Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Say Something in Communist

In his fascinating analysis of the ideological roots of the Tea Party, Sean Wilentz downplays the racial aspect of the Party's attacks on President Obama, arguing that "'socialist' is not a racial slur." As Taylor Branch demonstrates in Parting the Waters, however, white segregationists often labelled civil rights protesters communists. (Branch relates an amusing anecdote of a young white girl in Pike County, Miss., who asked the jailed SNCC activist Charles McDew to "say something in Communist" and thrilled to hear him speak to her in Yiddish.) Perhaps the Tea Party's penchant for calling Obama a socialist is the contemporary form of this crude attempt to describe African Americans who challenge the status quo.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Assumptions for Organizers

According to Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters, during Bayard Rustin's orchestration of the 1963 March on Washington he kept saying, "If you want to organize anything, assume that everybody is absolutely stupid."

Pretty good advice for teaching, too.

As is Rustin's follow-up: "And assume yourself that you're stupid."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Used Books

I found this piece at Slate unexpectedly fascinating. It's written by a guy who makes a living selling used books online. He spends 80 hours a week scavenging books, using a PDA scanner that alerts him to the value of the books he's looking at. Perhaps I found it particularly interesting because I realized that I'm the flip side of this guy: I buy most of my books used online now, helping to create a market for people like this man, whom many in society judge as abhorrent, as depicted in this passage from his essay:

If it's possible to make a decent living selling books online, then why does it feel so shameful to do this work? I'm not the only one who feels this way; I see it in the mien of my fellow scanners as they whip out their PDAs next to the politely browsing normal customers. The sense that this is a dishonorable profession is confirmed by library book sales that tag their advertisements with "No electronic devices allowed," though making this rule probably isn't in the libraries' financial interest. People scanning books sometimes get kicked out of thrift stores and retail shops as well, though this hasn't happened to me yet.

I've had just one confrontation while doing my job, with an elderly man in a suburb. We were in the library's book-sale room when I overheard him telling his friend that the two of them were surrounded by a-------—that is, the people scanning. "It's a business," I said, but I felt all locked up and couldn't bear to turn and say it to his face. "This is a library!" he spat. "You don't work here—you don't work at the library!" He told me that he had 10,000 books in his house, and that he'd read them all. A dozen other people kept scanning silently. Later on, in the parking lot, I got some empathy from my comrades, but they quickly started to speak about their work with the same hunching defensiveness I had put on with my challenger.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Gopnik on the Nobel

From the great Adam Gopnik's recent piece on the Nobel Prize in Literature, in which he explains his theory that the prize (and the list of those who've won it) would make more sense if it were named after Victor Hugo:

When this year’s prize was announced, last Thursday, it went to a writer who, if not a North American (again), is at least familiar to North Americans: the Peruvian novelist and man of letters Mario Vargas Llosa. So all hail Vargas Llosa, whom even his noisier left-wing critics have to regard as exactly the kind of writer the prize ought to go to: one with a host of well-regarded novels (“The Time of the Hero,” “Conversation in the Cathedral,” the screen-adapted “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter,” “The Feast of the Goat”) and a sense of social responsibility (he ran seriously for, and lost badly, the Presidency of Peru), not to mention a lively personal life that includes once punching out another future laureate with an equally impressive triple-barrelled moniker, Gabriel García Márquez, reportedly over something to do with Mrs. Vargas Llosa. The Nobel thus not only crowns a career but provides the basis for a fine future Javier Bardem/Antonio Banderas movie. (“The only thing they cared for more than Latin American epic fiction was . . . the honor of a woman.”)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Faulkner's Appendix

Twice in her new collection of nonfiction In Rough Country, Joyce Carol Oates makes passing references to what she says is Faulkner's description, in the Appendix to The Sound and the Fury, of the black housekeeper Dilsey: "They endured."

In an essay on her writerly influences, Oates characterizes this description as a "terse encomium." In her essay on Cormac McCarthy, Oates mentions the reference again, this time addressing the apparent contradiction of the encomium's plural subject by suggesting that it is "as if the singular Dilsey were in fact multiple, emblematic."

Oates is trying too hard here, and not making much sense.

In fact, the final line of the Appendix, "They endured," applies to all four of the black people listed—TP, Frony, Luster, and Dilsey. Dilsey alone among the characters discussed in the Appendix (some quite brutally) is granted the dignity of not being summed up at all—as if this solid, powerful woman cannot be captured in words.

Oates' confusion arises from the formatting of the Appendix. The line "They endured" comes directly below Dilsey's name, and she is the last black character listed. But every other character's description begins directly after their name, on the same line. So it may appear that "They endured" is a description of Dilsey, but upon comparison with the other characters it is clear that Dilsey's name is simply left to stand for itself, and that "They endured" is a description of all of the black characters who survive alongside the self-destructing Compsons.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

MLK's Pick-Up Lines

A funny moment from the first conversation between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott, narrated in Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963:

Early in 1952, he called a woman blindly on the recommendation of a friend. After passing along a few of the friend's compliments as reasons why he had obtained the phone number, King threw out his opening line. "You know every Napoleon has his Waterloo," he said. "I'm like Napoleon. I'm at my Waterloo, and I'm on my knees."

"That's absurd," Coretta Scott replied. "You don't even know me."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Blood Meridian & The Border Trilogy

From Joyce Carol Oates's essay on the work of Cormac McCarthy, in her collection In Rough Country:

Blood Meridian
and the Border Trilogy are counterpoised: the one a furious debunking of the legendary West, the other a subdued, humane, and subtle exploration of the tangled roots of such legends of the West as they abide in the human heart. Where Blood Meridian scorns any idealism except the jeremiad—"War is god"—the interlinked novels of the Border Trilogy testify to the quixotic idealism that celebrates friendship, brotherhood, loyalty, the integrity of the cowboy-worker as one whose life is bound up with animals in a harsh, exhausting, and dangerous environment: "I love this life," says Billy Parham of Cities of the Plain. After the phantasmagoria of Blood Meridian, the domestic realism of much of the Border Trilogy comes as a natural corrective.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Down on The Wire

At the Boston Globe, Ishmael Reed raises some objections about The Wire that are similar to those I explored here. The biggest difference: I love The Wire; Reed doesn't.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mapping St. Louis

In 2008 I published an essay about racial segregation in St. Louis. The piece was partly a review of Colin Gordon's book Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City.

Gordon has now put together an interactive series of maps that show the progression of white flight, redlining, and more in twentieth-century St. Louis. They're pretty fascinating.