Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Ties that Bind: The Transnational Trick of Immobilizing the Mobile

Pure Distillation

Few words in historical discourse (outside of the word discourse mind you) elicit cynical responses more than transnationalism. If definitions remain murky for some, others argue transnational connections are falsely constructed via sophisticated argumentation and careful selection of evidence. After all, we can all agree that Kung Fu movies broadcast over superstations in Chicago and New York influenced metropolitan young people of all stripes in the 1980s, such that rap collectives like Wu Tang Clan reimagined Staten Island as Shaolin. The Wu Tang refracted these experiences through the prism of Eastern martial arts (see GZA’s Liquid Swords for a precise example). However, the pervasive effect and meaning of this appropriation remains much harder to determine quantitatively or qualitatively. After all, Wu Tang’s Asian fetish seems to have proven less influential than its internal “rap collective” organization, which appears to have been duplicated in some ways by current Pitchfork darlings Odd Future.

Regardless, academics have pounced on these kind of Afro Asian connections. In Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity, Vijay Prashad points out that there exists a long history of transnational cultural diffusion. In the book’s final chapter, he discusses how Kung Fu operated to unify Black and Asian communities and led to a further intertwining of cultures culminating in a “third world solidarity” that had been building well before the 1960s:
That Ho Chi Minh once hung out in Garveyite halls in Harlem should perhaps be part of this story, as should the Maoist inflections in both the National Liberation Front (of Vietnam) and Black Panther politics. In 1965, Ho Chi Minh and the black radical Robert F. Williams spent an evening together during which they “swapped Harlem stories; Ho recounted his visits to Harlem in the 1920s as a merchant seaman and claimed that he had heard Marcus Garvey speak there and had been so inspired that he "emptied his pockets’ into the collection plate." (141)
Yet, some might suggest the evidence remains interesting but historically flimsy. Despite this criticism, when executed correctly, transnational approaches reveal surprisingly insightful observations regarding perceived nationalisms and identities that often push back against tropes like American exceptionalism. For example, in Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History (2006) noted scholar Thomas Bender explores familiar American historical events, often examined in isolation with little regard to international context, and places them in dialogue with transnational forces of the day. Though the Civil War is often portrayed as uniquely American, Bender connects the language of politicians like Charles Sumner and Abraham Lincoln and average soldiers to a broader set of transnational ideas regarding nationality and freedom. Lincoln and others employed rhetoric and concepts related to contemporary European nationalists and revolutionaries:
However particular and central slavery and emancipation were to the Civil War and to American history, part of the cause of this central American event came from outside Ameican history, from larger history of ideas and conflicts over nationalism and freedom and about the proper balance of central and local authority. (Bender, 122)

In this way, Bender illustrates that the Civil War was not as purely American as it has been portrayed, but part of a larger transnational struggle to define nation, individual, and freedom that had already exerted itself in part during the failed European revolts of 1848.

Likewise, Andrew Zimmerman looks to reevaluate the relationship between the Tuskegee Institute, German sociology and the burgeoning Chicago School in the age of late nineteenth and early twentieth century empire. In Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, The German Empire and Globalization of the New South, Zimmerman uncovers the complex network of ideas and connections that linked Booker T. Washington’s vision of Black America, the Chicago School of sociology, the construction of a new globalized South, and German intellectuals like Max Weber. Zimmerman argues that the transnational triangle connecting the American South, Germany, and Togo helped not only to spread racial ideas about Blacks through colonialism and German sociology, but also contributed to the creation of a capitalist structure that arose between Reconstruction and World War I and prefigured “our own era of globalization.” (12)

Throughout, Zimmerman clearly delineates the kind of racial logic that afflicted not only Blacks and Africans but also Poles in Central Europe suffering under German rule. German observers including Max Weber, viewed Poles as almost racially distinct. The very capitalism that drove German growth also upset ideas of “racial purity and domestic stability,” as the economic need for migrant Polish labor overcame nationalist reservations regarding Polish settlement. As result, laissez faire capitalism emerged as a dirty word among many a Prussian nationalist and intellectual. Meanwhile, as Germany coalesced into a coherent nation-state, Polish workers proved problematic. “The politics of nationalism in Prussia involved a struggle about proper households, a struggle of what Germans imagined as a dissolute, sexually irregular, and reproductively uncontrollable Polish horde with monogamous, heterosexual, and patriarchal German families,” writes Zimmerman. (88)

In America, Blacks long endured similar, almost identical stereotypes. The parallels between a labor force of serf-like Poles and newly emancipated African Americans were undeniable to observers, as Zimmerman points out that “aristocratic” authorities in Prussia were forced to “refashion themselves politically and economically [to] cooperate with new bourgeois allies and ideological and scientific experts,” much like Southern plantation owners in the Reconstruction South. (89) Notably, Zimmerman acknowledges that Germans, though discriminatory, never resorted to the type of physical violence and terror that freedmen and women found themselves subject to in the American South. Nonetheless, through the efforts of white Southerners, German intellectuals, and Washington’s Tuskegee Institute among numerous others, American Blacks came to be seen as uniquely qualified for the industrial harvesting of cotton. Though the number of white cotton growers eventually exceeded their African American counterparts in the early years of the twentieth century, Zimmerman argues experts “continued to assert that cotton could only be grown profitably with Black labor.” (21) When Germany looked to colonize Togo, in the hope of establishing a foothold in international cotton production, its leaders looked to Washington for guidance.

Of course, this gets at the age old conflict between two of the most famous Black leaders in this period of American history: Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Zimmerman explores the tension between Washington’s public persona, one that downplayed racism and catered to white interests, and his personal, more militant beliefs regarding the future of Black America. In fact, Zimmerman suggests that Washington never meant to condone segregation with his Atlanta Compromise speech, as he related in a private letter, “If anybody understands me as meaning that riding in the same railroad car or sitting in the same room at a railroad is social intercourse they certainly got a wrong idea of my position.” (50) Granted, Washington still accepted society as hierarchical and even went to great lengths to illustrate the superiority of Black American workers to newly arriving European immigrants, but nor was he quite the racial sellout modern observers have sometimes suggested.

Along similar lines, Zimmerman also discusses the famous rift between W.E.B DuBois and Washington, arguing that in their early years, the two men shared similar visions. Both viewed racial uplift in gendered and elitist terms and each believed, at least in this early period, that African Americans served as a sort of international working elite that Africans and other Blacks should emulate. While DuBois came to reject this belief, he like Washington did promote it for some time. It was as if, to paraphrase the book’s author, the two men’s least radical phases overlapped for a period. For Zimmerman, the true ideological break between the black leaders came due to European colonization of Africa. “The split between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, which has become a canonical feature of narratives of American intellectual history, emerged only in the twentieth century as result of the new political engagements of each thinker with European imperialism,” Zimmerman argues. (58)

Booker T.

In partnership with the German government, Washington sent four Tuskegee experts to Togo: Nathan Callaway, John Winfrey Robinson, Shepard Lynn Harris, and Allen Lynn Burks. Germany’s plan consisted of establishing an internationally viable cotton industry to compete with American production. Togolese had long harvested and traded cotton internally, but efforts to expand this production into a profitable export industry had failed.
Imperial Germany

Germany’s imposition of cotton served to disrupt gender roles and local economies. Traditionally, women harvested cotton in Togo, thus, German plans to employ male Togolese in cotton fields conflicted with ideas regarding the gendered workplace. Moreover, German authorities attempted to reform Togolese sexuality and marriage (which permitted polygamy) along more familiar (to the Germans) Western norms that coincidentally would aid in cotton production. German authorities and Tuskegee experts promoted a patriarchal monogamous domestic structure. In this way, the family became the basic labor unit and the more children each unit could produce the more workers German imperialists could exploit. Unfortunately, these efforts accomplished more to undermine the extended families of Togolese than to create a burgeoning mass of patriarchal monogamous households. (169)

During Reconstruction, American authorities attempted similar forms of discipline through the Freedmen’s Bureau. In Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (2000), Nancy Cott explores efforts to shape the intimate relations of African Americans that ultimately undermined women. Other historians have explored the role of the Freedman’s Bureau in regard to marriage and domesticity. Rebecca Edwards (“Domesticity versus Manhood Rights – Republicans, Democrats and Family Values Politics, 1856 – 1896” in The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History) supports much of Cott’s argument, pointing out that Republicans “introduced policies to support husbands and fathers as breadwinners,” she adds that “they used state payments as a substitute for certain absent or incapacitated men. They sought to control male and female sexuality, reflecting their desire to ‘protect’ good Christian women and discipline male irresponsibility.” (Edwards, 176) According to Edwards, the protection and reshaping of the black family occupied the central concerns of officials. The agency issued “’marriage rules’ that listed the ‘duties of husbands’ and the ‘rights of wives and children’.” (Edwards, 179)

Granted, German leaders based some of their concerns regarding Togolese sexuality on their parallel fears of Polish workers in Prussia. However, the similarity to Reconstruction era American policies points to one of Zimmerman’s central arguments: through Tuskegee Institute organization, German imperialists imposed the economy of the New South onto Togo. Obviously, consequences were not confined to local economies. The construction of an imperial Togolese economy required “a new project of colonial identity formation.” The conflation of cotton production with American blackness and the presence of the Tuskegee Institute (along with the various unspoken connections that came with it) “imposed a ‘Negro’ identity form New South ideology, first on the Ewe and later on Africans throughout Togo,” argues Zimmerman. “New South ideology provided the German government in Togo with a set of practices based on the racial identity ‘Negro’ (the German word is Neger).” (133) By conceiving the Togolese in “starkly racial terms,” Germany implied that any population of Black people anywhere “might easily adopt the agriculture, and assume the subordinate political and economic positions, ascribed to African Americans in the New South.” (133)
Togolese 1904

Throughout Alabama in Africa, Zimmerman explores the conflict between mobility and coercion. The emerging cotton markets the Germans hoped to exploit through their nascent cotton industries in Togo required capital mobility but also necessitated coercive labor. German authorities praised the figure of the free small farmer, all the while taxing Togolese who refused or failed to grow cotton. As in the American South, notes Zimmerman, “industrial cotton depended on the economic unfreedom of farmers, for it became profitable only through the extreme exploitation and coercive supervision made possible by sharecropping and other forms of semi-free farming.” (170) Though Tuskegee experts believed they brought uplift to Africans (which of course was based on a racial model in which American blacks remained superior to Africans), in reality, their efforts retarded Togo’s economic growth. While an export based cotton market was established, it forced the Togolese backwards in nearly all areas “from literate office work to agricultural labor, from domesticity to social disintegration, from prosperity to poverty from skilled work to forced labor, and from freedom to domination,” writes Zimmerman. (170).

Ironically, despite its obvious use of coercion, the German Togo state soon emerged as a symbol of European beneficence. In comparison to the Belgian Congo which had been subject to a widespread human rights campaign, German imperialism came to be held up as a model for future imperialists. Congo critic and Liverpool journalist E.D. Morel savaged King Leopold and his cronies but applauded Germany’s efforts. “For Morel the collaborative work of the Tuskegee Institute and the German Government in Togo represented a humanitarian answer to the humanitarian catastrophe of Leopold’s Congo,” notes Zimmerman. (177) Washington received plaudits for his role and himself praised the German Togo example for its “treatment of Negroes in Africa.” (182) As result, white leaders in the US came to view the New South as the answer to international colonialism.

While Germany and Tuskegee were busy disrupting the lives of the Togolese, German sociologists imbued their discipline with a racial logic that soon proved pervasive. When Washington held the 1912 “International Conference on the Negro” at Tuskegee, it brought together, among others, American, German, and Black intellectuals in one place. Many German and American observers credited the New South as a vast improvement over European imperialism. While some African attendees credited Washington’s efforts, many questioned the industrial education it promoted. However, their reservations were largely ignored. Instead, as Zimmerman points out, the conference served as a point of intersection combining “racial thought by white colonial elites like Morel and Evans with New South ideology represented by Tuskegee Institute and with the sociology of the University of Chicago.” (187) Ultimately, this interaction reverberated for decades as it shaped the “theories and practices of racial divisions of labor.” (187)

Within this matrix of beliefs, the Chicago School of sociology grounded much of its teachings. Max Weber continually compared Poles with Blacks, a comparison Robert Park furthered as each group came to occupy urban areas (in the case of Poles this was occurring in both Europe and America). The Polish seasonal worker and the Black sharecropper existed as parallel archetypes. The sociology grew around each archetype as each group escaped the “savage untouched by civilization model” but remained clearly inferior to native born whites. As Zimmerman notes, “this sociological racism was a racism of exploitation and subordination rather than a racism of conquest and annihilation.” (206) After all, nation states like Germany and the US increasingly found themselves with large numbers of internal minorities. If Weber argued the world was organized into a “patchwork of civilizations each with a unique standard of labor,” Park formed similar ideas but on a smaller scale, using Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods as his quilt of imperial racism.

Weber clearly respected Dubois and Washington intellectually, Weber’s respect for leaders like Washington and DuBois stemmed from what he saw was an incorrect classification as black. Instead, Weber suggested each man was of mixed heritage trapped in America’s rigid racial classification. Thus, Weber suggested that the two men were somehow redeemed by their partial whiteness. Though a student of Weber’s, Dubois differed from the German sociologist on the issue of exploitation and oppression. Dubois pointed out that despite rampant racial discrimination, African Americans had advanced in numerous areas from homeownership to occupational mobility. Racism argued Dubois, not inherent inferiority, whether cultural or biological, explained Black poverty. Weber believed The Souls of Black Folk to be a superior work, but for different reasons than Dubois. Weber wanted socioeconomic explanations for his theories regarding race and labor rather than depending on biological ones. He argued cultural factors and social structures accounted for racial differentiation. As result, his conclusions helped to construct an archetype in which Blacks remained inferior in to whites.
Chicago School Partisan Park

Through German thinkers like Weber and the work of Washington, Robert Park developed many of his theories regarding urban sociology. It goes without saying the Chicago School of sociology remains a foundational influence on the discipline in the United States. Park merged German and southern traditions of sociological thought and brought them to the University of Chicago. Influenced by Weber and especially by Washington and Tuskegee, Park critiqued urban communities, promoting the idea of stable rural areas. Polish immigrants and Black migrants to Chicago, both felt the sting of Park’s conclusions.

Park’s own interest in African Americans grew out of a desire to ameliorate “colonial atrocities in the Congo,” thus did Park come to focus so extensively on American blacks. Developing a problematic construct of Blacks, Park viewed them in Heart of Darkness terms: clairvoyant, irrational, outside of civilized time. When large scale migration to Chicago by Blacks unfolded, Park sought ways to maintain the city’s vast network of segregated neighborhoods and predictably looked to the rural South. According to Zimmerman, Park favored accommodation, “in which social groups lived separately but in harmony.” Park argued that this “represented the highest social good, and would prove desirable” in a myriad number of ways. (232) Zimmerman points out that “the multiracial structures of empire” supplied Park with normative and empirical models of society. (232)

Ultimately, Park and many others in the Chicago school, believed each group discrete such that the best structure for society rested in a separated interdependence. While Park and several others rejected hybridity as a positive (to be fair others saw hybridity as superior but only because it imbued some level of whiteness in blacks so it was a circumscribed support), the very forces of capitalism threatened such ideas. Just as German intellectuals eschewed laissez faire because it led to increasing labor mobility by non German ethnic groups, Park and many in the Chicago school believed it disrupted discrete ethnic communities and encouraged hybridity. Of course, not all of Park’s students agreed. E. Franklin Frazier and Charles S. Johnson viewed Park’s conclusions with a great deal of skepticism. Each rejected Park and Weber’s sociology and the “political, economic, and pedagogical projects of Tuskegee Institute.” (236)

Though T of M lacks expertise in all things transnational, in Alabama in Africa, Zimmerman provides a precise account of how imperialism led to the intersection of three distinct Western institutions and the ideologies each promoted afterward. Zimmerman’s insights on the Chicago School alone seem revelatory. His arguments regarding the split between Dubois and Washington prove provocative. If the book at times relies too much on theory, Zimmerman backs it up with solid social and intellectual history. Perhaps, most importantly, Zimmerman illustrates how today’s globalization looks eerily familiar to that of the post Reconstruction Global South. Though the institutional actors may have changed, the ultimate edifice remains the same. Zimmerman notes that today’s globalized economy continues to depend on “forms of immobility” that still allow capital, commodities, labor, and ideas to “move across a vast landscape of differences and to remain stable across vast geographical distances.” (249) This fixed category of difference enabled various political elites to manage mobile labor pools. Though people moved more and more easily, this movement came attached to a social, economic, and political immobility enforced by difference. All the while, argues Zimmerman, capitalism both fed and challenged this difference, “the dynamism of capitalism simultaneously contradicted, supported and depended upon, static identities and stable commodities.” (250) Global elites had (and have) much to gain and much to lose; balancing a fixed labor force on the knife’s edge of difference, then and now, remains a primary aspect of globalized economies.

Ryan Reft

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Essence Precedes Existence? The Problem of Identity Politics in Hurewitz's Bohemian LA

What does it mean to “be” white, or black, or gay, or working-class? How might a Jewish Ethiopian-American who grew up in poverty but now has a big bank account define himself? Which identity matters most – the current status of wealth and privilege, the experience of coming from a hardscrabble background, or Jewishness or Africanness or national identity (native or adopted)? Does one dimension of identity actually have to subordinate the others? Our current president is almost always described as being black, despite having one white parent and growing up almost entirely with a white family. His own experience is far more complex than our contemporary framework of race and identity allows, a fact he explored in Dreams from My Father to much praise but little apparent understanding. When it comes to identity politics, as Ani Difranco once said, “Their eyes are all asking are you in or are you out – and I’m like, what is this about?”

Daniel Hurewitz’s impressive first book, Bohemian Los Angeles, attempts to provide a historical account of why we even ask these questions today. It shows how identity, particularly sexual identity, became a rigid and essentialized category as it became political over the course of the twentieth century. One’s political Identity has come to be associated with what Hurewitz calls one’s “essence.” Beginning in Los Angeles’s burgeoning Edendale community at the turn of the twentieth century, Hurewitz explores a world where manhood and womanhood were considered certain, consistent, even immutable; given this underlying certainty about gender, men like Julian Eltinge could “impersonate” women with thrilling exactness without compromising their identity as men.
A reader is right to question this schema, given Eltinge’s own clearly exaggerated self-presentation as a virile “manly man” when he was not (technically) performing. Hurewitz suggests that the star female impersonator’s PR spectacle of strength and manliness off-stage served to reinforce the remarkable quality of his transformation as a prim, demure, completely believable woman – which is no doubt true. Yet evidence suggests that Eltinge did have sex with men, a fact he was no doubt eager to keep secret, and his self conscious display of masculinity can also be read as an effort to dispel any doubts about his personal character (or what later generations would think of as “sexuality”). Other female impersonators had more feminine off-stage personalities, and they may have been suspected as being less manly (or straight) by the public. Hurewitz understandably focuses the most on Eltinge, due to his greater popularity and accessibility as a public figure, but one wonders if his dual identity as macho man and master female impersonator is really typical of or representative of men who performed in such a way (and who may have been more “queeny” than Eltinge). In short, Eltinge’s example may not adequately capture the experience of men who dressed as women or had sex with other men in this period.

Julian Eltinge at work

In any case, Hurewitz’s argument is that gender identity was more fixed in the early twentieth century, or at least undisturbed by the possibility of alternative conceptions of sexuality, such that people were more comfortable with a flexible approach to performing gender and sexuality then than in later years. Men could imitate women or have homosexual encounters in clubs and public parks without thinking of themselves as gay, bi, or transgender. Hurewitz is trying to tell a story both about how gay identity itself became conceivable and how such identity (along with others, such as race, ethnicity, and gender) became perceived as political constituencies.

It’s an ambitious project, and as a result it has many moving parts. Hurewitz attempts to link the emergence of a boho urban hipster milieu (Edendale and the broader Silver Lake area of LA) with the development of Communism as an essential identity, first for the party faithful in their tight-knit communities and then with the onset of post-World War II repression that made “being” Communist an irrevocable condition, an unwashable stain that disqualified one as a legitimate participant in political life or even the workforce. Along the way he discusses the idea of interracialism, the political fortunes of Japanese and Mexican Americans in Depression and wartime LA, and, most importantly, the influential project of the first gay rights movement in the US, the Mattachine Society

This epic skein of interrelated political events does not always hold together. Showing how female impersonators in the 1910s relate to the political status of Mexican Americans and the zoot suit riots of the 1940s, for example, is not easy, but Hurewitz has still accomplished a significant historiographical feat. The Mattachine Society proposed “homophile” as a public identity, not merely a furtive secret or subterranean practice, confined to fleeting encounters in bathrooms and bars. Through the vision of Harry Hay, Mattachine imagined gayness as equivalent to blackness, Mexicanness, or Jewishness – a critical and ultimately persuasive point in Hurewitz’s overall argument.

Harry Hay

But is being gay or Communist really the same as being black, Jewish, or Mexican? Perhaps they are not exactly the same, but are they even of the same order of difference? A Communist could relocate (many did) to a different state and not necessarily be marked as Red, but it was much harder for a black person to stop being black. (Hard, but not impossible for some.)

This comes to the greatest weakness in Hurewitz’s provocative and thoughtful book – his concept of essence or “inner life.” He aims to show with Bohemian LA how people’s interior worlds came to have political meaning akin to one’s outward identity as a worker or farmer or businessperson, or any other economic or political status. In other words, he seeks to answer the question of why Americans’ cultural, racial or sexual identities came to surpass class as a prime political consideration in the late twentieth century, which is, of course, a widely remarked upon phenomenon. Liberals in particular have bemoaned this shift, exemplified by exit polls that showed “moral values” to be the top concern of voters in the 2004 presidential election. Surely moral values reflect one’s “inner life” more than the economy as a political issue. (Many Evangelical Christians likely view their faith as the most salient fact about their political identity, not unlike the passionate, one might say obsessed, Communists of 1930s Los Angeles.)

Yet this argument runs into some trouble. In what is otherwise a lucid and deftly written book, Hurewitz’s language gets notably fuzzier when he starts talking about essence and the inner life. The passive voice creeps in, and the author seems to be on less sure footing. Rightly so. Skin color and race are simply not internal essences in the way being Muslim, or gay, or a postmodernist might be – though blackness or Asianness may have come to be seen as essential, unchanging identities by many Americans in the years since WWII (and not just in the generalizing and universalizing minds of racists, but in the way African or Asian Americans view themselves). Moreover, one can reasonably question whether essence or an interior life became important for American politics only in the twentieth century. Certainly, identities such as white, Irish, black, Northern, Southern, Transcendentalist, abolitionist, woman (think of republican motherhood, the domestic sphere, the suffrage movement), Democrat, Republican, or any number of ethnic self-identifications played a major role in the passionate and participatory politics of the nineteenth century.

Ultimately, the link between a gay or homophile identity and political or racial identity – the idea that one’s identity as a man with a feminine persona, or a man who has sex with other men is an essence of the same order as being Communist, or Jewish, or Mexican – still feels tenuous and hypothetical. The Mattachine Society sought to articulate such a vision of a common minority political project, but it remains unclear whether they affected the way other groups thought of themselves or were thought of by others. No doubt the author would echo the words of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri:
Race is just as much a political concept as economic class… Neither ethnicity nor skin color determine race; race is determined politically by collective struggle. Some maintain that race is created by racial oppression, as Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, claims that anti-Semitism produces the Jew. This logic should be taken one step further: race arises through the collective resistance to racial oppression. (Multitude, 104)
In other words, race is not a fact in and of itself – it is created by racism, or, better still, in the struggle against racism that generates a self-concept shared by members of the repressed group. In this sense, it was the struggle of gays, blacks, Mexicans, Jews and Communists against exclusion and injustice that created their identities, and led to their recognition as political interests based on identity.


That this struggle created a world in which racial and sexual identity is more rigid and essentialized than before is one of the great ironies of this book. People who identify as bisexual, for instance, often feel marginalized by both straight and gay communities, thanks to the widespread belief (reinforced by the debatable view that people are “born gay”) that a person who sleeps with both men and women is simply a gay or straight person who went off the reservation. Similarly, contemporary discussions of race seem to fall into clich├ęs of whiteness, blackness, Mexicanness and so forth – a comic goldmine that has been exploited by the brilliant (Dave Chappelle) as well as the decidedly un-brilliant (Carlos Mencia). The blog Stuff White People takes a pre-existing assumption of white racial identity and jumbles it with class and subcultural stereotypes, proposing (only half-kiddingly) that all white people are bourgeois urban hipsters who love Animal Collective and complicated sandwiches. The idea of blackness has at least received a more nuanced and intelligent discussion in recent years, though an observer like Randall Kennedy – who has been on the wrong side of accusations of selling out and racial betrayal before – still feels compelled to argue that the boundaries of blackness ought to be policed for African Americans to retain a distinct and coherent identity. Rich Harvard law professors apparently make the cut; African Americans who do not meet his definition of blackness need not apply.

Studies estimate that fully a fifth of the so-called Millennial Generation (Americans born since 1982) have one foreign-born parent. I do not have statistics close at hand for how many young Americans come from mixed-race families. Whatever the numbers may be, a new generation of multiracial, ambisexual Americans may have to find a voice to awaken themselves and the rest of society to the apparent truth that identity is, in fact, fluid, and essences are not always so essential.

Alex Sayf Cummings

Monday, September 12, 2011

Another Look at the Fall of Tripoli

A perspective from our Libya correspondent, an expatriate with close ties on the ground in Tripoli:
I am still in shock as to how quick and easy Tripoli fell. They had that all planned in advance and knew the situation in the city and how weak G’s forces were and so they went ahead with the attack on their own without waiting for those rebels from the surrounding towns. They’ve been arming themselves clandestinely for months smuggling weapons in and getting a lot from current army officers who secretly worked with them. They also bought some from whoever had them and was willing to get 500 dinars for each machine gun or rifle, which is a lot of money. Remember that it was G who gave these weapons to anyone who said he was a supporter of his regime and announced at one time to open the weapons depots and arm the ‘people’ to defeat the rats. What an idiot!

Things seem to be going real well so far but they need to secure the rest of the country. They definitely have the upper hand and have G and his cronies on the run...  I have been really tormented in the last few days by the large # of deaths, injured, still missing and the terrible destruction in some of the cities. There have been widespread reports of horrible atrocities by the regime. It is so hard to believe that this happened in my country, home to some of the most docile and friendly people in the world. We used to hear about such atrocities in other countries but now it happened to us. We never as Libyans thought that one of us is capable of doing such evil. Sometimes I ask myself if it was worth all those deaths and casualties and grief. I grieve for all the victims and even though Libya is now free and everyone is rejoicing to me it is still really sad.

For an in-depth report on how rebels inside and outside Tripoli planned their takeover of the capital city, check out this story from Reuters:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Shouting in Silence: 9/11 and the Importance of Not Saying Anything

As August comes to a close, the dog days of summer end, leaving before everyone the distance of Fall. For some like myself, Fall remains the premier season of the year. The air cools, football, England’s Premier League (EPL), and basketball (well, maybe not this Fall) commence and the business of work begins. In its own way, Autumn initiates a sort of professional renewal. For New Yorkers though, Labor Day marks the uncomfortable memory of an impending milestone many would rather forget, 9/11. Unfortunately as the tenth anniversary of this national tragedy approaches, a cacophony of rhetoric seems to be greeting it.

I lived in New York for nearly a decade working as a public educator in the city’s high schools. I vividly remember that morning. At the time, I was teaching History at an alternative public school in Brooklyn in between downtown Brooklyn, the Farragut Housing projects, and the now very hip DUMBO community. When the first tower was hit, one of my students ran into the classroom, interrupting my lesson on English emigration to the New World, to let us know that the World Trade Center was on fire. I dismissed his concern, thinking that some idiot in a Cessna had not been flying responsibly and regrettably cost himself/herself their life. Tragic but hardly a national concern. When the second tower was hit, we stopped the lesson, gathered all our students in two rooms and waited it out.

Our school was located in an office building across the river, as such, we had a clear view of the towers as they burned and collapsed. Walking across the Manhattan Bridge in the bright sunlight hours later, I remember staring at the smoke infested southern tip of Manhattan with little to say. I still remember two fellow teachers, crumpled over into each others arms, crying. As a then 25 year old, I sat at the end of the hall facing Manhattan and watched the towers burn as I listened to Wilco play “Via Chicago” on my discman repeatedly. I didn’t know what came next but I knew I wasn’t leaving New York for anyone, especially not some terrorists. If anything, I readied myself for car bombings and the like, though in retrospect I’m certainly glad New York didn’t become 1970s Belfast.

Many of our students hailed from lower income communities. Many struggled in the weeks afterward to reconstruct their semblence of life. One girl, a teenage mother, couldn’t sleep for weeks, thinking that every plane that flew overhead somehow threatened her life and that of her baby. Some students turned sullen and irritable, which as any teacher of at-risk youth will tell you, simply made it twice as hard to educate. In contrast to the brutish mosque controversy that unfolded last year, what I remember about the 12 months after 9/11 is the silence. The acknowledged emptiness of the whole experience left most people speechless. Yet, in this silence I grew to understand the profound significance of those 12 months.

In the following months, people coped with the reality of a damaged New York in a variety of ways. In December of 2001, the New York Times published a report that illustrated New Yorkers' proclivity for drink increased markedly. In the aftermath of the bombing, nervous “twenty and thirty somethings” had finally realized their mortality. As one real estate professional confessed to the Times, ''I used to be health-conscious. I used to work out; now I don't give a damn. I used to go out twice a month; now I go out twice a week. It's friends coming together to embrace each other.” Meeting for drinks may have provided a sense of meaning, a way to combat the very existential silence that pervaded the city.

Still, my most striking memory of 9/11 remains not the day itself, but rather the first anniversary. As a public school teacher living in Queens but working in Brooklyn, I commuted daily between the two boroughs, which inevitably took me through Manhattan. The subway in the morning often explodes with sound from the trains themselves to the mumblings of those embarking to work to countless children on their way to school. However, September 11, 2002 sounded like nothing I’ve heard in New York before or after. Literally, no one spoke on the trains. At subway stations like 34th street where I often transferred for the downtown F train, all that could be heard was the shuffling of feet and the screeching of subway cars. Everyone knew what day it was and what that meant. The silence was sad and shocking but also deeply moving. No one tried to fill that space with anything but this emptiness of sound, a tangible metaphor for the loss that New York, Washington, and the nation endured.

Flash forward to today and the upcoming tenth anniversary. Last year’s mosque controversy stood as proxy for the nation’s retreat from introspective self reflection to anger driven political knife fighting. The WTC remains a graveyard masquerading as an unfinished construction site. Battles over the Freedom Towers and local real estate have crippled efforts at constructing a memorial. One hopes this year’s anniversary will be marked by introspection. The voices that have arisen in recent conflicts from the mosque controversy to the recent debt ceiling fiasco lack any sense of nuance or understanding. Americans appear to have forgotten that despite the horrific nature of the 9/11, we briefly put our differences aside to contemplate how we could move forward as a nation. From the working poor to the financial mandarins of lower Manhattan, we all suffered. As countless commentators have pointed out, the casualties of the bombings included Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, man, woman, child, and the list goes on. In all the shouting and disappointment since 9/11, we seem to have collectively forgotten this.

Ryan Reft

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The My Fellow American Project: Embracing Muslim America

The last few years have been paradoxical ones for Muslim Americans and Americans of Middle Eastern or North African descent.  The period of tension and suspicion that followed the September 11th attacks seemed to fade as the years went by and the attention of the world shifted to other catastrophic events, such as the financial crisis and Kim Kardashian's wedding.  The election of Barack Obama perfectly captured the double aspect of Muslim life in the United States; his campaign spurred the growth of a dark netherworld of rumor and innuendo about a "Manchurian candidate" who was not really American and pursued a nefarious "crypto Muslim" agenda.  Some even claimed that our half-African/half-white President is secretly Arab.  Such allegations have only grown louder since Obama took office, as demonstrated by the ludicrous spectacle of Donald Trump's birth certificate crusade last Spring.

Yet Obama's election clearly attested to the broad possibilities of American identity.  His rise to power may have led some Americans to luxuriate in the fever swamp of Bircherite fantasy, but it also overturned long-held beliefs about race and power in the United States.  Most commentators have focused on Obama's achievement as the first African American to reach the White House - and rightly so - but fewer have recognized the remarkable fact that a man who is the son of a Muslim African immigrant (foreign student might be a more apt description) became president.  We have not had many presidents whose parents were immigrants, and fewer still whose parents were Muslim, who themselves possess Muslim names.  (Barack Hussein Obama and Warren Gamal Harding are the only two I can think of.)

That in itself is an exceptional thing in a country where some still question whether Muslims can really be Americans.  Some on the Left raise doubts about the exclusionary character of American citizenship, claiming it is still defined by whiteness and Christianity -- or, perhaps, a "Judeo-Christian tradition" that carefully excludes Muslims from the heritage of the Abrahamic faiths.  Others on the Right make no secret of their suspicion of Islam as a violent cultural entity that is deeply hostile to American institutions.  Hence the oft-repeated questions about whether Obama really loves America and the chimerical "debate," if you can call it that, about sharia law being imposed in the United States.

The "Ground Zero mosque" fiasco of 2010 brought out all these issues in the ugliest way, as opponents claimed the Park 51 center in downtown Manhattan was somehow an affront to those who died on September 11th.  Activists across the country, from Temecula, CA to Murfreesboro, TN, lathered themselves into a frenzy about mosques as "terrorist training camps," discussing these places of worship as if they were a toxic waste dump or halfway house that local families did not want their children to be exposed to.  The controversy showed a small sliver of Americans at their least open-minded, and politicians at their least principled as Republicans used anti-Muslim hysteria to drum up votes in the midterm elections.  

To a historian, the rhetoric of 2010 sounded almost identical to past worries about foreign, ethnic "others" - most notably, the looming civilizational threat of a monolithic Islam echoed the anxieties of the nineteenth century, when Anglo Saxon Protestants feared that an equally sinister and monolithic Catholic Church was going to send marching orders to its Irish and Italian footsoldiers and impose Popish tyranny over American liberty.  One can certainly see parallels with the fantasies that Americans projected on the "inscrutable" Chinese or Jewish "cabals" throughout our history as well.  Time and again, Americans have feared people who were new and different, thinking their values or their communities were simply incompatible with the American way of life -- only to see these newcomers "become" American as generations go by.  (See White Castle, Harold and Kumar Go to.)

Which brings us to the other aspect of Muslim and Arab life in America - the brighter side.  Despite the distressing sideshow of the Ground Zero Mosque last year, polls have shown that Muslim Americans report greater optimism about the future than almost any other group in the US.  Muslims and Arabs are already part of the fabric of American life and have been so for years.  Cynical politicians may exploit anxious voters by spinning tales of Islamic domination, but in the long run they ignore this fact at their own peril.

For this reason, the My Fellow American project is an promising sign of a growing spirit of acceptance in the United States, true to the values of openness and religious liberty that our nation is meant to hold dear.  Russell Simmons has partnered with the Unity Productions Foundation to promote this collaborative social media project, through which participants discuss their own experiences as Muslim Americans or what their Muslim friends and neighbors mean to them.  As the video above shows, the basic aim is to underline how Muslims are just like any other Americans -- represented by a familiar panoply of occupations, from doctor to firefighter to cab driver to checkout clerk.  In the clip below, Simmons discusses how he worked with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Rabbi Marc Schneier to develop I Am a Muslim Day:
We hope that our readers will take a look at the project and lend support to the idea that citizenship - not just legal citizenship, but genuine inclusion in the American community - can belong to anyone and everyone, regardless of religion. 

Tropics of Meta covers a wide range of historical and contemporary issues, and race and ethnicity have been some of our most frequent subjects.  Next week we will take a look at Daniel Hurewitz's Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics (2007), a thought-provoking historical work about the rise of identity politics and the movement for gay rights.  Past stories dealing with identity include:
We have also discussed the history and politics of Islam and the Middle East in the following essays: