prison, of the fathers taken away for state-sanctioned violence not for whistling at a white woman but for having small amounts of drugs on them when they were racially profiled and frisked by police, of these men who if they are released into certain states will never be able to vote, no matter the race of the president on the ballot. In loving Kimye, whom do we forget?

More:

Ta Nehesi-Coates, “On White She-Devils”

SNL, Kim on “Weekend Update,”  “Kardashian’s Divorce Special”

The Crunk Feminist Collective, “Leave Kim Alone!”

Jennifer Pozner, “Why Kim Kardashian’s Divorce is Good for America- and Women”

Dodai Stewart, “Race, Sexuality, and the Kardashian ‘Phenomenon'”

The Examiner, “Kanye West, Kim Kardashian News”

Obama’s Inaugural: A Progressive Exegesis of the Constitution

via huffingtonpost.com

via huffingtonpost.com

My last semester of college I took a remarkable course taught by Eddie Glaude, “The American Jeremiad and Social Criticism.” Structured to explore the space between Michael Walzer’s Interpretation and Social Criticism and Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, the course achieved a number of complex goals. It offered a history of American civil-religious discourse from colonial times to the present, but it also explored how, from America’s inception, African American discourse had critiqued the lofty promises of a slaveholding enterprise. The Exodus story was central to the course (as it was in Glaude’s own recent work) and to the basis of Black critique of American rhetoric. While early pilgrims saw the colonies as “God’s New Israel,” as a deliverance from bondage, African-Americans saw that “there’s bondage on both sides of these blood red waters.” Freedom still needed to be fought for, and rhetorically defended, in the not-yet Land of the Free.

walzer

Walzer’s Interpretation and Social Criticism is essentially conservative: he advocates for the position that laws and morals are best derived from interpreting and re-interpreting sacred texts: the Bible, the Constitution, earlier tropes and symbols. He writes, “moral argument is (most often) interpretive in character” (21). That is, we make our moral arguments through interpreting earlier texts, histories, events. On the first day of Glaude’s class, we watched Obama’s recent “Yes, We Can” speech, delivered after winning the South Carolina primary. In that speech, Obama suggests, with some historical hubris, that his phrase “yes we can” is actually a “timeless creed that sums up the spirit of the American people in three simple words.” With this speech, Obama introduced a vision of America rooted in change versus stasis, but he rooted this vision always in reinterpreting the past, not challenging it. Then we watched Will.i.am’s remix of the speech, where celebrities speak along with Obama to a slick, optimistic beat. Obama’s speech and Will.i.am’s video were both acts in remix: Obama remixed past tropes into a speech, while Will.i.am remixed a speech back into pop culture. Despite his obvious enthusiasm for this liberal, African-American presidential nominee, Professor Glaude was ever skeptical. He pointed out how then-Senator Obama’s speech drew on earlier tropes from American civil-religious discourse, how Obama’s genius was in weaving together themes, tropes, and even inflection and cadence from previous presidents and prophets.

william yes we can

I thought of Professor Glaude’s class this morning, while listening to President Obama’s inaugural address. Obama displayed the same fluency with American tropes and cadence that Professor Glaude pointed out to us eight years ago. The President’s speech today was a triumph of Walzerian re-interpretation. Taking the Constitution as his template, President Obama’s speech presented an inclusive portrait of “We the people” and a progressive understanding of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Bucking the critics who see him as an enemy of the Constitution, Obama rooted his progressive vision within that foundational document, re-claiming the Constitution for American progressives.

glaude exodus

The President’s approach, however, was a conservative one. He argued from within our canon, not against it. Instead of challenging the Constitution’s language, Obama critically re-interpreted it. By referencing “Seneca Falls, Stonewall, and Selma,” Obama read America’s movements for women’s rights, gay rights, and civil rights back into a document that cared little–nothing–for women, gays, or people of color. In so doing, Obama reified the power of the Constitution, but he also rededicated himself to a document that can be interpreted powerfully and progressively. He advocated for equal pay for women, gay rights, a path to immigration, livable wages, an end to endless wars, a vision he rooted in the Constitution. This morning’s speech was a masterful display of a moral argument made through interpretation, worthy of our professorial President.

Five Weeks of Lesson Plans – on @ProfTriciaRose ‘s Black Noise…and Writing and Stuff

(Ed’s note…this has been in drafts too long, but i’ll update it later (maybe) with images, some missing assignments I haven’t included yet, links and sound. Enjoy. It’s been a busy Oct-Nov)

Hey y’all. So my students are through one paper cycle and on to the second. The first cycle focused on close reading – we looked at a lot of songs in class, their paper assignment was to close read “We Don’t Care” or “All Falls Down,” and for homework we were reading 2 books that did close reading of their own: Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street and James Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues.

Now we are into our second paper cycle, where we’re working on making more complex arguments by putting two texts in dialogue with each other. Their second paper assignment (which you will see below) asks them to put a claim from one of the books (Cone or Anderson) in dialogue with a claim from The College Dropout. For homework we are reading Tricia Rose’s book Black Noise, and taking lessons from her about how to make arguments using multiple sources. So, if you have Black Noise you can follow along!

LESSON PLAN 6.1: Black Noise, “Two Words,” and Finding Claims

1. Exploring the introduction and ch.1 of Black Noise.

  • Close read the title of the book. What is “black noise”? What meanings does that phrase have to Rose?
  • Rose is very present in the introduction. Why might she identify herself so clearly? What is gained/lost by her presence in the text?
  • Close read to understand the title of ch. 1″ “Voices from the Margins: Rap Music and Black Cultural Production.” What does “cultural production” mean? (2 interpretations of word “culture”)

2. Remember the 2 parts to an argument? Claim/statement of opinion + defense with reasons and evidence. On pp. 1-3 Rose makes a lot of claims.

  • In pairs isolate 3 claims Rose makes in her first few pages. Work to understand them and then think, what evidence will she need to show us to defend that claim?
  • Go over some examples in class–understand Rose’s argument – note that reading her text critically will involve looking for/at her evidence. Suggest students keep their eyes peeled on how Rose manages different types of sources

3. Listen, looking for claims, to “Two Words”

  • In pairs, focus on one verse – via this poetic language, what claims are Mos Def, Kanye making?

4. Hand out Paper 2 Assignment:

Pre-write assignment due Mon 10/22 (bring to class):

To prepare for your second paper, please write 2 preparatory paragraphs. In the first,  isolate a claim and synthesize the argument for that claim as elaborated by EITHER Elijah Anderson in Code of the Street OR James Cone in The Spirituals and the Blues. In another paragraph, bring in a claim made anywhere on The College Dropout by Kanye West or one of his guest artists and begin to suggest how this claim challenges, confirms or adjusts the claim described in the first paragraph.

Paper 2 Assignment:

For your second paper, in 6 pages, please compare a claim made by Anderson or Cone with a claim made by West or one of his guest artists. Your paper should propose an argument about the relationship between these two claims, by using one to challenge, extend, or adjust the other.

This assignment asks a few things of you: identify and discuss a claim made by either Anderson OR Cone in the course of his work. Discuss and assess the ways in which the author presents and defends his claim, noting the strategies he uses to make his argument. Examine evidence from The College Dropout to critique or qualify the author’s claims. How do comments made by Kanye West or one of his guest artists challenge, confirm, or complicate the claims presented by the writer you considered? Or, conversely, how do claims made by Anderson or Cone challenge, confirm, or complicate claims made by West or one of his guests?

Successful thesis statements will make an argument about the relationship between two texts, not about the nature of an issue in the world. Successful papers will shed new light on both the book you choose and the song in question, by drawing innovative connections between the two. Please do not use outside evidence besides those detailed above—focus on the texts and what they can tell us about each other!

LESSON PLAN 6.2: Using structure in arguments about multiple texts

UPDATE: Ok, I just saved this as a draft for 5 weeks. But I am going to valiantly pick up right here and soldier on. Where were we…Week 6? Using structure, you say? DO IT.

1. Rose Ch. 2 “All Aboard the Night Train”: Flow, Layering and Rupture in Postindustrial New York – what is Rose’s argument about in this chapter

  • pp. 23-25 on black music at crossroads in American history- examine each paragraph to see how Rose handles introducing another scholarly source. What was Willis’s claim? Rose’s critique? How does she incorporate what she wants to use from his argument into hers? (scavenger research)
  • pp. 38-39 on flow, layering and rupture – what’s Rose’s argument about hiphop style? how is it related to the postindustrial urban context?

2. For today, students had to write a 2-paragraph Paper 2 prewrite (above)

  •  make sure your partner’s two claims are clearly articulated, with evidence, whether implicit or explicit
  • Make sure the book claim is analytical, not factual
  • How well did your partner give context/trace argument behind that claim?
  • Raise 3 questions about the relationship between 2 sources – which text is the argument about? – discuss a few
  • Reminder: be aware of complexity – no 100% correspondence

WEEK 7.1. NO CLASS – whew!

WEEK 7.2 – sample workshop

For this class, we got into our workshop groups so the groups could interpersonally gel for a class-long workshop-style activity on structure. I handed out a sample pre-write that used Rose instead of Anderson or Cone:

XXX

I explained that this is a way for us to think more about ch. 2 of Rose and practice complex structure. Then I asked students to read the prewrite closely and critique it like they did their partner in the previous class: looking for how well the claims are articulated, raising 3 questions, looking back at Rose to see if her concepts are fully engaged. Then we listened to “Family Business,” the lyrics to which are not included in their coursepack: the idea is to force them (on a rare occasion) to actually listen to how sounds are used and manipulated in the song. I asked them to take notes as to where they noticed flow, layering or rupture in the song, and then we filled up the board (I made them write) with what they noticed. #Crowdsourcing !! Then I returned them to their groups and asked them to write a thesis for Hypothetical Tessa,  to push her argument, to decide which text is the subject of the hypothetical essay and which is a tool being used to make that argument, and finally to write out a structure for this paper. At the end of class, we came together and compared what arguments we made (trying, always trying, to make them more specific) and compared structures. Womp, womp!

WEEK 8.1. – WORKSHOP! SCORE!

Things to look out for as you workshop:

  • Introduction: is it clear what the 2 texts are, and how they’re related?
  • Is evidence closely analyzed?
  • Structure: is information given as needed? Are concepts clear? Are discussions of a single text split up in awkward ways?
  • MAKE SUGGESTIONS. Push the argument to be more specific, to be its best
  • Play with at least 1 big change – what would make this essay more readable, organized, specific? It is okay to ask WHAT IF.

WEEK 8.2 I CANCELLED THIS CLASS TO GO TO A CONFERENCE. SWEET!

WEEK 9.1

1. Rose ch. 3 – “Soul Sonic Forces: Technology, Orality and Black Cultural Practice in Rap Music”

  • Close read the title of this chapter to remind us of its argument- how do (and what are) “technology, orality and black cultural practice” in the context of Rose’s argument?
  • #Crowdsourcing : Split into small groups and find at least 3 places where Rose answers the question, “Why might a rap artist choose to use sampling in their music?” EG WHY SAMPLE –> write that shiz on the board

2. Listen “Spirit in the Dark” by Aretha Franklin – what is it about? how does the music sound? what is the mood or attitude of the song? what values does Franklin preach? what does she mean by “spirit”?

3. Listen “School Spirit” by Kanye West – what is it about? how does the music sound? attitude/mood? values? “spirit”?

  • Why might Kanye sample Aretha– how do the songs intersect?

4. Could we make an argument using Rose’s concepts (on the board- WHY SAMPLE?) that makes a claim about the effects/uses of this Aretha Franklin sample in “School Spirit”? Small groups:

  • brainstorm possible arguments
  • everyone write 1-2 sentences on how you will use rose to make an argument about Kanye’s sample of Franklin
  • how would you structure this essay? outline it as a group
  • Come back together as a class, think bout structure a lil’ more. Ask: how long would this paper be? (Cuz one day your teacher is gonna say, “Write ten pages about anything we’ve covered this semester.” Word.)

WEEK 9.2 – Sorry, this was a kind of disjointed session

1. MLA – In which I quickly read through my own MLA style guide

2. Signifying – in which we look at an assigned excerpt of Henry Louis Gates’ The Signifying Monkey (and in which conversation I mentioned that “That’s what she said” is a kind of signifying, because it takes your inane statement – “Just put them [the groceries] in the back [of the car]”  and sexualizes it through an implicit repetition and reversal to highlight physicality)

3. Listen – “School Spirit Skit” #1 and #2 – How is this signifying? on What?

3. Rose ch. 4, “Prophets of Rage: Rap Music and the Politics of Black Cultural Expression”

  • small groups: who are the parties involved in the political encounters in this chapter? –> board
  • read public/hidden transcripts together (100)
  • What are the hidden transcripts in the “School Spirit” skits? What public transcripts are they criticizing? Using what methods as Rose describes?

WEEK 10.1

1. Rose ch 5 – “Bad Sistas: Black Women Rappers and Sexual Politics in Rap Music”

  • How does Rose use the concept of dialogue (147-148) in her chapter’s argument? Who are black women rappers in dialogue with?
  • Thinking about hidden/public transcripts in the context of this chapter–> partners look at excerpts of either Salt N’Pepa’s “Traamp” or MC Lyte’s “Paper Thin” and ask what hidden transcripts are these women rappers articulating? What public transcripts are they criticizing?

2. Paper 3 assignment: Cultural Study

3. Listen: Kanye’s “New Workout Plan”

  • What does Rose’s chapter tell us about male sexual narratives that we could look for in West
  • Note he’s signifying on a workout video
  • Listen: is West sexist or critiquing sexism? Or both?
  • Can we interrogate his attitudes about gender, power, relationships?

Rap is Bootstraps Music – with @OReillyFactor , @CeeLoGreen, @Spotify, @JayZ , @GovMikeHuckabee and other odd bedfellows

In the wake of Mitt Romney’s electoral loss to President Obama on Tuesday, conservative pundits, politicians and power players have been asking themselves and each other what went wrong. According to Dylan Byers’s recent feature on POLITICO, the right is playing a mega round of blame game, with a few possible scapegoats. Moderates put the far-right at fault for alienating voters with extreme rhetoric; the far right blame moderates and Romney himself for failing to persuasively represent conservative values.

Far-right conservatives like Bill O’Reilly suggest that conservatives don’t need to change their message but refine their voice in a way that awakens the electorate to its wrongheaded approach to government. On Tuesday, as Obama’s win became clear, O’Reilly presented this view on FOX news: “The voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff….You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?” (qtd in Byers).

Efforts to characterize President Obama as the “food-stamp president” have been decried as an extension of the Southern Strategy, that is, a coded effort to stoke white racist fears about the black electorate by subtly demonizing black Americans as takers, not doers. However, O’Reilly’s comments on election night suggest that he’s fully internalized his party’s strategery: he believes that Latinos, African-Americans, and women are all takers: “they want stuff,” and President Obama is the candidate who “is going to give them things.”

If, like me, you are a person who listens to and thinks about rap music a lot, you may be able to anticipate the argument I want to make right now: that rap espouses a do-it-yourself, take nothing from no one, nose-to-the-grindstone attitude about work–that is, a conservative attitude about work–and in its discussions of hustling and getting by reveals that people of color keep ending up on the socioeconomic bottom not because they’re lazy but because of institutional and structural prejudices that keep them out of jobs, out of neighborhoods with better schools, in jail for longer for the same crime, and so on.

To be honest, I’m way too busy to write the post right now this argument deserves. But here are some texts I’m thinking about:

Jay-Z’s book Decoded, which says that “hustling is the ultimate metaphor for the basic human struggles : the struggle to survive and resist, the struggle to win and to make sense of it all” (18).

“Get By” by Talib Kweli

“We Don’t Care” by Kanye West – “Cause ain’t no tuition for having no ambition/ and ain’t no loans for sittin yo’ ass at home/So we forced to sell crack, rap, and get a job/ You gotta do somethin, man, yo ass is grown!”

“Git Up, Git Out, Git Something” by Outkast ft. Goodie Mob

Michal Denzal Smith’s How Jay-Z Inspired a Generation of Hustlers

Jeremiah Goulka’s “Confessions of a Former Republican”

So many rap songs belong in this argument–I started thinking about last week, after my advanced class listened to Outkast’s “Git Up,” which features four 24-line verses each by a different rapper and each with a very different picture of what it means to “git something.” As we worked through this song in class, it became clear that while the chorus embodies a distant voice (something like O’Reilly’s) telling these young black men to “git up, git out and git something/How will you make it if you never even try,” each verse is a defense from men trying to do just that, and the challenges and struggles they face. Cee-Lo argues at this voice trying to box him in: “I try to be the man I’m ‘posed to be/But negativity is all you seem to ever see.” In the universe Cee-Lo depicts, no options are open to him, yet he’s characterized as negative. He concisely depicts the lure of the drug trade in a universe with few options:

Cuz every job I get is cruel and demeanin’

Sick of takin’ trash out and toilet bowl cleanin’

But I’m also sick and tired of strugglin’

I never ever thought I’d have to resort to drug smugglin’ (Outkast)

For Cee-Lo, “drug smugglin'” is a resort; the first choice was a series of “cruel and demeanin'” menial jobs that still left him “strugglin. ”

It’s ironic that while thugged out rap images have allowed pundits to criminalize young men of color, the lyrics behind these pictures actually promote hard work that shifts into the underground economy when legal options become unavailable. In that same POLITICO piece, Mike Huckabee had this to say: “The real conservative policy is attractive to minorities. Our problem isn’t the product, it’s the box we put it in. Our message should not be ‘tailored’ to a specific demographic group, but presented to empower the individual American, whatever the color, gender or ethnicity.”  In fact, conservatives’ message of hard work still holds sway over most Americans–I know I believe in money paid for hard work put in. The problem is the right’s refusal to recognize that there are factors that actually prohibit their political norms from taking place: hard work isn’t paying off like your system says it’s supposed to. If this is interesting to you, (it might be if you’re still with me) definitely check out Goulka’s piece, above. He writes, “As a retired African-American general in the Marine Corps said to me after I told him my story, ‘No one has to explain institutional racism to a black man.’” But some folks still haven’t heard the message.

P.S. SPOTIFY POSTSCRIPT

started using spotify, like it a lot, have some things to say about it:

– how do I know what music I like if I don’t own any music? puts this new pressure on my brain to be aware of all the musics I might want to listen to, instead of knowing that I’m limited to (and pre-curated by) whatever I already own.

– am I ever going to buy an MP3 again? probably not. but i might buy more records.

– interesting how the ad experience is so clearly designed to irritate. Unlike tv and radio ads, which are like, “Hey! No interruption here! Just a short narrative to persuade you to buy something!” spotify ads are all “HEY DON’T I SUCK? DOESN’T THIS AD TOTALLY SUCK RIGHT NOW? YOU KNOW, IF YOU LAID DOWN SOME GODDAMNED DOLLARS YOU WOULDN’T HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS ANNOYING SHIT RIGHT NOW, YOU PIRATING CHEAPSKATE! JUST SAYIN!” You know?

Sam Jackson says, “Wake the Fuck Up!”

Most obviously, this video is a funny repurposing of Adam Mansbach’s Go the Fuck to Sleep for apathetic political times. However, by popping up in a white family’s various bedrooms, Samuel L. Jackson also recasts black rage as black engagement, thereby recontextualizing an angry “Fuck!”: from “Fuck the police” as “Say hell no, motherfuckers!”

And to that we can all say: righteous.