VOTE. Registration Deadline Tomorrow.

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Thanks to my friend Lillie for this graphic! Just passing it along as a friendly reminder that if you’re among the fortunate ones able to participate in our heavily-regulated democracy, DO IT.

Have a great week and tell your friends!

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A Brief Visit to Columbia, SC

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I was down in Columbia last weekend. I managed to forget my Ben Irving postcards, but I did check my database against whatever images I could find, and most of the sites included were torn down. This wasn’t the first time I had run into that issue, but it was pretty dispiriting. Downtown Columbia has a lot of great things going on, as both the state capital and a major college town. My favorite building (and beneficiary of benign neglect) is probably Tapp’s Arts Center at 1644 Main Street. According to the official history, it was built in 1940. Irving went to Columbia at least four times (1936, 1938, 1940, and 1941), so he saw the growth of that block as the department store went up.

il_340x270-1480314154_8sc4Here are a couple of online resources I found about two of them: the Jefferson Hotel and the Hotel Wade Hampton. The namesake of the latter is indelible to antebellum South Carolina history, and I’m just learning about the Hampton family now. Their plantation Southeast of downtown Columbia, Millwood, was also featured on one of Irving’s postcards and remained a tourist attraction for over a century after Sherman’s raiders torched it in 1865. The columns depicted on the postcard and various easily-searchable photos from the 1940’s were all that survived of the estate (one of which toppled in 1930, leaving five standing). On the way out of town, I drove down to the site, which sits behind a private fence across from a Target Plaza on the outskirts of Columbia. As the sun was setting, I drove down Woodlawn Avenue slowly, trying to catch a glimpse of anything through the trees. No luck, unsurprisingly; the Millwood site was too far West of anywhere visible. It seemed like everything was still named after Wade Hampton, including the private road leading to the old site and the public park off of Woodlawn where a bunch of young African-Americans played basketball. The site owners still give tours monthly, though all that’s there to see are decapitated pillars slowly being reclaimed my nature. Meanwhile, up the road, Columbia’s downtown grows fast; the Old South vanishing as the New South booms. Though he may not have realized it at the time, Ben Irving’s Southern journeys afforded him a glimpse at a South, albeit paralyzed by Jim Crow laws, limping into modern America. Today, like many Southern cities, it’s at the forefront.

Thanks for reading! Here’s a photo of one of their giant Gamecock statues on Gervais Avenue. Some colleagues goaded me into climbing onto this thing during the 2016 SEDAAG meeting. I don’t want to talk about it.

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Teen-Beat – Dischord. Arlington, VA

This is so cool.

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This video [Teen-Beat catalog #535] is a little unusual, so let us explain. Record labels are the glue that binds musical creativity together into a product that can stand the test of time. The DC area in general, and Arlington in particular, greatly benefited from two independent labels that did amazing work documenting and organizing their scenes. Teen-Beat is a record label founded by Mark Robinson of the band Unrest in 1984. It has since moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, but in its DC heyday featured indie rock bands such as Tuscadero, Phil Krauth and Jonny Cohen’s Love Machine. This video was shot and scored by Robinson at Dischord House, the Arlington home of Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson’s label documenting the punk, post-hardcore and rock output of DC for decades. It’s a brief and intense glimpse into the creative space that’s shaped our city’s musical legacy, and it moves…

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What You Swattin’ At!? (GEOG423 Returning this Spring)

I’m excited to announce that I will officially be teaching GEOG 423: American Popular Culture again this Spring. Now let’s celebrate with some shots of Uncle Jemima’s Pure Mash Liquor!

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Not only is this brief sketch one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television, it provides a perfect encapsulation of (1) what a national treasure Tracy Morgan is, and (2) how baked-in racism and racist caricatures are in American popular culture. When I first did my lecture on the thick undercurrent of the Minstrel Show in pop culture, I realized how little context I had to understand how brilliant this sketch was when it first aired in 2000 (or so).

I was only vaguely aware of Song of the South, as much as Disney was still largely capable of keeping it under-rug-swept at the time, a few years before streaming video and user-side online reference became the norm. I don’t remember if I had yet connected the dots between Splash Mountain, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” other relics of the post-War/pre-Civil Rights era with the beautifully modulated satire here.  Then and now, it was an exceptional use of television as a medium for sketch comedy and one of my favorite moments in SNL’s decades-long, peaks-and-valleys history.

I had an absolute blast teaching 423 (cross-listed with American Studies) for the first time this past Spring, and my department has rewarded me by adding a section during what would otherwise have been an off-year. A colleague has invited me to present this as a guest-lecture in a course on race and racism next month. I also hope to incorporate this into my discussion on symbolic gentrification at Relix Mic Nite on November 8th. It’s all coming together…slowly.

‘The Last Scene’ Trailer & Campaign

I’m appearing in a new documentary called The Last Scene, which covers pop-punk’s millennial epoch and surprising transition. The director, Kyle Kilday, approached me with questions about scene dynamics and the social role of rock music, and I show up (briefly) in his sizzle reel, embedded here:

It’s always weird seeing myself on camera – particularly as a talking-head “expert” in a documentary. As someone whose love of bands like The Get Up Kids and Hot Rod Circuit helped him endure the end of high school, I can’t wait to see where the project goes. I’ve already been invited to (production pending) re-film an extended interview in LA this Fall.

Kilday has set up this IndieGoGo page for those interested in contributing!

Black Lives: Struggle (St. Louis)

 

Thanks to my friend Ben for bringing this to my attention. The Russian news network RT recently released the first episode of a brutally honest and thought-provoking look into America’s black communities. This episode focuses on St. Louis, a city with a deep catalog of problematic (to say the least) policies in the areas of population retention, law enforcement, and of course, urban planning:

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It was a real privilege to teach a summer course on human rights and genocide. I’m always grateful to provide a forum for people to flesh out their understandings of how and why people’s relationships with the state become contentious, who benefits (if anyone does), and what we as individuals can do in our communities to help spread hope. Genocide and ethnic cleansing aren’t one-dimensional processes or isolated events, and we cannot build anything while people remain active proponents of either (and self-identify as such, very openly, in comments sections).

The Pancreatic Philosophy of Oswald Bates

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Growing up watching In Living Color spoiled me. For one thing, it made it impossible for me to enjoy MAD TV  when it hit the air in 1995, one year after ILC ended. From what I recall, Saturday Night Live was at its nadir (it had yet to be resurrected by Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon, the latter having appeared in ILC). Like Saturday Night Live before it, the writers of In Living Color leveraged recurring characters to keep viewers invested in the show and to keep writers able to fill weekly half-hour time blocks with limited ideas. Some early-90’s sketch comedy, like The State, lampooned this top-down pressure to use and overuse characters. When FOX first aired MAD TV in 1995, it enjoyed the typical “Wild West” phase of wierdness while it was getting its feet under it (Kato Kaelin featured prominently on the first two episodes), then quickly reverted unapologetically into character-based humor. The problem for me was that, even Will Sasso’s hilarious (though increasingly plot-shredding) Kenny Rogers send-up, none of these recurring characters said anything. They were shameless gimmicks, and their audience devoured it.

To say that I owe most of my pre-college knowledge of African-American culture to the writers and producers of In Living Color (many of whom, I acknowledge, were white) is probably the finest critique of the education I received growing up. I don’t recall any of my teachers discussing the 1992 riots in Los Angeles with my classmates and I, most likely because (1) bringing any kind of radical politics into white suburban classrooms was taboo, (2) they were successfully convinced to sympathize with the LAPD, or (3) they didn’t think it really affected us. We were on the other side of the country and the riots were framed as a “black” issue. To any of my teachers who did mention it in a current events discussion, I apologize, but the longest-lasting allegorical lessons about the riots came via David Alan Grier, Jim Carrey, and their cast-mates.

The greatest strengths of In Living Color, other than the obvious re-elevation of African-American culture within the overwhelmingly white medium of sketch comedy, were the socio-political statements that their recurring characters made. Some, like Lil’ Magic (Kim Wayans), an overzealous little girl from the projects pining for her big break, no matter how humiliating, were sold so well they became sad. Only one or two of the show’s recurring characters (Fire Marshall Bill and Vera DeMilo, both played by Jim Carrey and, like most of the recurring characters, excruciatingly quotable) skirted sociopolitical statements in honor of flat-out absurdist humor. This was important, though, tilling each half-hour episode with eclectic writing and themes. It worked, too, since I’ve seen almost every episode of the show, and I could count on one hand the number of episodes that didn’t have at least one good sketch.

One of the show’s most impressive feats is, considering how long ago it ended and how admittedly-dated some of the humor can come across in 2018, just how prolifically In Living Color has been a gift that’s kept on giving. Throughout my time as a teaching assistant in introductory Geography courses at Long Beach State, I would routinely share particular sketches that remained relevant well into the 2010’s as companions to the lecture topics. “Using sketch comedy to teach cultural geography” could easily become the title of a future journal article, considering how long I’ve been doing it and how much I’ve thought about the idea. I managed to bookend a lecture on minstrelsy in popular culture with two different Tracy Morgan sketches, both of which fit the themes like a glove.

Yesterday, I led a discussion on mass incarceration for my Geography of Human Rights class, and my favorite of the ILC recurring character stable, Oswald Bates (Damon Wayans), came to mind. I didn’t plunge my class down that rabbit hole too far, but I couldn’t shake one particular sketch from my mind. Barbara Bush (Kelly Coffield) pays a visit to some prisoners who have learned to read thanks to her ambitious literacy program. You can watch it below:

The Bates character had already been well established by this season (as evidenced by the crowd cheering at his appearance – a FOX TV hallmark). I’m unsure as to how much freedom Wayans had to ad-lib, but he sold this character beautifully from Season One. Despite how his mouth has gotten him in understandable trouble in recent years, seeing these sketches is a reminder of what a talented performer Wayans was at the time. Only once or twice in my memory did he ever crack, despite spewing increasingly profane (yet still air-able) psychobabble that would put even the most obscurantist academic in stitches. Although I’m sure the show got criticized for taking potshots at erstwhile illiterate prisoners, Oswald always appeared fully in control of his position, and even more remarkably, he was actually understandable. Here is one of my favorite Oswald Bates moments, where he applies for parole and the incongruity of his reading comprehension forms a graceful punchline in the middle:

Oswald Bates spoke to one great contradiction within our prison system: the liberal appeal to humanitarian treatment (which is good) without addressing the factors that put him in prison. They addressed a few facets of his past, including that he has a son who is just as confused as him. He is also clearly the product of a sub-par literacy program; he reads at a post-graduate level (albeit, sex-ed pamphlets and such) but has no context for what any of it means.

Did I immediately recognize all of the layers as to why this was so funny when I first saw it over twenty years ago?  Of course not. I did, however, understand the message almost immediately, and even more impressive on the part of Wayans and the writers, they still make me laugh today and continuously pop into my head when discussing topics as serious and bleak as mass incarceration. Considering how often American film and television go to lengths to romanticize (and in doing so, trivialize) prison and prisoners, Oswald Bates and the In Living Color producers contributed to the conversation about their underlying humanity and ambition. Most of their recurring characters did.