Vincent van Gogh and Barack Obama in a poem by Derek Walcott

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2014-12-21 22:44Z by Steven

Vincent van Gogh and Barack Obama in a poem by Derek Walcott

Literature & Aesthetics
Volume 20, Number 2 (December 2010)
pages 181-192

Thijs Weststeijn
Department of Art, Religion, and Cultural Sciences
University of Amsterdam

Remember Vincent, saint
of all sunstroke…!
The sun explodes into irises,
the shadows are crossing like crows,
they settle, clawing the hair,
yellow is screaming.
Dear Theo, I shall go mad.

Jean-François Millet – The Gleaners (1857)

Speaking here is a young Antillean artist, in a poem by Derek Walcott (1930), a writer from the island of Saint Lucia. The wish to identify with Van Gogh is a theme from Walcott’s own past: originally he wanted to be a painter. Together with a friend he decided to depict every corner of their windswept island. This ambition explains why Walcott’s vision of poetry is so often characterized as “painterly.” He calls his writings “frescoes of the New World,” and declares: “I still smell linseed oil in the wild views / Of villages and the tang of turpentine… Salt wind encouraged us, and the surf’s white noise.”

Walcott’s artistic role models were the nineteenth-century masters. Recently he dedicated an epic poem, Tiepolo’s Hound (2000), to the impressionist Camille Pissarro. The hybrid origins of Pissarro, born in the Danish colony on the Leeward Island of Saint Thomas, son of a mother from the Dominican Republic and a Portuguese-Jewish father, meant he connected well with Walcott’s work. Here the Antillean melting pot of different cultures is an important theme. Before this, Gauguin had already been one of the poet’s heroes: his journey to Martinique supposedly turned him into a “Creole painter.” Moreover, Walcott was strongly attracted to social themes. He describes the continued impression made by a reproduction of Millet’s The Gleaners in his childhood home.

So it should come as no surprise that, in his younger years in particular, Walcott was inspired by Vincent van Gogh. The Dutch master played a role in Walcott’s descriptions of sun-drenched landscapes: he sought after a creative intoxication “as Van Gogh’s shadow rippling on a cornfield.” In this way Walcott’s poetry opens an Antillean perspective on the shadow of Van Gogh and how it shifts over issues of birth ground and origins.

Although Walcott’s more recent poems have paid less attention to Van Gogh, a political revolution returned him to the love of his younger years: the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. This event confronted him once more with themes such as racial and national identity which had already played a major role in his early work. Walcott wrote some lines in response to the election results. Here, he uses Van Gogh’s imagery to give poetic form to the history and future expectations of black people in the New World.

Walcott’s poem, which features both Van Gogh and Obama, combines artistic imagination with historical and social themes and political reality. This means it can be interpreted in a number of ways. The following interpretation takes a specific viewpoint, namely that from the person the poem is dedicated to: the 44th American president. After all, Obama himself has written extensively about the themes that determined the course of his life. The president and the poet have each at some time labeled themselves as “mongrel,” referring to their mixed European-African origins. As it will become clear, they agree on yet more things, such as their idea that poetical imagery can improve the world.

Shortly after the elections in November 2008, Obama was photographed carrying a book under his arm: Walcott’s collected works. What was the significance of this photograph?…

Read the entire article here.

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Making and Unmaking Whiteness in Early New South Fiction After the Civil War

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2014-12-21 01:40Z by Steven

Making and Unmaking Whiteness in Early New South Fiction After the Civil War

77 pages (21,670 words)
eBook ISBN: 9781476497068

Peter Schmidt, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English Literature
Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

This essay—a work of literary criticism and critical race studies written to be accessible to non-specialists—examines how popular fiction contributed to and contested new forms of white racial dominance, collectively known as Jim Crow or the “color-line,” in the U.S. in the 1880s and after. I focus in particular on the cultural work undertaken by the “command performance” scene in these texts, in which a black person was asked to tell a story or otherwise give a performance that was supposed to affirm the affection and respect “good” blacks held for whites. Yet what begins to emerge again and again in such “command performance” scenes, even sometimes against the author’s efforts to downplay them, are suggestions of coercion, duplicity, and instability in power hierarchies and racial identities. White supremacy is demonstrably not a given here; it is imperfectly produced, or at least reaffirmed under stress, in a way that locally conditions any power that whiteness may claim. And if a white person’s sense of entitlement was so dependent upon the performance of another, to what degree could such a sense of self be threatened or even unmade in such encounters?

Making and Unmaking Whiteness surveys a broad range of black and white authors but gives special attention to the fictions of four—Joel Chandler Harris, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Kate Chopin, and Pauline Hopkins—who in the early Jim Crow era both dissected the contradictions in white supremacy and imagined alternatives.

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English 49, “Whiteness” and Racial Difference

Posted in Course Offerings, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-12-21 01:28Z by Steven

English 49, “Whiteness” and Racial Difference

Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania
Spring 1997

Peter Schmidt, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English Literature

A look at the conflicted ways in which “racial” identities and differences have been constructed in past and contemporary cultures, especially in the U.S. Topics given emphasis in the syllabus include why saying “race doesn’t matter” is not enough; how a new debates about the history of race have changed American Studies and feminist studies; how European immigrants to the U.S. became “white” and with what benefits and what costs; how popular culture can both resist and perpetuate racist culture; and an introduction to issues of “passing,” multi-racial identity, and recovering a multiracial past. The format of the class will include both lecture and student-led discussion.

For more information, click here.

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EN-255 Passing Narratives

Posted in Course Offerings, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-12-20 23:57Z by Steven

EN-255 Passing Narratives

Juniata College, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania
Fall Semester

Passing narratives investigate how the boundaries of identity can be reimagined. Most often depicting racial passing (when a person “passes for” someone of another race), these narratives also can be about performing another gender or sexual identity. In this course, we will examine a variety of texts that treat different forms of passing. Beginning with a slave narrative in which a black woman “passes” as a white man to escape slavery, we will trace the evolution of this trope through American literature and film. From traditional passing novels that use the form to protest racial injustice to recent texts that challenge continued discrimination against of other marginalized groups in contemporary culture, we will explore topics such as biological essentialism vs. the social construction of identity; authenticity and performance; social and legal forms of identity categorization and boundary maintenance; the role of literature in social reform; and many others. We will examine these topics through frequent in-class close reading and response writing in addition to formal essays, and presentations meant to deepen your understanding of selected texts.


Ming Wong’s Imitations

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Europe, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2014-12-20 17:59Z by Steven

Ming Wong’s Imitations

Transit: A Journal of Travel, Migration, and Multiculturalism in the German-speaking World
Volume 9, Number 2 (2014) Special Topic: Contemporary Remediations of Race and Ethnicity in German Visual Cultures
32 pages

Barbara Mennel, Associate Professor of English
University of Florida

The article “Ming Wong’s Imitations” analyzes the installation Life of Imitation, created by visual artist Ming Wong for the Singapore Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009. Life of Imitation restages a key scene from Douglas Sirk’s 1959 melodrama Imitation of Life, in which the African American character Annie visits her daughter Sarah Jane who is passing as white. In Wong’s restaging three male actors from different ethnic groups in Singapore reenact the scene, but switch roles at every cut. The article traces the shifts from the original literary source, Fannie Hurst’s 1933 Imitation of Life to John M. Stahl’s 1934 film of the same title to Sirk’s version. Emphasizing melodrama’s organizing structure of “too late,” I show how Sirk shifted the melodramatic emphasis from the white mother/daughter pair’s romantic conflict to the African American mother/daughter pair’s racial conflict. Addressing the question whether such a shift implies a progressive politics, I turn to the contentious discussion of Sirk’s earlier film work in Weimar and Nazi Germany, pointing to ideological and formal continuities.

In contrast to these significant shifts in the different instantiations of the text, I propose that the different versions share the subordination and disavowal of ethnic difference in order to construct a racial binary, which then becomes the setting of the passing narrative organized around the ‘tragic mulatta’. I illustrate my argument with the instances of ethnic passing of the writers, directors, and actors involved in the different versions of the text. However, I also show the appeal of racial passing narratives can have for a gay camp imagination, identification, and appropriation. I conclude the article with a discussion of Wong’s double move in Life of Imitation of returning ethnic bodies that have been excised from the original diegesis to their significance and appropriating the gendered melodrama through cross-dressing. After a survey of the term “remediation” as it emerged from the discussion of new media, I show that Wong’s piece belongs to a group of works by visual artists who remake film in digital media in the environment of the art space. I conclude with reading the effect of rotating the actors at each cut, which does not subvert spatial and temporal continuity, but challenges spectators’ perception of ethnicity and gender, and produces unstable identities.

Read the entire article here.

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Here, There, and In Between: Travel as Metaphor in Mixed Race Narratives of the Harlem Renaissance

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2014-12-11 00:23Z by Steven

Here, There, and In Between: Travel as Metaphor in Mixed Race Narratives of the Harlem Renaissance

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Colin Enriquez
English Department

Created to comment on Antebellum and Reconstruction literature, the tragic mulatto concept is habitually applied to eras beyond the 19th century. The tragic mulatto has become an end rather than a means to questioning racist and abolitionist agendas. Rejecting the pathetic and self-destructive traits inscribed by the tragic label, this dissertation uses geographic, cultural, and racial boundary crossing to theorize a rereading of mixed race characters in Harlem Renaissance literature. Focusing on train, automobile, and boat travel, the study analyzes the relationship between the character, transportation, and technology whereby the notion of race is questioned. Furthermore, the dissertation divides travel into departure, interstitial, and arrival phases. With the ability to extend perception and experience, media is also interpreted here as transportation. Using figurative and literal travel, the selected narratives move between localities to allegorize 20th mixed race subjectivity. Socially ambiguous and anonymous, interstitial moments suspend the normative performance of race and enable the selected authors’ investigations of race binarism. After the introduction establishes a theoretical frame composed of transnational and migration studies methods, the ensuing chapters demonstrate the interpretive function of travel in Jean Toomer’s Cane, Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, and Walter White’s Flight. This reading is aided by the connection between modernism and mixed race identity as expounded upon in the works of Robert E. Park, Mark Whalan, Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, Jeanne Scheper. However, it differs from these in its assertion of travel as an interpretive mode for mixed race literature as a tradition.

Login to read the dissertation here.

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Transforming Three Sisters: A Hapa Family in Chekhov’s Modern Classic

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2014-12-08 04:01Z by Steven

Transforming Three Sisters: A Hapa Family in Chekhov’s Modern Classic

Asian American Literature: Discourses and Pedagogies
Volume 3 (2012): Special Issue: Mixed Heritage Asian American Literature
pages 130-146

Elizabeth Liang

“All right, let’s agree that this town is backward and vulgar, and let’s suppose now that out of all its thousands of  inhabitants there are only three people like you… But you won’t simply disappear; you will have some influence. And after you’ve gone there will be six more, let’s say, like you, then twelve, and so on, until finally people like you will be in the majority. In two or three hundred years, life on earth will be unimaginably beautiful, astonishing.” (Vershinin in Act I of Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, translated by Paul Schmidt)

It is an act of courage or foolhardiness to produce theatre in the heart of the film world, depending on your point of view and how large the houses turn out to be. In the fall of 2005, I produced Three Sisters in a 60-seat theatre in Burbank, California (home of Disney and Warner Brothers). The odds were stacked even higher against the show’s success when my assistant producer and I stipulated that the main characters, the upper-class and highly educated Russian Prozorov siblings, had to be played by Hapa actors. I chose to foreground mixed heritage Asians because I am Hapa and wanted to see something akin to my own family on stage. The play had never been cast this way anywhere according to my research. Meanwhile, I assumed that our audience would be largely European American, because that is usually the case whenever I attend the theatre. Thus it was difficult to predict if this production would spark any interest in the average L.A. theatregoer, since people tend to flock toward stories to which they can relate. I hoped that they would be intrigued by our unusual “take” on a play with which they were likely familiar (as it is one of Chekhov’s most popular works), but I also worried that they would feel the ethnic “layering” was forced and unnatural, or that we were trying to teach them something they had no interest in learning. My reasons for casting the siblings as Hapa were manifold:

  • To deliberately represent a section of the population that is normally under- and misrepresented. Census 2000 proved that over 6.8 million or 2.4 percent of Americans considered themselves multi-ethnic. 25 percent of those people resided in California. (And Census 2010 discovered that over 9 million or 2.9 percent of Americans considered themselves to belong to two or more racial groups. Among those, Asian and white are the third most common pairing.)
  • To allow the actors to interpret legendary roles in which they might not normally get cast.
  • To further emphasize the difference of the Prozorov family from others by adding race to Chekhov’s division based on class and education.
  • To tell the audience a mixed heritage story without making it feel like a classroom lesson…

Read the entire article here.

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James Baldwin asks ‘How are white Americans so sure they are white?’

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States, Videos on 2014-12-06 01:56Z by Steven

James Baldwin asks ‘How are white Americans so sure they are white?’

Dangerous Minds

Paul Gallagher

In 1963, James Baldwin wrote two essays that examined the role of race and racism in the history of America. Published in The New Yorker, Baldwin’s first essay, written in the form of a letter to his fourteen-year-old nephew on the 100th anniversary of Emancipation explained “the crux of [his] dispute with [his] country”:

You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity…

…Baldwin began by talking about a visit to the British Museum where he got in conversation with a West Indian man who asked the writer where he was from…

…Baldwin went onto explain why he doesn’t know—for his ancestral entry into America was by a “bill of sale, which stops you from going any further.”

But Baldwin wasn’t interested in just offering personal historical context of the black American experience, he also asked provocative and difficult questions about white ethnicity and the complex relationship between all Americans:

White men lynched negroes knowing them to be their sons.
White women watched men being lynched knowing them to be their lovers…
How are white Americans so sure they are white?

The point is racism damages everyone.

In light of the institutionalised racism exposed by the Michael Brown fiasco in Ferguson, the killing of Eric Garner in New York and the rise of racist and xenophobic politics across Europe and the Middle East, Horace Ové‘s film of James Baldwin and Dick Gregory is necessary viewing.

Read the entire article here.

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Photography in Economies of Demonstration: The Idea of the Jews as a Mixed-Race People

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Religion on 2014-12-02 02:34Z by Steven

Photography in Economies of Demonstration: The Idea of the Jews as a Mixed-Race People

Jewish Social Studies
Volume 20, Number 1, Fall 2013
pages 150-183
DOI: 10.1353/jss.2013.0015

Amos Morris-Reich, Director of the Bucerius Institute
Department of Jewish History
University of Haifa, Israel

Photographs played an important role in the development of the idea of the Jews as a mixed-race people. This article tracks the trajectory of this idea from the 1880s, when it was first introduced by the liberal Austrian anthropologist and archaeologist Felix von Luschan, through the works of American Jewish physician Maurice Fishberg and German Jewish linguist Sigmund Feist, to its appropriation and inversion by the prominent Nazi theoretician of race Hans F. K. Günther in the 1920s. By tracing the circulation of one photograph, analyzing the roles of photographs in argumentation, comparing their status with other types of empirical sources, and arguing that the key to their analysis is performative, pertaining to the relationships photographs form, I argue for the essential contingency of ideas that in retrospect have been identified as fundamental to antisemitic arguments.

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The Pose as Interventionist Gesture: Erica Lord and Decolonizing the Proper Subject of Memory

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2014-11-17 17:35Z by Steven

The Pose as Interventionist Gesture: Erica Lord and Decolonizing the Proper Subject of Memory

Decolonial Gesture, Volume 11, Issue 1, 2014

Colleen Kim Daniher
School of Communication
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

This article investigates the decolonial politics of the pose in the photographic and installation work of mixed-race Native Alaskan artist Erica Lord. Refiguring the pose as decolonial gesture, I argue that Lord’s poses can be understood as decolonial labor because of the ways in which they employ messy genealogies of colonial space and time in order to disrupt the linear unfolding of white settler colonial history. In the act of posing, Lord intervenes in a visual and historical archive that positions both Native and mixed race subjects—especially women—as particularly vulnerable subjects to the ongoing Western imperial project of assimilationist inclusion. Lord’s photographic poses enact a literal seizure of time that resists both the presumed past-ness of the Native American and the presumed futurity of the racially-ambiguous, mixed race woman. In so doing, she revises the temporal politics of both, critically calling into question “the proper” subject of memory.

And it is always exciting, then and now, to realize that you are not a person or a voice that stands alone […] There’s this quote that I repeat to myself all the time, I put it on the starter slide for just about every presentation I give, and I think about it often…

Erica Lord, in interview with Dasha Shleyeva

and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent we are still afraid
so it is better to speak
we were never
meant to survive

Audre Lorde from Litany for Survival

A woman, hair bleached blond and eyes rimmed with kohl, gazes directly into the camera. She is naked, save for a banana-lined skirt and piles of necklaces cascading down her bare breasts. Back arched, her hands wrapped around her exposed stomach, the woman’s feet are planted firmly on the ground, yet her long legged stance suggests the latent possibility of movement, of dance. We have seen this image, differently, before. Behind her, a double shadow, as if in flight, splays against the obvious studio backdrop. Moving between darkness and light, stillness and movement, presence and absence, the photograph conjures the ghost of Josephine Baker only to refract it, multiplying different trajectories of space and time both into the past and into the future.

The image is multimedia artist Erica Lord’s 2005 self-portrait, Danse Sauvage, and it features the artist in costume and in character as Baker. Lord is a self-identified mixed-race Native Alaskan of Athabascan (interior Alaska), Inupiat (North and Northwest Alaska), Finnish, Swedish, English, and Japanese descent. She has described the work as being “a direct response to the feeling of being seen as exotic,” explaining that she: “tried looking back in history, at other mixed women, or other Native women who sort of owned that power [of exoticism] […] The photograph sort of grew from this desire to emulate or embody that sort of force or power that she [Josephine Baker] had” (Shleyeva 2010). Although some might object to Lord’s proximate staging of North American Indigenous and Black diasporic histories, this essay seizes upon Lord’s identificatory “look back in history” in order to examine the ways in which such a gesture critically addresses the overlapping but sometimes fraught relationship between decolonizing and antiracist epistemological stances. Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua have characterized this antagonism as an issue of historical memory: critical race and postcolonial theory systematically erases Aboriginal peoples and decolonization from the construction of knowledge about ‘race,’ racism, racial subjectivities, and antiracism…the exclusion of Aboriginal peoples from the project of antiracism erases them from history. (Lawrence and Dua 2005, 132)…

Read the entire article here.

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